1 It's mid-September, and in the Magic Wing Butterfly Conservancy in Deerfield, Massachusetts, the woman at the register is ringing up the items of a small girl and her mother. There are pencils and postcards and a paperweight-- all with butterflies--and, chilly but alive, three monarch caterpillars--in small white boxes with cellophane tops, and holes punched in their sides. The girl keeps rearranging them like a shell game while the cashier chats with her mother: "They have to feed on milkweed--you can buy it in the nursery outside." "We've got a field behind our house," the mother answers. The cashier smiles to show she didn't need the sale: "And in no time, they'll be on their way to Brazil or Argentina-- or wherever they go--" ("to Mexico," says the girl, though she's ignored) "and you can watch them do their thing till they're ready to fly." 2 I remember the monarchs my son and I brought in one summer on bright pink flowers we'd picked along the swamp on Yetter's farm. We were "city folks," eager for nature and ignorant--we left our TV home--and left the flowers in a jar on the dry sink in the trailer. We never noticed the caterpillars till we puzzled out the mystery of the small black things on the marble top--which turned out to be their droppings. And soon, three pale green dollops hung from the carved-out leaves, each studded with four gold beads--so gold they looked to be mineral--not animal--a miracle that kept us amazed as the walls grew clear and the transformed things broke through, pumped fluid in their wings, dried off--and flew. I gauge from that memory that it will be next month before the girls are "ready." I wonder how they'll "fly" when there's been frost. "And they'll come back next summer," the cashier says, "to the very same field--they always do." I'm sure that isn't true. But why punch holes in our little hopes when we have so few? 3 Next month, my mother will have a hole put in her skull to drain the fluid that's been weighing on her brain. All summer, she's lain in one hospital or another-- yet the old complainer's never complained. In Mather, the woman beside her spent a week in a coma, wrapped like a white cocoon with an open mouth (a nurse came now and then to dab the drool). My mother claimed the woman's husband was there too-- "doing what they do"--though it didn't annoy her. Now she's in Stony Brook--on the eighteenth floor. I realize I don't know her anymore. When she beat against the window to break through, they had to strap her down --and yet how happy and how likeable she's become. When I visit, I spend my nights in her empty house-- in the bed she and my father used to share. Perhaps they're there. Perhaps we do come back year after year to do what we've always done--if we can't make our way to kingdom come, or lose ourselves altogether.
From Dancing on the Edge by Joan Murray. Copyright © 2002 by Joan Murray. Reprinted by permission of Beacon Press, Boston. All rights reserved.