by Diane Height
I decided to keep the butterfly in a secret room behind my closet. The room is a forest, a winding, cobblestone path that has no end. Moss grows between stones—so walk carefully when it’s wet. But I feel safe on the path, as though there’s an invisible wall on each side protecting me. Today, I squint and see a lone tree on an island in the middle of a lake—unusual because it has no leaves but for a patch at the top where shining sunlight makes it look like a woman’s hair. The trunk is a body leaning forward and its branches are reaching arms. The tree is going to walk off the island. If you believe in witches, you might think it’s a witch.
Usually the butterfly stays with me, but it must feel the sunshine because it flies to the top of the tree and lands on the hair leaves. Even from this distance, I can see how magnificent the butterfly is with the sun on its wings. The white eyes even more real. The butterfly disappears, and I wonder if the tree is a witch and if she’s taken my butterfly for a potion or spell. When the arm branches move, I jump, but then realize it’s only the wind causing the fluttering. If the tree could walk, would it be good or evil? I stare at the tree wanting it to move, but nothing. Every day we go deeper and deeper into the forest, but I always stay on the path. On this day, a gentle voice says, “I want to see your butterfly.”
Even though the voice isn’t scary, I’m scared. I know the butterfly likes the forest because when we’re here, it flies from leaf to leaf in a beautiful dance, its wings like scarves blowing in the wind. I listen for the voice.
So we continue our walk deeper into the forest. The butterfly lands on a tree stump. It’s far away, but I still see it. I call for the butterfly to come back. When it does, I notice it’s having trouble flying, like its wings can’t catch the air. It takes a long time for it to reach me, and when it does, it lands at my feet and struggles to stay upright. It breaks my heart. As I reach down to carefully pick it up, I glance at the tree stump, but it’s not there.
I rush back to my bedroom, holding the butterfly in my hand, careful not to touch its wings or hurt it in any other way. Crying all the way because it’s lying on its side and I’m afraid it’s dead. I stay up all night, keeping the butterfly close to me—not even in the jar, but on my pillow, which is softer than my hand. I’m afraid to look into its face.
I whisper to the butterfly that I’ll destroy the forest and leave my secret room forever. The white eyes look at me. “Wasn’t I good?” I say to the butterfly. The butterfly is very still, but one wing flutters a little, like a word, like a “yes.”
In the night, I realize the butterfly will die.
I gently put it in the palm of my hand, and I step into the secret room, into the forest, and on the path. I listen for the voice. Nothing. Deeper in the forest, on the winding path, I see the tree stump. I’m afraid and want to turn back. The voice says, “Put your butterfly on me.”
I turn to run, but then look into the face of the butterfly and I know it wants to die in the forest. Barely able to see through the tears, I put the butterfly gently on the tree stump and sit beside it. I fold my arms around myself. I hold myself, waiting to die. I’m wrapped inside a cocoon. It’s warm like a blanket or maybe like a mother’s tummy—soft and cozy and full of hope. I’m not afraid and there is no pain.
In the morning, I stretch and realize instead of arms I now have wings as beautiful as a little girl running through a forest. I dance from leaf to leaf because I can, because I have wings and always have. When I land on the tree stump other butterflies wake beside me, waiting only for someone to wake them. One of them has her face—her blue eyes, her long blond hair. Somehow I forgot her too, though we both have wings now. On the cobblestone path that has no end—the one we dance down under the sun—there is no more forgetting.