by Terry Hargrove
I’m having a crisis of faith. No, not that kind. The Big Guy is still number one in my book, and I hope I’m in His… somewhere. I mean I’m losing faith in the power of literature. Am I just bitter because I can’t find a literary agent? Maybe. But I have come to believe that in a very real sense, literature fails us. A novel has a beginning, a setting, a few agreeable characters (usually not too interesting) and some bad folks (usually very interesting), an unfortunate situation that needs to be resolved in the middle, a theme and a last page. The finished product sits on a shelf nice and neat and tidy, just the way real life isn’t.
Real life is far more complicated, with too many twists and turns and unlikely coincidences. Realistic fiction is a contradiction of terms. Don’t believe me? Then I present to you Exhibit A: the Hargrove Family Goes to the Butterfly Place.
The butterfly place has a name, but it’s up in Massachusetts and I hope they don’t read my column. But if they do, any good lawyer could argue successfully that I embellish events, and I will nod and agree, even though what I’m about to tell is true. It’s too strange to be invented. It started with a dream.
“I had the dream again last night,” I said. “The baby chicken dream.”
“It’s very odd that you should be having that dream,” said Nancy. “Because normal people have strange dreams. The chicken dream is reliving an event that really happened. Your sister is still mad about it.”
“I know,” I said. “It’s like I was there again, in 1967. It was hot, and I had come home from the Park. I stumbled to the back yard and saw the chair. I was so hot, and I just sort of collapsed into the chair.”
“Please stop,” asked Nancy.
“How was I to know that my little sister, Jan, had purchased a baby chicken that very afternoon? And she had gone inside to prepare a tiny little chicken tea party for the bird she named Cromwell? I saw the screen door begin to open even as I dropped, and there was a horrible crunching sound, and I jumped up and saw that I had sat on Cromwell, poor flat Cromwell, then I looked at the door and there stood Jan with her little Barbie tray loaded with crackers and Kool-Aid, glaring at me in stunned silence. I stared at her, then at Cromwell, then back at her. Then the giant lizard crawled over and started laughing at me.”
“OK, except for the giant laughing lizard part, it all really happened,” said Nancy. “Joey? Come on, It’s time to go. You’re going to love this place!”
“A greenhouse full of butterflies; what’s not to love?” I replied. “I just wish it wasn’t so far to drive.”
An hour later, Joey was singing a chickadee song in the back seat as Nancy and I discussed my dream.
“I can’t get that stupid dream out of my head,” I complained.
“Try not to think about it,” Nancy advised. “I know I’m trying. It’s a strange dream. I thought you made the whole thing up until I talked to your sister about it last summer. Boy, she had some things to say about you.”
“Yes, I know,” I said. “But the thing is, dreams mean something. They have to.
But I don’t know what. Maybe the chicken dream is some kind of warning. Maybe I should have stayed home today.”
“Just watch where you sit and you’ll be fine,” said Nancy. “Now when we get up there, I want you to walk in front. I think there’s a snake inside somewhere.”
“A snake in the butterfly place?” I asked. “That doesn’t make much sense.”
“They have some other things inside the exhibit,” said Nancy. “Glass cages with frogs and exotic insects. Remember our deal?”
“How can I forget,” I said. “I am to maintain myself as a barrier between you and any and all snakes, no matter what species, ’til death do us part. I don’t think you had to put that in our marriage vows.”
“It’s legally binding,” she said.
After 100 miles, we pulled into the parking lot. I bought three tickets, and in we wandered. I mean, in I wandered, and after thoroughly checking all the glassed-in critters and seeing nary a snake, I called for Nancy and Joey who had taken refuge in the gift shop. Joey bought a plastic butterfly and named her Mrs. Flutters. She cost a quarter.
The butterfly place is amazing. We saw some incredible insects, a few small lizards, a parrot, and a skink that Nancy wouldn’t get too close to, even though I promised her it had legs, small and useless, but legs nonetheless. But the butterflies were the stars. I’d never seen that much living color, floating and gliding and fluttering. It was like watching slivers of rainbows. I was reminded of a poem by Robert Frost that mentioned sky flakes and color on the wing. They were landing on people, settling like autumn leaves on heads and necks and faces. But they wouldn’t land on us.
“Maybe we should sit down on a bench,” suggested Joey. “Maybe if we sat and were very still, they might think we’re trees and land on us.”
“Yes, they might,” I said. Something strange caught my eye. It scurried across the floor, then was followed by another small round feathered shape.
“Hey, there are birds in here,” I said. And there were. Tiny ground birds, some in cages, but others running free through the plants. There was a sign that said: “Don’t pick up the birds or their feed!” A toddler who couldn’t read trundled past, one small bird in each hand. His mother was running after him.
“Cromwell! Cromwell! You put those birds down right now, do you hear me?”
What happened next is hard to relate accurately, since the events seemed to take place at the same time. Nancy, Joey and I had backed up to a bench and were in the process of sitting, but the child’s name was cloying at my mind. Cromwell? Who names a kid Cromwell? And why does that bother me so much? Then it hit me! Cromwell! Little, flightless birds, a bench, I was about to sit! I tried to stop myself, but a Blue Morpho Butterfly picked that instant to land on my cheek, and stick his proboscis into my right eye. I fell back heavily next to Nancy. Something crunched under me.
“Did you hear that?” I asked.
“It sounded like you sat on…oh no. No, surely not,” said Nancy.
“That child, Cromwell, was carrying two,” I sighed. “I didn’t look at the bench before we sat down. Did you look at the bench?”
“No, I didn’t,” she said. “Why are you staring at me with a look of absolute horror right now?”
“Because there’s a huge lizard beside your shoulder,” I said. “And he’s smiling at me.”
Fifteen minutes later, I was able to talk Nancy out of the bathroom and explain it all. The lizard was Igor the iguana, a four-foot long exhibit who was removed from his cage several times a day for exercise. I had not sat on one of the small flightless birds, but had instead landed on Mrs. Flutters. Joey thought it would be funny if he put it under me. Cromwell? Well, I have no explanation for Cromwell. Strange names for offspring are not the exclusive right of Hollywood types, I suppose.
Three hours of untouchable beauty was enough for us, so we left the butterfly place and made the 100 mile journey home. Joey began a frantic search for butterflies the moment he got out of the car, even though I told him there wouldn’t be any around here for a couple of months.
So what does it mean? Is there a theme? Did the story end or does it continue? Literature is quite mundane when cast in the truth of our lives. Every day a thousand little beauties flutter by us, and we sit and watch and wonder if that‘s all there is, instead of giving thanks for more glory than we could ever take in. And somehow, that night, after we’d put Joey in bed, we found a butterfly on the sofa. It was beautiful, scarlet and emerald and thin as a wish. I don’t know for certain where he came from, but I’ve got a good idea.
And I feel really bad that I sat on him.
Terry Hargrove is a classic example of the dreaded “Fourth of Seven Child Syndrome.” He left his native Tennessee in 2005 to teach English and language arts in a strange and exotic land called Connecticut. He lives with his wife Nancy and their son Joey in beautiful but expensive Old Saybrook, home of Katharine Hepburn, who never returns his calls. He tries to follow in the steps of his hero Mark Twain, and just like Mark Twain, he is losing all his money. If you know how to get butterfly stains off a sofa, you can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.