Smoke and butterflies

The day the forest caught fire I was out looking for butterflies. The ones that hide in the deepest, oldest parts. It’s been so many years now. I can’t remember anymore. Not clearly. Not like I once did. I used to remember every line in your face. Especially around the eyes where the wrinkles all came together when you smiled.

I saw the swarm of butterflies only moments before I smelled the smoke. In a clearing deep in the old forest. I watched. Mesmerized. They danced for me. Only seconds. It was the most beautiful thing. Then I caught the smoke in my nostrils. It’s weird how time changes the reality of things. It’s weird how immediate danger changes the nature of time.

I ran for my life. For all I know those butterflies continued their dance until the smoke blotted out their warm patch of sunshine. Maybe they were still dancing when the sparks off the trees began burning their delicate, impossible wings. Do butterflies have souls? If they do I hope there is an afterlife where they continue to dance in lovely, impossible kaleidoscopes.

I met her close to home. The fire raged all around. We tried to look for you. There was no time. We called out as we ran. Hand in hand. I thought about pauses. The pauses turned into commas. Commas make me impatient. It was hard to breathe from all the smoke around us. Our calls grew weaker. Our hearts beat too fast. There was nothing left but the desperation of our need to find cooler air. We stopped calling and tried to outpace the fire. Somehow we did. We didn’t see you along the path that day.

Home. That place we all loved so much. Burned to the ground. Nothing left but memories and the feel of her hand in mine. We stood at the edge of the forest where we had lived and cried together. It was hard to talk. So many years ago. I wish I could remember the sound of your laugh. I know it tinkled sometimes. I close my eyes and try to imagine exactly how your shoulders arched when you were amused. There was something in that stance you had. Something as beautiful as the swarm of golden butterflies.

In the days after our disaster I talked to the old man who lived over the ridge. He lost everything too. His family, his livelihood, his sense of humor. He told me that he’d been out looking for medicinal plants. Said that when he smelled the smoke and began to run back towards home he saw you. He told me you were floating like a wraith through the smoke. He told me you looked at him and continued into the heart of that horrible, all consuming maelstrom of flames.

We rebuilt eventually. In a barren landscape that was already beginning to renew itself. Life is strange. It builds itself out of the bones of death. Always. A cycle that repeats over and over. I suppose it will continue until the universe itself decides the time to end has come. I look for you still. Over every trail I’ve worn through the young forest that grows around us indifferent to the past. Trees don’t remember. So I’m told. Sometimes I think it would be better to be a tree.

I could shelter a swarm of golden butterflies under my leaves during a gentle rain. I wouldn’t struggle with the question of what happened the day of the fire. Or why you would ever want to do a thing like that. Things would be simple if I were a tree. I would be born and die in exactly the same place without ever worrying about why I can’t remember exactly what your smile looks like anymore.

Sometimes on my walks with her we come upon more butterflies. It makes me happy that they still dance. The trunks aren’t as tall or thick as the ones I remember from back then. But the butterflies are just as golden and their dances are just as magical. I look at her and I am happy. But both of us miss you and the way you used to dance. It was like you could fly. I hope somewhere you are still dancing.

They say a mischief maker started the fire that day. The ones who investigate such things. I sometimes think it was you playing with matches. You used to be fascinated by flames. We had to warn you not to sit so close to the hearth on cold nights. You would stare sometimes. Into the flames. In a way that made me think you wanted to touch them.

What makes a butterfly different from a moth. Which one were you? It doesn’t really matter. We both miss you.


Also published on Medium.

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The author

Pen has been writing in a professional capacity for two decades. He started his career as a combat correspondent in the U.S. Marines.

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