Under Butterfly Wings

By K. Willis Morton

 

“What I cannot love I overlook” – Anaïs Nin

Dark Table Overlooking Lake Michigan

Between the kitchen and the sliding-glass door was an oval mahogany table. It was big enough if people squeezed chairs in, made do with no elbowroom. But there was a view big enough to accommodate a large family. A view of the Chicago shoreline across the lake, and the waves turning in, and on clear evenings in the orange light of the early evening you could just make out the Sears Tower and The John Hancock Building in Chicago on the far shore. The conversation was over my head, a puzzle. There was laughter though I didn’t understand the jokes. There was yelling and I understood the anger even less. But I took it all in. I cleaned my plate like I was told to do.

Sharp Knives

My grandma chopped jalapeños in the kitchen. I’d just come running up the hot, sandy hill from the beach outside the back door. I climbed the red cedar stairs of the porch and slipped out of the sun into the cool of my grandma’s kitchen through a sliding-glass door. My cousins and brothers were on the beach still. Soon my aunts and uncles gathered for dinner. They appeared with dishes made in their own homes only blocks away or from just across the street. They came with meat for the huge built-in grill on the patio below the porch.

The grill that Lake Michigan took back, with the beach erosion and waves that threatened to pull away the house itself in winters to come.

Grandma didn’t call it salsa. She called it “pee-can-tee.”

“It’s got to be fresh,” she said. Lots of fresh tomatoes, onions, raw, strong like her Pawtucket, Rhode Island, accent. Fresh-squeezed lemon juice. She let me chop. “Don’t touch your eyes,” she warned, “even if the onions make you cry.”

I handled the knives and peppers like I handle these memories, with caution should a sting overtake my eyes. There were a lot of things that weren’t supposed to make us cry: Grandma’s “Irish back-hander” across our face, insults, unreasonable expectations, absent fathers, and defenseless farsighted mothers.

The fruits I chopped were beautiful: yellow peppers, red tomatoes, green chilies. Their skins were thin, like mine, and pierceable, and gave up their juice like high tide rolling in, or tears. They revealed a delicate flesh. During those summer-time family dinners it was the utensils and the place I remembered most.

Kids Table Under Butterfly Wings

The living room rolled out, like a tongue, from the dining area. Everything was open with no doors, enmeshed spaces without boundaries. There was a low table that we kids sat around to eat our meals. Above the sofa was a picture of a harbor scene: boats and landings and docks, fishermen hauling in their catch, a setting sun. What attracted me and repulsed me at the same time was the fact that it was not painted. It is constructed from the wings of butterflies. Such a beautiful thing made from killing such delicate creatures. How long would it last before the ephemeral wings, made to flutter away, would begin to disintegrate?

Corncob Prongs

Miniature plastic corncobs pierced real cobs to make handles on white corn that was otherwise too hot to touch. Big cob held by little cobs, held by my little hands. I was a miniature of all the adults around me. Perhaps I could pierce the realm of adults and hold on. Prongs were proof that I could hold on to something, though it was still too hot to sink my teeth into no matter how hard I blew to cool it off.

My ears burned when my grandpa yelled, “For fuck-sake, use your fork,” when I speared the tough meat on my plate with the manageable corn-prongs. I tried not to look in his eye, to give him time to cool off.

Plate Holders

We put our paper plates in woven wicker holders. The plate fit in the flat wicker nest so well. It was satisfying to snap the pleated edges of the paper into their place. Nestled. Once flimsy. Now sturdy. It held that heavy steak, the steamed green beans, the potato exploding from its roasted jacket. This was my job, to make flimsy, weak things strong and able to stand up to what ever was dished out at the family table. It was then I focused on the silverware.

My fork had tiny carved flowers, simple like daisies, embossed on the handles. With each bite I felt the pewter-field beneath my thumb, at my fingers with every bite was a flower. Though metal and only a symbol of something growing wild and pretty, the potential was in my grasp.

Swagman and Peacock, Walls and Symbols

After dinner, Grandma sang Waltzing Matilda reading the lyrics from a tea towel she bought in Australia along with a small swagman doll dressed in a plaid shirt, floppy hat with dangling corks. He had a kerchief-satchel hanging on a pole; He was ready to go. I was awed and taken in by his wandering song-story. He was jolly and slept under a Kookaburra's tree next to a cool billabong.

Yet, it is I who would ultimately wander so far from home.

The kitchen soffits had a mural, jars of preserves. Fruit preserved in jars, preserved in an oil mural. A symbol of putting-up. Between the painted jars of pickles and tomatoes was a tiny gray mouse.

It was the background of the mural that held my attention; the black emptiness painted-in took my eyes. It was green-black like a storming sea capable of carrying me away from the house with walls of painted harvests that were indigestible symbols.

The alcove of the kitchen was open, like a wanting mouth, onto the dining area. On the right was a fireplace that took up nearly the entire wall with a small ledge that held my small body perfectly. The fire screen was a golden peacock with its hind feathers splayed, which folded in and out like a fan.

In Tibetan folklore a peacock can eat poison and still live, so it is a sacred symbol.

I lay on the ledge after meals and watched the close amber flames through the floral pattern cut into the metal of the precious peacock’s feathers. I watched persimmon glowing embers slip through the grate and smolder to gray-ash with my cheek pressed into the warm cinder ledge as my eyelids waved away the day, the meal, the voices around me, all those summers.

In me, still, is a girl sleeping and dreaming by a dying fire.

Glass Ghost Tables

My family is a muster of peacocks. We have all eaten our share of poison words served with closed fists. In time we all finally pushed away from the table, some farther than others, angry and wounded. Like in most families the reasons for the hurting are too complicated to unravel, too far cast to reel in. The only choice is to cut the line. Unmoor from the harbor. Hope to catch a ride on a passing butterfly’s wing.

Now a glass table sits, like a ghost of its solid wooden self, where the dark family table once was. I wish my family could have dinner together at a table by the lake, but I have learned a hot stove requires distance. I’ve given up my role of good little helper setting tables and chopping dangerous fruits.

There is something lost from a life lived under pressure, but there is no way to know what it is. A butterfly can be cocoon-bound for only so long. I am awake. The only thing beaten in my life now is the air around me by my own wandering wings.

 

© K. Willis Morton

K. Willis Morton lives in Long Beach, California. She spends her days mothering and writing. She has published poetry and non-fiction in several small literary journals. She will finish an MFA in creative writing in December and is currently working on a full-length memoir.

Photo © Jane M. Sawyer
from MorgueFiles.com

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