hat’s crazy ‘bout that?” you asked. We sat at our usual spot under a maple tree nearest to the water's edge. We liked that it was close enough to see the city, but far enough to escape the noise.
“I don’t know, leaving?” I said, rolling a piece of knotted grass between my fingers.
You shook your head as you gazed out at the bay. “Boy, it’s about time you got outta here.” The thick hair that once covered your head was now meager and pale, and the skin on your hands had furrowed like mudcracks where rivers run dry.
“But what about you?” I asked.
“What about me? I’m as old as any living thing’s allowed to get!” you cackled, “Hell, I’ve lived so long they got my picture in the dictionary, all you gotta do's look up decrepit.” You’d become more irreverent too.
“Listen,” you said as a white catamaran sailed into view, splitting the water like shears through a satin seam. “Life—no matter what you do or don’t do, whether you choose to live it or not—just keeps going.” Your eyes followed the boat until all that remained were the ripples which lapped the buoys in its wake. A gust of wind stirred the air around us, and a family of maple leaves fell.
I'm here at a local cantina in Michoacán, Mexico. It’s a tiny stone and mortar establishment nestled between a fork in the road with a steel roll-up door. I’m the only one here, aside from a fellow patron two stools down who asks if I’m alright.
“I ain’t never seen nobody write in a cantina,” he says with a twang. I tell him I’ve been following a colony of butterflies across the states. He tells me he's an expat from Texas who'd come to Mexico on a whim several years back and hasn't left since. He likes pambazos and mezcal, but is especially fond of the women who, unlike American broads, don't stick around too long. “It don't hurt that they're cheap too,” he says with a nearly toothless grin.
"Sounds like you've found what you're looking for."
“You betcha. This here's paradise,” he says, gesturing to the last of the El Jogorio in his glass, “why else you think them butterflies come here?”
To survive the winter, of course, which I don't say, but chuckle along instead.
"So, why butterflies?” He asks with the sort of feigned curiosity only a 2 o'clock buzz could manage. I smile as I run my fingernail along the grain of the bar top's peeling wood, remembering how, from Wisconsin to Kansas, I pored over the same question until somewhere in the middle of Oklahoma, it dawned on me.
It had been four hours since I’d passed Wichita when I pulled off of a two-lane road to pee. The sun was just beginning to set over the Great Plains where, aside from a few tiny farmhouses and the occasional gust of wind, nothing but rolling, flaxen grasslands stretched as far as the eye could see. Were it not for the road–and a phone—north, south, east, and west would’ve been inconceivable. A flurry of butterflies passed overhead thinly canopying the expanse. With my belt still unfastened and a stream of pee bending in the wind, I asked out loud, how do you know where you’re going?
The answer is still largely up for debate. Some scientists argue they're pulled by the earth's magnetic field, others say they're led by the course of the sun, but I suspect it's something closer to a feeling, an inarticulable hunch—the same hunch that led me to follow them in the first place.
“Ahem,” the man croaks.
“Sorry,” I say, realizing that I’ve left him hanging. I swirl the last bit of lager around in my glass and finally offer an answer, “I guess to find what I'm looking for.” He narrows his eyes, making the crows feet around them gather together in pleats. He reckons I'm either deranged, or worse, pretentious. Then again, it's not everyday you find yourself alone in a bar with a stranger who's hauled across five states to a country they’ve never visited all for one particular insect—unless they’re an entomologist, of course, which I don't claim to be, but probably should for encounters like these. “Hoping I'll find out soon,” I add.
“Alright,” he says, failing to conceal his derision. I nod and hide as best I can behind my glass while he stares at the emptiness in his. Daylight creeps further west over the mountaintops, leaving silhouetted clouds in its wake. I get up to leave.
“I know a critter up in Boy's Town–Nuevo Laredo,” the man mutters, “name's Mariposa–just ask around. She'll give ya the best goddamn time o' yer life.” I almost thank him, but settle on a nod instead. He tips the brim of his straw hat, and I tip the cantinero.
Do you remember when our class went to the Milwaukee Art Museum? We ate lunch on the field just outside the building which looked like a lion fish, bony and battened. It reflected so much sunlight, we had to eat with our eyes closed. Everyone rattled off about which universities they’d applied to, attempting to outshine one another with their plans for the future as doctors, lawyers, basketball players, and Nobel Prize winners. I asked you what you had wanted to be when you were younger.
“What makes you think I’m not?” you said.
“You wanted to be a teacher?”
“You know,” you smirked gingerly, “I actually did.” The smirk revealed two rows of big white teeth that cracked off a piece of a fuzzy green apple. “Something wrong with that?”
“No,” I said, “I just thought you’d’ve wanted to be an artist or a poet or something.”
“Well,” you mumbled, chewing the pieces until they softened, “To be honest, I never worried about what I was. I was more concerned with how I felt bein’ it. You won’t get that now—you’re still too young. Hell, you’ll probably try on a hundred more things based on what you think before you start choosing on the basis of how you feel.” You took another bite of your apple and wiped the juice off your chin.
A chopper roared overhead. “You ever been in one of those?” you called out, peering up.
“No,” I yelled back.
“Me neither," you said, "but I’ll tell you how they feel, pretty damn free!” You looked back up once more, watching as it buzzed off into the distance, “And deaf.”
I walk a narrow trail through the Reserva de Biosfera de la Mariposa Monarca, and happen upon a woman in the distance who wears a baby blue fishing cap and a matching windbreaker. She stands under the limb of a fir tree where she softly guides a cluster of butterflies into a mesh net. I inch through the thicket to get a closer look, when a piece of wood snaps under my feet. The woman turns, startled.
“Lo siento!” I say, holding up my palms to assure her of my innocence. The woman surveys me silently. “Hola, me llamo Kevin,” I say, a phrase that—despite years of Spanish class—I never thought I’d actually use. “Yo soy Americano,” I add, fumbling through the pages of a Spanish pocketbook I bought in Texas. I read some phrases I jotted down the night before, “Estoy aquí porque… quiero aprender más sobre las mariposas.” I look up to find her mouth slightly parted as though she might speak, but nothing.
“Descúlpeme,” I say, redoubling my efforts, “Qui-er-o apr-en–“
“Shhh!” she hisses, putting a finger to her lips, “You’ll wake them up.” I freeze, befuddled by the sounds of English. In a hushed tone she asks, “Are you a student?”
I consider lying, but don’t, “I’m not, no. I just–“
“Want to learn about butterflies.”
“Yes,” I mutter.
“Right. Well,” she adds, “it’s a good thing they don’t speak Spanish.”
Her name is Ana, and she happens to be a lepidopterist from Monterrey, the shimmering metropolitan capital of Neuvo Leon. She wears her hair in a loose bun, and a thin layer of sweat dews her cheeks, highlighting the freckles which cover her face. She humors me, but only under the condition that I carry her supplies, all of which I happily shoulder.
As we traipse back to the entrance of the reserve, she explains how a caterpillar’s chrysalis is revealed from beneath its skin and that, once inside, most of its body disintegrates into a liquid. All but a few of its cells become undifferentiated which means that, like stem cells, they have the potential to become anything. Over the course of ten days, organs take on new shapes and pigments surface to form patterns. After the liquid has solidified into an almost entirely new structure, the butterfly emerges from its chrysalis.
“It’s kinda like rebirth,” I mutter.
“Exactly,” she says, “except that it remembers some of its former life.”
Their flicks flutter like a flock of gulls, and the air around them is moist and heavy with their whispering.
A few days before graduation, you held one-on-one meetings with each of the students. The empty classroom smelled like you, oaky and spiced—like a sun-dried barrel that once contained peated whiskey. I sat down silently as you fussed through a pile of folders. “So,” you sighed, “what’s next?”
I hesitated, expecting you to respond the same way everyone had when I told them I’d chosen not to go to college, as if I’d robbed them of their dreams. “Probably get a job or something, and take it from there.”
You twiddled your thumbs and grinned slightly which puzzled me. “Alright,” you said, “just don’t shortchange yourself.” I looked down at my sneakers and noticed the dirt filling their creases. For the first time, I was unsure if the choice I had made was the right one.
“You know,” you said, “most folks end up like everyone else ‘cause they do what everyone else does, but you don’t have to.” You smiled and went on, “My point is, if you got yourself outta the college thing, don’t get hung up on the job thing either, if you can help it.” I relaxed into my chair and watched as you pulled out an olive colored folder. “I don’t typically share these, but every now and then I make an exception,” you said, thumbing through its contents until you landed on a sealed envelope which you slid across your desk. “Tuck it away somewhere, it’ll show up when you need it.”
It isn’t until I’m paying for the biscuit and coffee that I realize I’ve run out of pesos. I prod the seams of my pockets hoping to find something other than a few balled up pieces of lint and crumbs. I apologize to the woman working the counter and assure her I’ll return before sprinting out of the sherbet colored cafeteria back to my room.
I pommel through the door and immediately peel off my shirt which has adhered itself to my skin with the sweat on my back. I rummage through my duffle bag, pulling out each article of clothing until finally, I turn it over to empty everything out on the bed. Nothing. I dart around the room, checking the trashcans, behind the nightstand, in the bathroom searching for a few more pesos, if only enough to get me to the nearest currency exchange. Still nothing.
I sit down on the narrow mattress and stare out the window through its lavender sheers in an effort to slow my breathing. I put my hands on the bed and gather the sheets, squeezing them as tight as I possibly can. I take in the tiny room around me with its white walls and ivy green carpets, asking myself what I’m doing here. I turn to my ransacked bag, and begin to pack up the handful of contents I kept when I left my apartment: some clothes, a two dollar bill, and a mustard-stained teddy bear my grandpa gave me when I was five. Wrapped in the only clean teeshirt I have left is an envelope containing what feels like a few bills. I tear it open with the hook of my index finger to find a folded piece of paper:
Student Evaluation — Kevin Wright
Though timid, Kevin’s curiosity exceeds that of any student I’ve encountered in all my years of teaching. While his grades are neither abject nor exemplary, he never fails to provide incredibly keen insights which regularly elevate class discussion as well as the contributions made by his peers.
Whether he pursues higher education or the workforce, it is my greatest hope he spreads his wings far and wide. I have no doubt his journey will be a remarkable one.
Mr. Gordon Clarke
I had just crossed into Texas when I found out you had passed. I spent the following days imagining your funeral. I like to think it took place at that cemetery in Lincoln Village, the one with the concrete bridge that stretches inches just above the water. The docile wind made ripples in the creek, and autumn leaves speckled it with red and gold. You were buried beside a tree beneath a modest headstone where those who knew you left chrysanthemum and firethorn. The service was like you, subtle and sparing, only expressing what needed to be said.
I spent the rest of the drive regretting how, the last time I saw you, I stood in the doorway to get out of a proper goodbye, thinking it would guarantee us at least a Wednesday more.
You and I had just returned to the nursing home from an afternoon at the Marina. Rachel, your favorite orderly, wheeled you back to your room. She helped you into your maplewood chair and laid a plaid blanket over your lap. “Alright Mr. Clark,” I said, still unwilling to call you by your first name, Gordon.
“Hold on now—not like that,” you said, holding your arms open wide, “Get over here.” I trudged over like a hound dog. “Come on, bring it in,” you chimed.
That was the first time we hugged. You patted me on the back and whispered, “Alright, now—be brave.” I peeled off slowly, keeping my gaze in front of me as I headed for the door. “Kevin,” you said before I made my way into the hall, “you can always look back, all that matters is you keep going.”
Here amid the dormant peaks of Angangueo, daybreak is shy; the sun hints at its imminent arrival, and the skies blush. The trees slowly attune themselves to the trill of early morning, towering over the forest floors with a poise that suggests they've seen more dawns than the pillars of Rome. Rays of light spill from the treetops where the Groove-billed Anis coo onto the dampened soil where Bush crickets chitter, katydid, katydidn't.
Last to stir are the monarchs who garland the trees like a thousand batting eyes over low and hanging limbs. One wakes, then another, peeling off in perfect succession. Their flicks flutter like a flock of gulls, and the air around them is moist and heavy with their whispering.
“Only the third generation which hatches up North will make the great migration,” Ana explains.
“Because they're stronger?" I ask.
“Marginally, but no,” she says, “They glide along currents created by the temperature in the air so they don't have to work as hard."
"So they're smarter?"
"Sure, if a human is any smarter for breathing,” she retorts.
“Touché.” We silently watch them as they hover above us, folding and skipping with flitted candor like poppy petals on the wind. I turn to Ana whose gaze is accompanied by a slight smile.
“When they’re migrating,” I ask, “how do they know where they’re going?”
She tilts her head to one side and considers this. “They don’t,” she says, gazing upward, “they just keep going.”