Butterfly People

 

“In time of silver rain

the earth puts forth new life again,”

                                                                        -Langston Hughes

 

In grade school we grew monarchs in plastic bins. We sat in rows, learning times tables in exchange for ice cream toppings. Each day was simple, each day was boring, until the last. Metamorphosis: a change in nature of a life into something wholly different. A worm, to a pod, to wonder. One day we walked into the classroom and saw orange wings where none had been before. These butterflies always return home, we were taught. Not a full-truth, but we smiled at the promise of predictable life.

We went outside to give the butterflies a life more natural—a mother must let go of her kids, we were told, a lesson within a lesson. Our teacher removed a green topper, but the beings clung to their walls. She gave the bin a shake. They fluttered onto the grass and enjoyed a moment of bliss in the breeze.

Suddenly, a boy stomped on them. He laughed. The sun was shining. I wiped tears from my eyes, upset the butterflies never had the chance to fly. We buried the crumpled beauties in dirt, covered them in dried grass. A promise extinguished in front of us. 

*

I think of butterfly people and my mind funnels. I picture humans not with arms, but symmetric wings, brown shattered-glass lines and matching ovals on each side. These beings smile and look at themselves with wet eyes of wonder—they shouldn’t exist. I wonder if butterfly wings are strong enough to hold the weight of human life. Can they fly without help from the wind?

A mural in old downtown commemorates the day the creatures swirled in. On the corner of 15th and Main, on the exposed wall of the Dixie Printing building, there are paintings of butterflies, or people, or children, or aliens—antennae and all. I’ve never seen them before, only viewed their images here, only heard about them in whispers. 

The mural wears a partial Hughes poem:

“In time of silver rain

the butterflies lift silken wings

to catch a rainbow cry,

 and trees put forth

new leaves to sing

in joy beneath the sky.” 

I don’t like to imagine the trees singing. Not our trees—trees without limbs are a sad song, a somber melody in minor key. I can still hear it when I look at them. Now, they stand dismembered and twisted. Some saw a rainbow that day. A rainbow and butterflies. I thought God was done flooding Earth long ago. 

*

In fourth grade we learned that Langston Hughes was from Joplin. He wasn’t here long—the place you were born doesn’t always stay home. Our lessons grew heavier with age. The teacher asked me to perform a poem in front of the class. Dream Variations. I added motions to his words. 

“Dance, Whirl, Whirl,” I sung.

I spun around and around, smiling in both joy and embarrassment. I pointed to my skin at the poem’s end:

Night coming tenderly,

Black like me.”

Kids laughed at my spinning. Dizzied, I returned to my seat.

The poem felt different now. It wasn’t the same as when I practiced in the living room at home. I felt my presence and body in the spins in front of classmates I didn’t look like. It was the first time I wanted to flee. 

Was he really from here of all places? Was he loved? We learned that Langston died far away from home, on the twenty-second day of May. Did he ever dream of coming back? I wonder if the sun shone at his funeral.

* 

That day the sky changed. That day another promise was broken. That day the sky turned majestic and mean. It was all types of color. The rain went sideways.

For 38 minutes, a storm came through home, the sky an odd gray. A Sunday. A storm came through Joplin and left all these broken trees, and homes, and bodies. It left all these dreams. People let go of their kids. Their parents. Their love. On the twenty-second day of May, we handed over gifts to the gray arm of the sky.  

Children in town saw butterfly people. They saw them with their eyes, in their minds, in their dreams. The story is common now. Folklore like that dizzy day. Spinning wind. Twirling rains. People launched into the air.

“Wasn’t it pretty? They were carrying people into the sky,” a child tells her mother. 

It’s how the kids explain what happened. It’s how they were protected. It’s how they know their lost loved ones are safe now. Did you see the butterfly people? Wasn’t it pretty? These butterflies always return home.

I’m not sure I believe in angels. I don’t want to know how it feels to fly.

* 

I wonder what’s real. Bodies swirling in a gray mass of wind. Limbs removed. Heads upturned. Humans shaped wrong. I try not to imagine, but I see them in my dreams. 162 dead butterflies. 162 crumpled bodies. 162 people dead because of wind. We prayed the damage was done but were still finding bodies days later.

Tornado—I spiral when I hear the word. I fear the air when I hear it wail. I fear the sky when it turns purple or green or silver. I don’t like to return to my changed home in spring. We’re not in Missouri anymore. We’re somewhere else.

“Green grasses grow

and flowers lift their heads

And over all the plain

the wonder spreads.” 

Hughes dedicated his poem to a dying friend. Did he believe his own words? At home I think of butterfly people and I dream of flying away.