Twelve Days of Heaven / by Stillwater Magazine

by Alena Chekanov

“It’s like Romeo and Juliet,” Daisy tells me, showing me a slideshow on her laptop of a swallowtail butterfly with wings like vaulted, stained glass cathedrals. She taps the touch screen of the laptop violently, enough to shift the whole thing. The next photo shows the swallowtail resting on an ashy brown chrysalis.

“I thought this chrysalis was dead. See that color? I tried to let this butterfly go, but she wouldn’t go. I took her outside, but she just kept coming back, and when I took her back in, all she did was sit on this chrysalis. I couldn’t make this up — it was like her long lost love or something.” A video appears of the chrysalis swinging violently. The swallowtail bats it with its spindly arms, like a boxer with some strange, animated punching bag.

I feel myself smile from the outside, as if I can’t control it. I can’t really place it, but there’s stinging inside me. Daisy replays the video twice more, and I watch, completely absorbed.

“She waited for him to come out and finally he did. I thought he was dead but he just camouflaged to that branch. And then they sat outside together. I swear — they were like holding hands.” In the next picture the two butterflies rest on a leafy branch with two skinny arms clasped together, Daisy’s garden in the background. Their wings, a vibrant yellow, tremble in the breeze. “They just sat there.”

They’re ethereal. Angelic in their momentary lifespan. Yet, I can’t shake the feeling that they’re somehow tragically human. Days pass before I can unravel my initial reaction to this, but the feeling in my gut had been a mixture of jealousy and anger. Sure, bring your loved one to life, enjoy your simple and immediately reciprocated relationship. Sure, mate for life. You get only twelve days to live, but they’re twelve days of heaven.

 

Bring your loved one to life:

           Daisy cuts hair, but doesn’t advertise. And she never does students, she tells me just before she cuts my hair. Her clients are older friends, but for whatever reason, she decided to extend her business to me and my empty pockets. Her salon is a cozy side room with a swivel chair in front of a large mirror. There are bookshelves lined with European cook books against the wall, next to a window which opens to her garden. The butterfly terrarium guards the door, the butterflies inside, feebly testing their wings.

           “Jim and I moved to Ithaca 23 years ago, and most of my clients followed me here,” Daisy begins, completely unsolicited. She chatters cheerfully about her husband, her old boyfriend, another client, Mona, who has been to Disneyland six years in a row, the heroin addict she had to fire, and just about everything I never would have opened up about. She speaks to my reflection in the mirror, our eyes meeting periodically. With the symmetry of the bookshelves and windows behind us, we look like a poster for a Wes Anderson movie.

I’ve only met Daisy days ago, a random encounter on the street involving her overly friendly dogs, but she doesn’t feel like a stranger. She admitted that she trusted me, too, after our first conversation. And now she’s all but adopted me. An empty bowl of homemade potato leek soup sits on the counter beside me. I consider staying here forever.

           “Cooking, hair, and butterflies,” she states, shearing locks of blonde which pattern the floor beneath us, “Those are my loves.”

           “How do you even start hatching butterflies?” I prompt. I imagine a secret society you’re born into, the responsibility of an endangered species resting on your shoulders.

           “Well I always tell people — and this was probably when I decided to start monarch watch — I had a caterpillar chrysalis in a terrarium right here,” She taps the sink with her scissors, “When I was cutting Helen’s hair. Remember Helen?” Helen was the woman whose funeral was tomorrow, and who Daisy mentioned on the phone when she moved my appointment up a day. I nod. “I was literally cutting her hair when the butterfly came out and I just shouted, ‘Oh my God!’ and she thought I had messed up her hair, but we both watched, right there, the butterfly came out.” She shakes her head solemnly. “And we both said it was the most beautiful thing we’d ever seen.” She continues snipping away at my hair.

“Actually, tomorrow, that funeral. It’s going to suck. It’s really a sad thing. Helen’s pretty young, I mean her daughter’s only three. They haven’t told her yet. That her mommy’s dead.”

I don’t know how to respond. Luckily, Daisy keeps chattering on. I think of my own mother with a sting of homesickness. I can’t even think of who would tell the girl about her mom. It doesn’t seem like the father’s in the picture. And how do you even explain death to a three year old? If my mother died, I’d probably be the one to explain it to my little sisters. What would I say? ‘Mom’s in heaven, now’ doesn’t seem gentle enough. Of course, there’s nothing gentle about death.

“She just keeps asking ‘where’s mommy?’ and they keep making up excuses but like, it’s been six days now, you know?”

 

Simple and immediately reciprocated:

The first time a boy told me “I love you,” I was in the unfortunate position of sitting across from him in my bed and feeling absolutely nothing. We had known each other for a little over a year, but had only gotten to know each other less than a week ago, and because of this, I didn’t believe him. In fact, I thought it a little bit ridiculous, and more than a little bit embarrassing.

“I’ve known you like six days, but honestly… I love people very quickly.” I was looking down at my hands when he said this. I watched him take them out of my lap, but my gaze didn’t shift. “And I don’t want to scare you even more, but I want to be honest. And I can say that I’m in love with you.”

“I’m not scared.” I didn’t have to look at him to tell this wasn’t the right answer. I felt a rush of guilt; I could imagine how humiliating it would be in his position. He spent the next hour trying to convince me to let him woo me. I could tell he was close to tears. I wish he would have waited until we knew each other better, I thought to myself. I wanted to say it out loud, but I knew if I did, he’d promise me something ridiculous and then we’d both have to deal with enormous pressure. Controlling someone with hope just seemed sub-human, even more so than refusing to look at a person when they spill their feelings.

He watched me for a while and eventually left in silence. Afterwards, I finished my homework and fell asleep, trying to stop myself from thinking anything.

 

Mate for life:

A year ago, I had a month or so off from school for Christmas break, which I slowly spent trying to furnish my repurposed old room without my parents noticing. Towards the end of my break I ventured into the guest room to root through the closet for more of my old stuff. Instead of the usual storage, I found the closet filled with my mother’s clothes. I don’t know how I didn’t notice that my mom was living in the guest room, but I must have stood there for a good five minutes before I pieced it together.

           It stung, but more than that, the idea that I felt anything bothered me. Like I didn’t have a right to react. Like I was cheated out of a crisis. I thought that since my parents didn’t split up in middle school when everyone else’s parents did, I was somehow in the clear. Now, this was just a sad and quiet fact of life that had nothing to do with me, and I didn’t get any perks like free meltdown passes or an emo phase.

           “We never had time to get to know each other,” my mom would later tell me. They married at twenty, just after the Soviet Union broke apart, and arrived in America just in time to discover they knew nothing about each other. My mom nurses retirees and cooks. My dad builds houses and fixes cars.

I guess I knew my parents weren’t happy for a long time. I just always assumed they were different because they were Russian. They never went on dates or teased each other or fell asleep on the couch together. They were more like business partners than romantic partners.

And I always felt like I knew my mom better than my dad did.

           She’s very reserved. Quiet and simple. She’s the kind of person who you go to school with for years before you actually realize they’re there. But inside, she’s the wisest, most beautiful person. She doesn’t pretend to have life all figured out, but I think she’s closer to that truth than anyone else on earth. She’s incredibly stable for someone who grew up in a country of corruption and hatred, within a subculture of persecuted Christians.

She’s questioning and growing every day, and that’s what really hurt the most when I opened that closet. Because if anyone deserves a perfect life, it’s her. But if she doesn’t even feel comfortable in her own bedroom, then I don’t know if love is a realistic dream.

Looking at all her clothes, cramped, yet somehow tidy in that doll-sized closet, I realized that love could be a problem. It can confine you and hold you back. It’s not the savior that Hollywood sells. It’s unknowable, changing and growing invisibly. Something far more complex than Disney can explain to a child in 90 minutes.

I asked my mom about it later, and all she said was, “If you truly love, you have to love with sorrow.”

           

“I actually was doing Monarch Watch for a long time,” Daisy arranges some papers in my lap; numbers and letters next to dates that I assume have to do with tagging. “But the program really only kicked in — it was years ago. I don’t know if you were even born yet. The monarchs have to fly down to Mexico to breed — and here’s the problem. In Mexico there’s a lot of things going on. The loggers, they’re cutting the trees down. But the forest’s keeping the butterflies warm.”

Daisy runs a brush through my hair, again and again. In the mirror, her expression is one of pity; eyebrows raised and lips hinting at a slight frown.

“All of a sudden, they cut it all open and the cold air went in, killed millions and millions of butterflies. They froze to death. They did a study during Monarch Watch, and I think they had a hundred eggs, and they have so many predators like within one hour, there was only one egg left. So one egg was going to be one caterpillar. It was going to turn to the chrysalis, and then to the butterfly. You try to get them to the butterfly stage–that’s the hard part. In the caterpillar stage, they’re bird food.”

She walks off into the next room, carrying her laptop out with her, talking all the way down the hallway.

“The numbers are down so bad. The predators, the pesticides, the milkweed, the loggers…”

In the mirror behind me, the butterflies cling to the mesh underside of the terrarium lid, blissfully unaware. Daisy will release them later that day. Day one of twelve.