Butterflies, it turned out, were punctual too, at least Monarchs. When Karen and I first took our then six-month old daughter Shannon to Newport after Karen had taken a job, we lunched in Brenton Point State Park between apartment showings. It was days before equinox, mid-September, and we laid a scarcely-clad Shan on a blanket while we ate. Having spent her brief life hived in Queens’ cavernous bustle, the open air, open sun, and open ocean beyond took quickly.
She’d been sitting a bit that week, but here lurched herself up straight off, quiet but smiley, scanning first green grass now blue sky then green trees now wide water, glittering blue. Eye contact was consistent then, engaged, and the suspicions to come were a year away.
“Oh, look, Shannon,” Karen said, pointing. “Look. A butterfly.”
Shan’s eyes followed her mother’s to a laggard dandelion bloom not far off the blanket. Landed, the Monarch flapped its Halloween wings once, then twice, before elevating toward rolling surf. Shan looked to Karen then to me, then laughed.
“My God,” I said. “They’re everywhere.”
Whether we simply didn’t notice them or they’d arrived in a rush we couldn’t know, but broad-winged butterflies – deep-orange, deep-black, moonstone spackling the borders – fluttered everywhere. I picked up Shan, holding her faceout while the three of us walked, drawn to the insect tresses festooning one of the mown field’s few hedges. Lifting our daughter up to one such shimmering vine, we watched her reach before she retracted a wing-brushed finger.
Kneaded like twisted baguettes, the creatures dangled in braids, resting, vibrating, plotting, gathering gumption for the big southwest push through forests, towns, and farms, across prairies, rivers, and deserts, to settle at last in redwoods they’d never seen.
“This is incredible,” Karen said, butterflies all around, and it was.
Two years later nearly to the day I had Shan alone, mostly inured now to stay-at-home parenting’s helter-skelter tediums. Shan had been tabbed severely autistic the previous winter, a week prior to her sister Flannery’s birth, and six months later having the two together for more than a few minutes remained incomprehensible. Between therapies, then, and with Flan in daycare, I let Shan free-form in the world around her.
We’d had days in a row at the now empty beaches, and remembering the butterflies I took a shot and headed for Brenton Point, out past the mansions to the kept field, beyond which a rejuvenating forest digests a military ruin. I’d had experience with animal punctuality before and figured Monarchs would be similar.
Each spring growing up my father and I trout fished timely insect hatches to the same thrush and warbler migrations. Come fall we hunted grouse and woodcock, and though weather played its role, each species kept its calendar, woodcock on their migratory patterns, grouse as to what habitats they’d haunt and when. Nothing, though, seemed so precise as salmon. Before Shan was born I’d lived in Alaska for ten years, working for the fish and game department. Though off by a day or two here and there, every year we counted fish in the same creeks on the same dates. You expected them in certain pools at certain times and there they’d be, ripening.
Once Shan and I paralleled the field I knew butterflies behaved likewise. They bothered the grass, brush, and sky, even the rocky coast across the road, sponging sunshine, far thicker than I remembered. I parked and stepped out, unsure how Shan might react.
She was a runner then, inveterate, and after unstrapping her off she went, straight back across the field a few hundred yards to the rotting army quarters just inside the forest, a mix of forty-year old oak and sassafras, locust and cherry, much of which has punctured the old barracks’ roof. She’d notice the butterflies soon enough, I knew, and simply jogged behind, dodging insects like falling leaves. Such distance wore her down, and upon reaching the timber where a cyclone fence keeps the curious out of the ruin, she turned, hands high, eyes down.
“Up, Shan,” I said, “up,” hoisting her to my chest.
The old roads are maintained for foot traffic and we wended along, shoeless. Brush kept the Monarchs high, but a few fluttered inside the gaps. With her little lungs back to strength Shan motioned to get down, giving a few chase before they rose. Cottontails run thick here, too, and noticing a young-of-the-year nibbling grass she stopped, smiling when it tucked beneath bayberry snarls.
After a half-hour tracing and re-tracing mazed trails, we hit the chief artery, separated from the field by yards of hedge. Usually we took the quarter mile back to the parking lot, splashing puddles, harrying robins and rabbits, headed for the tide pools across the main road, but this would be different.
I’d never seen anything like it. The brush is lower here, mostly black and pokeberry, allowing the butterflies greater liberty. They were innumerable. Ten thousand. Twenty. Fifty or a hundred. Maybe half a million, ascending and descending, adumbrating the pending leaf fall. Shan and I looked at sky, at a galaxy of moorless creatures somehow still fettered to purpose.
Looking down, I noticed what my daughter already had, then edged alongside where a shrub copse rose from the purple droop of pokeberries. Parting some canes I watched her slip inside. We stood, listening to a thousand wings vivify a cherry start. I raised a hand, aiming for an untended gap mid-sapling.
“Watch, Shan,” I said, then poked.
Butterflies, hundreds, shook aloft, cascading Shannon, floating, suspending, drowning her in movement and color, pattern and performance. She didn’t move, just hop-scotched her eyes from one wing set to the next, bathed in their silence.
“Mah,” she said. “Mah. Mah,” using the last of her extinguishing approximations.
With that cluster disbanded, I toted her to a bunch across the road, where through the next hour we tapped one branch after another, creating blizzards, each of us equally engrossed.
All parents worry. Those of special needs kids simply worry different things. Our daughter will need constant care. Of that alone Karen and I are certain. Time and persistent therapy, it’s hoped, will give her scattershot independence, but lifelong supervision is assured. We’ll die, and that oversight will pass to others. Within the corkscrewed anxieties these uncertainties breed, however, we project what peace we can.
I often picture Shan alone, or at least lonely, sometimes in a common room, maybe a van, heading out with the others for the weekly park visit. She’s accustomed to the routine by then and plods along as directed. Her mind, though, is elsewhere, fully salved by its ambient visitations.
Like many of the afflicted, Shan has spectacular recall for detail, for place. If Karen and I can’t control her future, we can at least influence what will become her past, and for my part no small comfort arises when I wander into that van or common room to slip inside her pending memory, there to watch her live again and again that day when numberless butterflies stole the sound from summer and turned the air to snow.