The spring my sister Sadie was six, she began to notice the butterflies that lived in our garden, that fluttered from flower to flower. The color and elegance of the little creatures enchanted her. She begged and begged to be taken to a butterfly garden, so I took her to one on a day when our parents were busy.
When we entered the garden, we stood together in the main space, full of flowers, and the bright, winking wings of countless butterflies. They were everywhere. Some of them perched on plants like flower-buds, others glided their way around the room. Sadie was entranced. She walked around, head pointed toward the ceiling, mouth open slightly in wonder. She’d never seen so many butterflies in one place.
One landed on her finger, and she smiled in delight, watching the orange and black butterfly perched there. Sadie smiled in delight as its wings slowly fanned between her eyes.
Her eyes darted toward me and she smiled.
“This is Princess.” She said, pointing with her other finger at the small creature. I smiled back, gave her a thumbs up, and Sadie went back to her world of blinking, colored wings.
I left Sadie alone for awhile, and walked around the garden by myself, admiring the colors and beauty of the butterflies and flowers.
The sound of crying broke through my silence, and I turned, recognizing it as Sadie’s. She ran up to me, tears pouring down her stop sign red cheeks, a crushed butterfly quivering in her hands.
“Jacki! Jacki! She’s broken, I hurt her!” She wailed, tears splashing onto her forearms as she wept.
“Shhh, shhh, Sadie. What happened? Tell me what happened.”
“I… I, I stepped on her, I stepped on Princess.” She looked up into my eyes, her green eyes bloodshot and heartbroken.
The little thing was definitely crushed, and almost dead. Its wing twitched slightly. I stared at it for a moment, unsure what to do.
“Jacki, fix her. You can fix her, right?”
I looked down into my sister’s eyes.
“I can’t fix her.”
“But you have to! You have to fix Princess!”
“Sadie, I can’t. I can’t.”
She lost it. The child fell to her knees, put the butterfly on the ground in front of her, and just sobbed, her whole body shaking. I’d never seen Sadie so heartbroken. So I sat down next to her, put my arm around her shoulder, and let her cry, making out the mumbled lament of my 6 year old sister.
“She’s broken. I broke her, and, and nothing can fix her.”
When Sadie finally stopped crying, I picked her up, and carried her to the car, the dead butterfly cupped in her tiny hands. She didn’t say a word as I drove home. When we pulled into our driveway, she asked,
“Can I bury Princess now?”
I let her do it alone. I asked if she wanted help, but she said no. So instead, I stood in the window, and watched the little girl bury her butterfly. She was meticulous. The hole in the ground was dug just so, the fragile body placed in it with tiny, careful hands, the dirt trickled over it slowly until it overflowed, and then was dabbed into a mound. Dandelions arranged in the shape of a “P.”
And then she just sat there, staring at the little grave. She was silent, I couldn’t tell if she was crying. I don’t think she was. She’d used up all her tears holding Princess in the butterfly garden. So she just sat, looking at the pile of dirt, with the slowly wilting dandelions.
After the day in the butterfly conservatory, Sadie was wary of real butterflies. She stayed away from the flowers in our front yard too, always giving them a wide berth when she went outdoors. Instead, she started making paper butterflies.
“It’s Princess.” She told me, holding her orange and black creation out to me. “I made it so it looks just like her.”
I walked into her room a few days later. The entire space was covered in paper butterflies. She had taped them to her bedposts and her walls, and they covered her bookshelves. In a way, she had transformed her bedroom into a stationary replica of the butterfly house at the zoo.
She was sitting on the ground, and didn’t look up from her coloring.
“Sadie, when we go to the zoo next week, do you want to go back to the butterfly house?”
Her marker stopped mid-scribble, and she was still for a moment. Finally:
I watched her for awhile before I spoke again.
“Why not? You love butterflies.”
“I don’t want to. Will you leave me alone now?” She finally looked up from her coloring and stared at me until I left the room.
When our family went to the zoo that next week, Sadie wouldn’t go near the butterfly house. My mom coaxed and coaxed her, convinced that Sadie could be talked into entering the garden, and then everything would be better. But Sadie just shook her head. There was no way she was going into that building.
After the second trip to the zoo, the making of paper butterflies lasted a while longer. But gradually, Sadie tired of the motionless creatures, and began to venture outside again. She sat far away from the garden in our front yard. But she sat close enough to watch them, as they moved from flower to flower, often with a wistful expression on her young face.
And then, one day, I looked out the window. There was Sadie, sitting so still the only movement in her tiny body was the rise and fall of her chest. Her mouth hung open a little, and her eyes were wide and a little cross-eyed. And on her nose, there was a butterfly, black and deep blue wings fanning ever so slightly.
I watched as long as she stood there, until the butterfly flew away. She stood for a moment longer, out of disbelief I imagined, and then a huge smile broke through her shock.
“Jacki!” She yelled, turning and running toward the door.
“Jacki! A butterfly! There was a butterfly!”
I walked to meet her as she burst through the door.
“Jacki! It just landed on my nose, and sat there! And then,” She stopped for a moment, and smiled. “It flew away.”