Forewing: I acquired a fear of butterflies the same way I acquired a favoritism of the color blue. One day, I simply decided. I’d cringe when they flew near, drawing my arms close to my chest to reduce their chance of using me as a landing pad. I’d stare at pictures of them on Google, examining their paper-thin wings and furry faces. I examined them the ways I examined the girls in my class, actors on TV screens, myself in the mirror. Frizzy-hair, a gap in between my front two teeth, freckles, and skinny limbs.
When I first noticed the notion of beauty, I rejected it and accepted it and longed for it. I wondered where it came from, why certain girls were bestowed more than others. I stared at butterflies through my computer screen, protected by pixels, and wondered who gets to decide what’s beautiful and what’s not. How are the parameters determined? Fuzzy hair from sleek. Paper thin from full.
Abdomen: In the 7th grade, my class went on a bonding trip to the North Carolina Mountains. I’d be forced to bond with the same kids who made jokes about me being anorexic behind my back. I didn’t even know what anorexia was, let alone that a joke about it should hurt my feelings. But as middle school kids, we become deeply aware of the fact that it’s easier to belong than to be excluded. It’s easier to laugh than be laughed at.
I remember few things from the trip itself. I remember the crush I had on the boy I sat beside on the bus. I remember liking the bus ride. I also remember we got to go whitewater rafting. We each picked up a side by little straps sewn into the raft and carried it towards the river. My bare thigh brushed against the raft and an immediate pain shot through my leg. I dropped my straps and backed away in shock. I looked down to see a red splotch beginning to whelp up above my knee. My teacher asked me what was wrong and the guide pointed at a fat, fuzzy caterpillar on the ground near my feet.
“That little guy must’ve got her,” he said.
I stared in fear and disgust.
“That fuzzy thing?” I asked.
“Yeah, it’s a caterpillar of some sort,” he said, grabbing my side of the raft and carrying it the rest of the way.
My classmates stared at first then chuckled and kept moving. My teacher said she was sure the swelling would go down by the time we got back to our hotel. I pressed my palm into the whelp. We reached a calm spot in the river, and the guides told us we could jump in the water here if we wanted. I stood up and followed my classmates, jumping in one after the other.
I remember the water being so cold that I couldn’t move my arms to pull myself back onto the raft. The guide grabbed me by my life jacket and sat me back on board. I shivered and my teeth chattered, my lips turning blue, but the spot on my thigh continued to burn, hot and angry.
Head: In high school, two of my friends found a dead butterfly in the driveway and secretly plotted to put it on my head. I saw them coming, the crumbling wings breaking off in their hands. I screamed and ran, but they threw the fragments in my hair. I sat on the hot concrete and bit my lip so I wouldn’t burst into tears while they laughed. I picked the pieces of orange and yellow from my hair, scratching my scalp until it burned.
In Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, Mr. Rochester witnesses a moth being drawn by the light of a flame and flying directly into it. Antoinette asks, “Is it badly burned?” Rochester replies, “More stunned than hurt.” He picks up the moth and inspects it, before shooing it away. Antoinette says, “He will come back if we don’t put the candles out. It’s light enough by the stars.” [i]
Funny the things we return to, until they are taken away by force or fate.
Antennae: I once helped chaperone my older sister’s second-grade-class field trip to the Natural Science Museum. A visit to the butterfly conservatory was the last stop on the trip. I agreed to chaperone knowing this, hoping to put myself through some personal counterphobia therapy. I followed a group of second graders into the glassed-in area. The air was warm and damp. I watched as the kids looked around in awe, mouths open, pointing at the flying, little beasts above their heads. My heart quickened at their proximity. I got my sister to snap a picture on my phone of me smiling, embracing my fear as they flew too closely to my face. Once the picture was taken, I made a beeline for the door. The kids noticed my urgency.
“What’s wrong?” they asked.
I didn’t answer. I could feel my breath getting shallower in the trapped, humid air. I finally got the door open and stepped outside, letting it slowly shut behind me. I compulsively checked the back of my shirt to make sure none had stuck to me on the way out. Peering back inside, I saw that I had created a panic amongst the second graders, and I felt bad for it. I heard my sister’s reassurance to her kids that even though I was scared, there was no reason for them to be.
“Butterflies aren’t scary. See, they’re pretty.”
I wondered why the two couldn’t be synonymous.
Thorax: There is such a butterfly out there in the world that spreads its foot-long wingspan and takes flight in the open air. Let me repeat that: foot-long wingspan. It is named the Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing. [ii] If ever I were to encounter a butterfly that took up the length of my calf, I think I would faint or maybe just freeze.
My husband and I moved to Key West, Florida, in 2018 three months after we got married. I moved sixteen hours from the only home I’d ever known and left the people who take up the most room in my heart. The day we left in our moving truck, I had my first panic attack. I clutched at my throat, unable to drink in enough air to satisfy my lungs. Two months later, I had my second panic attack. Sitting alone in the bright space of our new bedroom, I wondered who I was and why I was and what I was made of.
Months after we moved in, there was a black moth the size of a bat flying manically around our screened-in back porch. I noticed our pit bull, Honey, chasing it from side to side until she finally trapped it in a corner and nipped at it. I watched from inside, arms clutched against my chest, and watched its wings violently flap. I watched something the size of my palm seek the refuge of an open door. It wouldn’t find it until it stopped flailing long enough to see the door was there all along, just on the other side. It stayed in the corner for a while, sitting in its own discomfort, breathing through it.
I would have four feet on the Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing, but somehow I know I’d always feel smaller. She wouldn’t pay me any mind, I’m sure (I’d hope). She’d just fly on by, unafraid to show off her wings. Unafraid to take up the space she occupies.
Hindwing: I took a break from writing this piece and rode my bike through the neighborhood I’ve started to love. The breeze was warm, the sun bright as it filtered through the palm tree fronds overhead. I looked to my right and watched a small, orange butterfly fly alongside me an arm’s length away. I thought to myself how timely, how ironic, how poetic. It kept up with my pace for a few meters before veering off on its own into the mangroves.
I can watch them from a distance and not run the other way. I do not cringe. I keep my arms at my sides, finally brave against their fragile intimidation. They’re ugly, they’re beautiful, they’re big and wide and small and quick. I watch them take up the space they occupy, and allow myself the same.