By Lis Mitchell
When Vivian and her daughter witness the family matriarch die without leaving a corpse, Vivian can no longer ignore the family “gift” or the choice that lies before her.
I am elbows-deep in dishwater and morning sunlight when Lily brings me the news.
“Gray-Granna’s down by the river,” Lily says. “She’s turning into butterflies.” She delivers this with a mixed air of authority and awe.
I nearly drop the plate I am holding. That would be bad—it’s part of Aunt Augustine’s set and Lily would cry if any of them broke. Carefully, I lay it down on the counter next to the sink. Leaning forward, I submerge my hands into the soapy water. The warm water feels so good. I can almost feel my blood flowing in my veins, I think, and I flex my fingers. No trembling. Good.
“Mom?” Lily takes a step behind me. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine, sweetheart.” I turn around and wipe my hands on my jeans. “Fast or slow? Is there time to find your father?”
“Slow,” Lily says. “Very slow. And Dad knows. He’s in the garden.” She ducks her head and stares at me from beneath a frizzy halo of ash-brown curls, looking very much like her father’s child. “He wants you to come.”
“Of course, he does.” I sigh. Damn Dash. I would have come—I will still come—but he has to keep flinging himself against this and it’s going to break his heart. I’m not going to change.
Lily hears my sigh. She echoes it in that exaggerated way kids mimic adults, thrusting out her lower lip, and huffing until the curls around her face tremble.
“Come on, Moooom,” she says and pulls at my hand.
She tows me out of the cool darkness of the house and into the green wilderness of the garden. We head southeast towards the river that marks the boundary. I keep my pace deliberate, slow, dignified, despite Lily’s impatient tugs.
“The butterflies are so pretty,” Lily tells me. “They’re blue and big, almost the size of my hand. Like this!” She pulls from my grasp and cups her hands together to demonstrate.
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The path to the river comes out behind an overgrown hedge and leads us down a slight slope. As we skirt a willow tree, the river comes into view. I see Dash standing stock-still on the path ahead, one arm clasped across his chest, the other hand propping his chin. He has not yet noticed Lily or me come up behind him, being transfixed by the scene before us.
The river is a small one, shallow, gentle, hardly deserving of the name—a tributary branch leading to a larger one. A low rocky embankment leads up the slope towards us, and perched on the largest of those rocks is a withered and naked woman…if you can call the husk before us a woman at all.
Faded blue gingham pools around her feet, and her legs rise like scrawny white aspens above the crumpled fabric. Her arms are open wide, as if to embrace the sun, and her white-gray hair unspools into the morning breeze. A cloud of blue butterflies eddies on this same breeze, shifting around her, exposing and then hiding and exposing again her collapsed breasts, her sagging buttocks, her scarred belly. As I watch, I see dark spores blossom on her skin. One here, one there. They swell slowly into gold-green pods—chrysalides, really, which ripen and split. The butterflies crawl backwards into this life, unfurling crumpled, wet wings. The outer edge of the wing resembles split wood with whorled knots, but each butterfly unfolds itself into a slice of fluttering blue sky and dark stormshadow. Open—sky, closed—wood. Each insect delicately buds. Each one just as delicately extends a proboscis to taste the salt on Gray-Granna’s skin, and then casts itself into the butterfly-cloud.
She is already shriveling, her mass dropping away in featherscale weights.
Lily pulls her hand from mine and sidles down the rocky slope towards Gray-Granna. “I’ve brought them,” she announces.
I doubt that Gray-Granna hears Lily. I can no longer see visible ears. The face itself is masked by a hundred opening-and-closing wings. The thin hands that once stroked my daughter’s hair reach sunwards, like starveling branches attenuated in a drought. The breasts are all but gone now.
Lily doesn’t seem to notice this ruin. She only sees butterflies. Beautiful blue butterflies. She reaches a hand towards the cloud and Dash reflexively clamps his hand on her shoulder, pulling her up short.
“Not now, kiddo,” he says, the gentleness in his voice belying the urgent grip. “Leave her be.”
“I want to touch her,” Lily says. “Before she finishes dying. I want to touch them.”
I find my voice. “Honey, they’re new butterflies. You could hurt them.”
Both Dash and Lily turn and give me identical surprised looks. “Not Gray-Granna’s butterflies,” Lily says patiently. Don’t you know anything, Mom?
Dash converts his surprise into a warm smile for me. “I’m glad you’re here, Viv. She’s glad you’re here too.” He nods at his grandmother.
You can’t know that, I think bitterly, unfairly. Unfair to Dash anyway, who means well, damn him.
“I should get your parents,” I say. “Your father will want to know. Maybe your cousins—”
Dash’s eyes focus on something beyond me. “They know.”
Of course. The family always knows.
Dash’s father arrives next, slogging over wet stones, from upstream. Swaddled in ugly green waders, he has slung a creel over one shoulder and wields an expensive rod as if it were a sword. He hitches his head towards his mother as he passes her, and asks, “How long?”
“Thirty-two minutes.” Lily brandishes a Hello Kitty stopwatch. “Slow.”
“Damn fool woman,” Dash’s father says. “Took the only spot I can get a reasonable cast off. Too shallow on the shore.”
Dash rolls his eyes.
Dash’s mother makes her way down the path only a few minutes later. Like her husband, she’s armed and ready for a deathwatch. Her weapons of choice are knitting needles. She picks her way daintily down the path, and finds a half-rotted log for a seat, sitting down with a dignified flourish. “Hello, Vivian. I didn’t expect to see you here,” she says.
“Hello, Janet,” I say. I can’t bring myself to call her Mum, like she insists, even though my own mother is dead and certainly wouldn’t begrudge Janet the title.
Janet begins to knit, needles flashing and clacking, building a comfortable rhythm. “We haven’t had a slow one in a while,” she notes. “It’s so nice to have a chance to say goodbye.” Given that nobody is actually talking to Gray-Granna, this patent fatuousness is clearly intended to put me at my ease, something that Janet confirms with her next words. “This is your first chance to see a passage, isn’t it, Vivian?”
Janet likes to ask questions she already knows the answer to. It keeps the conversation under her thumb, which is where she prefers everything in her life to reside. I don’t even bother to answer and Janet steams on, reminiscing over all the passages she’s ever seen. I already know the contents of this grim catalog, as Janet has taken care to introduce me to every family member, showing me how to care for them, and issuing dire warnings about dropping, chipping, cracking, kicking, wrinkling, shoving, tearing, or even moving the family heirlooms. Only Janet could have turned Modern Housekeeping into a necronomicon.
Idly I wonder what Gray-Granna thinks about this catalog. Perhaps her ears were among the first to bud and dissolve so that she wouldn’t have to hear her daughter-in-law’s roll call of the dead.
Lily ignores Janet—she knows the family history as well as any of us. Instead, she skips around in circles, trying to Not Catch butterflies. I suppose I should feel grateful that this is not a sad moment for her. When my paternal grandmother died, I was made to kiss her dry shriveled lips as my father held me over her open casket. I had nightmares for weeks after. Lily will have none of that—just sunlit memories of chasing butterflies.
I am in the midst of composing a mental note: Tell Dash that Lily does not have to kiss me when I am dead, when Lily suddenly turns to me and says, “It’s so pretty. I hope when you die, it’s as pretty and slow.” And I can’t help thinking that when I die it will be slow enough, and not pretty. Never pretty.
Dash tightens his mouth, and whisks Lily away for a whispered conference.
Lily was the only one to see Opa—Gray-Granna’s husband—make passage. This is her second death and a very different death from the first. Opa had been reading a story to her, part of a bedtime ritual that had lasted until his death. Lily’s eyes had closed and she had nearly drifted off, when Opa stopped reading. Lily waited and waited, and when she opened her eyes, there was only an empty leather armchair at the foot of her bed. Empty but for an open book and sitting where no armchair had previously sat. Lily had called us, and we had called Dr. Waterhouse and all the business of passage was got through, although Lily insisted on keeping the armchair in her room.
How long does it take for a woman to shed her skin and finish dying?
We watch for several hours. Gray-Granna becomes less and less distinct, her form collapsing and falling. The mass of butterflies finishes off her head, her thin arms, her shoulders. Now she is a torso-trunk, and all we can see is a boiling mass of cocoons and wet wings.
Now the legs are beginning to thin, and as they disintegrate, the mass of flesh topples forward. Upon hitting the ground, it bursts—a papery dry explosion, rather like a wasps’ nest. Only instead of angry wasps, we are left with a blue cloud of confusion.
Well then. We’re not going to be able to shut that up in a china cabinet. “Those are tropical butterflies,” I say. “And summer’s nearly gone. How long will they live with the colder nights coming on?” I wonder what happens when they die, the butterflies. Do they have a secondary afterlife too?
Janet sighs. “We’d better open the greenhouse. That will do for somewhere to sleep.” She finishes counting off a row, and then collects her needles and yarn. “Lily, let’s go open the greenhouse.”
Somehow, the butterflies know to follow Lily. The cloud wraps around her, keeping pace. As she runs up the long slope of the lawn, all I can see are her legs and her mop of curls, dark against the blue shroud of wings.
For the first time since her birth, I am permitted to read a bedtime story to my child. Somehow Opa and Gray-Granna usurped that right during the early sleepless days of parenthood, when we were too tired to protest the kindness. I suppose if Janet was at all inclined towards bedtime stories, it might be a luxury I’d never achieve. But Janet does not like books, and the only stories she knows are ones about dying.
There is a shelf of pristine Dr. Seuss books, bought by me when I was newly pregnant. They’ve never been read to Lily. Opa and Gray-Granna did not care for them. Opa deigned to read from the Lang fairy books, and Gray-Granna knew dozens of old Märchen, and that’s what Lily knows. I suppose that wouldn’t be a far cry from Janet’s catalog of family deaths. When you get down to it, all the old fairy stories get bleak.
After Lily slips into slumber, Dash joins me on the window seat. He gathers me into his arms and I lean into him. We used to sit like this in his university dorm, holding still and camouflaged in the sharp-edged silence of curfews.
The years have matured our silences, and now we watch the moonlight creep across the floor towards the bed where our daughter lies sleeping. Time slows and slivers while we hold each other. Momentarily, I feel safe, watching Lily’s small chest rise and fall. There is nothing else in the world that matters so much, and I wish this moment could last forever, that we could remain here, cocooned in moonlight.
But too soon my hand begins to quaver in Dash’s, and he breaks the silence as he always does, with a whispered plea to marry him. His lips in my hair, he breathes promises he knows he can’t keep. His hands tighten gently on mine, trying to still the trembling. “Viv, I don’t know that I can live without you.”
“I said no.” I always say no. We have this down to a ritual, he and I. Every night he asks me and every night I refuse.
My spine is steel-straight from all the nos that have accreted over the years. It was harder to say no to Dash when I was younger, before there was Lily, before my mother died. Sometimes I wonder if he would have been quite so honest with me about the family enchantment if he’d known the cost.
Marrying Dash means joining the family.
“I don’t understand why you won’t,” he says. He lies. No, that’s not the right word. Dash thinks he understands, but he can’t. “Think of what it would mean to Lily.”
“I have.” I disentangle my treacherous fingers from Dash’s. “It’s not enough. Or it’s too much. I won’t be subsumed. It’s Lily’s birthright—if she wants it—but I don’t.”
At least Dash never mistakes my reluctance to join his family for anything but what it is. He knows I love him, just as he knows that I will not change my mind on this. But it’s not in his nature to give up.
“Look,” Dash says, low and fervent, as he follows me into the corridor. “That’s why I wanted you to see Gray-Granna’s change. I wanted you to see how beautiful it could be. How comforting it is for Lily to know that her great-grandmother is still with her. How we can still bask in her presence.”
“I know that.” I feel a million years old.
“You didn’t see anything with Opa,” he says. “I wouldn’t blame you for not believing. It’s so different when they go fast.”
I take a deep breath and try to explain. “It’s not a matter of believing or not believing. It’s a matter of choice.”
Dash nods eagerly, thinking he’s snagged my attention. “You might be anything. You could be a warm blanket for Lily. A lamp for her to read by. You could be—“
“A decaying shell. Cold flesh and food for worms.”
“Dammit,” Dash snaps. “How is that going to help your daughter? How is that a comfort for me?”
“How is it not? It’s my abandoned body. Can’t I feed the worms if I want?”
“Don’t you think it’s selfish not to leave something that Lily can see, that she can tell her children about?”
“Don’t you think it’s a bit much to expect me to define my entire life by my motherhood and the expectation that my daughter will want me around forever? I’ll be just as useful as worm meat as I would be in the house.”
“What about a tree?” Dash pleads. “It’s not a far jump from worm food to a tree. The terminal folks plant them over graves. I’ve seen them do it. You could be shade in the summer, warmth in the winter.”
A tree is almost tempting, but I’ve thought this through. “You don’t know, do you, if they really choose what they turn into?”
That quiets him, as it always does. He doesn’t know. None of them do. Once the process has begun—fast or slow—none of the dying have ever spoken. Dash’s family doesn’t do last words.
I am not sure that I want this for Lily. I’m equally not sure that I can change that now. But the idea of her living her life on this estate, part of the family funeral cult, gives me the creeps. Every Karner comes here to die.
The house once charmed me, when Dash first brought me round to meet his parents. The oldest part of it dates back to the late 1700s, a stone root cellar laid in by Dash’s many-times great-grandfather. Every generation added on to it, Dash said, which accounted for its higgledy-piggledy lopsided character. Delightful, right? But I thought they’d built it, with wood and stone and labor under the sun.
I was wrong. The house grew…organically. The turret tower where Lily sleeps is furnished with a white canopy bed with pink curtains—a gift from her great-great Aunt Rosie, who died tragically at the age of three from scarlet fever. The library—Great-great-great Uncle Irving. The greenhouse—distant cousin, Ida, reportedly something of a botanist. The bed where we conceived Lily: Great-great-great-great-Aunt Minerva. Aunt Augustine’s dish set isn’t just an heirloom—it really is Aunt Augustine. Over half the house is dead relatives.
Lily inherits all of this.
Lily insists on accompanying me to the doctor. She guards me like a small brown bulldog with a suspicious stare. Only reluctantly can she be pried from my side, when the nurses call me back to take my blood pressure. Even then, she scorns the plastic Fisher-Price playset offered up by the receptionist. Instead she unfolds a medical pamphlet on urinary tract infections. “I’ll be good,” she promises before I’m led away.
My regular doctor is out of town. They shunt me off to the covering physician, a Dr. Blake. He is younger than me, and brimming over with enthusiasm. Keen, some might say. He tut-tuts over my charts. He asks me to hold out my arms and gives me objects to clench in my fist. He has me walk a length of hallway. He tests my reflexes, and then asks if I’m having any problems swallowing.
“Not yet,” I say. Not yet is the answer to nearly everything. Only my trembling hands and my mother’s early death give the game away.
Dr. Blake seems dissatisfied with my answers. He asks the same question several ways before finally giving me what he seems to think is a paternal and stern gaze. “Mrs. Karner—“
“Dawes,” I correct. “I’m not a Karner.”
“Kept your name, did you?” Dr. Blake says dubiously. I don’t bother to correct this misapprehension, although I consider waiting until old Dr. Waterhouse can return. Dr. Waterhouse knows not to ask about the state of Dash and me.
“Ms. Dawes, I need you to be honest with me. We don’t judge, you know. We’re just here to help. But it’s going to be hard for me to help you if you won’t be honest with me. We need your history unvarnished. You don’t need to edit for us.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” I say. I really don’t. Dr. Waterhouse has all my history. “My charts are right there, but I don’t think I’ve left anything out.”
Dr. Blake looks at me kindly. “You said you’d experienced no new symptoms of note, but you failed to mention the hallucinations.”
“The hallucinations?” I repeat, baffled. “What hallucinations?”
“I realize this must be very difficult for you. It’s hard to admit when—“
“What hallucinations are you talking about?”
He looks sheepish. “I overheard you talking with your daughter about her grandmother’s death. I know it must have been traumatic for you. I need to ask what medications you are on. We might need to adjust their dosages.”
Realization sinks in. He had overheard Lily and me talk about Gray-Granna turning into butterflies, and he had assumed that I couldn’t have seen that, I must’ve been hallucinating. Lily, of course, was only a child. Prone to flights of fancy, or maybe she’d been humoring me. That’s what he’d think.
“You seem to have misheard the context,” I explain stiffly. “I assure you I’m not hallucinating.”
A frown tugs at the corners of his mouth, but he pushes it back to cheerfully assure me that I may not think I’ve been hallucinating but…
“There are no buts. I’ve been perfectly lucid. You misunderstood.” I stand up to indicate that this visit is over.
His eyes narrow. He isn’t done examining me, although I’m done being examined. Dr. Waterhouse would know, I think resentfully. Dr. Waterhouse has been the family physician his whole life. He writes the death certificates for the family. He’s never once asked to see the bodies. He knows, I expect, what he’d find…or not find.
I push past Dr. Blake and collect Lily from the waiting room. She pockets a pamphlet on iron deficiency when she thinks I’m not looking.
Dash and I argue that evening. I tell him we need to tell Lily.
“Do you know what I found between One Fish Two Fish and Hop on Pop?” I ask him. “‘The Ten Warning Signs of Heart Disease Women Most Ignore.’ She knows something is wrong. Just not what.”
Dash runs his hands through his hair. “I don’t want to tell her anything until I know what I can tell her to expect. You’ve got to make a decision, Viv.”
I cross my arms over my chest. “I made a decision. You just refuse to accept it.”
“That was not a decision,” Dash says. “That was you blindly accepting tradition, embracing the status quo.”
“Whose status quo?” I ask. “Your family’s ways are…”
“They’re a gift,” Dash says.
“You think they’re better than what regular folks do.”
“Aren’t they?” By now, his hands have raked his hair up in tufts. “Nobody dies to be forgotten. Nobody gets pumped full of chemicals and dumped into a cement tomb in the ground. Nobody dies in hideous pain.”
“But they still die,” I point out. “I’m still going to die too. I’ll still be gone.”
Dash blinks hard against this statement. “Not if you become family.”
Here is the Gordian knot that rubs between us when we hold each other. I am not a Karner. I love Dash, he loves me, we have a daughter binding us together. We are family but not. I’m on the outside. By choice, I remind myself.
“I won’t.” Can’t. Shouldn’t. What are the words that will explain this to him? I have no idea.
He flinches. “Fine. I’ll let you explain it to Lily. It’s your choice after all.”
“Why do you always pretend like it’s Lily I’ll be hurting most? Why not just say that you want it for you, and acknowledge it’s for your own selfish reasons?”
Dash exhales long and slow before making a reply. “I thought I had. That wasn’t good enough. And Lily isn’t good enough either.” He turns on his heel and walks out of the room, leaving me to wonder why I’ve held my ground on this for so long.