The fortune-telling butterfly conservatory first opened in Beijing two years ago, in the refurbished Olympics velodrome, and when it became clear this wasn’t a stunt or a hoax, people waited in line for days to glimpse their destinies. A couple of months later the conservatory moved on to a stadium-sized complex erected in place of an abandoned Soviet-era village near Moscow, and people traveled from as far as Magadan to ask their questions. Cape Town, Oslo, Dubai, Adelaide followed. It’s the oldest human desire, to attempt some measure of control over the vagaries of fate. The butterflies arrived in their first North American location a month ago—a gleaming glass dome near Dead Horse Bay in south Brooklyn. The feverish buzz is that the butterflies haven’t been wrong once yet. Sitting up in bed at night, a pillow bunched behind her lower back, the laptop screen dimmed almost to black so as not to wake up Steven beside her, Hannah tracks the butterfly news stories, eyewitness reports, forums, with a hunger that won’t let her sleep. The steady hiss of their daughter’s ventilator from the next room fills the night.
* * *
When Hannah comes into the University of Pittsburgh Department of Biology office Monday morning, everyone is clustered around Beth’s desk with the kind of strained, zealot attention that can only mean one thing.
“I went!” Beth calls to her from the middle of the congregation.
There are five people in the office who have visited the butterflies already. Antoine—Dr. Siegal—was shown that he’ll meet his future spouse on a dog sledding trip, so he immediately booked a week-long excursion to the Yukon during winter break. They told the facilities services manager, Inna, that she’ll die at ninety-two, so she started smoking again after a decade on the wagon, sometimes sucking on two cigarettes at once. Arslan the grants administrator wouldn’t share what he asked or how the butterflies replied, but he was off for a week afterward and came back quiet, withdrawn, his gaze failing to find purchase on anything.
“I’m going to have three grandbabies!” Beth says. Her office is decorated with photos of her family clothespinned to a length of twine zigzagging across the wall, a progression of her only daughter featured in baby photos, graduation portraits, sun-lit vacation snaps, interspersed with evil eye charms and origami cranes dangling from strings.
“How did they show you?” asks Lee, the international student liaison, who went to the conservatory a week ago with her whole extended family as though it was Disneyland.
“Drew it—there I was, a toddler in my lap and two older children, a boy and a girl, sitting crosslegged beside me, looking up at me. I seem to be telling them a story.” Beth holds up her palms as though the image is still there, a fragile daguerreotype of her future progeny.
Stuffed into the top drawer of Hannah’s desk is a brochure from the conservatory that explains the process of lepidomancy. It’s wrinkled and delicate from repeat re-readings. You catch one butterfly—just one—and enclose it gently in cupped hands. It might be a massive tiger-striped Swallowtail, a tiny brush-footed Wood Satyr, or even a shimmering Blue Morpho, its colour so intense as to be nearly electric. Lepidopterists can’t seem to agree whether you choose the butterfly, or whether it chooses you. It’s impossible to tell what comes first, the intention to catch a particular specimen, or its appearance in your vicinity, its singular allure.
While the captive’s wings pulse against your skin like a frantic heartbeat, you ask one question—just one—into your hands. The butterflies don’t seem to care for questions about the future of humanity, the outcomes of wars, the meaning of life. They won’t reveal winning lottery numbers, name which horse to bet your retirement fund on, or proclaim the outcome of an election. You can’t ask questions about someone else, either—only the personal is under their purview. Will I find love? When will I die? What will be the happiest day of my life, or the saddest? Things like that. You count to seven and let the butterfly go. Its wing dust on your hands spells out the answer. Sometimes it’s a simple yes or no. Sometimes a number—34, 87, 1. Sometimes it’s a drawing, soft outlines forming a still-frame of your future. The science behind it is burgeoning and full of competing theories, still—electromagnetic impulses, interdimensionality of microscopic wing scales, blood acidity perceptible through the epidermis, the structural properties of time, a calculable frequency of the future finally revealed.
The butterflies will only answer you once in your life, so make the question count.
“How do you know they’re your grandchildren?” Hannah asks.
“Well, it’s obvious! Who else would they be. The boy, he even had Martha’s nose, in profile.”
Everyone choruses with, oh isn’t that sweet, and they’re all congratulating Beth as though she’s already a grandmother, as though the butterflies’ prediction folded time and reality like the pages of a picture book and her grandchildren’s existence is a present fact.
A quiet voice cuts across the chatter, “Maybe they’re predicting that your daughter and her husband die and you have to take care of their orphaned children.” It’s Evans, the guidance counselor, leaning against the doorway of his windowless office where students come to cry about their graduation prospects or, more often now, about their butterfly predictions. He never joins these post-butterfly office gab sessions. From the very nascence of the fortune-telling conservatory, he’s been staunchly against going himself. Never, he tells his coworkers when they ask him, when they try to trick him with hypothetical questions in the office kitchen, waiting for the Nespresso pod to brew—what if you received a terminal diagnosis, what if your wife went missing, what if you asked them a silly throwaway question—never, he says. Won’t tell them why, either, just changes the topic or walks away. Now, the aftermath of his words reverberates in the silence. Beth looks stunned, and everyone is shifting in place, discomfited.
“God, no need to get nasty,” says Lee, squeezing Beth’s shoulder, and Beth is looking at Evans like he’s the one who kills her daughter in this version of the future.
Evans turns to Hannah, one of the only people in the office who hasn’t gone to the butterflies. “Don’t you do it, too, Hannah. Let life happen. Trust me, there’s no getting ahead of the natural order. ” But all Hannah thinks is, what do you know of natural order. Natural order is the expectation that children outlive their parents. What do you know of my life, you sanctimonious prick.
She already knows the versions of the future that won’t come to be, the many things she and Steven don’t need to worry about. Won’t get to worry about. Things like Lily driving at night, falling in with the wrong crowd, moving to college two states away and only calling them on major holidays. They won’t get to worry about teenage tantrums, drug addiction, broken hearts. She’ll never know if her daughter prefers men or women, red wine or white, science or art. Lily does have preferences: butternut squash baby food over apple-pear, Hannah’s 80s exercise dance mix over Joe Dassin’s French crooning, bare feet over having to wear socks. She starts kicking her legs like a small, determined frog when she’s particularly happy, which is often. Lily will never tell her mother that she hates her. She will also never tell her that she loves her.
Out loud all Hannah says is, “Beth, you’ll be a terrific grandmother.” Then she walks into her office, and shuts the door on all of them.
* * *
The next day they have an unfruitful meeting with Dr. Angela Chan, a specialist in congenital disorders. She had come to Philadelphia from London just to see Lily, but in the end she tells them nothing they don’t already know. She barely looks at Hannah and Steven the whole appointment, as though their fears and hopes and questions are peripheral, and spends the entire hour unable to take her eyes off Lily, murmuring, “Miraculous, isn’t she, what a special little girl.”
Afterward, Steven and Hannah wheel Lily to Penn Park across the street from the Children’s Hospital, to feed the ducks that fly over from Schuylkill River. They’ve been here so often, that the ducks now recognize them from afar and are mobbing their feet before they’re even halfway down the paved pathway. Bedraggled pigeons and opportunistic sparrows shoulder into the mix, a feeding frenzy around the wheelchair wheels. It’s that brief golden swath of autumn, summer-warm, the leaves fluttering off the ginkgo trees in swarms.
“So, that’s that,” Steven says, his big hands tearing apart stale bread with excessive force, because they’re all out of congenital disorders specialists. Hannah brushes crumbs off his sweater, squeezes his arm, and crouches down beside Lily. “Hey, love,” she says, smoothing her curls, “You’re way too good at confounding the doctors.” Her daughter coos at the shamelessly blue sky.
Their Lily is almost ten years old, though slightly small for her age. But she will never have capacities beyond that of an infant.
By the twenty-ninth week of an otherwise unremarkable pregnancy, the doctors told them something was wrong, but they couldn’t confirm what, exactly. Steven is a nurse, and the way he leaned forward during the appointment to study grainy images and amniocentesis results, his spine ramrod straight, Hannah knew with eviscerating clarity that it wasn’t an easily corrected sort of wrong, like an extra toe or mild scoliosis. Lily slid out into the world too soon, beautiful but otherworldly—an expanse of forehead, wide-set eyes, fused bones, spasming underdeveloped lungs. Her first sound wasn’t a cry but a ragged mewl, and even in post-birth delirium Hannah heard the wetness in that breath, the struggling sputter of those too-tiny lungs. Initially, the doctors gave Lily a few days, at most. Hannah and Steven held her all night, took photos, said their goodbyes. But their daughter surprised everyone by rallying in the NICU and the expectancy was tentatively upped to weeks. Their family life became suspended animation, most of Hannah’s and Steven’s waking hours spent either waiting on the curb outside the hospital for visiting hours to begin, or else sitting on a small stool beside Lily’s incubator. Under the clear plastic dome their daughter looked ridiculously small. Her survival seemed impossible in the present, so Hannah would pretend that Lily was being maintained in homeostasis until she could be brought fully into her own being by the advanced medicine of the future. An updated cocoon, a chance at extended gestation, a chrysalis. Hannah would sit with her knees under her chin, willing Lily to grow in the sterile air beneath the plastic dome, to sort out the errors in her chromosome. All Hannah wanted was for those small lungs to keep pushing against Lily’s ribs for one more day, one more week, one more month at least.
One evening, Steven brought a brown cardboard tube to the hospital. He handed it to Hannah wordlessly. She popped the plastic end of it, and drew out a roll of thick navy paper. It wouldn’t unroll properly until she grasped one end, and Steven the other, and pulled in opposite direction, uncurling the stiff sheet. Inside a circular margin were stars, constellations, dozens of them, like tiny pinholes in the paper.
“This is exactly how the sky was when Lily was born,” Steven said, “A company on the internet makes them.”
Hannah had seen those ads. Commemorate the moment your life changed forever! How strange, she thought, that these tiny arrangements on the page should represent Lily. Somewhere in this pinprick pattern is the answer to her daughter, the reason why she is how she is, the foretelling of her fate. Or else these are just blue giants and red dwarfs, stars long long dead, drawn as a cluster of white pixels bought online, foretelling nothing. How strange.
The hospital finally discharged Lily when she was eight months old, so Steven quit his job to nurse her at home. Hannah reluctantly went back to work at the university, with its generous health insurance. An endless procession of specialists read Lily’s blood under the microscope like tea leaves, divined her brain scans, predicted her future with decreasing accuracy. Hannah and Steven were told to enjoy their time with their daughter, she would be gone before she turned two. Then, five. Now, countless surgeries and specialist appointments later, the prognosis is uncharted; their daughter, without realizing it, has outlived all knowledge of her condition. Her extra chromosomes are immortalized in four case studies, the exact curvature of her DNA marking her a singularity in human history. We don’t know how long, the doctors say now. No one knows. The six other children Dr. Chan had encountered with Sokalski-Duggart Syndrome all died well before turning one.
Hannah shoos a sparrow off the wheelchair armrest. “If medicine can’t give us any more answers, maybe we get them elsewhere,” she suggests. She’s never spoken the possibility of the butterflies out loud before, because she knows her husband well.
Steven rips off a chunk of the bread to throw to the smallest, most hesitant duck at the periphery of the bird congregation, a speckled hen with a thin long neck who is pacing hopefully back and forth on the grass but doesn’t dare venture closer. He lobs the piece far enough that she has time to snatch it before any of the others intercede. He’s always helped the downtrodden almost to the point of compulsion. A good quality in a nurse. Around the time Hannah and Steven first started living together, he once came home in February without his parka. He’d draped it over a homeless woman who was sleeping on the bench in front of the public library.
He doesn’t answer, now distracted by adjusting Lily’s tracheostomy tube holder, crouching down to fiddle with the terrycloth band. He’s using a new brand, ever since Lily started developing a rash around her neck from the old one.
Hannah tries again, and can hear how high her voice is, pitched with hope. “You know, those butterflies? They’re telling people all kinds of things about their future. And Brooklyn in just a couple hours’ drive.” The river is sequined, liquid gold, and there’s a soft breeze coming from the water, carrying the steady squeak of the swings and playful shrieks from the playground by the water’s edge.
Steven finally speaks without looking up, his fingers still working the holder around Lily’s neck. In the pilled brown sweater, with his thick wiry beard and capable hands, he looks so steady, reliable, a raft of human competence. “Hannah, come on, medicine will catch up. We just have to keep doing the best we can do by her, and it’ll catch up. Those butterflies are just superstition.”
Her husband sustains himself with hope for the best, while Hannah arms herself against the future by preparing for the worst. She wants to be a step ahead of Lily’s body for once, to learn the entire sequence of steps in this slow dance with death. Watching Steven gently wipe drool off Lily’s chin with his thumb, tuck her gray wool blanket deeper into the wheelchair, tighten the buckle of the strap holding her in, wrings something fragile inside Hannah’s chest.
“Isn’t science just a sort of dogmatic superstition anyway? Linking cause and effect, often in error. The butterflies aren’t any worse. In fact, they might be better.”
Steven is looking down at Lily, at her upturned eyes bluer than the distant sky. “How could you stand knowing the worst?”
In researching the butterfly conservatories, Hannah has come across other ways humans have attempted to one-up fate. In Ancient Rome, augurs interpreted omens from the observed movements of birds, so perhaps she could divine Lily’s future from the ducks squabbling over bread underfoot, or from the cleaved formation of geese flying toward them now over the curving river. Maybe she can attempt alectryomancy, destiny gleaned from the patterns of a rooster pecking grain, presuming the Fates allow the substitute of drab city pigeons for a white cockerel, and of day-old baguette for millet and barley. Or, in ultimate desperation, there’s also extispicy, sifting through the entrails of sacrificed animals to foresee Lily’s fate. She could snatch the sparrow that’s again parading on the wheelchair armrest, tear open its chest cavity, spread the splayed lobes of its lungs out on her palm, and let their porous tissue show her what will become of their daughter.
Hannah crouches down on the other side of the wheelchair, across from Steven, and she’s whispering, like he’s an animal she’s trying not to spook, or else like it’s a secret she doesn’t want their daughter overhearing. “If we knew her future, we wouldn’t have to take her to endless appointments anymore, just the really necessary ones. We’d finally get ahead of this, for once, enjoy the time we have left with her without always being afraid.”
“Stop,” Steven interrupts, his voice sharp, too loud. Some of the ducks flap away in alarm. Hannah and her husband sit on either side of their daughter, staring at each other, an impasse. The birds are shuffling around them, and Lily is fussing in her wheelchair, making small soft sounds. She is kicking her legs against her blanket as the ginko leaves swirl overhead and land on her, bright yellow patches against the gray.
* * *
Two days later, Hannah exits the subway on her way home to find that Dr. Chan left her a voicemail. She enters her mailbox passcode and blocks the traffic noises with her other hand against her ear, straining to hear the quiet voice on the recording. I would like to ask you both something, Dr. Chan murmurs, please forgive me, this is so difficult to say—would you be willing to sign over Lily’s body, when she passes, whenever she passes, to our research institute in London? An unprecedented opportunity for the advancement of medical knowledge, she says, and Hannah can hear her trying to mask scientific salivation with appropriate tonal solemnity. A chance to deeply study a rare chromosomal disorder in its advanced form. It could help so many others, she says. Your daughter would save lives.
Hannah erases the message.
When she arrives home, Steven is on the back deck with Lily, grilling eggplant burgers and telling her a highly embellished story of his nursing school glory days. Lily’s wheelchair is parked in the shade by the screen door, and she’s blowing spit bubbles and kicking her legs so hard that the wheelchair is rocking slightly. Hannah leans over her daughter, into the roaming gaze that’s always up in the treetops, unbound by gravity. “My happy baby, how was your day?”
Steven passes her a beer. “Anything exciting happen today in the grand edifice of learning?” he asks.
Hannah considers telling him about Dr. Chan’s call, but she doesn’t want to ruin this moment, to yank them out of this warm, uncomplicated happiness just yet.
“Nothing as exciting as the story of your first practicum, that’s a wild one.” She pulls up a deck chair beside Lily and while Steve talks to them through the sweet barbecue smoke, she massages her daughter’s small wriggling feet.
They named Lily after Hannah’s mother, Lillian, who missed meeting her granddaughter by a decade. Lily’s eyes are the same bottomless shade of blue as hers. Lillian had an aneurism on vacation in Antigua when Hannah was twenty-two, quietly died in a plastic lounger under a palm sunshade, a mojito twisted into the sand within arm’s reach, her toes painted fuchsia, a pedicure colour she reserved for tropical holidays. Gone, just like that, a book splayed open across her black tankini top. When, years later, Hannah stood in the bathroom holding that wet pink plus sign, she felt the strongest urge, the need, to call her mother, despite her being so long gone. Her mother had three miscarriages before she finally had Hannah. She prayed, a lot, to any and all gods indiscriminately, to every semblance of a deity in the hopes that one would intervene. She even went to a palm-reader who’d set up a plastic table in a strip mall, but all the woman did was ask leading questions about relationship trouble and shake her head ruefully at the length of Lillian’s sun line. When Lillian suspected she was pregnant with Hannah, she waited a long time before she finally went to a doctor, afraid that if she actually acknowledged this one, she, too, would quietly slip away. The doctor tied off her arm with a rubber band and drew blood from the thin vein pulsing against the delicate skin of her inner elbow. Hannah imagines a laboratory, trays of vials like bloody glass chimes. A wall lined with cages, full of small rustling things, bright black eyes, velvet ears, a murmuring chorus of tiny heartbeats. That vial of her mother’s blood was drawn into a syringe, its tip gleaming under fluorescent lights, and injected into a live rabbit. Hannah imagines the rabbit was white, small but strong, her sinewy back legs kicking the air as a rubber-gloved hand held her down against the cold metal table. The rabbit would’ve lived a few more days, Lillian’s blood clouding her veins, siphoning through her small twitching heart. Then she was killed, dissected, her bright delicate innards exposed. Her ovaries measured. The blood, full of the chemical promise of new life, would’ve made the rabbit’s ovaries swell, their enlargement signifying Lillian’s pregnancy. That’s how they did it back then, she explained to Hannah. The rabbit, an offering on the table; its ovaries, signifiers. A rabbit sacrificed for each new life.
Hannah tried church after Lily was born, but all it did was remind her of her mother, the cloying incense smell, the deep furrow between Lillian’s eyebrows that looked like a fissure as she closed her eyes to say grace. So, Hannah accepted their reliance on science and its educated predictions as par for the course, no other recourse. But now that the butterflies are here, she finds she has no more patience for the anesthetizing acceptance of blind belief, the apologetic insufficiency of science. She wants certainty, and she hopes the butterflies can give her that.
Her newfound inability to withstand suspense seeps into the most mundane things. She finds herself unable to sit through a film without watching the final scene in advance, and starts reading books backwards, chapter by chapter, from the consequences to the precipitating events. When she calls her salon for a haircut appointment and they give her a date a whole week away, Hannah surprises herself by bursting into tears until they promise to fit her in the following evening. She brings up the butterfly conservatory with Steven, again and again, first hesitant and then growing progressively more insistent, unrelenting in her arguments.
Steve argues back, “Every parent is afraid of their child dying, every parent has to live with that fear,” but to that Hannah says, not like us, not like we do.
They talk circuitously, then directly, and finally, the day Hannah hears the butterflies are moving on to Rio in two weeks, finds out that there’s an expiration date on her ability to access Lily’s future, they have the big one. The final conflagration, the fight that had been building up for weeks. They’re in the kitchen, cleaning up after dinner, and as Steven is loading plates into the dishwasher he’s telling Hannah about the latest research he’d read in Lancet that morning about a disorder chromosomally similar to Lily’s, about the long-term subject study out of Houston, the benefits of hyperbaric therapy, about the variance in prognosis across genders.
“I hate that word, prognosis,” Hannah snaps, “Just say it, death. We wouldn’t have to prognosticate if you’d just let us go find out the answer.”
Steve slams the dishwasher closed, and they’re off.
They say things like, You resent me because she needs me more, because this doesn’t fit your idea of being a mother. You resent her for that, too. They say things like, You think it’s selfless, you staying home with Lily, but you’re the most selfish one of all. You love being needed. You love being the martyr, the hero, the nurse. They say things like, You just want the relief of knowing when you’ll be free of her.
The air in the kitchen is gone, and they’re staring wild-eyed at each other. We can’t possibly believe these terrible things we’re saying, Hannah thinks. These are mortal wounds.
She says, “I’m sorry” just as Steven says, “We can’t do this,” and at first Hannah takes it that he means this fighting, these horrid words, and she’s about to agree, but instead of reconciliation it’s resignation in his voice. He’s looking at Hannah like he doesn’t recognize her. Like he and Lily don’t need her anymore.
* * *
That night, as Hannah is sleeping in her room on an old Thermarest to be away from Steven, Lily has one of her episodes. Except this one is bad, worse than any Hannah remembers. She and Steven sit in the wailing ambulance on either side of their daughter as she is turning gray, struggling to breathe. The terrible rattle of each inhale, like a clogged sink struggling to suck in water, twists everything inside Hannah. Once Lily is wheeled away from them into urgent care, Hannah sits hunched in a chair in front of the nursing bay, as Steven paces the sterile hallway. Hannah makes bargains with any deity that would listen—God? Gods? Stars?—If Lily survives this, I will forget about the butterflies, I promise. If Lily survives this, I will just let life happen, I swear. This feels like punishment for her impatience, for daring to challenge the accepted trajectory of life, though even as she thinks this she feels ridiculous and prehistoric, a cavewoman howling in fear at the sky. A nurse they know well brings them paper cups of coffee, but can’t bring herself to give them any reassurance.
At one point, two hours into the agonizing wait, Steven disappears. Hannah waits for him to come back, then goes searching for him, walking the hallways, peering into shadowed, beeping rooms. She finally finds him in the north stairwell and at first she thinks he’s crying, but he’s just sitting on the steps with his head in his hands, staring at the whitewashed cement between his feet. It occurs to Hannah that she never told him about Dr. Chan’s call, her request for Lily’s body.
At five in the morning, when the attending doctor finally comes out to reassure them that Lily has been stabilized, there’s the sort of haggard relief on his face that suggests how dire the struggle really had been. They go in to see their daughter in the ICU, where she’s suspended in sleep among a webbing of wires, tubing, the reassuring murmurations of life-sustaining machinery. Her chest is rising and falling, and Hannah can almost see Lily’s lungs, their delicate nodes, the flutter of them, the struggle. A small night moth, beating itself ragged against the light.
Steven looks up at Hannah across her bed, and she recognizes that look, the gaunt need in his face. “We’ll go when she’s well enough,” Steven says quietly now, and Hannah knows where he means.
* * *
A week later, Hannah dresses their daughter in her favorite red fleece. Lily makes little popping bubble noises with her mouth the whole drive up. At the first blue signpost for the conservatory, Steven reaches over the gearshift and squeezes Hannah’s hand so hard her knuckles crunch.
They park, unload Lily, smooth her short curls. She squints into the sun, lips puckering like she’s trying to kiss the light. The glass dome in the distance gleams. Bright butterfly-shaped helium balloons are tethered outside the gift shop, tugging at their own cords in the breeze like live things trying to escape. A stand under a striped awning is doing brisk business selling salted pretzels, the golden curve of dough reminiscent of wings. As they queue in the cavernous foyer, Hannah notices a trio of teenage girls clustered in an alcove by the water fountain. One of the girls opens her palms like a book, whispering, “Look, you can still see it,” and the other two gasp softly and bend over her hands, their long hair sweeping down in curtains. They’re so ripe with life, so vibrant, children on the verge of becoming women, that Hannah can’t help staring. Under the selective sconce lighting of the entrance hall they look like a triptych of saints. She glances down at Lily, but her eyes are closed, right foot twitching in sleep. Her chest rises and falls at a reassuring pace.
They pay admission for two adults—kids twelve and under free—and push Lily along tramped-dirt pathways, weaving between the other families, the couples strolling hand-in-hand and smiling nervously, the singletons with heads tilted back, staring at the bulging glass dome above. The air is heavy with jungle fragrance and agitation. Here and there by the passion flowers, people crouch whispering into their cupped hands. Massive frilled ferns tremble overhead. And everywhere is that prismatic breath of colour. There are thousands of butterflies, wings swirling in the artificial jungle like confetti—they cluster on orange slices arranged in feeder plates, land on rose-print sweaters, tangle in hair blown up by humidity. Their wings churn up eddies of air.
Hannah and Steven push Lily through a wisteria-garlanded archway, over a footbridge stitching two banks of a shallow, burbling stream, past an educational display explaining the benefit of wing scales for thermo-regulation and improving flight characteristics, their hypersensitivity to the trajectories of time. The PA system is piping in a soothing piano sonata. From somewhere on her right, Hannah hears quiet crying in the rhododendrons. In the distance, a disbelieving “No!” A pair of old men shuffle past them, holding hands, one somber and the other beaming. Two words are spinning in Hannah’s head in time to the squeak of the wheelchair wheels.
There are other questions threaded through this simple one, of course. But really, it all comes down to those two words. How long, how long, how long.
The sunlight cuts through the canopy in thick columns, whirlwinds of butterflies swirling in each beam. They stop, kneel by Lily, open her palms. Her fingers curl around Hannah’s.
“Here, munchkin,” says Steven, smoothing her palm, “Here,” trying to waft a bright yellow specimen toward her, but Lily doesn’t want to hold the butterflies. When they try to close her hands around a Monarch fanning its wings on the wheelchair armrest, she starts fussing, arching in her chair, banging her feet against the metal and moaning in that guttural, hurt animal way that makes people around them stare while trying to make it look like they’re not. For a moment Hannah wonders if Lily understands what they’re about to do, if she’s protesting her lifespan being announced with certainty. If she’s not done defying expectations.
“Okay, okay,” they say finally, “okay.” There’s nothing to do but continue pushing Lily down the pathways. The tramped earth is mottled with smears of crystalline white like sunspots underfoot. Hannah crouches and drags her fingers through the hundreds of transparent wings embedded in the soil, and understands. The butterflies die once you ask your question. The oil on human hands strips their wings of those all-essential microscopic scales, exposes the delicate membranes webbed with veins. Many people have been here. Thousands of people. Someone’s job is to sweep up the spent butterflies at the end of the day, pluck them from the bushes, from beneath the ferns, fill a small rattling cart with dead wings. Each one weighing nothing, as though it emptied itself of matter answering those questions, delivering the future.
They finally stop at a bench in dappled shade, away from the crowds. Orchid vines droop in slack loops overhead, and it is cool here and quiet.
“I think we should go home. This was a terrible idea,” Hannah says, feeling guilty for so many things all at once.
But Steven breathes in sharply beside her, whispers, “Look, Hannah, look,” and there is a tiny green-winged butterfly on Lily’s right palm. It doesn’t seem to be moving, and Lily doesn’t seem to be moving, and they all sit there like a painting until Steven reaches out, and slowly closes Lily’s other cupped palm over the wings.
Hannah and Steven open their mouths at the same time, then close them, look at each other, look at Lily. They can do a lot of things for their daughter, but they can’t ask the question for her. They can’t make her lips shape sounds into that short, aching sentence. So they sit in silence holding Lily’s hands. Counting to seven. Because what else is there to do? Hannah looks at her husband over their clasped hands, at the lines across his forehead that are the tree rings of Lily’s life, and wonders what will become of the two them if—when—Lily dies. Would the missing shape of their daughter put an insurmountable distance between them, until they drift apart in their grief? Or would they learn to survive together and build a life around Lily’s absence? Is this going to be her question? Is she going to ask the butterflies anything? Or is she content to find out together, to just let life happen as it may?
When they open Lily’s hands, the butterfly flits its now-clear wings once, twice, and drifts onto the soft black earth, spent, dying. Hannah and Steven lean over Lily’s small damp palms, creaseless and lovely.
Hannah doesn’t know what she’s hoping for. Though, no, that’s a lie. She’s hoping for communication, a message sent from planet Lily, from her daughter trapped by her uncooperative body. An acknowledgement. Words, like a secret missive, in wing pollen on her palms.
Drawn on Lily’s skin in pale dust is the image of the butterfly. Green, splayed-winged, perfect. More butterflies descend from the canopies, float down to land on Lily’s red fleece sweater, the curving black-tipped apexes on each forewing revealing mirror images of velvet spots like rorschach. There are so many of them, and Lily is laughing, gurgling at the feeling of butterfly feet over her cheeks. She is covered in butterflies, resplendent in them, like they’re her own multitude of wings and she’s about to take flight.
Hannah reaches out, and a Swallowtail lands on her palm.
Maria Lioutaia was born in Moscow, grew up in Toronto, and is now based in New York, where she’s completing her MFA in Creative Writing at NYU. She was the recipient of a Tin House scholarship and a finalist for The Iowa Review short story award. Her fiction has appeared in Cosmonauts Avenue and is forthcoming in Conjunctions.