In 1989, the March issue of the Weekly Reader was themed: Save the Monarch Butterfly. When my first-grade teacher passed out the leaflets, my fingers creased the thin paper. I hadn’t meant to. It was the March after the December when my mom disappeared, and I was swallowing up emptiness like water.
At first my dad told us she’d gone on vacation; then she was sick. Aunt Julia didn’t have time to lie to us. She told me on the back porch three weeks later, the way she’d tell me in two years that the Tooth Fairy was my dad and to cut him a break. “Carol just up and left,” she said, stubbing her Marlboro into a heavy glass ashtray. It was on the edge of the steps, and half full of rainwater. The ashes swirled the water black. “If she comes back, she comes back. She’s gone.”
And you can’t fix it hovered unspoken.
Even when you’re six you know the truth of it, that you drove her to it with sticky fingers that always trailed dirt on the clean green refrigerator, with two little sisters you couldn’t keep out trouble, with everything you are and were.
And here was a promise: I could save something.
Our class planted five milkweed plants in the bright sun behind the cafeteria. Like any mother. Mrs. Ruby buried them herself, wearing green garden gloves stained with old dirt. She warned us not to touch them.
“The milkweed sap is poisonous,” she told us. “It’ll make your skin itch. And you can’t disturb the butterflies, or they won’t hatch.”
I waited seven days to steal one. If you don’t touch the leaves, you can pull off a chrysalis as easy as a twig breaks.
I put it in my pocket. I never thought about giving it to my mom, the way I had with the butter-yellow flowers that littered our front yard, the occasional smooth rock.
When my dad did the laundry three days later, he put my jeans through the washer and dryer and folded them, cold and wrinkled, and put them on my bed. When I stuck my hand in my pocket for lunch money that my dad forgot to put on the counter, my fingers found something hard and brittle, like a cough drop. It was stuck tight to the pocket lining. I had to work all through lunch to pull it free.
I stood at the back of the line after, and darted to the milkweed plants. I pulled the chrysalis out of my pocket, sure it had to go back. I didn’t know that some things couldn’t be fixed.
The chrysalis wasn’t green anymore, but brown like old blood. My hand opened. The sidewalk splintered it. A body grown thin peeked out, and the maybe-beginning iridescence of a wing. Something wet oozed from the broken shell and caught the sun like a mirror.
It was so bright I had to close my eyes.
Pamela Manasco is an English instructor at Alabama A&M University. Her nonfiction has been published by McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and The Toast; poems have appeared in Descant, Strange Horizons, and others. She lives with her family in Madison, Alabama. This is her first fiction publication.