The Butterfly Wish
She slipped her shades onto the top of her head as the dark clouds overtook the sun. Angel opened the car door and slid from the front seat. The monument, erected years after the massacre, commanded her view. Her grandfather, a member of the Cherokee Nation, had shared with her its story, but she needed to see it for herself. The tip of the monument directed her eyes to the impending storm.
The wind whipped at her raven hair, tossing it about. It whistled through the dewberry thorns covering the fence that surrounded the area. Angel peered into the woods beyond the border and caught sight of a fawn as it scurried away through the underbrush.
She observed a naked oak tree that loomed in the corner of the plot, unashamed before the other trees dressed and gathered at the edge. Its many arms and hands reached out, gnarled and twisted with age. The tree refused to lie down for rest. The marker designating this plot as sacred ground bowed at the base of the tree. The slab of marble was splattered with the red clay common to East Texas, cast there by the previous day´s downpour. Angel stepped closer, kneeling to read the inscription. Eighteen had disappeared that day. Only ten bodies were recovered. A cold shiver carried through Angel’s core.
Angel left the marker and moved toward the monument, crushing the dry foliage with her well-worn cowboy boots. The base, still solid after all these years, proclaimed the names of those it memorialized. She ran her fingers across the etchings carved into the stone and traced the date—October 5, 1838.
To her left, lined together for eternity, were the ten graves. They were marked only by the plain red stones placed there after the massacre. Just a few of the victims´ ancestors—their graves farther to the right—had joined them at this site. Each had headstones that properly announced their departure. One read, "Twin girls, laid to rest in 1880."
She knelt in front of a mound of rock that covered one of the slain and ran her hands across the stones. Her Wrangler jeans drew from the ground the lingering moisture from the previous day´s rain and left her knees crimson soiled. The wind kicked up a cloud of dust, assaulting her with the smell of dirt and musk. She closed her eyes and allowed a tear to escape. As she wiped it away, the dirt on her hand merged with the tear painting her cheek with what resembled war stripes.
Angel fixed her gaze once again on the monument. Overhead, the clouds fought against one another until they gave in and formed a dark blanket across the sky. She cried out, "Please forgive my people." Lightning struck in the distance, shaking the ground beneath her. The sky loosed the rain, washing the stones to reveal their red surface. In answer to her plea, the monument stood firm, and the naked oak tree remained silent.
"But Granddaddy, this baby had no part in what happened over one hundred and seventy years ago. John and I want to get married. We understand the past, but it has nothing to do with us today," Angel argued. She clasped her hands together over her slightly bulging mid-section.
The decaying boards underneath his rocker cried out with each movement. His gnarled hands gripped the arms of the rocker, commanding it through his touch. The rocking stopped, and the boards hushed their creaks. A breeze wafted the scent of honeysuckle while it lifted his graying hair from his stooped shoulders. His dark eyes, set deep underneath his wiry brows, were trained in the distance. Angel lowered her head, resting her eyes on her stomach. This baby could be a bridge to forgiveness.
"I know I’ve disappointed you, Granddaddy, but we love each other." In all of her eighteen years, Angel had never felt so removed from her grandfather as she did then. He had remained stoically silent since she revealed she was pregnant. The fact that she was unwed was less disconcerting to him than the revelation of who the child´s father was.
Granddaddy began to speak. "Healing takes place inside the heart, not inside the womb. Your child will enter this world and will be swaddled with enmity. The malevolence toward our people has been infused in the blood, passed down for generations. Your child´s father carries that blood."
The screen door squeaked. Angel´s mother backed through it carrying a tray with glasses of fresh-squeezed lemonade. She handed one to Granddaddy, pleading, "Drink this, Papa. I don´t want you to get dehydrated." Granddaddy took the glass with his weathered hands. They were scarred from countless years of toiling in the fields, raising crops that had provided for his family. At nearly a century old, they lifted the glass to his lips.
Angel waited until he sipped the cool liquid. His frown relaxed so Angel spoke again. "Granddaddy, I went to the monument. What happened to John´s ancestors was horrible. I know his mother shouldn’t still blame you." Angel paused, allowing the words to linger in the air, hoisted by the intense southern humidity. "But, my blood flows through the veins of this child as well."
Granddaddy drained his glass and remained silent. Angel cast her mother a glance, pleading for intercession. Her mother sighed. "Papa, they are young. Their love is pure. This child is innocent." Heat gathered near the ceiling of the weathered porch, blanketing the occupants. Angel´s stomach rebelled, tossing about her lunch from earlier that day. She shoved down the swelling wave of nausea.
Granddaddy firmly planted his empty glass on the table beside his rocking chair. "I cannot bless this union." Angel stiffened with the finality of Granddaddy´s statement. Inside, she felt the first fluttering of her baby.
From the kitchen, the sound of breaking glass crashed upon Angel´s ears. She tensed but remained seated on the couch in John´s living room, waiting for his return. The yellowing wallpaper, once proudly offering its vibrant bouquets of roses, now hung limp in wilted strips. The small clapboard house, just outside of Jacksonville, rested on a barren plot mocked by its thriving neighbors.
"I told you that girl was trouble," said John´s mother. She made no attempt to keep her voice from reaching Angel’s ears.
"Now just calm down, Lou Ann," John´s father begged. "What´s done is done, and there ain´t nothing you can do about it now."
"The hell you say. I ain´t gonna be the grandmother of some baby whose family killed my blood kin." The sound of another crash emphasized her point. Angel flinched. Instinctively, she shielded her stomach with her arms. She rocked back and forth on the couch, already comforting the child she carried. A tear fell from her cheek and disappeared into a pine knot in the hardwood floor.
John´s voice, taut with frustration, carried from the kitchen. "It´s 2011, Mother. Get over it."
Angel braced herself for the response to John´s bravado. Normally compliant and appeasing, she knew John summoned every ounce of his will to stand up to his mother and to stand for their baby. "Just get over it, you say? You´ve been to the monument, John. You know what them people did to my family...your family. When you started dating that girl, you knew her blood line. I told you I couldn´t take no part in this relationship."
Angel stood and moved to the window. She pulled back the curtains that dressed the panes. A cloud of dust rose from the delicate lace, frayed at the edges and pierced with holes by the sun. John spoke with resolve. "It doesn´t matter whether you’re okay with this relationship or not. Angel is going to be my wife, and you’re going to have a grandchild. If you want to deny that fact, then that´s up to you."
Angel scanned the patchy land that stretched in front of the home. Just a few miles down the road stood the stone obelisk she had visited a few months earlier. John´s family members were the only massacre descendants who remained in the area.
"I want that girl out of my house." Lou Ann´s bitterness rivaled that of the land surrounding the home. Angel dropped the fabric, dimming the rays of sunshine that pressed against the window.
John stomped from the kitchen. Angel turned at the sound of his steel-toed boots thudding across the floor. Tears rimmed his soft blue eyes. His oil-rig coveralls hung loosely on his shoulders, which were slumped with defeat.
He took her in his arms. His calloused hand moved to her stomach. As if on cue from its father´s touch, the baby leapt. John clasped Angel tighter and whispered, "We´ll get through this."
Angel´s mother removed the wrapping from the Cherokee wedding vase she had shared with her husband nearly fifty years ago. Rose ran her hands along the two spouts that led to the well of the vessel. "This vase was to be broken after our vows to seal the union. The shattered pieces were to be returned to Mother Earth and recreated into new life. I thought it a silly tradition, and wanted to save this vase for your wedding day."
Angel sensed sadness in her mother´s voice. The corners of her mouth, down-turned since the death of Angel´s father earlier that year, quivered. "Perhaps that´s why I was made to wait so long before conceiving you." Her contemplation hung in the air without expectation of an answer. "This vessel will hold the ah-me-ge-i, nourishment of life. You and John will take turns sipping, first from the east to west, then north to south, blessing the four corners of the earth."
Angel absorbed the information, happy that she and John had agreed to incorporate the traditions of the Cherokee into their simple wedding. Rose continued explaining the ceremonial procedure and Angel caught a gleam of the light that once shone brightly in her mother´s eyes. She recognized the look as the one her mother shared with Angel´s father.
As if reliving her own ceremony, Rose recited the significance of drinking from the vase. "Your bodies will be melded into one. Your songs blended in blessedness, and the two of you will walk as one spirit." Rose extended the vase. "I ask that you break this vase during the ceremony in honor of the new life Mother Earth has already created."
"Thank you, Mother." Angel´s eyes filled with tears. She took the vase and pressed the vessel close to her chest. "I just wish Granddaddy was as understanding as you. He refuses to come to the wedding."
"He worries for you, Angel. Bitterness about the massacre has been handed down for years in the family you are marrying into. He fears this child will be born with a thorn already in its side." Angel considered her mother´s words. In the six months of her pregnancy, her love for the baby had grown each day. The past history of the two families seemed irrelevant in light of the promise she carried. Angel stared at the wedding vase and envisioned the shattered pieces returned to Mother Earth to create new life. She refused to believe this child was anything less than a blessing.
"Granddaddy´s wrong. The only thorn this baby will feel is the thorn of bitterness from both sides." Angel flinched as the baby somersaulted.
The courtyard of the small church where John had grown up was canvassed in a wash of green, painted by the trees and shrubs that defined the area. White daisy bouquets, gathered in vases atop white-washed plant stands, lined the bridal path. Bluebonnets danced along the courtyard border, reflecting the open sky.
Angel and John faced each other, their fingers locked together. Her mother recited the Cherokee wedding prayer. When the reading was completed, Angel and John spoke the last line together. The same line Angel’s mother and father spoke at their wedding, and her grandfather before them. "We pray for harmony and true happiness as we forever grow young together."
Ruby-throated hummingbirds witnessed the ceremony while they sipped nectar from the feeders scattered throughout the garden. The arched trellis draped with ivy hugged Angel and John. Led by the pastor, they repeated their traditional vows.
John squeezed Angel´s hands, running his thumb softly across her skin. The warmth that emanated in her soul was attributable to the love she felt for John rather than the sun that bore down on their afternoon ceremony. She would soon be the wife of the man she had loved from childhood.
She looked into his eyes recalling the first time she had become lost in his gaze. She had been eight. Recess was coming to a close when she fell from the playground swing. Her knee, exposed by the shorts she wore to school that day, scraped the ground. A trickle of blood oozed from the wound. She had panicked at the sight of her injury. Before she could cry out, a little boy had appeared next to her. He had knelt beside her, carefully wiping the blood and dirt from her knee. "My Mama puts that bubbly stuff on my scrapes," he´d said. Then he had smiled at her while he helped her to her feet.
From that day on, John had become her playmate. In junior high, when she struggled with math, John had become her study partner in after school tutoring. In high school, John had escorted her when she was voted onto the homecoming court. Their relationship had never been defined by labels. It just was. Each attractive and smart, they were the object of desire among many of their classmates. Yet, no one ever voiced their affection because if two were ever destined by fate, it was she and John.
Most classmates accepted their relationship in spite of the fact that each held a surname linked to the monument just outside of their town. Only a few, reared by parents who bathed them in bigotry since birth, voiced their disapproval. Angel had no concern about the thoughts of their classmates. However, her wedding day, shiny with its promise, was tarnished with Lou Ann´s unwillingness to forgive. Granddaddy equally held onto his belief that this child would suffer for the actions of ancient ancestors. Their differences cast a shadow on this union.
Angel recalled her chemistry class from high school. Just like the patina that stains the surface of a precious metal, their tarnish only sealed and protected the underlying layers of Angel´s love for John and their baby.
The pastor waited for John to repeat the words "I do." Angel also waited. She held her breath until he finally spoke. "I do...with all my heart and soul." Angel exhaled.
Angel took her turn at stating her vows. When her "I do" sealed their promise of commitment, the pastor announced that John could kiss his bride. He lifted the simple veil that covered her face and looked into her eyes with the same tenderness she remembered from that first day on the playground.
As John leaned toward Angel, a Mourning Cloak butterfly lighted on their clasped hands. Angel watched its wings flutter. From childhood, she had been taught that the ka-ma-ma carried wishes to the Great Spirit. The Mourning Cloak stilled its gold-tipped wings long enough for her to catch the dots of bright blue scattered across its burgundy base. She closed her eyes and made her wish. John´s lips pressed against hers, sealing their union.
The butterfly lifted its wings and took to the sky.
October 5, 2011
“John!” Angel shook her husband as he snored next to her in bed. "John, wake up. It´s time to go." John roused and scanned the room with sleepy eyes. The red glow from the alarm clock announced the early dawn hours. Angel clutched her swollen belly in the grips of a contraction, allowing him a moment to acclimate to his surroundings before she spoke again. "Honey, get my bag from the closet. We need to go to the hospital."
Angel watched John´s eyes widen with fear while the color drained from his face. He bounded from the bed, knocking over the lamp on the bedside table. He ran from their bedroom. Angel heard the front door open. Then shut. John reappeared and stood in the doorway of their bedroom. Bleary-eyed, he said, "I guess I should probably put on pants first, huh? And get your bag. And you."
"You are so the stereotypical sitcom character of a man about to be a father," Angel said dragging out the word “so.” Together they followed the plan designed specifically for that moment. John loaded Angel´s bag into their car. He buckled the infant seat they would need for their return trip from the hospital. Angel phoned her mother and notified her that they were on their way to the hospital. She expected they would arrive in about forty-five minutes.
John drove through Jacksonville hitting every red light on Highway 69. "Wouldn´t it just be our luck?" John said while they waited for the last signal to release them to the open highway.
"It´s okay, honey. No need to rush. My contractions are about six minutes apart. We´ve got plenty of time."
"I know, baby. I´m just so nervous. You seem so calm and you’re the one about to have a baby.” John placed his hand on Angel´s belly, rubbing it tenderly. “I love you so much.”
"I love you too, John." The light turned green and John placed his foot on the accelerator. Angel never saw the car that ran the red light, crashing into them on the driver´s side.
* * *
Angel felt the sensation of moving, but knew it wasn´t of her own accord. Bright lights shone down upon her and sent pains shooting through her head when she tried to open her eyes.
"Get her into surgery...NOW!" someone yelled. From a tunnel, Angel heard her mother echo, "Wait, that´s my daughter. The baby...is the baby okay?" At the entrance to the tunnel someone said, "Ma´am, you´ll have to wait outside. We´re going to do everything we can for your daughter and the baby."
"Get her sedated right now!" The tunnel closed.
It was dark and Angel searched frantically to get her bearings. At the opposite end, she caught sight of a sliver of light that beckoned her. She moved deeper through the tunnel. She heard a fluttering in her ear.
The Mourning Cloak butterfly appeared, darting around her. She mounted its wings. It flew for hours through rain and sunshine, day and night, winter and summer. It carried Angel along the arch of a rainbow and she reached out and touched the brilliant red rays. She reached deeper, trying to feel the vibrant blue underneath. It reminded her of John´s eyes.
The Mourning Cloak dipped and swirled, carrying her through time until it perched on an oak tree. Angel climbed from the wings of the butterfly and sat on a branch of the tree. She looked around at the familiar landscape. The monument was missing and the land was the color of emerald. The oak tree was dressed in brilliant leaves, red and orange. Fields of corn spread out below, mostly harvested. A group of women chattered and giggled while they busied themselves with their hand-sewing. A trousseau was being prepared for the wedding soon to take place.
A man passed underneath the tree, moving toward the group. He placed his hand on the shoulder of a beautiful young woman. He stroked the braids that had fallen from beneath her bonnet. Angel watched him stare down at the woman with tenderness in his eyes. She found a familiarity in the man’s eyes.
Behind him, other men emerged from the various cabins and headed toward the corn fields with their burlap sacks. Angel caught the scent of fall. She heard the sound of children’s games. The young man left the woman’s side to join the group of men. They crossed the creek that separated the settlement from the fields.
Angel settled on the branch and drank in the scene below her. Her first visit to this site left her feeling hollow and empty. This visit filled her with sunshine and joy. Then gunshots shattered the peacefulness of the afternoon. Along the creek, a band of brown and red men rode their horses into the group of settlers. Cries of anguish suddenly rose through the air. The sound of children’s games turned into the sound of children waking from sleep in the midst of a night terror. Angel looked below her. The creek flowed crimson.
Riding on a black horse, with a band of feathers that dressed his head, the leader of the group paused beneath the oak tree. He looked up at Angel. She stared back into the face of a man who resembled Granddaddy. He was younger and more virile. Hatred filled his eyes with such intensity that she was unable to hold his gaze. He rode away with a war yell.
The women cried out and ran for shelter, scooping up their children along the way. An elderly man ran from his cabin and was shot down immediately. Underneath the tree, Angel heard a woman plead, "Shoot me too!" None of those that went to harvest the crops ever crossed back to the settlement.
A baby wailed loudly and the Mourning Cloak spoke to Angel. "We must go."
* * *
"I´m sorry. She lost too much blood." Angel opened her eyes to find her mother and Granddaddy standing next to her bed. Monitors beeped above her head and the scent of antiseptic filled her nose. Granddaddy´s weathered hands stroked her arm. He stared at the doctor with hollow, swollen eyes.
"We´ve done all we can for Angel. The internal damage is more than we can repair." A guttural cry escaped from deep inside her mother. She collapsed into the chair situated in the corner of the room.
Angel whispered, "John--" At the sound of her voice, all eyes in the room turned to her. Her mother quickly moved to her side and placed her lips on Angel´s forehead. "I´m so sorry, baby. He didn´t make it." Angel´s heart shattered. The pieces flowed through her body, burning her veins. She tried to pull the tubes from her arms but the doctor stopped her movement. He looked at her mother and said, "You should say your goodbyes now."
The door to the room opened. Lou Ann stood in the entrance. Her hair was grayer than Angel remembered. Her eyes held the same hollow look she had observed in Granddaddy´s eyes. "And she should say goodbye to her baby," the doctor said before moving past Lou Ann.
Angel’s eyes scanned the room to search for her baby. The corner opposite the chair held a small roll-away crib. She summoned the strength to utter, "Baby--"
Her mother moved to the crib and lifted a tiny bundle wrapped in a blanket. She placed the child in Angel´s arms and pulled the covering back. Angel stared at the milky-smooth skin of her baby. Granddaddy said, "It´s a girl, Angel."
Her face was delicate. She shared the same high cheek bones that Angel shared with her mother. The child´s eyes fluttered, allowing Angel to catch a flash of John´s sapphire-blue eyes. Her head was topped with a cluster of raven hair that stood on end, not yet long enough to curl as John´s had. Lou Ann crossed the room to Angel´s bedside, glaring down at her. Tears stained her face. "If it weren´t for you, my boy would still be alive." Angel tried to speak but the words got caught between her mind and lips.
Granddaddy spoke in her place. "This was no more Angel´s fault than it was my fault your ancestors are dead. You are a bitter woman full of hatred and bigotry."
Lou Ann bristled at the harsh words. "And you are an old man whose grandfather was a murderer!" They stood opposite each other above Angel´s hospital bed. Angel closed her eyes. A vision of her wedding with the Mourning Cloak resting on her and John’s clasped hands flashed through her mind. Angel situated the baby on her lap. With a final surge of energy, she grabbed Lou Ann and Granddaddy´s hands with each of hers. She placed them on the baby and covered their hands with her own.
"Call her Kaya," Angel said softly.
Lou Ann stared at the baby for what seemed like an eternity. Granddaddy shook beside the bed, his knees threatening to buckle beneath him. Angel, no longer having the strength to hold their hands on the baby, dropped her arms to her side. Neither Granddaddy nor Lou Ann attempted to remove their hands from the infant. Lou Ann finally asked, "What does Kaya mean?"
Granddaddy´s voiced cracked as he replied, "Forgiveness."
Kaya cooed under the hands of Lou Ann and Granddaddy. Lou Ann lifted Kaya from Angel’s lap and cradled her. Kaya’s brow furrowed and she let out a soft cry. Her lips sought her tiny thumb. “I think she’s hungry,” Lou Ann said. Granddaddy picked up the bottle that rested on the table beside Angel’s bed. He handed it to Lou Ann. Their hands touched and both froze. Their gaze locked for a moment. “Kaya is a beautiful name,” Lou Ann said. Granddaddy nodded and released the bottle to Lou Ann.
Angel closed her eyes. The Mourning Cloak appeared again and she climbed onto its wings. It lifted her into the air. As Angel was carried to the Great Spirit, the Mourning Cloak spoke again. "Your wish was granted."