Mariposa has lived her entire life in the park. She was born here, in the fennel patch. Since then she has never lacked for food. She eats the fennel plants, never ceasing, always consuming, growing. She believes she will live forever in this manner. Or she would if she ever stopped to think about beliefs and what she might believe in. All she thinks about, if you can call it thinking, is food. The next bite of fennel.
Mariposa has never known her parents. Her mother was not there for her birth. She has never had anyone explain what happens to her. By now she knows the pain she feels, the tightness in her skin, is nothing to fear. But now, for the first time in her life, Mariposa stops her constant feeding. Something is different this time. She goes in search of a safe place. She does not know what this place will be, only that she needs to find it.
Clara, like all women, was a little girl once. Like most little girls, she dreamed of her wedding day. And still, like many others, she had even put on the pillowcase veil and her doll had officiated a pretend wedding between herself and Mr. Stuffy, her teddy. But that was a long time ago.
Clara, like other women her age, eagerly awaits news of the war and rebels against the cloud of doom that blankets the country by dancing in clubs and wearing skirts too short for her parents’ liking. But they do not know about this part of her.
Clara will marry Jack, her fiancé of three years, tomorrow. From then on she will not be able to do these things. He is a doctor and he wants a housewife. It no longer matters that she has feelings or that she has a degree. It does not matter how many words a minute she can type or that she can earn money to help support a family. They will have all the money they need from his salary alone.
Jack wants a quiet wife who will cook and clean and bear children. Perhaps he will hire a maid or a nanny once they have a child. That was the way he was raised and he sees nothing wrong with it. Clara will need to wear dresses and skirts, pearls and heels, make-up that makes her look as though she comes directly from a sears catalogue. She will become a regular June Cleaver.
She will do it for Jack because she loves him.
As far as Clara knows, Jack does not know about her go-go boots and miniskirt. He doesn’t know about her hoop earrings either. He never will as far as she is concerned. Tonight is the last night she will be able to wear them. Tonight is her last night to be free.
She reminds herself a thousand times over that she loves Jack as she dances to the music playing on the club that her parents do not know she is at. It is one of the first of its kind and polite young ladies should never be found here. But as she dances she does not feel in her heart that she loves Jack. It is a lie, though she refuses to admit it to herself. There is a part of herself that rebels against the idea of marrying Jack. The part of her that wears go-go boots and miniskirts and allows a strange man to take her hand on the dance floor and guide her through a song, bodies closer than they should be.
As they dance she does not notice as Jack slips from her thoughts. She lets the stranger buy her a drink and they talk a little. Clara learns he has just been drafted. He will leave the next day for training and from there they will send him to Vietnam. She does not learn his name, though he learns hers.
She welcomes his advances, letting him kiss her as Jack never does and never will. She shoves her fiancé out of her mind every time he resurges. She refuses to think of the coming day.
Later, as she lies beside the stranger in his one bedroom apartment, tangled in sweat soaked sheets and each other, her go-go boots and mini skirt somewhere in the living room, Jack is no longer in her mind. She keeps a hand on his chest, feeling the beat of his heart, the rise and fall of his breath and for a time her mind is full of a vast nothing. He strokes her hair. She has never done this before, not with Jack, not with anyone.
The stranger tells her his name, Jim, and that he thinks he is in love with her.
She tells him about Jack, about her impending marriage later that day. She has only known him for a few hours, but she tells him that she thinks she loves him too. That she has never loved Jack.
Jim asks if he can write to Clara while he is away. If she will leave Jack to marry him. If he comes back from the war.
Only with Jim does Clara feel completely human.
Mariposa has found her safe place. She waits for the pain to stop, the tightness in her skin to go away so she can leave this part of herself behind like the others. She does not see the rest of the world, but she had never taken notice of it beyond the fennel plants. Now, she could not notice it if she wanted to.
There is nothing now but the tightness, the constraint of her own skin. She allows herself to fall, but she clings to her perch with her back feet, secured around her middle by a single thread she wove and attached to the branch. She tucks her head in as shudders wrack her body. She no longer knows what she does. She only feels the changes that happen to her now.
Sean doesn’t know why he keeps doing this job. He graduated second in his class at Johns Hopkins and he chose to work for a charity hospice agency at a fraction of the pay he could be making at any hospital in the country.
His patients never live.
The man he cares for now is only seventy years old. He was a doctor before. But even doctors are not immune to cancer. A smoker since the sixties, it is a miracle he’s still alive for Sean to take care of.
It bothers Sean that the old man’s wife and son never visit him. He just sits by himself and stares out of a window lifelessly. What bothers Sean even more is that the old man seems both angry and contented that they never visit. The one time that Sean brings it up he nearly has his head ripped off.
That is why, when the old man begins to speak now, Sean nearly leaps from his own skin.
“She never loved me, did she?” He seems to choke on those words.
When Sean asks who he is talking about the old man doesn’t reply. Sean decides to prod. “Who never loved you?”
The old man suddenly seems to remember that Sean is there. Their eyes meet past the oxygen mask that keeps him from suffocating on the normal air, he seems to almost crumple in on himself.
Just before Sean was employed by the doctor’s wife, she left him. She had been his primary caretaker, his only companion since his son had not come to see him in over a decade. when the doctors had told her that the old man was dying she was unable to keep her secrets from him any longer, she had told him everything and he had sent her away. He expected her to fight, to stay, but she had just left him.
His son, his only child, belonged to another man. A man he never knew. The anger that emanates from the old man upon this revelation makes Sean uncomfortable and he breaks eye contact. The old man tells him to get out.
But Sean does not leave, even when the old man yells at him, if it can be called yelling in his condition. He knows the doctor will only tire himself out, perhaps even bring himself that much closer to death. Sean will be there to make sure that he is comfortable as he goes. It is who he is and what he does. He remembers his own mother’s death and how he had not been there, how no one had been there as she slowly withered away in the pain and grief of her brother’s death by herself. It had taken her thirteen years and Sean had not been aware of her grief until she finally gave in after he left for college, leaving her alone in their empty house.
He will not allow another person to die that way, scared, alone, and in pain. He will never again ignore the signs of death. That is why he surrounds himself with it now.
The old man ceases his yelling. “She only stayed because he didn’t come back for them.”
Sean kneels beside the old man and takes his hand as tears well in the doctor’s eyes. Old men do not like to be comforted in this way. They prefer silence and stony hearts. But Sean, wise for his years, knows that the old doctor needs a friend, now more than ever. “But she stayed with you.” he whispers.
Mariposa no longer feels the pain. She no longer feels anything. She is shielded from the wind and rain, the entirety of the world. She floats and is no longer aware of her body. It has melted away, all but a few parts. She feels none of it. She remembers little of what came before. It is as though she has always been and will always be this way, though she will remember little, if any, of this experience. Of this non-being.
As Michael puts his bags in his car he ignores his mother’s pleading not to go. He ignores her tears. The anger he feels right now is not something he can let go of at the drop of a hat. he does not stop to think about what his actions can do when he gets into the car, angry and unfocused. All that Michael thinks about is the betrayal and hurt that he feels. He is not who he thought he was. He no longer feels as though he knows his own body, his own mind. For Michael there is little but the confusion and anger now. He sees his mother’s tears and on any other day he might have stopped to comfort her. As he did when he was a child and found her crying into a box of old letters. As he did the day he told her that he will go to college and that he will be a doctor like his father.
His father, that is the root of all of this. That is the root of her tears, then and now. The man he has called father for the last nineteen years stands on their porch with his arms crossed. He too is angry, but at Michael and not Michael’s mother. Though he should be. Michael knows that this man loves him, that this man is his father. But he can no longer bring himself to acknowledge that. He will not tell the man he calls father that he is not his son. He will not tell anyone they know because his mother asked him not to. It may be that his father is not the man he thought, but she is still his mother.
She is a part of himself that he will never let go of. Even on his own he will make the soup she made for him as a child when he is sick. He will have the same melodies and lullabies stuck in his head before he goes to sleep that she sings to him even now he is a grown man. He will still be the person that she taught him to be, but his father. He will learn who his father was. He will seek him out if he can. He does not know why it is so important that he learn about this man. A man that his mother hardly knew, but he knows that if he does not learn, he will never know who he is.
He watches now, as his parents shrink beyond sight in his rearview mirror. He does not stop driving until he is 50 miles outside of the city. He fills his car with gas and sets off again almost immediately, lingering only to use the restroom and to purchase a coke from the convenience store.
He flips on the radio in the car and is fiddling with the dial as he goes too fast around a corner. A little boy is playing on the side of the road. Michael does not see the ball that rolls out in the street as he changes the radio station. The boy steps out a little too far into the road. Michael looks up too late. He tries to swerve but his right side hits the boy and he feels the sickening lurch of wheels on flesh and bone. He stops and scrambles out and around the car to where the child lies.
Mariposa can feel the changes again now. It no longer feels as though she floats. The changes do not hurt. They excite her. She is being born again and somewhere in the back of her mind she knows it to be truth. She does not know what she becomes, what she will be. Mariposa knows only the change, if it can be called knowing.
Jim wipes the sweat from his brow. The unit is stopped, if only for a short while, but it is the first time in three days that they have stopped before dark. He hasn’t had enough sleep, but that is nothing he was not prepared for when they sent him over here. Not enough sleep was better than a permanent sleep.
He thinks of Clara, of their shared night together. He thinks of her waiting for him. The others call him an idiot. She’s married to another man now, a doctor. Why would she leave that for him? When he returns he will have nothing to offer her. He will be lucky to get his job back as a mechanic in a small town outside the city. He should have chosen someone else to write to, they all told him.
But it is Clara’s letters, one every week so far, that he lived for. He has only been in the country for a month, his training cut a few weeks short to fill a unit quickly. He must learn on the job. He doesn’t mind except that it is hot and muggy here. If your feet get too wet they could rot right off you before you managed to crawl out of the damned swamp. That isn’t even the worst part. If you don’t watch where you step you’re liable to lose both your feet faster than the rot will ever take them.
He pulls Clara’s last letter from his pocket along with two pictures that she sent him. The first is what she calls an ultrasound. She had circled a faint blob in the center and if he squints he can almost see a human form. She is pregnant according to her letter and with her husband being a doctor she has access to things that other women do not, like this new technology that allows for pictures of unborn children within the womb. This is one of the first ever. Clara’s child.
Jim’s child, she was convinced.
Jim has not shown any of the men in his unit and hides the picture to look at the image of Clara he keeps next to his heart. He does not know how she has kept their correspondence a secret from her husband, but she has. These thoughts almost make him forget the reality that surrounds him.
The only other person in this god-forsaken swamp who knows about the pregnancy is Jim’s Lieutenant. He promises to end the war in Nam before the baby is born, or at least give Jim his month of R&R at the right time so he can go home and claim the child. But Jim isn’t as sure the child is his as Clara’s letter seems to be.
He puts the letter away as they are told to get moving again, their bellies satisfied at least a little. He must focus on the bigger picture now. He can’t think about how he will raise a child, if it is his. He can’t think about how he will take Clara away from her husband only to leave her in the states with no real income while he fights a war over here that no one back home wants to fight anyway. He can’t think of any of that.
He thinks about it anyway, refusing to join in on the usual banter of his unit as they wade through the swamp and rice patties, mud, and once in a while hike over hard ground. He stares into the jungle, but instead of watching for the Viet Cong he watches for Clara, almost expecting her to come around a tree.
Then he hears a click from the direction of the man on his right flank.
It is almost time for Mariposa to be reborn. She grows restless in her shell. It grows tight around her as she changes. It is safe in here, but she does not know how much longer she can stay. Soon it will grow too tight and like the skins she no longer remembers she will shed this shell and be something else.
Sophie sits on her living room floor, playing with her five-year-old son. The phone rings. It is her husband. He tells her to turn on the T.V., he will be home as soon as he can be, and hangs up. He sounds stressed and Sophie does not know what to do. She turns on the T.V.
The screen fills with smoke and sky and it takes her a minute to see what she is supposed to understand about the images. The words at the bottom of the screen tell her what she fails to grasp. She feels tears slide down her face, unbidden.
Her son asks her, “Mommy, what’s wrong?” and she finds that she cannot answer. He asks her why the towers on the video are on fire, too young to think that the T.V. could give him answers, believing his mother to be the only source of information that he needs, as children are wont to do.
Sophie’s nephew was supposed to be on a field trip to those very same towers today. But this morning he had woken with a case of the flu and her sister had not sent him. If he hadn’t been sick.
When Michael comes home he will find her on the couch, holding their son and still crying. The boy will be asking questions and he will take him to his room and tell him to play while he talks with mommy about things and they will tell him everything later. She will wait until he returns to finally break down and sob like she wants to.
Tears will don her husband’s face and that will be wrong. Her husband never cries. Her big, strong husband who lost his parents when he was nineteen, worked two jobs to put himself through school, and the dropped out to work a third and even fourth job when she told him she was pregnant. The man who loves her more than anything, protects her and works harder than he ever should to keep them in a good home, a good neighborhood with a good school. He will cry and that will make Sophie cry all the harder as she comes to realize that her life has changed again.
Later that night she will attempt to keep up the semblance of normalcy for as long as she can. But her husband will tell her he plans to enlist the next day. He cannot sleep is he doesn’t do something. What kind of a father will he be if he doesn’t do everything he can to protect his family?
Something in him will break and Sophie will know when he tells her it is what his father would have wanted. She will nod and continue to make dinner, a haze clouding her mind. She will no longer be aware of herself, her actions. She will be a ghost in her own mind as she continues the motions and patterns that she goes through each and every day.
There has always been a haunted quality to her husband, a desperation that she sees when he looks at their son, and when he makes love to her. It is as if he is trying to atone for something, and to cling to life in a way that she cannot understand. Tonight there will be something more. Tonight she will know that he is at war. Not with the terrorists, nor anyone outside their home at all. Tonight he will be at war with himself. She will know that her life will be changed forever by this day. The life of her son will not be the life that she intended for him.
The tightness is too much for Mariposa. She struggles, pushing against the constraints of her shell. It breaks and for the first time in days she feels the air. But the struggle is not over. All she desires, if you can call it desire, all she thinks, if you can call it thinking, is “OUT!” She pushes and wriggles and struggles to free herself from her shell for what feels like an eternity, and for her it is indeed the entirety of her new life so far.
She finally manages to break free of her shell, to feel the warmth of the sun on her body. She takes her time now, stretching her new legs, tasting the air and taking in this new world.
For the first time since her original birth she sees the sky. Endless blue spotted with white clouds. So empty and yet so full of possibility.
Daniel has slept in the park for several years now. He doesn’t always, but after the woman he married died he cannot hold a job. He cannot keep himself away from the drinking.
Daniel has been an alcoholic since Vietnam. Kate was the only thing that kept him from drinking for as long as he had been sober. When she’d been killed by another drunk he swore never to drive again, never to risk that tragedy for someone else. Now, he roams the streets of this city with an old grocery cart he appropriated on some drunken walk-about in his earliest days as one of the city’s homeless.
He drinks to drown the voices in his head. Not voices that tell him to do bad things, or even good things. It is typical to think that, being a veteran of a brutal war like Vietnam, he hears the screams of those he killed or at least those he saw die. No, the voices he hears are different. He hears the voices of the survivors, one of which is himself. He hears the voices of the ones who came to help. The ones that had to save him. They tell him it wasn’t his fault, that there was nothing he could have done. But it was his fault, he is sure that there was something he could have done. He knows it.
A young woman moves to the other side of the path on her run, avoiding the bench where he sits, afraid he will try to harm her as many women would be of a strange looking man in these early hours of the morning. She doesn’t know that Daniel won’t harm anyone but himself anymore. He contemplates suicide from time to time. Lots of guys who made it out did that. If he killed himself here in the states, where everything was supposed to be better, the deaths of the others would not matter anymore. It would waste their memories, especially now that it has been so long.
When he finally gets himself off the bench, able to stand without falling over, he walks away. He pushes his cart and does not think, not really. He pays no attention to where he goes, allowing his muscles to guide him on his familiar path. He tries to get away from the voices.
Sometimes he feels like this is only a half-life. As such, it does not do their memories any good no matter the state of his body. That is how he justifies the drinking. It dishonors them, but he can’t get the voices out of his head unless he drowns them. He does not wish to dishonor his brothers, but he wants to live as much as he wants to die so he chooses to live with their memories as they are and he hopes that no one recognizes him for who he was, who he is. The life he left behind.
Mariposa flaps her wings, strong and dry now. She feels the wind as it tries to lift her from her place on the branch. She flaps her wings once, twice. She lets go, she flies.
Michael will return today from his third four-year tour with the army. He was stationed in Libya this time. Every day he woke, made his bed to military standards, ate breakfast with his brothers, and went out on patrol for several hours before being relieved of duty. Occasionally his unit was sent on special missions out into the countryside or to the cities. The cities were the ones he hated. But he enjoyed the work. He enjoyed the repetitiveness of it, the simplicity. Every day, the same thing. Sometimes, it made him nervous, he felt vulnerable, but in the end, he was one of the lucky ones.
He had learned of the death of the man he called father in a letter three years ago, just before he was sent to Libya. He had reconnected with his mother then. But there was something missing from their relationship. He felt it, but his life in the military made it easier to not think about it. But nothing, no sense of monotony, could ever take Sophie from his mind. Not even the empty space at the end of his leg now.
Sophie waits at the airport for Michael, their son is 21 now and he sits beside her, dressed similar to the way she knows his father will be dressed. Michael does not know that his son has been in Officer Candidate School for the last three years. He does not know that his son follows in his footsteps; it’s supposed to be a surprise. Sophie has baked a cake and it sits on the counter at home. She has dinner ready to be placed in the oven when she walks in the door and is ready for Michael to be home. Something has been missing from her life without him. She goes through the routines of life, cooking and cleaning, and making home repairs, calling Jake to help her when she can’t get it all done. She does not know where Michael’s mother is. Something has been bothering her for days and she knows that Clara will not miss her son’s homecoming.
Sean visits his brother’s grave today, right next to his mother’s. He has visited this place every year, first with his mother and then on his own, since his brother’s death. He was only five when his brother died. He’d stepped into the street, in front of a car that was going too fast for their suburban neighborhood. He clears the debris of nature away from the headstones and says nothing. Sean does not believe that the dead can hear the living. And if they could, he feels they would not want to.
Clara walks the park quietly, thinking to herself. She has been alone for three years now. It did not take Jack long to pass after she left. She had thought that after forty-four years she would have felt something more than what she did, at least a twinge of guilt or sorrow, but what she felt instead was relief. She felt free. She still feels free. But there is something missing.
That is why she hired the detective. Michael had spoken with a man while he was on a tour, an older gentleman who had served with Jim in Vietnam who was just about to retire. He had showed the older soldier a picture of his father and unit one night. The old man had recognized Jim. She had always thought he died in Vietnam. In her mind that was the only reason that he would not have come back, returned to rescue her, meet his son.
The detective had been able to find Jim. After forty-four years, he had traced Jim’s footsteps. Jim had been married, an alcoholic, and many things in between. Now, he is living here, in the park. His pension check all he has to survive on. She looks for him in the face of every man she sees. She is missing Michael’s homecoming to look for him, but she could not think of a better thing to miss it for. She has to find him. Michael gave up on finding his father a long time ago, but she never stopped thinking about Jim. It affected her marriage and her life, but now that she is free she can find him. She will find him.
She has almost given up. She looks at the men with clean shaven faces like Jim’s was so long ago. She looks at the men who are well dressed and handsome, young. She does not see his face, but on a bench, a bottle of whiskey in hand, she sees an old man. His face is covered by a beard but he wears an old hat, beat up. With Jim’s battalion number on it. VIETNAM VETERAN scrawled across the hat in worn and fraying embroidery.
“Jim?” she asks, not sure it’s him. Afraid that it is him.
Daniel hears a woman’s voice asking his name. Not the name he uses now. She does not ask for Daniel. She asks for Jim. The voice is familiar. It is older than he remembers it, but that does not matter. He would know that voice anywhere. He looks up, afraid it is another of the voices in his head. Afraid it is just another drunken dream. But he sees a woman standing before him. She looks old, worn. As though life has beaten her down. But her eyes are bright as they ever were, the curve of her face can not be masked by the wrinkles of time. “Clara?” He chokes on the name. He knows that he smells, that the whiskey on his breath is not what she wants to see. He stands and moves away from her as quickly as his old bones can take him. He hides his face, trying to run away, but he stumbles and falls. His wooden leg unable to keep up with the sudden movement.
Clara moves to his side and pulls a handkerchief from her pocket to wipe away the dirt on his face, the tears. “It is you.” She does not pay attention to the smell of whiskey or the stench of homelessness that is on him. She does not care. She takes his hand and pulls him to his feet.
They do not match, she in her well pressed clothing, clean and warm, and he is torn and stained clothes that have not been washed in a long time, but she kisses him as she did the night they met. The night he fell in love with her. When she pulls away, a butterfly comes up from the fennel patch and flies between them, narrowly missing them both. It’s not every day that you learn to forgive yourself. It’s not every day you fall in love all over again.