A short story
by R. I. Sutton
How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way,
Is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five?
~ William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
The story goes that the esteemed scientist, Charles Darwin could not stand the butterfly. For by its vivid beauty, by its brilliant raiment and languid flight—in short, by its very existence—this small and subtle creature threatened the bedrock of his life’s work.
Such is the nature of the small and beautiful, to slip past the snares of the mind and reveal the moment as it truly is—as a gift, as intervention.
It was the chimneys that stirred him the most—the way they seemed brutish, almost reptilian against the leaden sky, when he knew them to have been the nurses of his youth. Beneath them his family had grown and gathered; about them were formed some of his closest memories. But now standing before him, as razed and dirty as a blacksmith’s furnace, was his family’s kitchen stove where, on long ago winter days, the cook had warmed and fed him between meals. And there, across a mound of fallen bricks, stood the drawing room hearth, where his father had smoked his pipe before the fire. Yet now, but for these pillars thrusting here and there like giant sleeping smokestacks, all was dust, all was ashes, for the fire had taken care of all.
He blinked and sniffed the saline from behind his eyes. He had thought he would be all right, that he would look upon the ruin as he would a beetle pinned beneath the glass. But he had not accounted for these memories rushing to engulf him, had forgotten the stupor of the senses on the brain. And now, as these ghosts flitted between the wreckage like dispossessed moths—his mother warming her pale hands, his brother scaling the stairs—he wondered if he might be losing his mind.
It was not the first time he had wondered. Lately his dreams had become strange, disturbing his sleep, and his thoughts seemed to wander odd pathways. Those little happenings to which he had in the past given not a second thought had taken on whole new significance, preoccupying him for hours. Only this morning his little granddaughter had confounded him with something she had said and he had been thinking of it ever since.
She came to sit on his lap as he read by the window, content to watch him scan the morning paper. And then, after sitting quiet for a time, she sat up and cried, “The moon, Grandpa—I can see the moon!”
“Where?” he asked, squinting through the panes of the window.
“No, not out there,” she said, “here.” She held his hands before his eyes, straightening his knotted fingers with her own. It was to his nails that she pointed, to the pale pink crescents rising from their base. “See here,” she said as she pointed from his little finger to his thumb. “Here the moon is waxing, and here,” she said, stopping at his thumb, “it is full. And there,” she said, drawing her finger over his right hand, “it gets smaller and smaller until it disappears!” She smiled as though she had shared with him a wonderful secret. “All the faces of the moon, Grandpa,” she said, spreading her hands over his, “—they’re all here, on our fingers and toes! Isn’t that amazing?”
He thought of her face now, of how the light had gone from it as he had pulled his hands away and said, “They are Lunulae, child—the nails’ new growth. Beyond their name—from the Latin ‘luna’—they have nothing to do with the moon, nothing at all…”
It troubled him, recalling this, but for the life of him, no matter which way he turned it, he could not think why. He looked at the girl now, picking among the wreckage with a broken tree branch. He had insisted on bringing her against his wife’s wishes, had thought it would be a valuable demonstration of the transient nature of things. His wife had worried that the spectacle would frighten her, but as he considered the girl before him, as incongruous as a dove in a war zone, he recognised in her neither cognisance nor fear. Rather, she wandered through the ashes like a comber at the beach, alert, relaxed—indeed, entranced by it all.
Seeing her so carefree reminded him of his own youth—here on the estate. He and his siblings had been allowed the run of the place; they were free to roam anywhere except for the walled kitchen garden, which was the province of the cook. Here they could enter only when the woman was around to keep an eye on them, for she did not trust them to leave the household produce. But the reason she gave them was different. He could still see her in her great white apron, as rigid as a guardian before the stove. She wore the key to the garden on a chain about her neck, and here it stayed unless one of two occasions arose—unless she was entering the garden itself or talking about it.
“How can I be sound of mind with the garden open an’ you childes in it, lost as lambs a-fleein’ from the Lord?” She leaned over him, the hefty key poised like a sword. “There be fell things in there, Lad,” she said, her eyes fixing his with their deadly certitude, “—fell an’ beautiful things. Tis no place for elders, much less wee-uns.”
It had been his favorite place that—the kitchen garden. He recalled the cool darkness of the fig trees, the burgundy glow of the plum. He remembered the orchard during the summer, the green and gold and red of it beneath the dreaming sky. Within those walls the rose had grown by the vine, the herb among the fare; there the beds had ambled, not marched. By night he would climb the wall and gaze down into it like an exile at the border of a forbidden land. He would watch the moonlight meeting the shapes of the fish in the pond, would imagine things in the dark and pensive places. And when he would leave to return to the house, in spite of the fruit gathered with his pilfering stick, he would leave dissatisfied, for the way inside was always too far down.
He looked up from his reverie to follow the fire’s course eastward. The ash pooled at the foundations of the house like a seething black hole, dwindling just short of the sturdy garden wall. The high oaken door to it was closed, and, he imagined, had not been opened for many a year, yet he knew that life continued within, for trees rose above the wall, reckless in their freedom, and the ivy swayed on the bricks like many beckoning hands.
Sensing someone beside him, he looked down to see his granddaughter there. “Was this your home once, Grandpa?” she asked.
He gave her what he hoped was an easy smile. “Once, a long time ago, Child, yes.”
“What happened?” she asked.
Her expression seemed felicitous, sad. He wondered if she had learnt it from his wife. “The caretaker’s fire got out of hand…burnt the place to the ground…” He could not keep the bitterness from his voice; clearing his throat, he turned away.
“No,” she said, shaking her head, “I mean, why did you leave?”
“Oh,” he said. He adjusted his feet on the powdery ash, trying to hide his irritation. The child did not seem to see the destruction about her, cared only for the sentiment of the place. He regretted bringing her here, regretted his own hopes for broadening her capacity. “I left when I was about your age,” he explained, “—for boarding school. When I was old enough to live on my own I stayed on at university in the city. This place became mine when my father—your great-grandfather—died but I had no use for it then. So I hired the caretaker.”
“You must have been sad, Grandpa,” she said, “—when you left this place. With the stables and the trees and all the pretty gardens, you must have missed it so much.”
He looked around the grounds and considered, and as he did a great weight seemed to settle upon him so that his two feet and his walking stick together felt like a tripod upholding the sky. He saw that where once the ancient oaks had risen beside the coach-way, now remained but charred and broken stumps. And there, where in his youth had spanned the green sweep of the estate, now swept a black and wild allotment. Finally his gaze came to settle once more on the walled kitchen garden, and as it did the place took on a soft quality, as though he saw it through a fine mist of rain.
He was about to answer the child, to dismiss her, when a memory came to him. After his mother had died his father had become adamant that boarding school was best for a boy of his age, refusing his pleas to be tutored at home as the girls were. And so, in his misery he had fled, running past the cook to hide in the kitchen garden among the branches of the fig.
The cook came to stand beneath the tree with her hands on her hips. “‘Tis a queer thing,” she said, “with the fig a-moanin’ an’ there being no wind! ‘Tis a sad tree indeed to sob an’ wail so…”
“It isn’t the tree,” he yelled, “it’s me!”
“Och, but is there a childe in it then?” she called. “An’ here I was thinkin’ Adam an’ Eve returned to pluck his leaves for shame! Come down, Childe, come down an’ tell us what’s wrong.”
“I’m not coming down,” he yelled, wrapping his legs around the trunk. “I’m staying right here—forever and ever!”
He shook his head to clear it and looked down at his granddaughter. “Yes,” he said finally with a brittle smile, “…yes, I suppose I did.”
He was wondering how he might distract the child when he felt her suddenly clutch his hand. “Look Grandpa,” she cried, “look!”
Blinking his eyes to clear them, he glanced up to see that the sun had found a portal in the cloudy sky. But what was strange, what he had not noticed before, was the thing it illuminated—a multitude of white flowers had somehow broken through the thick crust of ash. As the breeze caught them they glimmered in the afternoon sun, for all the world like stars shining in the ocean of night. And then, as he stared more closely and more closely still, he saw that the ground itself glittered, for embedded in the earth were a million points of light. He felt as though he stood upon the speckled night sky, as though the boundless universe stretched on and on around him. But with this wonder came a queer sense of vertigo and he stumbled, leaning heavily on the child. As he righted himself the sun disappeared once more, smothering the illusion before his eyes.
Brushing the child’s hand from his, he bent to examine the earth. “Ah,” he said, “ah, yes…” He plucked a flower and a handful of ash from the ground and held them before the girl. “The light is refracted from particles of glass—from the windows shattered by the heat. And this,” he said, shaking the bloom, “is chickweed—very hardy, but worth little to all but the bees.”
“And the butterflies?” asked the girl, and as he looked he saw that, indeed, a host of fluttering shapes danced the blackened field below.
“Yes…” he replied, dropping the flower at his feet, “…and the butterflies.”
He watched the child run off in pursuit of them and allowed the ash to trickle through his fingers. He felt immeasurably tired, like a stronghold that had been under siege for far too long. He wished to surrender, to throw wide his gates and lower the drawbridge, but to what, or whom, he did not know. Like a bird that had been caged for far too long, he was suspicious of all outside, though the door stood open and the way was clear.
He sighed and brushed off his trousers. He did not like this strange turn his thoughts had taken—birds and strongholds, symbols and metaphors. It was not logical. He did not like to think he had been wrong.
And then, so unexpectedly that he stood stricken for a moment, the rest of his memory came to him, so clearly that it seemed to have happened not a minute before…
The cook stood beneath the fig, her hands on her hips. “But you canne be stayin’ up there,” she said, “—with the wren out an’ he bein’ so fine.”
“I’m not coming down!” he shouted, turning his face from her.
“Well Lad,” she said, dropping her hands, “suit yourself…but as for me—I’m goin’ to catch me a wish. He grants them, you know—the king of the birds…”
The cook had barely left the fig’s span of branches when he was down the tree and beside her, peering through the leaves. “Will he grant more than one?” he asked as they came to a thicket of raspberries growing along the wall. After watching for a moment and listening to the sweet trickle of birdsong, a glimmer of movement caught his eye. And then he saw it—a tiny bird of impossible blue.
“Well,” whispered the cook, smiling at the wren’s dancing course, “that depends on whether you can catch him more than once…”
“Catch him!” he cried, his voice so loud that the bird startled and fleeted away. “That’s impossible!” And then, before he could stop it, before he even knew it was coming, he was crying, and the cook’s arms were around him, and he wept into her breast.
“Now you listen to me, Lad,” she said. “I know you don’t want to leave here, an’ that’s fair. But as to comin’ back—that’s up to you. An’ when I say catchin’ the wren that’s what I mean—when you’re far away an’ alone, all you need do is think of him an’ you’ll be here, back here in the garden with the trees an’ the birds an’ all the happy flowers all around you.”
“I don’t believe it,” he said, pulling away, “—it’s not true! There’ll be crowds and buildings and horrible paved streets…I’ll want to die.”
The cook smiled and as she did her eyes grew vague, as though she saw beyond him, to somewhere far away. “I know what you mean, Childe,” she said, “—believe me, I do. You see, you’re not the only one who’s had to leave a life behind. But I’ll tell you a secret if you promise to keep it to yourself, an’ that’s this. In my grandmother’s time it was the way of our people to hide great wisdom in verse. So that, wherever we went—even be it an ocean away—we carried our home with us, in our hearts an’ in our heads. An’ so,’ she said, ‘goin’ back was as simple as a song—or a poem, if you liked.”
“Like a prayer?” he asked, remembering the one he recited before bed.
“Aye,” she said, “just like a prayer.”
“Will you teach me one?” he asked.
His hands tightened on his cane and he frowned. Here his memory failed him for though the cook had taught him, though she had gone over it with him, again and again, he could not call up the details. All he knew was that the verse had been rustic and crude—probably some extract from an old peasant hymn—that there had been something in it about the onslaught of winter and the desolation of the land…and something about the wren…
And then it came back to him—the final couplet.
“For those whose sight in God doth dwell,
The wren is in the garden, all is well.”
God—the idea hung in his mind like a star in the night sky. For him, trying to think of such a thing as God was like trying to grasp an ungraspable concept like that of infinity, of space. Whenever he tried he felt himself hurtling as though through a void—a feeling he imagined synonymous with death. He could not imagine how one could have the kind of indelible certitude that the cook did; it seemed to him naïve, yet in a strange way, profound. All he knew was that, when it came to the existence of God, he did not know. He did not believe that anyone could know—could not see how one could ever know…
He looked at his granddaughter and felt immediately at ease. The child had again assumed her tree branch and her search among the ruin. He smiled as he again saw how inconsistent she looked—like a ballerina in a rubbish dump. She was a comfort to him, this girl, in spite of her carefree ways. In fact, he mused, she was a paradox, for it seemed to him that it was because of her happiness, her spontaneous delight, that he both loathed and loved her presence. He felt old when he looked at her but she made him feel young; he was incensed by her idle lack of logic but she caused him to dream. She pulled him this way and that as though he was a ragged piece of cloth on a swift autumn breeze. And he never knew where she might lead him.
As he watched her, she stooped, picked something from the earth and straightened. And then she was running towards him, an object glimmering in her hand. “Grandpa,” she cried, “look what I found!”
It was a key.
Copyright © 2011 R.I. Sutton
Originally published in issue 19 of Zahir
Photo Singing House Wren © Gualberto Becerra
“‘Darwin’s Butterfly’ came to me at a time when I was warring with what I perceived to be the wrongness of the world. I was vacuuming the floor after a day in my mind behind enemy lines when I suddenly realized that what I was needing was not to be ‘right’ in opposition to the world’s wrongness, but to look beyond the conflict and see what was true. The smoke shifted from black to gray and drifted into the sky, and here was this confused, sad old man scratching among the wreckage of his past.”
R.I. Sutton’s fiction has appeared in Kalimat and Zahir and was nominated for the 2010 Pushcart Prize. She lives in Central Victoria, Australia, and is currently working on her first short story collection, A Phantom of Earth and Water. You can visit her website at: www.risutton.com