S H O R T S T O R Y
b y m a r y o v e r t o n ~ b u r k e , v i r g i n i a
MELISSA'S SECRET began when she was three. Her mother tried one day to comfort her. There had been a quarrel between Melissa and her older sister.
"You're just a baby," Mama said, rubbing a dry hand over Melissa's face. "It's hard being a baby."
"When you grow up, it will be different," Mama said. "When you grow up, you can be anything you want to be."
Melissa looked vaguely around the room.
"Listen to me when I'm talking."
Melissa was looking for what she might be.
"You have to work hard," Mama said, "but you can be something special. You can be anything you want to be."
She would like to be her mama's breasts, Melissa thought, soft cups turned upside down.
"Sweetie, don't pull on me there. It's not nice." Mama pried Melissa's fingers from her sweater. Melissa began to scream.
"Stop it. There's nothing wrong with you."
She screamed more, the way she did at night when dark air from the attic leaked into her room. Illuminated by the night light, the dark air floated like smoke from her mama's cigarette. It came from the black hole in the ceiling of her closet. Mama closed the closet door, stuffed towels under it, but the black air got through.
"Outside. Now," Mama said. "I won't listen to this."
Melissa was put in the fenced backyard. She hung forlornly at the gate, watching her big sister Darbie ride a bicycle with training wheels up and down the front walk.
"Crybaby," Darbie taunted and stuck out her tongue.
Melissa walked around the yard then, trying to find something to be when she grew up. It seemed a dangerous and urgent task that must be done immediately. Her heart was heavy with responsibility. Melissa looked at the summer marigolds, at the warped place in the bottom of the chain link fence, at a spider walking on the woodpile, at the pebbly cement platform that held the clothes pole in the ground. She thought about being each of these things.
Melissa crawled into her secret place beneath the overgrown shrubbery. She lay still, cloudy with anxiety, imagining that she was the cool, dusty dirt, complicated with little pieces of pine needles and twigs, shredded dead leaves and round stones.
A butterfly lit in the branch above her. Its wings were heart shaped and copper colored. They folded together like the paper fans Darbie made in Sunday school.
I want to be a butterfly, Melissa thought.
The butterfly basked, open winged, in the sun. Its narrow body and pen-stroke legs held utterly, rigidly still.
"I want to be a butterfly," Melissa said.
The creature leaped into space, unthinking, as if pulled by a string. Three more sailed over Melissa's yard, over her secret place, and together the four butterflies pinwheeled through the air. Their wings were as stiff and thin as copper wire.
Melissa burst after them. "I want to be a butterfly!" she yelled, filled with the joy of a right vision. She ran beneath the fluttery cloud, and the butterflies were courtly. They stayed within her fenced yard. Melissa ran and ran and ran. She ran on her toes, her arms stretched skyward, her face skyward, working hard, practicing to be a butterfly, because her mama and her daddy believed in hard work and Melissa understood without knowing it, that she must work to be the thing she had now decided to be.
For days Melissa practiced running and then for years, until she outran all the children, even the older ones like Darbie. People said she ran with wings on her feet. Whenever Melissa saw a butterfly, and there were more of them back when she was a child, she felt a thrill of kinship.
At last Melissa forgot about becoming a butterfly. She never gave it up. She simply forgot because time went by and it didn't happen and she was getting to an age where she would have to understand certain things. Rather than that, she simply forgot. She forgot the secret place in the shrubbery and the black air seeping through her closet door.
When Melissa was nine her family's fortunes declined.
They moved, and she went to a new school built next to a vacant field. There were no trees or shrubs at her school, only a concrete breezeway where the wind came through fast and mean, and a bare macadam play yard, and beyond that, where it was forbidden to go, the hot field tall with milkweed.
Her new teacher was predatory, like a majestic but heartless hunting bird. When a rowdy boy angered her, the teacher pulled his ear, something Melissa had never seen. The teacher took student papers in a seemingly arbitrary way, held them up and ridiculed them. She had trained the class to laugh. The first time it happened, Melissa was stunned with terror. Her body became too heavy even for her lungs to open, and she could not breathe.
"Just work hard and mind your own business and you'll be fine," Mama said when Melissa came home and dissolved into hysterics.
"You are so feeble," Darbie said.
Melissa continued to cry until she made herself sick. She threw up and developed a fever. The next day she acted so weak and pitiful that Mama kept her home from school.
"What am I going to do with you, a big girl like you?" Mama asked rhetorically as she unpacked kitchen things from a cardboard carton. Wadded newspaper lay in heaps on the floor.
Melissa ate canned chicken-and-rice soup that her mama had heated on the stove. The question of what to do with herself was mysterious. It always involved hard work and, more recently, being smart. It did not yet occur to Melissa to ask if her mama and her daddy had worked hard and if they had gotten what they wanted, this cheap third floor garden apartment next to a railroad track, weary evenings full of TV, one daughter who was scornful and another who needed something done with her.
"We'll get you moved to another class," Mama said. "I'll tell the principal you have a nervous problem. There's always a way to handle these things."
Mama had to go to work, she said, "so you have to go back to school if you want it or not." After lunch the two of them walked through canyons of apartment buildings, crossed the boulevard, entered the breezeway. The journey was still new and perilous, and Melissa wanted to hold Mama's hand.
"A big girl like you," Mama said again, indulgently. "You are an intelligent girl, but not sensible. Daddy and I have always tried to impress upon you girls the importance of using your brains to get what you want." Mama talked the entire way.
Twenty years later Melissa tried to reconstruct what happened. Her memory and her mother's memory diverged.
"It was the two of us together when we saw the field," Melissa said. She was back home because her daddy was in the hospital with a mild stroke. Now he'd gotten better. Mama and she were able to leave his bedside, get some sleep, but first they talked. They sat on Mama's screened porch and talked, exhausted, about Darbie's several marriages, then about the near financial ruin that had caused them to move so long ago to the apartment, then about the monarch migration.
"Oh, no," Mama said. "It was days later. It was a month later. I never promised I would change your class. There may have been only one fourth grade teacher anyway. It was a small school. And the principal didn't like me. He didn't like anyone from the apartments."
That must be right, Melissa thought, because she remembered a moist, burdensome dread filling her, filling every vessel in her body, like a levee of packed, wet sand. She must have returned to the predatory teacher's class, but she did not remember it, not one second more of being in that room. Her mother insisted there was at least a month more because the butterfly migration did not happen when the family first came to the apartment.
"The monarchs didn't come until we'd been there at least a month," Mama said. "The TV cameras came, I remember. After you were in school that morning, before I went to work, I walked across the boulevard and I watched the TV people filming it."
Melissa was drinking a wine cooler so sweet it stuck to her teeth. She never drank coolers in her own home, but Mama liked them and kept them in the refrigerator. Melissa remembered holding her mama's dry hand, a big girl like her, and looking across the burning field. Holding that hand remained a distinct part of her memory, but Mama said it couldn't be, that Melissa was with her classmates, that all the children came out on the bare macadam to see the miracle of nature.
The field burned.
Afterward, Mama and Daddy took her out of school for a month. It was a calm, quiet time spent with the retired lady next door, Mrs. Clark. They read Reader's Digest condensed books and listened to the radio, and Mrs. Clark taught Melissa a double solitaire card game. Melissa took naps a lot.
The field burned with a humming sound. It was like being God and hearing the murmur of all the world's children praying at bedtime, the cloying urgency of all that longing. Fire flickered up the stalks of milkweed. Copper and black ash floated in the air. The flames beat like shuttering wings. They were wings, a thousand, a hundred thousand monarch wings vibrating over the milkweed. The press of butterfly bodies was unbearable.
Melissa remembered it exactly that way, the press of bodies.
Maybe, her mama said, she was remembering the press of child bodies out on the play yard. The entire school came out to see the butterfly migration. It was something that happened every year in late September. The children were slightly bored even while they relished the time out of class.
Melissa remembered differently. She remembered letting go of Mama's hand. She remembered the unthinking way she ran, frantic, possessed, into the field where it was forbidden to go. She ran into the yielding cushion of butterfly bodies, into the powder of their wide wings.
"Take me with you!" she cried.
Melissa put her hands out to them. Utterly trusting, believing, she flew among them, her body changing, her heart squeezed into a tiny black shell of a thorax.
"Take me with you."
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