When I was little–like “grass stains on your knees and fruit punch ring around your mouth” little–I killed something joyful. It happened near the forsythia bush where we played baseball, where I once whacked my cousin in the mouth with a line drive. That wasn’t on purpose, but this was. 

There was one of those white butterflies darting all over with its wings vibrating back and forth at the speed of a nervous breakdown. I know now that they’re called cabbage whites. The Latin name is Pieris rapae and its conservation status is listed as “of least concern.” It was tapping me like a toddler would if they wanted something–over and over, unrelenting. 

I caught it; I cupped it in my hands as if it were an egg or a small flower and peeked through my fingers just to be sure. It felt like hundreds of eyelashes fanning my palms. It was fragile like some glass figurine your grandma keeps in a locked curio. It was beautiful and full of frenetic joy, and because it was beautiful, I wanted to understand how it worked. What did its body feel like? What is needed to flap a wing? What are you supposed to do with something wonderful and weird?

I pulled it apart. I started with its white, papery wings. I ripped one, and it looked like a piece of a peony petal. And then I couldn’t stop myself. I ripped them all off raggedly and let pieces float down to the grass. There were no clean incisions. The fluttering stopped. I poked at the abdomen and discovered that its body was the consistency of earwax. When I was done I dropped its remains on the ground. I didn’t know whether or not you give things like that a proper burial. I still don’t know. 

My mom called me in for lunch and I ran with my hands covered in the residue of the cabbage white’s wings. 

“I killed something,” I told her.

“What was it?” she asked.

“A butterfly.”

She said nothing. Her frosted blonde hair bobbed as she scrubbed the dishes. The suds were white and foamy like the wings.

“Am I bad?” I asked.

“What? No, of course not,” she said. “You’re the best little girl in the whole world.” And then she whirled around and gave me a kiss on the top of my head. Some of the dishwater dripped on my arm and it felt like rain.

The way I remember it the sky was grey. Some thunder might have clapped. Or maybe that’s the feeling you get when you’re afraid you’ve cursed yourself. When you’ve done something you don’t know how to apologize for. Whenever something bad happens, I think of the cabbage white. My palm itches with its flitting.

14 Comments

  1. Janelle Greco

    Trying to figure out if the past tense is working here. And if there needs to be more dialogue.

    • Bud Smith

      the past tense is PERFECT here and I would stay away from more dialogue in this piece, I deleted some of the mother’s words as you can see in the below comment. I would like the inward journey to get stranger and more questioning. Btw Cabbage White is a great title!

  2. Bud Smith

    Oh my god! This is so fucking good. I’m knocked over by this, Janelle. You nailed it here. I loved the part when I realize that the butterfly is about to die, “What are you supposed to do with something wonderful and weird?
    I pulled it apart. I started with its white, papery wings. I ripped one, and it looked like a piece of a peony petal. And then I couldn’t stop myself. I ripped them all off raggedly and let pieces float down to the grass. There were no clean incisions. The fluttering stopped. I poked at the abdomen and discovered that its body was the consistency of earwax. When I was done I dropped its remains on the ground. I didn’t know whether or not you give things like that a proper burial. I still don’t know.” My question about the piece might be to just think of a parallel through line … she wants to know how the beautiful and strange creature works and I wonder if she would wonder how she works and if she would wish she could rip herself apart and look at her own guts and see how she functioned because in a way, she is the butterfly in this story too. I recommend a little bit fo rework here, just a tiny nip, ““Am I bad?” I asked.
    “What? No, of course not,” she said. And then she whirled around and gave me a kiss on the top of my head. Some of the dishwater dripped on my arm and it felt like rain.” Being told that she is the best little girl in the world takes some of the oomph out of the action and the processing of the action that we are still trying to understand with the little girl. I wonder where her wondering ends?

    • Janelle Greco

      Thanks so much, Bud! Given your suggestions, I’m going to play around with this some more.

  3. Samantha Mitchell

    Hi Janelle,
    Wow, this is a beautiful piece. I really love and admire the way your characters see the world. It comes out in the language you use, like the cabbage white’s wings like peony petals, or its tapping as an unrelenting toddler.

    Though I like the phrase “grass stains on your knees and fruit punch ring around your mouth,” I don’t think it’s needed here. It brings a lightness to the story that I think this story actually wants to resist. What I mean is, I think the reader can get a sense of what “little” is in the narrator’s case without you pointing to it so directly.

    Here’s a thought. I think this story can end on the line: “I didn’t know whether or not you give things like that a proper burial. I still don’t know.” It’s powerful, and immediate, and struck me emotionally as a reader. I don’t think the narrator needs to be absolved by her mother, in the next scene you give us. I think, as readers, we need to sit with the uncertainty of such an act.

  4. Amy Barnes

    So lovely and magical. I’m drawn to first lines but here, those last lines — just wow. I could almost see this with those lines as the opening. And then reflect back as to why. I’m not sure but there’s something in the sensory nature of the palm itching that is memorable.

    “Whenever something bad happens, I think of the cabbage white. My palm itches with its flitting.”

    Love the way you draw in the science information about the cabbage white. Sometimes, I like to be mysterious and use Latin species names as titles to maybe force readers to look things up — including that feels purposeful and important like the narrator really cares about the butterfly too. That mention of the toddler tapping the narrator over and over again is another great sensory detail that is unexpected, urgent. Descriptions are great: fragile like some glass figurine kept in a locked curio, the pulling apart of the leaves, earwax consistency, the mother conversation about death, frosted blonde hair (making her like a butterfly), the suds being same reflection of butterfly. If you decided to move the ending line up, you might be able to just end with that powerful scene — your descriptions do some much work for you that we get the emotionality and change.

    • Janelle Greco

      Thank you for reading, Amy! This is helpful. I’m going to play around some more with the piece.

  5. Taylor Grieshober

    Amy,
    Wow, this is excellent! I’m drawn in immediately by the funny, irreverent narrative voice. I feel like the narrator knows a lot I don’t, a lot that many people don’t and that’s due to her observational prowess. An example would be this line which SLAYED: The Latin name is Pieris rapae and its conservation status is listed as “of least concern.” I learn so much about this precocious youngin as the story goes on, her curiosity, her need to understand something even if it means ruining it.
    Nice self-awareness of the character in this line: “That wasn’t on purpose, but this was.” It’s funny and pulls me in with the mystery inherent in it. I’m thinking oh no, what did they do!?!
    This line is iconic because it describes not only the mother so efficiently, but also gives a nod to era: “Her frosted blonde hair bobbed as she scrubbed the dishes.”
    The question “Am I bad?” really gets at the heart of this piece for me, a desire to be absolved and, when absolution is given, it’s still not enough.

    I think there are some places you could pull back a little bit, where you overstate something. Like, for the phrase “…“grass stains on your knees and fruit punch ring around your mouth”,” I think the fruit punch ring is enough. The grass stain feels a little cliche and fruit punch ring is more colorful, more specific, and gets at the same meaning. Or this one: “It was tapping me like a toddler would if they wanted something–over and over, unrelenting.” I almost like it better without “over and over, unrelenting” though the rhythm of the line is beautiful. The toddler tapping does enough work in the image itself to make me understand.

    Overall, this is a tight piece. I loved reading, thanks for sharing!

    • Janelle Greco

      Thanks so much Taylor! This is helpful feedback. I’ll play around with the piece a bit more with your suggestions in mind. 🙂

  6. Martha Jackson Kaplan

    Janelle, This piece gives me the shivers. You show such a delicate consciousness, such an awareness of beauty, which actually inheres in the way the childhood curiosity and ensuing action haunts the child afterwards. This story illustrates that children can have their own sensibility, sense of right and wrong. Your first line is heart-breaking, but I love the description in the following paragraph:
    “I caught it; I cupped it in my hands as if it were an egg or a small flower and peeked through my fingers just to be sure. It felt like hundreds of eyelashes fanning my palms. It was fragile like some glass figurine your grandma keeps in a locked curio. It was beautiful and full of frenetic joy, and because it was beautiful, I wanted to understand how it worked. What did its body feel like? What is needed to flap a wing? What are you supposed to do with something wonderful and weird?”

    The only suggestion I have is to take out one phrase in the last paragraph: I would eliminate, “whenever something bad happens” because it wasn’t something bad originating outside the self, the story reads about guilt. See if this works better:

    The way I remember it the sky was grey. Some thunder might have clapped. Or maybe that’s the feeling you get when you’re afraid you’ve cursed yourself. When you’ve done something you don’t know how to apologize for, I think of the cabbage white. My palm itches with its flitting.

    Wonderful work.

    • Janelle Greco

      Thank you so much, Martha! I’m definitely going to tweak the last line as you suggested. Very helpful.

  7. Neil Clark

    Wow wow wow – loved this! The way you capture that first bout of childhood guilt is so well done. And I love the conversation with the mother, how in the narrator’s head, it’s the biggest event in the world, but the mother just brushes it off. Gives a really nice sense of contrast.

    Personally, I don’t think the information “The Latin name is Pieris rapae and its conservation status is listed as “of least concern.”” is needed, and I feel that paragraph flows better without it. (But I see it was highlighted by someone else as a favourite line! So go with your gut as always.)

    The line “It felt like hundreds of eyelashes fanning my palms.” is my favourite that I’ve read so far in this course.

    In terms of the structure and characters, I wouldn’t change anything. Great piece, Janelle!

  8. K Chiucarello

    God, there is just so so so much to love here. Going to peel out some of my favorite lines (will try not to paste the entire thing tho) “like “grass stains on your knees and fruit punch ring around your mouth” little” “The way I remember it the sky was grey. Some thunder might have clapped.” “It felt like hundreds of eyelashes fanning my palms.”

    What I think this piece does so well is that it smashes together horror, curiosity, and blind loyalty in this fairly terroristic manner. I’m such a sucker for pieces that include *any sort of fact and I appreciate the Latin name shoutout at the beginning. It really roots the reader in the preciousness of the thing that is about to demolished. I’m oddly drawn to the mother’s lack of shock here (or perhaps how well she hides her shock) for something she unabashedly will forever love. I’m in line with Martha’s edits for the last line and honestly do not have any other suggestions. I think this piece is close to perfection and hope to see it published out in the abyss very soon.

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