The Butterfly Children

I’d never heard of the butterfly children before I had one. Sometimes the angels descend with trumpets and announce the fruit of your womb and such. Sometimes it’s far more subtle.

The baby arrived too early, a tiny larva so delicate you could hold her in your hand. Skin like a September peach. Inside a glass chrysalis, half in the dream world, always. Alone.

Thank you for saving me she said when she was old enough, a shy strawberry speaking words from the other side. But then she got the sad sickness. She must have known what was coming. A pupa with so many legs eating to satiate a pain that would never subside. At the time I called it moody. At the time I called it a phase.

People think of a cocoon as something peaceful, a sweet little bag of silk, a quiet transformation behind closed doors. Maybe that’s how it is for some, but all I know is the winds picked up to hurricane level, garbage cans flying around like cannon fire, and all I could do was take cover, grab my non-butterfly children and hide them behind a parked car to shield them from the flying debris. I tried to watch your transformation, I wanted to bear witness so that you wouldn’t have to be alone again, but I had to look away—your face ransacked, wings ripping through that delicate peach skin. If I told you spears of light stabbed the sky would you believe me? Don’t look I yelled to myself. For fuck’s sake that’s your baby but don’t look!

And after the winds died down I found her wet, tired. Crying. Her peach skin had become diaphanous wings like the most delicate stained glass, her eyes like spun sugar. I thought I would be beautiful, she said. Who will ever love me like this?

The butterfly children are born twice. Once to you, and once away from you. They all have their own trajectory—and if you try to stop it both child and story will abandon you. The butterfly children come to break our hearts, break them open. You cannot stop the metamorphosis. You can only get out of the way.

Once when my child was little we traveled high into the mountains of Mexico to witness the seventh generation of monarch butterflies complete their sacred migration. Inside the temple of the forest, millions of wings flutter open and closed in strange rhythm. Open. Close. Open. Close. Living wings covering every trunk like a velvet bark, the forest floor littered with soft, dead bodies and tissue paper wings. In the silence of the forest, as the butterflies alighted on my child’s nose and ears with their strange legs and eyelash kisses—I should have known then, shouldn’t I?

The butterfly becomes a butterfly only after crisis. After a transformation so violent and profound most of us would never bother. When the butterfly child has reached the threshold you are forced to watch your baby, dragged away. You do not get to say goodbye. What remains is beautiful and strange. The butterfly finds its way into glorious adulthood, lands like good luck on the noses of babies and puppies. Majestic and magnificent, it never speaks of what happened before. But you know. You hold that story inside of you. You stop yourself from saying: you stole my baby! to this glorious creature. Because sometimes you can still see the shy larva’s face buried in there, smiling, now always smiling.

11 Comments

  1. Dominique Christina

    Jesus Nancy this is stunning. So lyrical. Full of poetry. This piece: “The butterfly children are born twice. Once to you, and once away from you. They all have their own trajectory—and if you try to stop it both child and story will abandon you. The butterfly children come to break our hearts, break them open. You cannot stop the metamorphosis. You can only get out of the way.” Made me swoon. There is so much heft and magic in that. So many lessons in that. Your thesis that such beautiful transformations are violent and steeped in crisis…that most would not bother if they understood what is required when one is shifting so dramatically. A lesson for everyone everywhere. Poignant clarity for our right-now lives. Transformations are violent and chaotic. If enough are willing to weather it, beauty is on the other side. And then the story never leaves us. Though we grieve the loss of what was, we can marvel in what is and that is salve enough. I’m so grateful to have read this. Thank you so much.

  2. Nancy Stohlman

    Thank you for your spot-on comments all weekend, and for your generous sharing and teaching. It’s been a real pleasure to be here! xoxo

    • Rhyannon Brightwater

      Glorious and rich writing. Your writing blessed me. I had cedar trees in the shelter belt next to the vicarage when I pastored a rural Nebraska congregation. Every fall the trees would be covered with monarchs on their flight back to Mexico.

  3. Chelsea Stickle

    This is gorgeous, Nancy. “Her peach skin had become diaphanous wings like the most delicate stained glass, her eyes like spun sugar.” What a lovely description. This piece has great movement. Things happen and I’m never quite sure what’s coming next, which is great because you go to new places and end just right with “Because sometimes you can still see the shy larva’s face buried in there, smiling, now always smiling.” This story made me ache.

    • Nancy Stohlman

      Thank you so much, Chelsea. It’s been great to be in workshop with you again! xo

  4. Martha Jackson Kaplan

    God, Nancy, brilliant again. I love the butterfly children, the lyrical, tough language of transformation. We know these children, their wild hurricanes of transformation, and they don’t always get there, do they? One of those stories of fantasy, more true than not. Loved reading it.

    • Nancy Stohlman

      Thank you, Martha! “they don’t always get there, do they?” Yes, you are right. xoxoxo

  5. Trent

    As always, some great observations, written in lyrical style, Nancy –

    Makes me think of the display cases. I’ve always thought of that as – well, questionable.
    People often make displays of some things in ways we shouldn’t, eh?

    • Nancy Stohlman

      Ah! Love that image of the display cases…yes. Thanks for that, Trent. So great to be in workshop with you again! xoox

  6. Karen Schauber

    Wonderful piece, Nancy! “You cannot stop the metamorphosis. You can only get out of the way.” and, “The butterfly becomes a butterfly only after crisis.” so hard to stand back a let it happen, as if one could do should do anything to stop it, direct it, steer it, help it; – the most painful thing (test/lesson) there is, just to stand by and watch…. trust the process ——beautiful writing.

    • Nancy Stohlman

      Thank you so much, Karen. It’s been great to share virtual space with you this weekend! xoox

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