Up ahead, a coarse bush growing by the dunes displays bright orange and black flowers, their quivering petals blaze in the morning light. Dorie joins me, and as we draw closer, I see it's Monarch butterflies clustered on the branches like hundreds of miniature stained glass windows. They're back from wintering in Mexico, ready to spawn a new generation. Transfixed, I begin to trace my memories, my voice almost lost in the lines.
“Every year we'd visit Angangueo to honor my mother.” I see the mountain top where they hung from Oyamel tree branches. Thousands of them in pleated layers like discarded quinceanera party dresses. “During Dia de los Muertos, families would gather and bring picnics and share stories, memories of their loved ones. I watched them laugh and weep and dance and eat while my father and I stood side by side. Him in his black suit and me in a white dress with ribbons that my yaya, Maria, insisted I wear. Like the perfect little daughter.” My father's grief was a silent and endless prayer between himself and God, a conversation I was not a part of. “So I'd wait and watch the butterflies and the families, and wonder what it felt like to be loved.”
Dorie lightly touches my arm, a connection that warms my skin and draws me back to the present here by the sea. We stand side by side and peer down at the butterflies, their clockwork wings moving slightly in the breeze. Walking along the sand again, the butterfly follows us, and this time Dorie stays close to me as she shares her own story.
“When Harriet was in 1st grade, her class did a project on Monarch butterflies. We bought a bug basket and a milkweed bush that we planted in the garden.” Dorie looks up from the sand at the butterfly now and again as she continues, a faint smile on her lips. “Harriet checked it every day, looking for eggs.” I too remember searching for those tiny eggs like pearls, hidden in the palms of curled leaves. “Then one day she found the milkweed crawling with monarch caterpillars. Harriet picked her favorite and named it Queenie." Dorie laughs softly, a sound I haven't heard her make before, so that I'm unsure of its tilted cadence. “After the third week, Queenie formed her body into a J attached to the top of the basket.” I imagine the chrysalis as a jade finger threaded with gold like a precious jewel, then slowly revealing the innard crush of folded velvet, hints of orange and black within the now translucent skin. “Harriet and I watched Queenie emerge from her casing one sunny morning, uncrumpling herself in the warmth of the day. Harriet thought it was magical.”
The butterfly hovers between us and is joined by another, both waiting to hear the rest of Dorie's story. “Harriet watched Queenie test her wings, begging her to stay. Eventually I convinced her to open the basket door and Queenie fluttered into the sky, followed by Harriet's pleas for her to return home next Spring. And so she did, at least that's what we told Harriet when the milkweed was once again cluttered with butterflies and we identified one of them as Queenie.”
Dorie finishes her story as we cross the dune close to the house. One of the butterfly's wings almost brushes my cheek before they both rise higher and higher, until they disappear from view. “In Mexico," I tell her, "Many believe butterflies are the souls of loved ones who have died and return to us each year.”
Dorie faces me now, and I know she too sees our children in their wings.
“Why can't beautiful things stay?” I ask. Dorie remains silent, the smile that lingers on her lips fading like the butterflies lost in the vastness of the morning sky.