for N, for P—
You’re six, with Butterfly, your mother, on a mini-bus in late Spring headed north of your hometown, to a village where she teaches geography and history in a middle school made of cement brick. She has a bright face with absorbing eyes and a meaningful smile. Her students give her gold wildflowers and homemade bread. They’ve previously given her: an empty picture frame, small embroideries (her name stitched inside a heart), a flower vase. They give you black minnows in the cut-off bottom of a yellow soap bottle.
After class, she takes you to a field and tells you to run toward her camera. She tells you to pick and smell the little prickly pink flowers in the dry brush.
You still have the photos—they’re in the albums she decorated with calligraphy. You’re wearing a red dress with frilly layers. You’re smiling, as if to yourself.
When you’re three, Butterfly is twenty-three—a college student studying history. Your family lives in Butterfly’s mother’s living room.
When you’re twelve, Butterfly is thirty-two, and you’re in middle school—the top student in your class. You wake around 7 a.m. and have breakfast—a glass of sweet tea and feta cheese on flatbread. You arrive at school after 8 a.m. and find your seat and everyone seems to be looking at you strangely, like they want to tell you something.
At noon, Butterfly’s brother, your uncle who’s also twelve (Butterfly’s mother had eight kids) arrives with a distant adult male relative to pull you from school. “My grandfather’s died,” your same-aged uncle tells you. A distant adult female relative is sitting in the car’s front passenger seat. You try to talk to her but she won’t look at you.
You help pull your brother, now nine, from his school.
You arrive at the cemetery and your female relative suddenly tells you the truth, that your mother has died, and the whole world goes black.
You’ll learn a bus backed into her on a busy street shortly after 8 a.m. and quickly rolled over her h—
At least a hundred who know her learn what happened and make their way. The cemetery’s grounds are asphalt and dirt. Everyone is crying, screaming, moaning.
Your brother idles about away from the pack.
Your father isn’t there. He’s a radiologist in the E.R. where she was taken. He’ll be in a stupor for a week.
Your grandmother’s neighbor has a crying infant on her back in a sling, a black sheet over the infant’s head. The crying sounds familiar. You pull the sheet away and find your almost-one-year-old sister in a bright yellow dress gripping cheese puffs in both hands like daggers, her hair cut short.
Butterfly believed if you cut a child’s hair short, it would grow back better.
They’ve washed Butterfly’s body, wrapped her in a white sheet. She’s carried past you held aloft on a board. Someone turns your head so you don’t see.
Every week you return to the grave.
You find an unfamiliar girl, one of Butterfly’s students, hugging the newly placed tombstone—inscribed with a poem about an escaping butterfly. She’s apologizing: I begged you dead because of homework. Forgive me.
Butterfly’s mother shouts through the ground: Why did you have to leave me?
To escape the din at home, you and your siblings stay at a neighbor’s house. Every night, you count the new number of hours since Butterfly was last alive.
You learn about the bus driver. You want him dead. “Take me to the jail,” you say in front of everyone. “I want to see the man who’s killed my mom.”
We’ll take you, they say. We’ll take you.
You’re thirty-two and everyone says you look just like Butterfly. Your I.D. photos are almost identical. She always smiled, they say. You always smile.
She never doled out punishment herself. The village students who didn’t study were sent to another teacher for a rapping on their hands.
One morning, you were with Butterfly headed to the village amid a wintertime blizzard. The mini-bus broke down. The heat went out and you went cold. You started wailing.
She put you in the car of a male stranger who’d stopped to help. She told him to drive you around until you stopped crying, and he did. The whole time you thought he might steal you away. He said sweet things to calm you down. If only you could remember what he said.
Robert Stuart Powers is a PhD candidate in fiction at FSU. His work has appeared in Glimmer Train and World Literature Today and other journals. Most recently he was a finalist for The Missouri Review’s Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize. (Portrait by Nathan Mullins.)