If I Were King
The Turning Point (24. Fu / Return) had arrived with a simple book, a paperback whose puerile pages with lurid illustrations and notations had blown like dirty paper with the fan— Kate had brought the flimsy pamphlet Mrs. Watkins had forced on her out by the mailbox, like an omen of things to come. “Hon’, I want you to read this. You can ask if you have any questions.” “Pretty clinical,” I had agreed, “and ridiculously incorrect,” I didn’t add, leafing through the pages checked in blue ink, then handing it back, eager to drop it from my fingers. The situation was ludicrous, like Babe Ruth reading a book entitled How to Bat the Ball or Helen of Troy perusing 10 New Ways to Please Your Mate. It took an effort to keep a serious composure for Kate’s sake. “It’s awful, she’s a snoop. She doesn’t know anything.” “Obviously not,” I said. “She’s asleep.” “She told me Ferraro should stay home and cook for her husband.” “Watkins should stay home and cook her husband.” “It doesn’t mention love one time. I mean it does, all the time, but it doesn’t.” “No, of course not. It’s not about love.” “Her daughter ran away with a sailor. Lenore.” “Whose daughter?” I said. “Mrs. Watkins’.” “Oh. Well. It’s an old story. Homer.” “You ought to write a book.” “‘The wheat stalk grew in the Goddess’ hand and Persephone returned from hell and death—’”
I looked toward the window.
“‘Where she stepped, the brown grass turned green.’” “What’s that?” “What life is.” “I don’t understand.” “Like the phoenix,” I said. “It’s a mystery.” “The bird?” “The wings rise from the ashes.” And then, as if I’d summoned the heat wave, the weather turned blazing, it was hard to catch my breath, every day over 100 degrees. In a burning blur a lunatic killed 21 people at a McDonald’s hamburger stand, Miss America was stripped of her crown for posing nude with another woman, Richard Burton died and Elizabeth Taylor dressed in black and went into mourning. A gay man from Fresno was arrested with a knife and his roommate’s heart in his pocket. Across the vineyards and orchards of the San Joaquin Valley a psychopath was murdering black prostitutes and leaving their bodies in irrigation standpipes and I feared for Kate after sunset when she ran to meet Eddie Dodge— On the 17th of August, after 33 straight days of 100-degree temperatures—on the morning of the day the baby died at Loma Linda, Janie Janzen, the world’s youngest heart transplant recipient—I began to tell Kate about cool San Francisco, about a beautiful woman who was kept in luxury by a rich lover in a tower by the sea— “They weren’t married?” “They lived together,” I said. “It was stronger than marriage.” “It was?” “The man and woman were different from other people.” “How?” “There was a secret between them.” “Secret?” Kate waited. “Something beautiful and strange.” “What?” I smiled through the ringing heat. “A butterfly.” Kate frowned. “Butterfly?” “That was the center of their lives.” “An insect?” “The woman had a butterfly painted on her body.” Kate stared at me. “Painted or tattooed?” “Tattooed, but not like a tattoo. Like a painting by some great artist.” “That was the secret?” Kate watched my face, then glanced down at the purple dress. “It was quite large.” She looked up. “How big?” I smiled and raised my brows. “Really?” “The man was fascinated by the butterfly.” “Because it covered her—?” “It made him feel a certain way toward the woman. I don’t know how to describe it. I think it made him feel lonely and close at the same time. To be in love, to make love, but to feel alone—it sounds strange, doesn’t it?” “Why did he want to be alone?” “When the man made love to this woman, each time he felt as if he were dying.” Kate leaned forward, putting her arms around her knees. “How do you mean?” “I haven’t explained it well. I’m not a man. But Aaron knew the woman, he introduced us. Do you know the story of Ishtar?” Kate shook her head, her long hair waving across her cheek. “Her holy city was Acacia, in old Babylon. In the spring she married Tammuz, whom she loved. In the fall she killed him. Or let him be killed, a tusked pig got loose—” “What for?” “The waxing and waning year, the growing season, then the harvest. It has to do with the sun. What’s important is she brought him back to life.” “I don’t understand.” “For the lover of the woman with the butterfly, each night was like the seasons, winter and spring. Do you know The Thousand Nights and One Night?” “Sort of.” “It’s the same story, only in reverse. Each night the princess, Scheherazade, told the king an amazing story, then left the ending for the next night, so the king wouldn’t put her to death. He’d killed all his other wives after the wedding night, because his first wife had been unfaithful. “Each night the woman with the butterfly killed her lover and brought him back to life, because for him one world wasn’t enough, he wanted to live in two.” “Two?” “Do you know the story of Chuang Tzu?” “I don’t remember—” “He lived in China about 450 B.C. One spring night he went to sleep and dreamed he was a butterfly, flying high above the rice and barley fields, the rivers and towns. Chuang Tzu had marvelous wings and he watched his shadow race across the land, over carts and horses and people on the roads and in barnyards and village squares. “Wherever his eye saw something shining in the distance, a painted junk on the Yellow River or a temple on a mountaintop above a cold volcanic lake, that’s where he flew with the wind rushing past him and instantly he was there. He was happier than he had ever been or imagined it was possible to be as he glided north and south, east and west, until all of China had passed under his wings. “When Chuang Tzu finally woke in his bed, at first he was disappointed, before he felt pleasantly confused—now he wasn’t sure if he was a man who had dreamed he was a butterfly or a butterfly that was dreaming it was a man—” “That’s the way her lover felt?” “Dreaming and awake, here and there, alive and dead—Heaven and Earth—” I rocked my lifted hand back and forth. “Yin and Yang. Every man was in love with this woman.” Kate’s green eyes grew wider. “The woman had other lovers?” “After her lover died, even when she was older, there were always men coming to her. After they had experienced the butterfly, they changed, they weren’t the same anymore. You could recognize them on the street.” “Not really—” “Their eyes had a faraway look, as if the men walked in a foreign country, they’d been to another world and come back and this world had altered, become a dim reflection of something else.” Now Kate lay sideways at the end of the bed, touching the purple dress with her fingertips, blocking the different stones when they sparkled. “What did she look like?” “At first I only heard about her from other women. Aaron hadn’t gone to her, I’m sure of that. We were still very much in love. Once I asked about her and he laughed.” “Laughed?” Kate looked up. “I told him I’d heard she was part Japanese, part black, from Africa, the daughter of a king. But he’d met her, he knew who she was. His friend was her lover.” “He did?” “She was Spanish, from a family of sea captains. She was beautiful, with ivory skin and black hair.” “But not as beautiful as you—” “Different,” I admitted. “Her name was Belle Solar, ‘Pretty Sun,’ like Joaquin Murrietta’s fiancée. Aaron introduced us, the day he gave me that dress.” “This dress?” Again she touched the velvet. “Yes. From that day she and I became fast friends.” “What was she like?” “We talked of travel, of journeys to distant lands. Of Borneo, Taipei, the Dutch East Indies. She loved the sea and ships, she’d grown up on a ship. We enjoyed each other’s company and soon we were meeting every day.” “In San Francisco?” “She lived in a tower apartment across from Gold Gate Park. One day the maid led me to her room and when I went in she was dressing.” “You saw it?” “She was standing behind a painted Chinese screen, of two entangled dragons on a blue cloud. She asked me to sit in a chair by the bed. “‘Have you heard of my secret?’ she asked. “‘I have,’ I said, I couldn’t lie to Belle Solar. ‘I want you to know the truth,’ she said. ‘I value your friendship. I don’t want any shadow to come between us.’ “She stepped from behind the screen in a beautiful silk gown with a pattern of flying cranes and asked me to come sit beside her on the daybed. She touched my hand, looking me in the eye with her large dark eyes, then told me her story—” “Tell me.” “I will, in Belle Solar’s own words— “‘Ten years ago, after a too brief engagement, I married a sea captain, a Spaniard and mariner like my father. Together we sailed the Pacific and Indian oceans in his ship, The Manifold. I touched land only in his presence, he was jealous of my beauty. The few men I saw were members of his crew, Malays and Africans who spoke no Spanish or English.
“‘For six years I lived only with Eduardo, completely separate from others. I had my books and paint box and the diary I kept but the wide ocean was my world. I suppose in my enforced loneliness I was almost happy, I loved nature with all my heart. With my telescope I studied the sea birds and blue dolphins, the greenery of islands and at night the moon and southern stars.
“‘One evening in late March, in the bay off Jakarta, an old man, a European from one country or another, came aboard for dinner. “‘All his long life, from the time of his youth, he had lived in the East. He spoke of his travels in far, unexplored countries, his collecting of exotic zoological specimens, and his painting. For years he’d trekked through jungles and across high-mountain passes, following rivers to their source, alone or living among primitive peoples who had never seen a white man.
“‘When the dinner plates were cleared he carefully placed a ragged leather folio on the table.
“‘One by one he brought out pictures of white and Bengal tigers, pygmy elephants and deer, crimson lizards and coiled mosaic snakes, orange monkeys and wildly patterned parrots and macaws. Each animal was truly wonderful, the breathing spirit of the beast or bird present in the avid eyes and vibrant colors and the volumes so fluidly rendered that the creatures seemed captured for an instant, reduced and trapped in mid heartbeat on the paper’s flat surface rather than drawn by a brush. “‘As I marveled at the brilliant paintings that seemed alive and more than paintings I recalled my poor attempts with watercolors—my sad albatross perched on the mast’s crosstree and the three winged flying fish above the wave—and felt a stinging shame. “‘I looked closely at my white-haired visitor, at his worn clothes and frail shoulders and hands, at his sun-wrinkled face and fallen mouth. He resembled beggars I had seen through my telescope, aged men who wandered about the ports begging alms. I remembered my father’s constant admonition about the deceptiveness of appearances, a warning I ignored when I met handsome Eduardo and plighted my troth. “‘I realized our guest was a genius, an unknown and unrewarded master of masters. He sat at our table on our ship in the harbor and ours were the first Western eyes to see his life’s splendid work. “‘Finally, he set out the last picture. “The other paintings had been truly striking in their perfect artistry of detail and realistic animation, but now I felt breathless and more amazed, suddenly I’d been transported to an undreamed of realm of experience and understanding. “‘I also felt afraid. “‘The picture was of a different order. I leaned forward, as if an invisible hand gripped the back of my neck and pushed me toward the table, before I pulled back, anxious that the painted image would lift its wings and leap from the paper.’” “‘What was it, Belle?’ I asked.” “‘It was a butterfly, an exceedingly rare, almost undiscovered species the man had seen high in the Himalayas, beyond Nepal near the border of China and Tibet. He spoke the insect’s Latin scientific name, then the word the local people knew it by, that meant ‘Wonder of Heaven.’ “‘My husband stared at it, bending close over the painting. “‘“It’s magnificent,” he whispered at last, “don’t you think, Belle?” “‘I agreed that it was exquisite, like some living jewel. “‘The intricate butterfly had begun to make me apprehensive, I wanted to look at it for hours and days, for the rest of my life, and I wanted to turn and run away, to forget that I ever knew it existed. There was something frightful about it, as if we’d come upon a sleeping god and opened his hand and found the butterfly. “‘“Yes,” said Eduardo, radiantly he smiled in agreement. “A living jewel.” “‘And then suddenly I felt terribly fatigued, watching the butterfly’s gaze and its myriad vivid markings had drawn something from deep inside me, some private vital energy that now belonged to the emerald-eyed insect. “‘I said goodnight, thanking the elderly man for sharing his collection. As he rose and bowed, taking my hand and lowering his lips to my skin, I shivered, but not with disgust at his ruined age and homeliness. He no longer seemed noble and pathetic, now I felt that he was somehow sinister, that his art was not his own but a stolen gift he’d gained by stealth or magic—or in trade, by conjuring dark forces and bartering his soul— “‘For a moment, I imagined he was young, no more than 20. “‘With an effort I stood and excused myself, then stumbled to my cabin and without undressing fell down on my berth and plunged into asleep. “‘Immediately I dreamed that the butterfly had escaped and flew above the ship and its white sails, then swooped toward the blue waves and through my open porthole. The butterfly circled above my uncovered body, watching me as I watched it and realized I couldn’t move my arms or legs, I couldn’t tense my smallest finger or speak or cry out as the butterfly held out its great colored wings with curving stripes and swirling spots and started to descend. “‘Then I dreamed that Eduardo and the painter had entered my door and that I didn’t rise from my bed to object but only closed my eyes and slept more deeply—’” “Now Belle Solar looked at me closely, as if her large eyes touched every pore of my face and looked through me, before she continued— “‘Later, when I woke and regained my senses, I realized that what had happened was planned from the first, that when I left the table and returned to my cabin they had followed me and slipped off my clothes as I slept.’ “‘How—?’ I asked. “‘At dinner my husband had drugged my wine, the artist had given him a pill that contained opium, a potion made of several powders that slowed the heart and breathing and caused a false but apparent death, a deep dreamless faint that lasted a week or more. “‘One morning I woke alone and instantly I understood that many days had passed from the night I lay down after seeing the butterfly. I looked out the porthole and the open sea stretched to the horizon. The sun’s latitude shone several degrees south of Jakarta, we’d sailed hundreds of leagues. “‘As I sat up, throwing back the sheet, I saw something else had changed— ‘I kept trying to wake, praying that I dreamed, in the dream wetting my hand and rubbing and rubbing to erase the colored ink that had sunk beneath the skin. I shouted and beat my fists against the bed’s wood frame, I studied my face in a mirror, to make certain who I was, then threw it down and tore my hair and bit my fingers but when I looked again the nightmare wouldn’t stop. “‘I remembered that a cabinet held a Turkish dagger. If I opened the drawer and found the knife, I would know beyond doubt that what I saw on waking was real and would never disappear, I wasn’t dreaming and there was only one escape. “I pulled the brass knob and stared at the knife, at its gleaming crescent blade and ivory handle and silver guard. “‘I grasped the ivory and held the curved steel just above my heart, looking aslant at my body, at what had been my body before my husband had brought the old man. “‘I lifted the knife, ready to bring it down with all my strength, then let its tip fall slowly until the point touched and drew a single drop of blood less red than three scarlet spots drawn across my breast, on the white skin that had turned to magenta and Prussian blue. “‘It was then that I decided to wait, to pretend to continue my long sleep, until Eduardo came to my cabin to enjoy his handiwork. “‘I’d stab and kill him—he was never my husband, he was a monster, a hateful fiend!—before I took my own life. “‘I lay back and as I waited for his step in the passageway I slowly examined the butterfly, every farthest part and reach of it, the manner in which it was all woven and interlaced and deepened into itself, altering as one color opened inward and shaded to another and another, without end, like the blue eye of a peacock’s feather, like the darker, richer lines within a tiger’s broader stripe. “‘The butterfly was exactly the same, identical to the painting in the folio, only now it was alive, not etched on dead paper but part of my own breathing skin, but not just my skin, it was Belle Solar. “‘I had become the butterfly.’” “Did she kill Eduardo?” “Belle Solar wasn’t a murderer, but she had a keen hatred for cruelty and a sense of rightful justice like a compass needle, Simple Truth was her True North. She was good and very intelligent, much brighter than the dreadful man she had married, and instantly she understood the perfect punishment.” “What was that?” “Each night she allowed him to come into her cabin, to sit in a chair as she lay on the bed. She never let him touch her again, she said she’d kill herself first. He pleaded with her but each time he began to stir she lifted the knife, holding it above the heart of the butterfly, then lowering the blade until it nearly touched her and he sat back again.” “Then what happened?” “Six months later he caught a fever off Bombay. “‘I suppose,’ Belle said, she still clasped my hand, ‘the butterfly killed him.’ “With herself as captain, Belle and her crew sailed the Indian Ocean around Africa, crossed the Atlantic to Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires, Brazil and Argentina, to Chile and around Cape Horn. Her black hair blew loose in the sea wind, her dark eyes read the stars when she took the wheel at midnight and saw the Southern Cross. Then up the coast of South America past Peru to Mexico and California, she brought The Manifold to San Francisco.” “And you saw it?” “As she finished her story she stood before me again, then let the silk gown fall from her shoulders, past her lovely breasts and waist.” I opened my arms, bending my hands. “The wings flew out, then scalloped in, out, like an hourglass, toward her knees. The antennae were black and finely drawn, close together at first. Then they slowly curved, shading to purple, blue, then black again to make tight spiral curls about each breast, where the upper wingtips reached. “And the colors—strange greens and lavenders, burnished golds, swirling pinks and yellow saffron, coral, indigo, now maroon, here a band of crimson, there a carmine, sudden cobalt, now cool azure, violet, ultramarine, on and on—all distinct yet blended, fathomless suggestions of color, wavering back and forth. “‘Watch, Dolly,’ Belle told me, ‘watch closely so you’ll know what I saw when I woke that morning in my bed on The Manifold.’ “The figure seemed alive, independent yet instantly responsive to Belle’s most delicate gesture and breath. Her merest whisper of movement sent a shiver across the length and span of the butterfly, new colors flickering, shining and rearranging, vanishing, the wings trembling, ready to lift from her skin—” “‘You’ll think me mad,’ she said, ‘at first I thought myself mad, but it changes—’ “‘I believe you, Belle,’ I said, ‘I can see.’ “‘No, Dolly,’ she said. ‘With the moon—’” “Really?” As I tried to describe the Butterfly to Kate—I’d been just her age—I saw it again for the first time too, as I had discovered it in my bedroom in Aaron’s house in San Francisco, after I woke and Dr. Bolger smiled and whispered, “Many men will leave the Earth on the wings of the Butterfly—” In the room’s pressing heat I felt overwhelmed and despaired of finding the exact words to match the miraculous.
I reminded Kate that the Eskimos had 33 names for snow and lived in igloos with window panes of frozen fresh water, that the Hopi had no past or future verb tense, only present, yet their language was supple and complex enough to describe Einstein’s Theory of Relativity—once a month they bathed in steam from hot rocks, then ran from the sweat lodge and dived into icy mountain waters before they chewed buttons of peyote cactus to see God.
Like a hidden rainbow, the entire color spectrum was contained in white light.
I’d read once that Moslem women weaving flawless Persian rugs mistied one knot so as not to challenge the perfection of Allah. If Dr. Bolger had dropped a stitch, I had never seen the mark— But then I had never seen the Butterfly. “Have you ever closed your eyes and looked at the sun?” Forever and effortlessly the wings and body kept evolving, opening out into a hundred fresh generations and involutions that superceded the last flashing patterns fading always across my eyes that had turned to mirrors trying to capture fire. It was evergreen, like a redwood, Sequoia semperviren, or a pine. “And the men were changed afterward?” “‘Full fathom five./ These are the pearls that were his eyes./ He hath suffered a sea change.’” Kate took a deep breath and smoothed out the velvet dress. “You got this the day you met Belle Solar.” “Yes,” I said. “Aaron gave it to me.” “Huh.” Kate stared at the dress. “It’s beautiful.” “Isn’t it?” “It is.” “Would you like to try it on?” Kate looked up, surprised. “May I?” I nodded. Kate quickly stood, unbuttoning her blouse and stepping out of her shorts. Legs and calves, back and shoulders, every secret curve at breast and hip—she had taken my perfect young body. She leaned over, holding her long hair with one slender hand, carefully pulling the dress over her head. I hooked the back.
“Let me see you.”
Shyly, Kate turned around. “How pretty,” I managed. It was as if I saw myself safe in heaven. Kate shut her eyes. She lifted her arms shoulder-high and made a circle. Smoothly, surely, she embraced an invisible partner and they began a slow waltz, turning about the room with closed eyes with her head on his shoulder until it was young Ramon Zapata and I who danced. Then they hesitated, she dropped her hands and began to spin, in a figure eight, faster and faster.
Her body was slim as the twirled stem of a rose, now Murrietta’s diamonds flared like waking stars and raced in streaks among the pale rhinestones and garnets
Kate’s thick hair swung in red and brown waves like a willow blowing, green and white in the wind. She spun quicker, in a blur, then slowed, coming into focus and stopped, her purple afterimages converging, all her whirling others, the 100 different Kates wearing the same velvet dress, one girl for each night she ran to meet Eddie Dodge, slipping back into a single body— “Bravo,” I said, clapping my hands. I was breathless. “Did you go dancing in this dress?” “Many times, with Aaron. Then later with other men—” I felt dizzy. “With Ramon?” Kate’s green eyes looked suddenly deep into mine. “No,” I said. “Not with Ramon. Never with Ramon.” “You visited him in Hollywood?” “I saw him in San Francisco, he was on his way north. By then he was Domingo Esquivel—” “He still loved you?” “I don’t know,” I said, turning away. “I still loved him. ‘Buena suerte, Senorita,’ he said, ‘Good luck, Lady.’” “He played Murrietta in the movies?” “Just Zorro. Different pirates.” “Murrietta’s fiancée was the woman with the butterfly?” “No—that was another Belle Solar.” “Who found the buried treasure?” “Murrietta—I mean Ramon—when he was hypnotized—” “He was Joaquin, in another life?” “That’s what Aaron said.” “And you were Belle Solar?” “That’s what Ramon said.” I felt like I answered questions in a dream— Then Kate said she had to help Kyla make dinner. She bent down for me to unhook the dress, then tucked her head and slipped it off.
Kate folded it and laid it at the foot of the bed. She put on her shorts and shirt. The next time I would ask her if she wanted to wear it to meet Eddie Dodge, it would be a wonderful surprise!
What other girl wore a million dollars on her back? “Thank you,” Kate said. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” “Yes. Tell Eddie hello.” Kate closed the door and I thought, At last. I had shared my heart’s secret, I was no longer alone with the Butterfly. The air remained blue and whirling from Kate’s dance and Ferraro’s clippings lifted in unison, like a fanfare, as the metal blades set the room afloat on a fresh river of wind. Out the window all the morning world to the Coast Range was spread below in perfect blocks of green fields with little straw-hatted men on red and blue tractors raising blonde puffs of dust and plowing the straight rows like the lines of the I Ching’s hexagrams.
11. T’ai / Peace
above C’UN THE RECEPTIVE, EARTH
below CH’EN THE CREATIVE , HEAVEN
PEACE. The small departs,
The great approaches.
Good fortune. Success.
News of the Butterfly had gone out into the world and for a moment in gratitude I wept. But the sun climbed the afternoon sky, beating with white hammer strokes against the shingled roof that let heat run like heavy syrup down the walls. The television said it was 106 degrees. And the baby with the new heart had just died in Los Angeles— Perspiring and waiting for evening—soon Kate would hurry across the dewed blue lawn!—I began to think of mother and daughter downstairs in the cool kitchen, chatting over the cold salad they prepared, Kyla and Kate slicing crisp tomatoes and iceberg lettuce and Armenian cucumbers long as chilled scimitars, talking about little, unimportant things—
Pepper, a dove singing at the window, a broken watch.
“Mrs. Grayson told me some story about a tattoo—” “There’s a peeler in the drawer.” I felt both exposed and diminished, now my secret wasn’t secret but it didn’t matter, the world had turned away and no longer cared about the Butterfly— At the end of the hot bed the purple dress looked more faded, heavy and old as a discarded wool coat in the attic of the house in Acacia. In the heat Murrietta’s diamonds gleamed gaudier than cheap paste. The square room seemed to shrink like a constricting cell and I recalled the illustration from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum,” how the walls of scalding iron closed on the prisoner of the Spanish Inquisition, forcing him toward the gaping hole at the center of the floor. My heart wanted to skip and it was hard to catch my breath, the Wild Turkey Kentucky bourbon didn’t help and I put the bottle back in the drawer as I sensed the Butterfly shiver and change color with the rising moon— I was afraid to close my eyes after I watched Kate step from the trellis in a tight, blood-scarlet dress with a slit up the side, afraid she wouldn’t come back, that something would happen. Afraid the Butterfly would leave. You’ll die tonight, the fan said for the first time. Just weeks before, Kate and I had watched Ferraro on the news at a massive rally. Crowds of women wept and sang, holding banners and paper hearts: We Love You, Gerry! Hope! Sisters Unite! The report ended and the credits ran down the screen and I stared at the shot of the Statue of Liberty encased in a spider web of scaffolding, so the Lady resembled the hollow shell of some lost dead thing, a gothic cathedral bombed in the war. Her shackled hand was empty, the torch taken down. “We’ll get it back up, we’ll light the flame again, just like Rafer at the Olympics,” I told Kate. “Ferraro will.” Now I wasn’t sure—How could the president of the United States joke about dropping the A Bomb? Mrs. Watkins had stopped Kyla out by the mailbox, trying to get her to sign a petition to put Reagan’s head on Mt. Rushmore.
Watkins’ white peacocks shrieked and I thought again of rape, intrusion, if not here then close by, and worried with Kate in red beyond the vineyard and the Standpipe Strangler on the loose—
I heard her return to the house after only an hour and Saturday morning when she stopped by she seemed sullen, noncommittal when I mentioned Eddie or Ferraro or Ramon. I reminded her cheerfully that Ferraro’s birthday was approaching, we’d have to get ready. Not a word. Kate barely glanced at the purple dress, she didn’t ask to put it on, she didn’t mention Belle Solar’s story of the Butterfly— After a few minutes she abruptly rose to leave, shrugging her shoulders and hardly turning when I asked her what outfit she might wear tonight. I had quick fearsome nightmares—the claustrophobic blue Cadillac as Eddie drove and drove trying to find Kyla’s farm, Bodie the ghost town and beyond the pale the woman’s face in the water stain of the fallen pine tombstone, in the blowing snow as I wrestled the car through the dangerous skid north of Bishop the white owl like the Butterfly turned deathly pale and flying off—when I tried to nap. My heart jumped and pounded in my arm, every slightest twinge or new sensation was the Butterfly stirring. In the elm the dove that sang at evening was silent, gone, now at dusk a great horned owl called in a deep fearful bass. The TV ran a black and white ad for the San Francisco Examiner, of Dr. Frankenstein’s darkened stone castle on a night of storm. Inside the great empty hall, silence and classic shadow. With a sickening boom, like the Bomb going off, lightning flashed at the leaded window, illuminating the portrait above the massive fireplace. It was Hearst, staring down like a vampire. His grandson gazed up in adoration, the picture’s hawk eyes almost moved, as a threatening voice intoned, “He’s coming back!”
I shuddered as I remembered the suited men who had approached me on the street with the envelope stuffed with money, insisting I come with them in the black car to La Cuesta Encantada, The Enchanted Hill, to meet “The Chief.”
I heard Kate on the trellis and nearly flew to the window, just in time to see her running in torn jeans and a faded pink-and-white polka-dotted bikini top out of the porch light and down the vine row.
I was upset by “Gaslight,” the old movie I saw on the late show while I worried for hours for Kate to come home in the swimming suit like a white sky with pink stars. Charles Boyer played a jewel thief who was poisoning his wife, Ingrid Bergman, to steal her mother’s diamonds—The jewels waited upstairs in the attic, hidden among the rhinestones of an evening dress. He turned the gas on and off, so she’d nearly faint and he could ransack the house—
Did someone suspect, about Murrietta’s treasure? I found the gold-plated Colt derringer in the trunk, squeezed the ivory handles each carved with a raised butterfly and slipped the gun under my pillow but I couldn’t rest until I heard Kate among the roses and her screen swinging back as the reddish moon was setting beyond the Sierra Madre, the Coast Range. Sunday morning after breakfast Kate seemed drowsy, less on edge but also less responsive—as I spoke about the difference between Ramon Zapata and Domingo Esquivel—I didn’t mention The Manifold and the make-believe Belle Solar at sea with the Butterfly—I realized she had fallen asleep beside the purple dress at the end of the bed. I watched her pretty face, her closed lids beside the watching diamonds. I woke her gently with my hand, and she opened her eyes and seemed confused, as if she didn’t recognize me or where she was. She sat up and said she had to hurry to town, there was something she’d forgot that she needed to do, she’d promised to get her father a special book on the Rosicrucians at the library. I had a strange intuition, that she’d just dreamed that she was the woman on the ship, that the porthole was open and the butterfly had flown in and hovered just above her. “Are things all right,” I asked, “with Eddie and you?” “Yes,” she said, her green eyes suddenly looking into mine, “why shouldn’t they be?” “I’m sure they are,” I said, “please tell Eddie hello for me.” “I will,” she said. “I’m sorry. I guess I’m a little tired. I think I better go take a nap.” I sensed something was turning, I was afraid to watch the news on TV, I didn’t want to know what new threat Reagan had made against the Russians or Nicaragua, I wasn’t hungry when Kyla brought my meals—I could hardly touch my food, maybe it was the heat or the Republicans ready to convene or too many cigarettes, a third or fourth cocktail after dinner— Sunday night Kate left the house in high zippered boots and an orange and gray winter outfit with a black diagonal stripe across the bodice—I saw her catch her heel as she turned and jumped three rungs from the lawn. She fell on one knee, putting out one hand to break her fall. Instantly she turned her head, watching the screen porch, then got up limping as she struggled across the lawn with the dark slash cutting her in two—like the I Ching’s Yin and Yang—and slowly disappeared down the high corridor of vines . . . . Whatever was unraveling now Kate was physically hurt, an easy target like a wounded dove for the strangler, and nervously I chain smoked and drank until I must have drifted off— I was dreaming of New Year’s in San Francisco and Aaron Markham appeared suddenly in white and demanded the purple dress for Lei Wang and in a moment I’d raise the gold gun—when I heard the knob turn and the door fly open, banging hard against the wall. I sat up, grabbing under the pillow for the gun with the butterfly grips as I tried to make out the shadowed figure looming above me, a tall silhouette in the yellow hall light. I didn’t know if it were Kate or the murderer who roamed the fields or Charles Boyer or Aaron returned from the grave to kidnap me again, from the Acacia Harvest Fair and take me to San Francisco where the Butterfly was waiting— “Mother, it's me!” “Kyla?” Confused, groggy and half asleep, fresh from a nightmare of gunshots and blood on New Year’s Eve in Aaron’s house, I nearly jerked the trigger. Kyla mentioned some nonsense about smoke, that something was burning, and I told her I’d just had a cigarette.
It was the first time Kyla had called me “Mother,” but only after I had almost let the little hammer strike the pin and light the brass case that held the bullet.
“For heaven’s sake, give me that gun—” Kyla threw out an open palm. “No,” I said, bringing the derringer back to my lap. “It’s not loaded, I’ve never fired it once.” “We’ll talk about it the morning,” Kyla said and closed the door. Monday morning early, for Kyla’s protection and my own, I tied the string to the lock—luckily I found a ball of heavy cotton cord in the bottom drawer of the night table, as if it were waiting for me to use it . . . . It worked well, with a flick of my wrist I could throw and close the swinging lever to the lock without leaving the bed. “What’s this about?” Kyla asked, after I let her in with my breakfast. “It’s better this way. Sometimes when I wake up I get scared. It’s the peacocks.” “You scared me last night—” “So did you.” “Did Kate get back?” I almost asked. So it was a standoff. When Kate came later, she knocked, tried the knob and knocked again. “Dear?” “Yes, it’s me—” With relief I pulled the string and the door swung open. Kate just stood there, staring at the long cord that dipped in a crescent sag to the bed. “You got home all right?” She didn’t answer or budge and I remembered that last night she’d hurt her knee. “Would you mind closing the door? Come and rest on the bed.” Kate shut it with her hip, and crossed the room, passing the purple dress without a look to stand at the window with her back turned. At least her leg seemed all right. She raised her hand, to touch the pane, and for a moment I thought she meant to lift the sash. “How our things?” I asked carefully. “I’m okay.” “That’s good. And how’s Eddie?” “Okay—” She dropped her hand. “That’s good too. Both of you are well.” “I guess so—” There was something dry in her voice. “Don’t you want to throw the I Ching?” I asked. The two times Kate had voiced a doubt she’d asked and received the same oracle, smiling widely as I nodded and told her it was no accident, the book was alive, it could speak and always told only the truth:
8. Pi / Holding Together (Union)
above K’AN THE ABYSMAL, WATER
below C’UN THE RECEPTIVE, EARTH
The waters on the surface of the Earth flow together whenever they can, as for example in the ocean, where all the rivers come together. When there is a real rallying point, those who at first are hesitant or uncertain gradually come in of their own accord. Late-comers must suffer the consequences, for in holding together the question of the right time is also important. Relationships are formed and firmly established according to definite inner laws. Common experiences strengthen these ties, and he who comes too late to share in these basic experiences must suffer for it if, as a straggler, he finds the door locked. “No—” She turned quickly, moving toward the door. “I just wondered.” “I’ve got to go—” “Wait—” “No, there’s nothing to say— I never want to— I never want to ask again—” As the door closed she was crying. That evening—it was Monday, the Republican Convention opened in Dallas—for the first time all summer (without warning me that tonight she and Eddie wouldn’t meet) Kate didn’t leave the house— I listened urgently for the sound of the trellis, over the hooting owl and the disturbing TV coverage— Jean Kirkpatrick, U. S. ambassador to the United Nations, was explaining that the “San Francisco Democrats” weren’t “doves” or “hawks” but “ostriches” and “always blame America first,” too terrified to stand up to the “Evil Empire”— (“What would become of Africa if Europe fell under Soviet domination? “What would become of Europe if the Middle East came under Soviet control? “What would become of Israel, if surrounded by Soviet client states? “What would become of Asia if the Philippines or Japan fell under Soviet domination? “What would become of Mexico if Central America became a Soviet satellite?) On and on, like Aaron’s whistled round from Ancient Crete, like an anti-butterfly . . . . In the morning Kate didn’t knock, or Tuesday and Wednesday or Thursday morning after that— Wednesday night the president of the Moral Majority declared that Reagan and Bush were “God’s instruments for rebuilding America,” from the podium the Reverend Jerry Falwell preached prayer in the schools, censorship, a ban on abortion, no to the ERA, the Equal Rights Amendment, yes on the death penalty— In the evenings as the unsettling convention unfolded Kate’s window screen remained closed, she didn’t run across the lawn in her stylish white slacks and scarlet blouse toward the waiting fields and Eddie Dodge. “Who? Who?” The owl hooted twice. Friday had been like the other frightening days— A gray jackrabbit browsed the border of the lawn, until the great-horned owl cried from the elm and I returned to bed and gripped the string, listening above the fan’s whirr for Aaron Markham’s knock, for the first bomb blast to end the world as a passing truck shook the window and a scared peacock cried out— For the sudden beating of the Butterfly’s silent and enormous wings— “And the men were changed afterward?” “Quoth the Raven, ‘Nevermore.’” It was Saturday and I sipped my tepid drink in the dark room, forgetting the colored cawing crow that had flown past the house at sunset, looking out past the tree at the sleeping vineyard under the million dusty stars, wondering where the man at noon—the man in the moon—who resembled Ramon had gone in the white car, after I’d stood at the north window and shown him the Butterfly, who the woman and children with him had been . . . . A door slammed downstairs. Before long I would hear Kyla’s steps on the stairs, Kyla bringing dinner. Above my head Ferraro’s clippings rose suddenly like tattered sails and I imagined The Manifold drifting derelict through hot tropic seas, Belle lying drugged in her cabin with the porthole open and gulls flying in— Coo coo coo coo— Somewhere a last dove called before the owl! I’d almost forgotten! The Sun Damsel, the woman who modeled for the girl on the raisin box, died yesterday at 93, but tomorrow was Ferraro’s 49th birthday—before things had gone bad, Kate and I had promised each other we’d have a special celebration—
49. Ko / Revolution (Molting)
above TUI THE JOYOUS, LAKE
below C’UN THE CLINGING, FIRE
The Chinese character for this hexagram means in its original sense an animal’s pelt, which is changed in the course of the year by molting. From this the word is carried over to apply to the “moltings” in political life, the great revolutions connected with changes of governments. And Delmus’ harvest party was in the morning, for an hour I’d heard him sharpening the knife in the barnyard.
Tomorrow the pig would die.
The fan turned below the lines of changing stars as the Big Dipper poured from its cup the bright far planet where I was king.
Nels Hanson has worked as a farmer, teacher, and contract writer/editor. He graduated from UC Santa Cruz and the University of Montana and his fiction received the San Francisco Foundation’s James D. Phelan Award. His stories have appeared in Antioch Review, Texas Review, Black Warrior Review, Southeast Review, Long Story, Short Story, Montreal Revies, and other journals. "Now the River's in You," a 2010 story which appeared in Ruminate Magazine, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.