My mother’s guardian never quite left the Victorian Era behind and I dreaded being dragged to her house every Sunday to visit. Her pale skin stretched across her cheeks and smelled heavily of lavender powder bathing the many creases in her face. Her skin always startled me with its translucence, as if you could read a newspaper through it, if you had to. She wore her long gray hair in a tightly curled braid on the top of her head, and secured it with several pins with butterflies at their tips. Her home was an ancient mausoleum, tall, dark and foreboding, badly in need of a coat of paint. I always thought she liked it that way, but my mother said she never painted it again after she was widowed in the Great War, and so it returned to bare wood over the years, aged and soft, rather like her skin.
Whenever my mother and I would visit, I was uneasy sitting in the parlor on the stiff velvet settee, hands in lap, listening politely to their conversation. I had to peer over the tall black lacquered table with a heavy marble top that stood in the center of the room just to see them. There was an inkwell in the shape of a large crab, pinchers raised, that sat in the middle of it. A terrifying posture that always made me feel I was being warned. It was carved from a cannon ball, my grandmother said, an honest to god cannon ball. How could this be? To one side of the room sat an ancient upright piano I was never allowed to touch. An enormous Christmas cactus in a massive pot sat on a stand in front of one of the two windows in the room, obscuring the daylight and only adding to the gloom inside. A heavily carved black lacquered coat rack stood in the opposite corner, covered with old coats and hats that appeared to have last been warn in the WWII, covered as they were in a fine dust. The entire ensemble gave off the unmistakable aura of a place that modern time had forgotten, and an unmistakable sense of decay and doom. All this I observed as I sat listening to their conversation, focusing on the butterflies in her hair. They were beautiful, jeweled insects that appeared to move their wings every time she moved her head. Trembling and shaking as if they were alive. But of course they were only paste and glass, mounted on springs to great effect. They were fascinating to watch.
The hours dragged, but my focus kept returning to the butterflies in her hair. Moving their wings magically up and down and quivering in the way butterflies do when there is the slightest breeze.
They want to fly away from here, I thought. They want to be free.
At last it was time to go. Standing on her porch, I knew this was the time for me to embrace her warmly, if only for my mother’s sake. I hesitated a moment, knowing my cheek would soon press against her translucent skin, fearful I would somehow tear it. I leaned in and wrapped my arms around her ample waist. It was then from the corner of my eye I saw them take wing and disappear into the sky.
I was right about the butterflies.