Butterflies Behind Glass

We are returning from church when the biplane crashes in our back lawn. Straight down like a shooting star, planting its propeller amidst the zucchini crop. Grandmother can’t see, blind bat that she is, and thinks the crash is the sound of Mr. Hardy’s rifle shooting at another squirrel. And when mother squeals so loudly she faints like a slug atop father, he drives us over the curb so that my sister and I cave in on our poor, fragile grandmother, sandwiched between us and whipping her fan back and forth.

When we pull in the drive, I’m ordered to lift mother down and move grandmother into the house while father goes to investigate. I won’t have it, so the moment I throw mother on the parlor sofa I dart to find him.

He tries to fight me away, but I’m stubborn and dig my shoes into the dirt. I ask him what it is and he tells me there’s a person, a man in the cockpit. So we both grab a limb and drag him onto the grass, underneath the shade of the cedar. I’m told to fetch a pitcher of water, and when I do so father pours it ice-and-all onto the man’s face. He awakens as if out of a long sleep, like he’s refreshed and stretches his arms to the clouds. Then he smiles.

“Good afternoon,” he says, glancing around at the mess he made. “My apologies—this must have been quite the inconvenience for you all.”

Father barks back, thinking him snide and this all some elaborate prank. But when I giggle, the man looks to me and smirks. I help him inside, take him to the guest room and lay him onto the bed. I immediately attend to his wounds and wrap gauze around his forehead like some cinematic war hero. His eyes are stones, and cold and blue. They say eyes tell a lot about a person, so it’s a good thing I don’t believe in superstition. I notice them because he won’t stop staring at me. When I take off his aviator helmet and goggles, it unleashes a mane of long golden hair.

“What’s your name?” I ask.

“Kurt.”

“I’m Cassy.”

“How old are you, Cassy?”

“Eighteen.”

He snickers. “Adulthood is a mighty fine thing in a girl.”

I remove his bomber and shirt. As I study this stranger’s bare chest, father beckons me from downstairs, so I up and leave. It’s as if I can picture his smirk when I dash away, like he knows something that I don’t.

I enter the parlor and there’s father, mother, and grandmother—the ladies seated like gargoyles with perfect posture. They still wear their Sunday best. I ask mother how her head is faring, but father shushes me. He makes his demand known: he wants the stranger out. “We can’t simply allow a stranger into our home,” he says, cigar hanging from his lips.

“Well we can’t just kick him homeless to the streets,” I say.

“Oh Cassy,” he says, “You’re so naïve.”

“I don’t trust him,” mother adds. “He gives me bad feelings.”

“Why is that?”

Then, in a low whisper: “His hair is so long, couldn’t you see? That’s a sign they’re no good.”

“I read somewhere that means they’re a Satanist,” grandmother says.

“Enough,” says father. “We don’t know anything about this man. Where he’s from, what he does, who his family is.”

“Far as we know he could be a liberal,” mother says with a laugh.

“I read somewhere they’re all becoming Communists,” grandmother says.

“That’s beyond the point,” says father. “He leaves tomorrow morning.”

“He could kill us in the nighttime,” mother says.

“I doubt that,” I say.

“Think of your sister!”

“Where is she, anyway?” I ask.

“I didn’t want to worry her with this,” mother tells me. “You know how she gets.”

“No, I don’t.”

Jane has always been the favorite of the family name. There’s always a favorite. She’s younger, more beautiful, has more of a chance to marry and have lots of children. Jane is their precious treasure, their godsend. Everyone gravitates to her, including suitors. And thus she’s guarded like a pearl.

“Ladies,” father says, “It’s decided. He leaves tomorrow.”

“What will we do about the plane?” mother asks. “And what if he’s dangerous? You know how those men get around such pretty girls. What if he has drugs on him, or does pot?”

“I read somewhere that a kid just died from it,” grandmother says.

“Father, listen,” I say, “I just saw his wounds. There’s no possible way he’ll be able to stand tomorrow morning, let alone walk out the front door.”

There’s a brief silence while everyone stares at father.

“Fine. He stays until he heals, but you will be the stranger’s nurse. And just you.”

“I don’t want him around her,” mother tells father.

“It’s decided.”

I oblige, not because I want to or that the stranger intrigues me, but because I have no other choice when I got myself to this point.

Following dinner I take a tray of leftovers to the pilot, still bedridden. He’s happy to see me, or is convincingly polite. I tell him I’m his nurse for now and he smiles cheek-to-cheek. I try to sit him up, but he moans that his ribcage feels as if it’s collapsing and he imagines I’ll have to feed him.

“Where are you from?” I ask. It was too silent. One could only hear the fan on his face.

It’s a simple question, but he turns it complicated as men do. He’s originally from Germany (he lost the language) and his mother immigrated to Minnesota when his father abandoned them for an underage prostitute. There, his mother garnered the attention of quite the alcoholic, who used to beat Kurt. Withstanding this for a while, Kurt began reading up on the Wright Brothers and Alberto Santos-Dumont, and within the barren fields of the Midwest began to gather materials to fabricate his own aircraft. It wouldn’t come off the ground until he had the bright idea to tie flocks of carrier pigeons like balloons to each wing, and it flew him overnight to Michigan, over the Great Lakes, to Buffalo, down to Wilkes-Barre, and in a blink to Kentucky. One day while in the center of a cumulus cloud, a bird became undone and delivered him a note with the word GOODBYE written in elegant calligraphy, and suddenly every pigeon left their manila chains and formed a cloud of their own, landing Kurt into our backyard.

“You must be joking,” I say.

“Maybe a little,” he laughs, “I didn’t actually go to Buffalo, just a town outside of it.”

That night I tell my sister all about him. I climb underneath her sheets, turn it into a tent, and share Kurt’s tale word-from-word, with extra emphasis on how handsome our visitor is. Jane blushes and calls me scandalous, giggling so loudly the blankets blow around above us.

She’s my confidante, Jane. I tell her everything.

“Oh Cassy,” she says, “Can’t I meet him?”

When I mention that he might be asleep, Jane grips my arm and begs me to take her to him. So we sneak out of our room and tiptoe through the corridor, as to not stir our parents. Kurt stays in the room just down the hall, and I don’t bother to knock. The lights are on and he’s reading a coffee table book on gardening. When he notices me he smirks.

“Who’s this beautiful young lady?” he asks me.

“This is my sister, Jane.”

“Hello sir,” she says, extending her hand for him to kiss. “It’s a pleasure.”

“The pleasure is all mine, surely.”

“We didn’t mean to disturb you,” I say. “We’ll be going now. Sleep well.”

As I shut the door on him, Jane tells me she imagined him far more handsome from my description.

The next morning, I amble down to the dining room where our housekeeper prepared flapjacks. When I seat myself the room grows quiet. Jane looks down at her plate.

“We had a promise Cassy,” mother says. “Only you were to attend to our visitor.”

“And I kept that promise,” I say.

“Jane tells us she met the pilot.”

“Yes, but she didn’t nurse him.”

“Cassy,” father says.

The sunrise leaks through the drapes and onto the china. It may be eight o’clock, but a jug of iced tea sits in front of me. The room smells of father’s cigar smoke, and I pour myself a glass of milk.

I don’t blame Jane for telling our parents. She’s younger; she doesn’t comprehend. You’d think she’d have some common sense, but I wasn’t here earlier and don’t know what they said to her.

“You don’t let him touch you, Cassy,” mother says, “You hear me?”

“Why would I—”

“Men like him, they have no moral compass. They’re not like us up north. There’s no morals there. It’s very atheistic, as you can imagine.” Mother fixes her posture, resting her porcelain elbows on the tabletop to get a better view of me. “And to get your sister involved… Why, she’s just a child!”

“She’s sixteen. She’s a grown woman.”

“Maybe you could learn something from her…”

For a moment I’m simply stunned. I push myself away from the table and begin to leave. I almost want Jane to follow me, but she remains taciturn in her seat.

“Think before you act, Cassy,” mother says as I open the door. “Think what they would say if anything got around. That we allowed a stranger to come into our home and take advantage of our daughters. It’s not just you you’re affecting—it’s your entire family.”

“I cannot believe you think I’d do anything with that man,” I say. I look to father for help.

“Oh Cassy,” he says, “You’re so naïve.”

 

That night, something inside me rouses. I stand monolithic in front of my mirror, wearing nothing but lace underwear. I stare at myself, feeling my hands along my skin. My fingers rub at my waistline, and I turn and turn.

So this is what all the fuss is about. This is what my parents guard like a gem; this is what’s prohibited to men. This skinny, imperfect whatever. I suck in my tummy and tilt my head. Just myself and my body—all natural. Is this obscene? My sister would never wear lingerie. If I had any real gall I’d strut around the house in this, march straight into Kurt’s room and present myself like a showgirl. But I’m a coward.

After a few minutes, I have a little too much of myself and leave to dress myself for bed. Then I remember Kurt, and that he hasn’t eaten since earlier this afternoon. So I sneak to the kitchen and gather him a plate, bring it up to him. I find him finally mobile, enough that he can sit himself up. I try lifting him off the bed and walking him around the room, but he only has the strength to grasp onto me the entire time and stumble over his two feet.

“You’ve been my guardian angel, you know that?” he says as I sit him back down.

I nod, position him, and adjust his plate on his lap. Then I turn to leave.

“Don’t go,” he stops me. “I enjoy your company.”

And I can’t tell you how exactly it happens, but the next thing I know he presses his lips on mine. His hands are all over like he’s climbing a mountain, palming my breasts and moaning in between breaths. We’re at this for a while, because his mouth is warm, soft yet firm, and he knows just what to do with my body. That’s a good thing considering I have no idea what I’m doing. This is all new to me; he’s leading and I’m following. I’ve only fantasized about having a man like this, feeling this sexy and vulnerable. And now I have it, and I’m not sure what to think. I just can’t fathom how something this simple can drive people up a wall.

“You’re so tense,” he says.

Am I? I haven’t noticed. Maybe I’m a tad terrified, but I think I’m doing it right. Is there even a right way? He’s just so good. I’m sure he’s experienced—he must do this with all the girls. To him I’m just another tally mark, but I’ll let myself imagine I’m special, just for this moment.

It’s when he leaves my lips and his tongue draws down my neck that I open my eyes and gather my thoughts. His hand shoots up my shirt, and I choke on air. When he feels the lace of my bra he laughs, as if he thinks I wore this to his room expecting something, so he trails his other hand to the inside of my thigh. I remove it, he places it back, and I freeze. I let him keep it there because I don’t want to come off as a prude.

All my eyes can see are his blonde locks curling like the tips of waves, and all I can feel are his lips move to my chest. I can’t do this. I hardly know him. If he thought I was tense before I’m a block of ice now. Everything comes at me at once, that I can’t play into the kind of girl my parents expect me to be. Jane would never do this: she’s the good girl. Why can’t I be more like Jane? But I’m no slut. Kurt must think I’m easy, seducing this pure little vixen in the midst of a few days. Everything everybody wants from me starts to overwhelm me in an onrush. I’m supposed to be a good girl. Boys are like this, but I should know better than to fall for it. I think I could cry. Imagine explaining that to him, that I like this, but I don’t even know if I want it. Certainly no one but Kurt wants this. Maybe me too—I’m not sure yet. What I’m sure of is that I can’t do this.

When his fingers go for it, I clamp my legs together and push myself off the bed. He watches me leave with that same smirk on his face.

I go to the bathroom and sit there for a while. Eventually I head back to my bedroom, where Jane awaits on her side reading a book. When she sees me she gasps.

“Oh Cassy,” she says, “What is that?”

I tell her I have no idea what she’s talking about.

“On your neck,” she tells me, “Look.” She comes to lead me to the vanity.

And there it is, displayed on my skin for all to see: Kurt’s mark of passion.

“What will mother and father say if they see?” Jane says. I just shake my head. She tells me to wait there. Fetching a hairbrush, she starts combing the bruise. I ask what she’s doing and she tells me to trust her, directing me to cover it with makeup come morning, maybe wear a turtleneck. I have no idea where she gained this knowledge.

Then she asks for the details. Reluctantly, I relay the night to her, censoring myself as I go. Yet I’m still shaking from Kurt’s touch and share more than I probably should. She listens to me like it’s sweet music. And the following morning before I head down for breakfast, I try applying makeup to the mark as she said. It doesn’t work as well as I would’ve liked, so I wrap a scarf around my neck and descend the staircase.

The dining room is again full of watchful eyes, all on me. Jane peers down at her plate. When I look to her my expression drops.

Mother clears her throat. We lock eyes and have a stare-down.

“Don’t you have any decency?” she says.

I’m about to reply.

“Don’t lie to us,” she interrupts. “Jane told us everything.”

I can spot Jane swallow. I don’t blame her for telling them. I wasn’t here and don’t know what they said to her.

“Where is it?” mother inquires.

I don’t move because I can’t.

“Show us,” mother says. So I do. I remove the scarf and uncover myself, and weirdly it’s more exploiting than naked in the mirror. “Dear Lord,” mother says, “It’s worse than I believed. I can’t understand you, Cassy. I simply cannot. My own flesh-and-blood! The indecency! You can’t leave the house. Think what they all would say.”

“Oh Cassy,” father says, “You’re so naïve.”

“I read somewhere that a girl came home with a hickey and the next month she was pregnant,” grandmother said.

Hearing this, mother surprises everyone at the table and rushes at me, gripping my hair with the strength of an ox. She drags me down the corridor to the bathroom, takes a washrag, and starts rubbing hard at my neck. It feels like sandpaper.

“I read somewhere that there’s ways to check if she’s still a virgin,” grandmother says. Everyone has gathered at the doorway, observing like some show. Mother’s eyes light up, and she drops the rag from my neck where minuscule cuts have started to collect and bleed.

“Honey, calm yourself,” father says. “There’ll be no need for that.”

“He leaves this afternoon,” mother tells him.

Father looks to me. “Cassy, tell me: can the man move?”

“Hardly. He can’t walk without assistance.” I splutter my words, my palm bandaging my neck.

“He leaves tomorrow,” he says, and it’s final: no one is to attend to the visitor. If he starves, he starves. He’s desperately alone until tomorrow at the crack of dawn.

When we’re back in our room Jane apologizes to me over and over. And I forgive her because she’s my sister and I can’t stay angry at her.

She leaves me be, and I lay in bed until nighttime. I can’t get Kurt out of my head. And the curious thing is that, reflecting on it, I want him back on me. Part of me wants to sneak into his chambers again, but I can’t discern the line between feelings for Kurt and wanting to rebel.

But all that is decided for me in the morning when Jane announces to the family that she is in love with our visitor.

Something in me drops. Mother tenses up. Grandmother begins to say something, but father waves her off like he’s batting at a fly.

“What do you mean you’re ‘in love’ with him?” he says.

“I am,” she answers, with an affirmation of self. “I united with him, and I want to marry him.”

Suddenly I can’t speak.

“You united with him?” mother inquires.

Do you ever feel as if everything surrounding you is in slow motion, moving through tar? There you are—and there’s the world. You’re outside staring in the window, observing reality happen, but you don’t exist in it. You just watch, and watch. That’s how I feel, like the dead butterfly staring back at you through the glass.

“Indeed,” Jane says, “Last night.”

When she hadn’t returned, when she crept in past midnight…She left me piecing myself together to enter the room of the reason I broke in the first place.

Mother claps her hands together and cracks into laughter. “No,” she laughs and laughs, “That isn’t true.”

“I read somewhere of sisters falling in love with the same man, so to resolve the problem one shot the other,” grandmother says.

Mother is laughing so hard she’s going red. I can tell Jane is struggling to keep defiant, and I wonder what I look to them all currently. Jane, the favorite, the pure little pearl—my sister, my best friend, the one who knew all about Kurt and I.

I’ve never felt the piercing of a blade, but this is as close as I want to get to it. Jane may as well have taken a knife to my back, and twisted it around as if she derived some sadistic pleasure. She saw what he caused me, then proceeded to take it a step further. He couldn’t get what he wanted from me so he got it from her.

And as for him? Well, he’s not worth a thought.

Men are awful; that’s something you can always count on. But there’s something different when a woman does you wrong. We’re supposed to be here for each other!

Abruptly, father pushes himself away from the table so forcefully that Jane lets out a stifled gasp. We all follow him down the hall, up the staircase, around the corner, and into Kurt’s room where the pilot isn’t to be found.

It’s about that time when we hear an engine sound off from outside. When we storm out there, Kurt’s seated in his biplane. And, God as my witness, if there weren’t flocks upon flocks of carrier pigeons tied to each wing, ready for takeoff.

I’m pushed aside so Jane can run up to it, shouting at her lung’s capacity, “Take me! Take me with you!” and Kurt waving farewell.

“I must be going!” he calls. “Thank you for the hospitality, but my wife is worried sick and I simply have to get back to her.” And the birds lift him off the ground and take him far away from here.

We never see him again, nor do we ever speak of him again. Because sometimes things are so bad, the only way to keep happy is to avoid it altogether.

photo: “Candy Cigarette,” Sally Mann (1989)

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