Butterfly Boy

Patrice Donnelly

© Copyright 2023 by Patrice Donnelly

Photo by Brocken Inaglory at Wikimedia Commons.
Photo by Brocken Inaglory at Wikimedia Commons.

I’d like to take him up to the crow’s nest if that’s okay with you ma’am. That way he’ll be as high as the butterflies when they arrive,” the captain’s assistant, Mr. Baard offered.  

His face brimming with excitement he asked, “Can I mama, can I?”  

It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity,” he reminded me again with pleading eyes that no mother could resist.  

The first butterflies were already flying in and it wouldn’t be long before the rest of them would be arriving. 

I don’t know…It’s awful high for a five year old to be climbing…" but then again, how could I deny such an avid butterfly researcher this ‘once in a lifetime opportunity. I smiled and nodded to Demetrius who then hugged me with delight.  

Now, be extra careful and do exactly what Mr. Baard tells you to do,” I reminded him. He nodded already ten steps ahead. I watched him bound off with a man who had grown quite fond of him over the past several weeks of our voyage together.  

How anyone could not love this child with his ever growing enthusiasm and dedication to the study of butterflies I thought to myself as I watched them board the ship once again. 

Demetrius fell in love with butterflies when he was just three. As a bedtime story I told him about the father he would never get to know as being the great and noble king of Butterfly Land. 

Will I ever be able to go and see Butterfly Land and my father?” he asked with childlike eagerness.  

One day perhaps” I answered with a hint of sadness in my voice that was undetected by a child so young. 

It became a story he asked me to repeat every night. Eventually he began telling the story back to me with wonderful creative twists that developed into imaginative adventures. During a visit from his grandfather when Demetrius heard about the place where the Monarch Butterflies migrate each, there was no way to curb his determination to visit that land. That following spring we made the plans to sail to the place Demetrius called Butterfly Land. And here we are seeking my five year old's dreamland. 

Once again I looked up at the tall mast for a moment, and turning my eyes I saw Demetrius climbing the rope ladder with Mr. Baard directly behind him. I felt a ripple of anxiety move through me when I realized just how high it was. To the sailors who climb it every morning the crow’s nest seemed nearer. Now to see a small child climb to that height, especially my own, brought the butterflies into my stomach. 

Something caught my eye as I watched Demetrius climb; something that waved alongside of him as he ascended. Shading my eyes from the mid-morning sun I squinted to see. In one of his hands he held his butterfly net and small sketchbook as he climbed. “I should have made him leaves those with me,” I said aloud but only the wind and sails could hear.

Holding the rope that hung above the gangplank I kept my eyes on the footpath as not to lose my footing. I looked up just in time to see the net and sketchbook fall. My stomach churned, what occurred next seemed to happen in slow motion. I watched Demetrius reach out to try and catch his falling treasures and in doing so twisted the rope ladder in such a way that sent both he and Mr. Baard off balance. I could hear Mr. Baard shout something to Demetrius but I couldn’t hear what. 

Demetrius, unable to keep his footing, began to fall. I watched in horror as Mr. Baard grabbed a hold of him by his shirt which sent the ladder flipping around completely. Mr. Baard held desperately to Demetrius, now hanging by his shirt. His young hands tried to reach up to grab Mr. Baard’s, but his shirt was stretched so far that he couldn’t reach it. Frozen in place I felt a scream rising from my stomach to my throat as his cotton shirt gave way and Demetrius fell to the mast several feet below.  

The crew on board saw what was happening and ran to get a net to put under Demetrius. Mr. Baard yelled in a panicked voice for Demetrius to hold fast, saying that help was coming. His eyes barely open as he lay on the pole, the fall dazed Demetrius enough that he didn’t understand what he was told. When he lifted his head everyone yelled in unison for him to be still but the movement had already thrown him off balance. I watched the slow process of his sliding as the men ran up with the rescue net. Demetrius had fallen from the mast and landed face down on the deck. With a scream caught in my stomach everything around me turned to darkness. 

I woke to people fussing over me with smelling salts and blankets. The memory of my son falling shot adrenaline through my veins and it took several men to hold me down, the captain being one of them.  

Be still!” he yelled at me with a voice of authority. It startled me enough to calm the panic.

Help is arriving and it will take both of you to the nearest hospital” he said with a voice full of strength and compassion. 

Hospital?” I asked through eyes blurred with tears. 

Yes, where your boy will be treated properly,” the captain said with promise. 

Demetrius is alive?” I asked through short, chopped breaths between sobs.

Yes… he’s alive, but we don’t know what shape he’s in,” he admitted honestly. Just knowing my son was alive calmed me down enough that I could once again breathe.  

Quietly I waited for the transportation leaning against the cushions. A man and woman whom I didn’t know sat next to me and stroked my hands while quietly repeating a prayer.  

The entire scene seemed surreal. Time and space I could no longer judge, minutes seemed like hours. When the truck arrived the captain met it at the end of the dock. He spoke to the two men before they made their way to the ship, both nodding to me as they passed. Though they said nothing, they expressed their compassion through their eyes. I stared back expressionless.

Once again time seemed to move differently, for it appeared as if they had just passed when suddenly they were coming back again but with a stretcher now in hand. There was a part of me that felt detached, as though I was looking at what was now happening through the eyes of someone else. 

I watched the men as they passed; each held the end of two long poles wrapped with a canvas sheet securely in place. From my low sitting position I couldn’t see whom they carried. I was helped to my feet and led arm in arm to the truck. They had just finished placing Demetrius inside and one of the men climbed in the back with him. I was led to the front next to the driver. The man and woman who stayed by my side for so long said they would continue to pray for my boy as they patted me gently on the arm. I nodded my thanks.

The driver began the slow maneuver around the people who had gathered to watch. I tried not to meet anyone’s eye as we passed. Once we were on the road to the hospital the driver attempted to reassure me that Demetrius would be alright being the strong child that he was. His words were met with my silence. I stared out through the windshield, nothing beyond my own thoughts registered. 

I don’t recall the drive or scenery on the way to the hospital for the next thing I knew we were in front of the small clinic in a completely different town. The driver said something to me when we arrived but his words seemed to fall someplace beyond my recognition. I simply stared back at him blankly. I realized then that I was slipping away in my attempt to control the panic in my stomach. 

Get a grip!” I said to myself demandingly. “For the love of God this is a time I need to be strong for Demetrius!” Somewhere within I felt I needed the same strength as when he was born.

The two men were retrieving the stretcher when the nurse came out. I opened the truck door and slid around back to hear the low whispers.

He will simply have to sit on her lap since we have absolutely no place to put him right now,” the nurse insisted to the two frowning men.  

But she is not well herself” the driver countered just as I rounded the corner of the truck.  

I can hold my son if you please,” my tone signifying that it was not a question but a statement. 

The drivers face flushed with embarrassment at my having heard his complaint. The other man went into the hospital first while the driver and the nurse carefully pulled Demetrius from the back. When he returned, he asked for me to go in and take a seat and they would bring Demetrius in to me.

Walking through the opened door I entered into a small, crowded, dimly lit room. Seeing a small space available on the long wooden bench I sat down. Staring at my shoes I avoided the piercing gaze of those in the room as I waited for my son to be brought in.

They set Demetrius on my lap wrapped in an old woolen blanket. The transfer to me caused him to yelp in pain and I felt the panic rising but held it back with the fierceness of a lion-tamer. “Calm” I repeated inwardly. “Stay calm!”

The two men followed the nurse into the back and it seemed a lifetime had passed since I looked into the sleeping face of Demetrius. Perhaps it was the faded light I thought to myself seeing him older than I remember. His eyes were closed yet his brow was furrowed. I kept as still as possible not wanting to cause him any more pain. After some time I began to look around at those seated in the room.

Directly across from me was a woman with sad, tired eyes. She looked to be in her forties, dressed in a faded brown tunic and slip in shoes. A young child of eight or nine months sat on her lap wrapped in a dingy green blanket. Its face was swollen and yellow in color and I couldn’t make out whether it was a boy or girl. The mother stared past me blankly while rocking the already sleeping child in an automated fashion.

Next to her sat an older man, in his seventies perhaps. He wore long pants that were stained along the legs in several places and wore only one shoe. His shoeless bandaged foot was dark purple both above and below the wrappings; his toes resembled tiny round balloons. On the end of the bench sat a man with his head in his hands facing toward the wall. I could see from the angle where I sat that he wore a grimace though his eyes stayed closed.

On the bench with me sat a young woman that looked to be in her twenties. She had with her a child of three or four. The young girl looked healthy as she clung quietly to her mother’s knee while staring at every person as if to memorize their details. The mother seemed distant, her face flushed due to an apparent fever. Her eyes stayed closed most of the time until the small child beside her periodically shifted position. When they opened, she would glance down and give her child a weak smile before drifting off again.

Sitting on the floor in the corner was a young man I’d guess to be in his twenties. He held his hand in between his crossed legs and stared down at it most of the time. Every so often I noticed him glance over at me and then at Demetrius who laid softly whimpering on my lap in a semi-conscious state.

The two men who drove us walked out from the treatment area together. One walked over to the young man in the corner and thanked him for giving up his seat. He asked to look at his hand which when he lifted it I saw was wrapped in a blood soaked towel. As he removed the towel, I could see a large red cut that didn’t appear to be bleeding any longer. The man instructed him to keep the pressure on it until he was taken into the back and the young man nodded solemnly. It hadn’t dawned on me that he was sitting on the floor while there was a space available on the bench when I arrived. I realized then that this young man had given up his spot for us. I smiled and nodded my thanks when he looked at me again.

On their way out they stopped in front of me and one man put a hand on Demetrius’ forehead and closed his eyes for a moment in prayer. They wished us the best and the driver added that God was surely watching over Demetrius for a fall like that would have killed another. My heart dropped into my stomach hearing those words and tears erupted from my eyes without warning.

Let the angels protect him,” he added quickly knowing his mistake and made his way out of the door hurriedly. I heard the sound of the truck as it started and listened until it could no longer be heard…

The sound of someone calling my name jolted me back into the room. I hadn’t realized I drifted away again… A young nurse was standing in front of me. She asked quietly if I needed help carrying my son. I shook my head no and stood up with him in my arms. Demetrius let out another cry of pain and I saw his eyes open momentarily before closing again. Every step I took caused him to whimper no matter how gentle I tried to be.

We were escorted into the adjacent room and I looked around at sheets hanging from clothesline that was held by clips from the ceiling. They divided the large room into separate areas to give a semblance of privacy. I was led into one of these make-shift rooms that contained only a small wooden cot with a thin pad wrapped in one of the same type of sheets that were hanging. After being ushered back I placed Demetrius down on the small bed, the smell of bleach filled my nostrils. “This sheet had just been laundered” I thought to myself thankful that the hospital was so clean.

As I laid him down he yelled in pain and my stomach knotted. Kneeling beside him on the floor I noticed the beads of sweat that had formed on this forehead and small nose. The older nurse, who I had seen outside when we first arrived, came in with a folded sheet under her arm.

The cot would be used to transport him to the x-ray machine when the technicians arrive” the nurse informed me as she unfolded the sheet and laid it over Demetrius.

When they arrive?” I questioned with the pitch of my voice higher than usual.

Yes” she answered with an exasperated breath as she gently tucked the sheet in around him.

On their way here their vehicle was involved in some sort of accident” she said matter-of-factly. “They are from a neighboring town and for all I know they are now arriving by foot. God-willing they’ll be given a ride or we won’t see them until morning.”

My face paled and I felt a dizziness rising up over the top of my head. “Ma’am, are you alright?” she asked rushing to my side as I began to sway. I shook my head no and faintly heard her yell for help.

I woke again to the smelling salts that were placed under my nose. I was in a chair with thick wooden arms and a thin pad on the seat. I was still feeling lightheaded and the nurse instructed the aide to stay with me. I closed my eyes and breathed deeply trying to clear away the fog that had shrouded my mind. The nurse returned with a glass of cool water which I drank in small sips. It had been nearly a day without my having any food or water I recalled.

Stay with her a while,” she told the aide. “Just to be sure,” she added just before exiting the curtain.

The young girl of sixteen with attentive blue eyes watched me closely while I drank the water down. Just this bit of water made me feel better as the fog in my mind had begun to clear.

How long do you think it will take for the technicians to arrive?” I asked although I knew she wouldn’t have the slightest idea. Speaking aloud seemed to help to get my mind away from my own incessant thoughts.

The doctor and a nurse are doing all of the x-rays together until the technician’s arrive,” she answered as if to know the underlying reason for my question. “And because of this the treatment of patients is taking longer,” she added.

A sigh of relief escaped my lips which brought a smile to her face. I felt an enormous weight lift off of my chest when I realized that Demetrius wouldn’t have to wait until morning to be treated. The color returned to my cheeks and I thanked her for that news.

This young woman is much more astute than I gave her credit for,” I thought to myself.

I am fine now,” I promised her and insisted that she return to her duties. “There are a lot of others that need help more than I do.”

When she began to protest saying that she was told to stay with me I pushed the chair over to her. “Please return this from whom it was taken” I requested, cutting her off in mid-sentence.

I have no further need of it.” I smiled faintly at her then turned to the cot where Demetrius slept. Reluctantly, she left with it and I was again alone with my anguished son.

Kneeling down next to him I watched Demetrius breathing shallow and out of rhythm, droplets of perspiration still on his nose. “He looks so angelic,” I said aloud and the drivers’ words came to mind, anyone else would have died from that fall.

Yes, it was a miracle that he’s here with me now” I thought as the stinging tears slid down my cheeks once again.

My mind drifted back to the time when I watched Demetrius run through the fields chasing butterflies with his small net. Every morning after breakfast he would dress and run out the door to the field with his net and notebook in hand. To anyone else he looked like any other child playing imaginative games in nature until he came back with a new collection of butterflies to study and document.

How does a child of four know not to touch the butterfly’s wing or the oil on our fingers would damage it I wondered. Even at four Demetrius seemed so advanced. Catching the live butterflies, he would bring them into his room to study. Carefully drawing in color the detail of each ‘eye’, which he called the markings on each, he would use these as a reference so he could identify them later. I remember him telling me one afternoon following the release of that mornings catch that butterflies were a lot like people because they were all different just like we are. Once recorded, he would release them back where they were found.

Once in a while I joined him on the butterfly release though most times he preferred to do it all by himself. One day while he was still out releasing his ‘specimens’, I went to his room and found the sheets where he documented every butterfly he caught. All of these pages were neatly strung together into a book with the scraps of material I had discarded from one of my sewing projects.

On the cover of his book was an exquisitely drawn Monarch. I smiled at the wide range of his talents. Turning each page I found unique butterflies meticulously drawn. He documented every one with the date and where it was found by a hand drawn map of the meadow. “No wonder he would ask me the date at breakfast” I thought aloud. “Not what day it is Mama, what date is the number” he would say to correct me the times I would answer with Wednesday or the like.

Demetrius brought his net and the small sketchbook I got him for his fourth birthday everywhere we went. He would never consider leaving the house without them and miss “the opportunity of a lifetime”… Yes, this was what he had said about the trip we are now on—this was an opportunity of a lifetime, the place where the butterflies crossed an entire ocean that was instinctively recorded in their tiny little brains by God. How could I argue with a boy whose love of butterflies was his life? Tears threatened to burst from the dark clouds gathering in my mind. Here lay my five year old researcher, struggling to breathe; his tiny body as fragile as a butterfly wing…

The doctor appeared suddenly from around the floating curtain, his eyes bloodshot but very alert and eyebrows creased into a look of concern. Straightening Demetrius’ small body on the cot, a cry of pain burst forth from him that sent a chill down my spine. To my surprise the doctor smiled. Working from the head down he began pressing on the young bones to find the areas injured.

The cries of pain that erupted from Demetrius were excellent indications of those damaged areas,” he said aloud more to himself than to me.

Take note- an arm, definitely a few ribs, and possibly the lower leg,” he said to one of two young interns that entered after he began. “Damage to the skull and brain were also a possibility from a fall of that distance.”

The doctor spoke to both the young men who were dressed in white coats about the accident from the information given by someone other than me. He had not asked me a single question but recounted the entire incident as though I wasn’t even present. At first I felt a little indignant due to the fact that I was an eye witness. The only people who could have given him the information were the two who drove us here and they were not even present when the accident occurred. That feeling quickly faded when I realized I wasn’t yet strong enough to relive it at this point; even hearing it made my face pale again.

The doctor gave the two young interns directions to carry the cot to the x-ray room and they did so while he held the sheet to one side as they passed. When the curtain was lifted I could see in the near distance a small work desk filled with paperwork and beside it was a long, tall, shelf-like table that was used by the staff for different duties. Below that were wooden crates filled to overflowing with file folders that could no longer be placed in vertically. The young nurse who escorted us back passed while the curtain was lifted and regarded me with a caring expression.

Once the interns were beyond the sheet the doctor looked back at me for a moment.

We’ll look at the areas in question and return your son when the x-rays are complete,” he said in a more sympathetic tone. I began to ask about the x-ray technicians when he let go of the curtain, his footsteps trailing off into the distance. I listened to the sounds of the people and noises all around me until everything went silent.

I was startled by the sound of the cot hitting the wood floor next to me appreciating the fact that I had fallen asleep. I knelt down next to Demetrius and noticed that they had washed and cleaned the caked blood from the cut on his forehead just below his hairline.

Landing face first from that distance he was lucky to escaped any real injury to his face,” one of the interns remarked as they situated the cot in place.

Demetrius was wrapped in a warm cotton blanket that resembled a white cocoon with only his head visible. “My little butterfly” I whispered as they filed out of the room quietly. The nurse held the sheet for them and then watched me for a long moment before letting go of the curtain that separated us from the outside world.

Demetrius was breathing deeper and slower. “They must have bandaged his ribs,” I thought. I watched his breath as he slept much more peacefully now and before I knew it I was matching my breath to his. I spoke to him silently telling him how much I loved him and how special he was. I didn’t want to speak out loud for fear of waking him. What if he couldn’t be wakened? What if his brain was so injured he’d never wake up again? Breathing in unison kept my mind away from the dismal thoughts and on the son whom I love so dearly. Eventually I drifted off into the dreamland, my head resting near his beating heart.

I was riding fast on my favorite brown mare looking back at those who were in the race with us; the sun was shining brightly in the sky. My beloved was a few lengths ahead of me so I pressed my horse on to try and catch him. Glancing back at me with a smile twinkling in his eyes he saw I was gaining and pushed his stallion harder. The love I felt for this man seemed to grow daily. I was so blissfully happy.

Closing the distance between us I actually thought this time I could win. I leaned down on my mare, kicked hard and she responded with a burst of speed. Reaching him at this rate I knew I had him. All of a sudden he yanked the reins hard to the left and directed his champion off the road and into the forest. In a blink of an eye he was out of sight. I knew this would cut the distance of the upcoming bend in the road by a third and the only way to win the race. I pushed my girl hard to make sure I would come out ahead.

Nearing the finish line I noticed he had not yet emerged. My mare and I flew together as one past the two stone pillars of our road. I had succeeded as the winner for the very first time. He would ask me in jest every time we planned our race if I wanted him to let me win knowing this would infuriate me. Now he could no longer claim the champion title!

I turned my horse around to face the road in order to see him when he came up again. I was breathing heavy from the hard ride. Staring at the curve in the road anticipating his arrival I lowered my head to rest it against the mares sweating neck petting her affectionately as I waited. It seemed a long time before I heard the sound of distant hooves on the dirt. A huge smile spread across my face as I saw the black horse round the curve. Instead of it being my husband I saw that it was his best friend who also rode a black stallion. Behind him came the remaining five riders—my husband was not among them.

A feeling of dread began to rise in me but I pushed it far away not wanting to entertain such a horrifying thought. “He is just kidding with me” I told myself. “What if he had let me win this time?”

I told the others what he had done and said I looked forward to getting even with him. I asked them to continue down to the house where we would meet them shortly and I headed in the opposite direction.

Riding at a slower pace to the place where he entered the woods, I realized finding it wasn’t as easy as I thought. There was no real path to cut in. Finally finding an area where the branches were broken I decided this must have been his point of entry and lead my horse in slowly weaving through the trees. Even as the expert horseman that he was I amazed that he could have taken this way at his speed.

Once in the woods I could not figure out which way he might have ridden as there was no clear way to have gone. Looking back at where we came in I considered the speed in which he entered and decided that momentum would have carried him in this particular direction—I pointed out the line of trajectory and followed it. Taking it deliberately slow I imagined he was hiding behind a large tree or brush ready to leap out and surprise me. I felt the excitement rise as I went.

Stepping over a dead fall and under the low branch of a giant oak I saw the one thing that I would not allow my mind to think—my husband laying on the ground face down unmoving. I heard the stallion whinny a few yards ahead and saw him lying on his side with a large bleeding cut on his neck. I jumped off my horse and ran to my husband kneeling at his side, tears spilling down my face. I rolled him onto my dust-covered lap and saw the giant purple line protruding across the distance of his forehead with a single cut at his hairline that had already started to clot.

I cried his name again and again in hope to wake him but there was no response. Though his body was still warm there was no beat of his heart when I placed my head on his chest; there was no breath in his lungs. He was gone. My beloved was gone… just like that.

My scream echoed through the entire hospital and two nurses rushed in. I was screaming uncontrollably through my sobs having lost a husband and now perhaps my son. One of the nurses’ checked to make sure Demetrius was still alive while the other held me around the shoulders to comfort and reassure me. The grief that had been buried deep within me for the past five years ripped up through me uncontrollably.

Losing the first man whom I loved with all of my soul was more than a woman should have to bear. But to lose the second who was born from the loss is too much to endure,” I cried.

Losing this child whom I was blessed with eight months after losing his father is too much for me to suffer.” The old nurse nodded as she held me tight while I sobbed violently. The second nurse ran to get a tranquilizer from the doctor.

Nothing seemed to matter anymore without my son or husband. I was slipping away into the darkness that I could no longer keep at bay. As the tears of loss continued I heard a faint voice from a far-away past. My sobs grew greater as I cried, “Demetrius, my beloved son. Demetrius.” “Demetrius,” I repeated again and again as if to awaken the man that I love.

Mama,” I heard the dim, far off whisper through my agonizing sobs.

Mama, I’m here,” I heard the distant but recognizable voice from one that was so far away.

Demetrius, my beloved Demetrius,” I repeated.

Mama, I’m right here.” The voice pierced through the darkness like a ray of sun through the black storm clouds.

Mama…” The angelic voice lifted me back into the light of the living. I opened my eyes to meet the twinkling brown eyes of my beloved son…

The crowd was already there to meet us when we arrived at the migration site. Hundreds of people had come to witness this phenomenon as millions of butterflies roosting on every branch draping them in orange and black. This year held an even greater attraction as many came to meet the young butterfly boy who learned to fly. Landing was the hard part as the joke went.

Demetrius was welcomed by Mr. Baard who brought with him a small package to present him. He fumbled with the string impatiently to open it and found to his delight an encyclopedia of butterflies from around the world. The real surprise came when Mr. Baard reached back into his pocket and pulled out the butterfly net and Demetrius’ hand drawn notebook. The surprise, then joy that erupted on his face no one will ever forget. He leaned forward in his wheelchair and lifted his arms to embrace him as the tears rolled down his cheeks.

And for me, I underwent a transformation—like the metamorphosis of a butterfly—from a life of sorrow and loss to one of joy and celebration. With wings of my own I now soar on the current of joy with my beloved butterfly boy.

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