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“I’ll name her Nova. Nova the chaser of butterflies.”
Alex always tells me that, when she spoke those words, Ma’s smile was more beautiful than a hibiscus, her favorite flower, in full bloom. Of course, I was too young to remember.
I never really liked my name. Not only does the word roll oddly on my tongue, Ma’s purpose in naming this evaded me. Chaser of butterflies? True, I love pursuing butterflies, caging them briefly between my fingers before liberating them against the azure sky, but I preferred my sister’s name. Alexandria the defender of mankind. Pa used to tease her that, before she takes on her duties to defend mankind, she must first watch the little butterfly, me, to which she groaned half-heartedly.
Now that Ma left, he doesn’t joke or smile anymore. His deep brown eyes cease to dance when the music stopped. He rarely even comes home. Alex said that the father I remember left with Ma. When I asked why part of her didn’t go too, she just shook her head sadly and said, “It did.”
That was years ago. Now that I’m in high school, life only got harder. At school, I’m no one special, just another pebble in the river and outshined by my own sister. Home isn’t the warm place that it used to be.
Today, I wake to a rainy morning that dampens my already low mood. I run my fingers like an ivory comb through the long strands of hair that ripple gently on my shoulders and down my back. I force myself out of bed. After hastily changing and, grabbing my bag, I pass by the picture on my dresser. Ma, frozen in time, smiles beautifully up at me.
As usual, Pa’s seat is empty. Settling down, I munch on a piece of toast. Alex sets her plate across from me. Silence floats awkwardly in the space between us. I can’t help, but watch her. Everything she does is delicate and smooth.
When I gather the plates to wash, a hand falls on my arm. “I’ll do it,” she says. As I relax a little, Alex says, casually, “What’s been up?”
“Nothing much…now that I don’t like anyone.” I reply. I can’t lie to her or hold anything back because she always finds out anyway.
“What happened to that other guy?” she asks mildly, dark brown eyes focused.
“Rohan? I gave up on him.” I grumble, leaning against the chair and lifting two of its legs above the grey-ivory floor.
“Chasing isn’t always about the catching,” Alex murmurs, voice barely audible and lightly fingering a plate. “It’s also about the journey there.”
The silence that follows her quiet words is only broken by the rushing of water in the sink and the occasional clang of a plate being put away. I just sit there, watching the expressions on her face change and not understanding what she meant.
The heavy rain continues to fall all morning and lessens when I return home. Unfortunately, my mood doesn’t lighten with it. The sunlight dancing on the wet leaves glint merrily but is overlooked. Walking down the street, misery hugs me close.
Nothing had gone right. Another test failed, friends fighting, and seeing Rohan threw their stones onto my shoulders. The world seems to darken. My footsteps are heavy and the short walk home takes an eternity. I only see the stone path in front of me that never seems to end.
Then a scarlet butterfly crosses my path, landing on the pavement before me. There is something about it that first catches my eye then makes my entire being gravitate towards it. Creeping and never adverting my gaze, I tentatively reach out to touch it. As the shadow looms over it like a vulture, the startled creature leaps into the sky and flutters away. I wasn’t going to let it go. My backpack slips unnoticed from my shoulder.
Sidewalk changes unseen to pavement then to grass. The afternoon sun beats harshly against my back and stones spring up unexpectedly like traps, waiting to trip me. My breath comes out as gasps. A few times, I push my hair out of my face and feeling sweat slide down my face. Many times, just as I am about to even touch it, the devious butterfly slips from my grasp. It cruelly tantalizes, just beyond my reach. When it escapes my fingers, I feel a little of my strength drip from me. Little by little...
It is only when I finally fall do I notice my surroundings. I am far from home, but not lost. I know this place. It is my “secret place” of my childhood. It has been a long time since I’ve been here. Over the years, the grass reaches taller towards the sky still out of its reach. Parasitical vines snake up trunks of the surrounding trees and the thicker leaves allow less light touch the ground.
No strength flows in my body anymore. I see the butterfly settle not far away, opening and closing its delicate wings. For a moment, I have the fierce desire to crumple those paper-like wings and throw it far away.
Instead, I grab a handful of grass, throwing it wrathfully at the taunting butterfly. “Stupid thing!” I yell at it, too angry to feel foolish. While the stalks rain down, I am shocked to find tears on my cheeks. I fiercely try to wipe them away, but more just come to replace them.
“What is your problem? To make my life miserable?” I continue to yell at it. I know that it isn’t going to react, but it still infuriates me. “You know that I can’t get you but you tantalize me anyway! I’m useless, don’t you know?” my cries change to sobs. “I’m always chasing, chasing, but never catching. I’m pathetic. That must be why Ma named me Nova. I can only chase butterflies. I can never do anything right…”
“Because you gave up before you started.” A voice came through the trees. For a shocking moment, I think the butterfly spoke. I spin around to find the source, but all I see is waving shadows and rippling light patches.
I wait to hear for more, but the only response I get is the wind rustling through the leaves. The words flow through my mind. “I…gave up…before I started?” I whisper numbly. A shiver flints through me. Then Alex’s words resound through my memory. “Chasing isn’t always about the catching. It’s also about the journey there.”
The final pieces click into place and I understand at last. Everything I’ve done…I doubt myself and don’t even try. I gave up on Rohan because I didn’t believe that I could be loved in return. Seeing my own sister outshine me, I gave up and retreated into her long shadows.
And, I realize with a start, it isn’t butterflies that Ma wants me to chase. No, it’s beyond that. She wants to chase, to pursue my dreams as faithfully as I followed those nimble-winged creatures.
Covering my mouth, I can’t stop a chuckle from rising up in my throat. All this time…I’ve been so blind. My name isn’t meaningless…I throw my head back. My name isn’t meaningless…The heat of the sun doesn’t hurt as much anymore. No, I smile, it was never a burning fire against my back. It is a comforting warmth and it’s always been there? I just never paid attention.
I stand up. I’m surprised to see the butterfly still resting on what I now recognize as the dewy petal of a blooming hibiscus. It’s as if it is waiting for me, just out of reach but not over the horizon. A grin tugs at the corners of my lips. Stepping softly, I keep my eyes locked on the little monster. Just as I get close, it slips out of my fingers, playfully teasing. I can’t help a laugh from bubbling inside me like a mountain spring. What a wicked creature.
As I turn away, I don’t see the dark figure leaning against the tree. Its brown eyes fill with happy tears that slither down and join their sky-siblings on the grass blades. I continue to follow the nimble-winged butterfly, feeling the darkening paint of the evening sky melt into my hair.
And that’s the way it’s always been. I am and always will be Nova. Nova, faithful chaser of butterflies.