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The Butterfly Tree
Janie’s husband sat on the bed folding clothes. His large hands moved steadily and gently; grab, fold, place. The rhythm of the activity freed his mind to wander. Janie was starting her new job today. No, it was more like her first job, the man told himself. The receptionist position she had in college didn’t count. That morning he had awakened to a pile of blankets in lieu of his wife, because Janie was already on the subway to Manhattan. He imagined her holding on to one of the handle bars, wearing her navy skirt and jacket, with her brown leather bag slung over her shoulder. She would have been nervous, he thought as he sorted the socks. She would have taken a deep breath before walking into that gigantic office with the glass walls on the 16th floor of a New York City skyscraper.
Since Janie had her work and the babysitter had the flu, John was left to watch Sarah. Not that she was much difficulty. Sarah was a quiet child. The spitting image of her mother, she sported gray eyes and a wise face. Though she was only four years old, Sarah could tell you precisely what she was thinking in language far beyond the normal toddler’s vocabulary. Being such a precocious child, she rarely wasted her time on toys or other trivial amusements. Before her birth John and Janie had filled her nursery with books, and Sarah spent most of her time pouring over the pages, willing herself to be able to read.
At the present moment, the house was silent except for the almost inaudible sounds of clothes being folded and the ticking of a distant clock. John wondered which book Sarah was “reading” now: Great Expectations or the Poe collection? Just as he came to the conclusion that it was probably Great Expectations, she appeared in the doorway.
John glanced at his watch. Five-thirty. “Running late, probably.”
“But she left work a long time ago.”
John looked up from the laundry. “Did she call and tell you that?”
Sarah didn’t respond, but stared down at the fibers in the carpet, scuffing them up with her shoe, and then muttered, “I’m going to go color her a picture. Of a butterfly tree.”
The little girl slowly backed out of the room and tiptoed silently down the hallway. The phone rang with a harsh, tinny trill and John flinched. He picked it up.
Without waiting for a hello, a deep voice said, “May I speak to Mr. Wilson?”
John replied, “Yes? This is he.”
“Sir, is your wife Jane Wilson?”
Something cold trickled down into John’s stomach. “Yes.”
“You should come to the hospital immediately. There’s been an accident. I probably shouldn’t say over the phone, but you need to get here as quickly as you can.”
John suddenly found himself fighting his lungs for oxygen. “What k-kind of accident?” he managed to force out.
“You need to get to the hospital, sir. Quickly.”
John threw down the phone and looked up. Sarah was staring at him.
It was lunchtime. Janie was eating cold chicken on sourdough bread and a package of crackers. She was sitting at her new desk, which smelled of orange peel and was not far from the glass wall where thousands of people could be seen on the streets below, hustling and bustling to their various destinations. Janie hummed as she chewed meticulously on her sandwich, and the sound of conversation drifted over her shoulder. Her many coworkers were crowded into the lunchroom, and a few were looking directly at her. They must have been thinking how odd it was that the new girl was sitting all alone on her first day and not even trying to associate with the others. But this was the last thing on Janie’s mind. She was thinking of how John would cope with watching Sarah all day. What would he feed her? She tried to remember if there was any chicken noodle soup left in the pantry. Maybe she should call him.
Just as Janie took her cell phone out, there was a great rush and everyone scurried back toward their desks. She sighed and put her phone back in her pocket. John would be fine. Besides, they still had a stockpile of macaroni and cheese.
At Johnson & Bell Publishing Co. it was acceptable to leave at four-thirty if you had all your work done. Janie was finished at three forty-five, and had nothing to do but pick her nails until her boss came around to check up on her, and told her with a pat on the back that she could go home. Janie hurriedly gathered up her supplies, stuffed them in her new brown leather bag, and set off down the hallway. She barely had time to register the jealous whispers of her coworkers before the door to the wide office floor shut behind her with a click.
The elevators waited with their buttons glowing and their silver doors glimmering threateningly. Janie had only one great fear. She was exceptionally claustrophobic. Even thinking about an elevator made her pulse quicken and her palms moisten. She always took the stairs, no matter how high she had to climb.
The stairwell was dimly lit and faintly moldy. Janie began to descend anyway, counting the number of steps in a soothing rhythmic fashion: seven, eight, nine, ten… It was a long way to go. She rounded the corner. Eighteen, nineteen, twenty… John would be pleased to see her home early. Had he remembered to lay the chicken out to thaw? Sarah would remind him. She remembers everything.
Thirty-six, thirty-seven… Janie almost regretted taking the stairs. Just almost. Her leg muscles burned from her morning ascent. She was approaching the last step of the 15th floor when the heel of her shoe landed unevenly on the edge of the step. A fraction of a moment later Janie grabbed wildly for the railing. She felt the cool metal slide quickly past her fingers. She was falling slowly, sluggishly forward. A million ideas of how to catch herself sped through her mind but none of them were possible. She was still falling. In her desperation Janie flung her hands out. Her hair whooshed behind her; there was a chill on her neck.
The impact came to her hands first. The rough concrete shredded the skin on her palms as they slid across the landing. The hit jarred her whole body and snapped her elbows in an unnatural direction. She felt several of her fingers break and her wrist bones splinter apart. Her momentum carried her up and over her hands. The next to strike the ground was her upper back. Her scapula landed hard on the tip of the first step, and she kept going forward, performing three somersaults like a kind of grisly gymnast, until her head crashed into the 14th floor landing.
Janie felt funny. Although the whole event lasted only five seconds, she felt older. There was no pain. Sprawled on the concrete, she extracted her arm from underneath her body and looked at her hand, wiggling her broken fingers and imagining them to be wrinkled and arthritic. A dark red liquid illuminated her hand. Where had it come from? As Janie fell asleep, she wasn’t aware that blood was pooling around her, staining her white blouse and her blonde hair. She was only aware of a warm sensation crawling from her toes up her body.
When darkness fell, that warm sensation turned into one of movement, as if she were lying on top of a bumpy washing machine. It was a pleasant feeling. Janie smiled, and then realized she couldn’t feel her lips. She tried to move her leg, twitch her toe, anything. Nothing happened. She couldn’t see or hear or feel. She was nothing. Janie began to panic. Her heart raced. Or did it? She tried hard to think, but then that was slipping away too. Her thoughts were slowly draining out of the hole in her skull. She didn’t exist anymore. She had never existed, actually. There was only this void.
But then as suddenly as the nothingness had come, and as if there had been no nothingness at all, there was everything. An explosion. Every single emotion, pain, pleasure, impulse, instinct, and thought Janie had ever experienced flooded into her. She was laughing and crying and screaming and smiling, incapacitated with feeling. She felt the coolness of mint bubblegum and the sharp labor contractions of childbirth. She felt the break of her arm when she was twelve and her first kiss when she was fifteen, remembered the hopelessness of watching her grandfather waste away of cancer and the elation of the moment she said “I do.” The flood lasted only seconds before fading away, leaving Janie empty and confused.
There was light. Once Janie realized she had eyes, she opened them. She was on a train. The steady rumbling of the engine had been shaking her. She quickly stood up, and was surprised by how limber she felt. Once more she looked at her hands and gasped. They were tiny. Her arms were thin and unfreckled. Her feet were clad in Mary Janes and white socks with ruffled trim. She was six years old. Janie felt her pink dress and the ribbon holding up her hair. She abruptly realized how stupid she was. Of course she was six. Her seventh birthday
wasn’t until November. She laughed aloud at herself, hearing her girlish giggle reverberate through the train compartment.
The train ground to a halt, and Janie knew it was her stop. The windows were so full of bright white light that she couldn’t tell where she was. The compartment door rattled open and willed her out of it. Janie jumped lithely from the opening and landed on soft grass.
Stretching out in front of her was a prairie meadow at the height of spring. The grass, some of it taller than Janie, was a perfect green dotted with wildflowers. The sky was aquamarine. Fluffy clouds the color of snow rolled by. The breeze brought a warm scent of earth and ruffled Janie’s dress and hair. A distance away, a giant tree stood, its leaves glittering like diamonds, drawing her in. It was the tallest and most wonderful thing she had ever seen. The branches seemed to reach up farther than she could see into the sky. As she came closer she noticed how old and gnarled the branches were, and concluded that this tree had stood here since the beginning of time. It became clear that its leaves were not leaves, but millions of tiny butterflies in every color, fluttering their wings in unison.
A person appeared. It was a man, standing in the huge circle of shade the tree provided. He was small, wrinkled, and worn. His face was framed by round spectacles and a strong jaw. His smile was pure happiness as he stretched out his frail arms.
“Grandpa!” Janie cried. She rushed into his embrace, unbalancing him. He rocked her, stroking her hair and squeezing her tight.
“Hello, Janie-bug,” he replied in a husky voice. When she pulled away to look at him, tears were filling his gray eyes.
“What are we going to do today, Grandpa?” Janie asked hopefully.
He smiled again, but this time his face was sad. “We can’t play today, sweetheart.”
Janie didn’t understand. It wasn’t fair. She and Grandpa never got to play. Since he lived in Minnesota, she only got to see him on Christmas. She let her arms fall from around his stomach and put on her best pout.
As if reading her mind, Grandpa sighed. “They need you, Janie,” he said in a grown-up voice, one she had never heard before.
“Who?” she asked, bewildered. Who else could there be besides Grandpa and Janie-bug?
In response, Grandpa showed her his palm. A single orange butterfly was resting in it. He held the butterfly out to Janie. She gave her grandfather a questioning look, and he nodded and whispered, “It’s not your time yet.”
Teary-eyed but still not understanding, Janie held her finger out. The butterfly floated onto it. Instinctually, Janie raised her finger to the sky and the butterfly fluttered away to its spot on a tiny, withered black twig. As it settled down and nestled in its wings, the twig uncurled and came to life again.
By the time John and Sarah reached the emergency room of New York Presbyterian Hospital, Janie had been stabilized and transferred to intensive care. Hordes of doctors and nurses told them lots of things, but John hardly absorbed any of them. He paced the waiting room clutching a melting candy bar he had bought from the vending machines for Sarah and forgotten
to give to her. Sarah curled up in a chair and finished coloring her picture, then fell into a peaceful sleep.
Hours later, they were ushered into the intensive care unit by even more doctors. Holding Sarah in one arm, John pulled back the curtain around her bed and cringed. Janie was lying in a bed, only one eye visible from the thick bandages wrapped around her face. Both of her arms were encased in plaster and she was hooked to what looked like hundreds of machines and monitors, all beeping piercingly. John rushed to her side, dropping Sarah, and began to sob into her bedcovers.
Sarah tiptoed slowly to her mother’s side. She held up the colorful drawing she had finished earlier.
“Look, Mommy. A butterfly tree.”