“And they lived happily ever after.” She removes the colour-popping, wing-flapping magical wand from a chubby fist as she closes the book. “Sweet dreams my Butterfly,” she whispers into the curls where she plants a kiss. Twitchy corners of a cherub mouth imply safe arrival in a dreamworld. Shadows settle in secret corners waiting to play at the break of day. The baby monitor flicker, its soft light guides her along the dimmed corridor towards the snug lounge.
On her way, she pauses at the half open door of the study with an unexpected pang. She longs for her books, for the smelly museum archives, for the aha-moments of new discoveries. She wishes for the silent, but knowledge surrounded moments. Her horticultural research has taken up enough of her family time, he said when they finalised babysitting plans a while ago. She was upset, believing she balanced everything perfectly. She decided then to shift her focus; to work when the world was asleep. But tonight, she is acutely aware of the potent energy of her sacred space.
If only he knew. She slips soundless through the door. Her hands find the stacked pile, where she placed it with care so she can locate it even in the dark. Her own research is exciting, but it is the unpublished work of a long-departed colleague, she dubbed Madame X, that has her spellbound. She discovered a bundle of time-yellowed pages amongst the neat columns of places where Latin named insects were spotted; strategically inserted where each phase of the moth or butterfly signified Madame X’s own translational experiences. This hidden project was equivalent to a secret memoir; the life stages of butterflies or moths mimicking the existence of anybody who believes in change.
She slips the top few pages into the magazine she intends to read. Her husband does not believe in change. He does not believe in overpowering and one-sided passion. And she senses his fear of the unknown when she disappears in this unshared world of books and butterflies. The door stays ajar when she heads towards the welcoming fireplace.
Absorbed in his war stories book, the reclined figure on the leather couch stirs when she rests her socked feet on the coffee table next to him.
“Asleep already?” One bushy eyebrow arches the mute question. She nods before she leans into the hug of the wingback chair. They reach for their whiskeys. The clink of ice conveys their mutual toast as he returns to his large print page. Savouring the peace, she whirls the cubes in her glass. The first sip shocks through the mouth, down the throat, and into the mind with an immediate awareness.
“How does one arrive at this wordless existence?” she asks the dull fruit-filled still-life above the mantlepiece; a single blue butterfly stands out on a blossom behind the bowl. The art piece shrugs in its gilded frame and continues to be still. The magazine flops open at the concealed pages.
She eases into the ensconced silence following the second sip. “To a life lived well then,” she mock toasts the only bright object in the painting, a sure sign of her obsession with her research. But she is content to be still together. “Shadows and all,” she adds with a touch of irony as her fingers brush across curly inked pages. The chesterfield creaks as he turns his good ear towards her.
“What was that?” He mumbles without putting his book down.
“It is the perfect evening for you to read, Dear.” She says loud; then in a whisper to the blue butterfly: “Is this how Madame X’s cycle worked too?” But it is the apple, dark red in wisdom, that nods without disturbing the arrangement.
Hypnotic eddies in her drink captivate her thoughts. Ice-cubes compete for a kiss against her heated pouting lips. “Shadow chasers,” she scolds with a hushed murmur. Fireplace flames play games with the amber fluid in sparkling crystal. She enjoys the subtle visual flirtation, but it’s the suspense of a billion budding longings that she awaits. Recalling and reliving the lyrics from Butterfly Diary enhances the less delicate but potent result of fire and malt mix.
Madame X had her own cocooned and full-winged experiences. This was clear through her use of delicate words. She spoke of an anticipated quickening, a flash that started in her head, then pierced her heart to rush towards that mysterious trigger of an overruling hunger. The spark that ignited an ever-present deep desire for something with no name; that perpetual yearning for a singular place as yet undiscovered; that heart wrenching loss of someone intimate but still unknown; that tune that awaited the lyrics to perfect the song.
“Is my fascination with this old script a surfacing remnant of my own embryonic stages?” The butterfly flaps a single wing. She looks around the fire-lit room with shadows spilling in from all seasons, but it yields no answers. She breathes in the leather; she closes her eyes, feels the fire; she tastes the malt underneath its arctic cubes, she hears the whispers from the shadows, pursued by the past.
“A compelling mix for musing,” she admits to the spitting log. In a haze of warm happiness, she realises the catalyst for this brainscape comes from Madame X’s Butterfly Diary.
“It’s the knowledge of a world outside the fragile shell of the egg and the wiry trap of the cocoon.” Madame X explained her own restlessness, the pages of her memoir ready to be inhaled. She allows the rhythm of the calligraphic writing to sweep her into the clandestine world of Madame X’s life.
When I think about life, words bundle together in groups of uninvited questions.
Passages compose in clusters of unprovoked philosophies, unleashing a flood of fairy tales with and without happy endings.
Existential survival begs for change.
My wedding day was one of those essential changes.
“What is expected of me?” I noticed my mother wiping a tear while buttoning the last of my full-length wedding gown. I thought it to be inexplicable motherly emotions. I was wrong.
“Be a good wife and bear children,” she replied. Then my veil was lowered, and I failed to recognise the worry in her eyes. The emotion was buried behind her lashes normally working hard to hide the ever-present resistance against submission. We both knew getting married was my way out. Little did we know that forcing change brought with it another form of entrapment. Escaping the protective shell of a Calvinistic childhood to become a caterpillar confined by more rules. That I learned later, replacing one instar with one more severe is the purpose of the caterpillar. In this instar, like my beloved butterflies, I sometimes ate my own shell for essentials to grow into a dedicated wife and mother. A cycle filled with busyness, slaving away for survival. Raising a family, pursuing a career, polishing a for-ever relationship.
The pattern of life unfolded by itself, concealed in a busy schedule. Transforming happened with the normal shared effort, or was I mistaken? Would my children understand the invisible cord that kept me tied to them and the creation of family life, sacrificing career and self-opportunities? Would my life one day take the road less travelled?
Growth and change did not happen without fear and pain to balance the joy and fun and then vice versa. Vital and aspiring years filled first with hope and commitment, then with disappointment. Hurt, rejection and insecurity overshadowed all happiness. The timing of this horrible phase felt out of place. It claimed my confidence. There was no version of my authentic self I could translate back into, my stages of development intricately unalike; just like the moth eggs and larvae. Although I knew the resolution of the marriage cocoon was to offer protection for the vulnerable stages while I transformed, I felt lost. How was I to know then that all my energy was being used for the most intensive process that I would ever have to go through?
Surviving the opposite of love. Not hate. No, something much more ominous.
A dangerous shadow settled and consumed all of me during my hormone-huffing menopause. Deep inside my shell, walls thickened with each painful incident. A scary state of don’t-care-ness took over my daily routine. The life-sucking transition was taking its toll. The slow, sloppy struggle of a wet-winged butterfly readying to break free from a silk jail was painful to watch, let alone to live. But the scuffle to surpass this state of indifference had to be conquered. Always the promise; hang in there, just around the corner, this too will pass. The toughest phase, losing that cuticle of restriction to eventually emerge as beauty.
Once the intense process of shedding the skin that did not fit the emotion any longer was done, progress was unavoidable. Enlightenment and new opportunities knocked on my door.
My caterpillar phase reached its final instar of moulting and shedding when I opted to learn what my cheating husband’s version of truth was before I decided on drastic measures.
“To see what he thinks, you have to think what he sees,” my counsellor said.
Creative, risky, challenging and outrageous. These were the nicer descriptions of the plans that were offered by well-meaning friends. In the end I took a cautious calculated albeit uncomfortable risk. The synchronicity of a chance meeting, an awkward plan and the arrangement of everyday events created the fertile receptor for an affair. Unforced coincidences fell into place. Desperate measures to understand another’s infidelity became a game played with fear. And with increasing excitement.
It was an interlude filled with stolen moments of intense passion. A forbidden relationship growing into a dangerous mix of endearment and subtle dependence. A mutual understanding of care and kindness. An addictive type of friendship that was based on concern and support. A risky rapport, gently touching the taboos and playfully scratching the protective surfaces. Expectantly waiting to see what reveals next. Sometimes hidden meanings in obscure messages and often blatantly honest confessions.
Those were days filled with sunshine. Even the shadows of conscience and deception hid away. That was the period when the butterfly finally entered the world. When the wet wings dried and unwrinkled. When the flapping caused the blood to surge through the transparent extensions pumping it up to its full capacity. When the surge of energy and confidence lifted the beautiful creature to soar. When I saw what he saw, when I finally understood his perspective, when I lived his truth. That was when I learned to forgive. The big translation of resentment and indifference into a love of a different kind and tolerance with endearment.”
Physical separation due to career choices came as a blessing. Distance was a great healer, they said. I agreed, but with a condition; distance and solitude.
Going into the darkness of alone where even shadows fear to dwell. Searching for the crack in the multi layered fortress that might let light in. Finding comfort in a vast nothingness became the goal.
If I had to choose a daily gratitude, then it would be for the gift of solitude. Never an indulgence but the essence of my existence. The fuel for survival and sanity. I kept it masterfully hidden from family and friends as I believed they thought it to be an unwellness. But how could you tell? Until you lived with it, learned to love it and finally accepting it for the truth you had to walk with till your days end, do not judge.
In solitude I found a community, a lover, a child, an explorer.
I lived a dream, I experienced emotions, I felt loved and accepted.
She twirls the glass to mix melted ice with its companion, and to chase unwanted shadows to their sleeping quarters. Don’t we all have a time span of change, of new interpretations and a slow rendition of a person who lived life to the fullest? Don’t we all become a better version of ourselves after we emerged with each empowerment step we took? Should we not all follow long forgotten passions, take calculated risks, breathe closer to nature? Should we not escape that last phase, flying but landing carefully, as it is a fragile time.
Like a moth drawn to fire, a shudder runs through the lofty painting at her vivid thought. She mouths John O’Donahue’s poem to the quiet occupants of the shiny frame:
“On its way through the innocent night, The moth is ambushed by the light… Its dreams of flight and all desire But the deadly beauty of flame.”
She can relate to so much of Madame X’s musings. She too went through the conversion sequence – from Calvinistic daughter, into a good wife and mother, into adventurer, into solitude seeker, into hormone huffing indifferent, into content grandparent and spouse. Nowadays she falls asleep, happy with the familiar weight of her husband’s sleep-heavy arm, while they cuddle into a spoon. The notion of sleep makes her sit up. The fire burns low and the monitor displays an amorphous heap peaceful under the blanket. The warning lights all on green. Did the bright butterfly just wink at her?
As quiet as possible she unfolds from her chair. Slow moving shadows paint tired dancers on the furnishings. Their movements as low as the unkindled fire. She bends over him. He believes in eternal youth, a perpetual existence and life without change. But she knows this is their or rather her Imaginal Stage – the last phase of the adult butterfly. She finally has wings. She can fly. Yet, she ventures only near home, fearing to be part of the fragile group of imagos that won’t reach old age, killed by weather or predators before they reach the end of their life cycle.
“And we survived all the pains, the joys, the changes and the indifferences,” she thinks as she removes his bifocals, flickering with late night reflection.
“Then we lived content ever after,” she puts a magnetic placeholder in the book before removing it from his chest and places it on the tea table.
“Happy anniversary, Darling,” she whispers into the grey fringe where she plants a kiss. A soft snore escapes his slightly parted lips as she adjusts the blanket. The pffft of a content sigh chases lurking glooms into their dark corners.
There is a familiar squeak as she pushes the study door open. Then a click as she shuts the rest of the house out, bar the monitor. Shadows disappear as she flicks the light on. It floods the stacks of bound manuscripts, the scribbled pages of referenced archives, the sticky noted field records. Perched on a blossom, a bright blue butterfly flaps his wings. Sketches of his wings and the Latin name of his ancestors scribbled on the pages spread across the desk.
The first educational phases of life were spent between schools near various mines where my dad was involved; from the flat sandy farms of the Free State to the mountainous border of Swaziland. After matriculating in Ermelo, tertiary education followed in Pretoria. The second phase of vocation-and-family-creation was jump started with the inevitable student romance and marriage to Rob Kleinloog. Pregnancies and moving homes commingled with studies at the University of Pretoria. The third settling phase included the launch of my professional career as a dentist and a full-time but fulfilling twenty years; multi-tasked with other permanent jobs like that of a mother and a wife. Travel experiences and the rekindling of an erstwhile passion for Archaeology awakened an eternal and ever-present wish to write. After walking the 1000 odd kms of the Camino, I finally did some writing courses to curb my lack of confidence. At the moment my independent investigative research involves ancient civilizations with focus on Gong Rocks. Finishing the novel that was a natural result from the Ox-wagon research and writing short stories every month while being an active granny keep me busy. Reading, hiking and dogs fill the other gaps in my life.