Butterfly on the Tide Line

Butterfly on the Tide Line by Luanne Rice

Walking the tide line, I came upon an Eastern Comma Butterfly in the wet sand.  The front edge of a wave pushed it higher on the beach.  I thought the butterfly was dead, but then I saw one of its legs move.  I picked it up.  I carried it to the top of the beach thinking I would lower it into the tall grass where it could die, but it held my finger with a sharp grip.  It began to walk up the back of my hand.

I sat in the sand holding it.  We stayed there for a long time.  The sun felt warm.  Ants crawled around the sand.  The butterfly was still, its wings glued together, sticking straight up.  It looked as if a bite had been taken from its wings, but it was so symmetrical I believe that was just their shape.

Brown spots on dark orange wings, like a monarch but with no white markings.  Raggedy wings, big eyes.  She had only one antenna visible.  I thought the other had been torn off, but it was trapped between her wings.  She worked to free it and did.  Now two antennae waved.  Four legs walking.  Up my hand onto the sleeve of my sweatshirt.   Over my shoulder, onto my back.  She positioned herself in full sunlight.  We stayed there a long time.  She was drying her wings.

She moved her wings apart.  A little, then back together.  Stillness.  Her big eyes.  No more walking, then many more steps onto my shoulder.  She tilted.  Her wings opened.  Now she closed them again.  Wide wings, grains of sand stuck to them.  A small patch of sand where the wing joined her thorax.  As her wings dried, the sand fell off grain by grain.

I slid off my sweatshirt and placed it on my towel with her on the shoulder of the sweatshirt in the sun.  I went to swim.  I just ducked in, stayed a few minutes, came out.  She was still there in the sunlight.  The wind ruffled her wings.  They were open now and stayed open.  The sun was setting; I was getting cold.  I waited, wishing she would fly.  I felt my hopes getting up, but checked them.  Maybe she would try to fly and not be able to.  I thought of my youngest sister.  She had once watched a Monarch butterfly emerge from its chrysalis.  It had crawled onto her finger and taken flight from there.  She’d described to me the feeling of tiny claws on her skin.  I had known that with my butterfly.  I wanted her to fly, but she didn’t.  The sun was going down.

I didn’t want to leave her on the beach.  I picked up my sweatshirt with her still clinging to the shoulder, wings open.  Carrying her across the sand, I spotted a young gull, dark markings, standing on one foot.  On the body, right where the second leg should have been, was a scrap of red.  Blood, from where the leg had been—recently, from the blood and ruffled feathers—torn off.

Every day is a heartbreak.  You can’t save everything.  Maybe you can’t save anything.  I carried the butterfly on my sweatshirt.  The sea breeze picks up just before sunset, and I was afraid she’d blow off my sweatshirt when we crossed the footbridge, but I shielded her with my body and she hung on.

We climbed the steep stone steps up the wooded hillside.  When we got to the yard, I left her on my sweatshirt on the ground by the back door.  Her wings were open, then she closed them.  I went to take a shower, an outside shower under the sky, with vines climbing the latticework.  The water felt hot and good.  When I came back around the house, she was gone.