You must never doubt the thoughtful cruelty of your childhood.
My mother raised butterflies of two sorts: the Monarch with ombré orange wings, and in less quantities, because they take so long to pupate and hatch, black Swallowtails, with blue edges or white spots. I assisted her at a young age, even when my hands trembled too much to be allowed near their delicate wings. I emptied their cages—cardboard boxes and mesh tops—of their defecation and removed chewed milkweed and dill and replaced it with fresh stalks from the garden. My mother would allow me to hold them when they were caterpillars, their fat bodies slinking on my arm, searching for green. We waited, her and I, the weeks when they spinned their bodies into hardening threads that would be their only protection as their bodies shifted, sprouted wings. When they left their prisons, their wings would unfold. They would twist and shake their bodies until their wings stretched out, and they could not fly until they released a drop of red: a sort of menstruation that all Monarchs must endure. It is not blood, but rather waste—Meconium—but a child sees red on a body and can only believe one thing.
The lesson there was that you must bleed before you can fly.
During the summers, the mating seasons, my mother drank coffee and sat by the window facing her garden so she could run outside and collect the eggs after they were hatched. It was kindness that drove her to this sort of kidnapping-adoption: most of the eggs left on the plants were eaten by the beetles and ants that came along with the encouraged food supply. Only once she found a Swallowtail on the ground, its abdomen bloated with eggs, unable to lift its heaviness into the air to lay. Left alone, my mother believed it would be eaten by an opportunistic, hungry bird. She put this mother into a box with flowers so it could eat, hoping it would lay its children and she could send it on its way.
Its body was an odd curiosity to me, young as I was. It would be years before my sister’s body would swell with her first child and I understood that pregnancy was both an agonizing yet wonderful thing. All I saw in that cage was a body suffering from its inability to do what it was made to: soar, and move away.
Gently, I pressed my index finger down on its abdomen. The eggs, covered in gummy blood, spewed out from her pinched end, and I had to squeeze her several times to get them all out. They were round, like pearls in a little line as she shifted to get away from me, but I as a child I misunderstood what I now know: sometimes, you hurt when you help.
My mother must have found her later and been confused and full of sorrow, as she always was when they died under her care. Like the others who were born with bent wings or failed to drop their red and could not fly, she took the little mother’s body and placed it on top of fake flowers on the dining room table. After, she may have made me breakfast, eggs and toast, while I hid my stained hands under my thighs.
A.A. Balaskovits is the author of Magic for Unlucky Girls (SFWP, 2017) which won the Santa Fe Writers Program Awards grand prize in 2015. Her work appears or will appear in Indiana Review, Smokelong Quarterly, The Southeast Review, Wigleaf, The Madison Review, and many others. She lives in South Carolina.