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My mother spotted the chrysalis first. Her outdoor activity these days is limited to the walk from the house across the back yard to the laundry room, and from the laundry room to the clothesline where she still hangs her wet clothes on a warm day. She is bent and shrunken from arthritis and osteoporosis and cancer and old age, but she still walks like a cat and she doesn’t miss a thing.
This January, most of the days were warm. My brother-in-law said there had been two springs this year on the Gulf coast of Texas, and no winter. Sure enough, the yellow climbing rose on the front porch was blooming and the bougainvillea looked as if it hadn’t missed a beat since the long, hot summer and the record-setting drought of 2011. Bright magenta and purple, they spread their thorny branches along the white fence and up the front of the house, looking like paper party favors.
A few welcome showers had blown through and cleaned the air and if I hadn’t known better, I would have sworn it was March or April. The perverse glories of global warming.
When I lived in Galveston, a few years back, a local woman, one of my writing students, introduced me to the miracle of milkweed in the garden and the certainty that with milkweed, in that climate, there would be butterflies.
Sure enough, we planted the milkweed and shortly after, it looked as if it was dead, stripped of all its leaves by a fat green caterpillar. We didn’t know the caterpillar would soon be enshrouded in a chrysalis and would magically transform to a butterfly, but it did. Since then, this cycle has occurred several times, but never in January.
The weather turned chilly and windy and I clipped the milkweed branch with its delicately dangling chrysalis and brought it into the house so Mama could watch it change. We stuck it in a pitcher of flowers in the living room, and marveled at its elegant shape, a perfect little jade pendant with a stripe of tiny gold dots around its cap. We watched it all day the day before I drove back to Colorado and nothing happened. Then we went to bed.
The next morning Mama got up at 5:30 as usual while I slept. The beautiful Monarch had emerged sometime during the night and was clinging to the branch, stretching and drying its wings. When I got up a couple hours later, Mama had moved it to the front porch to warm in the sun until it was ready to fly away.
I packed up the car, stopping on each trip to watch the Monarch’s progress. It trembled in the crisp breeze, its antennae buzzing, then without warning, spread its glorious orange and black and gold wings, holding them open a brief few seconds. Mama came out on the porch and kissed me goodbye and we both managed not to cry because the butterfly was there and how could you cry in the face of that?
The drive home was long and quiet and hypnotic. I drove through the ravaged woody hills of central Texas, through the fireline from last summer’s wildfires, a charred black landscape. To the west of Austin, all those beautiful lakes ringed with mini-mansions looked like dried up mud puddles, the water sunken to the very bottom, brown banks littered with docks that had fallen where they once floated, collapsed like tinker toys.
I chose a route I’d never taken into New Mexico, Highway 380 through the Lincoln National Forest and past the Smokey the Bear Museum in the tiny village of Capitan. These unfamiliar, winding mountain roads kept me awake and alert enough to stop on a dime when a foursome of desert bighorn sheep, rams, crossed the road right in front of my car, looking scared, right into my eyes through the windshield. I sat there a minute to take it in, then continued west.
An hour or so later, past a hundred turns in the road, I came upon the vast, flat Valley of Fires, a massive, desolate sweep of black lava rock from an ancient volcano. I’d been listening to a mystery on CD and the action had just reached its climax — a house burning to the ground with two dead bodies inside, the heroine escaped into the night — and thought that could have happened here and no one would ever have known it.
That night, I stopped to sleep in Taos and called my mother to check in. She was just fine, she said. The butterfly had flown away.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.