This piece is a continuation of the three “chapters” posted— confusingly, in blog fashion— underneath it. This piece should stand alone, but you are welcome to scroll down to Chapter 1 to read the whole story.
Some time ago, when we lived in Nairobi, I was standing in line at a butcher’s shop in an upscale, outdoor mall. There were two janitors leaning against the wall near me, talking. One was telling the other about a wonderful new development in his life. After years of working nights, he had been promoted to the day shift. He was so pleased. He was telling his friend how amazed he was by his great fortune. Years of darkness and loneliness and now suddenly he was surrounded by people and warmed by the sun. There was more work of course, but it was pleasant and the hours passed by. It was a miracle, really. He had dismantled his old life of nights and solitude, and rebuilt a new one around crowds and light and action. He had been naturally a little worried at first by all the change, you know, but it was fine. Fine, fine fine…
The line at the butcher’s shop moved slowly but I didn’t mind. I was lulled by the janitor’s speech. I sensed he had delivered it before. His friend was half-listening, nodding a little as the janitor talked melodiously for many paragraphs about this bewildering news, the marvelous changes. When he finished talking both men paused and gazed through the distance, reflecting on life’s wonders. Then the janitor smiled and threw up his hands and in his lilt-y Kikuyu accent he concluded, “Eh! But I am still just myself.”
His beautiful conclusion returns to me now, ten years and a lifetime later in Dakar, as we ascend the Corniche between the Deux Mamelle hills, the Atlantic sweeping out to the west and the African Renaissance Monument towering above. Ahead of us, the dry cleaner, the jacket with the money in the pocket, and our fate awaits. Below us, abandoned in the weedy dirt above the sea, we pass the vacant shell of a massive, unfinished hotel. This abandoned hotel disturbed me so when we first moved here, as all the ravaged construction projects weirdly did. There are plots and neighborhoods all over Dakar half-built with shoddy investments of laundered drug money, or abandoned because of corruption and litigation, or languishing for years because the money simply ran out. Concrete skeletal cathedrals of ineptitude, dark vacant holes for windows, stripped landscape and squatters’ clothes drying on a chainlink fence—there are places that we pass through daily that feel like post-conflict war zones, like Somalia, or Beruit in 1980s.
There is a fine line between construction and destruction I have grown to learn. Construction: put together by arranging an array of parts; destruction: rendered nonexistent, useless, unsound. When we first arrived it was sometimes my life, and not just Dakar, that felt poised between the two. (The two processes can look the same, and of course can happen simultaneously.) When I arrived so disoriented, the life behind me in New York suddenly rendered nonexistent, I perceived only abandonment, loss and failure manifested in the architecture around me. But today, as we pass the hulking shell of the luxury hotel, something stills in me. After a painful year of trying to process the dust and coastal desert, the seasonal monotony, the brutal landscape—trying to arrange the parts and adjust to the fact that this is my life now—perhaps, I wonder quietly, Dakar has begun to break my resistance. (A white butterfly flutters against my lip, I puff it away.) Maybe an arrangement is happening; a new perception of beauty begins to inform the abandoned structures. I see amid the debris moments of hope: a child imitating her mother’s prayer, or a woman’s translucent blue veil lifted by a breeze against a dirty lot. Maybe after the freakiness and disorientation, the dismantling, shock and horror of this move… well, here I am. I am still just myself.
The butterfly flutters against the window. When I open the window to release it, another comes in instead. They are everywhere recently—one of those crazy bug migration stories—millions of them crossing the goddamn Sahara to Europe or something. All week they have been fluttering recklessly through our garden—gossamers of pure and demented instinct—stoned (I have read) on pheromones. I smile thinking of my favorite piece of writing ever: an account by Lewis Thomas of the silkworm moth’s pheromone, called bombykol, having its effect on the male:
“The messages are urgent, but they may arrive, for all we know, in a fragrance of ambiguity. ‘At home, 4 p.m. today,’ says a female moth, and releases a brief explosion of bombykol, a single molecule of which will rattle the hairs of any male within miles and send him driving upwind in a confusion of ardor.
But it is doubtful if he has an awareness of being caught in an aerosol of chemical attractant. On the contrary, he probably finds suddenly that it has become an excellent day, the weather remarkably bracing, the time appropriate for a bit of exercise of the old wings, a brisk turn upwind. En route, traveling the gradient of bombykol, he notes the presence of other males, heading in the same direction, all in a good mood, inclined to race for the sheer sport of it. Then, when he reaches his destination, it may seem to him the most extraordinary of coincidences, the greatest piece of luck: ‘Bless my soul, what have we here!’
It has been soberly calculated that if a single female moth were to release all the bombykol in her sac in a single spray, all at once, she could theoretically attract a trillion males in the instant. This, of course, is not done.*
“Mum, they’re all over the place,” the child in the backseat says and indeed when I turn to look, his hair is simply alight in white wings. Five or ten little white butterflies have come in through a vent or something, congregating like polite parishioners. “Oh darling, how wonderful!” I say. But the child from New York City is not amused with so much nature, so I remind him of the wedding toast I made in New Hampshire in 1998.
“The one about the butterflies?” he asks.
“The very one,” I reply. “You see, there were these people… these two people,” I begin. “One was my lover… And one was my friend.” I wink and the child smiles conspiratorially at the Great Quoting of Film. “I was the maid of honor in their wedding,” I add, and turn back in my seat to look forward.
“It was a beautiful wedding, held on the porch of the old summer house with Mount Monadnock glowing in the distance each dusk, and the sunflowers bursting against the brown wood house, and the posse of sisters sitting on the deck chairs bitching about everything. But it was the late summer of a difficult year. I was presently without a home, as I recall. I did not have a job, or money, or any plan. I had returned from Rwanda (there was that composer) after the incident in Tanzania, which happened before crossing the Serengeti to Kenya with A., and by the time the wealthy recluse artist sped off in his goddamn silver Audi with his dog named Modigliani, raising the dust by the cabin in the Blue Mountains—Oh, I had lost my apartment in the West Village during this ordeal too—I was quite depleted. I had lost my way, shall we say. I lost everything really, and somewhere in the chaos of that time my life was felt to have been made unsound.
“But that’s another story,” I sigh, waving it away. “The evening I arrived a few days before the wedding, a terrible storm happened. The bedroom doors were banging and the shutters outside were too. It was a real old house and you could feel the spirits and the bones of New England’s granite history in the wind and in the rooms that night. My friend and my lover’s Black Lab, his name was Fish, got spooked or disoriented maybe with the travel and the storm. He ran off while we were sleeping, was hit by a car a few miles down the road in the middle of the night, and he died.”
“Oh,” says the child. The moths had finally settled around him; the child, a patient boy by all accounts, had resigned himself to their presence.
“We were calling for Fish to come back when the police came up to the door in the morning. It was a horrible shock for my friends. That dog was such a sweet and good dog, and he was their greatest love. They were devastated.” I watch the white butterflies out the window doing their loopy-loops in the brush along the road, beautiful white against the dirty landscape, they are caught up by an invisible breeze and spin away.
“Like all storms, this one too passed and the summer returned—cleansed, blue, shimmering. But of course a vaguely sinister shadow hung over my dear friends. They were commencing a life together, but they were mourning the loss of this love separately. I think they worried that Fish’s death was an omen. They seemed to retreat from each other, steeling themselves to face the frenzy of a wedding. The guests began to arrive a few days later, everyone from everywhere—just the most wonderful people from our lives—and the mood lifted. And it was a great and loving wedding, a real celebration of life, because a storm can obliterate much, child, but the love… the love always remains. We tried to remember that.” I feel from the backseat the child’s eyes roll. “Anyway,” I sigh, “It was all very tragic and dramatic and loving and wonderful, all at once.”
“Like those Pokemon Go players when they fell off the cliff,” the child mused.
“Just like that. Naturally, amidst all this I was expected to make a wedding toast. Despite preparing for months, by the morning of the wedding I hadn’t a clue of what to say. I woke early and went for a walk through the woods to conjure something up. A monarch butterfly was resting by the side of the dirt road on a stem of Queen Anne’s Lace as I left the house. A few yards down the road, there was another. There was one, then another. I knew then what was happening. It was like the baby was finally coming—or like soldiers, our boys! rising over the horizon returning victorious to their little town after the war. My heart leapt into my throat! It was the arrival of amazingness.
“The monarchs were so ethereal, such filigree, so unlikely in the New Hampshire woods, the way a cat looks out of place on a beach. They’re totally insane, you know. They flutter along on breathing wings made of hair and veins and scales, over rivers, highways and cities and through woods, heat and rain. They cross thousands of miles to Mexico—I’m not kidding—where they assemble in the pines of the Sierra Madre Mountains and swarm together, they say for warmth but I imagine (for what else inspires such flight, such insanity?) it’s truly for love.
“Well, my darling child,” I continue, “I knew where these beauties were heading because I had passed right by their Mexican Santuario Mariposa years before, with the very man to whom I would be toasting that night. I winced as I recalled our night in Quauhnahuac—our last romantic one together—drinking anis del mono until our throats burned and our lips slurred and our resentments surfaced and yes, finally, the last connection of our relationship severed. Our journey together had ended, right down the road from where these monarchs would soon convene. We could stand each other not another moment. The next day he went to the coast and I continued alone to Guatemala on a bus… Another story. Time passed, and with time came forgiveness and reconciliation and even friendship. And now the lover I had once left in a hacienda in Mexico was to marry my best friend, and I had about eight hours to think up a fucking wedding toast about it.
“With the monarchs alighting on the ferns all around me, I recalled the day two years before, that my friend had telephoned to tell me they were engaged (he had proposed to her on a trek in Nepal), and to ask if I’d be in the wedding. I was staying in a house on the coast north of Boston, and as I talked on the phone to my dear friend, hundreds of monarchs were coming to rest against the ivy on the stone wall out the window and all morning as she and I talked about the trek and the wedding and all the things happening, I watched the monarchs warming their wings in the sun, their wings gently pulsing, so beautiful and so creepy. My friend and I didn’t talk about migrations that day, or treks or journeys to Mexico or anything, but I was thinking about it as we talked.
“And now, genius that your mother is, I had my wedding toast.”
I lift my hand, three moths are resting on my fingers. The driver had been listening. “We make the road by walking it,” he says enigmatically. The traffic slows by the roundabout where cows often stop in the intersection. The car comes to a stop. Outside the window, clouds of white moths have begun to gently swarm, rising and falling, expanding and concentrating like snow falling in powdery confusion. Hundreds of white butterflies: silent, focused and totally deranged. I confess that I envy their mission, I envy their purpose. Because—and let me insert here that I’ve been making all this up deeply tinged with mysticism and embellished with visionary episodes, but this I know—one of these white butterflies will someday arrive, having crossed great African landscapes on wings made of breath. True to his instincts but honoring the current—trusting when to struggle and when to glide—he will reach his destination. The nights will have become days, the parts rendered useless will suddenly come together. He will realize that he is still just himself, when it will seem to him the most extraordinary of coincidences, the greatest piece of luck: ‘Bless my soul, what have we here…’’
to be continued.