At the end of the taut cord Kyla’s long-lost mother from Acacia leaned like an angel from the upstairs window, in a blue oriental gown stitched with red and gold butterflies, the lamplight passing through the silk to outline the shapely trim shadow of her body.
I cut the twine and dropped my pocketknife in the dirt. I crawled forward on knees and one hand, guarding the new bottle until I sat between the raised tree roots like chair arms.
I put my back safely against the elm’s trunk and looked again at the wet circle of shards where I’d tripped and dropped the half-fifth of Early Times. My hand shook as I pulled the Wild Turkey’s cork with my teeth.
“To My Lady of the Valley!”
I lifted the amber bottle high so it caught the yellow porch light and took a three-swallow gulp and instantly felt elated.
In the window above the limp blowing string she smiled and raised her own gold bottle, then turned to pull a chair to the sill.
“You know, I knew the Kennedy men, the older boys and their father, before and then after the War. ‘Mariposa’ is Spanish for ‘butterfly.’ Secrets travelled in those circles.”
I had never talked to her, since she’d arrived in the ’40’s Cadillac and moved in last May, staying to her room, Kyla said with the door and window shut, the string reaching from the lock to the bed. She’d pull the little bolt when Kyla knocked with her food.
“I suppose every man wants a taste of glory. Like in ‘Madame Butterfly.’”
I could tell by the lilt of her words that her reference to Hyannis Port and the prominent and wealthy was only an interesting and glancing anecdote that served as an introduction to her underlying topic sharpening now with sudden quickness like a great ellipse of circling wings tilting to reveal an instantly tighter, central shape.
I lifted the bottle.
“It goes back years. At 15 I was kidnapped from the Acacia Harvest Fair, the Ferris wheel, and taken to San Francisco. By a man named Aaron. In a Rolls Royce, to a mansion by the sea. A week later Ramon drove us down to Pacific Grove, where the orange monarchs were flying in, nesting in the blue gum groves. They landed all over the silver car, on Winged Victory on the hood.”
My nightmare memory of my boot heel catching on the elm’s root and the whiskey floating from my hand disappeared, flew away past a flaring star burning so fiercely that the dimmer stars began to fade and flicker out beyond the branches and moving elm leaves. It had to be a planet. Venus? Jupiter?
“Aaron and the old man doped my wine at dinner. It took two weeks. Special inks and needles. It was enormous, complicated, blinding as a hundred rainbows.”
I saw its wings born from pain flashing and beating to span her remarkable career across a thousand shadowed rooms, suites in skyscrapers and cabins on ships at sea and knew that none of the things I’d ever read or heard even grazed the adventures she told me now.
“‘Untold grateful men will leave the Earth on the Wings of the Butterfly. And when you die, Pretty Lady,’ Dr. Bolger said, ‘it will fly away!’”
Dolly Mabel spread her arms in memory.
“Clark Gable – Rhett Butler – wanted to marry me, during ‘Gone with the Wind,’ while he was with Carole Lombard, before the plane crash.”
She was smoking, flicking a red ash like a meteor as she dropped a fresh pack of Camels at my feet.
“I knew the sitting governors of California and Nevada, from ’32 to ’69 . . .”
But I realized she’d hurried on, to describe the many complications that came with immense celebrity and constant urgent pleas for individual attention.
“Everyone’s always starving for love.”
I lit another cigarette, second one in three years. In what seemed three or four seconds she had summarized a complex spider web of plots and counterplots, specific times and places, documented by unimpeachable, eyewitness testimony, so it was hard to keep track.
“I was surprised as anyone to learn his wife loved only older women.”
She was confiding that for self-protection she’d kept evidence in a numbered bank vault, extensive catalogued files and photographs and films she’d seen or made, taped conversations she’d had transcribed and buried in a waterproof canister up in Bishop.
“Have I met him already and not known him? Maybe he used another name and disguise. Or is he still on his way? Who can tell?”
She smiled down at me.
I remembered that Dolly had heard and seen into the future, staring into a Madame Zanda’s crystal bowl of rosewater, observing the secretary’s deathbed confession that confirmed the President had been guilty and sobbed like a child after he admitted he’d jeopardized whole nations to gain a beautiful spy’s legendary charms, great as Mata Hari’s.
“It might even be you.”
It was true about UFOs – secretly on his orders the U.S. Air Force had copied an amazing alien craft that could travel across Time.
“He planned to escape the White House and impeachment, to meet Helen of Troy. Cleopatra. Marilyn Monroe.”
And Dolly. His great-grandfather had courted her one winter on a Caribbean vacation in the Virgin Islands, on St. Thomas, named for the doubting disciple who had to touch to believe.
“I know it sounds unbelievable, but it’s all the gospel truth.” She raised an open palm. “Swear to God.”
Dolly’s is the greatest life ever told – like an angel, she even knows what it’s like to stop time – I thought as I was thankful and again tasted my good fortune.
“I met Einstein, through a friend of Wolfgang Pauli’s. Princeton. M.I.T. Cal Tech. Berkeley.”
I drank the Wild Turkey and saw her words turn in a great arc like the lit carriages of her recalled Ferris wheel.
They were notes of some great solemn but joyful music like Bach’s wafting through the elm leaves to permeate the starry August night above the vineyard rattling with sea wind, maybe presaging rain.
“After we’d crossed paths they said his face began to change.”
“To grow more handsome—”
“No, Jack’s. You’ve been following Ferraro? She’s running for vice president. With Mondale.”
Maybe I’d been right all along, about some crazy frightening End or miraculous Beginning, what with the Democratic Convention in San Francisco and the Olympics in L.A., a Big Change coming fast on the morning westerly, strong ocean breeze crossing the Valley from the cold Pacific to threaten the raisin harvest, third year in a row.
“After the night I nearly died in Acacia? In the morning sun Ferraro stood there like an angel and said I’d better find Kyla, my only daughter.”
I didn’t worry about anything anymore, about rain on the raisins and the double mortgage coming due. Or about the election in November, Reagan’s recession and foreclosures, For Sale signs along all the country roads. Over radio The Gipper joked he was going to bomb the Russians.
That was all washed away with the good sting of the resurrected whiskey. In a way, like the broken bottle, I’d died and been born again. I was already in heaven.
I started to tell her this was the best day of my life—
“I arrived in D.C. and of course many people already knew me. Let me show you.”
At some point – when? – she had left the window and now was rushing back, holding up a purple dress that changed its sheen like suede and was spangled with a hundred glinting stars.
“I’ve worn this since I was 20.”
I cocked my head against the elm’s rough bark to admire the shining gown below her classic profile, then let my lids fall and my hand grip the bottle’s neck as I rested and believed every word, her sweet voice a deepening river patiently gathering all its branches and growing always swifter and wider, flowing now with adding strength and sureness toward the sea.
“I was Belle Solar, in another life, engaged to Joaquin Murrieta. Before I was ravished and murdered and he dealt out justice to the 17 white men. Before he turned bandit. That’s where Ramon – he was Joaquin in another life – and Aaron got these jewels. From the gold, Murrieta’s treasure buried at Cantua Creek.
“‘Mariposa, Mariposa, donde es mi esposa linda, linda como tu, Mariposa?’”
“Joaquin, I mean Ramon, used to sing it to me, in the chauffeur’s quarters. It says, ‘Butterfly, Butterfly, where is my pretty wife, pretty as you, Butterfly?’”
I didn’t worry about whatever it was I’d have to think to say, there was time for that, I had all the time in the world. At last someone had discovered Joaquin Murrieta’s lost treasure, picking didn’t start till Wednesday and Briggs still hadn’t delivered the raisin bins. With closed eyes I took a drink.
“I hear you’re having a little party tomorrow, before the harvest?”
“Some farmers are coming over. To help butcher the pig.”
“Would it be all right, if I dropped by for an hour?”
“Sure. I owe you a million.”
Roy Grant and Earl, Bud and Andy, Babcock and Markezian and the rest wouldn’t show up until 10 in the morning. The bottle was way from empty and the approaching moment remained a vague cloud in the distance, far as the Coast Range, the Sierra Madre, when Dolly would stand again at her lit window.
I could already hear her question and then my answer, two echoes waiting together down a well.
Leaning forward, reaching for her upraised silk collar, she’d ask so quietly if now I would like to see – like Einstein and the others – the many-shaded wings of the butterfly.
* * *
Nels Hanson has worked as a farmer, teacher and writer/editor. His fiction received the San Francisco Foundation’s James D. Phelan Award, Pushcart Prize nominations in 2010, 12, and 2014, and has appeared in Antioch Review, Black Warrior Review, Southeast Review and other journals. Poems appeared in Word Riot, Oklahoma Review, Pavilion, and other magazines, and are in press at Pacific Review, Carnival, Sharkpack Review Annual, NonBinary Review, The Straddler, Dark Matter Review, and The Mad Hatter’s Review. Poems in Outside In Literary & Travel Magazine and Citron Review have been nominated for 2014 Pushcart Prizes.