[Carnivorous] Social [Media] Butterflies

Fragile

is a word we use
for gossamer or butterflies.
But not for her.

Thin-skinned
doesn’t say enough;
she’s an overripe tomato
fermenting in the August sun.
Just a careless poke or jostle
and she’ll split right open
spilling slippery seeds
bright red and warm,
her final burst as silent
as her long decay.

The butterflies, at least,
benefit from her
degeneration.
They slake their thirst
at the puddle
of things she left
too long
unsaid.

Footprints in the Snow

This story was inspired by a Russian folk tale called “Baboushka and the Three Kings,” in which the Wise Men invite an old widow to join them as they search for the Christ-child on a frosty winter night. Although the poor woman extends to them what meager hospitality she can offer, she tells them she is too busy, too tired, too old to join them, and they leave without her. To her dismay, she cannot think about anything else after they leave, and she sets out on her own to find Him. Legend holds that she wanders the world still, sad and hopeful, peeking into every child’s bedroom, looking for the Christ, so she too may offer Him her gift. Children look forward to finding a little toy from Baboushka on their pillows each Christmas morning.

Continue reading “Footprints in the Snow”

An Afternoon Riddle

“Mother!” The child’s voice rang out, high and melodic, like the chirruping of a finch. “Mother! Mo-ther!” Around the corner of the stone cottage, a tousled golden head bobbing atop a willowy frame came tumbling pell-mell into the little garden. Right behind him ran his sister, her knees and shins covered in crumbly bits of moist black earth and hay. Their faces were pale and their eyes wide; they were clearly agitated about something.

“Mother, look!” The girl pushed past her brother and held out a fist, palm-up, then slowly uncurled her fingers. It was a torn butterfly wing. A tear glistened in her eye. “It must have been Claude. Aren’t there enough mice in the barn to keep him happy?” She closed her chubby fist over the wing again and cuddled it close to her heart.

“Do you think the fairies will take revenge?” The boy’s sober face as he asked this was simply too much for their mother; her studied expression of concern split into a merry smile, and she concealed it quickly with her hands before composing herself again. She didn’t want to ruin the fun.

“Listen to me, you two, and listen carefully.” Both sets of tear-stained cheeks tipped upward to look at her. She crouched down, her long skirt draping onto the ground around her like the wilted petals of a flower. “Your father left me with strict instructions. If I were ever to find evidence of violence towards a fairy while he was away, we were to make amends in the best way we could. Now, Sarah,” she took the girl’s hand and gave it a squeeze, “Claude may be a legend among cats–mighty mouser, hunter of hunters. But no matter how fast he is, you know that Claude could never, ever catch a fairy. Most likely he just caught its wing with his claw, and it flew away to safety. You know very well they can become invisible whenever they like.”

Sarah looked abashed; this was a very big expression on such a very small face. “But,” she managed after a moment’s silence, “they’ll still be vexed! What if they curdle our milk, tip over the ash bucket, tie my hair up in knots–”

“No, no, no, Sarah–and I’ll tell you why. We are going to make an apology on Claude’s behalf. We’re going to build them,” she lowered her voice to a whisper, “a fairy house.” Both children’s faces brightened. “Now, Ben, go and fetch me the mossiest rock you can find by the well. Make sure it’s flat and smooth.” Benjamin ran off purposefully, his small brow furrowed with determination. “You and I will find the perfect spot for it.” She took Sarah’s hand and set off towards the edge of the clearing around their house and into the thick woods.

As the three worked together, gathering lichen-encrusted twigs, silky acorns, fragrant pine cones, and other debris from the forest floor, she told the children a riddle:

“We dance beneath the golden bower
beside stone wall and royal tower.

Each maiden fair through sunlit hours
bows golden head to fragrant flowers.

Then, when the sun bids all goodnight,
return we each in dainty flight

To halls of gold and sweetness fair;
we each of gold and ebony hair

Do dance before our fairy queen–
elaborate steps show what we’ve seen

In microcosm, pantomime–
where in her realm we next shall dine.

Who are we?”

“I know the answer! Fairies!” blurted Ben.

Their mother laughed. “No, I’m afraid not in the sense you mean. These creatures are real–not invisible or magical.” Her voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. “Like the fairies, they can hurt us if they become frightened, but normally they are friendly, and ever so helpful.”

The two children worked carefully, stacking up tiny pebbles to build a chimney and arranging a few loose feathers artfully around the doorway. Charlotte repeated the riddle for them a few more times, but they were baffled. Then, buzzing low across the churned-up earth where Charlotte had been hoeing earlier that day, a fuzzy black and golden bumblebee caught Sarah’s eye as it lighted on a purple clover flower.

“They are bees!” she cried out.

“Very good! You’ve solved it.” The girl grinned, wiping the back of her hand across her dusty forehead. The amber sunlight of late afternoon, warm like candlelight, slanted through the thick branches above them. Broad green vine maple leaves caught the light like translucent panels of stained glass; tiny ruby huckleberries dangled like glass baubles on spindly huckleberry plants; lazy swarms of gnats hung thick in the air like clouds of incense. It was easy, Charlotte thought to herself, to believe in fairies during moments like this one. She smiled down at the two little golden heads bowed down over their painstaking work, laying out a palatial construction that would only be inhabited by dreams; for her, the natural world held enough magic of its own.

Photo credit: “The Artist’s Family in the Garden,” by Claude Monet, from Wikiart.org. Image is in the public domain.

Goldbach’s Conjecture–A Love Story in Three Parts

Image credit: Zlyoga @ freeimages.com There were seventeen buttons on the front of her dress, running in a long line from neck to mid-shin. Seventeen. He grouped them visually. Eight, eight, one. Back to the hem, and up again. Seven, seven, three. Again. Three groups of five, and two. Four groups of four, and one. Five groups of three, and two. Eight groups of two, and one. His gaze lingered on that last button at her neck, an incongruous rock in the stream of flowing, symmetrical factors. Seventeen; a prime number, an oddly shaped building block that stood out from the crowd, endlessly fascinating. There was room for one more button at the hem near her knee, but no buttonhole bespoke a lost button. No, it was only ever seventeen. It was his favorite of her dresses.

He started to count them again: eight, eight, one; seven, seven, three—but when he reached the top button again he realized she was speaking.

“…you should be confident about this one, Peter. You know the piece backwards, forwards, and upside down. We’ve run through it today twenty times at least, and it was perfect; tomorrow will be no different. Even if there are a hundred people here—“ (Twelve rows arranged in three columns of six seats across, except the four exit rows of four seats each, makes two hundred and eight people with four hundred and sixteen eyes.) “—it’ll just be the two of us up there.”

Peter looked up at her face. She was smiling. Her buttons caught the light and glinted pink when she moved. Just the two of us up there. His own sweater had five buttons. The sum any of two primes is an even number. Seventeen plus five equals twenty-two, leaving eleven for each of us. A pair of elevens. Beautiful, symmetrical… and both prime.

“Do you want to run through it one more time?”

He looked over at the grand piano that dominated the stage. Steinway & Sons, Model D, concert grand. “Do you think I should?”

She nodded, still smiling.

He took a seat at the bench, pausing to polish out a stray fingerprint on the ebony with his sweater sleeve. Eighty-eight keys is eight times eleven, or four times twenty-two; four pairs of us, one pair reflected in each lens of her glasses and of mine. He closed his eyes, positioned his fingers over the keys, and started to count out the time signature: nine over eight. One-two-three-four…


“So how did things go with Cathy today? Did you ask her out?” Bruce’s tongue flicked beer foam off his lips and mustache. Right side, left side, lower lip.

Her name is Catherine.”

Bruce set his pilsner glass back down on the bar, missing the cardboard St. Pauli Girl coaster by two inches. His gaze followed the new bartender’s slender form as she navigated a stepladder to retrieve a bottle of Macallan single malt from the top shelf. In one quick motion, Peter repositioned Bruce’s glass squarely onto the coaster and swiped the condensation off the bar with his napkin. “I’d like a piece of that,” muttered Bruce with a grin as he turned back to Peter. “But seriously, bro. How did it go?”

“I don’t know what to say to her.

Bruce shook his head and chuckled. “Just tell her how you feel, Pete. Girl like that, artsy fartsy type, she’ll be a sucker for it.”

“Sucker?”

“She’ll go for it, fall for it, you know.”

“Right.” Fall for it. Peter pictured her falling, tumbling gently through an endless tunnel, like Alice in the rabbit hole. He’d felt that way himself when she was near him, like he was falling. It made his stomach lurch. “How I feel.

He pictured her sitting beside him in a metal folding chair as he played the upright Wurlitzer in her garage: eyes closed, elbows on knees, chin in hands, a smile on her face. The piano was slightly out of tune, but when she matched it with her voice the whole universe seemed to rotate into alignment around them.

“I feel happiest when I’m with her.”

“What are you– twelve?” Bruce chortled and took another pull of his beer. “You can’t just say that kind of crap to a woman, like some lame Hallmark you memorized. It’s gotta be, you know, real. Honest.” The plaid lines of Bruce’s overshirt did not align at the shoulder seam; there was a quarter-inch discrepancy where red met black instead of red. Peter stared at it, mentally adjusting the stripes. “How long have you known her again? What is it– three years?”

Two years, seven months, five days—he looked around for a clock—and three hours. “Yeah, almost.”

Bruce gestured at the bartender and she brought over another round of beer. “You new around here, girl?” She rolled her eyes and turned to help another patron.

“I think she is, Bruce. I’ve haven’t noticed her in here before tonight.”

“You wouldn’t notice her if she stripped off her clothes and started dancing on the bar, Pete,” snorted Bruce.

“I notice things.”

“Oh yeah?”

“I noticed that you missed a spot near your right ear when you shaved this morning.” Bruce’s hand shot up to feel his jaw. “I noticed when you stopped wearing your wedding ring, the first day you took it off.”

Bruce’s face reddened. “Yeah, alright.”

“I’m not stupid.”

Bruce slid the half-finished plate of prosciutto-wrapped bocconcini to Peter. “You done?”

Peter nodded. “I’ll try to talk to her, Bruce. Tomorrow. Before—no, after.” He ran through the event timeline in his mind, trying to inject room for a conversation he knew would be complicated. “Maybe before. Or after might be better.”

“Wait, before what?”

“Chamber orchestra is doing Debussy for Valentine’s Day. We’re performing Clair de Lune.” Bruce’s face was blank. “Soprano soloist and piano, written in 18—“

Bruce cut him off with a dismissive gesture. “Yeah, yeah, whatever, I get it. You got it easy, Romeo. Just ask her out to dinner afterwards. Then after dinner,” He slid into his coat. “It’ll all seem pretty natural. Just don’t, you know–” he shot Peter a sideways glance. “Screw it up.”

“Right.” Peter buttoned his pea coat—one, two, three—and wrapped his scarf around his neck before plunging out into the February night. Don’t screw it up.


Her dress didn’t have any buttons; just one long zipper up the back that ended between her shoulder blades. Her hair was twisted up in a loose knot, and she was wearing earrings: five-pointed, flower-shaped. “Are those diamonds?” Peter cracked his knuckles.

“You shouldn’t do that.” Her voice was quiet.

“Are they zirconium?”

“What?”

“Your earrings.”

“Oh, uh,” she felt her right earlobe with one gloved hand. “These are just rhinestones, cut glass. But I thought they had a nice sparkle.”

“They are very sparkly.”

She glanced at him, distracted. “Thank you,” she smiled briefly. “You look nervous. You’ll do fine, Peter. I’ve never heard you make a mistake.”

“I make mistakes.”

“I don’t want to argue about it.”

“Sorry.” He fidgeted with his tie. He had bought a clip-on after thirty-seven failed attempts to tie one himself following a tutorial he had found online. This one was solid colored, dark red; no distracting stripes or dots.

“It’s straight, it’s fine. You look great.” She turned away from him and smoothed the wrinkles from her dress. As he reached out to pick a piece of lint from her shoulder, she turned suddenly towards him. His outstretched hand brushed her neck, but as he pulled it away, she grabbed it and held onto it with both hands. She looked into his eyes.

“You don’t have any buttons on your dress,” he said.

“What?”

His collar was choking him. “Don’t you think that even numbers feel more whole, more… symmetrical?”

“Peter, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Symmetry. Goldbach’s conjecture says that the sum of any two primes—“

“Are we talking about math now?”

“Yes. No. I’m talking about prime numbers.” She stared at him. “About us.”

“You think we’re like prime numbers?” She moved a little closer to him, her hands still holding his. His palm felt slippery, and his face was getting uncomfortably hot. One of the violinists brushed past him.

“Well, the thing is, an even number is complete, stable, symmetrical. You can divide it into even parts, redistribute them—there’s no loose end. Two even numbers always make an even number, so that’s easy. One even and one odd— always odd, maybe even prime. But two primes—two primes always combine to form an even number. No surprises.”

“And all prime numbers are odd, right?” She was smiling now. He could smell her perfume. It smelled like vanilla, and something else he couldn’t place.

“Yes. Except two, of course.” There were freckles on her bare shoulders. A cluster of three, shaped like a triangle. He started to count the rest. Four, five, six…

“Are you saying I’m odd, Peter?”

“Yes. No. I don’t know. I’m just saying prime numbers are lonely. They only have two factors: one and themselves.”

“Do you think I’m lonely?” She reached down to take his other hand, and drew them both together in the narrowing distance between their torsos.

“I don’t know. I think you might be.” Peter could hear the audience murmuring as they took their seats on the other side of the heavy curtains. “I think I am.” He paused. “But you’re certainly unique.”

She laughed. “Not as unique as you are.”

“Uniqueness isn’t scalable. It’s a toggle state: unique or not. Nothing can be slightly unique.”

She was grinning. “True enough. But you’re changing the subject. People aren’t ones and zeros, Peter.”

The conductor coughed to interrupt them and pointed at his watch. “Places,” he urged softly. Catherine released his hands and dried her palms on her skirt, mumbling apologies and reddening.

“I’m just trying to say that I feel sick whenever I’m with you,” he blurted.

She grinned and leaned close to him. Her breath was hot and moist on his ear. “You make me feel sick, too.” She brushed his cheek with her lips, smiled at him, and walked away. Her heels clicked on the wooden floor: one-two, one-two, one-two.

 One and one make two: a prime singularity. And the only consecutive primes are two and three. We can name our son Goldbach. He smiled, cracked his knuckles, and headed after her.

Image credit: Zlyoga @ freeimages.com

Eddie’s Door

He’d never noticed a door there before. 

A brass placard etched with official-looking capital letters hung at eye-height: W.M. Theodophilus, Ph.D. The sign was shiny, and clearly new; it looked out of place against the peeling green paint of the door. Eddie stood in the alley and stared at it for a long moment.

There were no windows on this side of the building for Eddie to peer through and satisfy his curiosity. Well, none except a few narrow ones high up on the fourth floor that overlooked the rusty fire escape. The ladder was drawn up, so no luck there, either. Eddie shifted his bookbag onto his left shoulder as he stared upwards, and his sudden movement startled a few pigeons into flight above his head. I’m going to be late, he thought suddenly. He rushed down the alley and back out into the bright daylight of the street, pulling his blue baseball cap further down over his eyes as he ran.

All day while he was in school, Eddie’s thoughts wandered back to the door. Even during art class, which he normally loved, he couldn’t concentrate. He didn’t mention anything about it to Alejandro while they shot hoops at recess. He decided during lunch hour, as he silently chewed his turkey sandwich, that he would go back there on his way home. He left school in a hurry, rushing past Alejandro with a grin and a wave. Normally they’d walk together and talk about homework or the latest basketball scores before they got to the corner of 5th and Main where Alejandro turned left and Eddie turned right.

Maybe he could ask a few questions in the tiny bookstore on the street-facing side of the dilapidated brick building. All the other shops were boarded up, and had been for as long as he could remember. Surely the owner would know who this Dr. Theodophilus was. But when he got to the bookstore, the shopkeeper was with a customer who was complaining loudly about the price of a book. Eddie guessed from the harried look on her face that this was not the best time to pester her with childish questions. He pretended to scan the bookshelves for a moment, pulled a piece of paper out of his bag and pretended to jot something down, then shoved the paper into his pocket and raced home, his heart pounding. His father would be upset if he were even a few minutes late, and he didn’t want to have to make explanations.

The next day, Eddie packed his lunch in a hurry and left for school a bit earlier than usual. His father came out of the bathroom with shaving cream on his face when he heard the door opening fifteen minutes earlier than was normal. Eddie made up an excuse about needing to ask the teacher about an assignment before class, and ducked out without waiting for any further questions. It was only a little lie, but it made Eddie’s stomach feel fluttery as he raced down the damp streets to the alley and the green door.

Eddie stood in front of the door, not moving, staring at the letters on the sign. He raised his fist, and hesitated.

It was probably nothing; maybe a shrink had a new office upstairs, or maybe a crabby old historian presided over a basement full of dusty old papers. He imagined a wrinkled old man with a cane and thick glasses flinging the door open angrily if he dared to knock, demanding to know what he wanted, telling him to buzz off, threatening to call the cops if he didn’t leave.

He knocked. A bit softly at first, and then harder.

The door swung open almost soundlessly, revealing a narrow staircase. A few brave shafts of light penetrated the darkness from above, spotlighting a parade of dancing dust motes that sparkled like confetti as they fell. Eddie pulled off his hat, squinted, and stepped inside. He could hear his blood pounding in his ears now. He’d get in huge trouble if someone caught him in here, he knew. But he just had to see what—or who—was up there. He propped the door open with his lunch bag and started up the stairs as quietly as he could.

At the first landing, he heard noises coming from further up. Soft, rhythmic noises; the thick brick walls that blocked out all the city sounds from outside and ate up the sound of his footfalls as he climbed muffled the noise. From the second landing, he could tell that it was music. He topped the third landing. The window that had cast the light down the stairwell was filthy, caked with yellowish grime. Someone had drawn a little happy face with their finger in the gunk.

At the top of the stairs, a doorway to his right led to another staircase. It had a little red sign over it: ROOF ACCESS. He could hear the music more clearly now; it sounded like a Bob Marley song he knew, about bluebirds and happiness. What respectable psychiatrist would play music like that in his office? Directly in front of him was another door, this one freshly painted a deep blue; in the center hung another placard, just the same as the one outside. Now or never, he gulped.

He raised his fist, and knocked.

Nothing happened. The music kept playing: “Rise up this mornin’/ smilin’ at the risin’ sun/ Three little birds/ flew by my doorstep/ Singin’ sweet songs…” Maybe they hadn’t heard him over the noise. He knocked louder. “Singin’ don’ worry/ ‘bout a thing/ Cuz ev’ry little thing/ is gonna be alright…” Thumping sounds. The music stopped abruptly. Footsteps. The rattle of a door latch being slid free.

The door creaked open.

A woman, about his father’s age, stood there, surveying him carefully. A multitude of the tiniest braids, each tied at the end with a length of multicolored thread, framed her face and spilled down to her shoulders. Her skin was the smooth brown of a hazelnut shell. She looked a bit startled, then amused. She smiled.

“Yes?”

“Oh, uh—hi, ma’am—I just, I mean… Are you, uh— are you Dr. Theodophilus?” His cheeks blazed with embarrassment.

She laughed. “To my students, yes. To you– well, honey, you can call me Dr. Theo, for now. My friends call me Wilma. Do you wanna come in for a minute? You look a bit… rattled.”

She opened the door a bit further to reveal the room’s contents to him before beckoning him in. Huge canvases lined every wall, and metal-shaded lamps hung from exposed ductwork above. Paint, brushes, rags, tools and other art materials filled several tables. Wilma set down the brush she’d been carrying and went over to a sink to wash her hands. “I’ve got some coffee left—are you old enough to like coffee yet? I think one of my students left some Coke in the mini-fridge, if coffee’s not your thing.”

Eddie was starting to get nervous. So she was a teacher. But even so, did that make it okay for him to be up here alone with her, when no one knew where he was? “Um, I’ll take a Coke, thanks,” he said hesitantly.

Her head popped around the corner from the sink and grinned at him.“You need to call someone and let ‘em know where you at? We won’t be a second here. But you looked like you had some questions that needed answering; am I wrong?”

Eddie swallowed and shook his head. “No, ma’am—“

“Call me Theo,” she corrected.

“No, Dr. Theo, ma’am,” he went on. “I did have some questions. I have more now than I did before, to tell you the truth.”

“Go on,” she called. He heard a microwave beep and smelled hot coffee. More clatter of dishes and running water.

“I had never noticed there was a door in this alley before I saw your nameplate.” He walked over towards a large canvas that was propped under the windows. The view was amazing from up here.

“No? Maybe it was the nameplate that caught your eye. Stuffy thing, that; a student had it made for me when his first piece sold last month. Thought I’d put it up, make him happy.” She laughed again as she came around the corner with a steaming mug and a can of Coke, handed the soda to him, and took a sip of the coffee. She stared out the window, satisfaction beaming from her face. “Nice view, eh?”

He popped the top off his can and took a swig. Eddie noticed that nearly all the paintings were of city streets from above. “Yeah, you can see everything from up here,” he said softly. Cars, pigeons, stoplights, rooftops, and people walking… well, person walking: there was only one person in most of them—a boy. He wore a blue baseball cap.

“You sure can, Eddie. Everything that matters, anyway.”

[In honor of Mother’s Day, 2011]