Butterflies can intercept radio waves. Back when cars had antennas, you could see it happen. Butterflies would land on the antenna’s round, metal end cap and, through this contact, they became winged receivers. Then it was easy. They had two antennae with which to capture waves. And you could tell when they’d caught the signal, because they would wiggle from the tickle of vibrating electrons and electricity would sparkle at the edges of their wings.
At least that’s how the six-year-old version of my mind interpreted it. And with this information, I decided that I, too, could be a receiver. My index finger made the perfect antenna when I held it up straight into the air. And when I practiced the still highly debatable virtue of patience and ignored the itch of my nose or the pressure in my bladder, the butterflies would land on my antenna and capture waves for me. The tickle of their feet as they tasted the oils on my finger pad made me wiggle, and I felt the arc of electricity as it made a connection between the lives of two very different creatures. Life threw sparks at the tips of my fingers.
A few years later, my Aunt Patsy would surprise me again with her estimate of my maturity and would give me a book that would plumb my understanding of life. I Never Saw Another Butterfly is a collection of writings and drawings by the children who passed through the Terezin ghetto on their way to Nazi death camps. With their concrete minds, they became the antennas of the camp, capturing the signals of atrocity and transcribing them into pictures and poems. But, with a duality singular among children, their minds also escaped the camp to run through the flowers that carpeted distant rolling hills and chased the sparkling contrails of butterflies that flittered through the bleached branches of the trees that peeked over the walls. In 1942, Pavel Friedmann saw his last butterfly. He wrote:
For seven weeks I’ve lived in here,
penned up inside this ghetto.
But I have found what I love here.
The dandelions call to me
And the white chestnut branches in the court.
Only I never saw another butterfly.
That butterfly was the last one.
Butterflies don’t live in here,
in the ghetto.
By the end of 1944, he was dead.
15,000 children floated through Terezin. Only 100 made it back. I figured he must have been listening to some signal of hope transmitted through the fluttering of butterflies. A minor perturbation in the philosophy of evil caused by a single flap of iridescent wings. But when the butterflies disappeared, all reception was lost.
Many years later I would be quietly sitting with my mother, watching the pigeons and jays bicker over a pile of black oil sunflower seeds outside the multi-paned picture window of the den. For long moments, I watched my mother disappear instead. Motionless, emotionless; becoming more and more imprisoned by the vicissitudes of a depressive state that I wouldn’t fully understand until over a decade later, working as a mental health nurse 800 miles away. Then a flash of yellow mirrored by a flashing smile as a butterfly danced across our view and then floated out of view. “There goes my girl!” she would say, claiming she communicated with me through butterflies when I was away. Like Morse code tapped out through flapping wings.
My mother died suddenly of an aneurysm a short time later. Now, when I see a butterfly, I can’t help but see her. And I wonder if she landed on my outstretched index finger if I could tell her, through wiggling electrons and sparks of electricity, that I finally understand.
The other day, I saw the first butterfly of Spring. A male Queen basking in the warmth of an afternoon sun. Wiggling on a blade of grass. Calculating all the permutations of life with each beat of his wings.