Mourning Cloak

by Greg Tebbano 

 
When his wife’s water broke, Darren was plucking a caterpillar off the back of his neck. The tingle of so many legs—he mistook it for a premonition. That was when he heard Tiffany’s astonished cry from the bedroom. Maybe some bit of incredible news just floated past on her phone. When he got upstairs Tiffany sat in a faint puddle on the unmade bed, smirking like a kid caught wading in a public fountain.

“Better get that bag,” she said.

In those last weeks carrying her burden, Tiffany’s feet swelled. Darren helped her down the stairs while she cradled “her globe,” as they called it. Soon the whole world would emerge from her as a tiny person.
Darren tossed her bag in the bed of the old truck. As he was about to open her door, Tiffany stopped him. In the rolled-down window, two butterflies sat slowly pumping their wings.

“It’s red today, isn’t it?” she said.

“Christ. I forgot,” said Darren. The travel restrictions. But this was an emergency.

Darren got her in the truck and the butterflies wafted from the door. Tiffany watched them ascend, their burgundy wings embers.

The engine turned on the third try. It was his dad’s truck. Thirty years earlier, it ferried his own pregnant mother to the hospital. His father only told him the story about a thousand times. He was born in the middle of winter. On that night, there had been a storm.

*

Some said fire, others ice. None said wings. Only gardeners and entomologists knew their name—nymphalis antiop, or mourning cloak. A harbinger of spring. Traditionally they’d been known to eat up a nursery. In the beginning, these were the images everyone devoured—row upon row of saplings razed to skeleton.

Darren wasn’t a hundred percent on the science. Some incredibly hot summers had jiggered their genes. Now they ate everything. The leaves of anything deciduous. But also silage crops, whole vegetable fields turned to compost. In their gluttony, they would starve humanity. A deserved turn, some said.

*

When their son was conceived, it had already begun. As long as Tiffany carried the baby, both she and Darren shouldered a guilt that kept pace. What world would their boy know? With Darren home on indefinite furlough, the question of whether the baby was a mistake filled their days. They berated themselves about it, polished excuses, talked it into the barren ground, hung on each other’s words like cocoons until the sun set and the darkness was surround.

*

The truck came down out of the hills, the river high with three days of rain. The damage was first apparent on stands of trees by the roadside, oak and birch and maple, all of them sheared on the sunlit side, as though by an arborist with an untempered Leatherface streak. Shade would be a memory, Darren thought.

“I knew it was happening, but—” Tiffany cupped her hands over her mouth.

He understood. She hadn’t been out in it—seen the familiar undone, the roads they knew like friends.

They passed a corn field that looked more like a trampled festival grounds. Among the few remaining stalks a lone black bear nosed the ground, its fur loose on its frame. This bear looked up at the truck as they passed, its gaze yellowed, lost. Over its shoulder was a patch of mange and within it, a raw, red eye of skin. Tiffany saw it too.

“Darren—” She was hitting him on the shoulder as when he dozed off during a movie, at a part she didn’t want to later explain. “I’m gonna be sick.”

He eased the truck to the shoulder. Before he could run to help her she was already on her hands in the sand and weeds. He felt her sobbing.

“I don’t want to do this,” she said.

“Everything’s going to be okay,” Darren said. They both said it so often. Who knew how easy it was to become a liar.

Just then a state trooper’s Impala came onto the flats, the silent lights approaching faster than he thought possible. One summer, Darren went out to Watkins Glen. It was like that. By the third lap he was convinced gravity wouldn’t be enough to keep the cars on the track.

The old truck creaked on its struts as the cruiser rocketed past in the direction they were headed. Darren felt Tiffany shiver as they stood together and brushed the gravel from her bare knees.

*

As they drove, the valley widened. The decimated, sunlit fields seemed victims of a storm, but now it had passed. Even the wreckage glittered with god’s promise. Now it was over. Now they were safe. The truck shook at the limits of its horsepower.

“We should stop,” said Tiffany.

She pulled at his shirtsleeve and nodded at the black line on the horizon. He expected them to come first in streaks, preceded by outliers. But no. They came as a darkening sky.

Darren drove on, under some spell. Both he and Tiffany had seen the videos, but this was something else. A swarm. He still said swarms. It was always Tiffany who corrected him. By then, there was no one in the world didn’t know the name for a mass of butterflies—a kaleidoscope.

They began to hit the truck like dots of rain. In an imitation of what his own father would have done, Darren braced a hand across the chest of his pregnant wife—the truck barreling into darkness as the wind kicked up and the headlights illuminated, for one impossible instant, a way.

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