A Study of Symmetry, in Two Parts
by Kristina Moriconi
Photo by Kristina Moriconi
My father taught me the sweeping method, slicing the net through the air, then smacking it down onto the ground between us. Collect the butterfly into the back of the net. Trap it.
I tried hard to be attentive. To sweep properly and collect.
But the idea of it was troubling.
What made butterflies most beautiful to me was the gracefulness with which they flew. I did not want to stop the flutter of their wings with a net. I wanted to plant hundreds of butterfly bushes to attract them, then watch for hours as they landed on the delicate petals, the arched stems, closing their wings together like a silent gesture of prayer.
The more I did it, though, the easier it got.
Before long, I was catching more than my father.
The orange and gold and black wings of the butterflies fluttered madly in the back of my net. My father seemed proud, identifying species, measuring wingspans.
Years later, in a mosaics class, I would learn about the bilateral symmetry of butterflies, and I would use tracing paper to duplicate the pattern of one wing in order to build an exact replica of the other.
I broke stacks of thrift-store ceramic saucers, their teacups missing.
It took hours, a hammer first, then tile nippers.
The snap of ceramic, over and over.
Dust and splinters spread across the table, some settling onto my shoes. I insisted on this almost impossible task—scoring, applying pressure, breaking pieces into just the right shape. Two wings, a mirrored fracture of something once whole.
I couldn’t have been more than eleven.
That Saturday, in the wooded area behind our house, my father pulled several old mayonnaise jars from a knapsack he carried along. He’d peeled away the labels, leaving behind the traces of some glue on the glass.
Killing jars. He extended his hand to offer one.
I stood quietly, trying to take in the magnitude of what we were about to do.
The summer I turned twenty-one, I stopped by my parents’ house one Saturday morning on the way to an appointment. I noticed immediately a slur in my father’s speech. One side of his face seemed to droop. I tried to show him in the mirror, his reflection even more dramatic to me. His eyelid heavy, his skin slack, half of his mouth curled as though a hook tugged at the corner of his lips.
This had been a warning. It was in the hospital emergency room that he had the massive stroke. A blood clot the size of a baseball. Lack of oxygen. The tissue in the right hemisphere of my father’s brain died that day.
I learned the prefix hemi means half or partial.
Hemiplegia: paralysis of one side of the body.
Hemiplegic: a handicapped person; one who has hemiplegia.
My father showed me how to trap the specimen between the mouth of the jar and the mesh of the net. He’d stopped calling it a butterfly.
We fastened the lids onto the jars, and he explained to me what came next, what we were going to do with the specimens once we brought them home.
I hadn’t really considered next.
I watched as each of the butterflies inside the jars fluttered, then drew its wings together, two halves stilled at once, tipping over slowly like a sailboat in the absence of wind.
My father seemed pleased; we had succeeded on our first hunt. On our way back, I glanced at the jars several times, wishing I could bring the butterflies back to life and set them free. As much as I wanted to tell my father how upset I was, he kept talking. This one’s male. He pointed to the distinguishing spots on the center of the hind wings.
I nodded even though I didn’t see the spots, trusting my father knew what he was talking about. I trusted he knew a lot about everything.
At twenty-two, I decided not to move to Manhattan as I had dreamed and planned. My father needed me.
I became his caretaker, his keeper, the custodian of two halves of a body that were both giving up. I wrestled with contracting and stiffening limbs on the left, weak, tired limbs on the right.
Nothing was the same.
He became angry.
I struggled to dress him, to undress him. To cut his hair, to clip his fingernails and toenails. To treat the sores festering on the back of his heels.
I followed my father to his workbench in the shed. Using tongs to hold the first specimen by the thorax, he held it against a white foam board and forced a small pin through the middle segment of the body. He poured a few drops of gin onto the thorax. His hands shook slightly, a tremor I had noticed once before.
That’s to keep the specimen relaxed. He patted me on the head.
I swallowed hard. It’s not relaxed. It’s dead.
Relaxed means it’s moist and flexible, so it won’t fall apart when we handle it.
We used narrow strips of paper and more pins to fold the wings down and mount them to the board. My father kept reminding me not to touch the surfaces of the wings with my fingers because that would rub off the scales.
When I did accidentally touch the wings once, a powdery substance stayed on my finger. I rubbed it on the back of my jeans so my father wouldn’t know. I wanted him to think I was old enough to do this without messing up.
Before finishing, we placed wider strips of paper over the wings to keep them from curling up during the drying period. My father read aloud the instructions for storing the mounted specimens: Stored properly, specimens will last for years and years.
I did not want the evidence of what we had done to last that long. I didn’t even want to wake the next day to find those butterflies pinned to boards.
For years after his stroke, I stayed. There was resentment in needing, in being needed.
How many times I had to let go, to turn away so I would not break trying to fix him. His one hand frozen, the other wing-beating at his side.
There was no way for me to know, to mark the moment when it was too late.
I waged battles in the night. Dreamt millions of wings rushing toward me, the powder of their scales dyeing my skin. I pushed pins deep into my own limbs. Tried to drown myself in a jar filled with gin.