The cinnamon ebony butterfly fluttered onto the stalk of the lavender iris, but it's weight slowly bowed the flower over. In the background, I could hear children yelling, the squeaking of the teeter-totters and the swings, but my daughter Corey only watched the butterfly, clearly fascinated as the tiny feet delicately negotiated the iris' trembling petals. Corey held out her pale, thin hand, and the butterfly confidently walked across the bridge of her finger to her palm. Corey's blue eyes looked even bluer next to the orange of the butterfly; but I wasn't distracted by her looks. Her interest in butterflies has always alarmed me tremendously.
Standing under the nearby Loblolly Pine, that nosy photographer Garson -- or at least his camera -- alarmed me too. Knowing my words would disrupt the moment, I asked Corey, "Is that a Monarch or a Viceroy?"
"Oh Daddy! You scared him off." She glared at me for my clumsiness. "It was a Viceroy. Monarchs are bigger, and they stink."
"Corey, people don't smell butterflies."
"I don't know why not. I do." Corey argued.
I knew better than to argue.
"Look over there Daddy! A bunch of Forget-Me-Not, your favorite." Corey looked away from the patch of flowers and made a face. "Here he comes again." she said, looking behind me.
"I almost had it. What a shot! What a picture!" Garson stomped across the park. My right fist itched to knock him out. As far as Garson is concerned, I always find myself wanting to behave unprofessionally.
"It doesn't matter Garson. You might as well give it up." I told him, "I'd never sign a release."
"Why not Doc? She's a natural." Garson shook his leonine head, and replaced the cover on his Hasselblad. Garson was only twenty-one, but he was already an acknowledged boy wonder in the world of fashion photography. For some reason -- maybe he'd sensed her uniqueness or perhaps he was simply drawn to a pretty face -- whatever the reason, he'd decided he wanted my daughter to model for him. I wasn't buying it. Unfortunately, he had enough looks, charm, talent and money that he wasn't accustomed to taking no for an answer. But 'no' is all he got from me.
"She's a natural." Garson insisted.
"Precisely." I told him.
"Huh?" Garson didn't understand, and I wasn't going to explain.
"Doc, she'd make a fortune. She could be on the cover of any magazine she wanted: Cosmopolitan, Seventeen, Sports Illustrated. What do you want of me, Doc?"
"Garson, you're a world class pest. You think I'd let you get within camera distance of my sixteen your old daughter? Get out of here before I punch you out."
"Quit your kidding, Doc. Come on, let her pose for me. She's really something." He tried to convince Corey. "Don't you want to make millions of dollars? Don't you want to be a cover girl?"
"No." Corey looked him squarely in the eye. For all her slightness, she was as tall as he. "Don't you ever think about anything but taking pictures and making money?"
"What else is there?" Garson said.
"There's nature." Corey said.
Garson's eyebrows raised. He took a short step back, and looked Corey over from her size three Adidos to the flower barrette in her hair.
The conversation -- and Garson's attitude -- was making me irritable.
"Are you hungry?" I ignored the photographer and picked up Corey's book-filled backpack.
"You pick the restaurant." I told her. We left Garson in the playground, but I could feel him watching.
"Don't you think Garson is cute?" Corey asked.
I glared across the table and she dropped the subject, but it wasn't long before she came up with something else.
"Do I really have a Mama or did you adopt me?" Corey asked me across the cafeteria table.
"Of course you have a mother." I said, trying to be patient. Over the years we'd been through this routine, oh, maybe a hundred times; but now that Corey was a teenager, she was harder to put off.
"Is she dead?"
"No, she's not."
"Are we divorced?"
"No. We were married by a Justice of the Peace in Arkansas. But after our honeymoon . . . she changed. There's no one . . . like your mother. There won't ever be anyone else."
Corey digested that. Her long, slim fingers toyed with her glass of juice. "Why isn't she with us? What's the big secret? Are you mad at her?"
"No. Eat your dinner, Corey."
She took the last sip from her tall glass of fruit nectar, but she'd hardly eaten a thing from the big bowl of salad I'd put in front of her. I shook my head at her to show her how displeased I was, but I wasn't surprised. Corey hardly ever ate more than a few bites at a time. Of course, it wasn't surprising, considering.
"So why doesn't she live with us?"
I took a sip of my coffee, trying to think of how to answer that question.
"She doesn't like me, is that it? I'm too different."
I couldn't bring myself to lie to her, to tell Corey that she wasn't different from other girls, because she was. Corey's shimmering ethereal quality set her apart, even more so than her slight frame. Dr. Vlasco, Corey's pediatrician, had been trying for years to get me to have Corey tested at the children's hospital. But I knew there wasn't anything wrong with Corey -- she just took after her mother. Sometimes I feared she would be so much like her that she'd have to leave too.
"Of course she likes you. She loves you. What brought this on?" At least I thought she loved our daughter, but it was hard to know for certain, since Corey's mother didn't speak English. She didn't speak any language -- at least, none that I knew.
"I'm tired of going on field trips when everyone's mother comes but mine. When we went to the museum last week, all the mothers came, even Tommy Hugh's mother came, and his folks are divorced."
For a moment I regretted sending Corey to Pendleton Academy for Gifted Students because, between the class participation and the PTA, Pendleton demanded more than I, a single working parent, had time to offer. The dissatisfaction with Pendleton passed -- like indigestion after Tums. There really hadn't been much choice in the matter. After all, Corey was exceptionally bright. She needed Pendleton. Furthermore, at a public institution, I wouldn't have the control I needed over her education. There was no avoiding the fact that she was more different than she -- or anyone, including me -- knew.
As a psychologist-psychiatrist, I thought I'd prepared her to face life well. She was certainly more well-adjusted then the post-adolescents in my therapy sessions. Certainly I'd tried my best to help her adjust, but there's only so much a concerned father can do. Especially as I work blind where Corey was concerned. There is no precedent to Corey that I know of.
"This is really bothering you, isn't it?" I thought of how it was bothering Corey's mother too. For the first time since she put Corey in my arms, she wanted to see Corey -- she'd communicated as much to me on my last trip to see her. I would concede the point. After sixteen years, maybe it was time mother and daughter reunited. I cleared my throat, making a decision.
"Do you want to meet your mother?"
"Oh Daddy! Oh yes! Can I? Can I really?" Corey looked up at me, her fragile, fair skin glowing even in the grim light of the cafeteria. She reached out and touched my arm with her fingertip. I lay my hand flat, and she placed her palm on mine. I was always careful with her. I know she's vastly stronger than she looks but she has always seemed so fragile that she worried me sometimes -- but there was nothing I could do about it. It's just the way she was.
"So when are we going to meet her? Mama. " I could hear her trying out words, "Mommy. Oh, I'm too old to say that. Mother. Can we meet Mother now?"
I pulled Corey's chair back -- it was too heavy for her to move -- and we walked toward the cash register.
"Don't rush so, Baby. Let's aim for this weekend." I tried to steer Corey past the line of customers so they wouldn't jostle her, but I was thinking that this weekend, there would be a full moon. Corey's mother and I had so little time together -- only during the full moons of summer. That was our signal.
"Oh, Daddy, nothing would make me happier! Did you see the Rosa Nutkana? Isn't it beautiful? And look, two Rosa Setigera." Corey said, when we got to the register.. She cupped the petals in her hands, and sank her nose in the bunch of blooms sitting on the counter beside the pink and green after dinner mints.
"Git yer face outta my flowers girl. Hey mister, get your kid to get outta my flowers. They ain't nothing special, just roses outta my back yard." The clerk was a slim, bland blond. Next to Corey, she seemed stolid, earthbound.
"Oh, but they are special." Corey said. The sour expression on the clerk's face aggravated me, but Corey was well-accustomed to this kind of reaction to her enthusiasm. "Excuse me," she said politely, "I was just admiring your roses. This one's a wild rose; and these are Prairie roses. Some people call them Michigan roses."
"I'm impressed." she said sarcastically, "You sure know a lot about roses for such a little girl. How old are you? Thirteen?" The blond seemed to measure Corey as she handing me my change.
"I'm sixteen." Corey said. Did I imagine it, or did she flush slightly?
I heard the clerk mutter under her breath, "Show off!" I was relieved to see that Corey had proceeded me through the revolving door into the foyer.
As we were walking to the car, thinking about the clerk's rudeness made me feel like I'd been the one to commit a transgression, like that embarrassed sympathy when you see someone's thoughtless or inadvertent rudeness to a handicapped person. I had an undoctorly urge to slap that woman's face; it seemed to me, where Corey was concerned, I often lost my professional cool. I hated the way people always made a big deal about Corey's differences. She couldn't help it if she was frailer than other children, any more than she could help being so much smarter and prettier.
But Corey never mentioned it. She took it in stride, the same way she accepted her 187 I.Q., her biology teacher's admiration, or that damn photographer's interest. People were always assuming she was younger -- or a dancer -- or one thing or another, that she wasn't.
"So Daddy, where are we going to see my mother? Do you have to call her or something? Don't you have to make plans?"
I smiled at her, as I pulled on to the expressway, but I was a little worried she wouldn't understand.
"Corey." I said.
"I don't want your feelings hurt. Just take my word for it that, after this weekend, you'll understand what all the secrecy has been about.. There are so many reasons why we, why your mother and I did this. There are so many reasons we raised you this way."
"What reasons, Daddy?"
"I had to teach you . . . ."
Corey looked at me blankly. "What are you getting at, Daddy? Teach me what?"
"How to live in society. How to function as a . . ."
"A what Daddy? A Pendleton lady? A red-blooded American teenager?" She said with uncharacteristic sarcasm.
No Corey, I thought, I had to teach you how to function as a human being. But what if you turn out not to be? But I couldn't tell her that. Christ, what a shock that would be. I settled for changing the subject.
"I just don't want your feelings to be hurt."
I could see she was confused, but she was trying to be grown up about this.
"What would hurt my feelings, Daddy?"
"I've been seeing your mother off and on, all these years."
"Oh." Corey looked at me steadily, trustingly. "Well, there must have been a good reason she hasn't lived with us. Is there something wrong with my mother?"
"No, she's wonderful. She's beautiful and sensitive. I love her enough that I've never married anyone else."
"Well why hasn't she lived with us?" Corey persisted.
"She's just different. She has trouble living around other people." I glanced at Corey, "I have one other stop."
She waited sullenly while warehouse workers filled the trailer with crates of honey and fruit juices. In fact, all the way home, Corey contemplated her hands folded in her lap.
As I pulled into the driveway, she said abruptly, "Is she different like I'm different, Daddy?"
I was glad we were home and that it was dark outside, because I didn't want Corey to see how my hands trembled at her words. I hadn't thought of the possibility in years, not since that second summer, when I first learned of Corey's existence. I could feel myself breaking out into a cold sweat, and my collar felt too tight. I did my best to keep my voice even, my face expressionless.
"Is she different like you're different?" I said slowly, feeling my stomach tighten with dread and anxiety. At this rate I was going to get an ulcer. How many times had I wondered about the answer to that myself? "I don't know."
We passed a hand painted sign nailed to a tree.
"What did that say? I missed it."
"Fifteen miles to the Rainbow River Trout Resort." Corey told me, "Oh, I'm so excited. My mother is really coming?" She swayed and bounced with the motion of the car, and leaned toward the window, "It's just beautiful out here. Look! There's some persimmon trees growing wild." Corey sniffed the air. "What's that?"
"What does it smell like?"
"I don't know. It smells . . . friendly. Kind of sweet. I don't know. I don't think I recognize . . ." she sniffed again, "but it's familiar."
I'd thought I couldn't get more uneasy, but I was wrong. I felt that familiar burning start in the pit of my stomach. After turning off of the gravel road winding under the trees, I parked.
"Daddy," Corey said, exasperated as usual, "the campground is thataway." She pointed.
"We're not going to the campground. These acres here are my land."
"Your land Daddy? When did you get it?"
"Seventeen years ago."
"I didn't know that. Why didn't you ever bring me before? Why didn't you ever build a house?"
"I don't think your mother wants me to."
Corey looked at me unsteadily, but I could see she was confused.
"Does she live here?"
She was so excited to be here in the woods -- too excited for my peace of mind. I could see a too-rapid pulse flutter in her throat.
"We're hiking in. Go get your pack. I'll carry my duffel and the tent, and come back for the rest of the supplies."
I opened the trunk and shrugged into my load while Corey found her own gear in the front seat.
Staggering under the light weight of her frameless nylon backpack, Corey rounded the car; but I knew better than to offer any help. It worried me lately how fiercely independent she was getting. She might be getting as independent as her mother. The acid in my stomach burned just a little more. I dug in my pocket for a few antacids.
We set off down the trail, Corey exclaiming over each different species of lichen, each fern, each wildflower. She knew most of their Latin names from her botany class.
The deeper we went into the forest, the more excited Corey became. I, on the other hand was becoming extremely agitated. I couldn't help wondering if making this trip had been a mistake. I wanted to call it off because I realized -- suddenly realized though I'd thought about it before -- this was irreversible.
I should have waited before bringing her here. Years.
At the foot of the next hill, Corey knelt in the dirt to look at a big patch of clover. She eyed the bees. "I wonder if there's a bee tree near here."
"We've got twenty cases of honey in the trailer. You don't need to look for a bee tree now." I told her. "Stop over the next rise. That's where we'll make camp. You can start gathering firewood and putting it in the stone fire-ring up ahead. You'll recognize it when you see it." I yelled. "Not too much wood. A big fire is too dangerous." Corey was already out of sight, on the other side of the hill.
I looked around. I could feel her. Corey's mother. She was here already, waiting in the woods. More than my wife, she was my mate. Would she come out? Would she be afraid because I'd brought Corey with me? Would she recognize her daughter? She ought to, because I brought fat, Corey-laden photo albums with me every summer. Pictures of birthdays and holidays, school, camp and home. I brought hundreds of pictures, but there were never enough. Corey's mother would turn the pages and cry silently over the pictures. I'd feel the raw emotion of her pain, her loneliness, her isolation. And our last meeting was the worst of all. She clutched the album to her and entreated me with her eyes; she tried so hard to make me understand; all I could do is guess that she wanted to see Corey. Or that she needed to. But I might have been guessing the wrong thing. Without words, some things are hard to know.
But some things don't need words at all.
I could feel her out there, waiting. She'd come to me after dark.
"Corey, about your mother." I wondered how to tell her to lessen the shock, "She doesn't speak." Among other things.
"She doesn't?" Corey seemed more curious than upset, "Is she deaf or mute?"
"No. She just doesn't speak. I don't think she ever learned how."
I stood in the center of the clearing, in the red and orange light of the fire, and I tied a sheet around me like a toga. See me. I thought, looking into the shadows beyond the campfire. Corey, of course, thought I was going utterly out of my gourd. Are you watching? I wondered if she would know to put the sheet around her. Corey's mother flying naked into the clearing would be overwhelming for anyone, certainly too much of a shock for Corey to take in at one time.
"What are you doing Daddy?" Corey started laughing. "You look silly."
"What are you laughing at, young lady?" I asked her, making a game out of wearing the sheet. I took her hands and started swinging her around the clearing. "Want to dance some more?" I asked her. Every time she caught her breath, I swung her around more, until she was dizzy and exhausted.
"That's enough!" she chortled, laughing and panting.
I stood in the clearing a few moments longer, then shook the sheet out and hung it on a tree limb a few yards into the black thicket of trees.
"What was that all about, Daddy?" she panted, "Why are you hanging that sheet on a tree?"
"Airing it out." I lied. It was a stupid explanation, but she took my word for it, too tired to do anything else.
"Why didn't you ever bring me camping before Daddy?"
"I was afraid to. There will be changes." I told her. "Things will be different now." I watched her struggle, in spite of her curiosity, to keep her eyes open. The light from the low embers of the campfire danced over her almost translucent skin. My sweet daughter. "I didn't want things to change, but a man can't alter nature can he? Not without injury."
I concentrated on laying the ground cloths and shaking out the sleeping bags in the two tents; I could feel Corey drowsing around the camp site. Eventually she lit on a huge log facing the fire. She was terrified her mother would reject her, or maybe that she wouldn't come at all; but she didn't want or need to voice her fears. I could read them in her eyes.
"She'll be here." I told Corey. "Why don't you go to sleep before you fall off that log? I'll wake you up."
"No. I want to wait for her." Corey said. Then her head tilted forward slowly, and her eyes closed.
She was asleep. As I carried her into her tent and zipped her into the sleeping bag, I could feel someone behind me.
She was here.
Lightly she crept into the tent, wrapped in the sheet. I watched her, Corey between us. I suppose my eyes were as hungry for the sight of her as hers were for our daughter.
She leaned over Corey. I could just make out her features in the attenuated light from the fire. Both my women had almost the same face: the high cheekbones, the sweet mouth, the wide lapis-blue eyes, the incredibly fair skin. But with one difference. I could see the shiny reflection of tear trails along my wife's cheeks.
Corey opened her eyes sleepily. Her eyes took in the woman standing over her, and flashed to me for confirmation.
"Mama?" she said and smiled. "You're real. You're really here!" Her mother smiled back. Their hands joined -- narrow, light, tiny-boned hands both. This was their moment. I, heavy, ungainly human that I am, was an intrusion. I didn't belong with them, not now, maybe not ever. I backed out of the tent, unnoticed.
I don't know how long I waited by the fire before I went to my tent, knowing things would be different now. Just how different, I was afraid to contemplate. I had the greatest fear that I would lose them both, my child and my wife. It was while I lay in the dark that I realized Corey had only been loaned to me. She belonged here in these woods, a creature of flowers and sunshine and wind. I turned away from the unzipped door of my tent, feeling the aching in the base of my throat, and a deep pain in my gut.
How long did I lay there in the dark, wondering if I would ever see them again? I don't know. At last I fell asleep.
I felt her touch, the silken stroking of her fingertips against the stubble of my beard, even before I opened my eyes. She straddled me, outside of the sleeping bag, but her weight was as nothing.
That's when I opened my eyes. I could see her in the flickering light, still wearing the sheet. I hooked my finger in the corner and tugged until the sheet fluttered to the tent floor.
"You came to me." I said, choking on the knot in my throat. "I thought you might take her and go away." Her fingers touched the tracks of my tears. "I love you." I whispered. "I wish I could tell you. I wish I could know you understand."
I unzipped the sleeping bag, and she slipped in, fitting lightly beside me. I collected the thick mane of her hair, pulling it over her shoulder, baring her back. I touched, tentatively, her wings, light and compact as parachute silk, coiled flat just below her shoulder blades.
She laughed, and crouched over me. Her eyes twinkled at me, gamin that she was. She leaned over to kiss me, unfurling. Shimmering pure color like stained glass windows with the sun shining through, her wings -- like the finest, strongest, silken velvet only alive with her passion -- curled, embracing me to her.
Across the campfire, Corey sat beside her mother on a wide log. Corey was drinking a juice, while her mother was struggling with no success to open a jar. I had just dragged a stump from the woods. Still huffing, I sat down.
"Do you want Daddy to unscrew that jar of honey?" Corey asked. Her mother made the motions of talking, but there was no sound.
"Just hand me the jar. I'll open it." I said. "Don't talk to her." I said, more curt than I meant to be.
"What? Don't what!" Corey glared at me, more angry than I've ever seen her. "And why not? Why can't I talk to my mother if I want to?"
I was speechless for a moment, aghast at her insensitivity.
"Don't pretend Corey. It's not . . . kind."
There was nothing but silence in the clearing.
"Why, Daddy." Corey stood up. Looking puzzled, she walked around the campfire. "You're crying. What is it I'm supposed to be pretending?" Her voice changed, trembling. "Why are you crying?"
"I hate to see her move her mouth like that, imitating speech. Don't pretend to talk to her. Don't pretend she can talk to you. She is who she is. Leave it at that. Don't make fun of her or frustrate her. You should know better than that or I've failed as a parent."
Corey looked down at me, the shock leaving her face. Just the hint of a smile curled her lips. She looked over her shoulder at her mother, who smiled back.
I saw that smile and was appalled at the way Corey was making fun of her mother.
"Stop it." I told her. "Stop it, now, or we are leaving.
She walked defiantly to the log and seated herself by her mother.
She looked her mother in the eye. "Shall I tell him?"
""Corey," I said, "This isn't amusing."
I stood up. "I'm breaking up camp right now. I'm taking you back home, and you're never coming back." I walked beside Corey, who was still smirking at me. Her mother's hand reached over and took mine.
"You don't understand, do you?" I said softly to my wife, ignoring Corey who was trying not to giggle. I couldn't understand how that girl could behave so . . . inappropriately. Looking at her trusting eyes, I could feel my insides melting like ice cream on a hot day. I knelt so I could be closer to my wife, but couldn't keep my voice from breaking. She was everything bright and sweet and good. If only she could understand. "She's not worthy of you. She's a mocking little brat." I glared at our daughter. "Oh, she's not a bad girl, I just don't think she's ready. I didn't bring her here to make fun of you. I know you're lonely here, you must be. I thought that you and Corey needed each other, but apparently Corey's not the girl I thought she was."
"I can't go Daddy. I'm going to change." she ducked her head, almost shyly glancing at the wings rolled flat against her mother's back, the colors hidden by the wrapped sheet. "One day I'll have a boyfriend. And then," she whispered, "And then I'll have wings too."
My wife started to move her lips.
"No!" I cried, pressing two fingers over her mouth, "It's not a game! You don't understand!"
Behind me, Corey was babbling. I was on the verge of sending her back to the car when I realized what she was saying.
"No Daddy, you don't understand. She told me. Mama told me."
Corey's mother caught my hands in hers -- not that the lightness of her touch could restrain me, had I tried to move. Corey's mother was looking at me so earnestly. Then she looked at Corey oddly -- sternly almost, not an expression I'd ever seen on her face before.
Corey took a deep breath.
"She can understand you. I know she can, because I can hear her Daddy."
"Enough." I said, standing up, "I've had enough of this." I stated to pull away, then something in both their faces stopped me.
"Really Daddy! I can. I can hear her as well as I hear you. Her voice is pitched a little high, is all -- I didn't even know you couldn't hear her."
The woods seemed suddenly full of sound just then: birds tweeting, chipmunks and squirrels chattering, leaves and wild nuts falling to the ground as the wind picked up. Nothing sounded louder than the beating of my own heart.
Could it be possible?
I knelt and took her hands, looking at her, at her wealth of thick black hair, her pale, impossibly-white skin stretched over high cheekbones, her delicate nose, her lapis-blue eyes. If she could talk, she could give me her thoughts. It seemed too wonderful to be true.
"Can you? Can you understand me?"
Of course she could speak, of course! The only flaw was with me, insufficient human that I am. I closed my eyes and breathed for a moment against the terrible thought of all our wasted time. But there was the future -- a future that looked brighter than I had ever dreamed possible. I asked a question I've been wanting to ask for years.
"Do you want me to build a house here in the woods, so we can be together?
"She says yes, Daddy."
I couldn't let go of her hands. "One more question for now," I whispered. "We can sort through everything later, but for now, tell me. . . tell me your name."
Her lips moved. Corey's voice whispered it like a prayer on the wind.
"Oh Daddy," she breathed.
For a moment, I thought she wasn't going to tell me. "She's named for a flower. Eritrichium elongatum. Forget-Me-Not, your favorite flower. She wants you to call her Eri."
The name fell in place, yes, I should have known. This bit of understanding was like a key to our future, when the mysteries would be gone, and our lives would no longer be half lives in the lonely dark, but full and rich lives in the sunshine. Everything would be different now. Better.
And for the first time, I whispered her name, my wife's name. "Eri."