Perhaps I was ten. Maybe only nine, or twelve – it was the end of elementary school, or perhaps the first year of junior high. I remember only the slant of afternoon light over the neighbors’ rooftops, the heft of a bookbag nearly bereft of actual books. I think I was reading Anne of Green Gables
: junior high, then. We were walking home from school, Lauren, Celeste and I. It was on the sidewalk.
You must understand that this town is one where the butterfly is almost sacred; it sometimes seems to be our primary justification for existence, one celebrated stop on a thousand-mile journey the monarch makes each year. In kindergarten we all wore painted cardboard wings, orange with black veins, and paraded around town with the high school marching band in the lead.
When we found it, one wing had been torn ragged along the edges, and the other was merely a frayed stub. It fluttered in obsessive, desperate circles, finally climbing onto my outstretched hand.
I remember the faint prickled perception of its legs on my palm, as though even my nerve endings were too clumsy to hold this fragile thing. We walked quickly the rest of the way to Lauren’s house, shielding the butterfly from the wind like a flame.
But once there, we were lost. It was clearly suffering, inasmuch as a butterfly can suffer; we felt it our duty to end this suffering. We dug a hole, scraping into the dirt of Lauren’s backyard with our fingernails and found sticks, releasing a thick earth-scent that comforted us. It comforted me, at least, as I carefully, carefully set the mangled butterfly into the grave we had created. We stood awkwardly, afraid. Eventually it became clear that no one else would do the task: closing my eyes, I dropped a rock into the hole. We couldn’t bear to lift it and see if it had worked. I wrote a poem in eulogy that I have since misplaced; we fashioned a cross out of twigs, though none of us were religious.
This is not the story, however. What I want to say came later, that same day, when a fly landed on the wall beside me. It circled my head first, as flies will do, then sat, preening itself contentedly as a cat, until I smashed it with the magazine I had been reading.
This is it, here: that fly was not a moment dead when I thought of the butterfly, the agony of that heavy rock in my hands, the dread. And today, a dozen years later, I find a cockroach in my sink and wash it down the drain, wincing as I flip the garbage disposal on.
Zen tells me the same as Hamlet: there is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so. The life of the butterfly is not one ounce more valuable than that of the cockroach, or the fly, or my own. But I will kill the cockroach and praise the monarch. There are ants in my house, and at first I let them be. Then of course there were more, until a procession marched unendingly across the kitchen floor, solid as a charcoal line. And yet, do they do my any harm?
Once I saw a video of a pod of orcas feasting on baby seals off the coast of some frozen, rocky land. Two of them, perhaps a mother and child, had taken a seal pup away from the shore and into deep water, and there, as David Attenborough calmly narrated, they “played with it.” With a surprising skill, they tossed the tiny body into the air, caught it on their tails, flung it again, whipping and writhing, until out spilled the viscera and the thing finally died. Is this cruelty? Do the orcas know the suffering of the pup, or of its mother? When I finally vacuum the line of ants – wholesale slaughter, the nozzle of the vacuum hose pressed to the crack in the wall – do I think of the ants then, trapped, groping blind circles in my vacuum bag amid dust and feathers and long strands of my own hair? I draw a line of chalk around the hole they crawled out of; I have heard this will deter them. How do I decide what deserves to live, what I can dismiss without thought as not truly alive? The ants are mere drones, are they not? And the cockroach, with a millennia of successful genetic coding? The seal pup, squealing? Would I instead kill the orca to save it? Or better to be as the Jains, and walk muffled, sweeping the path in front of me for fear of stepping on mites? How many lives pass each day through my lips, beneath my heels, wash down my drain?
So what then of the yellow wash of sun across our makeshift garden grave, the shadow cast by our cross of twigs? Can I raise a cross for everything that loses its life to me? What shall I do instead?