Thursday, January 10, 2013

Emma's Favorite Thing to Look At

The sun rose ripe and warm over the quiet town of Batavia, Illinois, tucking shadows into the pockets of morning. People opened their shutters and children ran out to play. Robins sang high in the trees as squirrels played beneath them.

With a proud smile on his face, a father gently puts his daughter Emma into a bright red stroller. Seconds later and they’re off, destined for the local park – the one with all the old trees and a creek lined with violets. As they follow the sidewalk a breeze comes along and tickles Emma’s face, lifting her curls. She giggles like life is at its brilliant best.

Meanwhile, somewhere in the park, a newly emerged swallowtail spreads its wings in the warm sun, nearly ready for its first flight.

Emma and her father enter the park. An immense, magical world of flora and fauna surrounds them in all directions. Emma’s eyes light up, dash from right to left, up then down – there is so much to see!

Then something red flies by and lands in a shrub. “Look Em,” her father says, pointing, “there’s a cardinal.”

The stroller comes to a halt and Emma’s father disappears. He reappears a few seconds later with a purple flower and offers it to Emma. She takes the drooping flower in her tiny hands and stares at it. After a moment she looks up at her father, who raises his arms. “Emma, what could that be?”

Emma seems puzzled. “That’s a violet, Em,” he says. Suddenly she turns away and drops the flower onto her lap, watching something small, yellow, and airborne coming toward them. Her eyes go wide. It’s like nothing she has ever seen.

With a jolt of excitement Emma positions herself at the edge of the stroller and looks at her father, who remains silent. The butterfly comes closer, most certainly noticing Emma and her big brown eyes. But it also sees something else—the bright red, perhaps nectar-filled object Emma is sitting in.

Fighting the breeze, the swallowtail makes its way to the stroller, orbiting both Emma and her father. It flits up and over their heads, spirals down and back up again, casts a tiny shadow across them.

“Emma,” her father whispers, “that’s a but-ter-fly.”

Emma watches the frantic display, then looks to be sure her dad is watching too. By the time she turns back the golden insect has landed on the stroller’s edge, seemingly to relax its wings; tired from its first flight.

Emma sits very still, never taking her eyes off the curious visitor. But that cannot last. Bubbles start to shoot off her lips like fireworks, and in seconds she’s lost all control—slapping tiny hands on pink legs and making all sorts of incomprehensible but joyful sounds. In that same moment, not for fear, but of necessity to carry on with its butterfly ways, the newborn swallowtail ascends from the stroller and flies away.

And although the butterfly would never return, it was never far from Emma’s heart.

Author’s note: This piece was inspired by an obituary. For reasons unstated, a little girl named Emma passed away when she was two years old. The obituary was quite short, but it contained such simplicity and innocence that I will never forget it. It was told that one of her favorite things to look at were the butterflies.

(Though this piece is more of a vignette than a poem, I still chose to publish it in the book Selected Poems 2004-2007)

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