Read time: 7 mins

A Gathering of Butterflies

by Lynette Hazel 
27 June 2022

There’s a place I knew where my mother planted trees and children. All took root. The trees grew tall, straight, flourished into sheltering screens, and the children crooked and stunted. A woeful six of us she birthed, rooted to this earth even though we could never see eye to eye. And when she died, we all who had scattered regathered, and Mammie’s allamanda was a riot of lemon chiffon flowers and boasting a full crop of orange and black butterflies. 

We had promised. Well, I had. I had promised to bring her body back home one last time before we committed her to the earth. One last time past this garden she had planted and lovingly tended while I had hated when the shrubbery would be festooned with hordes of orange and black caterpillars, so much so that I would sidle along the opposite side of the narrow walkway, pressed hard up against the thornily unfriendly African Rose, my head resolutely turned away from witnessing their ceaseless wriggling and squirming as they gorged themselves on the abundance of leaves. 

As her garden harboured caterpillars, her house tenanted graspers and grabbers, half-related by blood and fully by upbringing. I sit on her wide bed in her room devoid of her bustling sweep of laughter, head thrown back, eye teeth showing brazen, belly and sides bellowsing to feed the furious glee. She could laugh, boy. She coulda really laugh. She was a storm of tears when she ready too, eh. When she had the first stroke and I took her to Trinidad to rest and recover, she cry like first time, tentative and hiccupping, brewing water into a steaming squall that would make Caroni rise and oversweep the plains, gouge out pitch from road and overtop every embankment to create new track for water to run. Years she living, and I now understanding how bitter it is to raise ungrateful children. She run she blood to water and reap a dry harvest of open-mouthed and close-fist children who always want more. 

I had left her to her five beloved boys, me the only girl in the whole stinking craven bouquet; I had left and had not slept under my mother’s roof in almost eighteen years. I had grown up waiting for peace in this family, and I had run away and finished my growing sequestered from the unremitting coil of its drama. Tall and strapping boys with chest like silk cotton and arms like mahogany arguing over ‘Who’ is she favourite, ‘Who’ don’t belong on this land, ‘Who’ surname spell different, or ‘Why’ you ent go by your own father. Their ‘Nothing for you here’ had morphed and addled into grey-haired and saggy-biceped, hairlines receding into back-to-front-C men now dredging who not contributing enough to the funeral and who spending too much and who loved her more and who she love more. All the ‘glabber’ and baiting, lambasting and clobbering, same old. Nothing changed, except hairlines now like Grange Bay at ebb tide and bellies flopping over trousers’ waists like beached fish had changed. 

The gleaming satin of the black hearse was standing under the leaning casuarina tree, the one which Mammie had not allowed my father to cut down when he was in one of his rages. He had already felled its twin. Both had stood sentinel at the property’s entrance or gap since they had moved in together while expecting my birth, if what my brothers say can be trusted. Not too long after Robert Junior was born, I believe they had said, one of my mother’s sons had felt man enough to challenge the last real lion in his lair and was lucky that Sonny wasn’t in a mood to make a jail, so he hack down he favourite tree instead and wear out he rage on bark and branch. That was how it went. For years. And Mammie retreated to her garden. She used to stand inside the cloud of yellow butterflies and hymn in her clear mezzo-soprano, voice flitting like breeze through the chittering leaves, purple pomerac needles shivering off their bases and pointy thorns of roses clacking.  

I got the news that Mammie had passed at 6:28, the morning of January 20, 2008. I had spoken to her at 8pm the night before when her second-oldest son, that one son who behaved as though he was everybody’s father, had loftily and pretentiously called me from the hospital. Mammie had had yet another stroke. And this time, they said that she didn’t look good to stay. As he held the cellphone close to her ear, she and I spoke as well as we could, her slurred ‘Annette’ shafting my ear and cracking my heart wide open. My throat clogged and I swallowed against a clot of saliva as I imagined her, shrunken and shriveled against the harsh white of hospital linens. I sensed her fear and pain that she was spending yet another birthday in the hospital. I understood her clear request for ‘home’ and assured her that I was going to see her soon, maybe not on her birthday tomorrow itself but soon. I planned with her to go beachcombing. Long time we hadn’t gathered shells for her craftwork. Well, I planned; she listened and made occasional vague grunt or mewl. Mammie was probably fed up of hearing promises, so she made sure to die today, her birthday. Made sure that I kept my promise this time to come see her. I had a duty to fulfill. 

I had been warned that tears should not fall on her body. As the only daughter, I knew my duty. Matter of fact, it had been drilled into me from early o’clock. Every time I forgot myself and rested my hands on my head in her presence, Mammie would drag them down, rough and sudden, always saying, ‘You madder nuh dead yet. What you ah grieve fah? Grieve when meh dead and gone, and make sure you wash meh body good, eh, gyal. Is you one gyal pickney God bless me with. Boy pickney can’t wash they mother body.’  

So, I was the one, hesitating in approaching Mammie’s naked form, her body splayed on metal silvering under fluorescent lights. My gaze first landed on her toes. How she would laugh long-windedly, always complaining that her toenails were as thick as the skin she wore, built to take fatigue. There wasn’t anything that you could tell her that would bother her or for which she couldn’t scrounge a pithy retort. Only things faster than her hands to slap were her tongue and wit. Lips curling softly, I huffed a small laugh while straining a smile and stopped when the laugh threatened to turn to a cry as tears brimmed. I wiped my face, both hands like butterflies over my eyes. I inhaled long and breathed out when my gaze travelled over her slightly rounded tummy with its nest of stretchmarks from hipbone to navel, her softened thighs hiding a crack of womb from which I had emerged, squalling, into this life. I looked past her flaccid small breasts and into her lovely face. 

She looked restful, ordinary. Her mouth crimpled from absent dentures, just as on any given night when she would take them out and soak them overnight in a half glass of peroxide. Her wood-brown skin with its smattering of freckles across the tops of her cheeks, still smooth, flawless today at seventy-five and not needing any brown powder, and her lips still claret-ruby-red. But the liquid gold of her eyes was closed to me, glued shut by the mortician. 

I washed her cinnamon skin with new blue soap, soap which I knew that I had to keep, sluicing water over her body and easing under the shrunken flaps of her breasts, over her belly and not daring to touch her vagina but making sure that all soap was washed away. And I did not cry. I did not cry as I washed her, wished her Godspeed and happy birthday.  

I had greeted her body when the funeral home staff had brought her into her house and set her feet toward the door in the living room. I retreated and sat in her room while her body sagged in its coffin standing in the centre of her living room. I sat there away from the coffin, as the soft hush of villagers came to see her for the last time. I heard the murmurs of ‘Walk good, Sister Ann.’ I sat in her room away from my brothers, still listening for Errol in the kitchen, dressed in his loud red shirt which I had asked him to at least cover with a black jacket and who, with his constantly tearing eyes, bleating about how much he miss his mother, yet still managing to whisper in some woman ear. I sat away from Dickson, straight and round-faced in the gallery, greeting all guests with his untiring wide smile and slow stutter. I sat away from Roy and Walter, standing in funereal black on either side at the head of the coffin, neither willing to relinquish the perception of favour. It took a while for me to hear the sprinkling of tension in between the mournful gatherers, until it rose to ear height and overspilled, drowning the calm. I cocked my head first to make sure and then sprinted down the corridor too late to save the coffin from overturning and spilling out a cloud of orange and black butterflies. 

The day Mammie came home for the last time, a cloud of vile vulgar butterflies that I had spent my childhood detesting had gathered. And as I crumpled, knees to the chilled terrazzo floor, I looked at the swarm lazily dipping and wheeling, and I asked, ‘Mammie, is that you?’ 

About the Author

Lynette Hazel 

Tobago-born writer-in-training, Lynette Hazel is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at the UWI St Augustine Campus. She is the winner of the 2015 UWI Faculty of Humanities and Education Award for Creative Writing (Prose and Poetry) and the Kamau Brathwaite Bursary Awardee (2021). She wishes to contribute to the literature of Tobago and […]