At Michael’s, After
By Steven Brehe
I tell you, Michael, fine folk are strange, and the ones I work for are the strangest of all.
Oh, they’re what you call Congregationalists. I don’t know what it means neither, but Father says it’s almost as bad as Unitarians.
Now you don’t believe that, do you, Michael? No, it ain’t true. I worked there sixteen years, since I come to this country, and been allowed in their parlor many times, and I never saw nor heard of no statue nor painting nor book she ever made.
She was no artist, Michael. She was a lunatic, to say it plain, and that’s why they kept her locked up up there all them years.
Of course, they said that. When fine families have someone who’s wrong in the head, they lock them in a far room in their grand houses and tell people she’s painting or writing or praying, and mustn’t be disturbed. They do it out of pride, you see.
They might have let her out sometimes. She was no danger to nobody. Me and the others, working outside, we’d see her at her window, looking out, and we’d send her up flowers and such.
And yesterday, when they let us upstairs to bring down the coffin, it was the first time in all these years I seen her face close. She was near sixty, Michael, but her hair was dark and she had the face of a child, like my niece, Anne, sleeping.
Here, I’ll tell you something I never told another soul: Years ago, when the others was off working at the son’s place, I’m left behind to look after things. And I’m tending the yard, and I see the old woman looking out her window, and I follow her eyes to a far corner, where there’s a great cloud of butterflies, the orange and black ones, busy over the asters.
And being young, I get a fool idea, and I run over and catch one of them between my hands and run it through the back door, to the kitchen, and put it on a saucer and quick put a cup over it. And I hand it to the housemaid, Maggie, who’s standing there with her mouth hanging open as usual, and say, “Up to Miss Emily and no dawdling.” And I’m back to work.
So the next day I’m tending things alone still, and I hear a window open upstairs. And I look up, and out that window comes that butterfly, working its wings and hanging there in the air, like it’s saying good-bye, and “You must come see me some time,” and off it goes to God knows where.
And out the window comes a long string, and at the end of it a paper rolled like a cigar and tied with a bow. So I go and undo the bow and take the paper, and up goes the string and down goes the window.
And this, Michael, is that very paper. And I open it and here’s what it says:
Two Butterflies went out at Noon
And waltzed upon a Farm
And then espied Circumference
And caught a ride with him —
Then lost themselves and caught themselves
In Rapids of the sun —
Till Rapture missed her footing —
And Both were wrecked in Noon —
To all surviving Butterflies
Be this Biography —
Example —and monition
To entomology —
Well, there it is, for anyone to see: completely mad. And from that day to this, out of respect for the family, I never showed it to nobody, and as long as I live, I will not humiliate them with it.
But I like to take it out and read it now and then. And now the poor woman’s gone, it makes me think of her at that window, looking out and smiling.
Oh, Michael, it was a crime never to let her out, and now I see I should have said something, but what’s a working man to do?
But if our Lord forgives harmless madwomen, as surely He must, then she’s with Him now and happy at last, and for her sake I hope He has a garden. Here’s to her.
I believe I’ll have another.
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At Michael’s, After was reprinted with permission from the author.