Sunday, September 10, 2006

Family Portrait

by Matthew Sanborn Smith

Her feet were tightly knit groups of butterflies. The right, black and orange monarchs; the left, a smaller species of pale yellow wings. My melancholy sister, Diana, was an otherwise ordinary woman from calves to face, but above her sea-green eyes, her head flared out to resemble the body of a manta ray. Her purplish head rippled as she moved and some scientists believed its wing-like form helped her to float. Mother thought it was strictly power lepidoptera.

Our mother was nobody special. Our father was ageless, having fought alongside Alexander as well as Patton before meeting mother and finally giving up on life. He doled out the secrets of life in micrograms so that I wasn't much more of a person than my mother or my classmates. He only gave me enough to know my station in the vast universe and that station wasn't impressive.

His work was unfathomable to me. I found him in the old barn once, hammering what looked to be an enormous rusting girder, claiming he was extracting from it the secrets of margarine.

When my father wasn't working he would take us to human carnivals, show us the spectacle of daily life in the city where lava flowed through ancient streets and the skies turned texture, glass-smooth to sandpaper, according to the prevailing mood. He'd question people, reducing them to tears with queries as innocent as "What are you doing?" or "Who are you?"

It wasn't the questions so much as his penetrating eyes, black as the depths of space. My mother had fallen in love with those eyes. She claimed when they met she lost herself forever in them and what we saw was just the shell of who she used to be. Her real essence, she said, was in those eyes, swimming through their abyssal expanse.

Dad would uplift the downtrodden on the occasional whim, not out of the kindness of his heart, but just to show us that it could be done. He'd turn morphine addicts into kings with a look. The eventual effort was theirs but he was the trigger. He made them get up.

I often wondered at the point of all this and would ask him.

"That's just it," he'd get around to answering in one way or another. "There is no point." He seemed at his happiest whenever he gave me this answer.

We found his body, one Thursday afternoon at the foot of the great anvil he had made himself. As we ran to him, Mother and I watched the barn swallows swooping down to pick at his face. They fluttered away at our stampede, revealing the old, old man's mouth and nose, choked with the corpses of butterflies. We cleaned him up before alerting the authorities.

My sister's soul blossomed after that and she became a great comfort to all she touched. Although she never walked again, she was happier than she ever had been.

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