Download PDF Here
Live Encounters Poetry & Writing September 2023
Mourning Cloak, short story by Lisa C. Taylor.
Kieran worked for fifteen minutes to free the mourning cloak butterfly stuck in the grill of his car but the right wing had a fatal tear. When he laid it down on the grass, it fluttered its good wing once or twice, then stilled. Vibrant blue dots around the edges, it looked like a piece of jewelry resting in a green velvet box. He slipped it in a padded envelope to bring home.
“Where were you?” Kieran paced the galley kitchen, brushing crumbs off the soapstone counter onto a linen napkin that he emptied into the wastebasket.
“I’ve got a suggestion. Don’t ask. We’re roommates, remember?”
Arden’s short flowered skirt with leggings and red boots made her look about sixteen. Her hair was parted in five places with five different ponytails, each tied with a different colored ribbon. Once she wore blazers paired with slacks or a skirt, nylons and low heels. She would spread her work out on the kitchen table, budgets and graphs. Even her language sounded different then, splashed with words like maximize and deadline. He didn’t understand it, just made coffee and provided dinner; a salad paired with some sort of protein, the only kind of meal she’d eat.
When she saw her father’s picture in the New York Times last Tuesday with a headline about his pending release, everything changed. She brought home a copy, scribbled over his face with red and black sharpies before shredding it. The next day she quit her job.
“I’m going out.” Arden grabbed her water bottle off the counter.
“My life, Kier.”
“I’m not going to sleep with you,” she said, the first of many lies.
Kieran noticed a chip where she had slammed the door, the frame bruised.
Her father’s plea deal meant he’d be out in April. New York wasn’t far enough from Massachusetts to deter him.
“I can take care of myself,” she had said but accepted housing and a university education.
Gunshots again, louder this time. The music seemed to mimic with amplified percussion. When sirens screeched, he was composing an elegy to the mourning cloak butterfly. Mariposa, he called it, his song in the key of D. Arden once loved to sing with him, her voice deep and raspy. He’d sip a brandy and she’d perch behind him while he made up chords and riffs on the piano. They spent hours like this.
Her father would stop at nothing. She gave up her career to become less visible, or so she thought. Kieran knew better. If anything, she looked more like the girl she had been when her father sold her to a fifty-year-old man who promised to make him rich.
“She’s every man’s dream,” her father told the man. Her formative years were spent drugged and exploited. That was the part of the story she told.
“You can’t fix me,” Arden told Kieran when he found her propped up against a concrete wall in front of Benny’s Bargains. “I’ll always be dead inside.”
Cycles of the moon and golden aspens in autumn helped. She’d never seen a mountain so he brought her to Colorado where the Rockies towered over everything. She learned to ski and wanted to go outside every night to see the explosion of stars across a dark western sky.
“I’m not going to sleep with you,” she said.
“I don’t expect it,” he said, though he dreamt of it every night, her gold-rimmed irises, hair falling in loose curls around her face, the lobes of her naked ears.
She came back later than expected, ponytails matted and eyeliner smudged. Her left knuckle was red with a few spots of blood as if she had punched a wall. On her throat, the bloom of a new bruise.
“Why are you here?” she said, pouring a glass of orange juice.
Kieran motioned to the couch. He had placed a bowl of nectarines on the coffee table, her favorite.
“Did you hear the gunshots?” she asked.
“Yes. They seemed close.”
Arden laughed, gravelly like her singing voice. “You know they shoot pigeons and squirrels for sport.”
Kieran felt the worm dangling in front of him.
“We don’t have to do this,” he said, in almost a whisper.
“You don’t know anything.”
Kieran’s stomach roiled. “Arden.”
“Not my name. I’m Neema and I’m moving out.”
She walked to her room and closed the door. Nightfall obliterated light like an eclipse. Kieran flipped on a light and looked around; galley kitchen, living room with three padded chairs and a brown leather couch, television black as the windows. The framed picture of Arden jumping in the snow was next to the mourning cloak butterfly, now pinned under glass.
© Lisa C. Taylor
Lisa C. Taylor is the author of three poetry collections, most recently Interrogation of Morning (Arlen House/Syracuse University Press 2022). She also has two short story collections, Impossibly Small Spaces (2018), and Growing a New Tail (2015) and two poetry chapbooks. One of her short stories received the Hugo House New Fiction Award in 2015. Both her poetry and fiction have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best-of-the-Net. Lisa is the co-director of the Mesa Verde Writers Conference. She also teaches online for https://writers.com/.