Authors: Olivia Chadha
Tags: #Fiction, #Latvia, #novel, #eco-fiction, #Multicultural, #nature, #India, #literature, #General, #Literary, #environmental, #butterflies, #New York, #family drama, #eco-literature, #Cultural Heritage, #Sikh
Balance of Fragile Things
A novel by Olivia Chadha
Ashland Creek Press
Â© 2012 Olivia Chadha
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without written permission of the publisher.
Library of Congress Control Number: 2012931270
This is a work of fiction. All characters and scenarios appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Cover and book design by John Yunker.
Cover painting, “On the Wings of Butterflies,” by Pegi Smith.
For my mother, father, and brother.
“The past is never dead; it's not even past.”
â William Faulkner
On the Wing
Watching the Butterfly
Posted on October 4
Today, people are blind. Our age is less introspective than the previous. We worry neither for the small things nor the large things but rather for the
In order to observe her closely, one must make amends with solitude. Not by walking alone but by approaching her with a singularity of mind and the purest of intentions. She delights in our awe, when we come to her without vanity or an architect's eye. She mourns us, too. You can see it in the wings of the swallowtail as she soars with a melancholic flight from one flower to the next. There is a desire for an audience that somehow is lost on those who can no longer see the smallest things. Does she wish for sun? It is wrong to assume she has disconnected from us. Each time we walk past an oak, mourning cloak, field of springtime grass, or newly snowcapped mountain, she sees.
To be human is to be a part of nature. To feel separate is to be the anomaly. In her presence we feel the sorrows of modernity fall away like the chrysalis giving way to time. In her presence we feel once more hers, a thing belongingâsimultaneously a child and an elder.
Why would we watch a butterfly? When we don't have time to look up and cannot let go of modernity, why would we try? These delicate things are indicators of the forest's health. They tell stories of flood and drought. Their wings are maps to worlds unseen. They are cartographers and pollinators. When the forest and soil are healthy, they are, too. Adults lay their eggs on one kind of plant. The caterpillars eat that one kind of plant. They mummify themselves on one type of plant. The adult then flies in that area eating the nectar from flowers, rotting fruit, or mineral-rich rainwater collecting on the ground. If the host plant is suffering, water is toxic, ground quality is poorâthen the butterflies are directly affected. Watch them, and watch the health of the forest and land. When we watch a butterfly flutter from flower to leaf to sky, teasingly, as though its wings are attached to invisible thread that some unseen puppeteer is pulling, we can also see the strength of those living things around it.
When we see an ancient butterfly nearing the end of its life with wings tattered like sails, still searching for nourishment, we may come to a greater understanding of what connects us all. Even battle-scarred, we all still seek the sun, try to avoid pain, and attempt to find food. Thus, all life is connected: Insecta, Lepidoptera, Mammalia.
The insects beneath your feet are managing the earth on which you walk. The trees you pass are providing food and shelter for hundreds of living things in addition to the shade they provide you and your home. The bees busy in your flower bed are carrying with them saddlebags of pollen and pollinating every other flower, including vegetables growing in your area. What most people don't know is that butterflies and moths aren't just flying flowers: They are the second most important pollinator next to bees. They, too, have a job in the world, and looking pretty is one of their lesser engagements. What we choose to notice about these connections differentiates us as a species. Perhaps many of us no longer see her as she is; rather, she has become a reflection of how we see ourselves.
hen Joe Balestrieri landed a solid right on Vic Singh's nose, the entire student body of Cobalt High probably heard the crack. The sound echoed in Vic's ears as his face went hot, stomach dropped, tears gushed, and copious amounts of blood splattered the front of his T-shirt as well as his assailant's.
Vic's first reaction was worry as he gingerly put his hand in the pocket of his corduroy jacket and felt for something. Then, relieved, he balanced himself against the lockers so he wouldn't faint. The blow had loosened the
that enclosed his unshorn hair; it fell like an autumn leaf to the linoleum floor among blackened splotches of gum. His braid tumbled halfway down his back, a precursor to an imminent turban-wearing future. The length of his hair shocked even Vic as he stood with it naked to the world. He could have dodged the punch and prevented a broken nose; he actually thought of this option as he watched Joe's fistâin slow motion, like a heat-seeking missileâfollow the trajectory to his face. But Vic was more concerned with what was in his pocket than with Joe's simian fist.
Vic spit blood, and the crowd of rubbernecking students
'd, then moved closer. The pain from his septum sped through his nerves and reached his toes. This had been the worst day of his life, and at that precise moment, he wondered why he'd gotten out of bed at all. It had begun with a freak rainstorm that had drenched him on his walk through the abandoned industrial park on his way to school. He'd taken refuge under a gathering of trees.
“Jerk,” Vic said under his breath. He looked at Joe and imagined what it would be like to grow four inches and be able to stare down into his soulless eyes. It wasn't fair. Vic was just trying to get by, like everyone else, but Joe had singled him out long ago with tired teasing and insults like “Ali Baba” and “Babu”âthough this was the first time he'd physically assaulted him. Joe was Goliath, and he had to have a weakness. Today Vic's
eye for an eye and the whole world's blind
T-shirt had ironically attracted Joe to him like a huffer to an open jar of glue.
“You need glasses or something?” Vic said.
Joe laughed, though he took a few steps back.
Vic would get his revenge. He wouldn't react carelessly. He'd craft a plan that would show up Joe in the end. If he couldn't best him with strength, he'd take him down with his brains. Like Batman, who went full-throttle against any and all evil in Gotham, Vic would have his day, he vowed to himself.
He adjusted his nose and realized that this already large feature on his face was now even larger from the swelling. Vic had his father's nose. It was a sometimes trunk-like proboscis, depending on the time of day and allotment of shadow. His mother had told him his profile illustrated his relation to great rulers across oceans and time. These rulers, she said, were conquerors who led their people to victory. Vic had never learned more about these rulers, their names, or their empires, so his mind had constructed disembodied kingly faces with enormous noses, lips with wide moustaches, and heads with heavy crowns. Vic's eyebrows, soft as tufts of rabbit fur and bushy like the wool behind the ear of a yak, were also the exact eyebrows that framed the moon-shaped face of his grandfather, Sardar Harbans Singh. Vic knew this only from photographs; his grandfather lived in India, and they had never met. But here, now, on this North American continent in the tenth month of the year, the vessels that kept Vic's beak alive were bringing forth a torrent of blood.
“Oh my God.” Katie, the freckle-faced object of Vic's affection, put her hands over her mouth.
“I'm okay,” Vic said through the blood and tried to smile, which made Katie cringe again. The posse scattered, though Joe stood frozen.
For once Vic was thankful for the robust size of his nose, as he assumed the size allowed a particularly shocking amount of blood to flow. To him, it seemed, his dissimilarity was the cause of his bully magnetism. He'd never cut his hair, because
was one of The Five Ks of Sikhism, and he wore a
to keep his hair neat and clean. Or perhaps it was the language Vic spoke when he'd first entered school, something he called
that was halfway between English and Punjabi. He uttered words that no teacher could translate when he was in first grade and just beginning to learn that the first letter of the alphabet looked like an apple and the second letter could be turned into a bumblebee if doubled on its side. Or perhaps it was the fact that his father made him follow the traditions of Sikhism when most kids were taking their fashion tips from MTV, not Guru Gobind Singh of the seventeenth century. Every time his parents were called into the school to discuss matters pertaining to Vic, they defended their son passionately with more foreign words like
, but the principal would have no idea they were pointing out the finer points of their family's culture, or that they thought what was being said was mostly untrue. Vic thought they'd set him up for the worst thing any teen could endureâ
All of these thoughts flooded his mind as the blood poured out. One of Joe's friends pulled him away from the sight of Vic's gore.
“Stupid camel jockey can't even bleed right.” The brilliant Joe Balestrieri had to say something. He didn't know that Vic wasn't even 100 percent Indian.
Joe's racial slur made Vic's face burn with an unearthly desire to defend his culture, his father's religion, his mother's heritage, and his grandparents' existence. But he would not throw a punch. He imagined what his father would want him to do: Vic would let out a war cryâ
“Jo bole so nihal!”â
and with juggernaut speed he would charge Joe and hit him, dead on. Then he'd unsheathe his knife and stab Joe in the gut. But in this reality, Vic simply smiled at Joe with fire in his eyes and stuffed his anger down deep in his belly.
“See ya round,” Joe said.
Joe walked away with a sneer, and Vic stared at his back; he hoped his eyes would ignite a flame that would lead everyone to believe that Joe spontaneously combusted. Paranormal scientists would use Joe's remains for proof of the phenomenon and add Joe Balestrieri as a footnote to a contemporary version of the
De Incendiis Corporis Humani Spontaneis
. Vic imagined them standing over a glass table that was lit from beneath, each holding a different scalpel or knife while they pieced together what little was left of Joe's adolescent combustion. Vic laughed because he imagined that would be all Joe would amount to one dayâa pile of volatile organic garbage.
“Come on, let's get some ice.” Mrs. Stein, the English teacher, took Vic by the arm. The gym teacher, Mr. Smith, grabbed Joe as he made his way down the hall and dragged him forcefully to his office without saying a word.
When Vic and Mrs. Stein arrived in the nurse's office, she let him go into the bathroom to clean up. After he closed the door behind him, he opened his jacket once more and retrieved a very small blue butterfly from his pocket. No larger than a nickel, its light blue luminescent scales sparkled. Vic puzzled over the markings and the difference between the left and right forewings and hind wings. This inconsistency made Vic uneasy. He analyzed the antennae. Looking more closely, he realized that it was not moving as much as it had been when he'd first found it, at lunch, in the gutter outside of Cobalt High on a pile of dead leaves. It had appeared injured then, but he assumed if he got it home he could give it some rotten fruit or salt water to revive it. But now, noticing its broken antennae, he felt the need to rush home to get it under his microscope. The previous year Vic had identified a Red-Spotted Purple, and it had been, up until this moment, the most amazing butterfly he'd seen. Its wings were akin to majestic glass windows, with shades of burnt orange, sky blue, and eggplant all framed in black. The butterfly had been so enthralled in drinking juices from a sap flow on a deciduous tree that it had barely moved while Vic observed it.
This one, though, was different from anything he'd ever seen. The left and right wings were slightly dissimilar in shape. It was so very fragile. Science usually offered Vic comfort because it explained the world. But thisâthis was unexpected, and the sight of it made him anxious.
He sighed, folded a large piece of paper towel into an envelope, and slipped the butterfly inside. He changed into his PE shirt and threw his favorite one, now bloodied beyond repair, in the wastebasket. Then he twisted his long braid on top of his head and wrapped the dusty
around it before exiting.
Ms. McClasky, the nurse, handed him an ice pack and said, “Sit down and let me take a look.” She lifted his face into the light and looked into his nostrils. After she packed them with gauze, she said, “Put pressure on your nose with the ice.”
Vic's wandering eyes landed on a poster on the corkboard to the right of the door. The flyer read:
Yearbook contest. Art, photos, all submissions considered. Win $20 and see your art on this year's inside cover!
Katie was in charge of the yearbook, and Vic thought of the possibilities. Maybe he could finally speak with Katie properly and, well, bask in her honey-colored aura.
“Stay still, head back, Mr. Singh,” the nurse said. Just then the principal, Mrs. Cohen, whose disapproving look spoke volumes, entered the room.
“At least school is nearly over for the day. Here.” Mrs. Cohen handed him a letter. “Give this to your parents when you get home. I will call this evening to make certain they received it.”
Vic's thoughts turned to his father, who, in his mind, was going to kill him, not because he was in a fight but because he was injuredâwhich very specifically meant that he
break his opponent's nose.