Butterfly Words

Butterfly Words

Mary Harper-Bellis

by Mary Harper-Bellis
February/March 2002

The dry, wheat colored slopes of the coastal range sparkled in early morning sunlight. Catherine’s gaze followed the curves and gullies in their flow toward the sea. The last troughs, still filled with bright white clouds, obscured the glimpse of Pacific blue she so loved on certain crisp mornings.

“I hear them on the radio weather report. They call those clouds Coastal Eddy now,” she told her niece then she sipped the cappuccino the young woman had just handed her.

“Hasn’t it always been called that, Auntie?” Rangel took a seat opposite from the older woman on the tiny deck of the mountain cabin.

“No, I never heard of clouds being called things like Coastal Eddy. Sounds like an Atlantic City gangster to me. Coastal Eddy. Maybe he’s friends with Two Fingered Nick and Cold Cut Larry.”

Rangel laughed. It was funny hearing the older woman talk with her long-lost New Jersey accent resurrected for effect. She loved her aunt, a flinty woman of more than fifty years. Catherine had moved to California long ago when she’d finished her psychology degree. Rangel rarely remembered that her aunt had grown up back East.

“What did they used to be called?” the younger woman asked.

“They’ve been called many things. Some people settle for something simple – fog. But, in the old days they were called Dragon’s Breath by our People.”

“That’s beautiful, Auntie. It does looks like Dragon’s Breath.”

The two women sat quietly, sipping their coffee and watching the Dragon’s Breath return to the sea. Below them, Rangel’s younger sisters, who had been working in Catherine’s garden of wild flowers, moved closer to the deck so they could hear the story they knew Catherine would soon tell.

“Words have power, you know. Take the word NIGGER, for instance.”

The youngest of Catherine’s nieces had to stifle a giggle. It seemed funny to her to hear such a word spoken by her aunt. But Ester became suddenly serious as she felt the weight of the word falling into the garden. It seemed like even the butterflies wanted to escape its terrible weight as they swirled in a patchwork of yellows, purples and irridescent blacks away from the deck and the dark, dark word.

“There was a time when the word NIGGER was as powerful as a gunshot wound to the gut,” Catherine continued evenly as though she were reciting the recipe for bogeyman bread.

“NIGGER could be strung together with other powerful words to form a fusillade that would lay a person low. Damned lazy stupid NIGGER. Blanket assed prairie NIGGER. Dumb NIGGER bitch. Rag headed sand NIGGER”

Rangel and her sisters were surprised when they realized they could feel the words just as Catherine said. Each burst of ugly words was like an assault – slaps, punches, kicks. Shameful things. Not even Esther thought of giggling.

“Now don’t get me wrong. Nigger wasn’t the only word that could make you feel like you’d been beat up. I once heard a boy call Uncle Mike ‘a mackerel snapping, bead mumbling, potato eating pig shit Irish son of a bitch’. Kind of like a fireburst from an Uzi, eh, girls?”

No one answered. The young women sat silently, a little dazed by the word assault. It pained Catherine to see her nieces recoil from the hate words she hurled at them. She preferred to see them working in the garden, shimmering and radiant like the wild flowers. She imagined them pierced by words like arrows or spears, their young lives spilling out of their wounds. It was a terrible image and she wanted to stop her story. Yet, she knew how desperately the young women needed to be prepared for just such word attacks. She remembered her own wounding many years ago and she remembered the long years she had searched for healing.

“Nigger doesn’t make people bleed like it did years ago when I was your age. Maybe its been replaced by FAG now. Lots of people think FAG is a funny word but it isn’t so funny when it is hissed by a group of thugs on a dark street if you are a young boy and alone. It is not at all funny then.”

“Nigger has been made into a somewhat funny word by people like Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy, our Medicine Clowns. They’ve helped to take some of the sting out of that word. But I’m telling you about a time before Dick Gregory entitled his book NIGGER so his mother could stop crying every time she heard the awful word. In that time, the word NIGGER was empowered by a spirit of darkness and violence. It conjured images of burning crosses, sheeted phantoms kicking in your door and dragging you into the fields or the streets to be beaten, hung, raped, or shot. Fortunately, you young women don’t know that sort of fear.”

Catherine remembered the shocking sound of shattering glass. That sound or the smell of spring flowers could start up the memory film stored in the deepest part of her mind.

She was sixteen and standing in her mother’s kitchen, hands in soapy dish water and telephone tucked under her ear. Then the shattering noise and she runs into the front room. Her father stands amid a heap of glittering shards. The picture window has a basketball sized hole in its center. A torn bit of white lace curtain flaps in the breeze pouring into the room. The room is soon full of the sweetness of spring flowers.

Her father is holding something. A rock? He unties a piece of paper and unfolds it. He hands it to her and says, “You’re leaving. Go pack your things.”

Catherine still wished that the sunlight sparkling in broken glass had been less beautiful and that the sweetness of spring flowers hadn’t filled the room. Maybe then the memory would be less vivid, less raw.

“What did it say, Auntie?” Rangel asked.

“It said, ‘Get your NIGGER loving daughter out of our town.'” Catherine silently finished her coffer before she continued.

“You see, no one knew I was adopted. No one knew that I wasn’t white like everyone else in town because, you know, I look white in most ways. Like a couple of you. No one – not even me – had seen my family of color. Only I knew that I was a Breed. So, the local racists just considered me a ‘nigger lover’ – a Negro sympathizer. That was a bad thing to be considered in many places in this country in the early 1960s.”

Catherine looked at her four nieces. Ester, the youngest, was really fair. Her strawberry blond hair and eyes like a cougar combined and made you think of heather and the Highlands with just a hint of some lurking menace.

Sophie’s almond eyes were such a pale brown that they almost looked yellow like wolves’ eyes. Her long chestnut hair glinted with deep reds and hung to her waist. Her high cheek bones nearly poked through her shockingly white skin.

Lilly, the darkest of them, had clear blue eyes and her dark hair hung in tight ringlets around her olive and freckled face. Rangel’s rich, dark eyes sparked beneath her straight raven colored hair. The copper tones in the sharp angles of her face reminded you of the southwestern desert and the reds of desert canyons.

“Yes, the word NIGGER had power over me for many years,” Catherine continued. “I would hear the word and become immediately lost in an ocean of emotion. Sometimes fear, but most often anger, would carry me off. I became very angry and filled with hate because of that one word. The word dogged me like a loyal shadow until I became a NIGGER.”

“By the time I turned twenty, I was living in a filthy abandoned house. When I moved into that house your Uncle Joe came and sat on the porch with a 12 gauge shotgun across his lap for three days just so my new neighbors would know that I was not a single woman without recourse. It was a terrible neighborhood that looked like it had been bombed and then evacuated.”

“Because I looked white, the other colored people didn’t send the Welcome Wagon around and I was taunted by little children who followed me, throwing rocks and dirty words. I dressed in rags and walked the streets barefoot all summer. And I cursed the air blue whenever someone spoke to me. I was in terrible pain. In fact, I was dying.”

“The only relief I found was in the world of drugs and drug addicts. Yes, being a junkie was an improvement over being a NIGGER or a NIGGER Lover.”

Catherine’s revelation was jarring to the young women. They had never imagined her as anyone other than their aunt, the professional psychologist. To envision her as a young, barefooted woman walking the streets of a slum, followed by taunting children as she walked to the corner to cop her next fix was beyond them. They sat in stunned silence as Catherine handed them slices of just picked cantaloupe.

“You see, I had been wounded by a word,” Catherine said when she’d finished her own piece of melon.

“I was literally dying from my wound. My mind was filled with images of people being attacked with fire hoses, having vicious dogs set on them, being blown to bits in churches or their own homes – all because of that one word – NIGGER. That word had cost me my childhood home, my friends, and my innocence. I was pierced by it and bleeding slowly to death.”

“No one, least of all me, realized how critical my situation had become. I was in desperate need of care and healing but it was as though I was separated from everyone else in the world by that one word. I was not one thing or another, myself, but many things – white, red, black. And I was equally unwelcome in all of the segregated worlds. I had no place to go and no one to turn to – or so I thought.”

Each of the young women studied Catherine as though they were really seeing her for the first time. She still wore her long dark hair down but the silver strands seemed easier to see than they were last summer. Rangel thought the older woman’s eyes must be the exact color of the Gulf of Mexico where water meets shore. Lilly envied her aunt’s straight hair and her classic hawk’s beak and high cheekbones. They found no trace of the wounded, dying girl being described for them but Sophie was sure she saw a deep sadness that she’d never recognized in her aunt until this morning.

“Your Aunt Anne, who was in no better shape than me at the time, dreamed a way for us to escape our awful world. One of her suitors helped us runaway to the mountains of New Mexico. We lived there with the mountains for almost a year.”

“The mountains knew nothing of race and color. The mountain people were Breeds themselves like us. Their language was a language of love and acceptance and there were no words like NIGGER.”

“Aunt Anne and I had a herd of dairy goats. We worked very hard everyday. We hauled water up out of a well, chopped our own firewood. We milked the goats. She baked bread and I made cheese. We traded our milk for Old Lady Torres’ eggs. The old Mestizo man who owned the general store in the nearest village gave us a load of applewood for our baking oven and took us way up into the wilderness so we could meet antelopes. These small kindnesses meant the world to us.”

“I know, in the depths of my being, that the mountains healed me. As I learned new words – creek, tree, peach, egg, goat – I met the spirits of those words and became open to their power. I learned that I could be a goat – stubborn, adventurous, vigilant, afraid of the dark. I could be a creek – cool, comforting and relentless.”

“Once I learned that I could become whatever I called myself, the word NIGGER lost its power over me. Words like that became crass and silly. Yes, distasteful but without the punch they once had. And, I never called myself any of those words again.”

“Oh, sure, now I tell people I’m a Breed and, at one time Breed was a word like NIGGER in our world. But the word Breed doesn’t make me bleed anymore, either. It just tells people that I’m not one thing or another. I’m more than the sum of my parts. Maybe I ought to call myself a SYNERGIST.”

“Oh, Auntie,” Rangel laughed, “That’s a big word for such a little old lady!”

“Yes, it is. I really prefer the word our ancestors chose. Metis. That ‘s a strong word. There was a time when Metis was hurled at us as a weapon like nigger. But we stole that weapon and made it ours. Now we can use it as our own powerful word. It was a French word in the beginning but its ours now.”

“Look, here comes Grandpa with the sheep,” Ester interrupted. She gestured with her chin toward the corrals.

“Yes, here comes our White Wolf with his Clouds Fall Down,” Catherine repeated. Her eyes twinkled as her words floated into the garden and danced with the butterflies.

Mary Harper-Bellis is a writer and educator living in the Dos Cabezas mountains of Arizona. She is the president of the National American Metis Association (NAMA) and co-founder of Wolfsong Ranch Foundation.

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    Copyright © 2001 Mary Harper-Bellis. All rights reserved.

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