The swing is a simple plank of wood with holes on either side to thread a rope. The rope, graying hemp, hangs from the branch of a lone maple atop a high, green hill. A morning wind, sweet with the birthing odors of summer, rustles the leaves and gently rocks the swing in soft, but audible creaks.
Lured to the maple by its stain of sugary sap, a Monarch lands on its bark and is caught in the viscous amber. The butterfly struggles to free itself, the tree alone witness to the desperate fluttering of the delicate yellow-black wings. Morning overtures meld into quavering wings, creaking planks and rippling leaves
Voices, distant but approaching roll up the side of the hill as waves lapping a secret cove.
“What did you pack in this picnic basket?” A male voice asks. “It’s heavy as bricks.”
A woman’s voice, light with laughter. “Possibly it is. You promised me a house up here after veterinary school and we’re married. Brick by brick as Hadrian said.”
“I think he was speaking of Rome, Claire, not a house.” The laugh back, sincere, but guarded and weighted.
They stop at the crest of the hill, panting from the climb. The man sets the basket down and folds the woman into his arms. Both look out over the valley, content at the beauty and the feel of the wind teasing their hair. The landscape gilt with translucent gold so fleeting that neither dare blink.
“Cradle to grave,” she says.
“Look,” she points eastward. “Haven’t you noticed it before? Over there, Washington Hospital where most of us were born,” her hand sweeps westward, covering twenty miles with a slight discernible arc, “to Memorial Park where most have already or will some day, be buried.”
“A bit morbid, don’t you think?”
“Not all, Paul.” She snuggles into his shoulder, still gazing outward. “Just look at all of the life in between. The town, the people, farms, grazing livestock, planted fields.”
“Yes, life in between.” He whispers.
“You’ve only a year of veterinary studies left and then go into practice with my Dad; and then,” she moves deeper into his embrace, “we’re married.”
He holds her tighter. “Claire, there’s something I need to tell you. Something we need to discuss.”
She turns to face him. “And you said I sounded morbid…”
“It’s Dad, he’s taken a turn for the worst.”
“Oh, Paul, I’m sorry. I just visited him yesterday at the hospital. Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”
“They moved him into ICU last night. Mom’s with him now. Everything happened so fast…I wanted time alone with you to talk things out.”
Her eyes searched his. “What?”
“I won’t be finishing veterinary school. My family needs me here. Mom can’t manage the farm by herself and Jim and Becky, well, they’re just too young.”
Her hands move to her mouth, eyes widening.
He holds her face in his hands. “Everyone understood I never wanted to take over the farm.” There is anger in his voice. “When the time came, Jim would take over, but that’s ten years away.” Fighting tears, he looks out over the valley. His voice softens. “I never saw this coming. I’m sorry.”
The air becomes still, the sound of a train can be heard in the distance; its rhythmic thrusts quietly fading into the hills beyond the city. Closer, the timorous beat of the Monarch’s wings taunts their ears. The wind stirs, the leaves rustle and the swing sways to its own creaking rhythm.
Paul breaks away, turns toward the maple. Without facing her, he snaps a twig from a branch. “I can’t stand to see any living creature suffer” He walks over and frees the butterfly from its tawny, sweet prison. He holds it in his hands, briefly, and gently tosses it into the air. It circles his head and darts away. He turns back to Claire. “I love you, with all my heart, but won’t hold you to our pledge of marriage.”
“No, let me finish. Our house, here on the hill; my practice with your father…none of it will ever come about. You’d be a farmer’s wife with ready-made kids and a live-in mother-in-law. It’s not what I wanted for us - neither of us expected; but it’s what I have to do. If you say no, walk away, I’ll understand.”
She moves to embrace him, silencing his lips with her fingers. The touch, delicate as the kiss of a butterfly.
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