By John Scott Dewey
At the funeral, people took turns insisting that “incidents” like this occur more often than you realize—that it was wrong for Edy to call herself a bad mother. She agreed that, in those four months, she’d mothered by the book: nursed Gabby, sung to Gabby, bathed her, napped when she napped, soothed her colic in the dead of night when Evan wouldn’t. To her parents she admitted this: Edy wasn’t a bad mother, per se, but a deficient one—born with her maternal wires crisscrossed. Whereas most could lift a car off its axles, she could hardly sense Gabby’s distress when it mattered. Their skins were touching when she turned and lay on top of her that night. Yet no alarm sounded. She woke up with the baby wrinkled under her, still and silent, skin the hue of dawn.
Three days later, Evan brought home a plain, cream-colored receptacle, about twice the size of a shoebox, and a dozen native milkweed plants from the nursery down the road. Edy hadn’t even realized he’d left the house. “The milkweed,” he said, “I’ll install this afternoon,” which were his first words to her in days that didn’t project guilt or blame. When Edy asked him why milkweed, he cited a book he’d taught years ago to his seventh-graders, Red Kayak. That, and some mythical belief the horticulturist had told him: “Monarchs carry spirits with them when they migrate.” Evan was unshaved, disheveled, wearing the same Washington College hoodie he’d worn yesterday and the day before. He was no less earnest, though. He helped Edy to her feet and led her out to the garden in the backyard. Her work gloves had been placed on the Adirondack seat. “I have your trowel, too,” he said, “if you’re able to help.” But Edy couldn’t. She sat down and lay the gloves on her lap.
It was a pleasant April afternoon. Sun out, buds swollen on the crape myrtle boughs. Her eyes adjusted quickly. Evan wielded his trowel along the crest of the flowerbed on all fours, planting purple balls of complex blossoms. His spade was leaning against the shed behind him, and next to that was the cream-colored box. Her mind wandered to the night and the colicky infant, a lightbulb wreathed in white noise, Evan shaking her awake, a two-mile panic to the emergency room, fingertips pushing and pushing and pushing against her little concave chest…
Their skins were touching.
A half hour passed like that. “I’m afraid I’ll fall asleep out here.”
“Go back to bed then, Edy.” He straightened up and wiped his forehead, speckling it with mulch. “Thought some fresh air would do you good, is all.”
What would do me good, she wanted to say, is someone to talk to. Someone to help me feel human again.
More than anything, she wanted him to ask why she’d laid Gabby beside her that night on the mattress, when the bassinet was well within reach.
“What’s in that box, Evan?”
He peered at it over his shoulder, then fell back to the dirt with his trowel. “It’s from the coroner’s office.”
“What the hell’s in it?”
He plucked a milkweed flower from its plastic cradle and with two hands placed it in the bed, tucking the roots in with soil and new mulch. Edy didn’t press him. In fact, she knew what was in the coroner’s box: a cry for help as desperate as she’d ever heard. That poor man. A guilt greater than hers was writhing in him.
And well it should have.
She stayed and watched him install the last milkweed plants and water them. Then, with the spade, he took to nicking and slicing around the base of the crape myrtle. Edy didn’t ask why. He struggled early—the lug snagged on roots, and the earth’s crust got denser underfoot. Every few minutes, he rested his head on the shaft and wept, as if beckoning his wife. But he soon got at it again, without her, grunting through the tougher cuts, finding his rhythm.
At some point, Edy closed her eyes and imagined what the tree must feel: sliced by a steel edge, being a soul unable to protest.
Evan eventually came full circle with the spade, and the root ball turned like an elbow in the socket, sinews snapping. She landed sideways in the flowerbed and lay there, inanimate. His feet shuffled to the shed and back again.
He called to her—“Edy?”—but her eyes stayed shut, nose in the dirt. His coarse hand hauled her upright by the neck and rocked her bulb back into the earth. Underneath, where roots reunited with clay, a soft, fleshy body yielded to her weight. She felt its little limbs flail and go limp again.
“Give them a month,” Evan said. “The butterflies, they’ll come.”
She woke up in the Adirondack hours later—maybe days later—and by then the buds had bloomed to dark red flowers. Evan was gone. He’d left a short note for her on the kitchen table apologizing. For what, he didn’t say. Took most of his clothes and a few books with him back to his hometown in Pittsburgh.
Edy hoped he’d make a new life for himself there. This time with a sufficiently wired woman.
The monarchs did arrive, as promised. And they brought company with them. Coos and clicks now came whenever Edy tended the garden. Giggles when she tickled the milkweed with water. Little hands and knees crawled over her ankles when she weeded the flowerbed. On summer days, she woke up in the chair with the baby cradled in her arms, contently feeding—amber wings adorning her temple like a bow.