Our little gang met as usual in the empty lot down the road: Lulatsch, who had reddish-blond hair and was known for the terrifying smell of his farts; Boembes, who was short and loud-mouthed and had a glass eye because the real one had been hit by a bomb splinter in WW II; Hickory, whose father had died in that same war, and I, who was embarrassed by a lack of noteworthy qualities. Boembes gave me an account of the latest adventure I had missed because of my grandmother’s funeral: the acquisition – this was the word he used – of apples from the tree of a neighbor, a shriveled woman with a high-pitched voice. The apples had not been ripe, Boembes said, but at least they had been prevented from ripening once and for all.
“A branch broke, and then another branch broke,” Boembes went on im his long-winded way. He always used his glass eye to look at me when he was trying to make a point.
“Did anybody find out?” I said.
“She said she would call the police,” Boembes replied. And then she did.”
“She wouldn’t call the police for a bunch of rotten apples,” I said.
“You want to bet? You want to bet she would?” Boembes said.
“What have you got?” I said.
“With me I’ve got a mousetrap and a rubberband. The rubberband you can use as a slingshot,” Boembes said.
“That’s not much to bet on!” I said. Everyone grunted agreement. Nobody would gamble for a mousetrap and an unfinished weapon.
“The fence to Millers’ is much higher,” Lulatsch said, somewhat impatiently. Lulatsch was very tall and expert on heights and altitudes and took the first opening in this conversation for expounding on his subject.
“But the one to Colby’s hurts a lot because it’s got spikes all over,” Boembes said. “Once I tried to climb over and stripped my skin off and all the flesh came loose and you could see the bones.
“Wonder if they’ve got bones, too,” Lulatsch said, staring at something in the air.
“Bones? Who do you mean? “ Boembes said. He sounded hurt and bewildered that his wound was being so quickly abandoned.
“Butterflies,” Lulatsch said.
“Sure they do,” Hickory said. “They’ve got sturdy wings, so they must have bones. Without bones they wouldn’t fly. All butterflies fly, so they must have got bones.”
And this is the way our experiment started. A dead butterfly had to be found, we decided, or a live one had to be made dead. Then we could bury the butterfly like my grandmother had been buried and let it rot for a while and dig out later to see the bones.
* * *
The next day Lulatsch found a butterfly that was orange and black, and we all crowded around to see the dead thing in Lulatsch’s half-opened hand. We set the burial time for three o’clock in the afternoon, but then Hickory, who had bouts with a nasty temper, had to stay in class to write one hundred and fifty times on the slate board, “I must not hit my classmate on the head with a ruler.” We waited around the backyard of my house.
Have you got the match box?” Lulatsch asked when Hickory finally arrived.
“What match box?” Hickory said.
“You were supposed to bring one of those large match boxes,” Lulatsch said with a sharp tone in his voice.
“Well, I forgot,” Hickory said. “We haven’t got large ones at home anyways.”
“That’s not what you said,” Boembes yelled. “Don’t bother with the small boxes, ‘cause I’ve got a large box at home, is what you said.”
A small box would do for a coffin, we decided. That decision gave us a choice between UNIVERSAL and QUICKLIGHT match boxes; we liked the blue picture of a globe, and the name, UNIVERSAL, that had something of a big-world ring to it.
I went into my house to fetch Grandma’s purple velvet pillow. Grandma had died three weeks earlier; out of reverence, nobody had touched her room. The pillow, embroidered in silk and bordered in black satin, still sat on Grandma’s arm chair.
“Where is the bell?” someone asked.
All eyes went to Hick, who promptly blushed and stammered something about Lisa having taken the bell. Lisa was his baby sister.
“We’ve got to have a bell,” we agreed. Again I went into my house.
The first thing I encountered resembling a bell was the gong in the hallway. Carefully, I lifted the gong and the stick for sounding it from the brass hook. This gong was used only on special occasions, when there were guests, to call the guests into the dining room. “What’s that?” they would say and I would exclaim, puffing my chest out, “That is the gong. It means dinner is ready.”
Brought outside, the gong’s freshly polished surface reflected trees and fences. Lulatsch and Boembes who had never before seen a gong approached it slowly to touch it with outstretched fingers. Their fingers left smudges. The gong was not used to the outside world either.
“Where’s the corpse,” I said.
Lulatsch had been keeping the dead butterfly in his pocket, and when we asked him to produce it, the butterfly was all crushed up, and had been pierced by two paperclips.
“Your pockets are much worse,” he told me. “Last time I gave you something for safekeeping, it got stuck in tar.”
He was right: once I found a clump of tar and put it in my pocket. Later that afternoon, the heat of the sun had clogged the tar to the fabric. The pocket had to be cut off the pants with scissors. Even now, since the pocket had never been replaced – to teach me a lesson, my mother said – the sensation of hitting the skin of my leg each time I put my hand into the right pocket made me feel helpless and embarrassed. Somewhere buried in that clump of tar had been Lulatsch’s priceless marble.
Crushed up as it was, the dead butterfly had to be squeezed even more to fit into the UNIVERSAL box. One of the wings broke in half.
“Rigor mortis,” Boembes said he had read somewhere. “Means it’s already getting stiff. We better hurry up.”
So we never had time to get the cotton ball to make a soft bed as we had planned. We closed the box and placed it on the velvet side of the pillow. Hick, who had an encyclopedia at home, picked two dandelion leaves and placed them on either side of the box. “Romans were buried like that,” he explained to us, “with leaves.”
Presently, we formed the procession. There was some dispute about where the procession should start, but unanimous agreement on the burial site: by the raspberry bushes near the fence to Feldmann’s house. On that site a garter snake had once been spotted, and so it seemed the appropriate place for a graveyard.
I walked in front of the procession with the gong. Next came Hick and Boembes carrying the velvet pillow with its exhibit, walking on either side. After a brief quarrel in which Hick and Boembes each claimed sole possession of the pillow and caused the coffin to fall to the ground, they agreed – under the weight of the solemn occasion – to walk sideways and keep the pillow between them just as before. Meanwhile, as I was waiting and watching the ruckus from a position six feet ahead, my hand kept hammering the gong, and some windows started to open in the neighborhood.
At the end of the procession, behind the pillow, there were Lulatsch with my little sister walking backwards, palms of fern in their hands, which they held like umbrellas above the UNIVERSAL box to protect it from sunlight. My sister had insisted on joining us, over my strong objections; I felt her presence took away some of the mystique of the event, and I feared she would divulge some of the procedural details to my parents.
Once we had arrived at the narrow trail through the raspberries, the procession slowed down. Its most important contingent moved sideways. Everybody but me had one free hand to pick berries. When the procession reached the burial site, we discovered we had forgotten the spade.
“Lulatsch, please get the spade,” I said, as I turned around. “It’s in the basement, coming in on the right.” He left, grumbling.
Hick insisted that I give a speech, just as a priest would do, only scaled down for butterflies.
“This here butterfly,” I started, looking down at the box on the pillow, but then had to interrupt myself and look to the other mourners for help. “Actually, the butterfly has no name,” I said. “What do we call it?”
“Phoria,” Lulatsch said, who had just gotten back with the spade. “Call it Phoria. I know it means something like when you’re excited and stuff like that.”
“OK, Phoria,” I said, assuming a dignified pose again. “Phoria: we are hereby putting you to your last rest in this coffin-here.”
Everybody applauded, and Lulatsch stepped forth with the spade and dug a hole in the ground as big as a teapot. Boembes said to my sister, “You are supposed to cry!” but my sister was occupied with the raspberries. When the box containing Phoria was in the ground and covered with dirt we all were quite tired, and soon the first mother’s voice started tolling: “Hee-ko-reee! Hee-ko-ree!” And it was Boembes who had the presence of mind to put a stick in the ground, so we would always find the grave.
* * *
We decided a few weeks later to dig up the grave, the day after the last day in school. Boembes was sick and my little sister was with our aunt in the country. That left me and Lulatsch and Hick. We found the path overgrown with raspberry branches and so we had to crawl on all fours to get close to the site of the grave. But the stick had disappeared, and everywhere the ground was covered with weeds. I had brought my sister’s blue sand-box shovel. With this we started digging, taking turns, and found plenty of stones, roots, and worms – but no trace of the UNIVERSAL box or butterfly bones.
“I’m pretty sure my Grandma is still where we put her,” I said.
“How would you know?” Hick asked.
“’Cause we were just there, my mom and me, and we did some raking and planted begonias. That’s why.”
Hick stared at the heap of earth we had piled up and finally looked up.
“Maybe the butterfly wasn’t really dead and wiggled after a while and then . . .”
“And then?” both Lulatsch and I exclaimed.
“. . . and then took off when we were out of sight.”
“That’t the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard in my life,” Lulatsch said. “Looked pretty dead to me. And it was in my pocket for hours. And how could it take off with the box anyways?”
I suddenly remembered Grandma’s velvet pillow which I had lost the afternoon we buried Phoria, the butterfly. I had often stroked it with my hand when I sat on her lap, back when I was little. The earth smelled strong. Some of the soil had gotten on my sweater. A fire engine sounded in the distance. I thought about how I would someday grow up and put butterflies into X-ray machines to find the truth. How I would shout like Boembes and lay farts like Lulatsch and drive my own car.
Photograph in the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, April 2014