Translated by Toshiya Kamei
The Air of Butterflies
A landscape she’d known since childhood. Her father used to take her there. She’d sit on the boardwalk until her eyes were filled with the ocean’s blue sway. Or until her soul rested in some dark hollow of her body, instead of fluttering like a hungry butterfly. She liked to ask her father what the butterflies ate, and he, a tough countryman, replied, “A little bit of air.”
At that time they couldn’t fish. The authorities had banned them from owning boats because, almost certainly, instead of going to look for what to eat, they would flee far away. And the king couldn’t afford to lose his subjects.
Her mother taught her to use the paints a plane once dropped along with children’s toys. Her favorite color was Prussian blue.
Her mother made seascapes where she almost always painted a hammock held up by two palm trees. A dark lump lay in the hammock. “That’s you, sleepyhead,” she said.
Those gentle paintings, which she liked so much as a child, now frightened her. Sometimes she had nightmares where a storm darkened the sky and razed everything. But the hammock didn’t stir, remaining still while she lay inside. Something had made her think of death.
In front of the boardwalk, she lets her memories evaporate. A little hand pulls her dress and suddenly her anguish returns: her three children. She can’t give them paints or tell them a story to make them forget. It suddenly dawns on her that they don’t feel like her. Widowhood belongs only to her.
A few days ago she thought they needed to feel hope. She as well as her children. Her father took her to the boardwalk. She’d do the same with them. They’d never seen the sea or anything like it.
So she asked them to hold hands and they set out on a trip. A bus stopped and agreed to take them to the next town, makeshift passengers. The children looked out on the dirt road and made a big deal out of anything. Stars throbbed in those dark eyes.
When she faced the sea, she stood still with her eyes closed, tall, erect, a flame the breeze couldn’t extinguish. Her long hair whipped her face. The little ones ran here, there, far away, shouting and laughing. Then they stopped and listened to the sea. They now knew its silence and singing, even if they couldn’t yet fathom its violence. She returned to her childhood slowly and softly, like a tear rolling down her cheek. The butterflies. The air they ate. The question she always managed to hold off: Dad, who can live on air?
One of the children came running to her to pull her dress, but the absent look in her eyes made him turn on his heel. He ran again as if he had remembered an important mission.
She opened her eyes. There, among the waves, some seagulls kept circling. Heavenly vultures. Maybe they’d spotted a dead fish whose guts they’d peck at. She held her breath. She turned to look for her children. The little ones played marbles sitting on the ground. The oldest son perched on the edge of the boardwalk with his feet dangling in the air. Beneath him, the waves broke in quiet. The boy had his eyes fixed on the spectacle of the seagulls. Fascinated, he licked his lips.
She approached him slowly.
“I’ll bring you that bird.” The boy pointed to a seagull and leaped.
Socorro Venegas is a Mexican writer and editor. Her latest book is a short story collection called La memoria donde ardía (2019). She was a resident writer at The Writers Room in New York and received a fellowship from the Fondo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes y del Centro Mexicano de Escritores. She has managed editorial projects for the Fondo de Cultura Económica and the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. Translations of her short stories have appeared in venues such as Bodega, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, and Sudden Fiction Latino: Short-short Stories from the United States and Latin America.