What the sky chart would indicate is that he and his dog, Bella, are looking at is the constellation Orion. But what he sees is the Frozen Butterfly, one of the constellations his sister taught him. Jack had contemplated bringing his daughter out to stargaze with him, maybe do a little storytelling to his grown and unsettled girl. But she was reluctant in the cold, so it’s just him and Bella—named for Bellatrix, the constellation’s third brightest star. He’s looking at it now, picking it out in the Butterfly’s wing.
The first time he went out to see the Frozen Butterfly was on a frigid night with his sister, Mimi. He remembers that the stars looked snagged in the branches of the apple tree. He and Mimi looked for the stellar insect spreading its wings—the sky a snow globe dome, them lying flat out on the crusty snow of February’s thaw-and-refreeze and getting dizzy looking straight up at the spacescape of stars and planets. Those three bright stars in a line—that’s her body, she told him. On the nights that they would stargaze, Mamie, their mother, would call them in—it’s late and you two will freeze out there, she’d say.
When he was four going on five, the winter before he went to school, Mimi taught him the planets and mnemonic games to go with them. Mary Virginia Eats Mother’s Jelly Sandwiches Under Nancy’s Porch. My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas. There was almost always a mother in the mnemonic. Now, years later, there is no need for the porch or the pizza—Pluto the planet simply stopped being called a planet. In second grade, the class did a whole unit on the planets, and he got acclaim for already knowing the planets in order. The only constellations they did that year were the Big and Little Dippers. Mimi had taught him those as well and he was the astronomy rock star for a little while in elementary school. By then Mimi was gone.
He’s known for fifty years that the Frozen Butterfly is actually Orion, the hunter. That the three stars are the belt—Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka, blue supergiants hotter and more massive than the sun. Fifteen hundred light years away. They are closer than his sister, who is some other version of light years away. Except he’s known for more than fifty years that Mimi wasn’t his sister, she was his mother.
The Frozen Butterfly, like all constellations, came with an origin story. And, as with all origin legends, the cast of characters depends on the teller of the tale. One person’s plough is another person’s bear. A billion people’s hunter is one person’s butterfly. Or two people’s. The Frozen Butterfly’s myth—the way Mimi told it—was the story of the girl who got caught in a net because she lingered—tempted, like anyone might be—by something that felt like love. And when, after all, she refused to marry against all insistence, the gods turned her into a butterfly and flung her to the sky. And she froze. And there, she sparkles with the stellar frost, bright as diamonds.
The night before Mimi left, she said what she often said when she tucked him in—You’re just a Little Dipper, but you shine bright. The morning she left, she said—Gotta go, before it’s too late. He hopes she left in time.
Mamie was still there to take care of him after Mimi left, but the pretense that he was Mamie’s son melted away. He doesn’t remember being told that Mamie was really his grandmother. Mamie and Pop—parents, grandparents. Either way, he was theirs. That’s how Mamie put it, the only time he ever directly inquired. You’re our boy, she said, either way. It wasn’t until much later, well after Mimi was gone, that he realized that some of what she had taught him about the stars wasn’t true, either.
What brings it all up for him now is his daughter Talia’s ongoing interest in discovering her heritage. She’s home for a few days pre-Thanksgiving. He’ll throw the usual feast, just early, and joke that they only visit for his corn bread stuffing—and then they will disperse. Talia and her husband and two six-year-olds are heading to her husband’s sister’s and a lasagna Thanksgiving on the official Thursday and his younger daughter won’t be around either for Thanksgiving or pre-Thanksgiving because she is going to her new boyfriend’s parents’ house to meet them and make the big announcement. He is not really joking about the cornbread stuffing—they do truly show up for his cooking. This year he’s pretty sure that Talia’s ability to lean on him in person to take a DNA test (she probably has one with her) is a major draw.
He is close to retiring from teaching, after years of resisting the idea—closer than his kids think. If both girls had been here together he might have made an announcement over breakfast. Then again maybe he wouldn’t have. They’d have urged him again to sell this house, which he quite likes—just as he likes his quiet stretch of road and woods. This place is too big, isn’t it, Dad? It isn’t. You could move closer to us. That is less of a draw than they imagine, though there’s no way to tell them that.
He might have shared that he is planning to travel a little. He may, in fact, travel more than a little, he and Bella. He picks up the camper van on Monday—the plans are to outfit it over the holidays. He feels the need just now to spend some time looking at the night sky—and there are national parks famous for their dark skies. Arizona, Utah, Idaho, Florida. He wants to see the Milky Way, to see the Frozen Butterfly in place after place. The old social studies teacher is finally a little restless. He’ll be gone by the time the second term starts. Really, Jack?, said the principal, Now, midyear? Yes, now. Now in winter when stargazing in the northern hemisphere is best.
It’s been months and his daughter has yet to let up on her desire to have him take a DNA test and solve the mystery of their shared background. She is more transfixed by knowing about the grandfather she didn’t know than he was or is about the father who was never mentioned, even when he first learned the big revision to his own origin story. He wants to ease her discomforts but is adamant—he wants to know none of it. This isn’t obstinacy for its own sake. He has tried to relay how deeply felt this is for him, but she is suffering a profound and widespread surface irritation at not knowing in this age of finding it all out who the hell her grandfather is. It will, she says, help her know who she is.
That is just a hypothesis, he says—one he thinks might not actually be borne out by the big revelation, even if one were possible. You can’t actually go back and ask him or Mimi questions, he said. You don’t get to meet them. They are gone and you are here. Have a little fun with that. She having less fun with that than he’d like her to have.
He has already told Talia what he knows—Mimi went away and took a summer secretarial course when she was seventeen and came home pregnant—a fact she concealed for a good long while. Mamie stepped in, bought a shapeless dress or two to be seen in herself and then the pair of them went off to her sister’s for a while. After they came back, Mimi went to work in the office of a lumberyard and the time she spent with Jack was called babysitting. At twenty-one, she ran away from the room she shared with her little brother, with her son. Pop, his grandfather, who did not live many years after his daughter disappeared one winter night with a suitcase and a train ticket, had gone along with it all.
These were the answers he has given to the questions Talia has asked more than once: she thinks I’ve left something out, he muses. Her own genetic test was more question than answer—do you suppose the eastern European belongs to him, your father? she asked. Jack’s wife has passed and while her sister agreed to have the test done, the results were inconclusive in terms of any process of elimination before they even arrived: Aunt Liz was his wife’s half-sister. Jack thought that Mamie and Pop were Irish, mostly—their last name was O’Connor. The Irish was confirmed by DNA—west coast, if you were to believe the map she was supplied. While there was an on-line document trail for his wife’s family and for his grandparents, there was no trace of Mimi O’Connor beyond her birth registration. And there was nothing that could ever name his father—not even on Jack’s own birth certificate, where that space was blank. Mother’s name it read: Miriam O’Connor. Both Mimi and Mamie had been christened Miriam.
Want to go walk up the road, look at the stars? he’d asked Talia after dinner. He wanted them to stand there a moment or two, at a break in the trees, and let her eyes adjust until the stars seemed animate. He knew Talia’s husband and kids would not be interested in a walk with temperatures at twenty-five degrees—but as it turned out, neither was she—though Bella was all excitement. He had thought that maybe he’d tell Talia about The Frozen Butterfly on the walk—thought that maybe that would ameliorate some of her need for old family stories. He understands the need for story.
He told his wife about Mimi and the Frozen Butterfly, but no one since. His wife thought Orion looked like a snow angel in the constellations. He would have told Talia that, too. Maybe sometime he will. Some people wanted to know their track across the earth, tracing ancestral footprints across continents, on and off ships, in and out of cities. He had comforted himself with having a glittering track across the night sky and this was not a story he could tell anywhere but under its great dome.
He wonders, of course, what became of Mimi, if she thought of him when she saw the Little Dipper, if she had a good view of the skies at night wherever she ended up. She’s an octogenarian now or, simply, stardust. The legend of the Frozen Butterfly was of someone who had stayed too long, cast up by fate to shine in the sky. Mimi’s story is, in truth, part of his motivation for heading on a self-invented stargazer’s tour. After all this time, there is for him something of a sense of urgency, too—a need for time to watch the night sky glitter for as long as he wants, before he finds himself frozen in place by some unforeseen wobble of the earth’s axis.
But there is yet more urgency to all his plans. There had been no warning for the other celestial events in his life. Learning about Orion had happened in a planetarium during a course in earth science—the astronomy unit—and at least he had been in the dark with a starscape in rotation overhead to process that new revelation. Later, the demotion of Pluto caught him off guard. And Mimi leaving—well, of course, wasn’t that like losing a star? Or a sky full of stars?
What propels him now is that Betelgeuse—the brightest star in Orion—has had a long period of dimming that’s made for conjecture among astronomers. Talk has been of Betelgeuse going supernova—a spectacular explosion. An explosion so bright it could be visible on earth during the day, as luminous as the full moon. Potentially the phenomenon of growing fainter is just part of what this red supergiant, a dozen times as big as earth’s sun, ordinarily does—that was the speculation. It is, after all a variable star and it’s dimmed before, though maybe not to this recent extent. Talk now is that the dimming was just an eruption of gas that cooled into an obscuring cloud of star dust. And as he and Bella gaze into the night sky, Betelgeuse may have already exploded—the light they are seeing now comes from hundreds of light years away, signaling events centuries ago.
What happens to Orion and the legend of the stellar hunter if its red giant has gone supernova? The dimming alpha star is at the hinge of the hunter’s arm as he raises his weapon, at the trailing edge of the butterfly’s wing. Would the Frozen Butterfly fall like a terrestrial butterfly struck by frost? None of this really matters, except that shifting stories have consequences—they shift all the stories that come after.
Many diagrams of the stars include lines connecting the stars into the image of their legend. Draw a line from the diamond-point of one star to the diamond-point of another and another and another: trace them into a parallelogram and call it the soccer pitch of the gods—or connect the same scattering of stars and come up with a configuration that suggests an arrow shot from a bow. Draw the points of the story one way and it’s about abandonment or deceit. Let your eyes adjust to the dark a minute and connect the glittering specks a different way. Maybe the legend is ancient story of what happens when things are left to sparkle in the cold. Jack needs no lines to chart his connection to a young woman who is the diamonds in the sky of his memory, but he does need all the stars to be there. Betelgeuse could go supernova now—or in a thousand years. Either way, it is time to go.
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