Legends & Myths: Immortality in a Butterfly’s Wing

Butterflies have always fascinated me, which is just one of the reasons I wrote this article for a regional magazine years ago. With “puddle parties” right around the corner, I decided to share this piece on the legends and myths found in the Southwest. Enjoy!

buttery_To Serve BrookeShadenOne bright summer day, the Creator sat under a tree watching a group of laughing children at play. A brown pup romped through a riot of wildflowers. The sun lit a bright blue sky dotted with wispy, white clouds. A songbird landed in the branches overhead, loosing a shower of pine needles.

The Creator watched the play of shadow and sunlight and fallen yellow leaves fluttering here and there in the late summer breeze and as he watched these things he grew sad.

“Soon these children will grow old,” he thought. “And that puppy will become a tired, mangy dog. And the flowers will die and snow will cover the land.”

The Creator became so sad at these thoughts that he vowed to preserve the afternoon for the months ahead. “All these colors should be caught forever,” he said to the songbird that watched him overhead. “I will make something to gladden my heart, something for these children to enjoy.”

He took out his magic bag and in it he put the black from a laughing girl’s hair, the brown of the pup’s floppy ears, the yellow of the fluttering leaves, a bit of blue sky and a touch of white from a cloud passing by. He added green from the pine tree and the orange, purple and red from the flowers all around. Overhead, the songbird sang her merry tune and with a smile, the Creator tossed a bit of her melody into the mix.

butterfly_Passage MarcoMazzoniBrimming with happiness, he walked to the children and offered them the bulging sack. The beautiful girl with black hair opened the magic bag and out flew thousands and thousands of butterflies in every color ever created. Enchanted, the girl said she had never seen anything so beautiful. The children agreed and the Creator was glad.

And the children danced with joy under the fluttering wings of these new, fanciful creatures. Then one, with wings the color of a summer sky, landed on the Creator’s head and began to sing a beautiful song. The other butterflies joined in and the children stopped to listen to the chirping melody.

The songbird flew down to perch on the Creator’s shoulder. “When you created the birds you gave us each our own song. Now you have passed mine around to these new playthings of yours,” she scolded. “Isn’t it enough that they have all of the colors of the rainbow?”

The Creator thought a moment and said, “You are right. I should not have taken what was yours.”

And he took away the song from the butterflies, which continued to dance over the children’s heads.

“The are beautiful even so,” the Creator said.

And that is why butterflies are silent today.

This delightful Papago version of the creation of butterflies is only one of a fluttering myriad of butterfly tales told throughout the Southwest and far beyond. The butterfly has symbolized the human soul since antiquity. The Russian name for these colorful creatures is babochka and the Ancient Greeks called them psyche – both words for the soul. The common name of the butterfly comes from the Anglo Saxon word buterfleoge for “butter” and “flying creature,” which linguists believe was the way of identifying Europe’s common yellow brimstone butterfly.

butterfly_the sound of flying souls, part 1BrookeShaden

Of course, butterflies actually flitted onto the scene long before people started making up myths to account for them. Butterflies emerged at least 38 million years ago with the earliest known fossil discovered in Colorado’s Green River Shale. Today, there are nearly 18,500 known species of butterflies ranging in size from Queen Alexandria’s Birdwing with a wingspan of 11 inches to the diminutive Western Pygmy, which spreads out to less than half an inch. Butterflies can be found on nearly every part of the globe with the exception of Antarctica and the world’s oceans. They grace flowery fields, meadows, hillsides, stream banks, forest glades, deserts and alpine tundra. They play a crucial role in the ecosystem as pollinators and in the human imagination as symbols of creativity, joy and rebirth.

Nearly 400 species of butterflies – more than half of the total number found in the entire North American continent live in Arizona. The Tohono O’odham, once known as the Papago, focused on the sheer beauty of these insects, as some 240 species flutter through their southern Arizona homeland. The southeastern portion of the state has biological links to the Sierra Madre range and the tropics in Mexico and its varied plantlife and climate account for the region’s diverse butterfly population.

The Yaqui, another southwestern desert tribe, believe that butterflies portend the coming of rain. When they spot approaching butterflies, the Yaqui sing a rain song and throw white corn kernels or dried leaves in the air.

butterfly_Funny how secrets travel Federico BebberWhite butterflies, they say,in a row are flying.

White butterflies, they say, in a row are flying.

White butterflies, they say, in a row are flying.

White butterflies, they say, in a row are flying.

Over there, I, where the flower-covered sun comes out,

they are emerging, all through the wilderness world,

in a row they are flying.

White butterflies, they say, in a row are flying.

As this song would suggest, the best time to search out butterflies in the Southwest is in the rainy season between the months of July in September, which is when the adults are breeding and laying their eggs. The highest concentration of species in Arizona reside in the southeastern portion of the state – specifically in Santa Cruz, Cochise and Pima counties. Chances of finding butterflies increases when two habitats overlap. Some of the best, easily accessible butterfly watching areas include Sabino Canyon in the Santa Catalina Mountains, Madera and Florida Canyons in the Santa Rita Mountains, and Ramsey and Garden Canyons in the diverse Huachuca Mountain range. Along with discovering them near their favorite flowers, butterflies might also be found congregating in “puddle parties,” depressed wet spots where the insects gather to replace vital trace elements.

But you don’t have to venture south — butterflies and their stories can be found throughout the Southwest. In eastern Arizona, the Chemehuevi, also known as the Southern Paiute, often represent insects in the designs of their highly prized baskets. The popular pattern of the butterfly shows up in these coiled baskets, which are woven out of such raw materials as willow, devil’s claw and juncus.

butterfly_A View from a Hole MarcoMazzoniLike many ancient Southwestern cultures, the Hopi often utilize the symbolism of butterflies. Prehistoric Hopi pottery shows this affinity as does the three Hopi kachina with butterfly origins — Poli Sio Hemis Kachina (Zuni Hemis Butterfly Kachina), Poli Taka (Butterfly Man) and Poli Mana (Butterfly Girl). However, the butterfly assumed a more menacing aspect to the Aztecs in Mexico. The goddess Itzpapálotl, or Obsidian Butterfly, was represented as a strong ferocious goddess with butterfly wings and big claws on her hands and feet. In Mexico, many people still believe that a black butterfly at the door portends an impending death.

Several Arizona-based cultures drew similar, disquieting morals from the butterflies fluttering, zigzag, seemingly demented flight. The Zuni sacred butterfly, lahacoma, is believed to make people crazy, especially young girls who will follow the yellow butterfly wherever it may lead. This belief is similar to the story of the Apache Bear Dance, in which butterflies entice girls from the underworld. The Tewa of Arizona also warn against the temptation represented by this colorful insect in “Transforming Bath: Butterfly Seducer” — a tale where a girl ignores her work to follow a beautiful butterfly up a mountain. Once at the top, the butterfly turns into a wicked boy who then tosses the girl down to her death.

The Navajo use the symbolism of butterflies to warn against vanity, temptation and foolishness. The Navajo story of “The Two Maidens and the White Butterfly” furthers the folly of butterflies. When the hero of the tale catches the wicked White Butterfly, he splits open the enemy’s head with an ax and thousands of butterflies escape from the mortal wound. The wise hero pulls one of the butterflies out of the air and insists that it tell the others they can no longer enter the brain of man. “You will be of little use to the people,” he says. “Only when they catch you and put pollen on their legs and arms and say – ‘May I run swiftly, may my days be long, may I be strong in arm.’” Even so, the Navajo consider the perishable dust of the butterflies’ wings a subtle warning on the fragility of beauty.

In the spring, the Apache sing the sorrowful song of the Flower Maiden, which also details the creation of the butterfly:

butterfly_Restlessness Federico BebberIn the first days of the people, many warriors sought the favor of the beautiful Flower Maiden. But of them all, she loved only two – Hidden Love and Iron Courage. They each contended for her love, but not even the Sky Father could help her make the choice. Then fate stepped in and both warriors were called to a great battle against invaders coming from the north. Flower Maiden bid them each good-bye with a heavy heart. Many months passed as she waited for her warriors to return, but when the war party rode back into camp, neither of her loved ones returned with the victorious.

Flower Maiden, who had lost any chance of happiness, took her tears and set out to find the bodies of the warriors she still loved even in death. She searched the hills and plains for years, sundered from herself in her grief.  When she could find neither of her beloved warriors, she pleaded with the Sky Father. “Please help me find their resting place,” she cried. “Please help me find their lost souls.”

“It was not my wish that your promised ones should die,” said the Sky Father. “But with them I also touched many others and in sorrow, I covered all of their bloodied bodies with soil and grass.”

The Flower Maiden lamented. “Then I shall never find them.”

Her sorrow grieved the Sky Father so, he ordered the ground to yield flowers in the colors and patterns of each fallen warrior’s shield to aid Flower Maiden in her lonely search. And when he realized she could not find the battlefield on which her beloved warriors had died in a single lifetime, he turned her into a beautiful butterfly so that each spring her spirit could wander among the flowers in search of her loved ones. And perhaps one day she will find them.

In the meantime, the Creator has given us the butterflies — ephemeral as the powdered memory of love lost, the black from a laughing girl’s hair, the yellow of falling leaves or the halcyon blue of a summer sky.

butterfly_the sound of flying souls, part 2 BrookeShaden

Images: To Serve by Brooke ShadenPassage by Marco Mazzoni, The Sound of Flying Souls, pt. 1 by Brooke Shaden, Funny How Secrets Travel by Federico Bebber, A View from a Hole by Marco Mazzoni, Restlessness by Federico Bebber, and The Sound of Flying Souls, pt. 2 by Brooke Shaden. All Rights Reserved by the artists.

 

 

Hath No Fury! Story Announcement!

It has been a year since a traumatic twist of fate sent me hurtling 20 mph, face-first into the gravel-strewn asphalt near the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs. Just days after celebrating the fact that I survived that cycling accident and all of the related complications, I received notice that my short story “A Seed Planted” had been selected for inclusion in the Ragnarok Publications anthology Hath No Fury. Nearly 400 submissions were received, all competing for the one coveted slot left open in this curated collection. I’m overjoyed to report that “A Seed Planted” has been awarded that spot and will be published alongside stories written by some of my favorite writers including Seanan McGuire, Carol Berg, Nisi Shawl, Delilah S. Dawson, and Lucy A. Synder.

hath no fury.jpgI couldn’t be more thrilled with the acceptance issued by co-editor Melanie R. Meadors (science fiction and fantasy author, blogger at The Once and Future Podcast), and the realization that I will be joining the incredible line-up of talented authors and artists associated with the project. The anthology description is as follows: “Hath No Fury contains…meaningful stories that defy the stereotypes. In this anthology, readers should expect to find super-smart, purpose-driven, ultra-confident heroines. Here, it’s not the hero who does all the action while the heroine smiles and bats her eyelashes; Hath No Fury’s women are champions, not princesses in distress. Embracing the strong warriors to the silent but powerful, to even the timid who muster up the bravery to face down a terrible evil, the women of Hath No Fury will make their indelible marks and leave you breathless for more.”

Sign me up.

Hath No Fury will include an introduction by Margaret Weis and nearly two dozen stories written by such speculative fiction authors including Seanan McGuire, Lian Hearn, Elaine Cunningham, Carol Berg, Gail Z. Martin, William C. Dietz, Nisi Shawl, Dana Cameron, Django Wexler, Delilah S. Dawson, Philippa Ballantine, Anton Stout, Elizabeth Vaughan, Bradley P. Beaulieu, M. L. Brennan, Michael R. Underwood, Erin M. Evans, Eloise J. Knapp, Marc Turner, S. R. Cambridge, and Lucy A. Synder. How incredible is that?

In addition to the stellar story selections, Hath No Fury will also include short essays by Robin HobbSarah Kuhn, Diana Pho, Monica ValentinelliK. Tempest Bradford, and Shanna Germain. But this anthology is not just a collection of stories and essays, it will also be filled with original art. Each piece of fiction will be individually illustrated, with the majority of the illustrations completed by Oksana Dmitrienko. However, the collection will also feature art by Wayne Miller and Keri Hayes, who were selected from the open art submission window offered as one of the project’s Stretch Goals.

The acceptance of my story also hinged on the open submission window made possible by all of the people who backed the anthology’s Kickstarter campaign. “A Seed Planted” is a tale about family, justice, and revenge. It was one of those stories that surprised me even as it was being written and I’m so glad I will be able to share it with you all soon. Hath No Fury is looking at a publication date in August. Stay tuned!

Sex and Sensuality in “The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories”

Bluebeard biffnoI was first introduced to the work of Angela Carter in the late 1990s when I met Terri Windling in Tucson. The first Angela Carter collection I read was The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories and, since that time, I’ve gone through several copies of this slim volume. Although it is one of my all-time favorite books, it’s been a while since I’ve sat down to read it; and this is the first time where I’ve forced myself to focus on the stories as a writer instead of as a reader.

This is not an easy task. It’s too easy to slip into Carter’s lush prose, her quick wit, her decisive flair. However, as I slowed down and took a closer look this collection of short stories, I noticed that not only has her rich prose influenced my own writing style, but there are also themes she visits that are close to the ones I tend to revisit in my own work. Unlike me, Carter has no fear in peeling back layer after layer. I tend to stay closer to the surface of things, which often hinders me. This reading turned me inwards; the stories became both a revelation and a reflection of the details drawn too finely or not at all, techniques I need to concentrate on as I continue the pursuit of an independent voice and style.

Bluebeard Gustav DoreThe titular story, “The Bloody Chamber,” has always been my favorite in the collection: the way Carter uses the masculine scents of tobacco and leather; the unveiling of the bride as though she was an artichoke voluptuously stripped of its leaves; and the “a choker of rubies, two inches wide, like an extraordinarily precious slit throat.” Perhaps it’s due to my own escape from domestic violence, twice, that draws me to this particular tale, but whatever the reason, the image of the bride and the beast is among my favorite themes. When I’ve attempted my own versions of this story, I’ve always felt that I’ve fallen flat, that I could never approach Carter’s brilliance in the unveiling of this theme. It wasn’t until I reread the story as a writer that I discovered a beat that I’ve danced around—the “sheer carnal avarice” Carter flirts with throughout.

Bluebeards last wife hogretAs the story continues, Carter emphasizes this sexual extravagance at every opportunity: the “great pistons ceaselessly thrusting the train;” the “amniotic salinity of the ocean” surrounding the Marquis’ palace; the heavy, hooded white lilies that “stain you.” The thing that has always bothered me about this story becomes evident when read from this alternate point-of-view. The protagonist stays passive. She never evolves to a point where she even attempts to defend herself. Instead, it is the girl’s mother who charges to the rescue. The wild-eyed mother with her revolver is the true heroine of this story. She is the heroine I want to write.

Beauty and the Beast Toshiaki KatoThe presence of carnal sensuality and raw feminine power continues as a common thread through the rest of the collection’s stories. In “The Courtship of Mr. Lyon,” a twist on “Beauty and the Beast,” the reader is tantalized in the opening with a road “white and unmarked as a spilled bolt of bridal satin” before moving on to experience the gentleness of the beast’s kiss and “the stiff bristles of his muzzle grazing her skin.” Things take a darker turn in “The Tiger’s Bride” when the protagonist, who was lost by her father in a card game to a tiger posing as a man, gives up her humanity to embrace the beast within herself: “each stroke of his tongue ripped off skin after successive skin, all the skins of a life in the world, and left behind a nascent patina of shining hairs.”

The Bloody Chamber Bluebeard Arthur RackhamAlthough I can write about violence, I have difficulty with raw sexuality. By revisiting Carter’s collection, I have been able to see ways in which I can heighten sensory description in seemingly unrelated scenes, which then create a build-up to the carnality I’d like to add to my own collection of work. Carter flirts with dangerous themes. She dares us to dance with the Erl-King, to contemplate the meaning of love in Nosferatu’s mansion, to howl at the full moon. And what other purpose is there to writing, if not as using it as a means to shed light in the darkness?

Over the years, I’ve learned that everyone has “a story,” a few people have a few stories, and yet others carry a multitude within them. Carter carried the multitude. She wrote as many of these as she could and, by doing so, gave her readers the opportunity to recognize themselves in her words. I hope to follow her example.

LIttle Red Riding Hood Arthur RackhamI know “the carnivore incarnate.” I’ve lived with the wolf that “cannot listen to reason.” I’ve known more than one man with “a wolf’s heart.” And I think Carter did too. I think she knew the wolves intimately. But, instead of letting the company of wolves devour her, she picked up a pen and wielded it like a knife. “Since her fear did her no good, she ceased to be afraid.”  And with that, Carter let the forest close “upon her like a pair of jaws.” I like this image. I think it’s time to let the forest close upon me as well. I think it’s time to delve deep into my fears and hopes, to put them on the page. Who knows? Perhaps I will be like Carter, laughing at the threats that once faced me. Perhaps, like Carter, I too will realize I’m “nobody’s meat.”

The Bloody Chamber Cover2Work Cited

Carter, Angela. The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories. 1979. Penguin Books, 1993.

Images: “Bluebeard” by biffno, “Bluebeard” by Gustav Dore, “Bluebeard’s Last Wife” by hogret, “Beauty and the Beast” by Toshiaki Kato, “Bluebeard” by Arthur Rackham, and “Little Red Riding Hood” by Arthur Rackham.

 

Disenchanted: Contemporary Issues Revealed with a Fairy Tale Twist

A Wild Swan_Little Man_Zohar Lazar_The New YorkerIn the fall of 2015, I happened across the short story “Little Man” by Michael Cunningham in The New Yorker.  As a collector of fairy tales, both old and new, I immediately recognized this strange and surprisingly modern twist on “Rumpelstiltskin.” Cunningham revisited this and several other well-known fairy tales in his collection A Wild Swan and Other Tales. With the popular surge in fairy tale retellings, I have often wondered why Cunningham’s take achieved publication in such a prestigious magazine. A close, in-depth reading of his collection revealed elements I seldom see in popular fairy tale renditions. Cunningham utilizes a variety of clever techniques in his stories, but the ones I was most drawn to the most as a writer were his use of sarcastic commentary on modern issues and the juxtaposition of classic fairy tales with contemporary parables.

Of all the stories in the collection, “Jacked”—a contemporary take on “Jack and the Beanstalk”—was the one that captured my interest the most as a deft and detailed commentary on the single parent, only child plight so prevalent among middle-class Americans. Cunningham creates a solid foundation with Jack’s character in the opening lines: “This is not a smart boy we’re talking about. This is not a kid who can be trusted to remember to take his mother to her chemo appointment, or to close the windows when it rains” (23). Forgetting a chemo appointment is a long cry from forgetting to close the windows on a rainy afternoon, yet it perfectly captures the entitled privilege we’ve come to expect from today’s youth.

Cunningham stays faithful to the original plot in “Jack and the Beanstalk,” but then modernizes it with a series of witticisms of a sarcastic nature: “The mist-girl tells Jack that everything the giant owns belongs rightfully to him. Jack, however, being Jack, had assumed already that everything the giant owns—everything everybody owns—rightfully belongs to him” (26). Personally, I’ve never been particularly fond of “Jack and the Beanstalk.” And, after reading the story, I was left with the feeling that Cunningham wasn’t in love with the original fairy tale either, which is why he pushes the unlikeable character to even further extremes. A “shockingly expensive haircut” and “200-dollar-jeans” can’t hide Jack’s self-entitled nature as a petty criminal. Cunningham makes the story relevant. He makes it his.

A Wild Swan Yuko Shimizu

All of the stories in A Wild Swan and Other Tales have roots in classic fairy tales with the exception of “A Monkey’s Paw,” which reimagines the supernatural short story “The Monkey’s Paw” written by W. W. Jacobs in 1902, and the opening and ending stories, which offer broad commentary on people at large. I especially loved Cunningham’s snarky wit in the opening pages of “Dis. Enchant.”: “Vengeful entities seek only to devastate the rarest, the ones who have somehow been granted not only bower and trumpet but comeliness that startles the birds in the trees, coupled with grace, generosity, and charm so effortless as to seem like ordinary human qualities. Who wouldn’t want to fuck these people up?” (3). Cunningham continues his observation of human foibles, allowing the reader the opportunity to connect with an array of fairy tale characters. He offers the opportunity to fantasize and to relate to even the most mundane and petty complaints.

A WIld Swan Yuko Shimizu illustrationThe evil stepmother in “A Wild Swan” is given sympathy after she turns her 12 stepsons into swans and commands them to fly away: “Do we blame her? Do we, really?” (5). The witch from “Hansel and Gretel,” finds her voice in “Crazy Old Lady”: “Were you relieved, maybe just a little, when they lifted you up (you weighed almost nothing by then) and shoved you in to the oven?” (20). In addition to identity, Cunningham plays with sexual themes; Rapunzel keeps her shorn hair so her blinded prince can make love to the piece of her that was lost in “Her Hair,” a boy marries the first girl who doesn’t treat him differently just because he has a prosthetic leg in “Steadfast; Tin,” and a girl agrees to play dead for exactly twelve minutes so her Prince Charming can play out his necrophiliac obsession in “Poisoned.”

Cunningham creates a cast of characters that we know intimately: the people who were only partly cured of their curses gathering in bars, the aging women with no families who become easy targets in their old age, the couple who plays out kinky sex fantasies behind closed doors, the single men who would give anything to have a child without the entanglements of a partner, the couple who finds their love renewed after tasting separation, the girls who wonder if their only choices for a companion are the asshole and the fool, and the men who prefer to forget their losses at the cost of the ones they love. These characters are fragments of ourselves and others, fragments many of us prefer not to face.

A Wild Swan_Beasts_Yuko Shimizu

As I pondered Cunningham’s treatment of old material in a new light, I realized that I tend to shy away from the very thing he embraces. There are opportunities there, but they can only be broached if I am willing to write from the hard places. Cunningham uses sarcasm to separate himself from his material. He allows the reader to make the obvious connections and then to bear the burden of the revelations mirrored from familiar tales retold in a contemporary setting. I think it’s a fine line to walk, but I also think that this is why Cunningham’s work rises above the multitude of other fairy tale retellings flooding the market. As a writer drawn to similar subject material, I am of the belief that fairy tale retellings work because there is such a breadth of material available to mine. However, I’ve also learned that it isn’t just the more obscure tales that need to be told; it’s the true tales. It’s up to the writers to find new ways to reflect the deepest, darkest parts of themselves through the comforts of the familiar.

 

A Wild Swan CoverWork Cited

Cunningham, Michael. A Wild Swan and Other Tales. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015.

Images: “Little Man” by Zohar Lazar, The New Yorker; “A Wild Swan,” “Poisoned,” and “Beasts” by Yuko Shimizu. All rights retained by the artists.