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from the editor's desk

From our Archive: ‘The Butterfly Birthday’ by Ambelin Kwaymullina

‘The Butterfly Birthday’ was published in Westerly 54.2, November 2009


The world is a dangerous place. I know it the way other people know that dogs bark, fish swim and the sky is blue. Maybe that’s why Mrs Keller—and everyone else—is always telling me I’m too serious for my age (as if thirteen-year-olds are supposed to smile a certain number of times a day!). They all give me a stupid soft-eyed sympathetic look right after they say it, too. Like they understand. As if any of them have ever come home and found their Dad sitting on the kitchen floor, one leg tucked under him and one leg splayed out, not like he’d sat down but like he’d fallen and didn’t know how to get up. For a moment I thought he had fallen, but then I saw the note in his hands and the tears blurring the ink. I don’t know why I went forward and took his arm anyway, as if all I had to do was help him to his feet and he’d be all right. He didn’t move, of course. He just said, ‘She’s gone, Juliet.’ And that’s when I knew how dangerous the world was. Because things can change just like that, and you never know when it’s going to happen. The dangerous days start out just like the ordinary ones.

It was one of my teachers—Mrs Keller in fact—who wanted me to write this story. Well, she wanted me to write a story. She’s probably hoping I’ll write something happy, because of the ‘too serious’ thing, but I thought I’d write about something real. I thought I’d write about Mum, the butterfly. That’s what Dad called her, because she was so little and thin and fluttery, tiny hands and feet always on the move. Me and my little brother look like Dad—brown eyes, brown curly hair, brown skin, except Dad’s brown like chocolate and we’re more brown like coffee. But Mum was all hazel eyes and red hair and pale skin. Every night she’d pull out the atlas and tell me stories about far away places, just her and me by my bedside light with her hair lit up like a halo. When she was happy she was like Christmas and fireworks and the last day at school all at once, and when she was sad she was just like fireworks—but up close where the sparks and the danger were. She never threw anything at us, exactly, but Brian had gotten hit in the head with a stapler once when it rebounded off the fireplace. It was an accident, of course. She was sorry after, when she was happy again. And Brian was okay—the doctor at the hospital said so.

I never thought she’d leave. Mums don’t leave. But she did.

It was me that looked after everything. That first, horrible afternoon, I finally got Dad up off the floor, sat him on the couch, took the note. Read it—it was only one line—and put it away where Brian wouldn’t find it. Ordered pizza when dinner time came. Waited once Dad shuffled off to the bedroom for Ryan’s Mum to drop Brian home after basketball practice. I made sure Brian had some pizza before I told him, because Dad had been so upset he hadn’t been able to eat anything. I was proud of myself for that, it was the sort of thing a mother would think of, and I knew I had to be the mother now. And then I said to Brian, just like Dad had said to me, ‘She’s gone.’ I waited for him to ask about it, I was all ready to tell him she’d left a note saying how much she loved us, how sorry she was, how she’d be back when she could—and if he wanted to know where the note was—oh, Dad was so upset he burned it, Brian couldn’t read it, too bad. But all Brian asked about was Dad. Mum was gone, but Dad was still here. Right now, that was all that mattered. I told Brian Dad was okay, and he went off and played computer games until I made him go to bed. The next day, and every day after that, Brian was extra happy, bouncing around the house making stupid jokes until even Dad smiled. He was smart like that—he didn’t need to be told we had to look after Dad now. Only it was a forced kind of happiness. When Brian thought I wasn’t looking, he cried.

Of course, I had Brian to take care of as well, it seemed like he was forever pestering me with questions about something someone had told him or something he’d learned at school or something he’d seen on TV. I suppose he’d asked Mum, before. It was a day since she’d gone. And then it was a week, and then two, and then a month, and then months. Dad stopped racing to the door every time there was a knock or to the phone every time it rang, but I don’t know if he ever stopped thinking that it might be her. I know I didn’t.

And then there was Sheri.

At first I was happy about it. That was when I thought he was going out with mates from work. I’d being trying to encourage him to get out for ages, join a gym, throw a party, I don’t know, do whatever adults do to make friends. Anything to stop him hanging round the house all the time. Mum’s way of being sad was better than his—you just hid out until it was over, and it was always over fast. Dad was sad like rain—not real rain, not a storm, just a constant grey drizzle that meant you couldn’t have any fun. And then he started looking a bit happier, and talking about someone called Sheri, and stupid me, I never realised she might be his girlfriend. I just didn’t think he would—I mean, it hadn’t even been a year! Weren’t we all still waiting for Mum to come home?

I didn’t get it even when Sheri came over for dinner, this tall tanned blonde woman. Of course she was extra nice, talking like she was really interested in us—her and Brian were getting on like a house on fire. He didn’t need a mother, he had me, so why did he like her so much? I went to the kitchen to fetch the glasses and the juice and the salt (Dad has no idea how to set a table), and when I came back in the dining room the three of them were sitting there laughing, looking like they were a family and I was the outsider. And that was when I knew that Sheri wasn’t just a mate from work. For a crazy moment I thought that I’d leave too, find Mum and go to all those places in the atlas, her and me, butterflies together. But of course I couldn’t. I had to look after Dad and Brian. I had to get rid of Sheri.

It’s harder to make people go away than you might think. First off, I thought I could just be mean to her, but then I realised that wouldn’t work, I knew from the sweet-as-sugar performance she put in at dinner that she wouldn’t be mean back. I’d just end up looking bad and she’d look better than ever. Brian wouldn’t help me, either, the traitor. He liked her. Liked her! I was so mad at him, anger boiled up under my skin and I was amazed it didn’t spew out of me like lava out a volcano. But I can never talk when I’m really mad, not even to shout at somebody. It was just as well, because once I’d cooled down I realised it wasn’t Brian’s fault. He was only a kid—he obviously didn’t remember Mum as well as I did. I’d have to remind him, and Dad too. So I dug out the photo albums, put up pictures of Mum all over the house, started talking about her all the time—how pretty she was, all the cool stuff she used to do, how much she loved us. And I eventually came up with the perfect idea to get rid of Sheri.

Mr Phillips—my art teacher, one of those ones that thought he was going to be a great artist and hates teaching a bunch of teenagers for a living—had once said I was ‘emotionally disturbed’. He didn’t say it to me, of course, but I heard all the same, I don’t know why people think you can’t hear them when they’re only a metre away. It was right after we were supposed to do a painting that expressed how we felt about life, and I’d painted the whole thing black because I thought it was a stupid project and anyway I wasn’t going to put what I felt on display for everyone to see. I shouldn’t have bothered trying to make a point, I just got a good grade for being ‘very expressive’ and the school rang Dad to tell him I should speak to a counsellor. It gave me the idea of how to deal with Sheri, though, so I guess it was all worth it in the end. See, if I was just mean to her, that was me being bad, but if I was emotionally disturbed, that wasn’t my fault. It was because I’d had such a hard time, and if Sheri couldn’t cope with that then she just wasn’t a strong enough person to be involved with a guy with a scarred-for-life kid. Ha.

So it started. I used all Mum’s sad times to help me—toned down a bit, of course, I wasn’t going to start throwing things, people might get hurt. I invented Sheri-nightmares that woke me up in the middle of the night, and made me too scared to go back to sleep until I’d talked to Dad about them (good thing my watch has an alarm). I began going from being happy to being sad and back again in seconds flat. I didn’t exactly burst into tears—I just can’t keep crying like that and it’s too easy to spot as a fake—but I managed to look like I was about to, a lot of the time. My grades went downhill, mostly because I was thinking of new ways to be emotionally disturbed instead of doing homework. And the more I carried on, the more worried everyone got, the less I actually had to do. After a few months I could turn an outing with Sheri into a disaster with nothing more than a glum look.

Brian knew what was happening, he wasn’t stupid. I knew he’d never tell Dad on me, but he got pretty mad, especially after a dinner when he mentioned that he had to do a school project on butterflies and I used it as an excuse to get all twitchy and spill my juice on Sheri. I had to hand it to her—she did keep up the niceness, but even she had her limits. She still wasn’t mean, but she started to get really, really nervous. She never knew how I’d be—even if I was in a good mood, chances were I’d be bravely holding back tears a moment later. Plus I’d developed a kind of super-happiness that really freaked her and Dad out—I laughed too much, talked too much, jumped around too much, was too much.

It worked, of course. Dad started spending less time with Sheri and more time with me. I wasn’t dumb enough to go all normal straight away, but the less he saw of Sheri the ‘better’ I became. I thought I was making things so obvious even Dad would get it—no Sheri equalled non-disturbed daughter. I did feel a bit bad when he started getting all rainy-sad again, and when Brian stopped talking to me. But I knew Dad would be better off in the end, and Brian would be sorry when he realised I’d done it all for them. Honestly, what did he think was going to happen, if Mum came home and found Dad had another woman? She’d never stay then.

By the time my fourteenth birthday came round, I hadn’t so much as glimpsed Sheri’s blonde hair in more than a month, and I was so pleased, it was hard to fake even the occasional sadness that I was still carrying on with. But that was alright. Soon I wouldn’t have to do any of it anymore, because it was my birthday, and I knew she’d come back for that. There’d be a knock at the door, and I’d open it, and there she’d be—Happy birthday, darling! Or maybe there’d be a phone call, and we’d go pick her up at the airport. She’d be coming back from one the places in the atlas, and she’d have brought me something with her—I only went to get you the perfect birthday present.

Mum was coming home. I just knew it.

Birthday came. Of course I woke up early. Made myself cereal, and ate it halfway between the phone and the front door. Nothing. No call, no knock. But that was okay, she’d never been a morning person anyway. Then Dad and Brian got up, wished me happy birthday, gave me presents. Dad wasn’t very good at wrapping, it had always been Mum who’d done all that sort of stuff—but I loved every bit of scraggly ribbon and crumpled paper, because I knew it meant Sheri hadn’t helped him.

Still nothing.

I ferried the presents down to my room, started sorting them out. I didn’t want her to come home to a mess, she hated mess. Left my door open, so I could hear the front door or the phone, but all I heard was the noises from the game Brian was playing on the computer and the sound of Dad dropping things in the kitchen. He was determined to make me a big birthday lunch, just like Mum used to do, cake and everything (luckily Brian had talked him into buying a cake from the shops as well, Dad’s not exactly a chef).

Nothing, nothing, nothing.

The sound of the plates clinking as Brian set the table, and the smell of burning from the kitchen—and it came.

Knock, knock.

THIS WAS IT! Cathy Freeman couldn’t have beaten me to that door. I yanked it open, grinning hugely—and found Sheri on the front step, a present wrapped all in blue in her hands and an anxious smile on her face. Behind me there were Dad’s footsteps, and his voice saying, ‘Glad you could make it’, and I just lost it. I didn’t even think of the getting-rid-of-Sheri plan, I didn’t think of anything. I just turned around and screamed at him, ‘You invited Sheri to my birthday?! What will Mum think when she comes and Sheri’s here? You’re so stupid! You don’t even care, you don’t understand anything! No wonder she left you!’ And then I ran. Down the hall—into my room—slammed the door—threw myself on my bed. I could hear Dad and Sheri still, it sounded like they were fighting, and I was glad. I hope she dumps him, I thought. I hope he’s sad forever.

After a while there was silence. Then footsteps, and my door creaking open, and Dad clearing his throat nervously. I glared at him. He just stood there looking helpless, like he wasn’t sure what he’d done wrong and even if he knew he wouldn’t be sure how to fix it. Eventually he said, ‘I’m sorry, I wouldn’t have asked her, it’s just that you seemed so much better…’ He paused, took a breath, started again. ‘I’m sorry. I should have asked you about Sheri. And—and I’m sure your Mum wanted to be here.’ He came over to the bed then, pulling an envelope out of his pocket. ‘This came for you in the mail today. I think it’s from her.’

I grabbed it off him and tore it open, and all the while he was still talking, babbling really—‘It’s postmarked Brisbane, you see? Right across the other side of the country. She probably couldn’t afford the fare to Perth, otherwise she would have been here…’ I just stared at the front of the card—it had a butterfly on it—and then read the inside—Happy birthday to my darling daughter. Sorry I can’t be there. Love always Mum.

I knew two things straight away, one obvious and one terrible. For a moment I tried not to think the terrible thing, tried not to say it, like by doing that I could make it not real. But it was real. And finally I asked the question I already knew the answer to.

‘She’s not coming back, is she?’

Dad put his arm around me. ‘No, honey. I don’t think so.’ For a long time we just sat there, and then he asked, kind of hopefully, ‘Do you want some cake?’ As if I was a little kid that could be cheered up with lollies.

‘In a while, Dad. I think I’ll just sit in here a bit longer.’

After he was gone I stood the card up on my desk, sat cross-legged on the bed, and just stared at it. I was thinking about Mum, but not in a way I ever had before. After a few moments, Brian stuck his head around the door—‘Dad says to leave you alone.’

‘S’alright. You can come in.’

He bounced over and sat beside me. ‘Sheri yelled at Dad for asking her without telling you. She said it was in-sen-sit-ive of him. They had a big fight.’

‘Good.’ But my heart wasn’t in it, and he knew it.

‘Pretty crap birthday.’

‘Yeah.’

‘Still better than your last birthday, but.’

I stared at him. ‘How can you say that? Mum was here last birthday.’

‘Mum forgot your last birthday.’

‘She did not! It was you and Dad, you were all supposed to pretend you’d forgotten, and then surprise me with my presents, but you guys messed it up by wishing me happy birthday first thing in the morning, only Mum remembered and didn’t say anything…’ My voice trailed off. Brian was looking at me strangely, sort of like he was the older one. ‘Oh.’

‘Yeah. Then she threw your cake at the window, candles and all, remember? Dad had to chuck water over the curtains to put the fire out.’

He had, too. You wouldn’t believe how quickly things catch on fire. Those big flames licking at the window had come out of nowhere.

Brian had noticed the card. He stood up. Went over to it—read it—put it back—came over to the bed. Looked at me. Of course he knew as well. ‘Do you think he’s going to do that every birthday?’

I shrugged. ‘Dunno. Probably.’ I couldn’t help grinning a little, poor Dad, he thought he was being so clever. He’d even tried to make his handwriting look like Mum’s. And the Brisbane postmark was a good touch, I suppose he’d gotten Aunty Jasmine to send it for him.

Brian sighed. ‘Guess I’ll get one too, then.’ He brightened. ‘Maybe he’ll start sending gifts as well—then we’ll get double presents.’

We were quiet for a while then, but it wasn’t a weird silence. It was more like how we used to be, before he got mad at me about Sheri,when we knew without words that we both understood the same thing.

Eventually Brian said—‘You know, that’s rubbish, what Dad always said about Mum. I know all about butterflies from that stupid project. They don’t just fly around. They take the pollen from one flower to another so more flowers can grow. They’re useful. Mum wasn’t useful. I miss her, but she couldn’t even look after us properly.’

I opened my mouth to argue—then stopped, trying to see things the way Brian did. It was strange, all this time I’d thought Brian and Dad were remembering Mum wrong, but maybe I was. Brian and Mum. He had always been, I don’t know, too happy, too jumpy, too Brian for her.

My gaze shifted from the card to my wardrobe. After a while I realised Brian was watching me watching the wardrobe. And when I looked at him, I knew he knew why I was watching the wardrobe.

‘You little sneak! How long have you known about it?’

‘You always put stuff you don’t want me to see under your wardrobe. Why did you even hide it anyway? It was stupid. It didn’t explain anything.’

I went to get the note. I don’t know why I’d kept it, it wasn’t like I was ever going to forget what it said. For a moment I held it in my hands again, rubbed my thumbs across the paper, felt Mum’s last words, Dad’s tears. And then I crumpled it up into a ball and lobbed it into the bin next to my desk.

I’m sorry, Mum had written. I can’t live in a cage.

Brian was right, it didn’t explain anything. I’d just thought it did. I’d thought we’d crowded her, caged her, tied her down to our not-good-enough, un-butterfly-like selves. I’d hidden it because I didn’t want Brian to know that—it was bad enough that I knew it. Except maybe butterflies did more than look pretty and fly around. Me and Dad and Brian—we looked after each other. Dad, with his wrapping and his cooking, and the stuff he’d brought me, not all of it exactly what I’d wanted, but things that showed he’d thought about me, like buying me a blue diary because blue was my favourite colour, and a big spinning globe because I wanted to travel around the world. And Brian, asking me questions he probably already knew the answers to, and me never noticing that he asked the most questions when I was the most down—really down, I mean, not pretend get-rid-of-Sheri down.

I was realising something. ‘We’re the butterflies.’ I said, slowly. Brian made a face—butterflies were too girly for him. ‘You and me and Dad. And Mum—Mum is—is—’

‘A worm.’ Brian supplied cheerfully. ‘A slug. A rat.’

‘No.’ I wasn’t ready to give up hope. Mum wasn’t a butterfly—at least, not at the moment. But, one day, she might be.

‘She’s not a rat, Brian. She’s a caterpillar.’


Ambelin Kwaymullina is a Palkyu person from the Pilbara. She lectures in the Law School at The University of Western Australia and is a writer and illustrator. Her work includes The Tribe trilogy and Catching Teller Crow.

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