Grandfather teaches me how to hold a butterfly without crumpling its wings. He raises his red sweater arms high above his head and tells me to wait. The early July morning is humid. I rock between my feet, sweating and impatient. One butterfly sits along his arm, and then another. Red sleeves covered in them, butterfly wings flap in synch. Colourful strikes of a metronome. Butterflies are attracted to reds and oranges is the lesson. Never hold on to something you wouldn’t want to hurt, I learn.
Grandfather’s hands have done plenty of hurting, the sort of hurting that you do for a cause greater than you, the sort of hurt that stays with you sixty years later. He doesn’t explain and I never ask. Even at five I know better than to jump on his knee where the shrapnel is wedged. I know to bring the warm rice bag for the pain when it rains.
Grandfather is a witch. When he’s not out at sea, he spends his days walking, dozens of cats following him to and from the shipping docks. When he’s not out at sea, he brings home withered plants and leaves them in his room. The next time I see them they are green and luscious, breathing with life. He brews foreign teas and recites stories of lands far across the sea, sometimes across an ocean, of strangers and even stranger lives that people lead. I drink the tea and the stories; all the while grandfather watches me with his mis-matched eyes, one green, one yellow, and smiles.
I’m the one across the wide ocean, now, living the strange life. I run and hide when the telephone rings. I avoid my grandfather’s voice. His language, our language, our shared past a reminder of how broken home is. The water doesn’t run anymore. The concrete gets frigid in the winter with no heat. On the other end of the line, grandfather’s voice grows feeble and disjointed. He doesn’t tell stories about foreign lands anymore.
I only care for myself.
No one told me when the telephone stopped ringing seven years ago. No more past to shame me. No more phone calls to avoid. A seventy-year-old messenger bag that smells of smoke and a bloodied youth. No medals, no uniforms, only a grey stone pressed into a land that’s not home.
I only buy withered plants to bring them home. I kneel for every cat I meet. I never hold a butterfly. I stand with my bare feet planted in the ocean. Sharp stones cut against my soles. It’s the wrong ocean, the wrong continent, but I don’t think he minds. I look out into the tide with my own mis-matched eyes, one green, one yellow. I think I learned the wrong lesson.
The foam breaks against my knees with his laughter and he’s gone.
A.D. Sui is a Ukrainian-born, queer, and disabled writer currently living in Canada. She mostly dabbles in science fiction and fantasy but is expanding her horizons to literary fiction. She holds a Ph.D. in Health Promotion from Western University and spends most of her time being a stuffy academic of all things digital. When not writing convoluted papers that nobody will ever read, you can find her on Twitter as @TheSuiWay where she openly critiques academia and gushes over her two dogs.