Thursday, August 28, 2014

The killing grounds

What Lilah said, the way she said it, the way she pushed her hands outward as if trying to slow some oncoming force or releasing a bird or a thought or a wish, something ephemeral and flighty, the way her blue eyes bored into mine. 

The way she bent over the bug-spattered grill of our Malibu with the intensity of an archeologist examining some ancient artifact, one index finger lightly brushing the shattered wings of a monarch butterfly before moving on to the splayed fiddleback legs of a grasshopper, dozens of brittle moth wings and other, indistinguishable, remnants of insects gone by, her long hair cascading down in burnished waves like a waterfall frozen in mid-plunge. 

Her eyes swiveling back to mine as if establishing an unbreakable, inviolate link, her lilting girlish voice barely constrained by a fierce, unquestioning compassion. “Grandpa,” she said, “if you see a butterfly crossing the road, you have to stop. You must stop.”

“That’s hard to do when I’m doing sixty-five,” I said, at once hating the hollow pretension, the contrived jocularity, the transparent insincerity poisoning my tone. I had no defense against her fearsome innocence, but then I’m not accustomed to being around five-year-olds who in the blink of an eye seamlessly transition between childhood and maturity. Constantly off guard, I was bereft of parameters or boundaries, unable to revert to a distant childhood and unwilling to encompass the role of an adult, whatever or however that might be. 

Her gaze never wavered; my excuse no excuse, my tone dismissed out of hand as irrelevant. Her blue eyes bluer than the summer sky entreating compliance, not a command but a heartfelt summons, however impossible to fulfill.

“You must stop,” she stressed, each word a distinct emphasis within a tripartite wholeness.

“Okay, sweetheart, I’ll do my best.” And again hated the falseness in my voice, the outright lie, but stooping swept her up in an embrace, gave her a kiss, and left her there with her sister and brothers in the heat-shimmering driveway, the snowcapped Never Summer Range a serrated blue wall looming in the west. 

If I thought of what she said, if I remembered her words at all during the long drive across three states, it was in those random moments when our vehicular path crossed those of living creatures. The score was singularly, depressingly, one-sided, their hard chitinous armor or kaleidoscopic parchment wings no match for a speeding mass of steel and glass. They collected on the radiator in mucous globs or smeared wetly across the windshield, moths of various sizes and species in the predawn hours, grasshoppers, butterflies and, to a lesser extent, dragonflies following the sun’s ascent. 

The evidence of other, larger, creatures, meeting the same fate was with us every mile. Brokennecked deer bunched in twisted heaps on the road’s shoulders, dark greasy spots memorialized the annihilation of countless skunks, possums, raccoons, armadillos, rabbits and other small mammals, the occasional feathered tuft lending an air of diversity to the killing fields.  

You must stop, she said. 

The carnage was relentless and unending. And, after a slow but steady dawning, inescapable. Mankind’s technological advances were a blitzkrieg against the lesser living things whose evolutionary paths left them utterly defenseless. I couldn’t help but wonder how we were to absolve our excesses when even our most common and mundane acts lead to wholesale destruction of sentient beings. How do we integrate a child’s wonder at the delicate patterns of a monarch butterfly with the need for high speed transportation? Are they at all compatible or must we consider the victims mere collateral damage? Like with so many things in life, I had no answers, only unanswerable questions.

You must stop, she said, and I didn’t, but carrying on mile after lengthy mile from the Front Range to the Glaciated Region of Kansas left behind a wake of broken bodies. Her words by then all but forgotten in the thrum of the road.

Weeks passed in a blur. And then on a sultry summer afternoon I headed east on the Great White Way, my thoughts if on anything only of the miles to my destination in St. George, and there on the curve where the road forks toward Frankfort a magnificent black swallowtail lifted from the roadside ditch, its sleek coaled lines glistening in the sun, and for the briefest of moments I was breathless with wonder until realizing its path and mine were on a collision course. I tapped my brakes, but not so the oncoming truck, whose gleaming grill swallowed the swallowtail body and soul. 

Once the screaming in my head subsided I heard a still, small voice saying, you must stop, grandpa, you must stop. But how shall we do that, my sweet, darling child, how can we stop when all we know is forward momentum?