Monarchs

They are sailing to the island. It is a beautiful day, late September—sunny and cool; the wind is good. They will sail to the island, hike, eat lunch, and then return late afternoon and paint through the night. But one of them has forgotten the wine. And each blames the other.

Now he is angry, and so is she. He seems to think that it was her job to bring the wine, because she is the woman. This infuriates her. Of course he’s mad at himself as well. As she is mad at herself. They yell at each other—back and forth they go. On and on. Then they fall silent: a boat is a small space to fight in.

The sail is uneventful, and quicker than usual: the wind is at their back. Because he is the experienced sailor and the boat is his domain, he barks orders at her—obviously enjoying it. She does as he tells her but resents it like hell. Otherwise, they don’t speak. Instead, the wind speaks for them—through the occasional violent slap of sails.

He drops anchor in the harbor, pulls the dory up beside them, and then, after some awkwardness about which of them will get in first (she can easily imagine him sailing away, leaving her there), they exchange hostile glances. In better times, and privately, he jokingly calls her Rosa Malheur, and she calls him, simply, amour. But not today. Today she hates him.

He is hoping that things will improve between them once they are on the island. And so he rows, furiously, to meet that future. On another day she would admire this fury. Before long, they are ashore. She gets out. He gets out. She walks off down the beach and lets him drag the dory in by himself. He ties it to a rock, and then they set off without a word to each other.

The terrain of forest floor is soft to the foot, gives—it has been an unusually rainy September. She is walking behind, following him, staring at his back, his broad shoulders, which she has looked up at countless times over the years. He doesn’t even bother to turn around to make sure that she is keeping up. She feels only a blind hatred for him now, nothing more—no love. Wild mushrooms, yellow and red, pepper the forest. She knows that they are the most poisonous kind and suddenly imagines reaching down, grabbing one with her fist, cramming it into her mouth and asphyxiating. But she doesn’t. And wouldn’t. Instead, they continue to walk, the ocean on their right, extending into the horizon, gently slapping rocks at the shoreline. The occasional monarch butterfly flits by.

They come to an opening that is high and flat and looks out over a wide span of sea. He gazes at her as if to ask if this is all right, if this pleases her majesty, but he says nothing. He sits down without waiting for a response. She begins to sit, too, as she notices more and more butterflies. As she silently unpacks the bag with their bread, cheese and fruit, lays it on the rock surface between them, suddenly, just to the right, she sees a whole school of monarchs: there must be hundreds of them. They are lighting on a field of aster, their orange, black-veined wings shot through with sunlight—like stained glass windows, vibrant against the lavender wildflowers. The edge of the forest, their green backdrop, is blanketed with goldenrod. The combination of colors takes her breath away. She leans forward, places both hands on the rock-floor to steady herself. She looks away, to clear her eyes and mind. She feels as though she could cry. It is a terrible beauty. She knows the arduous journey the butterflies have ahead of them, knows they are dying, that they live only six to nine months. She looks out at the ocean for refreshment: close-up, by the rocks, the water is a blue-green sea foam, aquamarine, white-capped, and then just beyond it begins to turn to a deeper, moodier blue. Indigo. She glances back to the feast of orange, black, lavender, mustard, shards of green, and she takes it all in, absorbs it. Deeper into the forest, the sunlight filtering through the trees is a lemony yellow. She lies down on the rock, wants to merge with it, to become one with the scene. She is so full of feeling that she can finally look at him: she knows they will be fine.

Now she looks up at the sky, but it is wrong—not at all the color she’d hoped for: too weak and diluted. And so she closes her eyes and begins the task of recreating the landscape in her mind, shape by shape, color by color. She can’t wait to get back to the studio.

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