Joy Lanzendorfer's work has appeared in So To Speak, Rumble, Word Riot, Salon, The Writer, San Francisco Chronicle, and many others. Her chapbook The End of the World As We Know It was runner-up for the 2006 Michael Rubin Chapbook Award from San Francisco State University. For the last four years, she has been a judge of the Writers Digest Self-Published Book Awards. She is also co-founder of the writing group Word Pirates.
The butterflies were the color of coconut flakes. My sister Aster told me that they were pests in my garden. It was hard to accept. I had always thought of white butterflies in other terms—flying clamshells or goose feathers caught on the wind, for example—not pests.
But my garden, once a thriving greenery of life, was wilting. It wasn't just the cabbages. It was the kale, the cauliflower, and the Brussels sprouts too. Every day, the butterflies came in a cloud, settled over my carefully tended investment, and deflated it like a tire.
It's strange. I had always thought butterflies were good for gardens.
Aphids are bad because they suck the life out of plants. Ants are bad because they bring the aphids. Bees are good because they pollinate the flowers. And butterflies?
The same as bees, I thought.
I tried to catch one of the butterflies in the act of eating my garden. Up close, they had white eyes, fur stoles around their necks, and a delicate curl of a nose, like a long white eyelash. It seemed to me that they were more interested in the mustard flowers on the edge of the garden than the cabbages.
“It's not the butterflies,” my sister Aster said. “It's the caterpillars. They are the ones eating the plants.”
She was standing on the sidewalk beside my garden, which is in the front yard of my house. Aster lives across town in an apartment with her boyfriend. It was her idea to put in the garden and sometimes I think she thinks it's hers.
“You see?” Aster said, pointing at the nearest cauliflower. “That leaf is covered with cabbage worms.”
I looked at the plant. I didn't see anything.
“Where?” I said.
“Gosh, Ari, use your eyes. They're everywhere.”
I squatted down beside Aster on the sidewalk. A car went by on the street, the breeze whooshing up the back of my tie-dye tank top. Sure enough, on the underside of a leaf were several caterpillars. They were pale green and fuzzy, like Kermit the Frog. If you made a caterpillar out of Kermit-the-Frog's pelt, it would look just like this. I smiled.
“Oh my God,” Aster said. “You think they're cute.”
“What? No!” I said, blushing because she was right. “I think they're terrible.”
Aster waved her hand over the garden. “Look at this, Ari. Just look at it.”
I looked. The cosmos and the mustard flowers were blooming yellow and pink. All the plants were brimming with insects, either white butterflies or bees. If you ignored the decimated kale and Brussels sprouts and cabbages, the garden looked kind of pretty.
“Yeah?” I said.
Aster's face was disgusted, and I couldn't tell if it was because of the caterpillars or because I wasn't more upset by what I saw. I tried to look angry.
“I mean, yeah, it's a problem,” I said. “There are lots of cabbage caterpillars. I mean worms. We should do something.”
My sister liked this. She waited for another car to pass before saying, “Good. What do you think about getting some pesticide?”
I frowned. I immediately thought of that Joni Mitchell song our mom used to play when we were kids.
Hey farmer, farmer, put away that DDT now. Give me spots on my apples and leave me the birds and the bees. Please.
“You mean like DDT?” I said.
“No, Ari, not like DDT. No one uses DDT anymore. Just some typical gardening pesticide. It'll kill the caterpillars and give the remaining plants a chance.”
“I don't know. Won't that make the vegetables poisonous too?”
“No, it's perfectly safe,” Aster said. “I'll get poison that goes away after a few days.”
I hesitated. I had let Aster talk me into the garden because I liked the idea of my half-dead lawn turning into an oasis of food-producing plants. Poisoning them seemed like the opposite of that.
“There's got to be some other way to get rid of them,” I said.
“Well, you can pick the worms off and drown them in a bucket of water if you want. But it's a lot of work and pretty gross.”
I shuddered and looked at the road. My neighbor's yard was full of dandelions and those little brown grass things that look like cotton swabs. I wondered why the butterflies didn't go over there.
“Look Ari, whether you like it or not, you're fighting a war here,” Aster said. “Either they get the plants or you do. Which way do you want it?”
Aster was looking at me the way she used to when we were little and I didn't want to play whatever game she told me we were going to play. It was like she was daring me to contradict her authority.
“Okay,” I said. “Get the poison. I guess that's easier.”
Later, Aster came back with the poison. It was in a dark green plastic container with a long tube and a wand attached to it. She pulled the wand out of the chamber and demonstrated how you spray the poison by pulling the trigger. It was like a gun. The bottle said you could eat the vegetables a week after application.
“Let's try it,” she said, bending down to the plants. I was kind of repulsed by how excited she seemed.
“Shouldn't we put on masks or gloves before you do that?” I said.
Aster rolled her eyes. “Stop being so melodramatic. We're not bugs. Just don't breathe it in.”
She lifted the leaf that she had shown me earlier. In just a few hours, it had turned into a net of holes. The only thing that remained were the thick veins of the plant.
“Wow,” I said.
Aster picked up her poison pistol. “You see why we're doing this?”
“Yeah,” I said, thinking maybe she was right. Maybe I needed to toughen up and kill the worms, even if the good bugs got killed in the process.
Aster pumped the little plastic do-hickey in the main chamber to push the poison into the tube. Then she pulled up another leaf. Three of the Kermit-the-Frog caterpillars were munching away. She held up the spray gun and pressed the trigger. A squirt of clear poison came out of the nozzle, landing on the caterpillars. It had a strong, tinny smell, like the aftermath of an explosion. I pulled back into cleaner air.
The caterpillars began to twist this way and that as if they were trying to put out a fire on their backs. They rolled into balls and slid off the leaf.
“Got 'em,” Aster said.
I felt like the caterpillars were climbing on my spine now. I jumped up and did a little shimmy. Aster grinned at me.
“That's barbaric,” I said.
“What?” Aster said, standing up. “Ari, that's how you get rid of them. It's not pretty.”
“But they're suffering.”
Aster rolled her eyes. “Look, why don't you go inside and let me do the poison? I know you don't want to hurt the precious cabbage worms.”
I glared at her, but even as I did, I was tempted to do what she said. It would be easier to go inside and let her do it. I looked over at the leaf, which was dripping with poison. A car went by, blowing up a breeze, and I could smell the rotten scent of it again.
“I changed my mind,” I said. “The bugs can have the garden. I don't want it.”
“Don't be stupid,” Aster said. “We planted this garden to get food. Didn't you say you wanted to eat vegetarian or vegan or whatever?”
“Then we'll do the bucket thing. We'll pick the caterpillars off and drown them.”
“There's no way I'm standing out here and picking bugs off your plants,” Aster said. “Besides, I already paid for the poison. This stuff wasn't cheap. Just go inside and I'll do it.”
She waded into the garden until she was in the middle of the plants and stood there, one hand holding the tub of poison, the other gripping the gun. I watched two butterflies do a fluttery dance above her head. Then Aster sent a spray of poison onto the mustard flowers and it landed on a butterfly that was pulsing there. It began to beat its wings violently, or what used to be its wings but were now shriveling into nubs. The butterfly fell off the plant.
“Aster, that's cruel.”
“It's a bug,” she said. “Man-up, Ari.”
She sprayed another butterfly. It reacted the same way. Even though I am non-violent, I could have smacked my sister in the face. She never listens to me. I started picking my way toward her, thinking I would forcibly remove the poison from her hand if I had to.
As I got past the row of kale, Aster sent a third spray of poison. The smell hit me and I had that creeping sensation on my spine again. I felt my back in case one of the dying cabbage worms had gotten on me. Nothing was there.
I took another step toward Aster. I could almost reach her now.
“Aster, listen to me. I don't like the poison.”
“Again, go inside and I will take care of it.”
“But it's my garden,” I said. “It's my yard.”
“Yeah, and you wouldn't have even planted it if not for me,” she said.
That was a low blow. Aster never does anything for me without rubbing it in. I stepped over the row of carrots. I was beside her now.
“Aster, I mean it,” I said in my firmest voice.
I grabbed her arm. She looked at me, and I was dimly aware of the butterflies flying around her head in this erratic, crazed way. I could see them.
“I don't want to hurt them,” I said. “They can have the plants. I don't want to—”
A truck rattled down the street and Aster couldn't hear me anymore, so I reached to pull the poison container away from her. She tried to jerk it out of arm's length but I caught the handle and folded my finger around it. Aster has always been taller than me, but I'm stronger. We stood with it suspended between us.
Now I reached for the gun, thinking I would wrench it away from her, but Aster lifted it above my head so that it was out of reach. Her moss-green eyes narrowed. She gritted her jaw.
“Don't do it,” I said. “You'll be sorry.”
Aster pulled the trigger of the gun all the way down and the poison sprayed out in a long stream. It reminded me of those old-fashioned waterers, the ones that spew water on top of the plants instead of by the roots. The stream of poison fell in a flat line across the mustard. The butterflies rose in a frenzy and were suddenly circling around us like a cyclone. One of them flew against my arm. I let out a shriek.
We started moving out of the garden and onto the sidewalk, still gripping the tub of poison between us. The butterflies moved with us and it was like being inside a school of fish. Aster's eyes were wide. The green irises seemed small in the white expanse.
And then, for some reason, I jerked the bottle of poison away. She lost her balance and fell off the sidewalk into the street, landing on her butt. The expression on her face was like that time we were at the beach and some kids kicked down a sand castle she was building—a mix of shock, outrage, and confusion.
I was about to help Aster out of the street when I heard an engine. I looked up to see a car coming toward my sister sitting in the road. I dropped the poison container on the sidewalk—it clattered and maybe spilled—and ran to Aster, my hands closing on hers. But the driver of the car wasn't slowing down. His head was turned toward the cloud of butterflies swarming on the sidewalk and so he didn't see my sister in front of his car.
But just when I was about to choose between letting go of Aster's hand or getting hit by the car myself, the cyclone of butterflies moved into the street. The car slammed on its brakes, but it was too late. The butterflies smacked into his windshield in soft, sickening splats.
The car swerved, giving me just enough time to yank my sister's hand with my entire body. We tumbled into the garden, among the kale and cauliflower and cabbage worms. The smell of poison seemed to be all around us, creeping into our nostrils. In the street, the butterfly-encrusted car was still swerving like a drunken animal. It drove over where Aster had been sitting seconds before, skidded to the side of the road, and stopped. The driver rolled down his window, stuck his head out, and looked into the sky.
We followed his gaze. The rest of butterflies, the ones that hadn't been poisoned or smashed into the car, had not returned to the garden or scattered down the street like you might expect. Instead, they were flying upwards.
They must have been caught on an updraft from the car, because I have never seen butterflies go that high before. First, they went near the treetops, but they didn't stop there. They went by the neighbor's roof, but they didn't light on it. They fluttered like a snowstorm in reverse, going farther and farther away.
“Wow,” Aster said, and there was a note of awe in her voice that I had never heard before.
I gripped my sister's clammy hands as the butterflies become dots above us. Finally, they were so high that they didn't even look like insects anymore. In the gentle slant of afternoon light, the butterflies looked like a bundle of balloons lost in the sky.