The Swallowtail

The Swallowtail May 20, 2021

I had to buy coffee, so I went out early. And then I decided that I was too lazy to go home and make coffee, so I bought a cup of iced coffee and drank it in my car.

It was too bright and sunny to drink coffee in the car in the parking lot, so I drove down the block to Union Cemetery.

I have gone for walks in Union Cemetery time and again, every year since I came to Steubenville. But I haven’t ever gone for a drive there before. This was my very first time. I meandered up and down the narrow lanes between graves.

I had always been too tired to walk the whole length of the cemetery, so I’d never been to the top of the hill. That was where I started driving. I wanted to explore everywhere I’d never seen before.

At the bottom of the hill near the Old Stone Bridge are venerable old trees and rough, hand-carved graves from a hundred years ago. Up the hill is where the new graves are, neat rectangles of granite that sparkle when the light catches them, and fewer trees to shade the ground. There were big empty patches between the graves, carpeted with the itchiest light green grass, the kind of grass that gets paid for by the yard and delivered in rolls of sod on the back of a truck and unrolled like a living shag rug to cover good honest mud. I hate that kind of grass.  It demands water, pesticide and fertilizer but gives nothing in return– no crops, no shelter for the animals, no carbon sink. It ought to be prairie grass, or wildflowers, or at least white clover.

If the worst comes to the worst and I never get out of Steubenville, if I die and am buried here, I suppose they’ll peel back the sod and stick me underground here, near the crest of the hill. I’ll lie there under sterile prickly grass until Christ returns on the Day of Wrath, and that will be justice for my constant grumbling. But I hope I die somewhere else.

At the summit of the hill there were more trees, and a wrought iron fence with a sign warning people not to climb it.  I could barely hear the cars a world away. Birds sang in the shady oaks. Moths were dancing over the fresh cut grass, chasing one another– no, they weren’t moths, they were butterflies. They were black swallowtails with just a little flash of color at the bottoms of each wing. I had never seen so many swallowtail butterflies in the same place before, at least not this far into the broken industrial chimney of Appalachia. Sometimes I’d see butterflies like that when my family vacationed deep in Appalachia, in the state parks, where everything is alive. They would bob up and down among the wildflowers, silent and majestic. Now and then we’d find a dead one by the road– or worse, one that was not quite dead, flapping one intact wing while the other one lay limp and ragged like torn paper.

My family lived in Columbus and I was a city child, but the mountains were what felt like “home” as much as anywhere felt home. I haven’t been there in more than ten years.

I parked the car and went over to the fence to investigate.

On the other side of the fence, the whole world dropped away before me, revealing the Ohio Valley. Just ahead was the hospice where people go to die. Beyond that was Sunset Boulevard and the house I lived in when I first moved out of the dormitory more than twelve years ago. Downhill were more trees, the rest of the cemetery, the roof of the shopping center, the grandstands of Big Red stadium where rapists are honored with standing ovations. Beyond that, through more trees, I could see a glimpse of that hateful campus, Father Mike Scanlan’s private kingdom, his shrine and monument to Father Mike Scanlan and nobody else, where so many people have been abused and destroyed, fed alive to the insatiable maw of the Charismatic Renewal.  In another direction, jutting up among the trees, was the LaBelle water tower and that neighborhood with all its squalid poverty. Beyond the water tower I could see a derelict steel plant and a working plant with a smoking chimney, poisoning the whole earth. In another direction was a triangular slice of the cliffs on the other side of the Ohio. Beyond that were the real Appalachian mountains. Touching the top of the mountains was the firmament, blue on top and much lighter at the horizon. Beyond the firmament was God.

It would be justice if God rained down fire to destroy this cruel place.

It’s another kind of justice that we are all still here, living, able to make choices, with the ghost of a chance to get it right this time, even though we have done so much wrong.

A swallow– not a swallowtail but the actual bird called a swallow– dove in front of me, back and forth, so close I could have plucked her out of the air.

I stood in the Union Cemetery, mourning for someone who was dead. I grieved the loss of a ridiculous, idealistic, naïve young girl, delicate as a butterfly’s wing, who came to Steubenville a decade and a half ago to spend two years on a Master’s degree. I mourned her failed academic career, her estrangement from her family, her poverty, her fear, her wish that she could be a nun, her admiration for Father Mike Scanlan and the Franciscan orders that broke her again and again, her simplistic trust in the Church here on earth to do right by her children, her relationship with Sister Angeline’s false religious order, her birth rape, her secondary infertility, and everything else that had happened to that poor child. I mourned that she had disappeared somewhere along the journey, to be replaced by me. I had come here as one person, and now I was somebody else.

A bluejay darted across my path, a flash of azure and gray,  as I drove back through the cemetery.

Everything that dies goes under the prickly sod. When God returns out of that bright blue firmament, it will rise again for judgement, and what comes after is a mystery.

It could be that on the Day of Wrath, when the trumpet sounds and the stars fall, I will find the girl I used to be rising from under the sod, and embrace her, and tell her I’m sorry I let her be swallowed by all the forces of evil. I will teach her everything that I’ve learned and make her understand. It could be that she will forgive me for becoming what I am instead of somebody more heroic. And she will teach me what I’ve forgotten about innocence and trust. And the two of us will leave this place, never to return. I would like that.

I drove home to start my day, and things went back to the way that they were.



Image via Pixabay

Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.
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