Butterfly Jar

By Lina Zhang, Class of 2021, Redmond Prize Winner (20-21 School Year)

The Redmond Prize for English Narrative is awarded to the student who, in the judgment of the English Department, has submitted the most outstanding piece of narrative during this academic year.

Today I can go out and play before dinner because my sister is home and she’s cutting the grass to feed the ducks and the big white goose we have in our front yard. Papa says we’re lucky to have ducks because we can sell the eggs, but I think they’re loud in the morning and the goose always looks at me mean like it wants to chase after me and peck me in the butt again the way it did when I was three. But today I don’t have to care about the goose or the grass that cuts my hand when I go at it with a sickle or even the cicadas that go “fifififi” up in their trees until the sun goes down. Today I’m going butterfly hunting. 

There’s always butterflies where I live, even in the winter if one lays her eggs near someone’s home and baby butterflies hatch too early, but it’s summer now so they’re everywhere. The little boy next door taught me how to make a net from a stick and a piece of cloth, and I brought an empty glass jar to keep the butterfly once I catch it. There are a couple small white butterflies but they’re ugly, there’s one with orange and black stripes and white dots sitting on a flower, that’s the one I want. 

I do a couple of practice swings in the air and my net goes whoosh whoosh whoosh like someone is trying to whistle. I swing and miss, the butterfly flies away like it’s scared. I wait and soon enough it comes back to the same flower, silly butterfly. This time I am not so clumsy and get it in my net, I see it scrambling around against the fabric before I scoop it into my jar and twist the lid tight so it doesn’t fly out again. I’ve always wanted a butterfly but never had time to catch one, now I have my own. My sister tells me they start as baby caterpillars and then break a hard shell around them called a cocoon and then they’re butterflies. She knows everything.

When I come home my sister is back and turning on the gas stove to make dinner. I usually make the food but I’m glad I don’t have to either this time. My sister is short like me, her black hair is tied up now but it goes down to her chest. I get on the plastic chair and put my glass jar in front of her with a thud. “Jiejie jiejie look, I have a butterfly!” I say, pushing the jar at her.

“A butterfly, huh,” my sister says. “That’s great, Tiantian, but put it away and get ready for dinner.” She turns back to stirring the porridge and I put the jar next to the window facing the street so the butterfly can still look outside if it wants to. It clings to the sides of the jar with its tiny feet, I think it’s getting used to its new home. I want to put a couple of leaves of grass in it but I’m afraid the butterfly will fly out so I leave it there. Then I go wash my hand and make sure to scrub away the dirt between my fingers like my sister taught me. 

My sister brings out the lumpy corn porridge as always, but then she opens the other pot and it’s a little bit of stir-fry pork with sliced ginger, I cheer. Meat is expensive so we don’t get to eat it very often, usually only during New Year’s when Papa and Mama come back from their jobs. “You’re starting school tomorrow,” my sister says when I ask. “It’s also your birthday soon. I thought we should celebrate. I didn’t tell Papa so you stay quiet about this too.” I clamp my mouth shut and nod like a pecking chicken, she smiles at me and a dimple sinks into her red cheeks. 

When I chew the pork it reminds me of the last time we had it, when the teacher came to visit our house during last New Year’s. She talked to my sister and Papa and Mama about a lot of things that I didn’t really understand, a national exam and the city where Papa and Mama worked. The teacher looked happy and so did my sister, but Papa had his angry face on and Mama looked out the window. The teacher hasn’t come back since and my sister has been home more. I don’t mind, it means I do less chores.

“I have a couple of unfinished notebooks for you to practice your handwriting on, and I’ve got pencils and erasers,” my sister says. Her bowl is empty already, she always eats fast. “If your teacher says you need anything else, don’t tell Papa, you tell me directly and I’ll buy it for you. Your friends are all starting school this year, yes?”

“Yeah, jiejie.”

“It’s good to have friends, but pay more attention to school, you hear me?”

“Mhmm.” I take more of the meat and stir it into my porridge.

“If you have questions with homework, bring them back to me. Actually, bring your books back to me too.”

“Why my books? You have your own.”

“Tiantian, I’m not going back to school.”

I almost drop my bowl. “Oh,” I say. “Why?”

“With you starting school it costs too much. Papa, Mama, and I talked about it.”

“Is that why the teacher was here?”

“No,” my sister says in her bedtime-story voice but the edges of her eyes are red. “The teacher came because I was at the top of the class. She thought I could make it to a good high school, a city high school even, but Papa said I don’t need to study to get married and then he made her leave.”

“Oh.” I think I wouldn’t mind not going to school if it meant I could catch butterflies and listen to the cicadas sing “fififi” all day, but I still wash the bowls and the pots because my sister made dinner, then the sun is almost down and the crickets are coming out and my sister says it’s time to go to bed. I light a little lamp and she goes over her backpack, which is now my backpack, and counts pencil eraser paper. Then she crawls onto the cold kang with me. I see the outline of my jar in front of the window and I wonder where the butterfly is because it’s not clinging to the side anymore. Sometime during the night I think I wake up and hear my sister crying. But then she scoots closer and brushes my hair with her fingers and I fall asleep again so I don’t know if it’s real or not. Then it’s the morning and the ducks are loud and I wake up.

“It’s six, Tiantian,” my sister says. The leftover porridge from last night is on the table. “Let’s get you ready for school.”

I stumble off the kang and go brush my teeth, halfway through splashing water on my face I remember my butterfly. It’s sideways on the bottom of the jar as if it went to bed like us, silly butterfly. I shake the jar and it flops from side to side, I unscrew the jar and pour it out onto my hand, it doesn’t move. 

“It’s dead!” I cry with dismay and burst into tears. 

My sister runs over and takes the jar from my hands, she says, “Oh, Tiantian, sweetheart, you put the lid on too tight. It couldn’t breathe.” She looks sad too. The butterfly lies on my palm like a piece of colorful plastic, a gust of wind could take it and it wouldn’t fight at all. My sister puts it back in the jar, I know it won’t be there anymore when I get home. She puts a hand behind my back and walks me to the small table.

I drink the lumpy porridge with some pickled turnip, my tummy gurgles and I might have to emergency go to the bathroom sometime during the day. There is a group of kids outside the door at the end of one of the longhouses, the boy who taught me how to make a butterfly net is there too. Before I go out the door my sister grabs me, her fingers dig into my shoulders and I say ow, she lets go and says she’s sorry. Then she hugs me more gently and her hair tickles my face. She smells like soap and Mama and I wish I could hold her for a bit longer so I don’t have to look at the jar on the windowsill anymore. But then the kids are yelling my name, and she lets go, and I have to go.

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