FICTION, 1st PLACE

THE PIGGLY WIGGLY  by Rose Weagant

It begins at the far end of a Piggly Wiggly parking lot on a gray Sunday afternoon. Most folks don’t park back there on account of the long trudge to and from the grocery store. But it is, as contractually stated in many a divorce, a nice, neutral space for transition. Parents lean on Fords and Chevys with their kids tucked neatly in the king cabs, thumbing devices and gnawing candy as they wait for their particular form of deliverance.

Happily married people do not see these ghosts at the end of the parking lot. It’s only those who know the dance that see it happening, when the far end of the Piggly Wiggly turns into a shipyard, transferring the most precious cargo from one parent to another.

Roy was there, too, a big heap of a fella. He sighed and checked his watch. The sky’s indifference made him a bit drowsy. And anxious. He yawned and looked at Nathaniel, sitting in the Harley’s sidecar, still in his helmet and goggles. They didn’t bug him too much.

Roy is a fella who tried, but (admittedly) not all of the time. He could have done better for Ellen. He wished he could really show her, but that’s done now. Still, he has Nathaniel. He can show him.

On weekends, they play catch and take walks on the pier. Nathaniel likes to sit on the tailgate and watch Roy tinker with his motorcycle. Mostly, they do this in silence. Sometimes, they listen to the radio. Whatever the case, they have a good time.

Roy hated this part and had hated it for the last five years. There was nothing good about letting Nathaniel go back to Ellen; well, Ellen and George.

Ellen and Roy used to spend the weekends drinking up the sun and loving Nathaniel. But at some point, even Nathaniel wasn’t enough to keep them together.

When Ellen got fed up with Roy and his greasy jeans and Harley, she walked out, taking Nathaniel. It was rough, but they made it work. Then Ellen met a nice pair of khakis named George, and they got married. It still nibbled at him. And worse, Ellen still made his heart flutter.

On this particular Sunday, George came to collect Nathaniel, per Ellen’s instructions. And, according to Roy’s watch, George was a whopping 7 minutes late. Bullshit.

A Lincoln Continental turned into the parking lot. Roy tucked his flutter away when he saw the balding silhouette, and not the smooth lines of his former wife, in the driver seat.

The Continental purred to a stop next to the Harley. Roy took a calming breath and wiped his sweaty hands on his greasy jeans.

From inside the Continental, George saw Roy out there--leaned up on a big, beefy Harley like he didn’t have a care in the world. Roy could snap George in half. Easily. George gulped.

Roy couldn’t help but judge his replacement, George the accountant. He looked well enough to do--timeshare well enough. George looked like a man who played golf and a lot of it. But could he provide for Nathaniel with the love and kindness that he was so accustomed to? Roy doubted it.

This is tough, thought George. But it’s what Ellen wants, and he opened the car door.

“Roy”

“George”

“How you been”

“Fair to middling”

“All right”

Roy watched George shake his legs out and smooth the wrinkles in his khakis. Khakis. The mere word chafed him. Of course khakis. After decades of dirty jeans, she gave up and found herself a khakis man.

No matter now. Roy grimaced.

The men stood in front of each other, a respectable distance apart. Roy crossed his arms and looked down at George. From his long, blonde hair to his tattooed forearms and his big boots, he made guys like George shake in their loafers. And yet Roy was, and would always be by George’s standard, cool.

George craned his neck around Roy’s girth to take a peek at Nathaniel, still wearing his helmet and goggles. "How’d our little guy do?”

Roy held his breath. How dare you, he thought. How’d he do? I’ll tell you how he did. Just great, as always. You little turd. Hell, Nathaniel’s been everywhere with me and that won’t ever stop. You get me? Just because your Ellen’s husb—

“Hi, Nat!”

What a little shit.

“It’s Nathaniel. Nuh-THAN-yel. Ellen and me never called him that.” Roy flustered and looked at Nathaniel who perked up at George’s voice--a harder blow to Roy than anything George could ever physically muster.

Roy looked down at Nathaniel, excited, his tail wagging.

Of all the best dogs in the world, why do I have to share mine with this dink?

Roy scooped Nathaniel into his arms and held his face close. Nathaniel licked Roy’s nose.

I can’t leave our baby with this guy. It’s just not right.

“Look, I know this is strange,” George reasoned. “But it’s what Ellen wanted.”

Roy didn’t look. He stared into Nathaniel’s eyes, tears spluttering down his cheeks. His boy, his good boy is all he has now. He buried his wet face into Nathaniel’s coat and sobbed.

Eventually, Roy wrung himself out, and handed Nathaniel over to George who loaded him into the Continental.

“Good service, huh?” said Roy, voice quivering. He mopped his nose with a dirty bandana.

“Yup.”

It was a good service. Ellen would be proud.

The sadness kept them facing each other. Roy wanted to be indignant. He loved her for longer, deeper (though maybe not better). He looked at George. He was wrung out, too. They shared the emptiness, a void big enough to swallow them whole. If not for Nathaniel, the two would hold hands and jump together into their sorrow.

But the accountant and the mechanic, knit together inextricably by four legs and a wet nose, made a promise to Ellen.

 

FICTION, 2nd PLACE

"CANDY" by John Taylor

She is sleeping now. She sleeps too much.

And when she’s awake, I’m not sure how much she really knows …

It’s a sunny Sunday in the Wenatchee Valley. Gonna be a hot one – maybe 105, the radio says.

Candy doesn’t mind, though. She hurries through breakfast, helps her mom with the dishes, then skedaddles for the back fence, where Tucker is standing hip-shot, dozing in the shade. She slips him a carrot and giggles as his fuzzy, rubbery prehensile lips nibble it from her hand.

Candy tells her 14-year-old quarter horse everything – the easygoing gelding and the lanky, auburn-haired girl are the same age, and he keeps secrets that her friends don’t. Today she tells him they’ll have a day to themselves, and Tucker doesn’t resist as Candy slides the saddle on his back and cinches it up.

Within a few minutes, they’re loping into the parched hills southwest of town.

“Take your time, Tuck,” Candy tells him as the dusty, weedy trail climbs gently higher. Tucker is oblivious to the nasty goat-head vines and sends a five-foot grass snake shimmying for cover in the rocks as they crest the ridge that overlooks Wenatchee.

Candy feels safer here in the saddle than anywhere on Earth. She’s taller, out of reach. She can see the whole world.

It’s nearly noon before I hear her stir. The halting, hesitant steps as she makes her way down the hall. Picking the next hand-hold. Her stooped posture bending her nearly in half. I ask her if she’s hungry, but she doesn’t answer.

Washington State’s pre-vet program isn’t really for co-eds, but Candy – now a sophomore -- doesn’t care. Her three older brothers have always treated her like their youngest brother, so the raw language, dirty jokes and jostling never faze her. She’s heard it all before.

Today, the husbandry class is meeting in one of the vo-ag barns for a hands-on demonstration: They’re going to watch the castration of a young bull.

The guys guffaw loudly, but nervously, as the instructor leads the animal to a stall and asks if everyone can see.

“Any volunteers to help me?” he asks.

Two guys shove their friend forward, but he quickly retreats, wanting no part of it.

“This’ll be a routine operation for any of you who become veterinarians,” the instructor says, sterner now. “Last chance.”

From the far side of the group, Candy’s hand goes up. “I’ll do it,” she says brightly.

The instructor grins. “OK, then …”

The boys fall quiet as Candy makes her way into the stall. The instructor holds the halter and hands her the snips.

Ten minutes later, as Candy staunches the bleeding and the instructor drops the limp, bloody testicles into a metal bucket, the sound of vomiting issues from the back of the cluster of students.

Candy smiles to herself.

Too hot for her exercises today, so she gives up on what the physical therapists always tell her to do and naps in her chair again. Clutches her little Yorkie terrier like a teddy bear. “Can I have a smoothie and some chicken nuggets?” she mumbles. If she didn’t ask the same thing every day, I wouldn’t be able to understand what she’s saying.

The early press run for the next day’s classified ad pages is done by 3:30, and Candy is ready to leave the newspaper for the afternoon. But if she goes home now, she’ll only sit on the patio and drink wine until Doug gets off work, and then they’ll fight again. Last time, she threw her wine glass at him and it shattered into a thousand pieces on the concrete – like their marriage.

So she wanders upstairs to the newsroom, asks the young copy editor if he’s game for a beer at the tavern down the alley.

They talk work, politics, music, broken relationships. She doesn’t ever look away.

By 11 p.m., they’ve had three pitchers and her soft, brown eyes, smooth skin and tousled auburn hair are too much. She touches his hand gently and he doesn’t move.

She leaves his apartment before dawn. Doug won’t even be worried – he doesn’t care anymore,she assures the copy editor.

The impatient E.R. doctor’s words still gnaw at me. “Of  COURSE it’s serious. She’s had a brain hemorrhage. We’re not sure you’ll even have a wife by tomorrow.”

Candy is up with the sun again. Their time in Portugal is running short, and she wants to get in another ride along the beach before the vacation is over.

Her husband is still dozing as she sneaks out of the condo and out to the corrals. The owner, Emilio, waves cheerily and helps her open the gate for Pango, her favorite mount. Emilio speaks little English, but he and Candy communicate perfectly through gestures and their love of horses.

As she climbs aboard Pango, she feels the wind pick up. It’s the early autumn season, just chilly enough for sweatshirts.

She can see rain clouds miles away, building up over the blue-gray horizon and she breathes it all in as she feels her horse’s powerful muscles working beneath her.

The day is splendid, perfect, heartbreaking.

She’s led so many lives.

The breakers roll in, foaming at Pango’s hooves and Candy feels the surge she always feels when she’s riding: Nothing can touch her, nothing can stop her.

She is awake for a moment as I head out the back door for the barn. “Do the horses have water?” she asks from her chair. “Yes,” I say. “They’re fine.

“Everything will be just as you left it, and they’ll be ready to ride.”

 

FICTION, 3rd PLACE

 "JOURNAL OF A SOLDIER" by Brandi Feeks

I told myself that today was the day; this was it. For the fifth time this week they were alerted to a caravan in distress, and if this ended the way all the others had—with not a single soul left alive—I was done being a soldier.

I was done always being too late. Done with collecting corpses because the monsters were faster than we were.

Someone in the caravan knew how to fire a flare spell, so after finishing off the pack of monsters my team had been attacked by, we rushed to the location where we had last seen the flare. Several of the outer wagons that they had circled to provide a barrier were aflame and the heat and smoke singed my nose. Let someone be alive this time, I thought. My team didn’t bother with subtlety because any monster still there would know we were coming and wouldn’t have the time to lay a trap, so we burst through to the clearing only to skid to a halt.

Dead, all of them. And destruction, and—

—something solid rolled beneath my foot and I saw an arm, blue as Luminians are, severed at the elbow in a pool of brightest crimson next to a body. And there were a lot of bodies. The womans face was slack, and her starry eyes were dim and glassy so I closed them; I didn’t recognize her and somehow that was worse. The dead should have someone to remember them.

“Search for survivors.”

We fanned out, eyes sliding over the blue and red pieces. Pieces, not people anymore or we couldn’t function. The word rang in our heads: survivor find the survivor. We didn’t make noise out of habit but still we searched and hoped, hearts full of a prayer though there were no gods to answer: let there be someone, anyone alive, please let SOMEONE ANSWER.

The closest we got to satisfaction was seeing the carnage of the bodies of the monsters killed in the fight; while they had decimated the Luminian Clan, they had been dealt with in kind. At least the monsters hadn’t got away. Judging by the horse-sized paw prints, the Clan had received the aid of the local Grove Guardians who had subsequently torn the green-blooded monsters apart, though not without casualties; I smoothed down the ruffled coat of a slain Guardian and wiped the blood off its snout before my vision turned blurry.

The Clan was gone—dead, all dead—and I leaned against a wagon wheel as the captain called the numbers, my chest too tight to breathe. Nothing but a failure—no more—can’t save anyone—too many—not enough.

No more.

“Twenty seven adults and nine children accounted for,” the captain said.

My head snapped up: nine children?

“Ten,” I said, my voice too loud in the sudden quiet. My fellows looked at me with hollow eyes, not understanding, still too numb from the crushing disappointment of another loss. “Children, there’s ten children not nine!”

And quick as a snap there was hope: find the child!

This had been a kill-raid not a snatch-raid: they hadn’t taken or infected any of the adults and there had been no sign that the groups leader had anything in mind other than to destroy the whole Clan. Which was odd, now that I thought about it: caravans were prime targets for abductions. Unless they had been searching for something specific and, upon realizing they couldn’t find it, had killed everyone out of rage.

We had done this many times: over the last year we had been on deployment, we had performed countless search and rescues. We didn’t need to talk to know our places and duties, we just did them, the peak of efficiency.

Ignoring my exhaustion, I threw my magic out in every direction. Ignore the crackling of burning wood, the buzzing of flies, the gagging scent of viscera—go smaller, softer, listen for what isn’t there—look for the tiniest ripple, like a shadow through water—look for quiet. For some time we stood frozen, mentally hyper focused, as we felt for an ethereal change; I wished my heartbeat wasn’t so loud in my ears so I could hear although it only got louder as my fear grew.

Then I felt it against my magic, a kind of thermoception: heat but not quite, a touch but not quite. Something. Not here, not here, it said. And yet my magic recognized it: Soul Magic. I followed it forward, sensing instead of seeing. The breeze was clean here; the bark of a tree rough against my gloved finger; here, here, the vibrations spoke to me, magic to magic. I took off my gloves and pressed my hands against the fallen giant, fingers wide: feel me, soul, I am no threat, I am safety. I waited several long and agonizing moments, jubilation at success fighting with the fear of another failure.

Then, with a vibration as soft as a dying breath, the Soul Magic revealed a hole within its trunk. I leaned inside, holding my breath as I looked into the dark.

For a moment my heart stopped she was so still: no older than ten years old, she sat with her face pressed against her knees, moonlit hair spilling down, and her hands tight against her ears. She looked carved from stone. I couldn’t see any blood. By everything holy, please be fine. She screamed as I pulled her out but clutched me tightly once she recognized my uniform, her arms winding around my neck too tightly though I wouldn’t dare tell her to stop.

Her crying, as sorrowful as it was, was the sweetest sound I’d ever heard and I couldn’t stop myself from crying with her.

Today was the day I decided not to quit because this made it all worth it.

--from the journal of a soldier.

 

NONFICTION, 1st PLACE

"MOUNTAIN MEMORIES" by Mary Bean

I stand on the ocean floor, atop a 10,600-foot-high mountain, rising above a great rift valley in the middle of the desert. I’m perched on the crest of the Sandia Mountains, an uplifted range that defines the eastern edge of Albuquerque, New Mexico. At my feet are remnants of sea life: 300-million-year-old fossils of sea lilies, bivalves, brachiopods; their limestone likenesses frozen in time like snapshot memories. I am awed by their fortitude, humbled by their age. And I wonder what form my life will reflect 300 million years from now…

My musings are interrupted by the sound of laughter behind me. I turn to see four young women in long, mauve-colored gowns, gingerly stepping up to the overlook, white teeth dazzling from bronze Latina smiles in the afternoon sun. The bride and groom, equally dazzling in white gown and tux, make their way to the top and begin assembling the group for a photo.  I ask them if they’d like me to take their picture and they accept. They hold each other’s lives in their embrace, the vast expanse of desert and mountains stretching behind them to the horizon. I snap the shutter and the moment passes from present to memory.

I leave the ridge and enter the shelter of forest. Cork-bark pine and grand fir -- evergreen hues all the deeper for the shock of gold contrast lent by the aspen beside them. Aspen leaves litter the forest floor -- some lemon-yellow, others turned smoldering grey by moisture and mineral soil. As I take a step, I notice a pattern out of place:  an impression in broken stone, fine lines radiating out to a curved edge – and I realize I’m seeing the tail of a fossilized fish, its memory etched in the boulder at my feet. Did it ever imagine it would come to rest 10,600 feet above sea level?

I continue down the trail and sidetrack to a ledge overlooking the Rio Grande valley, stretching some 5,000 feet below. There I find three couples from Texas, sun-tanned and silver-haired, bantering over who will take their group’s photograph. Again, I offer my services and snap frames on four different cameras. They thank me, then the three women take the lead proclaiming: “We’re trail blazers!” silver heads bobbing down the trail, the men ambling behind.

I go the opposite direction and find myself dropping downslope, evergreens giving way to the russet color of Gambel oak, their dry autumn leaves rustling in the wind and crackling underfoot. The sun is full-on brilliant here. I squint and my attention is snagged by splashes of red and orange in the distant brush.  I walk toward the edge and see they are chrysanthemums, carefully laid on top of a bush. A colorful card with bright flowers painted on the front twists on a string suspended from one of the branches. I stoop, reach, and stop its turning, then gently open the card to read:

“Happy Birthday, Diane.

We think of you often but especially on special days like today. We know you are fine out there with Dad and Gramma and Grampa, but we wish you could be here with us today. We miss you so much. Please say hello to everyone for us and somehow let us know you can hear our prayers for you.

We love you so very much.

Happy Birthday.

Love,

Mom

p.s. Angie is marrying Brad.”

The perfect print of a peach-colored kiss marks the end of the message.

I rise and gaze out from this ocean floor atop a 10,600-foot-high mountain, overlooking a great rift valley in the middle of the desert. I stare until the horizon blends – to sky – to clouds – to infinity… And amid the soft fluttering of aspen leaves on the wind, I hear something else: the rhythmic memory of waves, lapping on some far distant shore.

 

NONFICTION, 2nd PLACE

"APOLOGIES, CONFESSIONS, QUESTIONS" by Ronald Smith

Apologies to the 400 pounds of National Geographic magazines Dad left under a tarp in the back yard. In an ideal world we could have found you a new home. The edema you suffered on account of being waterlogged at some point didn’t help matters.

I apologize to the cassette recorder Dad always had in the guest bathroom. Even though the microphone dangled outdoors, I know I must have ruined many recordings of bird calls with other calls of nature.

I want to apologize to both the pith helmet and the rhino horn. During a lull in the action at the first yard sale at Dad’s house, the one my wife described in the local newspaper as “of Biblical proportions,” I disrespected you both. As you recall, I donned the helmet and held the stump of the horn to my chest, as if impaled from behind by a live rhinoceros. A question to the horn: how did Dad acquire you?

I confess that, at the Yard Sale of Biblical Proportions, I held no hope of unloading the washing machine that had served us in Arizona in the early 1950s. Why you had been relegated to the role of shelf, deep in the garage, I do not know. Why you had been kept for fifty years, I do not know. When that young lady offered $25 for you I could have been knocked over with a feather. I also confess that I was delighted that four burly young men volunteered to lift you into her truck.

I want to make a confession to the carved elephant tusk, the one Dad inherited from his Uncle Ernest, a medical missionary in Africa at the turn of the twentieth century. I placed you in a locked, hard gun case so I could safely get you to our home in Fairbanks, Alaska. Remember, at the Burbank airport I was compelled to unlock and open the case even though I assured them there was no firearm inside, and that, instead, you were an elephant tusk carved with crocodile images. I confess to being delighted when one of the inspectors exclaimed, “Holy crap! It really is a carved elephant tusk! And look at the teeth on that croc!”

I have questions directed to the fifteen perfect Anasazi pots we stumbled on deep in the bowels of Dad’s garage. Where did you come from? What is your story? What had you seen over your existence? How did you come to join the family? And, one more question: are you enjoying your new home in the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles?

I apologize to the more than 50,000 photos: some enlargements, some slides, some four by six-inch prints, some prints the size of postage stamps. I hope you understand the exhaustion of six weeks of dealing with the other occupants of Dad’s two vehicles, three sheds, back yard, three bedrooms two bathrooms, kitchen and living room all of which were, in reality, storage areas. We sifted through you as best we could. I am sorry if we inadvertently threw away some of you who depicted important moments in our family history.

I have questions directed at the stack of 76 copies of the Federal Income Tax instruction booklet for 1948. First, why were you accorded the high status of occupying the master bedroom? Second, how many trips to the post office did Dad make to collect all of you? Third, did you realize that the highest tax bracket that year- for income over $195,000- was 92%? Lastly, why did Dad keep you for almost 50 years?

Another confession, this one directed to my grandfather in the five by seven-inch photo of him in his Curtis Jenny resting in a huge oak tree. I know you barnstormed after World War I, and I know you didn’t intend to land in a tree. I have to confess that I’d like to have been in the crowd – impossible, I know- when you clambered out onto the wing and took a bow.

Another question, this one directed to the three petrified Metasequoia rounds we unearthed while delving in the superfund site also known as the back bedroom. Your colors, with the reds, purples, greens, and grays are similar to petrified wood found in Arizona. Were you gifted to my grandfather to repay his kindness for transporting Navajos to the hospitals in Tuba City and Winslow?

I apologize to the 18,000 VCR cassettes we sold or gave away at the second yard sale at Dad’s, the one described by my wife in the local paper as “the second coming.” We never got the chance to make your acquaintance. It would have helped if at least some of you had been labeled. Or even rewound. At least some of your companions, the 20,000 audio cassettes Dad recorded, had been labeled. We found the cassette entitled “clock ticking” absolutely riveting.

And a confession to Dad’s favorite landscape photo of hillsides completely covered with California poppies:  we hang you every year or so. A clone of you hangs in the Pioneer’s Home in Fairbanks and another is in a care home in Lancaster, California. You always remind me of Dad’s great appreciation of the outdoors, its beauty, and the love of nature he instilled in my brother and me.

 

NONFICTION, 3rd PLACE

"TRANSFORMATION ON THE TRAIL" by Nancy Atkins

A pair of butterflies flits erratically overhead while my sister pumps gas into her Range Rover. One of them drops lightly down onto the windshield wiper and as we drive away it comes along for the ride.

We wind our way along CR501 above Lake Vallecito, shimmering with Indian summer under an impossibly blue Colorado sky. When we hit 50 miles per hour and the butterfly still hangs on, Marilyn half-jokingly says, “Maybe that’s dad.” Just yesterday he passed, after clinging to life for five days, capping off a 10-year decline from Alzheimer’s.

Pulling her Range Rover to the shoulder, Marilyn gets out and extends an open hand to the butterfly. It spreads its wings and ambles onto a finger. She sets the butterfly down on the console between us. Exchanging incredulous looks I ask her, “Should we close the windows?”

“No, let’s just see what happens,” she replies.

We speed off again. The butterfly folds its wings, seemingly content to go on a joy ride with us to Marilyn’s real estate appointment. “Dad’s done this a thousand times with me,” she says.

At the property, Marilyn meets her clients and I search for a suitable stick. Finding one, I lay it down on the console. The butterfly opens its wings and wobbles on. I lean in closer.

Its body is soft brown, wings edged in yellow, speckled with blue spots. I snap a picture with my phone, “Smile, dad!”

After Marilyn’s clients leave, the three of us journey back down Country Road 501 with the butterfly resting on the stick between us.

“Oh man, I just got a flashback,” I blurt out. “Remember that day the three of us hiked along the Animas River? Dad stopped to rest in the crotch of an old cotton tree. I asked someone passing by to take our picture—you and I were on either side of him. Did I ever text you that?”

“Maybe,” she says.

Back at dad’s old house, I gently lift the stick and place it onto a post of the front deck. The sun shines. Marilyn’s dog Sasha barks. Fluttering its wings, the butterfly alights, inscribes a few rambling circles in the air and heads up a trail leading from the property.

“That’s dad alright,” says Marilyn. “He and Sasha hiked that trail for years. It goes up to Freeman Park.”

We follow the flight of the butterfly as it flits and flutters amid the remains of a wildfire years ago. The charred fir trees, now aged to a soft brown, are surrounded by saplings of aspen, their yellow leaves quaking in the breeze to reveal patches of blue sky.

“I guess dad wanted to come home,” says Marilyn, smiling. As if on cue, Sasha darts off, running up the trail. “Sasha, get back here! Come! Here’s a treat! Treat! Treat!” she yells, chasing after her.

In the days that follow I take a flight back to my own home. Instead of souvenirs, I unpack death certificates, lawyer letters, insurance benefit statements, stock securities. Picking up my phone, I bring up the picture of the butterfly resting on the stick.

 

“Hi, Dad,” I say.

Curious about what kind of butterfly this is, I pull out the Encyclopedia Britannica and browse through pages and pages of photographs until I find a match: soft brown body, edged in yellow, speckled with spots of blue.

“The butterfly is called a mourning cloak,” I text Marilyn.

Fast forward a few years and halfway around the globe.  I’m in Paris, on a day that leaves me stranded (the Christmas Shops not yet open, El Homme Museum under renovation), when a shop’s entry in the guidebook catches my attention: “Deylotte: part museum, part taxidermy, 46 Rue du Bac.”

The shop’s blue weathered door opens onto a hodgepodge of books, gardening supplies, kitchenware and common fare.  A circular staircase leads to a second story. As I wind up to the top, a baby giraffe gazes down at me, unaware of the tiger stalking in the corner.

Stepping off the top stair I’m met by a gathering of yellowed animal skulls with toothy jaws, groupings of fossils capturing prehistoric-looking insects and bookshelves of dry fishbowls holding a mishmash of shells.

Mentally I smell formaldehyde and feel the warm stuffiness of my eight-grade biology lab. Going back even further, I feel the cool damp humidity and glassy-eyed stare of the owls in the one-roomed Trailside Museum, the endpoint of many Saturday morning outings that dad took his two daughters on.

Far above, shafts of light stream in from upper windows illuminating a ceiling stalled in flight with thousands of butterflies flanking the walls. All around me, a labyrinth of weathered wooden cases stand by, each with rows and rows of pull draws organizing the migration.

I speak no French. The clerk speaks little English. I show her the mourning cloak butterfly picture on my phone. She says, “Oui,” and takes off. Behind the cash register, she opens and shuts drawer after drawer after draw until triumphantly holding out a tray.

Five specimens. All mourning cloak. I point to one. She deftly mounts it with pins into a black velveteen box and encases it in plexiglass. “No suitcase, no good,” she says, handing it to me, ignoring my tears.

We journey in flight over the Atlantic, the mourning cloak butterfly nestled in the carry-on at my feet. But there’s one more flight we need to make—one that takes you back to your elder daughter who took care of you, and back to Sasha who still runs up that trail.

This is not just your home, this is who you are: part of nature, now free from the disease that took you a decade before that fall, free to enjoy life along the trail to Freeman Park amid charred fir trees, soft brown with age, encircled by yellow aspen saplings quaking in the breeze, revealing patches of an incredibly blue Colorado sky.