Death’s Artwork

I promised Miss Stephanie at Be Kind Rewrite that there would be no evasion of assignments this week. These two pieces of short fiction are inspired by Inspiration Monday VII   and the prompt “Death’s Artwork.”

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Queen for a Day

Josie fiercely protected a shopping cart abundant with the priorities of her life—newspapers, cans, tattered old coats, and bags filled with carefully chosen bits of shiny detritus—castoffs from a world of excess. She had a life once, a husband, children. But that was before the illness and one by one they abandoned her, or maybe she abandoned them. She was not so much old as she was shrunken into a wizened floating sylph—life sucks and then you live. Though she muttered and raved, sometimes pure reason would erupt from her cracked lips, heard only by those who sensed the value of words spoken in cipher.

When I found Josie one morning stiff and cold in an alleyway behind my apartment, I knew there was one last thing I could do before they came to bury her in a pauper’s grave. I bathed her and brushed her tangled hair, discarded the rags and dressed her in a simple blue shift. With her face made up, the years dropped away.

The state provided a simple wooden box, in which I arranged her priceless treasures. A small funeral was held. Other street people came, and they all said that Josie never looked so beautiful.

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Interview with a Lepidopterist

Oh those butterflies are so beautiful! You must have worked on this collection for a long time.

I have. It’s my pride and joy.

You must know so much about butterflies. How do you catch them?

I use the traditional nets. I know just where to find the best specimens. I’ve been all over the world and have some very rare specimens—sometimes I even sell them to make money to further my art!

Wow. Are you a scientist?

No, it’s just a fun hobby.

What happens after you net one?

Well, we have these special pins we use to mount them for display.

No, I mean before that.

You mean how do I arrange them?

No, I mean how do they go from alive to dead? You don’t stick pins in live butterflies, do you?

Of course not, that would be cruel! I euthanize them first.

How?

There are a couple of ways. The most common is to squeeze their thorax. The force breaks their exoskeleton, but sometimes you have to do it twice if they survive the first attempt. The other way is the killing jar. I usually add a few drops of ethyl acetate to asphyxiate it, otherwise they beat their wings against the glass trying to escape, and that damages the specimen.

Oh.

What?

Why not just take a picture?

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35 responses to “Death’s Artwork

  1. Both stories are great. You have a knack for capturing a certain cruelty in the world around us in two very different stories. Both very sad and touching.

  2. Thanks hon. It’s what comes out. Wish I could fix that.

  3. Excellent writing – brilliant interpretation. Clean and powerful.
    Woah, coincidence bordering on creepy: they also both remind me of songs by a couple of my favorite bands – Ceili Rain’s Queen for a Day, and Chevelle’s The Clincher (but only in the video): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OP3Yhs8q7oM

    I should also point out to any commenters not on the InMon stream that that brilliant prompt was YOURS. Just sayin’. ; )

    • Thank you! I watched the video waiting the whole time to see the butterflies released from the jar, thinking it would be the end. If the girl is symbolic of the butterflies and she is released, I still want to see the insects fly away! I’m such a sap I know. I do like Chevelle though, have “The Red” in my collection, it’s a powerful one.

      Thanks again Stephanie, for getting me out of my writing comfort zone and for your support and encouragement of your growing clan.

  4. You certainly cut to the chase: I think similar things when I go to a Chinese restaurant and see those magnificent crabs in the glass tanks which everyone, especially children, admire — but you don’t see what happens next. David Foster Wallace wrote a justly famous essay — you may have read it — on the lobster festival at Maine. He describes the killing. Surprisingly, the magazine that commissioned him to write on the festival [but not presumably expecting that focus] allowed it to be published.

    • I couldn’t believe how many sites there are for how to get kids started on butterfly collecting—but how few describe the death scene. Then I read about butterfly hoarders, black markets, and illegal collecting in preserves. The whole concept is disgusting. Give the kid a camera.

      I haven’t read that article but good for the magazine that published it. We whitewash anything that has to do with what happens to a creature before it ends up in the supermarket or restaurant. I have never eaten a lobster. They used to sell them in CT in supermarkets (haven’t seen that for years though) piled into dirty tanks with their claws taped.

      Oh gosh I’m sorry I’m rambling. Thanks for writing J Leo.

  5. It’s hard to write fiction that gives a message without sounding preachy. Somehow you’ve managed. I could never do this. I admire you. And I so wholeheartedly agree. This is powerful, much more powerful than saying, “Butterfly collecting is cruel.” People just wave that off, don’t think. This gets them thinking. Awesome.

    • Thanks Kay. I never thought of the risk of sounding preachy so thanks for reminding me that it’s an issue. I know I don’t like when I see it in a book, and boy I do see it. Thanks—something to be aware of at all times.

      • Oh gosh, was I being preachy about being preachy? LOL
        It’s just so hard to include a moral message, and I have a lot of beliefs like this but can never get them across in fiction. All the fiction I write is mindless entertainment! :)

        • Oh no you weren’t being preachy! I need and want to be made aware of the million things that are appealing or not appealing. I wish I could write “mindless entertainment,” which isn’t really mindless at all because it’s relief and we need that so badly. I don’t want to be so sad all the time, it sucks!

  6. Wow, the first story is heart breaking, but the second story, well it’s something common to our everyday lives. So common that we forget how cruel it is. To hear how the man talks about not wanting to damage his specimen, shows not only how he has become immune to the pain of the butterfly, but how all of us have become immune to the horrid things of our day. War, murder, children starving in other countries. We have become immune to any emotion towards these tragedies, because they are common. We have become immune to the pain and suffering of others, just like how this man has become immune to the pain and suffering of the butterfly. Great work.

    • There are so many evil people out there I just don’t get it. And they all seem to be in positions of power. Yes I think we do become immune to tragedy because there is so much of it. I think mothers and fathers would be a good start by teaching their children the difference between right and wrong. Thanks for writing.

  7. As indigo said above, both stories are sad and touching. The first was particularly so for me, as I have a great affinity for older people, most of whom seem to have so little left by the ends of their lives. And I mean a little in both physical possessions and dignity as human beings. The image of a discarded person receiving dignity after death is beautiful. Just beautiful.
    There is a film about a cinema built in Haiti after the tragedy there that includes a potent section on just this subject. Unfortunately I don’t remember the name of the documentary. Will add it if I can find it.

    • I have had a complete about-face about homeless people, it comes with age and experiences that teach you how close we all can come to it. It happens to people who never saw it coming. I don’t have any answers, but cleaning up this damn political mess we’re mired in here would be a start. Stop sending billions into oil wars at the expense of programs that can help.

      I read a John Grisham book about 10 years ago called “The Street Lawyer.” Many people end up homeless because they just can’t make it on MacDonald’s-scale pay…add child support, kids, loss of resources, drugs, mental illness, inability to cope, etc., and you can end up living in your car before you know what hit you. Or somebody’s car, if you’re lucky.

      Thanks for writing.

  8. The first story was very touching – we dehumanize the homeless in our society because they embarrass us and don’t fit into our “success” narrative.
    And I’ve always thought that anyone who really loves butterflies would prefer to enjoy them flying on a nice day. Having to “collect” things seems to be more about acquisitiveness than enjoyment.

  9. We have a lot of homeless in AZ because it’s warm. There’s no way you can just say “get a job you bum.” Even if there was work, these people have problems that successful people could never identify with, and that’s fine, but they need to see the bigger picture.

    Yeah, how can you say you love something if you have to kill it to express your love? Thanks for writing Harry.

  10. I enjoyed both stories. Both caused self-reflection for me. I like to think I am conscious of the homeless or the harm we do to innocent life, but I’m not because I turn away from pain out of fear. There was drama in the first one…I wanted to know more about Josie because of how well she was portrayed.

  11. Thank you Carl. We all turn away because too much of it is unbearable. In desperate times like these, I have to take jobs I don’t like. One type is retired people who refuse to leave me alone while I’m cleaning, instead they sit there with CNN news turned up full blast. When I turn my vacuum on, they turn the volume up higher. I get so upset I could cry. Enough enough enough it’s so bloody oppressive.

    There are Josies in every area where homeless people congregate. I’ve gotten to know some of them here in AZ and they’re not what I used to think. Thanks so much for writing.

  12. The first “Queen for a Day” is really tragic, but with a certain odd beauty. I found myself resisting the temptation to assume I knew what was really going on. Giving the main character some semblance of dignity at the end is what hooked me.

    What I really found odd is that you wrote something a week or two ago, I can’t remember which one it was, that made me think of this old TV show that my Aunt Lillian use to watch called “Queen for a Day”. It was the world’s first reality show, maybe in the late 1950′s, and this guy named Jack (the host-I think his last name was Daily) would tell you about all of the horrible tragedies in several peoples lives and then pick one to be Queen for A Day! She usually won a washing machine or some appliance. I found it strange that I remembered this and this story appears!

    The second story was pure fun. Somehow I didn’t expect the ending, should’ve seen it coming but I have to admit I didn’t.

    You sure can write Debra.

    • I don’t watch TV anymore but that show sounded ahead of its time. Now we have reality shows where all the “characters” are already so spoiled you hate them from the start. I think hearing about people’s tragedies and then giving them something would be interesting…except what about the people who didn’t win…poor things. Hope they got a consolation prize.

      Thanks as always for your comments and encouragement.

  13. Your homeless lady has a face locally. She wears every stitch she owns and carries two shopping bags up and down the main street every day, every week, rain, snow, or heat or cold. Her head is covered with a large straw hat with a geranium stuck into it. My heart bleeds for the homeless, particularly homeless vets. I wonder where all the religious practitioners are who claim to love and serve a God who cares. (I believe God cares, too, and volunteer at a local mission that serves these lovely people. I wish I could do more.)

    Loved and agreed with the butterfly statement, too! They are much prettier fluttering around a garden than nailed to a cardboard box!

    • We see them around here all the time, mostly men but women too, trudging along the side of the road with all their belongings piled on their backs. They stand by the exits of shopping centers with signs. Maybe for some it is a choice, but for most, I think not. A lot of people think they’re losers, but every single one of them has a story.

      Let’s give some more money to Libya.

      Thanks for writing Barb.

  14. Pingback: Inspiration Monday VIII «

  15. I loved both these stories.
    The first one exemplified the life and death of homeless, forgotten people, so well.
    My favourite was the second story.
    I loved the almost business like, authoritarian way the lepidopterist explains her hobby with technical jargon meant to impress and explain at the same time. Then you finish with that fantastic simple line, ‘Why not just take a picture?’
    A great ending/

  16. Thank you Mike. It’s funny how people interpret stories, I never once thought of the lepidopterist as being female!

    Thanks for your comments, really appreciate it.

  17. These were both nicely done. I like the way you get your message across.

  18. Thank you Patti. Blunt force usually works for me.

  19. I loved what you did for Josie in the first story. You gave her dignity. We are all Josie is many ways. And those of us who think we aren’t should count our cents because we are just different cents away from the shopping cart luggage!

    • Thank you Char. Your comment “We are all Josie in many ways” reflects exactly my feelings about the homeless. The low point I’m experiencing in my life right now could happen to anybody, and it’s likely to get worse. Not just for me, but for millions of Americans who used to have a decent job and now, like me, are scratching around bottom of the barrel jobs so the power doesn’t get shut off, or worse, I lose my house.

      I am beginning to believe those “whacko” survivalist people who hate the government and hole up in Idaho or somewhere may have a point. As I write this, another billion or so plus weapons and soldiers are on their way to countries we should be running from. Weren’t we just on the verge of having the government shut down?

      All I want is a leader who promises to make America his/her first priority, and keeps his damn promise. I don’t care what party it is. We need help.

      • I had the same reaction when I saw the article about the weapons! The citizens of America as a whole don’t seem to hold much clout with politicians, except for their vote, of course.

        • And anybody we “help” just hates us anyway. The world hates us no matter what we do, so why not just butt out and try to take our pride back? I’d rather live in a freaking tipi than send one more dollar to the mideast over oil.

          You’re right about what citizens want and what gets delivered being totally different. I will never again trust a politician to do the right thing, ever. I’ll vote against somebody, not for somebody.

          • Recently in my state, the people voted in a law to enforce stricter regulations on puppy mills. We voted, it passed.

            Then, legislators overturned it. WHAT?!

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