Butterfly Tattoos

A story of butterflies, memories, and how we keep people alive after death.

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Public Domain

I got the tattoo on the 5th of June, a week after I turned eighteen, a butterfly folded into the shape of a heart, for my mother who had passed the summer before. She always loved butterflies. She’d spend hours sitting in the garden watching them dance around towering lavender plants. I used to tell her it was a more tranquil version of that final scene in King Kong with the planes circling around the giant ape.

The tattoo was placed just above my wrist. It radically altered what had once been a great white space, and as I worked, I would see traces of it in the corner of my eye, reminding me she was still there.

I think it stayed that way for a year, static and silent, until the second anniversary of her death, when I noticed it flutter. It happened as I reached upwards to grab a heavy box from a shelf—just a little flap. At first I brushed it off as a trick of my peripheral vision. I went back to my parents’ house that afternoon once I’d finished work, sat with my father in the garden, and stayed silent watching the butterflies. The men in my family are not prone to emotional accessibility. Silent contemplation is the language of our sorrow.

It happened again a few times in the following week, which I again brushed off. Surely this was just a trick of the light, some interaction between the sun and the shirt, or blind spots.

The week after, I woke up early, just as the sun crept over the horizon, and scratched myself all over in a familiar morning ritual. As my left hand made its way to the right wrist, I felt something off, something cold. I turned my head, and with tired, achy eyes I took note that my arm was once more the blank canvas it had been years before.

In the delirium of fresh morning, my first thought was to check the covers, the underside of my pillow, the floor by my bed before the absurdity of my actions dawned. Resolving there was little I could do, I got dressed and made my way to work.

It was odd, not feeling the invisible weight of ink on my skin. When I was at my busiest, for one hopeful second, I’d mistake objects passing my arm as the tattoo.

When I returned home in the afternoon, I phoned the tattoo parlour and booked myself in to repeat the tattoo. There was a confusion, repeating the same tattoo in the same part of the body, but I was hesitant to tell them the tattoo was gone.

I cried that night, deep hollow tears to the memory of my mother. I swear that night I cried harder than the day she died, or at her funeral, because I’d always known I’d have this memento of her, forever with me.

I visited my dad again the next day. We sat in the garden again in utter silence until, as the sunset and the butterflies began to fade from the garden, he spoke.

“Marbled White,” he said.

At first the idea of him speaking at this moment was alien to me, uncomfortable and invasive, but all the same, I leaned in and listened.

He stared at me for a moment. “The tattoo, the bloody tattoo,” he said, perplexed at my focus upon him.

The fact processes in my head for a moment. I slowly look over at the patch of lavender and the last straggling butterflies, dancing in the sunset light, and the single familiar butterfly, etched in grey and black.

I think I’ve been back to the tattoo shop four times since then, and a couple other tattoo artists in case they ask uncomfortable questions, but so far, no one has asked anything.

In the garden, outside the house my father shared with my mother, there’s a growing crop of Marbled White butterflies, worth every second spent under the needle. My father and I have spent hours in the garden, talking. I think I could convince him to get a tattoo.

Connor Sansby is a Margate-based writer, editor, poet and publisher through his super-indie Whisky & Beards publishing label.

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