The Butterflies Of Memory, And a Mystery

Grandmother sat in her favorite armchair, under the jack-fruit tree. It was late summer, and there were sunflowers in the garden and a warm wind in the trees. Grandmother was knitting a pullover for me, for the winter months, which can be cold in northern India. Her hair was white, but her fingers moved quickly with the needles, and the needles kept clicking all afternoon. I must have been about 12.

I had spent the afternoon rummaging in a box of old books and family mementos that I had found in the storeroom. There was not much to interest me except a book on butterflies, and as I was leafing through it I found a small photograph between the pages. It was a faded picture, a little yellow and foggy, a picture of a girl standing against a wall, and from the other side of the wall a pair of hands reached up, as though someone were about to climb over it. There were flowers growing near the girl, but I could not identify them.

I ran out into the garden. "Granny!" I shouted. "Look at this picture! I found it in that box of old things. Whose picture is it?"

I raised myself on the arm of the chair and we almost toppled over into a bed of nasturtiums.

"Now look what you've gone and done!" Granny said. "I've lost count of my stitches. The next time you jump up like that, I'll make you finish the pullover yourself."

Granny was always threatening to teach me to knit. She said it would take my mind off dirty creatures like frogs and buffaloes, with which I sometimes consorted at the pond behind the house. And once, when I tried to do a Tarzan by climbing up the drawing-room curtains, ripping them in the process, she put a needle and thread in my hand and made me stitch the curtain together. Of course, my long, two-inch stitches had to be taken out by Granny and done all over again.

She took the photograph from my hand, and we both studied it for quite some time. The girl had long, loose hair, and she wore a long dress that almost covered her ankles, with sleeves that reached her wrists. But, in spite of all this drapery, the girl appeared to be full of freedom and movement. She stood with her feet apart and her hands on her hips. She had a broad, quite mischievous smile on her face.

"Whose picture is it?" I asked

"A little girl's, of course," said Grandmother. "Can't you tell?"

"Yes, but did you know her?"

"Oh yes, I knew her," Granny said. "As well as anyone did! But she could be a troublesome little girl, and I shouldn't tell you about her. Hardly a good example. But I'll tell you about the photograph. It was taken outside this house, oh, many years ago, and that's the garden wall, and over the wall there was a road leading to the town. That girl used to sneak over the wall sometimes and visit the bazaar. She couldn't resist Indian sweets. Do you like them?"

"Very much! But whose hands are they?" I asked. "Coming up from the other side?"

Granny looked closely at the picture, shaking her head. "It's the first time I've noticed. They must have been a child's, another child's hands."

"Were they Grandfather's? Didn't he climb over the wall afterward?"

"No, I didn't know your Grandfather then. I don't think anyone climbed over the wall. We'll never know whose hands those were...."

"You couldn't have seen them. And you remember most things."

"Yes, I remember.... I remember what is not in the photograph. It was a spring day, and a cool breeze was blowing across the compound. Those flowers at the girl's feet were marigolds. And the bougainvillaea creeper was a mass of purple. You can't see those colors in the picture, and even if you could, you wouldn't be able to smell the flowers or feel the breeze."

"And what about the girl?" I asked. "Tell me about her."

"Well, as I said, she could be troublesome. You can't imagine the trouble her mother had getting her to wear those fine clothes she's wearing."

"They're terrible clothes," I said.

"She thought so, too. Dehra's summers were as hot then as they are now. She used to go swimming in the canal. The neighbors were shocked. But boys never teased her, because she didn't hesitate to fight them!"

"She looks tough. You can tell by the way she's grinning. At any moment something's going to happen."

"Something did happen. Her mother wouldn't let her get out of those awful clothes, so she jumped into the canal fully clothed!"

I burst into laughter, and Granny joined in.

"Who was the girl?" I asked. "You must tell me."

"No, that wouldn't do. I can't tell you."

I knew the girl in the photo was Grandmother, but I pretended not to know. I knew, because sometimes Granny still smiled in the same way.

"Come on, Granny," I urged. "Tell me, tell me."

But Granny shook her head and carried on with her knitting, and I held the photograph in my hands, looking from it to my grandmother and back again, trying to find points in common between the old woman and the girl. A lemon-colored butterfly settled on the end of Granny's knitting-needle, and stayed there while the needle clicked away. I made a grab at the butterfly, but it flew off in a dipping flight and settled on a sunflower.

"I wonder whose hands they were," murmured Granny, her head bowed in memory, as her needles clicked away on that afternoon long ago.

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