The Monarchs are late

“The Monarchs are late.”

All the conversations around the table suddenly stopped. Fifteen pairs of eyes turned, like one of those perfectly synchronized flocks of birds, staring at my great-grand-mother. Nobody had heard my Bila's voice in almost three years. Since her beloved husband had died. We all thought her mind had left with him, her shell patiently waiting for the end.

But today of all days, from her seat at the end of the table during our traditional All Souls Day family meal, in a coarse and barely audible voice, she had spoken.

After a few seconds of stunned silence, everyone pressed my Bila to repeat what she had just said. But her split moment of clarity was over. She was already gone, retreating to a place we couldn't reach. No one was paying attention so no one had heard. But I had. And I was still trying to make sense of it. If there was any sense to make of it that is.

When attempts to get her attention failed, conversations slowly resumed and everyone moved on and lost interest. As if nothing happened, leaving my Bila in her usual role of matriarchal figurehead. Some kind of living altar that we would honour without much thinking or paying attention to.

I, on the other hand, could not stop thinking about those four words that had escaped through her mouth.

“The Monarchs are late.”

With a gentle touch, I covered her hand with mine and looked at her intently. Behind the apparent void, I knew she was there and I needed her to help me understand. My gut feeling was telling me it was important.

Suddenly, she let out a deep sigh and I noticed a profound sadness in her eyes. I hadn't seen any kind of emotions passing through those once intense and piercing golden-brown eyes in so long that I felt disconcerted, uneasy even. I was not sure how to react because I couldn't understand what triggered her emotion. I wished she would speak to me, tell me what she needed, how I could help. I had never been good at guessing or sensing other people's expectations. I needed things to be straightforward.

It was obvious I wouldn't get anything from her in the middle of this hubbub. Leaving my plate unfinished, I decided to take my Bila on a walk, pretending to take a trip to the bathroom. I gently guided her outside to the backyard, away from the exhausting noise of family conversations, now just a faded buzzing in the background.

The day was gorgeous, pleasantly warm, with the soothing music of birds and branches lazily swinging in the soft breeze. Standing here with my feet planted in the grass, it instantly put a smile on my face. But I could feel my Bila was even more agitated. She was looking everywhere, as if searching for something.

My arm underneath hers and holding her hand, I murmured calmly: “What is it Bila? What is it that’s bothering you?” I was trying not to add to her obvious distress by letting my own concern be heard. So I just stood there beside her, a quiet presence and support.

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath in, absorbing all the smells – marigolds, dahlias and birds of paradise, freshly cut grass and roasted pig – just to calm my nerves. My mind started to wander, thinking about how I’d love to take my Bila to see the ocean at least once in her life. It was only a three-hour drive away and yet she’d never seen it in ninety-six years. I thought about how I’d like my life to be different. Though different how, I was not sure. I thought about all the people who died before they got to achieve their dreams. And after you died, what then? Did your soul know when it was time to let go for good? Or were you wandering for eternity trying to reach a hypothetical pure bliss? Why would so many souls want to haunt this Earth when it seemed no one was ever content while alive, burdened by worldly woes, if not a downright living hell?

Lost in my thoughts, I perceived a change in the air, almost imperceptible, and my Bila suddenly settled down. I could feel all the tensions in her body and her agitation evaporate.

The breeze had changed ever so slightly, now filled with a soft noise, like this of light flapping wings. I opened my eyes and saw the first one, fluttering in front of my Bila’s face, in all its bright orange magnificence. And then I saw the cloud.

The Monarchs were back.

I, usually so down to earth, witnessing the ecstatic bliss in my great-grand-mother’s eyes, couldn’t help but wonder if this was a sign, an answer to my questions. Maybe the wandering souls were there to show us that death was not the end, and afterwards was still beautiful in a different way. Perhaps our departed loved ones, year after year, were finding their way back to us on the wings of those seemingly fragile creatures to remind us to not be afraid of death. And thus not be afraid to live.

© Anne Daroussin, January 2022

#shortstories #english #fiction