Monday 28 August 2023

Bitterroot Butterfly by Michael Theroux, acerbic willow bark tea

Around my 21st year, I was working a-field by myself on botanical collections and plant community mapping during the day and living alone in an outlier trailer on the ground of the Museum of Northern Arizona, Flagstaff. Following up on work I'd started under the watch of an experienced and careful teacher before leaving LA, I'd also been diligently working on memory regression and repair, gently teasing out those blockages and making significant progress. Ah, those divergent memory paths: two different memories of the same moment signal a "rock in the stream", behind which very interesting images lie hidden (usually, for good reason).

I was closing in on a continuous and unbroken memory-reading of my life, with the missing pieces falling ever more rapidly into place as when one works on a massive jig-saw puzzle, in the moments before completion. I was meditating with a candle flame between myself and a large mirror, usually getting lost in the reflection of my own eyes for two to three hours at a sitting. I found that I could set the bedroom clock radio to come on to my classical music station and effectively and gently bring myself back. I had long ago learned to keep a small diary with colored pencils handy, to record particularly vibrant impressions upon returning.

I'd been potching around in my second year's memory stock and stores, rather simple impressions but nice to get tacked back down in some semblance of order. Then there was a dramatic shift in what had been a relatively comfortable rattle of baby memories; in my sessions over the next week I began to get flashes of a deep, wooded valley called, I knew, the Bitterroot, a land much further north than Flagstaff - with summer winding down, with the scent of wood smoke, cooking, horses, leather, sweat, and worse ...

I was a young long-haired botanist / escapee from LA to Flagstaff, living alone and eating simple meals, completely absorbed in collecting and mapping Oak Creek Canyon for the Museum, damned and determined they'd see they needed to turn my summer internship into a full time permanent position...

I was French, in my early twenties, apparently a war trained medic / field doctor, living with an Indian woman in a small ramshackle hut, beside tents and wooden houses along a mud street, caring for simple injuries, illnesses, births and deaths using my surgical skills and her medicinal plant knowledge...

The older memories began to displace my newer realm and I found myself doing my field work in Oak Creek Canyon during the day without completely leaving the wooded northern valley. I got my work done furiously, worried about my ability to maintain but functioning both physically and mentally at a level I had not found possible before the shift. I apparently had begun to absorb and could apply much of an entirely separate set of skills and memories, routines and basic knowledge. It was at the same time terrifying and exhilarating. I also expanded my sessions, including brief moments during my field day when I could quite literally and consciously allow this other older persona to step forward as the dominant mind.

I knew already that dual memories, wherever I had unearthed them, formed shells around barbed cores, suppressed to protect the tender mental capacity at the moment of the experience from something too overwhelming to be fully comprehended and dealt with at that time. For the most part, later year's maturity compensated and I had successfully if painfully faced down each jagged disruption to continuous memory, reclaiming the central thought path and absorbing the experience. The magnitude of this present duality meant to me that whatever had occurred was so monstrous, so traumatic as to bridge an entire life cycle and I was quite honestly running scared with nowhere to go.

My rather visceral response was to accelerate the time sequence toward the cause of the schism, to get to and past the trauma, seeking again memory continuity. Images in sessions began to move by in clips; each quickly played suite of impressions followed by another along the time-line but now with gaps of hours or days. The summer was collapsing toward fall; rains increased to almost constant down-pour, and the Yellow Fever illness escalated throughout the valley, leaving the good doctor ragged, beyond weary, and rather desperate.

During one session, the pace changed and I found myself completely engaged in an evening of doctoring in the small wooden cabin, a line of mostly Indian folk waiting in the damp late evening outside my door. A frantic man suddenly burst past the others and into the room carrying a hugely pregnant woman, leaking fluids and clearly in dire straits. She was febrile, quite hot to the touch, flushed, screaming and delirious - and giving birth. I produced a small pipe, administered a mouth-full of warm smoke at a time, mouth to mouth, to the woman now sprawled across our one sturdy table in the center of the room, and coaxed the child from her body with some difficulty. The birthing produced an overly large baby, crying heartily but deformed, without fully developed legs. I remember handing the child off to my nurse / partner to wrap in a blanket. She hid the leg stumps in the swaddling and passed the wriggling bundle to the woman's family crowded into the small room, then I myself collapsed, unconscious.

As one does when surfacing occasionally from delirium my memories of the next time span took the form of water-color glimpses of faces and motion, followed by blackness. I do not know how long I was incapacitated, but understood that I had been ill with the same fever the woman and her infant had barely survived, the epidemic now abating in the Bitterroot Valley community.

After some time, I found myself propped up on pillows, with a feeble sun coming through the single window above the bedstead. A quiet cadre of elderly Indian folk first spoke to my mate, then approached the bed. The woman I had saved was child of a medicine man chief; the healthy although legless child was considered by the tribe to be a magical being. The woman's father spoke a great many words I did not understand, then bent down to softly blow a thin blue trail of smoke from a small bowl into my face. I relaxed and once again blacked out.

When I awoke, I quickly notice an irritating, sore patch on my forehead - my mate ran to stop me from rubbing or otherwise disturbing it and gently began to massage a soothing ointment into the coarse and scabbed skin with her fingertips. My hair had been shaved back from my forehead to perhaps the midline, ear to ear. Something had been done to my skin, something involving puncturing that had left a layer of stiff and close-fitting material affixed to the front of my scalp. As I began to panic, she again wafted the smoke from the same small bowl into my face, and I went out.

On the second or third day of this new routine, she handed me a prized possession new to our belongings: a small mirror held in silver with an ornate handle. I braced myself, and peered at my face. Centered along what had been my hairline, extending perhaps two inches wide by an inch high was a multi-colored tattoo in the shape of a butterfly, in colors of milkweed white, deep berry purple and the red of river rose hips.

I felt an electric jolt move throughout my entire body. I found that I was again sitting in my trailer in Flagstaff, staring at my face in the mirror, lit by the still flickering stub of a candle. The quilled butterfly was still quite visible, but it immediately began to fade. I quickly sketched the image in my diary, as accurately as I could manage while shaking from head to toe.

My own skills working deer and elk hide were well advanced at that time, as were my skills with nine types of porcupine quillwork I had mastered from studying museum pieces in the archives at the San Fernando Valley Indian museum. For Christmas that year, I crafted a vest for my father of elk hide, a beautiful piece of work still in my mother's closet that he wore to special occasions for many years. The vest has small fringed pockets on both sides in front. On each pocket is a quilled butterfly, faithfully reproduced in white, deep berry purple and rose, my mother's colors.


About the author 

Michael Theroux writes from Northern California. Michael is entering the literary field at age 72, seeking publication of two books and around 400 poems and short stories. Some may be found in Down in the Dirt, Ariel Chart, 50WS, Academy of the Heart and Mind and the Lothlorien Poetry Journal. 


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