The Wall and the Butterfly
He closes his mouth ahead of the butterflies; holds his tongue before it takes flight and lands borderless. Hand over eyes, he protects himself from the air’s impossible movements; stills his head mid-swarm. They’ve been told to build the wall here anyway; to ensure each and every hand that reaches for a tool, a machine, keeps going in spite of their native wings. But their skin is his story too. His touch, their fall. He watches the way his flesh changes under the hurricane of the butterfly swarm, tattooed by pollen and the colours of wing-dust and burnt journeys. In under a hammer blow, the sky clouds from insect to bird. Scissortail flycatchers, green jays, olive sparrows and clay-coloured thrushes pile about the working frames, dry-drown them in pounding flutters. A tree of great-tailed grackles explodes in applause. Over the troubled soil, Zebra Heliconians, giant orange sulfurs; queens and red-bordered pixies flicker at their marching feet. Unable to move, he opens his mouth and loses his tongue. To every brick, gun and metal force, they raise their wings, state their place in the chain of us: what we eat, what we are and what we could be inside the colours of open hands.
The Secret Life of Mud
Eyes to the ground, backs to the sky, in London a new rise of searchers. Their eyes-only approach less the keen, blunting nose of a machine than a slow scour of land; an English Waltz of reach, pick-up and burrow in the short-term dark of a working pocket. Meet the Mudlarks, roaming and combing the foreshore in the quiet margin of the River’s grave. They are the new Bone Grubbers, the Scavengers, Sewer Hunters by choice. With permits and skills they re-home the stuff of chance; retell the stone’s flight, the story of metal, cloth or leather caught in some bend of wind and planted along the water-road. Once found and recorded, each object is cleaned and re-settled behind glass in the mapped-out belly of a Museum. The clay pipes, toy stone men on horses, mint-faced coins from a million hands ago, boots whose tread and crease have stepped through 500 years and spoons from the mouths of every age, are given the chance to speak again. And this is what we might hear them say: thanks to the mud we lived in the dark and thanks to the air, we died in the light.
The Girl and the Octopus
This is the story of the match girl and the dreaming octopus; where they meet, but do not speak and where they part, but do not leave. A place where a tentacle finds its way around a hand. Where the pictures that appear from a match-struck wall by a barefoot girl in snow, twin the cinematic gleam and fade inside a sleeping mollusc. The deep sea holds its night breath and fixes around the light-changing phenomena, while the girl’s visions begin away from her: each lit match throws out a moving picture the length of a tiny wooden stalk. The Cephalopod sleeps on, and we see her dream in flecked shades of gold, white, lavender and black; blooming patterns illuminate, then fade accordingly. In one scene a tentacle undoes like a time-lapsed fern, stretching away from her third heart; in another she is the seafloor, all coral, sand and dancing kelp. Far inland, to the bright orange bomb of each flicker, brick walls around houses dissipate and the girl stirs to a crackling hearth, a New Year’s table, carefully laid with crystal, pearl and silver. Another strike brings plum-stuffed goose with apple and a Christmas tree; children reflected in glass ornaments, their faces rosy under the candle-lights. Finally, her grandmother, smiling beside her bed again. Undoing the mollusc’s grip from her sleeping fingers, the old woman lifts the girl, balloon-light towards the stars; where they meet, but do not speak, where they touch and do not leave.
Taming the Sand
The desert blows in at the door and rises to the table where the meal is set; reshapes itself around the room and fades each object to a grit-charged mist. Trees that stood sentry across the dunes are vanishing too; their scorched backs once resilient to the sun, curl comma-like, bowing closer to the earth through the year. The villagers construct low square walls of straw into the sand. They plan to grow these walls like seeds – repeat them without pardon over the land into a giant net – square straw fractals to capture a pillaging storm; to measure the pattern of its outlawed dust and hold its stone fibres to account. Witnesses recall the way it wrecked the vines that grew the grapes that fell to raisins and kept the families; illustrate for the jury how it covers dark field beds in yellow like an infertile pollen that insists upon the land, breath by breath. How their exposed skin does what the fruit should – burns, shrinks into itself, dries out to a last gift. They protest from a desiccated sea, the tide less flow, more ebb with each season they fail to hold in their arms and harvest. The unwelcome wind awaits the verdict as their voices begin to disappear. Time pours out through itself and the jury is left weighing up what they heard and what they saw: something about a land they could once predict chasing its own ending.
The Shared Plot
A dove grey bird flies between the air pockets of a small tree. Other than its flight, no discernible wind. It is the last tree for miles, stalled by the edge of a road that leads the odd foot and wheel into a village. Host to a bird whose song was chased towards the ground, whose winged phrase has always sung down upon a branch, the tree has slowly quietened. The bird takes in when it can a snatch of food above and under the soil. A bird and tree whose names have fallen out of fashion; whose lessening measures our story and the ways we continue to live.
She’d landed face down on a chalk drawing of a butterfly. Beside her the bicycle wheels span, hummed through her last impression of the world. The street was otherwise quiet and there were no known witnesses. In their absence, nature stepped up. The rooks at the crossroad decided to speak for everyone: each turn is tight, cramped and nobody wants to give way or slow down. A tree – one of the tallest in the area, all vertical branches and feathering leaves – agreed; through every wise listening leaf, agreed. Reticent at first, objects pitched in. The old red pillar box – diagonally across from her body – stood reliably gaping in a dignified manner and announced that its chipped iron aperture would soon receive letters and sympathy cards. The road sighed under a sharp gust; a stone, edged from the kerb onto the middle bar of a drain, clanged, then dropped into a tiny wet echo. A bird or more would have been startled, flown in any direction and only resettled after the sirens. Cats, dogs, squirrels, may twitch every so often in recollection. Insects, darting to unusual vibrations, perished or were injured in the process. Today, with no threat of rain, there remains just a chalk butterfly; its dust ever so slightly smudged at the left wing, where she’d kissed it with everything she had in her at the time.
Jane Monson lives in Cambridge as an independent scholar and Specialist Mentor for disabled students at the University of Cambridge. Her PhD was on the prose poetry of Francis Ponge and she has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia. Jane is the editor of This Line is not for Turning (2011), an anthology of contemporary British prose poetry and more recently British Prose Poetry: The Poems without Lines (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018). Her poetry collections with Cinnamon Press include Speaking Without Tongues (2010) The Shared Surface (2013) and The Chalk Butterfly (2022).