Maarte woke with a start, and early. It was dark still. She lay there with her eyes open, searching for the window, trying to remember what day it was. Then she remembered.
She rose after a few minutes and went and sat at the kitchen table, watching the window that looked out onto the empty lot next door.
Maarte sat silently, listening to the first of the birds outside. After a few minutes she made her coffee and waited for the sun. By the time she was drinking the dregs, dawn had broken quietly before her.
Maarte stood and dressed quickly. It would be Sande’s birthday tomorrow, and Maarte wanted the best for her daughter in the way of gifts. She had an entire day to plan and to think about what Sande might want. She would find small items full of memory and love, just for Sande. For Sande to remember, just remember, on her day of the year. That’s what birthdays are for, right? Memory and love.
Maarte crawled to the back of her closet, searching in the dark for the box. She pulled out an old shoebox; dark, heavy cardboard that had once held Sande’s first pair of real women’s sized shoes, given for Sande’s twelfth birthday. Sande had been so proud of those ugly flats; heavy and clunky and dirty after the first week. But Sande had loved them, and now all that Maarte had left was the shoebox. It was perfect, though. Perfect thickness, and it would burn easily.
She went outside barefoot and immediately regretted it; last night it had rained. Shoebox in hand, Maarte went determinedly through the mud toward Sande’s butterfly bush. Sande had planted this years ago, and there were still a few loyal butterflies that lived near the area and would light upon the bush.
Maarte caught a large yellow butterfly with the shoebox. She smiled, holding it in her hand, tracing the tiny perfect grooves in the yellow wings. Sande had caught one of these a long time ago, and kept it in her room. She’d named it George Washington and fed it whipped cream in a bowl. That butterfly had lived years longer than any butterfly Maarte had heard of; she’d even read up on those things in the Encyclopedia Britannica. Finally Georgie had been crushed by a visiting friend.
Maarte killed it quickly and deftly, and brought it back inside, not cleaning the mud off her feet, and put it between papers under a book, and left it to dry.
She went up to the attic.
There was a single bulb in the attic that barely lit four feet, but by it Maarte was able to find what she was looking for: A small string of old Christmas lights. With only about ten tiny bulbs that were broken anyway, it was useless, but Maarte remembered that Sande had hung hundreds of these in her room, around the corners in the ceiling, around her mirror, laced through her bed frame. Not even in Christmastime. It would bring a smile to Sande’s face. Maarte remembered the string of blue lights that Georgie Washington had loved to light on; he slept there, and then Sande had moved them to her headboard where she could watch the butterfly when she was lying down.
Maarte went downstairs again, listening to her knees cricking as she slowly descended the rickety plywood ladder. She slipped the lights into the shoebox, where the curled up in a corner like they had lived there all their life. Maarte smiled at them.
Maarte cut out a piece of the newspaper’s Arts section—Sande’s favorite part—and made a little pouch, into which she poured some lavender, some thyme, some rosemary, some lemon peel, some cinnamon, to make the only tea Sande had not refused to drink. She tied it with a little ribbon and put it in the center of the ring of lightbulbs.
Maarte checked on the butterfly wings. They were still damp.
She added a rose to the shoebox, and the small pearl ring that Sande had always begged to be allowed to wear, all her childhood, from the chain around her neck. Maarte had never let her, even though the ring was too small for her own fingers. Instead, she had worn it as a kind of necklace. Only now did she regret never letting Sande wear it!
Maarte added to the box a small, faded picture of herself and Thomas, taken almost eighteen years ago. Dear Thomas, who had been lucky enough to die before Sande. He had never been forced to go through the pain of losing their daughter as Maarte had.
She took a last look at Thomas’s friendly, grinning face, and her own; bright, and almost too happy. That face was as happy as Maarte had ever remembered being. The picture had been taken just after Maarte had told Thomas she was pregnant. With Sande.
Only last week Maarte had found Sande’s old paintbrush, the very first one, bought at a yard sale from their ancient neighbor. Much to Maarte’s chagrin the neighbor, Mr. Lazier, an artist himself, had convinced Sande on the virtues of pursuing art (Maarte wanted Sande to go into literature), and Sande had bought the paintbrush, thick and long and very old, for a few cents. Mr. Lazier had thrown in some of his old tubes of paint, and Sande had achieved lift off. She’d painted every day for years, using her (minute) allowance for more paint and canvases, and had asked for nothing but money for paint supplies for birthdays and Hanukkah.
A tear fell into the shoebox with the stained paintbrush.
It was nearly noon. The butterfly was almost ready now, and Maarte took it to her bathroom to gently blow-dry it. She had no time to dip it in firming solution, and so she just pinned the wings into the shoebox in between wax papers.
In went a piece of Sande’s old marbled-paper stationery. In went a picture of Sande and her best friend, Mary. In went Sande’s pennywhistle, confiscated from her when she was a toddler after she blew on it constantly for days on end.
It was midafternoon, now, and Maarte realized that her stomach was not happy with her. She made herself some soup and sat out in the garden, listening to the cicadas sing and the children across the street yell and laugh.
Maarte went inside after she took off her sweater in the summer heat. She turned on a disc of Handel, and swept her muddy footprints from the floor. She made herself tea and wrote a letter to her goddaughter Femke, telling her about Sande and how Maarte was planning to celebrate Sande’s would-have-been seventeenth birthday.
Maarte did not stay up late. She fell asleep curled up on the couch, just as the sun disappeared, lulled to sleep by the thirtieth replay of Handel’s Firework.
When she woke up she was stiff. Maarte did not even move to eat breakfast or read the paper. She took the battered shoebox from the coffeetable where it had sat all night, just in reach, and took it outside to the garden. On the way she threw out the wilted rose from yesterday and picked another.
Maarte lit a fire in the old firepit, visited by the ghosts of old cookouts and s’mores and Sande insisting on sleeping by the fire all night, all by herself, and eating a banana cooked in the embers for breakfast in the morning. It used to be a staple tradition the night after school let out.
Gently, ever so gently, Maarte set the shoebox on the softly crackling fire, and watched Sande and the memories of Sande shrivel and blacken and burn and disappear and fall. The crisped outline of the picture of Maarte and Thomas was caught by a drift and flung into the air. Maarte watched it fall to the side and melt.
Her eyes barely able to see the fire for the tears, Maarte whispered, “Happy birthday, dearest Sande. I love you.”
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It deserves a win.