Arrivals and Departures
By Lolita Hernandez
Hundreds and hundreds of monarch butterflies gathered in the great Aunt Tantan’s back yard, navigating through the thick humidity of that late Detroit summer day. They alighted on the showy flowers that distinguished her backyard from others around it because Tantan not only had the hands for making roti and the nose for a perfect curry goat, she had a great green thumb for growing dazzlingly brilliant flowers, exotic spices, and unusually deep green vegetables in perfect harmony right there on the northwest side of the city in the middle of the Motown sounds that still shaped the character of the neighborhood. Lured by the nectar of hosts of hot pink milkweeds, hypnotic purple zinnias, intense red clover and a lone red mulberry tree, monarchs glided up and floated down, frolicking like drunken sprites, preferring to flutter into each other rather than leave the crowded space between the yard’s fences.
Tantan, come see what’s going on back here. Oh my gosh! The niece, still relatively new to the Detroit scene, having arrived from the homeland only a few years before, laughed as a group of fifteen or so monarchs, planted their sticky feet on her head, apparently attracted to the scent and sheen of the coconut oil she daily fingered through her lovely long and wavy black hair.
When the old lady peered out of the kitchen window with a wad of roti dough in her hand, she saw the remaining daughter of her one and only niece crowned by big and strapping (by butterfly standards) orange and black monarchs flapping their wings in time to the girl’s laughter.
Eh eh, dahlin. They come back. It take three years, but they come back. Well well well.
Each year of the twenty she had lived in the house, Tantan expanded her garden to attract more and more butterflies until it had become a regular hangout for monarchs in the last weeks of each summer. At times she would see as many as twenty or so, and she would have to drop everything to sit in the yard and commune with them. After all, they reminded her of the hordes of butterflies they used to call dancing ladies back home on the Caribbean island of Tesoro. The coloring was nearly the same as the monarchs only the ladies, as their names were often shortened, had frilly wings and were delicate in a way that wouldn’t do for Detroit. Of that she was sure. But the ladies wintered on the island of Tesoro nearly everywhere, all over in truth, so much so that festivals of all sorts accompanied their arrival. Oh gosh those were the days.
These thoughts rushed to her as she marveled at the amount of butterflies in her yard this year. Even some little white ones weaved in and around the giant monarchs. You could see their thin veins. Under her breath she said, all are welcome here. Come little ones. And she was overcome with emotion, her eyes gray without the golden streak because no amount of Detroit sun is a match for Tesoro’s.
But summers weren’t so bad in Detroit. She would spend them in the garden, tending habaneros to make hot sauce, eddoes for stew, of course her tomato plants, currants for Christmas fruit cakes and all kind of edibles she would begin harvesting by the time monarchs arrived to bid her adieu for the year.
All that changed July 2, 1997, when thirteen swirling gray andblack shafts of tornado madness tore through Detroit area, accomplishing millions of dollars’ worth of mischief in a city already down on its luck. They ripped out stop signs and streetlights, overturned cars, shattered storefront windows, but left almost all of the abandoned buildings throughout the city still standing. One of the tornadoes passed through Tantan’s neighborhood, taking off large chunks of her roof, stealing an old wooden tub full of daisies, ripping out the picket fence separating her yard from the neighbors’ and uprooting the five mulberry trees that used to beckon the yearly visitation of monarchs to her yard en route to their Mexican haunts, leaving her to wonder if by some crazy circumstance, Detroit wind would blow the monarchs off their path.
As things turned out, that had been a logical segue in thought, true enough, because the tornadoes of 1997 changed her life forever. The garden she could replant, the monarchs she could entice over the years, but she could not replace her husband of twenty-five years, her darling Vincent, who died from heart failure while trying to move a slender tree limb that had landed across the hood of his brown 1993 Chrysler Fifth Avenue, badly denting it up and shattering the windshield. Who could figure—after all his careful planning to buy the car, pay it off before retiring that same June after thirty-five years at Chrysler, then to repaint it and resolve all mechanical problems in anticipation of road trips the two of them would take—who could figure that just a couple days after he had applied the last deep polish to the car, tornadoes would hit and run, loud and strong, and he would follow quiet as a lamb.
Except for a throaty cough and then a thump as he fell to the ground with the blasted tree on top of him. Who could figure something like that happening to him in the city he had lived in for nearly all of his adult life? His explanation of how he had landed in Detroit from some island few had ever heard of was mysterious, but Tantan, nee Myra Gopaul, didn’t care. He had bumped around from woman to woman until he bounced into her, sitting at his friend Madge’s table drinking coffee. Oh, he had one heck of a smile and Tantan could tell something right off the bat. Madge, a woman from Trinidad and Tobago, could too, because it was a long time before she called Tantan after that afternoon. And she used to call almost daily to give her astrological advice and chat all kind of nonsense. But Tantan put up with her because she was somewhat of a friend, someone to talk to about this, that and the other. Vincent and Tantan were both small island folks and connected almost immediately, to the exclusion of the Trini woman.
Tantan ran across him a few months later at another gathering; Madge was there. On the side, slyly, Vincent Cardenas asked Myra if he could visit her. Well, Madge had already dropped her friendship; so why should she have loyalties? Vincent visited her once, twice, and again and again and took her to nice restaurants. Then he popped the question. She was already in her early forties, and he was a few years older. Her Vincent wasn’t what you would call a really bright man, but he was loving and gentle for so, a steady worker and kind to her friends and her one or two pumpkin vine cousins living in the area. It was the first marriage for the both of them; neither had children.
Yes, she was right by the kitchen window looking out at him as he cleaned off the leaves and junk from his beloved car the next day after the twisters. He had been so proud of that thing. On Sundays when the weather was decent, they would take a ride east to Belle Isle to catch a cricket match when the West Indian League played in Detroit or on other Sundays sit for a good long time in front of Scott Fountain watching a United Nations of people throwing coins in the water, their kids running and giggling. Those were the times they would talk about where they came from, rehash their island experiences, and lament winters in Detroit. He hadn’t returned to his home since leaving it years and years ago. She had been back to hers only once.
He was taking his time struggling to remove the tree from the car when he fell. She dropped the dish she was drying and rushed out. Mr. Simmons next door also saw him fall and called emergency while Tantan pushed unsuccessfully at the tree. He lasted two days in the hospital, only occasionally moving his mouth as if to say something. His eyes remained closed until the minute his breath escaped for the last. Then those two sad pools of watery mud eyes bulged open to stare at his wife. His back flexed, arching him up from the bed, and just as he sank back into the sheets a soft poof poof escaped from his lips. That was it.
Tantan buried her husband in a short ceremony with some of his friends from work and neighbors attending. Even Madge stopped by the funeral home. It was one of those moments when death erases the unpleasantness of life and the two women hugged and cried as if nothing had passed between them except a shared love. After the funeral and the tornado-debris-strewn trip to the cemetery, one or two of his co-workers stopped by her house full of funny Vincie work stories and offered their assistance with any future projects. Madge helped out in Myra’s kitchen with serving coffee, arranging the food and cakes the neighbors supplied, as well as eyeing Vincie’s co-workers. Tantan caught those eye flutters; that’s for sure. So weeks later when the woman began calling obsessively asking about this one and that, Tantan shut her down.
Were it not for the help of neighbors and Vincent’s former co-workers, the damaged car would have remained in the driveway, tree limb across the hood and all, and wood and debris would have lain strewn about the yard, attracting rats or whatever. That was her mentality after everything was over. The only thing that she understood had to be replaced immediately was the roof. All these things to worry about; she was not accustomed to going day after day from one problem to another having to think about how to do things that he had handled. Her life was just to sew clothing for extra money, tend garden and cook delicious meals. God in heaven knows how lonely she had become without Vincent to share all of that.
So she began to wander without purpose from room to room, absently wiping bric-a-brac and rearranging pillows on the couch. The house had become cluttered without him since it was her nature anyway to collect odds and ends, especially boxes and boxes of material and patterns for sewing, and ballerina dolls that danced in almost every available space in the place. One thing about Vincent, he was a neat freak; he couldn’t stand having things out of order. That was likely his undoing as Tantan had begged him that fateful day to wait for help before clearing the tree from the car. So yes, it was Vincent who checked her tendency to clutter, and now that he was gone she substituted scraps of everything for his presence. In a relatively short time, she had managed to create narrow paths from room to room, paths that confined and controlled her raging anger and loneliness.
One balmy but slightly windy November day, exactly four months after his death, she opened the front door to retrieve the mail and found a hummingbird hovering over the banister at the top of the porch just by the mailbox. Tantan gasped, knowing that hummingbirds rarely show up on Detroit front porches period and certainly not in November. She was only wearing a sweater, anticipating a quick dart to the mailbox and then back into the house. But she couldn’t move one way or the other, back in or further out for fear of disturbing the bird as it pecked away at an insect’s remains caught in a spider’s web she had been meaning to sweep away. She leaned against the door opening observing the activity of the hummingbird and began to suspect it was a sign from Vincie. She recalled weeks after his funeral, seeing a cluster of party balloons gently gliding along the sidewalk in front. A large silver one, the kind that might say HAPPY BIRTHDAY or CONGRATULATIONS, led the way. Four smaller white balloons trailed, gathered by a big, white, layered bow. The quintet, depleted of helium, straggled up the street, stopping now and again when the breeze quieted, then moving forward when the breeze grew strong again. Tantan watched the progress of the balloons as they approached her yard, and she held her breath convinced that Vincie was appearing in the form of balloons, coming to cheer her up. But they passed by. She climbed down the steps and watched until she could no longer see them. The balloons weren’t the sign, but she continued waiting for one. For sure he couldn’t come to her dreams; she hadn’t been having any during her restless, REM-less nights since his death. And without the possibility of sleep, she understood that he would have to come directly during waking hours—a brush of something on her face or unexplainable soft music, a pleasant scent, a vision maybe to let her know that he had crossed over successfully and that things were going well over there.
But a hummingbird on their porch on a November morning was more power than she had ever imagined of him and plenty plenty of message. Her morning rituals made sense now: the completion of the morning’s first coffee as the mail carrier rounded the corner to her block; her approach to the front door exactly as the carrier was hitting the first step of her next door neighbor’s porch; her ear to the door to determine that the mail carrier had closed her letterbox. Even her reluctance to clean off the several webs on the porch made sense now that she saw the bird eating the protein the web offered.
I see yuh Vincie bhai. Yuh hungry, nuh? They not feeding yuh over there? Ah, but yuh come really colorful, yuh know, and sweet sweet. Yuh lookin real handsome. And just then she began crying buckets and buckets and buckets of soundless, heaveless tears, all of her face exposed to the Detroit November air and nothing out there could stop the flood. She continued leaning against the entranceway, and when she looked up, the hummingbird had disappeared. It wasn’t until a neighbor, who was walking to the corner store, hailed out to her that she gathered herself, waved hello as if she hadn’t a care in the world, then reached into the mailbox to retrieve the following letter.
Dear Aunty Tantan,
I hope this message finds you in good health. I am so sorry that your husband passed away. I know how a sudden death like that can turn everything upside down in your world. I am only too sorry we couldn’t get over there for the funeral, but problems with the visa prevented us from getting there in time. No amount of begging and pleading could get the American Embassy to move faster to let at least one of us come to be with you. But now we have a visa for Anjani to visit the States. She could cross over and see you.
It was Sita who long ago renamed Myra Gopaul Tantan because she found Aunty too difficult to say back then. So thrilled with receiving her niece’s daughter, Tantan, who didn’t drive, arranged for Mr. Simmons to go with her to pick the girl up at the airport.
And that’s when the next phase of Tantan’s life began.
Lolita Hernandez is the author of two collections of short stories: Making Callaloo in Detroit, a 2015 Michigan Notable Book, and Autopsy of an Engine and Other Stories from the Cadillac Plant, winner of a 2005 PEN Beyond Margins Award. Her short fiction and poetry have been published in a wide variety of literary venues. She is also a 2012 Kresge Fellow. After more than thirty-three years as a UAW member at General Motors and twelve on the faculty of the University of Michigan Creative Writing Department at the Residential College, she recently retired to Las Vegas, Nevada, from her native Detroit.
Read next: Untitled Shot by Paul Jaussen
Back to the fiction section