by Jacqueline Goodwin
I was a new teacher. She was retiring from the English department and had the reputation for being quirky. Well-deserved, I came to learn. Legend had it that she’d stood on a desk and told a class she’d been reincarnated from a butterfly. Silver spiked hair, truthful, idealistic, passionate, and kind, Kathy wasn’t overly popular with her students or colleagues and was the occasional subject of whisperings. Despite this, I think people liked her. But they didn’t want to admit it.
I spent most of that year trying to figure things out; to ask questions without appearing ignorant, participate in meetings without drawing attention to myself, and navigate the crowded hallways without getting stepped on. I learned to avoid asking advice from most of the other teachers. It was hard enough to keep up with the course load, and their cynicism only made it worse.
The tumor in Kathy’s brain introduced itself a month after she retired. Cancer. Surgery and chemo helped for a time. But the cancer returned along with her hair, in slow-growing, strangely curling wisps that I imagined to be an extension of the tumor’s tentacles.
The last time I saw her, she was visiting in the faculty room, surrounded by teachers grading, planning, calling parents between bites of sandwiches. Her brown eyes seemed much larger—shiny, lashless pools of hope, and her teeth looked somehow longer. She sat at a table glowing and smiling and unimaginably thin. Happy in the bedlam. Kathy had sworn off medical science. Her mantra; diet and positive energy, and I didn’t know what else. With a stack of grading in front of me, I wondered how she wasn’t angry that she’d spent decades of her life coming to this place where gratitude wasn’t the norm. Where drama ruled. I looked in her eyes for bitterness or regret. I watched her laugh at something another teacher said. The lightness of the sound was baffling.
Her wake was crowded. The line snaked out the viewing room to the front door of the funeral home. Students fidgeted, running fingers under collars and tugging at skirts. I waited toward the end of the line with a group of teachers, listening to them chat quietly and frenetically, first about Kathy and then school gossip. The chattering stopped as a slight, pale woman in a dark suit approached. Kathy’s daughter. We’d never met, but some of the other teachers knew her. They offered sputtering condolences. She shook her head. “Mom was happy,” she said. “She was at peace.”
The line inched into the viewing room. Candles, flowers, and photographs stood on stands and shelves. Kathy at the beach and travels, or pregnant, serious, or smiling in a sea of faces I didn’t recognize. I studied the photos and remembered the sound of her laughter. Hers was a life I’d crossed paths with, however briefly, but was somehow connected to. The murmuring voices and soft classical music lent a soothing background to my thoughts as I shifted from one foot to another. When it was my turn, I knelt at the casket. The pale body lay on dark orange satin, luminous brown eyes closed, hands folded over a book, open, spine up, as if she’d fallen asleep reading. A yellowed bookmark with a pressed daisy had fallen from between the pages. Without thinking, I picked it up and slipped it into my pocket. Someone nudged my arm. I startled and turned. It was Joe Chadwick, a history teacher. Eyebrows raised, he whispered, “Mind if I join you.”
My face grew warm as I nodded and slid over. I didn’t know what to say; couldn’t explain my actions, even to myself. And so, after a few interminable moments, I stood. The urge to be alone took me, and I followed it outside. The sunlight was disappointing. It felt like I’d been inside much longer like I should have stepped out into a rainy darkness. I wanted to go home, to sleep, to escape the day. I put my hand in my pocket and retrieved the bookmark. There was handwriting on the back. Temet nosce. Know thyself.
I spent the rest of the school year working hard and avoiding the faculty room and Joe Chadwick as much as possible. I thought about Kathy; the photographs at her wake, how rich her life had been, and her joy, no matter the situation. I thought about my future. On the last day of school, I took the bookmark out of my wallet and left it on my emptied desk for the next new teacher. I went out the door to the parking lot and gave a final look at the brick building where I’d spent the last two years of my life. The scent of honeysuckle hung in the sunshine, and I wandered to the bushes lining the side of the property. Bumblebees whirred. A butterfly flitted in the foliage, orange and black against the white flowers. I watched its wings open, then close to rest, and then headed to my car.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jacqueline’s short stories have appeared in The Broadkill Review, Fabula Argentea, Lost Lake Folk Opera, Noir Nation No. 6: the Jazz Issue, and The Southampton Review. In 2017 she earned her MFA from SUNY Stonybrook. She belongs to a writers’ group in Saratoga Springs, NY, and has twice attended the Rutgers Writers’ Conference to work with authors Colm McCann, Amy Tan, and Dennis Lehanne.
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