Sophie has hands smaller than forget-me-nots and a head no bigger than a cornflower.
Do you know why they are called cornflowers? she asks me.
I think about this while Sophie plucks the seeds from a dandelion puff swaying in the garden.
Because they grow in cornfields, of course, I answer.
And do you know why they are called forget-me-nots? she asks then, smiling and clutching a dandelion seed so big the breeze threatens to lift her off the ground.
Oh, that’s easy, I say. Because I could never, ever forget you.
Sophie lives in a flowerpot and drinks the morning dew, she sometimes has wings and sometimes does not. I have never seen her eat a thing, but she was a dear friend of Marcel Proust once upon a time, and when she sat on his shoulder and whispered to him about little cakes dipped in lime tea he wept tears so big she almost drowned. Sophie has whispered in many ears. She has whispered in mine only once, but I cried enough tears that day to drown many little girls just like her.
Today Sophie has wings, and they twitch and tremble like the heart of a mouse. She says that she thinks it is a good day for flying. She licks her finger and holds it up to the breeze as though she might be able to read its currents, closes her eyes to better listen to its whispers. I feel the old sadness stirring somewhere inside me.
Sophie is rarely sad. I’ve never seen her frown – though she doesn’t smile much anymore, either, since my condition has worsened. We pass the sunlight hours together in my little garden, and when things are too bad even for that she brings the birds to my window to sing. Once or twice she has sung herself, and you must believe me when I say that somehow her voice is both bigger than the ocean and smaller than a raindrop.
Sophie has tended me as best she can, she has listened to my ranting and babbling as patiently as she listens to the songs of earthworms and caterpillars, but still I know the day must come when my girl does not return to me, when she must go to another ear that needs more than I do the tiny, kind words of tiny, kind Sophie…
It is a good day for flying after all! Sophie cries. She has climbed the long green stalk of one of my prized sunflowers, which dip and bow now in a sudden gust of wind. She hesitates, her wings open and she lifts a little – maybe an inch, maybe less – suddenly as radiant as a sunbeam.
Sometimes Sophie has wings, sometimes she has not, but when they appear they are beautiful, fragile things – like the wings of a butterfly.
I’m not so sure, I say, as she is buffeted by the wind. There is a terrible pain in my chest. I am not so sure that it is a good day for flying. But her smile says she will brave the gusts of wind, and her laughing eyes say farewell, farewell, like a handkerchief waving to a ship leaving harbour. As if I were the one fading into the distance.
She reaches to me, then. A kind of goodbye. Her hands are too small to hold – but I try.
The best way to kill a butterfly is to pinch the thorax with just the right amount of pressure. Too gentle and she will struggle, her beautiful wings will be torn; too hard and she will be crushed, her insides turned out. I know this because Sophie told me so. And Sophie knows so very many things.
Her heart gives. Her eyes close. Her wings flutter and cease to move – but she is preserved.
Mine, forever. A gift. A perfect specimen.