The Love of Travelers

At the rest stop on the way to Mississippi
We found the butterfly mired in the oil slick;
its wings thick and blunted. One of us, tender in the fingertips,
smoothed with a tissue the oil
that came off only a little;
the oil-smeared wings like lips colored with lipstick
blotted before a kiss.
So delicate the cleansing of the wings I thought the color soft as
would wash off under the method of her mercy for something so slight
and graceful, injured, beyond the love of travelers.

It was torn then, even after her kindest work,
the almost-moth, exquisite charity could not mend
what weighted the wing, melded with it,
then ruptured it in release.
The body of the thing lifted out of its place
between the washed wings.
Imagine the agony of a self separated by gentlest repair.
“Should we kill it?” one of us said. And I said yes.
But none of us had the nerve.
We walked away, the last of the oil welding the butterfly
to the wood of the picnic table.
The wings stuck out and quivered when wind went by.
Whoever found it must have marveled at this.
And loved it for what it was and
had been.
I think, meticulous mercy is the work of travelers,
and leaving things as they are
punishment or reward.

I have died for the smallest things.
Nothing washes off.

Copyright © 1988 by Angela Jackson. This poem originally appeared in Callaloo, 1988. Used with permission of the author.