Tolowim-Woman and Butterfly-Man

Long ago, a young girl they called Tolowim-Woman lived in a large pit-house that was nestled in the California foothills. She was a dutiful wife and mother and did her share of the sewing and acorn-grinding. But the long hours of darkness indoors, when the only light came from the flame of the fire, made her restless and moody. She wanted to be outdoors running free.

In spring, Tolowim-Woman’s young husband went off to greet the salmon as they began their journey inland from the sea. She stayed at home to care for their young son and to do chores with the other women. But she longed to go into the hills and walk among the fresh bright-colored spring irises.

Springtime was Tolowim-Woman’s favorite time of year. She remembered her own mother carrying her up the same path in her cradleboard, and she remembered the little grey squirrels that darted back and forth behind her mother’s back showing off their quickness.

Tolowim-Woman swung her arms high in the air as if the sky were her roof and her home had no boundaries. Her fine black hair brushed against her shoulders, and her small bare feet pressed gently into grass that was still wet from the morning dew. She was free and happy. She skipped along the well-worn path as if she carried no burden. If her son was heavy it did not matter because her heart was light.

“Look, Aki,” she said. “The sparrow hawk is soaring the air currents. Isn’t he beautiful?” Even though her young son was only nine moons old and could not speak, Tolowim-Woman knew he understood.

She continued to throw words back over her shoulder as she walked. Then, as the sun climbed high in the clear afternoon sky, Tolowim-Woman’s pace slackened. She was getting tired, so she set the cradleboard down against a giant oak tree and sat down beside it.

“Isn’t it beautiful up here in the hills?” she asked. Aki’s open smiling face was her answer. Tolowim-Woman laughed and realized it would be just as beautiful when the leaves began to fall and they would return to this spot togather acorns.

One day, while the women of the lodge were busy chatting among themselves, Tolowim-Woman put on her new buckskin dress, picked up her young son, whom she called Aki, and slipped quietly out the door. She set his cradleboard on the ground and knelt down to position it behind her.

She secured the tumpline, the wide strap that fit around her forehead to help support the cradleboard, and raised her son onto her back. Then she stepped lightly along the narrow path that led up into the hills.

Then Tolowim-Woman stood up and began to twirl around like a leaf in the breeze. Aki’s large brown eyes followed his mother as she whirled gaily around and around in circles.

While Tolowim-Woman twirled, a large black butterfly fluttered playfully around her. It brushed her extended arms. First one. Then the other. Then it floated over to where Aki’s cradleboard leaned against the tree and fluttered in front of the little boy’s happy face.

Tolowim-Woman stopped dancing when she heard her young son squealing. The handsome black butterfly circled around the oak tree showing off the tiny white circles that glowed above several reddish crossbars outlined on its wings. (These are the markings of a red admiral butterfly.) “You are so lovely,” she whispered. Then, impulsively, she reached out to grab it. But the handsome black butterfly quickly flew away.

Tolowim-Woman believed she had not been quick enough. She took a couple of steps toward it and tried again. And again. And again. Still the butterfly fluttered from one bush to another, staying just beyond her reach.

The handsome young butterfly drifted higher and higher into the hills. Tolowim-Woman wanted this butterfly more than she had ever wanted anything before. She could not stop chasing it. “Please,” she pleaded. “If you will wait for me I will go away with you.”

For a moment the great black wings seemed not to move. Then the handsome butterfly drifted downward and came to rest on a young manzanita bush. It did not move when Tolowim-Woman approached. But when she was close enough to reach out, it flew away.

Tolowim-Woman climbed over rocks, walked through brambles, and tripped on rotted tree stumps. Her legs became bloody, her long black hair tangled with grass and twigs, and the fringes on her new buckskin dress became torn. Still she could not stop chasing the butterfly.

At last, the sun slipped down behind the hills and her pace slowed. Exhausted, she sank down onto the ground. She called to the handsome butterfly, “I am too tired to follow you any longer.”

Slowly the black wings began to flutter, and the handsome young butterfly made a great wide circle in the air. It turned back and flew to the spot where Tolowim-Woman sat.

This time she did not reach out but watched quietly as it came closer and closer. When it landed on the ground beside her, it was no longer a butterfly but a handsome young man wearing only a thin band of white cloth around his head and a small apron held on by a narrow band of red around his waist.

Tolowim-Woman gasped, “You are the most handsome man I have ever seen.”

Butterfly-Man smiled, sat down beside her, and took her in his arms. They laid down together on the fresh warm grass and remained there until morning.

When Butterfly-Man awoke, he asked Tolowim-Woman, “Will you come home with me?”

“Oh yes,” she replied. “I will follow you wherever you go.” Love made her forget the husband she had left at home and the child whose cradleboard still leaned against an oak tree far away. All she could think about was the beautiful young man by her side, and the freedom they would share together.

“Come,” said Butterfly-Man, “I will take you to the land of my people. But it is a most dangerous journey. We must walk through the Valley of Butterflies, and they will all want to take you away from me. But you must not let them.”

He took her fingers and wrapped them around the band of red that circled his waist. “I will lead you through the valley safely, but you must not look at any of the butterflies. And you must never let go of me. If you do, I will lose my power to protect you.”

Tolowim-Woman held on with both hands, and the couple set off toward the Valley of Butterflies. Before they were halfway down the valley, butterflies of every shape, size, and color began to surround them.

Tolowim-Woman kept her eyes focused downward as she walked, and she tightened her grip on Butterfly-Man’s waist. Butterflies fluttered in front of her face. They circled her head, and brushed against her hair. Still she refused to look up.

Tolowim-Woman and Butterfly-Man traveled for many hours through great swarms of butterflies. Then, a bold black and orange one (a monarch butterfly), larger and stronger than Butterfly-Man, refused to go away. It flew back and forth in front of Tolowim-Woman’s downcast eyes, and when she would not open them it lit boldly on her trembling lower lip.

Tolowim-Woman could not remain composed any longer and made tiny slits in her eyes to take a look. The butterfly’s bright orange wings brushed lightly against her nose and tickled her. Instinctively, she reached for it. But before she could close her grip, it flew away.

Even though Tolowim-Woman feared that Butterfly-Man’s power to protect her might be lost, she could not stop reaching toward the brilliant black and orange wings that fluttered before her. Butterfly-Man remained silent. Tolowim-Woman continued to reach out with her free hand. Butterfly-Man’s pace increased.

Before long, hundreds of other butterflies, each one stronger and more beautiful than the next, began to swarm around them. Tolowim-Woman could not restrain herself. She reached for one. Then another. And another.

“You are all so beautiful,” she said as they whirled around her. “I want all of you.” Slowly the other hand slipped from Butterfly-Man’s waist, and she began to grab at butterflies in all directions.

But each time she thought she had captured one, it escaped from her grasp. Butterfly-Man continued walking. Faster. And faster. And faster. Tolowim-Woman continued to reach for butterflies in every direction.

“Wait,” she cried. “I am coming. Wait for me.”

Tolowim-Woman ran. And called out for Butterfly-Man. And kept reaching out for butterflies as she went. But Butterfly-Man did not slow down. Nor did he turn around. Before long, Tolowim-Woman’s heart was gone away.

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