This story is one of the July Writing Challenge entries chosen to be a featured story.
The sickness has already made your voice hollow and your cheekbones protrude, but I pretend I don’t notice as you talk, and you pretend it doesn’t hurt. Clearing the phlegm from your voice, you tell me about the times these half-towers and ruin clusters made up a beautiful castle—complete with winding stairs and plush velvet rugs. You tell me about the riches of the mystic Butterfly City and how they were stolen by pirates—how the castle was blown apart.
I listen and lean my head on your arm, thinking, “You’re the best grandfather in the world.” You finish the story, motioning towards the ruins to our right, covered in sand and salt and memories. At age seven, I don’t understand why you like coming here so much, so often. I don’t understand why you keep burying things in the sand—burnt cigarettes, old watches, journals wrapped in plastic bags.
At age seven, I don’t understand why you’re not getting better. I don’t know this is the last time you’ll tell me this story. I don’t know you will be gone in a week.
I’m ten years old, and I return to this place. A beach whose true name I’ll never know but will always call ‘Butterfly City.’ This corner of the world will always remind me of you.
I walk along the shore, letting the cool water numb the loneliness. I wish you were here with me. At age ten, I understand you can’t be—ever.
I walk towards the gloomy tower at the end of the sand. Its walls whisper with all the stories you made up for them, and I listen.
I’m thirteen years old, and the memory finds me in my sleep.
I wake, close my eyes again, but it doesn’t help. Your voice haunts me through my dreams, washes over me. I let go.
In the dream, we’re sitting down by the broken tower. Your eyes aren’t as sad as they were near the end; the high tide brushes our calves.
“If this castle was so grand,” I ask, “why doesn’t someone rebuild it? Why don’t people want to remember it?”
You smile—place your hand atop of mine, saying, “You can remember the best of things by the ruins they leave behind.” A hand goes to your ribcage, hovering over the place where I know you carry a scar—either from your time in the war or your time on the yard, I do not know. “Scars are just another way of remembering,” you say, and I know it must be something you stole from a book.
At age thirteen, I nod and stare at the ruins—the spaces between them crammed with your words.
The wind around us whistles—I wake up.
I’m sixteen years old, and your absence does not hurt anymore.
I never really stop missing you, but it doesn’t tear me down the way it used to.
I walk around Butterfly City and see how nothing’s changed—notice how much I have.
The blown-apart walls are still blown apart. The sand on my feet feels the same. The wind sounds the same. The little plants that grow at the periphery are ever green.
I sit on the sand and watch the sun melt into the sea.
“The past always stays the same.”
At age sixteen, I’ve changed.
I am nineteen years old today, and the first thing I do when I wake up is drive down to Butterfly City.
I’ve come to think of you as an architect of words.
Is the past always the same even if my memories change?
It’s hard to remember the exact sound of your voice.
These thoughts are more sporadic now, but we shared the same birthday—so today half of my thoughts belong to you.
Down in the sand, I build a castle—my complete vision of these ruins.
A temporary token of you.
When I’m about to leave, my feet stumble onto something half-buried in the sand, and for a moment I fear someone else has been here—tainted this place.
As I pull your plastic-wrapped journal from the sand, my heart rate slows.
I take off the wrapping and brush the pages open, seeing how you’ve written: “My heart is buried in Butterfly City.”
At nineteen years old, you’ve given me the best gift I’ll ever receive. A land of stories and a journal full of dreams.
At nineteen years old, there are things I leave behind here, too.
This is where I rest my ruins.
At nineteen years old, I’ve buried my heart here, too.
Healing is just another way of remembering.