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The Butterfly, a True Story


The Yellowjacket, a Fiction



            Early the next morning, I opened the flaps of my tent and looked out toward the horizon where a brilliant sun was breaking over the vast emptiness that lay before me and all around me. A short distance away, a small tree stood alone on a hillock, the only elevation visible, and it drew me to it, like water after a drought.

            I climbed the hill and sat under the tree, surveying the endless landscape that had seemed so barren of life, but which was dotted with strong, low-lying plants that had long ago adapted to the arid environment.

            Suddenly, I was aware of something flying at the periphery of my vision, like a fleeting shadow, and a thought came to me, as if I had pulled it from the still air, a thought which defied my bitter cynicism: “It’s Jay’s butterfly!”

            And then I saw it. It circled once around my head, and lit on my wrist. I looked down to see a yellow-jacket cleaning its wings on my arm!


         For the first time in a long, long time, I smiled a genuine smile, and spoke out loud to the wasp. “Keep trying, Jay; you’ll come back as a butterfly, yet.”

Jay sent me this thank you note less than one week before we put him to death on Feb. 9, 1999

         I waited. I imagined him saying, “That’s an interesting word, ‘failed.’ Why do you think you failed?” But he said nothing.          I could feel my heart
beating high in my chest, see my pulse pumping hard in my wrist. I waited, trying not to focus on that ticking egg timer.
         “You were telling me about your failure,” he said.
         “My failure, your failure. Everybody’s failure. They killed him. We killed him. He was alive and vibrant, and then he was dead, and we did it.”

         “I didn’t do it,” he said, an edge of defensiveness creeping into his voice. It gave me the feeling of being in control, for the first time since he asked me to sit opposite him, and set that timer to one hour. This was
territory I knew. He uncrossed his legs.
         “Yes, you did it. Everyone in this state did it. It’s always done in the name of the People of California. Aren’t you one of those?”

         I wanted to smile — not a “genuine” smile, the way our conversation had begun, but a
smug, “I got-you-motherfucker” smile. But I knew what he would do with that, and I kept my professional face on. “Okay,” he said. “If that makes you feel any better. Can we talk about the yellowjacket now?”
         “What about it?”
         “Yes, exactly. What about it?”
         “Well, it made me smile. He was a Buddhist, see? He thought he’d come back as a butterfly. He TOLD us he was coming back as a butterfly.
But he came back as a yellowjacket. It’s funny.”
         “Why is that funny? Do you believe he was reincarnated as a yellowjacket?”
         My God! Where did Judith find this guy? “Yeah, sure I believe he came back as a wasp,” I said, watching for some reaction to my absurd answer to his absurd question, but his thin, angular face betrayed nothing of what he was thinking.
         “Of course I don’t believe he came back as a yellowjacket. That’s what makes it funny.”
         “I don’t get it,” he said, perhaps honestly. “Would you think it funny if it had stung you?”
         “No. No. I don’t get it, either,” I said, “I don’t get it at all.”

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