The Ascent of Butterfly Mountain

ONCE WE BEGAN to climb up Altamirano Hill, everything enthralled us, the greens of the foliage and the browns of the hard-packed earth, the red gashes of ravines and the yellows of bumblebees, the white blossoms and the wild sunflowers, the wine-dark capulin cherries, the white sapodilla trees, the bottle-green nopals, and the blue-green magueys. Snails, beetles, and inchworms crawled among the wood geraniums with their delicate pale mauve flowers and around the madroñas, whose berries the birds eat in March.

“Here’s where the road forks. You go left for Santa Maria, straight for the Plain of the Mules,” Fidel said from between two palo blanco trees whose roots crisscrossed the path.

“That’s a hog-nosed pit viper. It’s more poisonous when it’s hotter out, from March to the middle of May.” Arturo blocked its passage with a stick.

“Listen to the magpie-jays croaking.” Marilupe pointed toward a group of birds among the branches.

“Where are the oaks?” Ramon asked.

“The oaks are farther up, and the goldfinches too,” Fidel replied. “The oyamel forest comes after the oaks — that’s where the monarch butterflies go each winter.”

“My heart’s pounding, I can’t take anymore. Let me on that animal.” Marilupe mounted the mule that was more donkey than mare.

“Gee up.” Fidel urged on the mule that sagged under the weight of the girl who didn’t want to walk.

Butterflies fluttered down the slopes of Painter’s Ravine. Marina picked one off the ground, trying in vain to revive the insect with broken wings whose abdomen had been gnawed by a mouse. When she touched another with her finger it flew off. Minerva placed a butterfly on her hair.

We sat down to rest in the ravine. Pre-Columbian drawings of coyotes and snakes and calendar signs marched across the inner face of the rocks, which arched into a natural roof. Ramon drew out a pack of Tigres and we all had a smoke, wondering who made the drawings and what they meant.

The river of butterflies in search of water was still flowing down below, through the streets of Contepec.

A woodcutter appeared among the palo santo trees on our right, beating a donkey that was dragging an oyamel double its own width. The broad branches raked the ground, sweeping stones along. Butterflies flapped on its leaves, as if unaware the tree was dead.

Jesus “Yonosé” (“I dunno”) was standing on a boulder waving a net and some sticks in the air. Blood trickled down from the fresh scratches on his arms and his dusky skin glistened with sweat. The handle of a sickle knife stuck out of his pants pocket. Nearby, “El Tongo,” his hairy torso exposed, was lying facedown in wait for some little animal to emerge from its burrow. Through a soiled bandage blood and pus oozed from a wound on his left leg. Yonosé helped El Tongo trap small mammals. For some time now the two men had been spending all day, every day, on the mountain and they were finishing off the wildlife. When they saw us looking at them they crouched down behind the boulder.

“Are there any animals left in the woods?” Marina asked.

“The armadillos are coming out now. It’s pretty hard to catch wildcats up there, but in the dry season they come down to drink aguamiel from the magueys,” Fidel replied.

“This climb is for mules, not people. Make room for me.” Minerva mounted behind Marilupe.

“Watch out, she can’t carry us both,” the latter protested.

“There’s a great view of the town from here,” said Arturo.

The pealing of bells reached our ears. Sundered from the metal, the sound traveled on its own through the air.

“Ouch, a branch scraped my knee,” Marilupe squealed.

“Are you okay?” Arturo helped her dismount.

“Sure, just great.”

“There used to be rabbits and deer running all over the mountain, and you’d hear snakes in the scrub, but today even snakes are scarce,” Fidel lamented.

“We should go straight ahead right to the top,” Ramon said.

“That’s the right way to get lost,” Fidel replied.

“Now I get it, you have to go round and round to reach the monarch sanctuary. The way down is really going up,” said Ramon.

“Fidel, do what Ramon says, and let me know when you get back.” Minerva sat down on a mossy rock. Red ants swarmed over her shoes.

My eyes followed Marina’s body, entranced by its shapeliness. Her body that I had touched at school and at the dance had made me desire her, and made me nostalgic for those moments.

“From here on up to the firs we’ll only see oaks. The trees are starting to get big.” Fidel announced.

“Is it still a long way to the sanctuary?” Minerva asked.

“We should be there in under an hour.”

“We keep walking on stones, we keep passing trees, and for what? We don’t get anywhere.”

“It’s going to rain, see that black cloud growing on the horizon, it’s going to rain around five this afternoon,” Arturo predicted.

“The sky is completely clear,” Fidel replied. “It won’t rain for three months.”

“It’s going to cloud over soon, this heat means rain.”

“I fell down! And I can’t get out!” Minerva screamed from the bottom of a ravine, her legs all scratched. Ramon stretched out his hand to her. She leaned her weight on a stick instead.

“The wild sunflowers are a prettier color up here. These are oxeyes. Those red ones are firecracker bush. They call this lopezia, it already flowered,” Fidel explained. “Near the summit the earth is softer and redder.”

“Look, there’s moss growing on the bark and the muddy stones,” Minerva said.

I moved away from the group to be by myself. A clearing in the brush beckoned. A path led left to a bright green hillock with a white rock at its center. An armadillo curled its bony plates and ringed tail into a ball. An eagle flew overhead.

One day I’ll write a book about butterfly mountain, I vowed.

Coming around a crag, I bumped into Marina.

“Let’s see if it flies.” Marina flung a monarch into the air. Its wings broken, the butterfly fell to the ground.

“It’s wounded.”

When she looked at me I forgot about myself. I felt insubstantial, immaterial, anonymous.

“Never seen her before, dummy? It’s Marina, the girl from Mexico City.” Ramon startled me out of my bemusement.

She smiled at me, I thought.

“What’s up, dummy, seen a ghost?” Ramon waggled his chilblained hand in my face.

“Don’t call me dummy, Ramon, save it for yourself.”

“You looked dumbfounded, buddy.”

“Because I did see a ghost — you.”

Marina and I kept walking. Ramon fell behind, nettled and itching for a fight, his face flushed with sweaty anger.

I was wondering if I should say something to her, tell her that I loved her, when she took my hand.

“What happened to you?” I noticed a scab on her arm.

“I cut myself with a knife.”

“Where do you live in Mexico?”

“In the Condesa.”

“Why did your mother leave Contepec?”

“Ever since she was a little girl she wanted to go on the stage, so she went to Mexico City to study acting.”

“People say your Aunt Carlota worked in a whorehouse in Tijuana. Is that true?”

“That’s stupid gossip.”

I saw she was annoyed by this mention of her aunt so I changed the subject. “Let’s pretend we’re the first people who lived here and give names to all these nameless places. For example, we could call this hillock Marilupe’s Breast, this puddle could be Ramon’s Mouth, that oak tossed by the wind could be Minerva’s Seduction.”

“I think not,” she replied, frowning.

“Where’ve you been all this time?” Ramon overtook us, trampling branches and leaves, his body expressing his anger.

“Oh, we just took a walk for a few minutes,” Marina explained.

“A few minutes? It’s been exactly twelve,” he shot back, as if he’d been timing us.

“They’re guilty of running away to be alone together,” Arturo quipped.

“Just how old is this guy? I can’t stand having him around,” Marina asked me, meaning Ramon.

“Who knows, Marina, and who cares.”

“Let’s get ahead of them.” Marina walked faster and from behind I studied her broad hips and slender waist. Catching up with her, I could see the swell of her breast where her shirt gapped open, and her skin gleaming with perspiration.

“The more we walk, the farther away the sanctuary gets,” Marilupe complained.

“Here’s where the oyamels begin, this path will take us to the summit,” Fidel said. “There, in that small clearing, that’s where the butterflies are.”

“That’s what you said yesterday.”

ATOP ALTAMIRANO, the butterflies were there, a million-strong colony in the sun-swept patches of the ancient crater. Making waves in the air, they gave the dark green grove an undulating rhythm of its own. They also came in bursts of living fire, vibrating in sheaves of orangey-black beams. With their five-inch wingspread, the monarchs made a fantastic spectacle.

Each tree was a splendor in itself, an animated world, a rain of winged tigers: rooted in time, it seemed suspended, at once distant and near.

Myriad butterflies piled up, shifted, opening and closing above the trees, or hung in live clusters from the branches that bent under their weight. From fir to fir, from plant to plant, their numbers grew; flittering nervously, they alighted on sunlit paths of the forest floor.

Spellbound, I didn’t know where to look first, at the clusters hanging from the branches or the butterflies like flying leaves against the light. The monarchs were a sonata and with my eyes I listened to their music.

This piece, originally published in the September/October 2009 issue of Orion magazine, is part of a joint effort by Orion and Words without Borders. For more information and for other Orion pieces, click here. And click here for the project in Words without Borders.

“The Ascent of Butterfly Mountain” is adapted from Homero Aridjis’s semi-autobiographical novel La Montaña de las mariposas. A lifelong defender of the monarchs, Aridjis convinced Mexico’s president in 1986 to create a protected reserve in the high-mountain oyamel fir forests in Michoacan and the state of Mexico where the monarchs overwinter. Aridjis is the author of forty books of poetry and prose. He is the recipient of various literary and environmental prizes, including The Orion Society’s John Hay Award and two Guggenheim Fellowships. He is currently Mexico’s Ambassador to UNESCO.

Betty Ferber is the translator of three novels by Homero Aridjis: 1492: The Life and Times of Juan Cabezon of Castile, The Lord of the Last Days: Visions of the Year 1000, and Persephone. With Canadian-Irish poet George McWhirter she coedited Eyes to See Otherwise: Selected Poetry of Homero Aridjis.