It’s October, and the trees that line the perimeter of the cemetery are bursting with the bright hues of autumn. I meander along the sidewalk that runs parallel to the graveyard’s iron and stone fence quietly, unnoticed, intent on reaching my destination. I’ve travelled far to come to this place, and today I will end my pilgrimage here in this cemetery, in hopes of visiting someone I love. I gaze up at the canopy of leaves above me, crimson and topaz aflame with the sun backlighting their colours. Fall has always been the most glorious season, in my estimation.A flurry of bright blue interrupts the endless scarlet and gold as a butterfly makes its way along the fence, its wings flitting gently in the crisp breeze. It comes to rest on a stalk of tall grass that is poking through the iron bars, and is still. I pause, and feel a lump rise in my throat as I stare at the delicate creature. When I remember you, I remember colour- butterflies and autumn leaves, sunsets and flowers in bloom, beauty and brightness. The butterfly takes to the sky, carefree, and my mind follows, my thoughts wandering back to the day we met. It was October then too... and, in fact, it was in a tree similar to the fiery maples above me that we first laid eyes on one another...***I was eleven then, and on that day I was the victim of a head cold. Not a serious one; but one serious enough that I was able to convince my father and stepmother to let me go home from church halfway through the service. Eleven was the age, at least at my church, when children were no longer allowed to attend Sunday School and were relegated to sit through a long, boring sermon every week. I had yet to become accustomed to the change. I cleared the churchyard and began making my way through the park behind the church, enjoying the satisfying crunch of leaves beneath my sneakers as I wound through the stately trees. This park was, at least in my opinion, far more interesting than a sermon, and so I would take my time getting home.A few minutes into my walk I heard a rustle in the trees above me, and I paused and glanced upwards. I expected to see a bird, or perhaps a squirrel, but what I saw instead was a pair of inquisitive eyes staring down at me. I drew in a breath, shocked by the fact that I was being spied on. “Who... who are you?” I stammered, staring up at the eyes.The eyes blinked, and then I heard a peal of musical laughter. “Come up here,” a young female voice whispered.I gaped at the face in the trees, dumbfounded. “Well, what are you waiting for?” the voice urged me. “Up the tree already! You look like you could use an adventure.”I hesitated for a moment longer, and then located the base of the tree and began to clamber, somewhat awkwardly, up the trunk. The spying girl was perched high in the branches, and I gasped as I climbed, my feet slipping numerous times on the damp tree bark. Finally I reached the highest limb, and it was then that I got my first true glimpse of you.You were clad in a blue Sunday dress that looked to be too small for you, its reaches festooned in ruffles and lace. Your eyes were wide and the same colour as your dress; a smattering of freckles graced your nose. Your hair was pulled into a ponytail, with unruly wisps poking out here and there, and its strawberry-blonde colour matched the autumn leaves well. You smiled at me mischievously. “I didn’t think you’d actually do it.”“Do what?” I asked.“Climb the tree, silly.” You shifted on your branch, letting your legs dangle freely. “What’s your name?”“Uh... Michael Leonardo.” “Leotardo?” you asked, grinning slightly.“Leonardo,” I corrected.“I like Leotardo better,” you smirked.I shrugged, not really caring to argue. “What’s your name?”“You mean you don’t know?” you replied in a mocking tone. “I’m surprised. I’m famous, you know.” I laughed uncertainly. “Nope, sorry. You’re gonna have to tell me.”Your name was Lena Hedley, I discovered, and you were exactly nine months my senior, enough time to land us in separate grades, and, therefore, separate Sunday School classes. “Just think,” you giggled when you discovered our age gap, “if we’re nine months apart that means that while my parents were having me, yours were doing you-know-what!” We lived in the same neighbourhood, and each of us had lost a parent to cancer when we were little; other than that we had next to nothing in common. I went to Saint Joseph’s Academy, a small private school; you went to Creekside Middle School. I was the third in a large blended family of five, you were an only child. I lived in a 3,000 square foot home on two acres with a swimming pool in the backyard; you and your mother inhabited the diminutive basement suite of a home that was quite similar. I liked comics and video games, you liked to paint. I was shy and bookish, and it was immediately evident that you were not. “So what are you doing back here, anyways?” you asked me once we’d compared our lives. “Playing hooky from church?”I shook my head. “I was on my way home. I have a cold.” I pointed to my throat. “What about you?”You laughed. “I am playing hooky,” you declared almost proudly. “No way I’m going to sit through a sermon!”I chuckled. “They are kind of boring,” I admitted.“Kind of?” you snorted. “I have a feeling that God himself skips church when Pastor Russell is preaching.”I looked up at you, shocked.“What, you don’t agree?” You slithered down on your branch so you were lying almost flat, and gazed up at the leaves above you. “If I was God,” you said to me, “I’d cut church every now and then and come hang out in the trees, admire all the stuff I’d made.”I laughed nervously. “Maybe.”“You know, I think heaven is more like a forest than a church service,” you went on. “I mean, church services can be okay, but they’re not...” You paused suddenly, and drew in a breath.“What?” I asked, glancing over at you.“Look,” you breathed, pointing. A large purple butterfly had made its way into our tree and was perched on a leaf, its translucent wings beating steadily.I glanced at the butterfly, and shrugged. “So?”Your eyes widened. “Don’t you know, Michael? Butterflies are magical.”“Magical?” I repeated, my eyes narrowing.You nodded emphatically. “They’re messengers from heaven. At least that’s what I like to think.” At that moment my watch beeped, indicating that it was noon, and you sat up. “Well I’d best get back to church before my mom misses me. See you around, Leotardo!” You grinned at me and began clambering back down the tree. You jumped the last few branches and landed in the leaves with a crunch, and I stared after you as you ran towards the church, your bright ponytail flying behind you in the breeze.***Death is a strange thing, I think as I clear the gates of the cemetery and begin to make my way through the rows of tombstones. So many of these stones are cracked with age, their writing fading, and yet they remain, sometimes for centuries. Death carries a finality; but memories, like the faded stones, never truly die. Death is both cold and poignant, bleak and hopeful. Bittersweet. The wind picks up, sending leaves skittering around my feet. A chill runs through me, one that’s not just from the wind. They say that these places are haunted by the spirits of those whose bodies occupy these sites- an idea that I would have at one time immediately dismissed. I wonder if the spirits are like the memories, slowly fading but never ceasing. I smile as I think back to the years that followed our first meeting in the trees; the tender, confusing years of adolescence when every nuance, every stinging remark from a peer or lecture from a parent or glance from a beautiful girl carries far more than its true weight. We were both “problem children,” in the estimation of those who guarded us, though neither of us was rebellious in the truest sense of the word- we never did drugs or vandalized property or intentionally gave people attitude. Me, I was withdrawn and awkward, a nerd who immersed himself in fantasy and video games in order to make it through each day. My classmates looked at my dark clothes and violent musical tastes and wondered if one day I would come to class wielding a gun; the church did not look fondly upon my love of fantasy, believing that dragons and magic were devilish things; and at home I was always living in the shadow of my older, more perfect step-siblings. And you were just too flighty, too irresponsible, always getting in trouble over skipped classes and undone homework, always arriving ten minutes late for everything, your clothing dishevelled and your bright hair blown every which way. And so we built a world together to shelter us from the harshness of our realities, and there was many a moment when each of us felt that the other was the only one who truly understood them. Nights when we would sneak from our houses and lay in the grass at the lake, drinking Coke, you asking me questions about the mysteries of the male mind. My sixteenth birthday, when you cut class and showed up at my school with a cake. The night when you crawled through my window and slept on my floor because you were afraid of going home to your mother’s drunken fits. And our first date- your prom; your hair done up in flowing curls and your dress shimmering like butterfly wings. It was that day that I knew that I loved you, but I couldn’t find the words to tell you, and only days after that you left town to travel the world. Now we are separated yet again, torn asunder by Death, and I cannot wrap my mind around the idea that we may not see one another for another fifty or sixty years. I turn down a row of stones, my eyes on one at the end of the lane, and my mind returns to our days together...***I returned to our hometown at the age of twenty-four, a shadow of the man I’d once been. I’d spent four years in university working my butt off for my degree, and had found a job in the big city soon after. Three years later, my company went under, and it was this- coupled with a broken relationship- that had brought me home. Now I was settled in; I had a steady job with an insurance company and a nice apartment; nonetheless I’d completely lost my sense of self in the transition. Nightmares plagued me nearly every time I slept, and I found myself alone in my apartment most evenings with the company of only the television and Jack Daniels. When the business end of a shotgun began to look appealing to me, I decided that it was time for some action. I needed to change, now.So I went back to church for the first time in years. The sermons, while still not the most entertaining material on earth, were considerably less boring now than they’d been when I was eleven, and the people were nice enough. I began working on projects at the church and volunteering to help the less fortunate, and taking long evening walks in the old park behind the church to think. Some of the darkness remained in the recesses of my mind; nonetheless I felt better when I was busy so I continued my activities, buried my melancholy in meetings and volunteer efforts. One late May evening, the park was quiet and I found myself wandering over to the playground, settling into a swing and letting the wind rock me back and forth. The air was fragrant with blossoming trees tonight, and my thoughts were heavy, confused. I was so lost in my jumbled reflections that I nearly jumped out of my skin when a voice behind me said, “Still playing on the swings, are we, Leotardo?”I whirled around and my mouth fell open at the sight of you standing above me, dressed in jeans and a white blouse festooned by a colourful scarf, your radiant hair a windblown mess. “Lena,” I gasped. A thousand emotions collided inside me at that moment, and I wanted to hug you tight, to pick you up and twirl you around and exclaim my delight in seeing you again. But I was, as I’ve always been, uncertain about myself, so I stayed seated in my swing and grinned up at you like an idiot.You plopped down in the swing next to me, nonchalant. “It’s been awhile,” you said casually. I nodded and studied you. The last time I’d seen you was that night at your prom; back then you’d been beautiful, but barely a woman. You looked different now, more mature in a way that I could not qualify. Your eyes had new depth to them, your freckles had faded, your face had lost some of its elfin childlikeness. You grinned at me, and my heart sped up. Same old smile. “We need to catch up,” you said decisively. “Come.” You stood and grabbed my hand, pulled me from my swing and into yet another adventure.The apartment where you lived was not far from the park; nonetheless it took us a good hour to get there, as you insisted on stopping repeatedly to watch the squirrels in the trees or smell the tulips that lined the park’s path, or exclaim over the way the sun reflected off the cumulus giants in the sky. I laughed as I watched you; I’d forgotten how easily you found mystery and glory in the everyday. For you, it had always seemed, life was a constant adventure, every moment pregnant with possibilities. I envied you for a moment; wished I was as carefree and effervescent as you’d always been. Your place was tiny, a little bachelor pad with a pull-out bed and nearly non-existent kitchen, but it boasted touches of whimsy- a fireplace, sloping ceilings, and a small porch. The apartment walls were alive with colour; lively paintings on canvasses and photo collages from your travels and indigenous artwork from various countries graced the walls. A vibrant patchwork quilt covered the couch that pulled out into your bed, and a painting sat on an easel in the corner, half-completed. The table and desk were littered with stacks of paper and various trinkets, and you glanced at them apologetically as I looked around, mentioning that you weren’t expecting company.You made us grilled cheese sandwiches and tea, as this was all you had in the house, and we sat outside on your porch and watched the sky turn pink, and you asked me about my life, and what had brought me back here. I didn’t feel like telling you everything right then, so I gave you a brief summary of my years in university and my lost job, and then changed the subject to the plethora of bright flowers blooming in pots and boxes on the porch. You smiled when I mentioned them. “Don’t you know about these?” you asked me. “These plants attract butterflies and hummingbirds.”I smiled at you. “Still obsessed with butterflies, are we?”“Always,” you replied with sincere eyes. “Look.” You pulled down the neckline of your blouse and showed me the tattoo of a butterfly that was emblazoned on your right shoulder.I chuckled as I studied it. “A tattoo, eh? Sounds like your kind of fun.”We went inside after that and lit a fire in the fireplace, sat on the couch. You pulled out your photo albums and showed me picture after picture of the many places you’d visited over the last seven years. You’d not been home for more than a month at a time in those years; you would settle down in a place and obtain a work visa, work for a few months or a year or so, and then continue your adventures. England, Italy, Spain, Thailand, Australia, South America- even a stint working in an orphanage in Africa. You’d been everywhere, seen everything. You’d ridden an elephant and bungy jumped and hiked in the Alps, taken a motorcycle ride into remote parts of Vietnam, seen Macchu Picchu, held an orphaned newborn in your arms. At first I felt more than a few pangs of jealousy at your adventures, but then your voice turned melancholy as you spoke of drunken nights and friends who betrayed you, of giving yourself to men who cared nothing for you and seeking thrill after thrill in an attempt to find some sort of transcendence. I gazed at you, in love with your vulnerability, wishing that I had the courage to be as transparent as you. Eventually you were quiet, and I frowned, uncertain what to say. So many things could have been said here... perhaps should have been said here... and yet I was never the master of the spoken word. “So is that why you came back?” were the words that finally emerged from my mouthYou shrugged noncommittally. “I guess so,” you replied in a soft tone. “I went all the way around the world looking for, well, something... and I guess one day I realized that this thing I wanted, maybe I’d had it all along. Maybe it was back home, waiting for me.”I nodded slowly at your words. “I think I understand,” I whispered.You responded by staring at me intently for a moment, and then reaching up and tracing your fingers down my cheekbone, pulling me towards you. My heart jumped in my chest as your lips caressed my own, tender and delicate like a butterfly, inviting me into something glorious.Moments later our clothes were flying every which way and we were entangled in one another, and I knew in the depths of myself that this was something more than a fling, a whirlwind romance. In your embrace I felt the hopelessness that had cloaked my days falling away; it seemed that all my darkness was being swallowed up in the colour and beauty and brightness that was you......and we were one.***I am standing by the grave now, staring at the lettering carved into the stone. The grave is still new; a colourful but slightly withered bouquet of flowers festoons its top and the date on the headstone reads less than six months ago. It seems like just days since I held you in my arms, and yet it also seems a lifetime ago. I run my fingers over the familiar name on the stone, gaze at the dates again and frown. Why do people die so young? We were barely adults; neither of us had seen our thirtieth birthday when the reaper had come calling.I breathe a heavy sigh and settle on a nearby bench. Perhaps I should leave. It seems that this visit, rather than bringing the solace I’d anticipated, is leaving me with a hollow feeling inside. What I wouldn’t give to feel the warmth of your skin on mine again, see the brightness of your hair! I am certainly no longer the dark creature that I was that night when we first made love; nonetheless I find myself longing for your brilliance to consume me again. I wish that I could summon you to this place, call out to you and tell you that I am waiting here for you.A lone leaf drifts from the maple above and lands in front of me. I lean forward and study its colours, and my mind wanders to the last time that I held you close to me...***A slice of sunshine cut through the window and blazed its way across my face. I groaned slightly and opened my eyes, squinting against the rays. The room was quiet as ever, and your hand was still in mine. We’d been this way for days now.Your eyes fluttered open a moment later and you mumbled a hello, and I smiled weakly back at you, thinking that this was the first time since we arrived here three days before that we’ve both been awake, coherent. We’d spent these last few days in bed, only leaving when nature called, holding each other and waiting for the end. I don’t think either of us of had been surprised when we’d received the diagnosis. After all, you’d reasoned on the way home from the doctor’s appointment, the disease ran in both of our families. It was bound to come after one of us eventually. The following months had unfolded in a blur of hospital rooms and chemo appointments and surgeries, in lost hair and shed pounds, in prayers and casseroles brought by the church folk. You’d never been good at hiding your emotions, so you cried a lot in those days, and I did my best not to let you see my own pain; I determined to be the strong one.When the prognosis had turned terminal, we’d packed our bags and left the hospital, returned home to treasure our last few months together. For Christmas that year, my parents had paid for us to go to Hawaii. On good days we had ventured from the hotel and wandered the lush tropical gardens, laid on the beach, and then returned to our hotel room to make love ever so gently. On bad days we’d stayed in the room and watched old sitcoms on television and laughed and cried about nothing. Returning home, we’d spent our days with friends and family, the nurse visiting daily, the doctor telling us that our time together was limited to months, then weeks, and then days.When we were told it would only be days, we’d packed our bags again and kissed our families goodbye, and had retreated to my parents’ cabin to spend our last moments together in solitude. We’d been here three days now- days that had passed in a blurry haze. I was done being strong. We were both tired to the bone, one of us from sickness and the other from the mental and emotional exhaustion that comes with being the guardian of the terminally ill.Next to me, you gasped, and your hand squeezed mine. I opened my eyes again and glanced at you inquisitively. “Look,” you whispered, motioning with your chin to the ceiling.I stared upwards and saw that a brilliant monarch butterfly had somehow made its way into the cabin, and was fluttering madly around the light fixture. I breathed in deeply, and found a painful smile working its way across my face.“A messenger?” you asked me in a trembling voice. I heard the unspoken question in your tone. Is it time?“You still believe they’re messengers from heaven?” I asked softly.You turned to me, your mouth turning up slightly. “I’m not sure, Michael.” You paused, gazed at me. “Do you still believe in heaven?”I nodded. Now more than ever.“I’m not sure if I’ll get in,” you mused.I laughed hoarsely, somewhat shocked by your confession. “Why’s that?”“I’ve never been very good at being good,” you replied. “You’ve always been the straight-laced one.” Your face crinkled in a faint smile. “Weren’t you the one who insisted that we get married so that we wouldn’t be living in sin?”I chuckled again. “If you think that’s the only reason I married you...” I trailed off, squeezed your hand gently.I sighed, and my mind wandered over the past years. We’d enjoyed one year of bliss following our marriage. We’d moved into my apartment and you’d decorated it with your whimsy, your colour, planted your butterfly garden on my patio. We’d spent our evenings together, you painting and me watching television or reading a fantasy novel, never tiring of the other’s company. Late at night we would sneak out to the old lake and watch the stars, or clamber up trees in the park behind the church, and then return home and drink wine by the fire, fall asleep together under your bright patchwork quilt. I’d only recently gotten the nerve to tell you that I, too, was not surprised by the cancer, but for different reasons than you. Our life together seemed too perfect to last more than a short time; a pleasant dream that was bound to end, sooner or later.“Do you wish you hadn’t married me, now that things have gone... this way?” you asked me.“Never,” I murmured, reaching out a trembling hand to stroke your face and swallowing the lump in my throat. “You... you lit up my life, Lena.” I paused. “Do you regret it?”“Of course not,” you replied with a soft smile. You gazed up at the flurry of yellow-orange that was still circling the light madly. “I’m betting there are butterflies in heaven.”“Probably,” I agreed.We were quiet after that; the conversation, short as it had been, had worn both of us out. You cuddled up to me, pressed your warm body against my own, and moments later your breathing steadied. The light from outside the window began to fade soon after, and the butterfly found its way outside. I gazed at you with weary eyes, knowing somehow that the time had come, that this would be our last night together. And so I planted a kiss on the back of your neck and allowed sleep to overtake me. And indeed, when I next awoke you were no longer with me; we were worlds apart.***I am jerked from my reverie by the sound of leaves crunching beneath shoes. My head snaps up, and a moment later you step into my line of vision, and my mouth falls open.You are every bit as beautiful as I remember you, clad in a bright skirt that falls to your ankles and a long brown fall jacket, your autumn-coloured hair loose and flowing. I stare as you kneel next to the vault, wondering if this is my imagination, if you are a mirage of some sort. You lean forward and place a fresh sprig of flowers on the grave, and a moment later I hear you sniffling. Cautiously, I move from the bench and kneel in the grass next to you. I am inches away from you now; I can feel your warmth, hear your staggered, gasping breaths as you attempt to control your tears. I carefully reach out and lay a hand on your shoulder; you, of course, do not register its presence. I stare at the headstone’s inscription again. Michael James Leonardo; September 4, 1984- May 2, 2012. You will be missed always. Strange to think that I’d only lived just short of twenty-eight years; stranger still to think that the body that once housed me is decomposing just feet below me. You are weeping now, and I wish that I could speak to you somehow. There are so many things I would tell you if I could. I’d tell you of the wonders that await you on the other side, of the colours that you have not yet seen, the brightness that infuses everything; that you were right about heaven being nothing like a church service. I’d tell you that you are loved more than you can imagine, and that you have strength in you that you do not see. I’d tell you how eagerly I anticipate the day when we can speak and laugh and run together in the new world, the world which I now inhabit.A flash of blue floats into my line of vision, and my eyes widen. It appears that my friend has not left me. The butterfly seems to sense my presence; in fact it lands on my finger, perching delicately on something unseen by man. I stare at it for a moment, and then I understand that this butterfly is a gift, and I make a mental note to thank the Giver when I see him later. I inch my finger towards your hand, and gently place the butterfly on your fingertip. You start for a moment, and then stare. A smile breaks out on your face and you bring your hand up to your eyes, blinking away your tears, transfixed by the delicate beauty resting on your finger. I feel the pull then, the need to return home. I reach out and run my fingers through your hair, and you shiver, pull your coat tighter around your frame. Just a breeze, you are undoubtedly telling yourself. I begin my ascent, and the butterfly leaves your finger and flies back to me, fluttering restlessly around my otherworldly being. You stare at it for a moment, and then your eyes widen and I know that you understand. You smile at the heavenly messenger, and then place two fingers on your lips and blow a kiss in my direction. I smile back at you and return the kiss, and hope that you know that death is not the end, that one day you and I will hold one another again. Until then, though, I must leave, and so I steal one last glance at your radiance, and then turn my gaze upward and return to the heavens on the wings of a butterfly.