In the Time of the Butterflies - By Julia Alvarez





circa 1943

She is plucking her bird of paradise of its dead branches, leaning around the plant every time she hears a car. The woman will never find the old house behind the hedge of towering hibiscus at the bend of the dirt road. Not a gringa dominicana in a rented car with a road map asking for street names! Dedé had taken the call over at the little museum this morning.

Could the woman please come over and talk to Dedé about the Mirabal sisters? She is originally from here but has lived many years in the States, for which she is sorry since her Spanish is not so good. The Mirabal sisters are not known there, for which she is also sorry for it is a crime that they should be forgotten, these unsung heroines of the underground, et cetera.

Oh dear, another one. Now after thirty-four years, the commemora tions and interviews and presentations of posthumous honors have almost stopped, so that for months at a time Dedé is able to take up her own life again. But she’s long since resigned herself to Novembers. Every year as the 25th rolls around, the television crews drive up. There’s the obligatory interview. Then, the big celebration over at the museum, the delegations from as far away as Peru and Paraguay, an ordeal really, making that many little party sandwiches and the nephews and nieces not always showing up in time to help. But this is March, ¡Maria santisima! Doesn’t she have seven more months of anonymity?

“How about this afternoon? I do have a later commitment,” Dedé lies to the voice. She has to. Otherwise, they go on and on, asking the most impertinent questions.

There is a veritable racket of gratitude on the other end, and Dedé has to smile at some of the imported nonsense of this woman’s Spanish. “I am so compromised,” she is saying, “by the openness of your warm manner.”

“So if I’m coming from Santiago, I drive on past Salcedo?” the woman asks.

“Exactamente. And then where you see a great big anacahuita tree, you turn left.”

“A ... great... big ... tree ...,” the woman repeats. She is writing all this down! “I turn left. What’s the name of the street?”

“It’s just the road by the anacahuita tree. We don’t name them,” Dedé says, driven to doodling to contain her impatience. On the back of an envelope left beside the museum phone, she has sketched an enormous tree, laden with flowers, the branches squirreling over the flap. “You see, most of the campesinos around here can’t read, so it wouldn’t do us any good to put names on the roads.”

The voice laughs, embarrassed. “Of course. You must think I’m so outside of things.” Tan afuera de la cosa.

Dede bites her lip. “Not at all,” she lies. “I’ll see you this afternoon then.”

“About what time?” the voice wants to know.

Oh yes. The gringos need a time. But there isn’t a clock time for this kind of just-right moment. “Any time after three or three-thirty, four-ish.”

“Dominican time, eh?” The woman laughs.

“iExactamente!” Finally, the woman is getting the hang of how things are done here. Even after she has laid the receiver in its cradle, Dedé goes on elaborating the root system of her anacahuita tree, shading the branches, and then for the fun of it, opening and closing the flap of the envelope to watch the tree come apart and then back together again.

In the garden, Dedé is surprised to hear the radio in the outdoor kitchen announce that it is only three o‘clock. She has been waiting expectantly since after lunch, tidying up the patch of garden this American woman will be able to see from the galería. This is certainly one reason why Dedé shies from these interviews. Before she knows it, she is setting up her life as if it were an exhibit labeled neatly for those who can read: THE SISTER WHO SURVIVED.

Usually if she works it right—a lemonade with lemons from the tree Patria planted, a quick tour of the house the girls grew up in—usually they leave, satisfied, without asking the prickly questions that have left Dedé lost in her memories for weeks at a time, searching for the answer. Why, they inevitably ask in one form or another, why are you the one who survived?

She bends to her special beauty, the butterfly orchid she smuggled back from Hawaii two years ago. For three years in a row Dedé has won a trip, the prize