in Concho River Review, Spring/Summer 2022
It took eleven days for Afghan women to become objects, totems in black burqas. Taliban fighters captured fringe cities like Herat and Kunduz one day and streamed with little opposition toward Kabul. Within days, they’d infiltrated the countryside, like a downpour saturating a dry creek bed. As the insurgents approached the capital, President Ghani fled to the United Arab Emirates, leaving his countrymen to claw their way to safety, if only they could. U.S. military, who’d injected themselves into a civil war a couple of decades earlier to institute democratic principles and inspire hope, now stripped barracks of the implements of war and Afghan citizens of their hope. In little more than the time it takes to flip off a light switch, one half of the country’s residents ceased to exist as fully human.
My sleep is haunted by images of the shifting and shoving human mass at Hamid Karzai airport in Kabul: babies lifted over barbwire fences to safety, women and children charging the gates and military gatekeepers, hoping to force entry into overcrowded transport planes, with the pop-pop-pop of gunfire in the background. Images of bodies falling off airplanes and plunging to the ground randomly invade mundane chores like chopping romaine for a salad or watering the tomatoes in my late-summer garden. Stories of young girls, who should be learning to solve algebraic equations, but who are instead forcibly taken as wives to reward Taliban adherents make my body recoil as though I were being personally violated.
The internet is swimming with the ghastly images as well. I find myself unable to look away, like a rubbernecker inching past a car wreck. For a while, time spent at my computer becomes shrouded in dread, while I cheer the possibility of Afghan women’s escape with a glimmer of hope.
On the wall above my desk is a colored pencil drawing of a Monarch butterfly. It’s feeding on a purple flower, wings spread to reveal glorious orange-and-black wings, with characteristic white spots on the periphery and head. My heart expands when I look at it.
The image was drawn by a dear friend who migrated from Oklahoma, where we’d been friends for twenty years, with a short sojourn in Texas before settling in Arizona. I have souvenirs from my artist friend all over my home. Most of them are ceramic pieces, remnants of her former hobby as a potter. The framed Monarch brings up a mental image of my friend, as do the pencil holder, berry bowl, and soap dish.
In Central Texas where I now live, there are more than four hundred native butterfly species; there are more than seven hundred in the U.S. Among the most widely cherished is the Monarch. Within the last decade, environmentalists have sounded the alarm about a dwindling population due to disappearing wild milkweed and increasing use of pesticides. Their vulnerability may account—in part—for our fascination with them. In addition, their tenacity in surviving increasingly difficult circumstances inspires admiration. During spring and fall migration, meteorological maps pick up the fluttering insects and broadcast migratory routes on evening news programs. A recent weathercaster’s satellite video of Monarchs migrating across Oklahoma looked like a typical tornado alley thunderstorm.
In the spring of 2019, I was wrapping up my thirteenth year as a college adjunct. While the movers unloaded household effects, assembled bedframes, and stacked boxes in the wrong closets (which numbered far fewer than those in the home we’d left) I graded freshman research essays on my laptop. I marked comments in the margins and entered scores in Blackboard one by one via the internet service I’d arranged for from Oklahoma a couple of weeks before. “I must have service on Thursday, May 2,” I said. When Spectrum insisted they couldn’t have a technician to our home that quickly, I stood firm and prevailed. By Monday, semester grades were uploaded, and I was officially retired, a few months after my husband.
Less than a year after our migration to Central Texas, the Covid pandemic moved in and forced us to shelter in place. To amuse ourselves, we built raised garden beds and planted tomatoes, peppers and onions, my “salsa garden.” I broadcast a twenty-seed mix for pollinator plants. The vegetables baked in the hot and dry Texas sun, and the only pollinator plants that took off were the cosmos, snapdragons, and zinnias. The bouquets I cut for the breakfast table were a spot of colorful cheer in an otherwise bleak growing season. I learned to compost kitchen and garden waste and “cooked” soil amendment in my rotating compost bin. We spent the rest of that fall and winter pulling up vegetation and putting down roots in our new community, then hunkering down through a calamitous ice storm. By spring, we were fully vaccinated and ready to reemerge. I was delighted to see that many of the previous summer’s flowers had reseeded the garden, but I was surprised to find the characteristic glossy green leaves of butterfly weed among them; none had sprouted the previous year.
I didn’t discover the Monarch caterpillars devouring my Asclepias tuberosa until July, and it’s a mystery how the female butterfly discovered the plants to lay her eggs there in the first place. It’s unlikely there’s any other milkweed within a mile. She would’ve scratched the narrow leaves to taste them with chemoreceptors on her feet before judging them adequate for her purpose. Then she would’ve curved her abdomen into a “C” and deposited a single egg on the underside of each leaf she deemed appropriate, moving around the milkweed patch to gingerly distribute her payload in such a way that each resulting offspring would have adequate food. Her task required tenacity, driven by the instinct to survive.
Most Afghans live in mud or concrete homes, but the less affluent still inhabit the yurts or tents that were more common before the twentieth century. Thick mud and concrete walls are practical, keeping home interiors cooler in an arid landscape where temperatures can soar beyond 120°. Many homes lack indoor plumbing, and fewer still have electricity. Rooms are often designated for female or male use exclusively. Not surprisingly, kitchens and washrooms are used only by women and girls. The living room and courtyard are the only places where unrelated sexes can mingle. Unemployment is rampant and literacy rates less than 50%, relegating most of the population to poverty. As a result, Afghans have few possessions of value.
“I have only the one bag,” said a neatly dressed Afghan woman. The television reporter held a microphone close to the woman’s face, an oval of flesh light against her scarf-shrouded hair. It was just one of many broadcasts from the Kabul airport. The refugee held her cloth satchel up to the camera. “I have my laptop and a few items of clothing,” she said. “The rest? My home?” She shrugged and looked away. “It’s all back there,” she said, pointing outside the airport compound with her chin. She seemed surprisingly calm to be leaving not only her home, but her old life behind.
Monarch butterflies emerge from their chrysalides, otherwise known as pupa, in a process called “eclosure.” Until that point, it’s not obvious whether the butterfly is male or female. A male Monarch is marked with two small, black dots on the dorsal side of his hind wings, scent patches integral to the mating cycle. When the male ecloses, or emerges, he must ingest nectar shortly afterward to deposit his sperm into the first female whose attention he can attract. Females typically eclose in the reproductive state. In a lifetime that typically spans only two to six weeks, pausing to revel in the newfound freedom of flight could be disastrous to their species. Instead, she deposits her eggs on the first healthy milkweed she can find before she dies.
Thankfully, there are many species of milkweed, as it’s the only host plant for Monarch caterpillars and essential to their survival. Toxins in milkweed render it poisonous for other species but confer benefits to the caterpillars adapted to consume it. Most birds and other predators recognize the black, white, and yellow striped Monarch caterpillars, as well as the orange-and-black pattern of adult butterflies and generally leave them alone. With each phase, called an “instar,” a caterpillar molts, shedding skin too small to accommodate its growing girth, before finally crawling to the nearest high point for safety. It may travel as far as thirty feet away, to form a chrysalis where it remains housed until eclosure a week or two later. The chrysalis suspends from a pad of tiny silk-like threads spun by a gland just below the caterpillar’s mouth. The threads are incredibly thin, like the fluff of cotton balls, but amazingly strong.
We’d spent a year preparing for our migration to Texas. Our closets and attic storage space were bursting with decades worth of possessions to sort. Once we’d contracted to sell one home and purchase another, we spent the subsequent time purging our belongings. We rented a storage unit to hold stuff. We discarded stuff, and we filled the pickup truck bed with stuff. Day after day for weeks. We’d visit Goodwill in the morning and the Salvation Army in the afternoon, for fear one or the other would recognize us. Some days, we utilized different drop-off locations.
In the end, we still carried too much baggage to our new home. Despite our best efforts and with cabinets that couldn’t hold any more, we were forced to resume Goodwill runs…in Texas. It took time to find places for what remained, what we deemed essential. We finally settled into our new environment, determined not to accumulate so much in the future. Several months later, the Covid-19 stay-at-home order was issued by the governor (what I still consider his last rational act). For the majority of 2020, we stayed close to home and made inventive use of what we already had. I grew smug over my perception of “making do” with twenty-three hundred square feet of stuff.
In a country where life expectancy is around fifty years, I suppose it’s considered wasteful to allow a child with reproductive potential to remain a virgin. Thus, the Taliban’s fascination with young girls. With the highest maternal and infant mortality rates in the region, many of these vulnerable Afghan children likely contribute to lowered life expectancy. In a patriarchal society such as this one, male control of contraceptive use presages no improvement in this national statistic, a concern of international health committees and reproductive rights advocates. Human costs are much more personal.
Behind the statistics are real women and girls who have traditionally had few choices, and whose choices will likely be nonexistent very soon. Whatever government evolves after U.S. occupation, it’s clear women will have little role, if any. Anger at their further loss of agency makes me want to castrate the whole lot of Taliban; frustration disrupts my daily routines. I’ve had to mute the television’s Afghanistan segments and ration the breaking news notifications from The Washington Post that ping my phone with regularity.
Eastern Monarchs migrate through central Texas during the first half of October, when they travel as many as three thousand miles, using the sun’s location, or perhaps magnetic fields, as navigational tools. Despite decades—maybe millennia—of study, no one yet knows completely how these majestic creatures find their way. What they do know is that migrating Monarchs complete their journey within one longer generation of up to nine months, in which females are suspended in diapause, a nonreproductive state. Soon they reach the steep, southwest-facing mountain slopes in a relatively small area of central Mexico, where conditions allow them to survive until spring. At their overwintering site, hordes of Monarchs cling to the limbs and needles of oyamel fir trees, or the wings of their neighbor. Branches are so laden with butterflies they sag to the ground; from a distance, the trees appear coated with orange and black scales.
When I began raising monarchs in net enclosures mid-summer, after noticing the caterpillars on my garden’s milkweed, I checked books out of the library, joined the Austin Butterfly Forum on Facebook, and dug into websites like Joyful Butterfly, Monarch Joint Venture, and Monarch Watch. My obsession grew along with my protective instincts. I collected more than a dozen cats (caterpillars) to nurture with daily fresh milkweed cuttings. At least one female returned to lay another generation of eggs, but as summer drew to a close, the adults I released, almost all females, were destined to vacation in Mexico with their cousins until spring.
I try to imagine what I might stuff into a single bag for a one-way flight into a foreign land not of my choosing, and I cannot. Familiar with tornadoes, after decades of living in Oklahoma, I’ve often seen images of storm aftermath. Homes appear as though they’ve forcefully ejected all their contents into the twisted rubble of neighboring homes before collapsing onto Oklahoma’s red dirt. Like a sleepwalker crawling up from a subterranean shelter, a resident invariably says, “There’s nothing left, but at least we’re all okay.” I say a quick prayer of thanks for the dazed man’s family and flip channels. I’ve watched footage of hurricane survivors who say the same thing, and I recognize the truth of their statements. They’re fortunate to be alive.
However, the sight of the Afghan woman’s solitary nondescript cloth bag amidst the crush of bodies at Kabul’s airport—most without any bags at all—clenches my heart. By virtue of her gender, and perhaps her alliances, she’s been targeted, singled out for assault. Migration is her only hope.
Texas refugee agencies plan to resettle close to 200 Afghan refugees in Austin, with assistance from churches and other organizations. A few families have already arrived, are settling into temporary homes and enrolling their children in Austin Independent School District, which provides language support. Video of buses arriving at Dulles Airport or migrants departing commercial airliners in points across the U.S. are beginning to flood newscasts and displace images of disappointed, would-be migrants left in Kabul. Explosions and drone strikes outside the airport create more tragedy: the deaths of those trying to protect those fleeing, as well as innocent refugees. I’m dumbfounded by the hatred that compels someone to value life so little. Attacks like this make migrating out of Afghanistan more dangerous than ever, but thousands have already made it to safety. For some, resettlement in the Lone Star state represents new life and optimism for another generation.
What drives the Monarchs’ annual migration? How do they know when and where to go? When to return and begin reproducing again? There are dangers everywhere. In addition to climate challenges and a shortage of host plants, predators like fire ants and spiders suck the life out of juicy caterpillars. Ladybugs gobble down Monarch eggs like jellybeans. Wasps and some birds, immune to toxic milkweed compounds, prey on adults. And yet, with the spring and warmer weather, the Monarchs will return. Their flight path again cuts a swath through Central Texas as they make their way back toward northern climes. I’ll be better prepared next spring for these migrating wonders and will provide safety and food for as many as I can. I’ll delight in the beauty of each new generation for a few hours before releasing them to their destiny.
When we were free from career obligations in 2019, my husband and I looked at our lives in the state we’d adopted as home for thirty years. In spite of close friends and a community we’d grown in and with, we had no blood ties. The most compelling reason to migrate was proximity to family, whom we’d not lived within an eight-hour’s drive from in almost forty years. Immediate family, now a dwindling number, reside in California, Louisiana, and Texas. We love each one of them, but economic and practical reasons eliminated two of those options. Significantly, there was an eleven-year-old granddaughter in Texas who was maturing rapidly into a young woman with bright prospects, a young woman with choices and whose legacy was yet to be written. We chose to move before we became irrelevant.
The still image of a young girl, just arrived in the U.S. from Kabul, holding her father’s hand and staring intensely at the camera captures my attention. She’s just a girl, not unlike my granddaughter from a few years ago, dressed in an ordinary red shirt and looking outward with blameless eyes. I wonder what she will someday make of this hasty flight to America, the object of simultaneous hope and loathing by her kin. I wonder how Texans will welcome her, with their campaigns to build higher walls and hateful rhetoric targeting refugees from the south. The U.S. has a tainted history of preventing non-Anglos from maintaining native cultures and languages, a spotty record on valuing all lives equally or allowing women control of their bodies. While physical survival is more likely in her new environment than her old, I wonder if this young Afghan girl’s westward migration will be enough to allow her spirit to thrive.