It crept up on me, quite literally: a furry little thing already halfway up my naked thigh. I screeched and jumped, as for a terrifying second it looked suspiciously like a centipede, though plumper and slower on fourteen squirmy legs. I knew this because the first thing I reached for, after regaining my composure, was a cartoonishly large toy magnifying glass. Here was a rare backyard activity that desperate urban moms could neither plan nor pay for — true in regular times but particularly so this past year of lockdowns — and I wasn’t about to miss it.
“A caterpillar!” I proclaimed to my toddler, as she teetered on the brink of meltdown, just as the rest of us have been lately. “A real-life Very Hungry Caterpillar!” I resorted to the Eric Carle reference because I couldn’t remember when I’d last seen a caterpillar in real life, let alone found one crawling up my leg. For that, I’d have to have nothing better to do than sit in the dirt and stay there long enough for nature to figure me a safe and still hill to climb.
My daughter named it Buggy and followed the poor thing around for a solid hour, poking it with a twig. This felt bittersweet, as I’ve spent hundreds upon hundreds of dollars on fluorescent plastic toys that sing and beep and flash, but it was Buggy — muck-brown, silent, almost stationary — that held the record for child attention. My daughter was captivated, dare I even say happy. I revelled in the moment and the notion that maybe, just maybe, I was doing a better parenting job than I thought.
And so, adding to my growing pile of ridiculous, unnecessary, unaffordable quarantine purchases, there went sixty-seven dollars for ten live larvae.
They were an impulse purchase, obviously; not once had I given any consideration to cocooning butterflies. But these were, as everyone has said, unprecedented times. We’d already baked cupcakes and painted rocks and planted seeds that never grew. Before I knew it, we were crafting with stickers and (faux) flowers to transform a dusty backyard shed into a sanctuary. Finishing the project should have been a high point, but, alas, it was not. There was still more time to fill, hours and days — months? years? — of nothingness and going nowhere and all with a bored kid whinging by my side. I wanted butterflies, deserved butterflies, and I would have paid whatever they cost.
I regretted it immediately. I tried for a refund, but I learned you cannot return live insects. I looked for mom friends to go splitsies but got no takers (too gross, too stressful, too expensive). I tried to explain that they were a relative bargain: A ten-pack of monarchs, the Louis Vuitton of butterflies, would have cost $200. Richer collectors pay God knows what for rare aristocrat-inspired emperors, queens, admirals, and barons. Names matter for lepidopterists; for every Apollo and Narcissus, there is a postman, plain tiger, and dogface.
Going by the mere moniker, I chose the painted lady, conveniently the cheapest, hardiest, and therefore most widely distributed butterfly on the globe. She’s more like the H&M outlet mall of butterflies: She lasts for two weeks if you’re lucky, rocks a sexy lady-of-the-night nom de plume, and can pass for a monarch if you squint. Compared with her regal competitor, the painted lady has smaller wings, making her flight wild and erratic, though she still flies fast and far. Her spots are slightly smudged, as if she’s slept in her makeup. Naturally, I’m a fan.
Of course, the painted lady is as often male as female, though I like to think a species defined by its fantastical metamorphosis doesn’t subscribe to rigid gender roles. Nosy entomologists can spot subtle differences — basically, the male’s body is skinny while the female’s is fat. Both have a daring red stripe that reminded the Victorians of prostitutes’ gauche cosmetics. Officially called the Vanessa cardui, she’s also known as the thistle, for her insatiable appetite for the prickly plant, or the cosmopolitan, for her ability to adapt and thrive on almost every continent.
My gorgeous ladies arrived at my doorstep, however, looking distinctly less glamorous. Having already hatched in transit from tiny robin’s-egg-blue ova, which they promptly ate for protein, the larvae resembled mouldy Tic Tacs. And they stank.
Caterpillars exploit this grossness to their advantage; the Asian Mormon, for example, spits foul odours to convince predators it’s long dead and decaying. Even without this charade, the bug’s phase 2 isn’t lively, especially if spent in a sad plastic shot glass with a layer of gunk — allegedly food — on the bottom. And since we had also recently acquired a kitten, my kid wouldn’t even feign excitement anymore. “All they do is nothing,” she complained.
Every day, all alone, and although my own house was a mounting mess, I gently removed each lid and meticulously cleaned their homes with a fine paintbrush. Nobody has told caterpillars not to shit where they eat, it appears, and so they shit so much that the piles rise and bury their food. Clean up the muck, however, and they’ll keep eating and eating. Sometimes they double their girth overnight, which has made me feel better about my own weight gain. I reminded them that someday they’ll be beautiful, provided they keep eating today.
Eating because there’s nothing else to do is not as fun as it seems. The caterpillar’s insides grow and swell, but its skin cannot stretch. It gets taut and then too tight. The body becomes a prison, walls squeezing and pressure intensifying, until finally the bars break and the skin rips. Freedom must be a relief, but it’s only momentary. Just as things start to feel normal, when life is comfortable and the future is hopeful, the squeezing process begins again.
Entomologists insist that the insects do not feel pain, but surely they figure something’s happening. Science suggests that the caterpillar remembers life as a caterpillar, ditto the butterfly as a butterfly, but no one can quite answer this: Does the caterpillar persevere because it knows one day it will be a butterfly? And does a butterfly remember its before times as a caterpillar and appreciate its freedom?
The Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi said this more eloquently: “I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.” Poetic inspiration for everyone from Nabokov to Dickinson, butterflies as a metaphor for human transformation are so eye-rollingly obvious that they’ve become a cliché, and a very basic tattoo. But I notice nobody ever identifies as the caterpillar.
Even beneath a kid’s magnifying glass, caterpillars are more than just creatures-in-waiting. On day 7, to their usual colour of fall mud, our larvae added silver stripes along their sides, then yellow or orange perpendicular rings atop. By day 10, each had a unique fuzzy tartan coat in varying shades of blue or red or deep purple. If you happen to have been a competitive Highland dancer once, which I was when dance classes were allowed, you can’t miss one in an impeccable Dress Gordon.
Not all looked so dapper. Life in a small cup seemed bearable for most — with food, rest, daily maid service — but not for all. For no particular reason I could tell, one hardly ate, barely grew, curled into a tight ball, and buried its face in its rump. Maybe it didn’t want to see the others, which one by one attached themselves to paper roofs and moved smugly into phase 3. “Just do what they do!” I pleaded. “You will die if you don’t get in your cocoon!”
I learned it’s actually moths that cocoon. The butterfly’s chrysalis is called a pupa. That’s Latin for “little doll,” for its resemblance to a swaddled baby, though they looked more like tiny uncircumcised penises to me. With surgical precision, I transferred them to their new bubble (a milk-crate-sized mesh house indistinguishable from my laundry hamper). There they hung perilously by what’s called their “silk button,” no bigger than a pinhead. Its snapping would spell certain death, as would an attack from a predator — like our new kitty — so the pupae could not afford to dangle lifeless like ripe fruit.
Instead, they danced. Not well, mind you, and their signature move, the “J dance,” for the letter shape it forms, was more of a wiggle, not to attract but to repel. Whenever the pupa senses danger, it shakes violently. If terrified, it buzzes or hisses to confuse predators: birds, wasps, vermin, lizards, even other caterpillars.
Yes, you read that right: Even the most serene, immaculate, poem-worthy of God’s creatures can, given a bad enough year, resort to self-destruction, shit eating, and cannibalism. Butterflies will get drunk on fermented sap and fight for fun — slicing and shredding one another’s wings. But who are we to judge? Drunk fighting is common enough in this closed ecosystem. So is eating crap, if you count nachos and Kraft Dinner. My husband’s stacks of bulk junk are ample now, sure, but how sparse would supplies have to be before I considered eating him?
It was all starting to feel a bit Buffalo Bill, so I decided to take a break. Really the pupae decided for me, as they hung there doing nothing for days — days that kept coming and going, out here in a world without distinction. Whenever I was concerned that they were dead, which was often, I poked them with my paintbrush. They would wiggle to send me a message: We’re still alive in here. Do not give up on us yet.
Inside the chrysalis, the caterpillar’s two-week lockdown was probably more productive than yours was all year. First, it releases enzymes that dissolve tissues, effectively eating itself. This oozing caterpillar soup has “imaginal discs” that formed in the egg stage — in this case, the back of a FedEx truck. These magic cells, each with blueprints for legs or wings or antennae, were tucked away, dormant, waiting for their moment. All they had to do was hoover up the soup.
All we had to do, meanwhile, was watch and be patient. I had diligently done my research and knew what to expect: A few hours before butterfly time, the chrysalis will fade to black. Before the big reveal, it’ll turn clear, and inside will be your painted lady, all wrapped up like a fresh Thai spring roll. Its cover will split in an instant and finally a butterfly will be born.
But waiting is not easy, and the first hatching I missed entirely. I meandered past a few hours later and noticed droplets of crimson blood on the floor of their residence. It was not blood, it was equally gross meconium. No matter, for my lady had emerged. She was suspended upside down, soaking wet and scrunched up like a discarded receipt. She was scared and starving, she’d die if you disturbed her, but she had survived.
One by one, the butterflies hatched. I sometimes noticed them turning black, and once I got lucky and saw the transparent chrysalis. For each of them, though, I missed the point when they cracked open.
Even now, even as we can’t seem to shake this sense of pause, I cannot bring myself to stop and surrender to stillness. Maybe the moment I finally learn will be the moment I’m free too. But it’s their time, not mine.
In almost every culture and at every point in human history, releasing a butterfly is good luck. The ancient Greeks believed a new human soul was born with every flight; the Aztecs thought butterflies returned lost souls to their rightful resting place. My preferred lore, however, is a Hopi legend that says that because they make no sound, they will keep a secret and deliver your wish to the Great Spirit. In gratitude for the freed butterfly, the Great Spirit will grant the wish, no matter how big or small. I won’t tell you mine, except that it was a big one, and it was for all of us.
One crisp afternoon, sun shining through the tall trees, their leaves turning yellow, I sat back down in the dirt with the gorgeous creatures I’d so carefully cultivated. Their wings were velvety smooth, a thousand shades of orange and red, black wingtips with white polka dots painted in perfect symmetry. I would have liked to keep them, even for a bit longer, but I unzipped their cage and opened the door. The painted ladies fluttered, faster than before, their freedom imminent. Within seconds, they flew out and up and away into the world as if they’d never known anything different.
All but one, that is, which landed on my hand and waited with me a moment more.