Rhonda Zimlich — “They Butterfly”

The caterpillar ignored his friends, waved off their warnings and chagrin, and continued to gaze upward at the main trunk of the rosebush. He didn’t know why. He only knew that an insatiable urge had taken hold of him and he needed to be up high. He didn’t know where the green path led, only that it loomed “up there.” And not just up there like when he and Wilma climbed to the smallest leaves on the outermost branches to munch on that newest sweetness. Rather up, and up farther still, until the world became strange and transformed with unrecognizable sights and scents, until the sky held him fast in its unending blue, until the pull on his body became comfortably sated at his new location. This longing came to him like a rushing wind, enveloping him in an almost-hunger, which he knew could only be satiated on high, higher still than any caterpillar dared climb before. But there was something else, too. And he’d made the mistake of saying this aloud.

“That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard,” Wilma managed between bites of tender green leaves and honeyed yellow petals. “You’re exactly right as you are. Beside, we have all the food we could ever want right here. What would you go up there for?”

“I’m not right, or at least I don’t think I am. I’m more like you than I appear.”

“Phooey,” said Wilma as she continued to munch.

“I think there’s something more,” the caterpillar responded, trying on this new realization, They, though they knew they weren’t really responding to Wilma. “This might have nothing to do with food whatsoever.”

By then, however, Wilma had told all the other caterpillars and they joined in a choral of mockery and laughter, playfully teasing the determined caterpillar for their ignorant need and desire. “You’ll get picked off by a bird,” some said. “You’ll fall to your death,” said others. One voice even called them a witch. So the caterpillar, heeding the loud voices of those around them, tried to ignore the voice within which pushed them to venture above.

A sadness came over the caterpillar, and so, to satiate that sorrow, they ate and ate and ate, finding that the more they ate, the more sated they became, easily dismissing the call to venture higher. Eventually, however, they became full, and yet the calling did not cease. Instead, the need to slake their want beckoned them louder still to rise against the mocking of their friends, against the bulging of their caterpillar intestines, the tightness of their skin, and so they began to climb.

Along the way, they ate more still, though they hadn’t the room in their belly. Still, they found the temptations of new leaves too beautiful to pass up, and they gobbled as they gripped the main stem of the rosebush; climbing, always climbing farther still; and eating, eating all along the way.

At one point, they stopped. A new sensation grew over their entire body and they recognized the She within. She wiggled a little, trying out this new idea. But she also began to doubt her decision to leave her friends below. Their voices played on repeat in her mind saying words like “lost” and “fall” with such sneering that she began to cry. As she cried she noticed that her skin felt as if it were tingling with fire, or else constrictingly too tight. She looked down and could only see the muted yellows and greens from the lower leaves of where she’d been. She looked back up and could see the brightening greens and yellows of where the path led. Ignoring the urge to climb, to eat, even to cry, she sat still for a moment longer. At that instant, her skin burst into a wild, electric sensation rupturing around and through the length of her. She experienced a mixture of both pain and pleasure, as she cast away a layer of herself in a shock of molting. Stretching out lengthy within her new form, a shiny skin emerged where her once compressing coat contained her. Her old skin lay in a heap beside her and its sight compounded her doubts. Had she come too high, too soon? Questions and doubts filled her mind and she turned to head back down the stalk of the rosebush. Then, she noticed something quite different. She could breathe again. More importantly, she could eat again. Most importantly, she could continue her climb.

A little further on, at last, she saw tiny yellow buds hosting aphids by the dozens. She feasted there upon the little bugs, thinking it so odd that she would decide, after all this time of contentedness eating leaves, that she might find herself enjoying the flesh of other beings, beings quite like her but much smaller. They were green, like her. Their bodies had similar features, crook-legged and squishy. And though they had wings, she didn’t mind. It did not horrify or stop her, the thought that she consumed living beings; it did not even slow her gorge. Instead, she cleared away every last bit of bug, wings and all, leaving spears of baby rosebuds neatly pointing at the sky. Then, she ate the rosebuds, too.

Onward she climbed, ever eating as she went. Again her skin began to tighten. Again she began to slow. As she slowed, her thoughts waned from the urge to climb higher still, to the oddness of her skin falling away from her, every millimeter of her body becoming vulnerable and new. She thought of the tiny aphids, wondered if they had friends of their own. She believed, for a small instant, that she might actually be a witch. After all, none of her caterpillar friends had decided to climb higher. None of her caterpillar friends had burst from their own skin. She must be ill, she decided, but soon forgot she’d arrived at such a thought because her skin burst yet again.

This time, it started as an electrical current hissing along her belly. She felt the skin split, heard it crackle as the thin layer of her outermost being sluffed away. A cool breeze lifted the molted, transparent outline of her from the leaf into the air. It carried her double away as she happily resumed her munching and waved goodbye to the departing skin with three of her caterpillar hands. The relief to breathe and eat once more outweighed the fear she’d felt moments earlier at the experience of losing a part of her outer layer. The longing to climb also diminished any concerns she had with her strange physiological reactions. And climb again she did.

She climbed all afternoon and through the night until the very early morning hours. During the ascent, her skin fell away from her three more times, each time becoming easier to manage, to accept, to execute, until at last, the final molt felt like stepping out of a silk gown and already donning your favorite nightdress beneath. The satin of her newness shimmied in the light of sunrise, the silk-softness of her fresh skin so lovely to touch. Indulging herself, she touched the length of her body, running her many caterpillar hands along her belly and sides. She became dizzy when she realized she’d worked herself into an upside-down position so she frantically gripped, with her lower hands, the place on the leaf from where she hung. Then she had an idea.

Silk. Of course! She thought of silk and it magically appeared. Using the silk to anchor herself to the leaf, she curled downward enjoying the weightlessness of her hanging.

She’d been so heavy. She’d worked so hard, and she’d traveled so far. Surely she deserved a long rest, here in the shade of this broad leaf so high within the bush. The voices of her friends and of her own doubt seemed so far away then. She only knew the weight of her being, full with the rich food she’d eaten along her journey, content in the sacred placement of her body to the leaf. A breeze tickled her new skin triggering that same electrical sensation she’d experienced shedding her skin so many times over, and she succumbed to tingling. However, this time, it began a slow gyration. Soon this new rocking sent her into deep sleep.

There, she dreamed of her time in the lower branches of the rosebush. She saw a young Wilma, so carefully inching her way along the edge of a leaf to come near her, to introduce herself, to show her where to find the corner of the foliage and just how to take a bite. That first bite, that lovely, wonderful flavor matching her ravenous appetite with such satisfaction. Then she had other fantastic visions, visions of her friends climbing and foraging, eating the most delicious petals and leaves newly unfolded in the buttery yellow light of morning. What dreams she had there in the top of the rosebush. How she drifted in and out of such bliss then, that she longed to tell Wilma that the climb had been worth each and every step.

Before the dreams faded to black, she thought she heard the voice of her old friend calling to her from far away.

“I’m here,” Wilma said. “I’m here and I’m so glad I came. And I’m so glad that you showed me the way.”

Rocking and swaying to the words of her friend, to the tempo of the dream as it faded, the caterpillar had a sense of completeness unlike any she’d ever known. She sighed into contentedness and drifted off to shadows.

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When the butterfly was made, she peeled herself from her chrysalis and unfurled her wings. Rays of sunlight found her and she warmed. Everything felt new, different. The familiar thing she still knew tingled throughout her body: that insatiable desire to climb. However, even that desire felt different. She stepped to the edge of the leaf, pulled herself around its edge until she stood atop it. Then, she gave a flicker of her new wings and, at once, lifted into the air toward heaven.

When she landed upon the leaf of a tree, alighted on the fringy greens of its outermost limb, she took in the meadow below. She thought about where she had been so long ago, before such amazing changes. She thought about who she’d been. Before she left the meadow, she took one last look around for her friend Wilma. She did not expect Wilma to recognize her, but still she looked. Then she took to the air following a new calling in a new direction south, the breeze carrying her along a natural current.


Rhonda Zimlich holds an MFA in fiction, teaches at the University of Oregon, and has been published by places such as Brevity, Past-Ten, and Acorn Review. She recently had an essay featured in Not Your Mother’s Breast Milk as part of their #metoo special anniversary month.  More information can be found at www.rhondazimlich.com