The Mechanics of the Butterfly
The life of a butterfly is brief but intense.
What do we leave behind in order to change?
I am sitting with S watching T.V. She wants to watch a movie, but we are stuck watching an educational program concerned with spelling. Mother’s orders. She is sitting beside me with her arms crossed in defiance, her chin bowed low, her teeth gnawing at her lower lip. She is high on drama, this one.
To become a butterfly, a caterpillar must first digest itself. But before that, it begins as an egg. The butterfly begins its life as a round, oval, or cylindrical egg. The eggs may be smooth or ribbed, depending on the type of butterfly that laid it.
The eggs can be found on the leaves of various plants. The mother butterfly is selective, she has to be. She has to lay her eggs on the type of leaf the caterpillar will eat.
You must look closely if you are hunting the eggs. They are small.
We spell out the words together. S is aggressive about it; she shouts letters at the screen as if the people on the television are idiots who should already know how to spell the words. I can’t help but laugh at her. Somehow, it makes me adore her more, and, at the same time, feel more protective over her.
When the egg hatches, the caterpillar is so small, it cannot travel to a new plant. It eats the leaf it was born onto. It begins to grow and expand. The caterpillar is hermetically sealed, isolated on top of a leaf.
Suddenly, my stomach is in knots. I have to excuse myself. Once in the bathroom, I feel overcome with thoughts of someone hurting S in the same way they hurt me. I am angry and terrified. I want her to have a simple and peaceful life, and to love herself, never doubt her worth. But I know can’t give her that, even if I was her mother I couldn’t give her that, because the truth is, living hurts. The truth is, things happen even when you do not want them to.
The caterpillar is opaque. It continues to stuff itself with leaves. It grows plumper and longer through a series of molts, shedding its skin. That is how it becomes.
Suzanne, S’s mom, asks me to walk S to day camp the following morning; she has an early appointment to keep. Suzzane gives me the rundown of what S will need: ample time to wake up, even more time to eat breakfast, and plenty of time to saunter along. I say, yes. After S goes to sleep, I walk the route myself. The camp building was is only a few blocks away, but I want to be sure I know where I am going.
One day, the caterpillar stops eating. It has reached its full length and weight. Now, it will isolate itself by hanging upside down from a twig or a leaf, spinning itself a silky cocoon, or it molts itself further into a shiny chrysalis.
To the human eye, the caterpillar appears as if it is resting. But inside the chrysalis, there is a fantastic amount of action happening. The caterpillar digests itself. It turns transparent. Enzymes are released, dissolving all of its tissues, creating a wild, shiny soup of color.
It is not the mess it seems. It is important to remember that.
In the morning, S doesn’t put up the struggle I expected. We exchange good morning hugs, and I let her choose her breakfast. She opts for sliced apples and toast with peanut butter, which she doesn’t eat but instead, makes a fantastic art installation of it. The apples are sticking up and outward, fanning out of the peanut butter, and looking it, at her artwork, I didn’t have the heart to tell her to eat. Instead, I smiled at her, and at the memory of myself doing something similar as a child.
I braid a single lock her hair that has fallen close to her face and fastening it with a loose, pink bobble of a thing she insists on. When I am through, she beams, though I can’t help but worry that with one quick move left or right, she’d take out either her own eye or the eye of some poor, unsuspecting kid. But she is happy, and I am delighted that she is a girl of her own mind.
Once out of the house, we enter a world of our own. We drum the air with sticks and stop to look at butterflies and hairy moths and slugs. I teach her the names of all the trees and all flowers we pass, overcome with an urge to tell her things. At one point, she leans into me with such an unfamiliar sweetness, it catches my breath. But no sooner is she off, skipping down the sidewalk, asking about a pink patch of flowers.
We arrive on time, which is a relief since we’ve definitely taken our time getting there. S walks in first, and I follow, looking for other adults to tell me what to do. I don’t know if I need to sign her in or wait for something, some sort of signal to say it is okay to go. But all the children and the parents in the foyer are buzzing around in their own little worlds. S and I are left on our own.
The gymnasium is filled with other children who have arrived early. They are already wearing red-camp issued t-shirts, running around, laughing, chasing each other. S walks in but stands there frozen with uncertainty. I promise myself to stand back and let her work out where she belongs, though my heart aches to watch her. I know the feeling well, all the hesitance, the fear, the confusion, but I also trust in her and want her to trust herself.
Certain highly organized groups of cells known as imaginal discs survive the digestive process. There is a disc for each of the adult body parts that it will need to mature as a butterfly. There are discs for its eyes, wings, legs, and genitals, discs formed when the caterpillar was still a tiny caterpillar egg. In some species, these imaginal discs remain dormant throughout the caterpillar’s life. In other species, the discs begin to take the shape of adult body parts even before the caterpillar forms a chrysalis or cocoon. Some caterpillars walk around with tiny rudimentary wings tucked inside their bodies. However, you would never know it by looking at them.
When she takes a step forward, I sigh with relief and then watch as she takes another, and another after that, and soon she is in the center of all the running and screaming children. I am so happy for her! But then she turns around to look at me, and my heart squeezes onto itself all over again.
I walk over and kneel down beside her so that our faces are level. Her big blue eyes look at me for answers I can’t give. But I give her a hug anyway and then say words I would have wanted to hear, “You are so great.” The other kids are super lucky to have you here.” And she looks at me, and the braid bobs up and down in agreement, and no one loses an eye. Then I ask, “Do you mind if I leave?” She nods her head, and I know it is okay.
Metamorphosis is inexpressibly expressed. The imaginal discs use the rainbow soup to fuel the rapid cell division required to form the wings, antennae, legs, eyes, and genitals, as well as all the other features of an adult butterfly. This is not something you can witness without disturbing the process. Instead, you must trust.
Before I walk out, I turn to look at her once more. She is still standing there, taking it all in, and then I watch in awe as she puts her bag down, so brave, and starts running around like everyone else. And her eyes are smiling, and her mouth is smiling and whatever emotions I am feeling for this little girl are big and all-consuming and then, embarrassed with myself, I turned around, walk out onto the street and cry.
I am disoriented for a moment. The sun is already hot, rising fast in the sky, and the air is still and sticky. I decide to walk toward a blurry patch of green in the distance. I think it is a park, and in my mind, I imagine myself sitting in the park, breathing, trying to relax. But when I arrive at the end of the street, the patch of green turns out to be a patch of overgrown grass on a stretch of a busy street. And then I cry more because of all the things that are not what they seem.
Then there emerge small, fragile legs.
Sometimes I think about the men in my life who have hurt me. And then I think of my mother and my father, and their inability to protect me. But at some point, I turn my anger on myself. I know there is a part of my pain that I must own. I am the only one now responsible for my suffering, for keeping myself there or releasing myself. Certain tensions can only be discharged by movement.
As I stand in the green patch of non-park, something in me starts to rise, but I can’t bear it. I just can’t. It is dark and lodged somewhere in my throat. I keep moving, wanting to move away from it, but it follows me all the way home to Suzanne’s.
I find their cat, Muffin, lying on the kitchen floor, bathed in sunlight. She looks so peaceful. I drop to the floor and lie beside her, close my eyes. I want to be the cat; I want to be washed out by the light.
A memory is trying to push through. I close my eyes harder, but I feel it in my stomach and in my throat. I cry, and the cat stirs and walks away from me. I curl up on myself alone. I punch the ground with my fist, I don’t care that it hurts, nothing could hurt as much as the hurt in my body. I stand up, walk into my room, and press my face against the window screen. I breathe in and hold it. My body is shaking. I open my mouth up to scream, but nothing comes out.
It is mid-afternoon, and there are tiny specks of dust undulating in the yellow-white light filtering in through the curtains. There is a black baton, it is wrapped in electrical tape, and it is lying on the couch. The two legs before me are open, bare skin, soft flesh. I remember the sunlight as it passes through the curtains. It is white, pale, and there is dust dancing above us. Like a dream.
I remember the couch is brown and soft to touch. If you rub your hands on it fast and hard enough, enough heat and friction build, and you can make a spark. As a kid, I rubbed my hands on the couch like this often as a distraction.
He asks me to touch the baton. He tells me to put my hand around it, but it hardly fits. My hand is too small. But I touch it anyway because I want to be good. He tells me to move my hand up and down. I am confused about what I am doing. I don’t want to get in trouble.
My next memory is of me taking him into my mouth. I am no longer standing in front of the couch, but I am in his lap. I remember the salty taste and soft feeling of his skin.
Before moving my face toward the heap of pink flesh, I notice the tiny pot of purple flowers on the window sill. I think they were violets. I nod my head, promising not to tell. I don’t want to get in trouble.
But then I can’t remember anymore. My throat closes up. I don’t want to remember anymore. I shake my head of it. I want it to go away. I want it to go away. I hurt I hurt I hurt I hurt.
Back in the kitchen, I lie down on the floor once more. This time, I can’t help but focus on all the clutter. Children’s toys, half-finished drawings, thrown onto the ground, forgotten, pieces of candy or cereal that have fallen beneath the table that no one has picked up. There are tiny figurines of pony’s and mermaids, as well as small pieces of furniture and mismatched shoes and socks, and I am overcome with grief. Grief for myself as a little girl.
I get up and walk over to the bathroom to look in the mirror. The first thought I have is that it is ridiculous to be mourning like this still. I need it to be through. I need to look after myself. I deserve things like love, safety, a happy and normal life. I have to believe that.
I have to.
Then the wings. The wings are soft, folded against the body of the butterfly.
I often think back on all the years I’ve spent staring at my reflection, despaired and disgusted with myself. The way I used to lift my stomach skin and move it around to make it appear smaller, thinner. Or how I starved myself so I could count my ribs, and how pleased I felt with myself when I could. How trying to control my body, my surroundings both did and didn’t serve me. Now, my face is showing the kind of change that only comes with the passage of time and sadness. I can’t be sure if I look older to myself because I am crying, but the lines around my eyes look deeper than I remember. Or maybe it’s because now, the truth of myself is known. I admit to myself: it is no longer possible to keep the parts of myself separate. I need to bring them together.
Then, blood is pumped into the wings.
I look further in. Right into my eyes, and it is hard to do. It hurts. It hurts because a little girl is looking back; I can see her, and I know I’ve been abusing her for far too long. She doesn’t deserve that.
And as soon as the butterfly has rested, it begins to slowly open its wings.
One of my last evenings with the girls, I decide to make them a cake. I ask them if they want to help, and they say yes.
I assign each girl a task. S will crack the eggs, and her sister, C, will measure out the ingredients, while I stir the batter and fill the cake tins. Later, we will all decorate together.
S needs a bowl for the eggs, and because she is still too small, she can’t reach the shelf. I have to help her. So I grab a chair and talk her through it. I show her how to turn the chair around before standing up on it to prevent the chair from falling backward. I watch as she climbs up, first on her knees, then on her legs, and the chair wobbles a bit, so I steady it. It feels good to do this for her, to pass on some wisdom, some love.
After, I set her up at the kitchen table, in front of the pile of books and pens and papers that have been there all summer. Then I check in on C. I know she doesn’t really need any help, but she lets me talk her through the measuring anyway.
I think about my mother. I can hear her singing; I can see myself small, in the kitchen, helping her bake. I call the girls over and ask them each to grab a spoon, and one for me, and after filling the cake tins, we eat the extra batter, licking the spoons, licking our fingers, just like my mother and me used to do.
I put the cake in the oven. C goes to watch television, but S asks if she can help more, which both surprises and warms me.
I don’t have a plan for the decorations. I haven’t thought that far, but S doesn’t hesitate. She already knows what she wants to do.
Next thing, she pours out a bag mini-marshmallows onto the table with a peculiar and crazed look on her face, and I can’t help but laugh. She is delightful. She handpicks all the pink marshmallows out, carefully, her tiny hands working nimbly, quickly. Then, she lines up all the colors for me: yellow, green, orange, then pink, and I taste each of them, and yup, she’s right, pink is the best.
I start washing up, listening to the girls laughing at different things, and it is wonderful. Then, looking out the window, I am distracted by the sight of the neighbors lingerie flapping in the wind. It is coral colored, and I think of my mother smoothing the same color on her lips. I think about my own desire, and my femininity, and all the ways we try to tell the world we’re alright.
Two arms wrap around my waist, hugging me tight. I look down, and see it’s C. Her voice is warm and tender when she says, “You are so pretty.” I almost believe her.
I put my arms around her too, and my eyes tear up. I can’t help it. But before I can say anything, she adds, “You give good hugs.” I smiled and tell her, “My mother taught me.”
When she pulls away, I reach up to touch my throat, and for the first time in a long time, nothing is there.
The butterfly hovers above the leaf.
There is a choice to make.
I realized then that I had to believe I was worth something. Nothing else. And that alone was the starting point. Yet, this intermediary place was also a point of departure: it just never occurred to me that I could ask for more than just survival. Something more mechanical and higher than mathematics.
Flapping it’s wings, sensuously, chaotically, beautifully.
What do we have to leave behind in order to change? Suppose metamorphosis underestimates the violence of change, that some level of cruelty begets creation. That we must let go of the old to welcome the new, to say yes to the body in constant state of radical re-formation.
The butterfly cannot fly very well at first. They need practice. But they learn fast. They learn fast and well and when it can fly, they will search for food and a mate and they lay their eggs.
And then, another lifecycle will begin.
Being born on the brink of rebirth, again and again.
Jocelyn Ulevicus is an artist and writer with work forthcoming or published in magazines such as the Free State Review, The Petigru Review, Quince Magazine, and Humana Obscura. Working from a female speculative perspective, themes of nature and the unseen; and exit and entry are dominantly present in her work. She resides in Amsterdam and is currently working on her first book of poems. To see her artwork and her cute cat, Pilar, visit her on IG @beautystills.