The prolegs lifted the thorax of the beast as the true legs tried to find home.
It was green with a yellow stripe that ran the length of the rolling, two inch body. Each end tapered like a pencil point. On the head, two anemone tipped horns wobbled. Jonah and I were amazed until we saw another and another. A colony of green caterpillars devouring a tree is an amazing sight, especially to an eight year old.
We were busy plucking the hackberries off the trees in old Ms. Grant's back yard when I saw it. Tim Dooley and his cronies had grown bored with giving us undie grundies, hanging us from fence posts, and had resorted to taking the marble sized produce and whipping them at us. We retaliated by picking the berries off the trees in early morning before they could give us welts.
This day, the tree was steaming with the green bugs. We wondered at their voracious appetites as they methodically devoured whole leaves. They inched around like magicians, abracadabra, appear overnight.
We were amazed. All summer long we were little entomologists chasing bugs. This was unprecedented. We held the larva in our hands and felt their suction cup legs warble in our palms. We faced them off to mute wars, then ran home to get jars. The two of us, so young, sat in my backyard and pounded roofing nails through the tin lids with precision. We ran back and delicately plucked leaves from the Hackberrry trees, dropping them into the jars. Green filled us with smells I can't forget.
We didn't know it then, but colonies of Hackberry and Tawny Emperor butterflies had engorged the fields of Iowa and Indiana. The pulse of overpopulation hiccuped into our tiny village on the west side of Chicago. We were grateful without knowing why. Funny thing is, we didn't see any butterflies on the tree. They were gone, just like our hope.
I gotta take a brief intermission to explain. If you are full of heavy sighs, this moment of finding caterpillars in the midst of summer when we are young provides a manifestation of heaven, and earth, and the meaning of life. Believe in it.
We each took a stick and placed it in the jar with the leaves. Then, we plucked an anonymous caterpillar from the tree and put it in the jar. The insects pulsed in paced circles and ate. Then, three days later they stuck their cremasters down and began to weave. Mine picked a knot on the stick and Jonah's decided on the sharp hole punch of his mason lid. We waited.
I couldn't wait, the woven pupa was too much to bear and I carried it around with me, showing anyone. Jonah left his on his back deck with patience. The gestation period is unknown, I am too old now to remember. All I know is that my jar never hatched a butterfly. Jonah had a special jar, and he did make a butterfly. What happened to it will only live here.
When the Chrysalis broke in The jar of Jonah, he phoned me.
"Come over quick, the butterfly is hatching."
I put on my shorts and ran. This was a momentous occasion. When I got there, he had the stick lying on the sidewalk in front of his brick house. The butterfly was escaping, I could see it move like a heartbeat underneath the cocoon. The leafy wings rolled and it pushed itself out. The variegated wings pulled themselves unstuck, free, and the isolated beast wavered on the concrete.
"It's wings have to dry". Jonah muttered within a whisper.
"I know." I said, not knowing.
Jonah pulled out a magnifying glass and we examined the insect as the heavy wings stuck to one another. Only then did I ever know what Lepidoptera meant. The flaking scales of the butterflies' wet wings swayed heavy in the open breeze and for hours we waited as it stood still. Finally, the wings stuck forever together and dropped to the earth like a heavy wall collapsing. They stuck there for hours until it started to rain, then the rain pelted the orange wings in waves to the pavement. The legs bent too far and I finally knew how to feel.