Once upon a time, there was a beautiful butterfly. She flapped her sapphire wings under a cloudy sky, hoping to find someplace to lay her eggs.
She flew near and far, high and low, but she couldn’t find what she was looking for. She was about to give up when a patch of green appeared amongst the endless grey buildings.
“I reckon that’s the perfect spot,” she decided.
She fluttered down and was delighted to find a garden. An apple tree brimming with juicy leaves stood in the middle, and she was drawn to it like one of her distant relatives to a flame.
After landing on a leaf that was greener and tastier-looking than the rest, the beautiful butterfly finally laid her eggs.
“That’s the last of ‘em,” she sighed as she pushed the final one out of her ovipositor.
She gave each egg a quick smooch with the tip of her proboscis. But she hesitated at the last one, which was looking a little paler than its siblings.
“You’ll be alright,” she reassured, giving it an extra long smooch.
With her life’s mission completed, she flew away. The birds didn’t scare her anymore.
Three days later, the first egg hatched. The caterpillar wasn’t much bigger than a pen nib, but he knew how to get bigger. First, he gobbled up what was left of his eggshell. “Waste not, want not,” he recited. Then, he turned to the scrumptious green leaf under his six legs and ten prolegs; this one tasted much better.
He was soon joined by the rest of his brood; they too devoured their eggshells—“Waste not, want not,” they sang in unison—before whittling down the leaf.
Except for one. This caterpillar didn’t crawl out of her egg until the leaf was nothing but a sad strip of green.
“Hello?” squeaked the Very Late Caterpillar. Nobody replied because her siblings had left to find more leaves a long time ago.
The Very Late Caterpillar sighed ruefully. She muttered a quiet “Waste not, want not,” before eating her eggshell. Her hind gut still rumbled, so she set off down the branch to look for a leaf.
She searched high and low, near and far; as fast as her stubby first instar legs would allow it. But all the leaves were gone.
She was about to curl up and die when something caught her compound eye. It was big and red and looked a million times juicier than a leaf.
She crawled across a branch until she was right above the big, red, juicy thing. But before she could set foot on it, one of her brothers poked his head through a hole.
“This apple is mine,” he spat. “Find your own, Sister.”
“May I have a bite?”
“No. This is what happens when you are the last to hatch.” He paused to think. “There are apples higher up in the tree. If you are lucky, the rest of our brothers and sisters won’t have claimed them yet.”
And so the Very Late Caterpillar climbed onto the next branch. She was overjoyed to find another apple. She was not overjoyed to be chased away by another sibling.
“Hello!” called an aphid from a nearby leaf. “You seem to be having trouble finding a meal. Would you care for a drop of honeydew?”
The Very Late Caterpillar was thrilled. “Yes, please!”
“Alright. Bottoms up!”
A golden bead of honeydew appeared on the aphid’s backside. The Very Late Caterpillar crawled over and lapped it up. She was so hungry she didn’t care that the aphid moaned loudly the whole time she did it.
“Thank you,” she said as she happily licked her mandibles. “But why did you help me?”
“Because in exchange, I want you to never tell a soul about me. Us aphids have lots of predators, you know.”
The Very Late Caterpillar was satisfied with the honeydew. But she still wanted to know what an apple tasted like. So, the next day, she climbed onto the branch above.
“Piss off, you six-legged twat,” hissed the sibling that popped out of the third apple.
The Very Late Caterpillar sighed and decided to munch on some nearby leaves. That was when a shadow fell over her.
“You’ll make a lovely snack,” rumbled the ladybird.
“Please don’t eat me,” squeaked the Very Late Caterpillar.
“I have to, because there aren’t any aphids around.”
“There are plenty of aphids on the branch below!”
The ladybird peered over the edge of the leaf. He made a grunt of approval. “You are right. Aphids happen to be my favorite food. That is why us ladybirds are a gardener’s best friend. As a reward, I will not eat you, and I will answer one question.”
The Very Late Caterpillar mulled it over. “Why are you called ‘Ladybird’ even though you’re not a bird?”
“Because this story is set in the UK.”
The Very Late Caterpillar ate her fill. She still craved the flavor of an apple, so the next day she climbed onto the branch above.
“Jog on, you maggot,” growled the sibling inside the fourth apple.
The Very Late Caterpillar had to satisfy herself on boring old leaves. That was when a bigger shadow fell over her.
“Ah, there’s nothing quite like a fat, juicy caterpillar for brunch,” remarked the assassin bug as she polished her proboscis.
“I can’t die yet,” protested the Very Late Caterpillar. “I’m just a larva!”
“Yes, it is unfortunate. If only there were some fat, scrumptious ladybirds that could fill me up instead.”
“I met a ladybird yesterday. He went to eat the aphids two branches down.”
The assassin bug ruffled her antennae. “And where there are aphids, there are bound to be lots and lots of ladybirds. You are clever for a larva. As a reward for impressing me, I won’t pierce your soft body and suck out your insides like a smoothie. I will also allow one question.”
The Very Late Caterpillar mulled it over. “What’s a smoothie?”
“It is something humans eat using a plastic proboscis.”
The Very Late Caterpillar wanted to ask what a human was, but she was only allowed one question, and let’s be honest here, she was in no mood to challenge an insect that quite literally had the word “assassin” in its name.
In her search for another apple, she climbed to the branch above. She waited for another sibling to pop out of the red skin, but all was silent. Could it be? Has she finally found her apple?
Before she could set foot on it, a rustling of leaves made her hesitate. The biggest shadow yet fell over her.
“Aha!” exclaimed the ugly giant. “This apple looks about ripe.”
“It’d better be,” called a second voice from somewhere far below. It was followed by a gagging sound. “Gross! All these apples have worms in them.”
The ugly giant had pale, watery eyes instead of compound eyes. It had fleshy skin instead of a hard exoskeleton. It also seemed to breathe through two holes above its mouth instead of spiracles on the side of its body. The Very Late Caterpillar figured this was the "human" that the assassin bug was talking about.
It really was ugly.
A massive appendage reached out. It stopped before it could claim the apple.
“Hey. Is this yours, little buddy?”
The Very Late Caterpillar nodded sheepishly.
“Who the bloody hell are you talking to?” came the voice from below.
“A caterpillar,” replied the ugly giant. “It doesn’t want me to pick the apple.”
“Jesus Christ, are you on drugs again?”
The ugly giant descended the tree on strange metal branches. “You should’ve seen the face it was making. It would be like taking candy from a baby.”
“Maybe I ought to take your candy…”
Surprised that things were looking up for a change, the Very Late Caterpillar burrowed into the apple and ate. She ate until her mandibles were sore. She ate until her gut was bloated. She ate until she was sick of apples.
Months passed. The Very Late Caterpillar ate all the leaves she could find, using her wit to get out of sticky situations. There was always plenty of food now that her siblings were nowhere to be seen.
The Very Late Caterpillar shed her skin every time she got too big for it. This is called “ecdysis,” but since no one knows how the fuck you pronounce that word, we’ll use “molting” instead. One day, she molted to reveal a chrysalis underneath. She hung from a branch while she secretly experienced a transformation. It was all she could do. She couldn’t walk, eat, or poop. Only wait.
Weeks passed. A beautiful butterfly with sapphire wings emerged from the chrysalis. She waited for her wings to dry. Afterwards, she flapped her wings for the first time. She flew up and up and up, higher than the apple tree. It was time to find a mate and begin the cycle once again.
As she gazed at the patch of green below, she thought of the beings that helped her along the way. She thought of the aphid that offered her honeydew in exchange for protection. The ladybird and the assassin bug, who both let her live. And the ugly giant that let her have an apple with nothing in return.
The Beautiful Butterfly wished that insects could be more like humans.