“Yeah, well that’s fine then, but Myrtle's gone through the change, ain’t she?” said Gary, swiveling his ponderous abdominal sections around with his prolegs in a series of surprisingly graceful little steps, until he could continue his feeding holes. They were new and he was inordinately proud of them.
“I miss old Myrtle,” grumbled Geoffrey, bobbing his tentacles in a way that Gary knew meant he was displeased.
“S’not like she had a choice,” Gary managed, around a thick wad of partially masticated milkweed. “It’s the only way, and it's gonna happen to all of us. We’ll all be in the clique someday.”
“Bunch of goddamn snobs...”
Gary swallowed painfully and using his powerful true legs swung his head nearer, the spiracle markings shining like a row of eyes along his accordion side.
“Wouldn’t go mouthin’ off like that if I were you,” he whispered. “Any of the B’flies hear and like as not they’ll throw you right over the edge, just like they did poor ol’ Humphreys.”
“You don’t know if they did that or not.”
“Might have; leastwise, he didn’t never come back, an how’s he gonna fatten up if he can’t come back to the milkweed? How's he gonna’ find a spot to make his pupa? It were a death sentence if you ask me, an’ all because he couldn’t keep his mouth shut around the B’flies.”
“You don’t know,” repeated Geoffrey, grumbling.
Gary took another agitated bite.
The while he had been speaking he had not stopped eating and in his agitation had nearly severed the leaf upon which he and Geoffrey were feeding. Since his last molt Gary had begun eating in a straighter line and the directionality of his holes still seemed sometimes to take him by surprise.
Just then a pair of broad wings caused the sunlight around them to flicker and both fell silent, no sound but the munching of their jaws.
“Gary and, um, Geoffrey, was it? How are you two getting along?” said a cold, feathery voice.
“Great sir, thanks for asking,” Gary said at once.
“Ahh, excellent,” said the adult monarch. “And you, Geoffrey, how are you doing? Are you making sure to eat enough? Your abdominal sections don’t look nearly as fat as they should.”
“I’m fine,” muttered Geoffrey.
“What was that?”
“I said, ‘I’m fine,’” he repeated.
“Take it from me boys, you can’t eat too much milkweed; why I remember, during my fifth instar I would eat five leaves in a row, and look at me now,” chortled the monarch. “I know, I know; seems like a lot of work and you can hardly imagine yourselves becoming, what do you call us, ‘B’flies’, but stick to it. We’ll make something of you yet.”
“Oh take absolutely the hell off,” muttered Geoffrey.
“What was that?” demanded the monarch, quivering its antinai towards the pair, a thousand infinitesimally small reflections glistening in its compound eyes.
Geoffrey continued to munch, refusing to look up.
“He didn’t say nothin’, sir,” interjected Gary, taking a half step away.
“That’s what I thought,” enunciated the large insect, after a deliberate pause.
It stretched out to its full wingspan, the white circles along its forwings glowering like eyes in the bright light, and held itself that way for a protracted moment before folding back in.
“Now,'' it said, “we’re going to be sending a handful of first instars over here. It’ll be your job to look after them and make sure they don’t somehow fall over the edge, though how anyone could be so stupid I can’t image, even one of you larvae. Make sure they eat plenty of milkweed... and you as well. Geoffrey, store up your cardenolides, that way if a bird eats you at least maybe it’ll learn not to eat me as well and we’ll get some use out of you.”
Without another word the monarch flicked itself into motion and was off, the light again fluttering as it came between them and the sun.
Gary gazed after it spellbound. Without thinking he had continued to eat and so worked himself up to the leaf’s tender petiole. He took a bite out of it.
“I can’t imagine ever wanting-” began Geoffrey, but at that moment the stalk collapsed over the notch and swung into a vertical position, both caterpillars clinging on for dear life.
“Weee!” “Yeah!” “Do it again!” chorused a choir of tiny voices. Looking up, Geoffrey spied a cluster of tiny first instars swinging on the upper rim of the leaf, their immature true legs clinging haphazardly.
“You kids be careful,” he barked, inching towards them.
Gary, already at that end of the leaf, cuffed one with his fused lower abdomen and sent it tumbling along a fuzzy vein. Geoffrey arched his body around in a right angle to catch him, but the little fellow stopped short before he reached the larger caterpillar. Placidly, he began munching out a small, arc shaped hole.
“I think I’m gonna’ try the change tonight,” whispered Gary, eyeing the first instars with displeasure. “I’m tired of lookin’ out for these small fries, I just wanna be one of the B’flies already.”
“You wanna be like them?” said Geoffrey.
Gary shrugged. “They’re not all the same,” he said. “You don’t have to be a jerk, just because you can fly. I bet Myrtle’s not a jerk.”
Geoffrey had continued to inch his way up the leaf and finally reached the little fellow. Carefully, he guided him away from the hole he had been enlarging and onto an adjacent leaf. In the distance the monarch elite fluttered, their orange and black bodies opening and shutting too quickly for eyes to follow as they alighted on whatever they chose.
That night, the moon was silver. It sometimes was. Geoffrey rotated his tired eyes trying to stay awake, at least until Gary woke. Half of the first instars were eating, the other half a'slumber. They seemed to be cycling themselves on purpose.
“Come on you kids, away from the edge,” he said, yawning, wishing that their milkweed pots were not the last in the line, that the drop from the outermost leaves was not so perilous.
All across the field B’flies perched, their large wings tented darkly in sleep, proboscis’ trembling. The whole world was asleep it seemed, except for him and a half dozen larvae who didn’t know any better.
With difficulty, he was so fat, Geoffrey inched to the highest point of the plant he could reach, a tiny black nub in the moonlight. It was a foolish venture, out there on the naked stalk, but he really didn’t care if a nocturnal bird snatched him up. At least he would make it sick, the bully, and it would be quick. At least he would die, him. He, Geoffrey, would remain, would die a person that he could like, not changed into a form which he did not even recognize...
He looked down to where his slumbering companion rested on the leaf below. He had eaten and was napping and later on... he would eat again. What was the matter with him that that was not enough? What was the matter with him that he was scared?
Geoffrey felt the change in his body. He had felt it for a whole day now. He was not hungry anymore and knew what that meant.
“You kids stick together now,” he said, knowing that they wouldn’t.
Two days ago, a branch had fallen from a nearby tree and bisected his beloved milkweed patch, its tapered points sticking out over the void like withered proboscis. It was dry and hard and offered no sustenance, so the larvae had ignored it. After the crash Geoffrey had stood staring at it for a long time, until Gary had nudged him, whispering that the B’flies were watching. He had known, even then, that it would be where he went when the time came, had suspected in the back of his mind with a sort of weary fatalism…
Had he though?
It hadn’t been the same, not as it was now.
Then, it had been theoretical. He had not yet felt the change in his body. It hadn’t mattered, hadn’t been imminent.
It had felt like he had forever.
Leaving Gary and the first instars and the beloved milkweed plant, Geoffrey made his way, a thousand tiny little steps, out onto the branch, his green patches glowing wet in the moonlight. It was a long way but he kept at it, the branch growing ever more and more slender, tapering and diverging till he reached an end. One Monarch had been resting out there towards the middle of the dry branch, it’s feather-like scales moving slightly in the nearly still air. Once you could fly you could go whatever you wanted, sleep where you wanted, you were not tethered to the milkweed. Carefully, Geoffrey had passed it by.
At the end of all things he rested. For a long while he stood there, reared on his prolegs, giving nature all the chance he could, every opportunity, but no bird came, no spider or wasp, and Geoffrey settled himself back down. He knew what he had to do, it was built into him and there was no choice, not at the end. It was a part of the change. And so, slowly, over the infinite abyss, through his fear, Geoffrey began to spin his silk.