Somewhere in the undergrowth, a fleshy knot stirred in its shell. At one end, a black, featureless mask encased a trap-jaw.
Tentatively, as if waking from a slumber it didn’t remember falling into, the knot unwound itself to face the gelatinous wall of its womb. A pair of minuscule mandibles began chewing through the membrane: my first meal, and the beginning of its sentient life.
For the sake of anthropomorphism, she was known as Camille, because it had a nice ring to it, Camille the Caterpillar.
As she finished the last bit of shell, Camille was compelled by whatever hatchling instinct was hardwired into her core to crawl to the edge of the leaf with the rest of her newborn siblings and start slicing it up.
And so they sliced, and diced, and munched on plant matter. And when all that was left of the leaf upon which they had first been laid was a thin fibrous skeleton, they rippled their way up to the leaves above and started dissecting those.
And once the small plant that had hoped to become a tree but had suffered the misfortune of being chosen by a butterfly as its nursery resembled a lightning rod, they climbed down to its roots, crossed a section of the undergrowth, and went up a milkweed’s stem where they began feasting again.
In the days that followed, Camille began to resent the life that had been gifted to her.
She grew tired of crawling around like a mindless drone, having her actions dictated by a behaviour so deeply ingrained in her DNA that there was no need to think about what to do next, as the answer was seemingly always: “Eat that leaf over there.”
She grew sick of her insatiable hunger, and resentful of the genetic makeup that had birthed her into a body consisting of a digestive track with a mouth at one end and an anus at the other, so that no amount of leaves would ever fill her up.
Most of all, she grew disgusted of leaves. Aspen, willow, milkweed, it didn’t matter which it was; if gagging had been possible for a caterpillar, Camille would have done so at every bite.
One afternoon, as she was forcing a piece of elm leaf down her (gullet?), Camille turned to her sibling, “Aren’t you fed up of munching on this shit? Is there nothing else of nutritious value around us?”
Her neighbour twisted until the two bead-black heads faced each other, “Quit your whining and cheer up maggot! This is all that’s available to us now, but once we morph, we’ll be able to fly into the canopy where the glorious nectar of magnolias, orchids and bromeliads awaits!”
“But I’m a caterpillar…” answered Camille, and she was right. Camille the maggot didn’t sound nearly as good.
However, her sister’s remarks were not lost on her, and that night she dreamt sound caterpillar dreams of soft petals and sweet ambrosia, a pair of delicate wings to look the bud in the eye and a sharp proboscis to suck up the juices.
To her dismay, the only pair she woke up to the next morning was her pair of mandibles, as well as a rumbling intestine.
The thought of breakfast nauseated her, and Camille declared in a solemn voice: I’ll be damned if the next thing I eat isn’t the nectar from a flower up above.
And so, it was. Camille made her way over and under the forest floor, and to the base of an enormous tree. She twisted her featureless visage up towards the sky, grabbed onto the bark, and began her arduous, vertical journey towards the canopy.
The ascent severely depleted her resources, and halfway through her pilgrimage she had to pause and chew on the bark. It tasted dark and bitter, and nearly made her nostalgic for leaf.
At long last, she reached a branch that levelled off, and in the nook where that branch separated from the trunk, sitting upon a nest of leaves, was a red crown of looming petals.
Camille made her way past the leaves, scaled the flower’s velvety contours and lifted herself onto the lips of the vegetal bowl. Down below, the beguiling liquid winked and swirled.
But as she crested the petal’s rise, our adventurer lost traction on the smooth surface and tumbled into the deep end.
Camille sank into the sticky, pungent slime. Her breathing holes instantly clogged up, and her jaws filled with nectar. A repulsive flavour attacked her senses as the liquid burned her insides. Her mandibles latched onto the walls that contained the liquid prison and began hacking aggressively. All the lies and ill-placed hopes poured out of the petals as Camille fell through the opening she had carved.
As she came to her senses, recovering from her little dip with disappointment and dashed dreams, Camille became aware that she was in the air, but not falling. Could it be? She tried to twist sideways to check for wings, but discovered she was too sticky to do so. Looking back at the gaping flower above her, she noticed four glimmering rubies dancing beneath the cover of the leaves.
A furry leg extended out of the shadows, stepped onto an incredibly thin wire that she had not discerned beforehand. Camille became impossibly still, she knew that trying to move would do her no good anyways. She had heard tales from her sisters, counted to them by the butterflies, but up until now, same as the flowers, they had been just that; tall tales.
Camille prayed that this one would prove to be just as disappointing.
Two more legs plucked at the wire, and staccatos rippled in accord across the web. Suddenly the remaining limbs shot out and a spindly mass raced towards Camille in a series of disjointed notes. A set of mandibles capable of sectioning her halted a pace away. The mandibles spoke: “What is the creature that goes on a dozen legs at dawn, into a coma at noon, and on wings at dusk?”
The caterpillar looked up at the tarantula and found a sense of purpose amid the terror that had seized her, “Not me.” She replied.
The blood-red eyes atop the creature’s head narrowed into pinpoints. The mandibles snipped the wires that held Camille aloft.
Camille was falling yet again. She dropped past leaves and branches and crashed into the bushy undergrowth. The forest was silent.
When she came to, she realised as chance would have it that she had landed on a patch of moss. She could hear her siblings nearby, dangling off of the tree’s lower branches. As she crawled closer, a fat caterpillar turned to her and spoke: “Start weaving, sister. The time has come.” Its jaws overflowed with milky, gooey strands that also coated its lower body. Camille twisted around and saw her siblings already in various stages of pupating. Oval sarcophagus hung from the branch like dark lanterns, while other caterpillars spat out their headpieces’ finishing touches.
But Camille stared for a while and then made her way up to the next branch. There she spun and weaved a cocoon like none had seen before, and when she was done, she rested in the dark and waited.
Something collided into her web, Camille crawled about and sensed it twitching erratically; a heart trying to beat its way out of a chest. She peered out of her hiding place. A vibrantly coloured form struggled in the moonlight, orange and yellow blankets were draped heavily over its long body, perhaps too heavily. And an intricate, pale bedframe spread around the writhing creature like shattered glass.
Oh… no… is my big sister having a nightmare?
Camille the Carnivorous Cannibalistic caterpillar emerged from the shadows; her struggling victim went limp.
“What goes on a dozen legs at dawn, into a coma at noon, on wings at dusk, and into my belly at night?”
The butterfly was bittersweet.