The Ugly Caterpillar

     It was a glorious, sunny day, in the garden patch that ran along the edge of the old woman’s tiny cottage. The fat toad rested in its ceramic house, croaking contentedly as it eyed the plump elderly lady filling its shallow pond. A snake slithered through the ivy groundcover, seeking a flat rock to bask on. Jewel-colored zinnias bloomed abundantly, attracting ruby throated hummingbirds and fat buzzing bumblebees.

     All the garden creatures seemed happy… all save one. It had been two suns since her fourth skin shedding. An older, fifth instar caterpillar called Creepina, chewed slowly on her milkweed. Why am I so tiny and uglier than all my kin, the little larva wondered to herself over-and-over… to the point that her small stomach hurt.

     It had rained heavily the night before. As Creepina crept along the ragged lower leaves of the milkweed plant, seeking a rare tasty spot, she caught her reflection in a small raindrop. “Oh my!” the small caterpillar proclaimed with horror. “It’s so near the end of my growing; yet, my body’s so slight, my alternating black, white, and yellow bands are too light. And just look at those long, bent-like-a-twig front antennae atop my head.” She stared at the raindrop ‘mirror’, terrified by how she could make each twisted antenna swipe back-and-forth. “None of my siblings have crooked antennae like these!” she moaned. “And only mine swing like the sticks on that foul-smelling iron beast (that sits near my garden patch) do when it rains!”

     Higher up, on the light-drenched, nutritious milkweed leaves, Creepina’s seven brothers and sister caterpillars joked and laughed happily as they dined nonstop on their all-you-can-eat plant buffet. They were hungry all the time, and extremely proud of their newly plump bodies, with slightly curved antennae… that were so long, they could now touch the leaf. And unlike Creepina’s bland skin tone, their wide, black body stripes were lush like velvet, while their yellow-and-white bands were vivid.

     Crawler, one of Creepina’s brothers, stared down over the edge of his broad leaf. His six pairs of eyes, though weak, focused on his sister. “You’re so ugly,” he teased. “That’s why we don’t want you around.”

     “I can’t believe nothing’s eaten her yet!” Creepina’s eldest sister Wriggler taunted as she glanced downwards toward her unattractive sibling. “You’re a runt; everyone knows you were the last egg laid. Even after shedding your skin four times, you’re still so different than us,” she scorned. “We’re ashamed to call you our sister. That’s why we drove you farther away, and into those brown bottom leaves.”

     Creepina’s bent antennae drooped further over her banded head. “No one loves me,” the ugly, little caterpillar sobbed softly. “If only I could be beautiful… like them!” She felt utterly alone.

     Unfortunately, these dreadful feelings were nothing new; poor Creepina often trembled fearfully in the darkness of night, and many a time concealed herself from the light of day. Besides hating the ridicule, it was terrifying to be exiled, all by herself, to the lower milkweed leaves… the very place where most of the hungry caterpillar killers haunted frequently… and lurked in hiding.

     Lonely Creepina crawled farther down the plant to escape her siblings’ hurtful taunts. She rested on the milkweed’s lowest leaf, feeling so blue she couldn’t take the slightest bite. Suddenly, a pair of round, beady eyes peered up, meeting her tiny, weak-visioned ones.

     “Who are you?” Creepina asked, relieved to have some company.

    “Why, I’m Chirp-Chirp, a baby red-breasted robin,” the little bird cheeped. She bent over to peck at something slimy wriggling in the soil, then her sleek head popped back up. “I’m a fledgling,” Chirp-Chirp twittered. “I just jumped out of my nest. My mother doesn’t feed me anymore. I’m so hungry—”

     “Why don’t you stay and share a meal with me?” Ugly Creepina asked hopefully. She wriggled closer to the red-breasted robin. “We could be friends. There’s plenty of milkweed. Um… What do you eat anyway?”

     “I don’t eat plants!” the baby bird exclaimed, shocked by the thought. “My mother fed me all sorts of insects and long wiggling things called ‘worms’. Worms are my favorite! Why, you wriggle too… just like wonderful worms do! Are you tasty? Good to eat?” Hungry Chirp-Chirp snapped her sharp beak, anticipating a nice juicy bite.

     Creepina raised her small banded head and swiveled it back-and-forth anxiously. Oh dear, she thought. There’s nowhere to hide. Terrified, Creepina dropped low and cowered against the wide flat leaf.

     Chirp-Chirp hopped closer. She pecked her sharp, brownish-yellow beak against the sturdy leaf over-and-over, just missing Creepina.

    “Please don’t hurt me!” the ugly caterpillar cried as she curled into a teeny ball. She closed her eyes, shaking in terror, anticipating her end.

     “You’re nothing like those long, brown earthworms my mother taught me to eat,” Chirp-Chirp tweeted. “You’re different… I’ve never seen any worms as ugly as you. And you’re so tiny, you’d hardly make a mouthful,” the baby bird laughed. “I’ll come back when you’ve fattened up; soon, you’ll make a nice meal.” The young robin’s rosy chest bristled; then she flapped her feathered wings and flew off.    

     Creepina’s limp body uncurled. She slipped away as fast as she could force her little legs to move. Climbing higher and higher, she finally found a safe, secluded spot underneath a broad leaf. Standing upside down, Creepina saw the old human’s gigantic feet stroll by. She heard a gentle voice singing. I’m so different, the exhausted caterpillar thought as she collapsed. Even that baby bird laughed at me. With these futile thoughts, as she listened to the old gardener’s soothing song, tired Creepina cried herself to sleep.

     At sunrise, lonely Creepina woke to hear sad wailing sounds raining down from the top of the plant.

She crawled from her hiding spot, then crept farther up the thick milkweed stalk until she could hear her siblings’ laments more clearly: “Wriggler’s gone! That big nasty bug got her! Why did it have to be her?”

     “Poor Wriggler,” Creepina grieved. Suddenly, a gloomy shadow towered over her. Something was lurking close by! Alarmed, she spun around and stared straight at a large brown bug with a sinister yellow dot on each side of its wide checkered back.

     “I’m hunting,” the assassin bug said, raising its narrow head. It stepped quickly toward Creepina. “Caterpillars… so juicy. I’m going to suck you dry!”

     “You won’t like me! My brothers and sisters don’t. Even the baby robin laughed at me. I’m small… ugly… and different,” Creepina said.

     “Size and looks don’t matter to me,” that six-legged slayer insect said, raising its strong beak with which it repeatedly stabbed its prey. “For me, it’s all about thirst-quenching succulence… I’ll enjoy eating you.”

     Maybe I can scare it away? Creepina hoped. Like windshield wipers swinging in heavy rain, Creepina swiped each of her twisted antennae back and forth at full speed, violently. She now appeared to be one crazy caterpillar.

     “This foolish larva thinks it can frighten me,” the monstrous bug snickered. Its powerful front forelegs reached out to capture Creepina.

     Suddenly, some pink-fleshed creature swooped down swiftly and seized the assassin bug. At the top of its lungs, the beast insect screamed: “Noooooooooo!” As the fleshy thing rose, it closed into a tight ball. All went silent.

     “Oh my, I don’t want to die that way!” Creepina cried as she eyed what seemed to be a crimson-skinned bird, diving down straight at her. Afraid once again, Creepina lashed her twisted antennae back and forth.

     As the featherless bird slowed and moved closer, she now saw the pink creature was really a wrinkled human hand. Instead of grabbing her, the veined hand broke the leaf she occupied off its dense stem and raised it up high above the milkweed plant, higher than Creepina ever had been before. Creepina’s six poorly-visioned eyes, met the creature’s two big chestnut-brown eyes. Face-to-face, she was now able to recognize the old woman who tended the garden… and sometimes was swallowed and carried off by the rumbling iron beast.

     “You, poor endangered thing,” the old gardener’s melodic voice whispered. “There aren’t as many of you as there used to be, that’s why I planted the milky weed. That’s your only food and it’s disappearing. I didn’t know any caterpillars were on these leaves, till I saw your antennae waving like crazy. Most caterpillars don’t survive; so, I had to save you from that dreadful bug. I’m going to take care of you from now on.”

     I love her, Creepina thought, lifting her banded head. She sounds like wind chimes.

     The old woman’s thin lips broke into a wide smile as she watched the small caterpillar perk up. She carried Creepina over to a small mesh tent and placed her gently on one of the potted milkweed plants inside. Once Creepina was safe, she zipped the tent shut tight!

     I love my new home, Creepina marveled. There are no irritating insects… and this plot is filled with my favorite food. Best of all, I’m not alone! That old human visits me a lot, each time bringing more caterpillars!

     “You saved us Creepina!” her brother Crawler wept, after the old gardener fetched all their surviving kin to the safe place. “If that nice woman hadn’t loved you so much, some of us would have been bug food!”

     Secure and content, Creepina’s tiny stomach stopped hurting. For two days, she stuffed herself silly with milkweed. I’m going to burst, she thought. And I’m so tired. I must find a safe spot to sleep. She crawled instinctively to the top of her enclosure. Here, she saw many pale-green, gold rimmed cases hanging. Determined to rest, she spun a silken pad and hung from it upside down in an unusual “J” shape.

     The last thing she heard was the old lady: “I’ll see you when you crawl out from your cocoon.”

     Before Creepina knew it, she was enclosed in a green jewel-box like case, just like the ones surrounding her! Inside this protective sack she slept… and slept… dreaming of one day emerging: beautiful at last. And while she dreamt (over twelve days), something superb did indeed happen.

     It was a splendid afternoon in the garden patch. The old woman strolled to the front of her cottage, then lifted her hand over myriads of swaying rainbow-colored flowers. In her palm, a lovely butterfly rested, pumping her orange black-veined wings, which gleamed in the light like stained glass, up and down.

     “I’ve named you Vayu,” the old woman said. “I’ll miss you. May the wind carry you to far-off places.”

     It’s all so hazy, but I remember once being called something like… ‘Creepina’, the Monarch Butterfly thought as she stretched out her large wings. I was small and ugly and crawled about on many short feet. I’m big and beautiful now; all I’ve ever imagined has come true.

     The gentle breeze blew. A strong desire came over her; it was time. She fluttered her wings and sailed off the old gardener’s outstretched palm to join her siblings. Amidst the buzzing bees, the beautiful butterflies soared gracefully over a sea of gem-colored zinnias.