Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Story of Fred

This is Fred.

Odie and I met Fred's mother one afternoon, late in April. I saw a butterfly hovering over the parsley, and wondered why it was in a place with no flowers to feed on. Then I realized, "Black Swallowtail Butterfly? Parsley? She's laying her eggs!" So I started turning over leaves, and noticed the teeny tiniest yellow eggs, about the size of a dull pencil point, on the underside of the leaves where she had landed and hovered, landed and hovered. So I picked a few stems, put them in a vase of water, and waited... Some of the stems I took to school with me for my class to share, and some I sent with Margaret for her class. (But that is another story!)

In a couple of days, the eggs turned a little darker and looked a little clearer. In another day, the eggs hatched, and out of them came the tiniest of black smudges. Two caterpillars were born, only one survived, and he was named by Ben in the Kindergarten class next door. His name was Fred.

Fred never lived in a box in his caterpillar days in preschool. He was happy to roam up and down the parsley stems, chewing a leaf, growing a bit, chewing another leaf, growing a bit more. He grew from a plain black smudge, to a black smudge with a white spot, to narrow stripes, to the wide green, black and yellow stripes of the pudgy, hungry swallowtail caterpillar we all recognize devouring our parsley from year to year.

Fred was changing daily, from one instar to another, with visible differences from one day to the next. We were all fascinated. The three year old class showed amazing control in restraining the urge to touch him. The fours watched him eat and grow, and yes, even poop right before their eyes. Fred went on field trips next door for the Kindergarten class to observe during snack time. He became a part of our preschool family.

Once Fred got a little large for the sprig of parsley he was hanging onto, and decided to take a walk across the countertop. Evan and John were the first to raise the alarm (and can I touch him? No, no. Kind hands boys, kind hands, please.) We helped him onto a stable branch and the next day I brought him a deluxe parsley plant from the garden to suit the chubbiest of hungry caterpillars. Fred was content once again.

And so he ate, and so he grew, through April, into the middle of May. John David had been away, working in Rochester, NY for three weeks, and was scheduled to come back on Friday the 15th. I knew it was to be a long weekend, and Fred was so fat he looked about to burst, so I decided to take him home before going to pick up Margaret at school, and then John David at the airport. Of course, on a most eventful day, Fred comes down with a case of wanderlust, and crawls from branch to branch the whole way home in the car. Running late and thinking fast, I wrapped his plant up in painters' plastic with a rubber band at the top, set him in the corner of the kitchen, and took off to pick everyone up, just in time. Whew!

We all returned home, happy to be together again after so long. I checked the plastic just to make sure Fred was safe; I couldn't see him. I took off all the plastic, scanned the plant from stem to stem; I couldn't find him! (Panic! I love you Honey, but I have to find Fred!) Now Fred was no small caterpillar any more, and would have been no good at hiding. So I shook out all the plastic. No Fred. I looked on the floor around his plant. No Fred. I put my hand on the dust pan to move it so I could get a better view of the floor around the parsley plant, and I saw a flash of orange horns shoot up, and felt something soft and pudgy under my fingertips. Fred!

I made Fred bide his time crawling from branch to branch on the parsley while I quickly fashioned him a new home out of a cardboard box. I cut two large windows on either side and covered them with plastic wrap and packaging tape. I poked holes in the other two sides, and the box was ready for Fred to move in. I added twigs, the parsley plant and Fred and taped the box shut. Finally Fred was safe to roam. He roamed around and around that box all Friday evening, stopped at the top of the box late Friday night and got very, very still.

By Saturday morning, we could see that Fred was still Fred, but he was scrunching up. The belt was the first thing we noticed forming, and then we noticed the pillow at the base of his tail. Margaret and I took turns shining the flashlight up into the box, checking for changes, all day Saturday, all evening Saturday, and I gave him one last check in the wee hours of early, early Sunday morning. Still stripes, still Fred.

Night rolled into day, and the morning sounds of chirping birds, wagging tails and shuffling feet intruded softly into my dreams, to be punctuated by the scream from the other room, "He made his chrysalis!!!!!" Excitement filled the morning; the flashlight flickered on the ceiling of Fred's house again and again. He was examined, scrutinized; praised for his cleverness; chided for his sneakiness and was just shy of being worshiped for sharing such a wonderful event with all of us.

Monday came again, and Fred traveled back to preschool for everyone to see his new outfit. Flashlights flickered once again. We noticed his colors; we noticed his stripes. We looked at the front; we looked at the back. We saw that he changed very little now, and so Fred was left alone to rest and dream of flying. A week passed, and part of another, and it was time for all our school friends to go home for the summer. Parties, cupcakes, and then goodbye, Fred was ready to come back to the place where he began, in his home inside our home, and he waited quietly on a bench in the living room with busy people and a slobbery dog shuffling around him as he continued to sleep.

Days passed, interest waned and Fred just became a part of the room, a piece of the furniture, with a couple of papers on top, and a less vigilant flashlight beside him. Margaret and I were having our lazy Saturday playtime, vegging out on TV and video games, sprawled on the beanbag chair, chilling out on the floor. We heard a small rustle, rustle. We heard it again. I think you could have seen the light bulbs go on over our heads even before Margaret could get out the words "What was that?" Run to the box! Turn on the light! Amazing! Can it be? Thirteen days of rest, thirteen days of beauty sleep and Fred was no longer the same. He had emerged a glorious black (and yes, male) butterfly! (May 30, 2009)

The rest of the afternoon was spent photographing, measuring and watching every flutter. Fred was a beautiful inky black. He was so fresh and undamaged by the world. His wingspan was an impressive four inches wide, and he measured two and three quarter inches from tip of antennae to tip of swallowtail. Once the documentation was complete, it was decided that he should be free before mundane captivity drained any of his spirit. Margaret reached into the box. Fred crawled up her long fingers. And as the wind touched his wings, Fred did what butterflies have always done. He flew. He paused not more than a second, before the gentle breeze carried him with great speed from the deck, to the back yard, to the woods, and then gone.

An empty box, an empty gaze; it all seemed to end too quickly and yet just as it should be. I looked over the pictures again and again, scrutinizing, memorizing, hanging onto the moment for as long as I could, and then I stopped. I let it sink in, and I felt warm inside. I've enjoyed sharing Fred's story with others. I've shared it with anyone who cares to listen, in fact. I was able to show pictures of Fred to the summer campers who would remember him from class. He'll be sending out postcards to those who didn't get to see the pictures, and are still waiting to know if all turned out well. And I think I'll still be amazed, years from now, at my wonderful fortune of being in the right place at the right time. I shouldn't be surprised. I have always found more by searching less. Being open and receptive and ready for the new has proven time and again to be my path to meaningful experiences and lifelong friends.

When I see a flash of black on the deck, I check to see if it's Fred, back for a visit, but so far, no luck. I have met some beautiful Spicebush Swallowtail Butterflies and Black-capped Chickadees. And my eyes are open and ready to be amazed at the not-Fred going on all around me all the time now. Fred has moved on to complete his cycle away from prying eyes. I hope he receives rewards equal to what he has given.

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