Dudley Kalloch and Larry Short

The Caterpillar  




oolly had only eaten about half the fig leaf when something inside him seemed to say: "That's all the green stuff you're gonna hold, fella." He stopped, turned slowly and stiffly around on the numerous short legs which rippled along the underside of his long, fuzzy body, and looked about him. A little ways off he could see his three friends approaching -- Grubby, Prickly and Wuzzy.

Grubby, who was the first in the line of three caterpillars, waved six of his feet in the air. "Ho, Woolly!"

"Hiya, fellows," Woolly answered.

The three all began talking at once, so that Woolly couldn't tell what any one of them was saying. Finally Grubby turned around and yelled at the other two: "Okay, keep quiet! I'll tell him."

Looking at Woolly, he said, "We came all the way up here to tell you about this new mulberry tree we found this morning.

Boy, is it great! Sweet and juicy. You must come back with us, and we will have a big feast."

When Woolly heard this he drew back just a little. "So just where is this great tree?" he asked.

"Well," Wuzzy admitted, "it's some distance off. It took us about all day to get back here."

"But ..." Prickly interrupted, "when you taste these leaves, you'll know that it's worth the trip. Aw, come on, Woolly!"

Woolly shook his head to and fro. "I don't know, boys. I've had so much to eat already."

"Yeah," said Grubby, "but this fig leaf is nothing compared to the Mulberry that's in store for you. So quit your hemin' an' hawin'."

"Thank you, just the same," Woolly declined. "But I really feel I should stay about these parts."

Woolly could see in his friends' eyes that they knew the real reason of his hesitation. Near the fig tree was a bit flat rock with a deep crack in it, and it was into this crack that Woolly went once each day. There were some little mossy plants in there that made it a cool shady place. If you were a caterpillar and you crawled into that crack, you could hardly be seen from above. It was a quiet place.

There, every morning about sunrise, Woolly would wait. And soon, while the dewdrops yet glistened on the tips of the fresh morning grass, Woolly's wait would be rewarded with the flutter of wings and the appearance of a beautiful, angelic creature, graceful and light as a feather. This visitor said hardly a word to Woolly, but it always brought him a few drops of refreshing, sweet nectar from wild flowers that grew high up near some mountain spring. And then it would be gone.

Woolly had already made the mistake of mentioning the angel's visit to his friends. "Hah!" they had laughed scornfully at him. "We don't believe in those things. That's too old-fashioned. These are modern times, you know, and we're modern caterpillars."

Woolly invited his friends down into the crack, to come see for themselves, but they said they were much to busy hunting for good leaves.

Suddenly Prickly spoke up in anger. "I know why he doesn't want to come with us," he said. "He's afraid to leave his rock. He's not adult enough to handle life in the real world."

"That's not true," Woolly objected. "I'm not afraid of your Mulberry tree. I stay because I want to stay. I have something better here."

"Hah!" said Prickly. "I'm tired of having a supposed friend who doesn't even like doing the same things we do anymore. What say we chew this fella's suckers off and dump him over the edge where he belongs?"

Wuzzy shook his head. "But what if he's right?" he asked Prickly. "Suppose an angel does come to him every morning? You would be very sorry for talking that way. And if you did anything to Woolly it might be bad for you."

"Can't you see it's just a fable?" Prickly retorted angrily. "It's all in his mind."

Grubby had already turned and was heading down the fig tree toward the ground. He called to the other two over his shoulder: "You guys can talk about it all you want, but I say you're wasting your breath. There's good eating to be done. We'd best get it all in, because Fall's a-comin', and you know what we've all got to do then."

With that sobering thought, Prickly and Wuzzy stopped their argument, and after giving Woolly one intensely dirty look, they headed down the tree trunk after Grubby and left Woolly all alone.

The air began to get cooler, and the days grew noticeably shorter. In spite of the chill, every morning Woolly would wait at the rock for the appearance of the visitor.

One day Woolly's three friends returned to the fig tree, saying that the leaves of the mulberry tree no longer tasted any good to them. They looked worn and tired, and their movements were slow and arduous in the cool air. A number of other caterpillars soon joined them, and in the evenings they would crowd together on the leaves to keep warm. Woolly spent much of his time, alone, in the crack, sitting by the moss and thinking about the angel.

Soon the caterpillars grew silent. Even the worsening weather, which had been a constant source of conversation earlier, no longer held their interest. Woolly knew that the thoughts of each caterpillar were on the coming winter, and the cold, hard coffin each would have to build and climb into once the snows began to fall. They had talked about it once, when they were young, though they did no longer; Prickly had said they ought to eat all the leaves they could find, because some day they would lie dead forever in their coffins, with the chill wind blowing eternally over them.

Woolly hadn't known what to think of this, so the next time he saw the angel, he asked him: "Tell me, once a caterpillar climbs into his coffin and seals it behind him, does he lie forever buried beneath the snow? What happens to him?"

Woolly had expected the angel to answer, but the creature simply smiled at him, spread his beautiful wings in the air, and flew gracefully away.

"When are you going to start building your coffin?" Woolly asked Wuzzy.

"Very soon now, I suppose," the tired caterpillar replied. "The skies are darkening, and it looks like snow. But it's better we not talk about such dreadful things."

"I don't see what's so dreadful about it," Woolly shrugged. "I know somehow the coffin is not the end of it. I think that when the winter is past we shall exit like my angel, and spread our wings and fly off into the warm spring air!"

Wuzzy shook his head sadly. "I wish I could believe as you do, Woolly," he said. And then he simply crawled away.

That very night the weather changed abruptly. The chill wind which had been blowing turned icy wet, and soft flurries of snow fell mixed with cold, biting sleet.

Woolly spent that night in the crack of the rock. He had his cocoon already prepared, but he waited outside of it to watch his friends frantically building theirs, up on the dying leaves of the fig tree. Soon the day broke, but as it did the snow began to fall in flurries and covered the flat rock with the crack in it. Woolly heaved his tired, cold body gratefully into the warm shelter of the cocoon.

That winter turned out to be the coldest in many years. There was snow, sleet and hail which pounded the poor fig tree and shook many of its withered leaves to the ground. There, beneath the huge piles of snow, lay the cocoons of many of Woolly's friends, crushed and frozen on the ground.

Yet, deep in the crack and sheltered from the worst of the bad weather, Woolly slept on.

After many months the air began to grow warmer, and the snow began to melt. Soon there was nothing left of it but a trickle of cool water winding its way down the gullies, but then even that was gone, and the pretty spring wildflowers and grasses began to poke their green heads through the thawing soil. The budding plants made very small sounds as they pushed their way up toward the sun, too small for your or my ears to hear.

But another sound soon mixed in with the sounds of spring. It was the music of the breaking of the tombs of all the caterpillars who had survived, those who had sought shelter in which to build their cocoons.

Woolly pushed his way out of his cocoon and rubbed his eyes. He looked toward the clouds, and couldn't believe what he saw. The entire sky was filled with angels! There were large ones and small ones, with shiny, multicolored wings, freshly unfurled and drying in the warm sunshine.

Woolly cried out with joy and leapt into the air. He was astonished to see his broken, empty cocoon dwindle into the distance, far below him. He was flying! He joined the cloud of beautiful butterflies, a thousand wings beating in heavenly harmony and swirling ever upward, up toward the mountain where the wild, sweet nectar grew.

Copyright 1999 Larry Short