Butterflies, Go Free

For the past couple of weeks, the Ballerina has been working on the most pleasurable of science labs – watching caterpillars become butterflies.

What excitement when they first arrived!  Little squirmy things, conveniently encased in a plastic cup that was filled with loads of…whatever it is caterpillars like to eat.

All we had to do was watch. And watch we did, as they grew ate…and ate…and ate.  And grew fatter…and fatter…and humongously fatter.

I, who am normally not a fan of squirmy things with several legs, found myself becoming quite fond of them and even – gasp! – wishing we could pick them up.  But the instructions strictly forbade us from even opening the cup, so as to avoid introducing any bacteria into their pretty sterile environment.  So we peered through the cup incessantly, and the Ballerina laughed to see how much I was staring at the fat little buggers myself.

And then, one day, we looked and one of them had done what it seemed they would NEVER do.  It had stopped eating, had pretty much stopped moving, and there it hung, affixed to the cloth disk covering the cup by a slender thread of silk, in a J shape.  Within just a few hours, somehow the chrysalis had appeared and the process had begun.

The remaining 5 caterpillars got up there over the next several days, with the last two holding out for a really long time, no doubt happy about chowing down with reduced competition.  They even faked us out a couple of times: they’d crawl to the top, practice the position and then decide they weren’t ready just yet to give up the grub.  Then one day the last fattie, who’d been crawling around bumping into the other chryslalids and causing the Ballerina much worry, decided it was time.

Then they were still.

For a week we watched and waited while they hung there.  Staring at them reminded me of waiting for the Ballerina and the Baby Pharoah to be born:  I knew something was happening but could only imagine exactly where they were in their growth process, especially in the early months.  Were the ears fully formed yet? Had they opened their eyes? In this case, the time was a lot shorter, but the transformation seemed even more magical.  We were waiting for something to emerge that would look totally different from the already living creature that had gone in. It would have fewer legs, a long proboscis, and of course, those magical wings that make butterflies beloved insects (by most) instead of  hated ones.

And then!

Last Saturday morning we came downstairs and there, in the net cage to which we’d moved the chrysalids, was a butterfly! At first its folded wings made us think we’d somehow hatched a moth with its browns and tans. But then after some time strengthening its wings, it slowly opened them, and we saw the beautiful black and orange of the Painted Lady butterfly.

Over the last few days, we gave them cotton soaked with sugar water, and watermelon, and orange.  The Ballerina delighted at how they would flutter around her hand as she carefully presented these to her charges. She talked to them, coaxing them to drink, gently whispering to the last two chrysalids to get a move on it so that we could set them free.

And then yesterday, there were 6 empty chrsyalids and 6 beautiful butterflies.  The Ballerina completed her lab and agreed that the time had come to let the butterflies free so that they could enjoy some of their short lives outside as they were intended to.

Today, we finally did that.  We took the cage to the edge of our backyard and opened it.  At first they all sat there, but then the first one got flustered and flew around and then up and then…out!  We gently tapped the sides of the cage and the next one flew, up up and then over the roof of our house, it disappeared.  Before you knew it we had said six goodbyes, and they were gone.

And the Ballerina cried. She worried that they would be eaten by birds.  She wondered if they would remember her.  She worried that they would get lost. She knew it was the right thing to do, even kept reminding me all day that it needed to be done, but when the time came, she cried.

We went back inside and she stared out the window, hoping for a glimpse of at least one, but as the sun was going down in our heavily shaded yard, the chances of that were slim.

She cried again at bedtime. Saying goodnight to them had already become a ritual, and watching them flit about as we ate breakfast had become a peaceful and beautiful way to start the day.  Tomorrow, though, they’ll be out there somewhere, doing whatever it is butterflies do in their 2-4 week lifespan.  And we’ll be in here, both of us, missing them.  It’s sort of stupid, I suppose, to miss butterflies, but we can’t help it.

Yes, we.  I’m not crying, but I miss them too.

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