By Peter Eckblad
It was late fall and cold. Eva and I went out to the backyard to rake leaves and pick up sticks. The wind whipped through our jackets and dark clouds swirled overhead.
“Look!” Eva cried. We found an army of strange caterpillars. They were furry and black, with white stripes on their backs filled with red dots. The caterpillars were searching for leaves on the branches of the bare trees.
“Let’s get some and put them in jars,” Eva said. My daughter was nine and her life revolved around animals and biology.
I looked around the yard. Something was off. These were beautiful caterpillars, but it was not the right time of year for them to be out. The caterpillars should have turned into butterflies months ago.
We carefully collected a few of the caterpillars, along with some sticks and dead leaves. Mason jars used for canning were now hotel rooms. The caterpillars quickly built chrysalises and curled up inside of them. Days went by, and the caterpillars squirmed inside their new digs. After spending a couple of weeks on the dining table, the metamorphoses of the caterpillars were nearing completion, and the butterflies began to emerge. Or so I thought.
“Daddy, I think we have a butterfly!” said Eva.
Looking into the Mason jar, I tried to discern what had come out of the chrysalis. I was having trouble making it out. I stared at the tiny object.
I could not believe what I was seeing. I said, “It’s a mouse. A catnip mouse. A cat toy.”
“A cat toy? What are you talking about?” asked Eva, puzzled.
“It’s a catnip mouse.” I tried to pull the words out of my head. “It’s Smokey’s mouse,” I said.
“What? Who’s Smokey?” Eva asked.
“It’s crazy, but this is Smokey’s mouse. Smokey was my kitten when I was a little boy. This is the mouse that he loved to play with. This is definitely his. It was yellow, and the holes in it are the bite marks from his teeth. Look, I even wrote his name, Smokey, on the side of the mouse. He was hit by a car. I missed him so much. I still do.”
“Daddy, a caterpillar wouldn’t turn into a catnip mouse.”
“No,” I said, bewildered. “It sure wouldn’t.”
We set the tiny cat toy on the table in the dining room.
The next day, another creature managed to squirm out of its chrysalis.
“Daddy, what is it?” asked Eva.
“I don’t know. It’s still trying to stretch itself out.” The front legs and the back legs reached out and tried to orient themselves.
“Isn’t it a butterfly?”
“No.” The tiny animal emerged from the chrysalis. A chill went up my spine.
“Dad, these things must not really be caterpillars. A caterpillar can’t turn into a cat. We are losing it.”
“No, I know. But this is him.” I took the tiny kitten out of the Mason jar and set him on the table. I recognized his smokey gray fur and his copper eyes, which stared at me intently. He nuzzled my hand with his nose, just as he had when I was a child. “Here, take him and put him in a basket or something. Maybe wrap him in a blanket and give him something to eat. And some water. Oh, and give him his mouse. I want to see what’s happening with these other chrysalises.”
Eva took the tiny kitten and made sure that he was comfortable.
Eva came back out after a few minutes. “What do you think is going on with the caterpillars?”
I shook my head. “All I know is that they’re not turning into butterflies.”
Another chrysalis opened and a miniature figure emerged, reached out her arms and said, “Hi, honey!”
I broke out into a cold sweat, and I felt myself stumble. Eva steadied me with her hand on my back.
Eva giggled, “Isn’t that Grandma?” Apparently, she was delighted.
“This is absurd! Um, hi, Mom!” I felt for a chair and quivered into it. “Eva, you were six when she died, and now she’s back! Ok, go put her with Smokey. She always loved Smokey. See if she wants anything.”
“Ok. Hi, Grandma!” said Eva, smiling as she whisked her away.
My heart was pounding. I told myself that none of this could be happening, obviously.
Eva came back.
I was shaking. I said, “These animals, these caterpillars, don’t turn into butterflies. They turn into memories. Memories that were special to us. People, animals, things we miss and would give anything to have back. It’s like they’re bringing back our memories. But they’re real.”
“But, that’s great! Isn’t it, Daddy?”
“Um…I don’t know.”
“Look, there’s another one!”
I looked at the little creature sprawling out before me. Releasing itself from the chrysalis, it stretched out its arms and felt for its space in the world. I picked up the jar and peered inside. Tightness gripped my chest, and I struggled to breathe.
“What is it?” Eva asked.
I turned away from her and looked closely again at the opened chrysalis.
“What is it?!” she pleaded.
I forced myself to stare. My eyes blurred with tears as I watched my tiny daughter climb up the stick toward the top of the Mason jar.