It all started the spring I was nine. There was an infestation of caterpillars everywhere in my neighborhood. They covered the unruly Chinese Elm in the front yard, holding on to the tree’s long branches that hung like curtains over the ivy below. I would stroke them with my fingertips and thinking about their future and what they would become.
“Soon,” I would say to them.
One afternoon under the sweep of the long branches, I caught a fat caterpillar between my fingers and put him in a jar. He was soft as suede. In went sticks for him to climb, in went fresh leaves for him to eat. And when he was settled, I punched holes in the lid of the jar with an ice pick and screwed it on. After a day or two, he started wrapping himself in a cocoon until he was out of sight. I whispered to him about how the sun would feel on his new wings.
The days of waiting for the butterfly to hatch were long. I wondered how it felt to go to sleep and then wake up as someone different, someone better than before.
The afternoon arrived when the cocoon began rocking back and forth. I took the jar out to the front porch and waited. I wanted to touch him, to break the cocoon open and help him out, but I didn’t. I just waited and told him in a whisper about the early spring air and the flowers that were in bloom. As the shadows grew long, the butterfly finally emerged and climbed on to the top stick in the jar. Wet wings stretched out to the sun, opening and closing like taking long deep breaths.
“Hello,” I whispered. “Hello!”
Black wings edged in white with lavender marks on each wing. Opening and closing, opening and closing, stretching and letting the sun dry his dark velvety wings. I breathed with the movement of his wings and I wanted to cry for the ache of such newness and possibility.
Suddenly he fluttered up into the air and landed on the top of the bamboo bush. Opening and closing, opening and closing. And then he was gone! I caught sight of him floating near the top of the tree, and then he was too high to see.
I sat down on the porch and looked at the jar. The cocoon swung broken on the stick. The lid with the holes in it lay upside down on the concrete step. I smiled and smiled to think of him flying over the houses and trees, and imagined him flying over the park and landing on the tallest branches. After a time, I walked around the yard looking for him, hoping he would land somewhere near so I could ask about what he saw. So I could make sure he was okay. I didn’t see him for a long time.
But as I rounded the corner of the house, I did. He’d landed on the sidewalk in front of me, and I ran over to greet him. As I got closer to him, I saw one wing was torn off and resting on the sidewalk near his body. He was so still. Like a leaf. I remember screaming. I remember a gray striped cat watching me from the top of the fence, tail flicking. I remember the horror streaming through me like cold water.
I fell to my knees on the pavement, picking up the pieces of him with trembling fingers. Holding the wing in place I breathed in and held it. I breathed out, then in. Out and in. I was starting to float off the ground a little, but I kept breathing and holding the butterfly together. I breathed on the butterfly until I saw his wings move. Opening, closing as I breathed in and out. His wings kept time with me, and I laughed with joy and surprise and held my hand out. I was a couple of feet off the sidewalk in my kneeling position, so I stretched my legs until I was standing up. When my feet touched ground the butterfly was aloft, was overhead, was fluttering away. I didn’t know how it happened, but it had. All I knew was that it felt right.
That night I went outside to see if I could float again, using the cover of darkness so nobody would see me. I held my breath, and up I went. It was really very easy. It was all in the way I breathed, and I found I could use my shoulders to steer. I flew over to the Park across the street, the toes of my sneakers brushing the tops of the pines. The lights in the houses twinkled below, and drifting through filmy clouds was like feeling the moon sigh.
After I while, I felt a tug to go over to the main road. With a start, I saw that my neighbor’s gray striped cat had been hit by a car, and I zipped over as quickly as I could. He was dead in the street. Just this afternoon I had been so angry at him, but all was forgiven now. I floated carefully down to the deserted road, wincing because I didn’t want to see this up close. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes hard, and put my hands over the cat. I thought about mending and breathing and about the cat being put back together. For a long time there was nothing, but then I felt the cat push his head up under my hand, and I laughed with joy. The cat shot away into the park and I hovered above the road watching him for a moment before I headed home.
When I got to my front door, the neighbor’s porch light came on and their front door opened.
“Stripe! There you are! Where have you been? I’ve been so worried,” she said to the cat that was sitting on her porch crying to get in. There was a look of relief on her face. I smiled and stumbled exhausted into my house.
Some nights are easier than others. I free the dog that is living his entire life on the end of a chain in someone’s backyard. Open the gate so he can run free. Guide him to the house on the other side of town that has room and love for a new fur covered family member. I rescue a cat who climbed a tree and is suddenly afraid of heights. I return the baby possum that fell off his mom while she was walking across a dark road.
In the mornings on the way to school, the neighborhood dogs bark greetings to me as I pass. I am followed by a trail of meandering cats, and the butterflies are like a cloud swirling overhead.
That’s how it all started. Nobody knows who I am except for the animals. I don’t have a catchy name, a mask or a cape, and that’s the way I like it.
Erin Parker started out as an English major, fell in love with Art History, and ended up in art school studying commercial Interior Design. Erin won her first Creative Writing contest when she was 11, and has been writing ever since. Her work has been published by Uno Kudo, Red Fez, Drunk Monkeys, Cadence Collective, Lost in Thought, Timid Pirate Publishing, The Altar Collective, Santa Fe Lit Review, and Lucid Moose Lit’s anthology Like a Girl: Perspectives on Female Identity. Erin was a finalist in the 2012 NGR Literary Honors contest, was nominated for Best of the Net 2014, and is an editor for Uno Kudo and a flash fiction editor for JMWW.
Erin has work forthcoming in an anthology from Silver Birch Press that marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of Alice in Wonderland. Her first collection of short stories, The Secret and the Sacred, will be released from Unknown Press in the Fall of 2015.
Visit her online at erinkparker.com