September 23, 2020 by The Citron Review
by Danica Li
In the afternoon, my housemate called me to come see the Monarch chrysalis she had discovered in the front yard, hanging by a filigree on the underside of a milkweed plant.
She was limping a little because she had just had surgery on her knee. In the afternoon sunshine we stood blinking and examining the milkweed that her partner had planted in the front yard as a way-station for migrating Monarch butterflies.
The stands of the milkweed grew about waist-high. The milkweed plant was a white-tufted, bristling plant which produced strange pale-green ovoid pods covered in soft spikes. The white tufts were the milkweed. Milkweed was the only food which Monarch caterpillars ate. This was why the butterflies came here to lay their eggs, so that the eggs would hatch among plentitude.
Here, she said suddenly, and pointed. After a moment, I saw it. It was a tiny little thing, a miniature pod not more than a centimeter and a half tall, as translucent green as light jade. It was hanging to the underside of a shriveled brown leaf, attached by a filament of sticky residue that looked like spider’s web. It seemed very brave, for how small it was. We both looked and looked at it, moved.
My housemate said she had just two days ago seen another caterpillar when it was in the process of transforming into a chrysalis. The caterpillar crawled up onto the underside of a leaf. Dangling from the leaf by one end of itself, it curled up into a U-shape. Then, she said, came the fantastic part: The caterpillar pulled its chrysalis up over itself, as neatly as if it was zipping up a sleeping bag. Before her eyes, the wriggling caterpillar stilled into a cocoon.
Now, very carefully, we clipped the stem bearing the dry brown leaf and carried the chrysalis inside. We arranged a couple of twigs and stalks inside a large glass jar, and affixed the stem to this delicate geometry with dental floss so that the chrysalis hung down like a little green bell. There had to be plenty of room below the chrysalis, and around it too. The key was to make sure that the butterfly had space within the jar to spread its wings. Otherwise, if it didn’t, the enlivening fluid in its wings would dry, and the wings would fuse into crumpled wads. Without flight it would die.
That winter I spent all my time outside looking for more pods. It had been a long winter and the front-yard was desolate. The trees had been cut back to rudiments, the summer-marvelous rosebushes were gaunt and bare. There was nothing growing in the yard. I had, all through the season, felt sleepy and heavy and sad. Sometimes I went to bed at nine in the evening. In the morning I half-woke, dreading the shrill of the alarm.
We found three more pods in the milkweeds. These we put in their own glass jars. Pretty soon we had a collection. The newer cocoons were all light translucent green — like chips of sea-glass. But the first one we found had darkened. This meant that the creature inside was deep in the process of creating itself. I could see the veins of its wings through the dimming walls of its enclosure.
During this winter I had dreams of the summer, when I was better — happier. In the summer the shaggy-headed mulberry tree was heavy with fat bursting black mulberries that stained purple and smeared in my fingers like warm jam. Kale plants grew, ornamental and frilled as ladies’ ballgowns. There were the riotously blooming climbing white roses, densely petaled, up-thrown, trained to the wooden arch which one walked under to enter the house. Vines of lantern cherries meshed with the wooden gate, each cherry enclosed in a papery husk like a sweet wrapped in tissue. Fragrant clusters of pineapple mint grew along the walkway. The sweet pea flowered prolifically, in crowds, in gradients of pale pink and violet and fuchsia tended to by drowsing bees.
In the winter, when I woke up and went to the yard, I saw how with all that sensation and ornament gone, there was just black dirt. There was an odorous compost pile plied by diligent worms. There was this quiet, the sound of waiting.
Last night I came down the stairs and saw my housemate nursing her knee with an icepack. She was sitting at the dining table under the stained-glass lamp. She said she was high on painkillers and so was taking the opportunity to contemplate the marvels of nature. In front of her was a big glass jar — the biggest one, which housed two of the chrysalises. She said I should come and look closer.
I came and looked into the jar. Following her pointing finger I saw the chrysalis on the left. I asked what was it, why was it dark, had something gone wrong? — because I was always afraid, in those days, that change meant danger, that uncertainty was a threat, that love always prefigured loss.
And it was dark. Almost black. I could see the fabulous veins of its wings through its shadowy casing, but there was something wrong with it, it was inert. It frightened me to look at it.
What’s wrong with that one?
Some don’t make it through, she said. But look. Here. She was pointing at the other one.
I looked, not seeing, and then, all at once, I did. Adorning the topmost rim of the butterfly’s cocoon was the merest line of gold. It was a delicate line that looked almost like a metal. The creature had beautified itself. It had zipped up its sleeping bag, and then looped itself in shining gold trim which it itself had made. It was saying: Look at me. I mark this time of transformation by ornamenting myself. I am changing. I am changing. I rejoice.
Danica Li is a union lawyer and emerging writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She won the Eisner Prize in Prose as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, the institution from which she received both her BA and law degree.