It is early August, and a small boy in blue swimming trunks and red rubber flip flops walks beside me on a country road. He and I have just been swimming at Cream Hill Pond, in the sleepy northwestern Connecticut village where we live, and now, wet and sticky, we are returning to the car.
Colin is solemn and thoughtful, as is his nature. His sandals slap the asphalt and he holds my hand as he trots along beside me. At seven, he continues this creature habit and I am silently thankful. I do not want to let go of my son yet.
At the road’s edge there is milkweed, some of the stalks bearing clusters of fragrant purplish flowers. We stop to look at it, closely, for we are caterpillar hunters. Specifically, we are seekers of Danaus plexippus, the monarch butterfly, whose larvae feed on the downy green leaves of the milkweed. “Look! There!” Colin cries in excitement. I gently pry a fat striped caterpillar from a leaf, placing it in a plastic cup, and we carry it home in triumph.
We had begun abducting larvae a season or two earlier. My little boy finds it thrilling to watch the caterpillar close itself into a shiny green case and then a few weeks later burst into bloom as a butterfly. This August, like the last one, the larva resides in a cardboard box lined with newspaper. Colin places two or three milkweed stalks in the container, arranging them just so, then puts a piece of window screening over the top.
For a few days, even a week or more, the caterpillar, wearing a zebra-striped skin of brown and yellow, gorges itself on the bright green leaves and the milky white juice inside. The larva drops tiny feces that pile up on the bottom of the box, which, like all bodily functions, intrigues my son. When it is very quiet in the house we are certain we can hear the caterpillar chewing.
Colin awakens one morning to discover that the larva has transformed. Though he knows about this, it is a perennial disappointment. “It’s gone!” he exclaims in dismay, padding into my room in his fireman pajamas. “Come and look, Mom!” I follow him to the box. Then the two of us, like scientists conducting a complex experiment, study this new phase and discuss its significance.
We tend to call it a cocoon, which I realize is a scientific faux pas. It is a chrysalis, plump, tapering at the tip, emerald green and encircled by a single golden thread. It hangs from the screening like an exotic grape. Colin checks it many times each day. He tries to be patient, but often dances on one foot, then the other, in keen anticipation. “When, Mom, when?” he asks. And I smile and say, “Soon.”
The monarch is known for its distinctive orange-brown color, its fondness for flowers, its slow, languid flight, and its astonishing ability to travel long distances. Though it weighs less than a gram, it possesses navigational skills that are no less than miraculous. Feeding on the acrid, toxic juices of the milkweed makes the monarch inedible and therefore protects it from some of its enemies.
Multitudes of monarchs make their annual voyages in the autumn, some of them flying distances of nearly two thousand miles. They gather for the night along the way, bowing the branches they roost upon and turning the trees where they alight in forests between North America and Mexico into blazes of orange.
The beaches of the eastern seashore are a major flyway, but some errant monarchs have been spotted hundreds of miles out in the Atlantic, sailing over the swells. This one will be launched into its migratory path from a shady village street in northwestern Connecticut. Drawn south by a force both powerful and mysterious, it will be able to do nothing but follow.
For two weeks now, the chrysalis has been dangling from its tiny stem. But today it has changed, dramatically. It is dark in color, nearly black, and I point out the bumpy outline of a thorax—the butterfly’s torso. Colin’s eyes widen in wonder, only to cloud with sadness. “Is it dying?” he asks.
“No,” I tell him. “It is just being born.”
On an early morning in mid-August my son stands in front of the box, hands at his side. The chrysalis is now a dry, empty husk. Colin’s hazel eyes, almond shaped and thickly lashed, scan the inside of the container until they spy what he is looking for: a splash of color among the faded and shriveled milkweed leaves.
The monarch is a celebration of orange, like a maple leaf in autumn. Its delicate wings, veneered in velvet, are festooned with black loops and spotted white at the tips. The butterfly is clinging to a stalk and is absolutely still, as if stunned by its metamorphosis into something so splendid.
“Oh!” he cries, hopping up and down with joy.
“Now we have to let it go,” I tell him. He frowns and then asks, plaintively, even though he has been told the answer many times, “But why?”
We carry the container to the deck. “Let me,” my son implores, and he removes the screen from the container carefully, with barely suppressed excitement. He lifts the dry stalk out of the box. The monarch trembles as it senses the breeze. It flexes its papery wings in slow motion, once, twice, then a third time. Colin shakes the stalk but the monarch holds on.
“Why won’t it fly?” he asks.
“It will,” I reply.
After a few moments, the monarch spreads its wings and rises; we think it is astonished that it can fly. It sweeps to the garden, hovers a moment as if considering a stop on a clump of dazzling yellow coreopsis, then zigzags to the far end of the yard. There, it floats straight up, like smoke from a chimney. Clearing the roof of the barn, it is soon out of sight.
“Where will it go?” my son asks.
“Very far away,” I explain.
“Will it be okay? Will it get there? Did we have to let it go?” Colin fires these questions in rapid succession. He wrinkles his small, pale brow, and his expressive hands with their tiny crescent moon fingernails do much of his talking.
“Yes,” I assure him. “Yes.”
Every subsequent summer this ritual is repeated. Through my son’s adolescent and teenage years we continue to hunt for larvae in the fields of Connecticut and later along the road that bisects the marsh near our cottage in Maine. Colin is a young man now, a college student, deep-voiced and inches taller than me.
When we return with our captive, he unearths a battered, black and white enameled lobster kettle, long retired from its original use, from the tool shed. In it he places a few milkweed stalks and the tiny wriggling caterpillar, and he covers the kettle with screening. I find a place for the chrysalis in a corner of the living room, and the waiting begins.
Last month I conducted the ritual alone. Colin was not with me. He had been working the previous winter on a sustainable development project during a semester abroad in Central America and had drowned while surfing in the Pacific. He was 21, and my only child.
This time the butterfly emerged on a September morning, in Maine. Wrapped in my blue fleece bathrobe, the same one I was wearing the winter night when I got the call that Colin was missing from his rural campus. On a Sunday, he and a friend had taken a bus to a volcanic beach some distance away.
I carried the kettle out to the deck while the dew still sparkled on the bright pink bee balm. I reached into the tangle of dry milkweed, and the monarch, having taken a moment to consider its next move, climbed daintily onto my hand, one delicate black leg at a time, tapping on my skin as if guiding itself with a cane. I raised my arm slowly, my fingers curling within the butterfly’s grasp.
The monarch held onto me fiercely. All the while I talked softly to it. “Time to go,” I said. “You can leave now.” I waved my wrist up and down. The monarch tottered, fanning its wings frantically to keep its balance. But it continued to clutch my finger. My throat tightened.
Finally, the creature lifted off and fluttered uncertainly above my hand, trying to get its bearings. Then it drifted to the showy blossoms of a wine-colored chrysanthemum. As it lit there for a moment, I could have sworn it turned to look back at me.
Minutes passed. Its wings now dry and strong, the butterfly rose, higher and higher, with slow, deliberate strokes. It skimmed one rooftop, and another, and set a course to the sea.
Laurie O’Neill MA ‘98 is a freelance writer who has worked as a teacher, journalist, and publications director. She was a student at Bread Loaf from 1995-1998.
About her piece Laurie says, “This essay would never have been written if it weren’t for my experience at Bread Loaf. I lost my son, a Middlebury student, after my first Bread Loaf summer. There is a nature trail named for him on campus. Returning to Bread Loaf only months after Colin died, I was raw and fragile. But I had been selected as an Orion Fellow and would be a student in a Nature Writing program taught by John Elder, with whom my son had planned to study the following year. Colin was an environmental studies major, and I wanted to do this for him and only hoped I would have the stamina to get through. However, I was soon embraced by my classmates and I found encouragement and support in a community of writers and affirmation from my caring and dedicated teacher, John Elder. Bread Loaf not only informed my life as a writer and teacher; it also in a way saved it, putting me on more solid footing and paving the path forward.