The very hungry caterpillar: a tragedy in three acts
This is the time of year when we begin to find unexpected visitors in the house. The most blatant ones are of the eight-legged variety. Spiders come in looking for a warm place to spend the winter, and make me jump by appearing beside light-switches and in bathrooms and even, eek, bedrooms. Have you noticed that autumn spiders are so often huge? An enormous one has taken roost behind the kitchen bin, making all recycling a test of nerve.
There are six-legged visitors too. Butterflies find their way in somehow and fold themselves up like books for hibernation. Beetles scuttle in search of dark crevices. And then there was the caterpillar in the fridge.
You should know that this was not just any old caterpillar. In fact, it was virtually family. Back in the early summer, younger son decided to turn his hand to a spot of gardening. We planted whatever we could find in the seed packets that had been gathering dust all winter beside the kitchen sink: radishes, parsley, poppies and curly kale. It was good to see our boy enjoying sharing and eating the fruits (or rather the vegetables) of his labours. He even remembered to do a little weeding now and again.
While the rest of the plot is bare earth now, the kale is several feet high and still putting out crunchy fresh leaves. We are not the only species to enjoy them – which is how the caterpillar came to be in the fridge, along with a handful of son’s home-grown kale. By the time I discovered it, a day or two after picking the kale, the poor little caterpillar was just a frozen curl of green, chilled to the…well, to whatever caterpillars have where their bones should be.
It’s not unusual to find bugs and beasties on home-grown fruit and veg, so I am pretty relaxed about them; even the teeny white worms in the blackberries don’t bother me these days. (Although…earwigs in apples…eeww.) Normally I just put them in the compost along with the trimmings, reasoning that they will either survive on the contents of the bin until it is emptied onto the compost heap, or they will die stuffed and happy.
As I carried the little frozen curl to the compost bucket, however, the warmth of my palm worked a minor miracle. The caterpillar returned to life. Slowly, it uncurled on the warmth of my palm, lifted its little blunt head and peered about cautiously. My heart smote me.
And thus it was, dear reader, that we came to have a pet caterpillar in the house. No longer in the fridge, it gained itself a very desirable residence of a clean yogurt pot, with air-holes punched in the lid and filled with rain-washed fresh kale. Well, you know, my younger son happens to be doing a project on butterflies at school this term: what else could we do? Once he had spotted the caterpillar – his caterpillar, because from his kale – there was no option but to keep it.
On Tuesday he took it to school, where it was greatly admired. Son decided to call the caterpillar ‘Camo’ because it was so well camouflaged against the green kale leaves. The class had high hopes of a cabbage white butterfly being born to my son a few weeks from now.
The caterpillar, meanwhile, seemed oblivious to the attention. He simply obeyed instinct and ate, and ate, and ate. (Oh, and poo-d out little green blobs all over the leaves – who knew?) He was just an alimentary canal on six weeny legs. After three days, he had doubled in size: no longer a tiny curl, he was frankly a bit of an incredible hulk. We started to plan his new living quarters for his metamorphosis.
We were in a rush this morning and didn’t have time to check the pot before school. I peeked in on the caterpillar at midday, however, and found that, sure enough, he had stopped eating and had fastened himself to the wall of the yogurt pot. His shoulders were hunched up. Without doubt, he was ready to start spinning himself a chrysalis. Was it my imagination, though, or was he looking a bit wan? Perhaps it was just the strain of the transition.
‘Guess what!’ I said to younger son when he got home this afternoon. ‘Camo is ready to turn in to a chrysalis!’
Great excitement. Son rushed to the pot and carefully took off its lid.
‘I can’t see him, Mummy.’
Under the kale leaves, at the bottom of the pot, we found the pathetic, sunken body of Camo the caterpillar, weeny legs upturned in a stiffness more permanent than any cocoon.
We gave him a grand send-off in the compost bucket, surrounded by kale leaves. A handful of old sweet peas were strewn over the top. My son was inconsolable for twenty long minutes…until I let him lick the bowl of the chocolate cake I was baking for older son’s birthday this weekend.
‘Cake mixture always helps, Mummy,’ said he, beaming from a chocolatey face.
The enormous spider behind the kitchen bin seems to be dead too. It is reduced to a tangle of legs in a heap on the floor. Peering at it, oddly enough, I don’t feel any need for cake mixture at all.
You might enjoy another childhood adventure in Here be treasure.