Winter Visitor

In 1955 in Arkansas it was safe to walk home alone from school. I loved the four-block journey at the end of the day, and once in awhile I found something interesting to take home to my mother. Rocks and autumn leaves were standard offerings. However, one cool afternoon I found an enormous green caterpillar crawling in the middle of the sidewalk.

At first I was afraid to touch him. Feathered and fancy and covered with bumps, he was the most complicated caterpillar I had ever seen. A system of brightly colored dots and designs covered his entire length. I was awestruck, but worried. The neighborhood was filled kids and cars that could make short work of him.

So I picked him up. He immediately twisted in my hand, and the bumps and feathers poked my palm. Startled, I dropped him. He fell to the ground, lay still, then righted himself with a backwards somersault and crawled towards me in a surprisingly fast series of foldings and unfolding. In an instant he had fixed himself to the ankle of my red kneesock. Unwilling to risk hurting him by prying him off, I decided to get my mother to help me.

I went home and limped into the back bedroom where she usually could be found. As I expected, my mother was sitting at her typewriter working on a stack of papers and manuscripts. Her typing and editing service added to my father's teaching salary, and she always seemed to be very busy. She had explained many times that it was a time consuming and difficult task to produce pages of perfect typewritten text, each piece of paper unbroken by even a single erasure. Most of the time I tried to keep from bothering her. However, today I stood in back of her and waited for her to look up.

My mother turned from her work. "Did you get hurt?" she asked.

"No," I answered. "There's a caterpillar on my kneesock."

"Well, look at that," said Mom. "He's a big one. Why don't you get him some leaves and a stick and put him in something?"

"Okay, if you'll take him off."

She got him loose, and I spent the entire evening with my nose against the side of a peanut butter jar that I had pressed into service as a caterpillar refuge. When I turned off the light to go to sleep that night, I promised him, "Don't worry. I'll let you go in the morning."

When the sun came up, I jumped out of bed and ran to check on him. However, he was nowhere to be seen. At the bottom of the jar attached to the stick was a dark green lump that in no way resembled my magnificent find of the day before. The caterpillar seemed to have vanished without a trace.

I ran into the back bedroom. My mother was already up and hard at work, sitting at her typewriter.

"What's wrong?" she asked.

"He's gone," I said, adding a dramatic sigh to the end of my two-word statement.

"Who's gone?"

"The caterpillar!"

Mom smiled. "No, he's still in there. I checked on him myself. You just don't recognize him."

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"He's in there working on something," she continued, "but it will take awhile."

"He's inside that lump?" I asked.

"He is that lump," she assured me.

So the peanut butter jar and its contents took up residence on a windowsill in the back bedroom where it sat in the sun away from the reach of the baby and the cat.

For awhile I visited it frequently, then as the days passed by I thought about the caterpillar less and less. Despite my mother's assurances that he was in there working on something, he didn't seem to be doing anything at all. The lump never moved, and never seemed to change. It just sat there silently in the bottom of the jar, and absorbed the light and the sound of my mother's typewriter. Occasionally, I picked up the jar and shook it gently, but the dry rattle revealed nothing. Eventually, I ceased to notice the jar at all.

As the fall sped towards Christmas, I prayed for snow -- an unlikely occurrence in that part of Arkansas. This year was no different. In fact, instead of hurling ourselves into holiday drifts, we plunged into a balmy warm spell that sent the birds hopping across the yard, and the children outside without sweaters. I was thoroughly disgusted, and stenciled icicles on the windows in an attempt to add a little winter wonderland atmosphere to an otherwise tropical holiday season.

School was almost out for Christmas vacation, and I sweated my way through the pageant at school, my crepe paper Frosty the Snowman costume limp and damp. My mother typed day and night, trying to finish up all the term papers the local college students brought her to complete before the end of the term. I tried to pretend that the clacking of the typewriter keys was the "prancing and pawing of each little hoof," but my summer pajamas and the presence of the window fan spoiled the illusion.

My dreams for Christmas were as tattered as the old red bow on the wreath my father hung on the front door. "Why don't we get a new one?" I asked him.

He seemed surprised. "I've put this on door every year since your mother and I got married. It's a tradition."

However, one tradition was sidelined that year. My mother had too much work to do her usual baking, so Dad bought the holiday cookies at the grocery store. I licked the frosting off a gingerbread reindeer and scowled.

My handprint in plaster of Paris was already wrapped up as a gift for my parents. I had made my grandmother a potholder, and hung it on the tree. I had whispered half-heartedly into the ear of a red-faced Santa at the department store. Despite being temporarily distracted by thoughts of a toy refrigerator and a bride doll, a general feeling of dissatisfaction consumed me.

That night, I pulled the sheet up over my head and went to sleep to dream of sleigh rides and things I would never see in Fayetteville. Much later, I woke up to my mother's whisper. "You've got to get up, honey. There's something you have to see."

Certain that Santa had stumbled down our chimney a couple of days early, I followed down the hall behind my mother and into the back bedroom. My father was waiting for me too, his eyes excited.

I peered around, looking for a Christmas miracle. Finding nothing, I asked, "What's happening?"

My father said, "Your caterpillar finished changing into a butterfly."

I followed his gaze towards one of the manuscript boxes my mother used to place finished pages, expecting to see a brightly colored pair of wings. Instead, a little wet creature crawled from manuscript box to manuscript box, soaking through original pages and carbon copies alike. I was indignant. "He's ugly!"

"Just wait," my mother said. "He's not finished."

I sat down between my parents, and watched the newly hatched butterfly move his wings for the first time, then gradually straighten himself out. The entire time, he walked back and forth over the neat boxes of typed manuscripts, and even I knew that my mother faced hours of additional work to replace the pages that the butterfly spoiled and left damp. But she didn't seem to mind and smiled at him as he dried off, his wings beginning to shine. I saw how happy she seemed, despite having little sleep in many days. I moved closer to her on the bed.

The sun came up, and the butterfly warmed himself on the windowsill, slowly fanning his wings and moving his legs. My father remarked, "He's lucky it's so warm. It's the wrong time of year for butterflies."

I thought, it's winter! It's Christmas!

I was suddenly alarmed. "What will happen to him?"

My mother said, "He doesn't need much time to get his work done. So as long as this warm weather holds he'll be okay. But we've got to let him go. He can't do anything locked up in the house."

So after the sun was high and the morning mild and sunny, we took the butterfly outside perched on the end of a stick. He paused for awhile, then fluttered silently up into the naked maple tree and rested.

I cupped my hands around my eyes and watched him as he sat, a single ornament in the dark branches. Then silently he flew away, flashing bright as tinsel.



Copyright 2004 Jody Serey. All Rights Reserved.