By Trina Paulus
Stripe was just another crawler… till he found his wings
Once upon a time, a tiny striped caterpillar burst out from the egg that had been his home. ‘Hello world,’ he said. ‘It sure is bright out here in the sun, and I’m hungry.’ Straight-away, he began to eat the leaf he was born on. Then another leaf. and another. And he got bigger… and bigger… until one day he stopped eating and thought: ‘There must be more to life than just eating and getting bigger.’
So, Stripe crawled down from the tree that had shaded and fed him, and started searching for more. He found many new things—grass, dirt, holes and tiny bugs. Everything fascinated him, but nothing satisfied him. When he came across others like himself, he was excited. But these crawlers were so busy eating that they had no time to talk. ‘They don’t know any more than I do,’ sighed Stripe.
One day, Stripe saw some crawlers really crawling to reach somewhere. He looked around and saw a great column rising into the air, made solely of squirming and pushing caterpillars—a caterpillar pillar. It appeared that all the caterpillars were trying to reach the top. Stripe felt new excitement—like sap rising in the spring—as he thought: ‘Maybe now I’ll find what I’m looking for.’
Intrigued, he asked a crawler: ‘What’s happening?’
‘Nobody has time to explain,’ said the other. ‘They’re busy trying to get up there.’
‘But what’s at the top?’ ‘No one knows that either. But it must be good. Because everybody’s rushing there. Good-bye.’ The crawler plunged back into the pile. Stripe’s head was bursting with excitement. Every second, a new crawler passed him and disappeared into the pillar. ‘There’s only one way to find out,’ decided Stripe and pushed himself in.
The first moments on the pile were a shock. Stripe was pushed and kicked. Then he began climbing. No more fellow caterpillars-all were now obstacles. As he pushed on, Stripe felt he was getting higher. But some days, he could barely manage to keep his place. It was then that an anxious shadow nagged inside him: ‘What’s at the top? Where are we going?’
A little yellow caterpillar he was crawling over gasped: ‘What did you say?’
‘I was just wondering where we’re going.’
‘You know,’ Yellow said, ‘even I was wondering. But as there’s no way of finding out, I decided it wasn’t important.’ She blushed and hastily asked: ‘How far are we from the top?’
Stripe answered gravely: ‘Since we’re neither at the bottom nor at the top, we must be in the middle.’
But now Stripe felt bad. ‘How can I step on someone I’ve just talked to?’ he thought. He avoided Yellow as much as possible. But one day there she was, blocking the only way up. ‘Well, I guess it’s you or me,’ he said, and stepped squarely on her head.
Something in the way Yellow looked at him made him feel awful. Crawling off Yellow, he whispered: ‘I’m sorry.’
Yellow began to cry: ‘I could stand this life until I met you. Now when you look at me so kindly, I know that I don’t like this life. I just want to crawl with you and nibble grass.’ Stripe’s heart leapt inside. Everything looked different. The pillar made no sense at all.
‘I would like that too,’ he whispered. But this meant giving up the climb—a hard decision. ‘Yellow dear, maybe we’re close to the top. Maybe if we help each other we can get there quickly.’
‘Maybe,’ she reluctantly agreed, knowing this wasn’t what they wanted most. But then, she suddenly said: ‘Let’s go down.’ As if he was waiting for this cue, Stripe immediately agreed and they stopped climbing.
They clung to each other as caterpillars crawled over them. The air was terrible but they were happy and rolled into a big ball so nobody could step on their eyes and stomachs. They did nothing at all for a long time. Suddenly they didn’t feel anything crawling over them. They were at the side of the caterpillar pillar.
‘Hi Stripe,’ said Yellow.
‘Hi Yellow,’ said Stripe. And they crawled off into some fresh green grass to eat and take a nap. Before falling asleep, Stripe hugged Yellow. ‘Being together like this is sure different from being crushed!’ She smiled and closed her eyes. So Yellow and Stripe romped in the grass, ate, grew fat and loved each other. It was heaven not to be fighting everybody every moment. But, with time, even hugging seemed boring. Each knew every hair of the other. Stripe couldn’t help wondering: ‘There must be still more to life.’
Yellow noticed Stripe’s restlessness and tried to make him comfortable. ‘Just think how much better this is than that awful mess,’ she said.
‘But we don’t know what’s at the top,’ he answered. ‘Maybe now that we’ve rested, we could make it to the top.’
‘Dear Stripe, please,’ she begged. ‘We have a nice home and we love each other. It’s much more than all those lonely climbers have.’
Stripe felt convinced, but only for a while. His hankering for the climbing worsened. The pillar haunted him. He crawled there regularly, looking up and wondering. But the top remained clouded. One day at the pillar, three thuds startled Stripe. Three big caterpillars had fallen from someplace and smashed. Two seemed dead but one still wiggled. Stripe whispered: ‘What happened? Can I help?’ He made out just a few words. ‘The top. they’ll see… butterflies alone.’ The caterpillar died. Stripe crawled home and told Yellow. Both were quiet.
What did the mysterious message mean? Finally Stripe announced: ‘I’ve got to find out the secret of the top.’ Gently, he asked Yellow: ‘Will you come and help me?’
Yellow struggled inside. She loved Stripe and wanted his success. But she couldn’t believe that the top was worth it. She wanted to get ‘up’ too; the crawling life wasn’t enough for her either. Stripe seemed so sure that Yellow felt ashamed to disagree. She also felt stupid, since she could never articulate her reasons. Yet, somehow, waiting and not being sure was better than doing something she couldn’t believe. For all her love, she couldn’t go with Stripe. Climbing was a wrong way to get high.
‘No,’ she said, heartsick. Stripe left her for his climb. Yellow was desolate without Stripe. She crawled daily to the pile looking for him and returned home at night, sad but half-relieved that she never saw him. If she had, she feared she might plunge after him. She felt like doing something, anything, other than waiting.
‘What in the world do I really want?’ she sighed. ‘It seems different every few minutes. But I know that there must be more.’
One day, a gray-haired caterpillar hanging upside down on a branch surprised her. He seemed caught in some hairy stuff. ‘You seem to be in trouble,’ she said. ‘Can I help?’
‘No, my dear, I have to do this to become a butterfly.’ Her whole insides leapt on hearing the word ‘butterfly’.
‘Tell me, sir,’ Yellow asked, ‘what is a butterfly?’
‘It’s what you are meant to become. It flies with beautiful wings and joins the earth to heaven. It drinks only nectar from the flowers and carries the seeds of love from one flower to another. Without butterflies, the world would have fewer flowers.’
Yellow gasped: ‘It can’t be true! How can I believe there’s a butterfly inside you or me? Do you need to die to become a butterfly?’
‘Yes and no,’ the gray caterpillar said. ‘This may look like dying but actually you will still live. Life is changed, not taken away. Isn’t that different from those who die without ever becoming butterflies?’
‘And if I decide to become a butterfly,’ said Yellow hesitantly, ‘what do I do?’
‘Watch me. I’m making a cocoon. It’s a halfway house where the change takes place. It’s a big step, since you can never return to caterpillar life. And the change is so slow that anyone who might peek in may feel that nothing is happening. But the butterfly is already becoming. And once you are a butterfly, you can really love: the kind of love that makes new life.’
‘Oh, let me go and get Stripe,’ Yellow said. But she knew he was too far away.
‘Don’t be sad,’ said her new friend. ‘If you change, you can fly and show him how beautiful butterflies are. Maybe he will want to become one too!’
Yellow was torn in anguish: ‘What if Stripe comes back and I’m not there? What if he doesn’t recognize my new self? Suppose he decides to stay a caterpillar? At least we can do something as caterpillars.’ How could she risk the only life she knew? What did she have to go on? Just another caterpillar who believed enough to make his own cocoon. And a peculiar hope that had kept her away from the pillar and leapt within her when she heard about butterflies. The gray-haired caterpillar continued to cover himself with silky threads. As he wove the last bit around his head he called: ‘We’re all waiting for you!’
Suddenly, Yellow wanted to become a butterfly. She desired to sprout wings. So, she began spinning her own cocoon. ‘I didn’t even know I could do it,’ she exclaimed in surprise. ‘But if I can make cocoons, maybe I can become a butterfly as well.’
Meanwhile, Stripe was progressing. He was bigger and stronger now, and determined to reach the top. He avoided eye contact with others, tried not to think of Yellow. He disciplined himself not to be distracted. He didn’t think he was against anybody. He was just doing what he had to get to the top. ‘Don’t blame me if you don’t succeed. It’s a tough life,’ he would have said had any caterpillar complained.
One day, he was near his goal. When light finally filtered down from the top, he was close to exhaustion. At this height there was almost no movement. All held their positions with the skill taught by a lifetime of climbing. There was no communication. Stripe heard a crawler above him saying: ‘None of us can get any higher without getting rid of them.’
Soon after, he felt tremendous pressure and shaking. Then came screams and falling bodies. Then silence, more light and less weight from above. Stripe felt awful. The mystery of the pillar was clearing. He now knew what had happened to the three caterpillars—and what must always happen on the pillar.
Frustrated, Stripe was still trying to justify his climb to himself when he heard a whisper from the top: ‘There’s nothing here at all!’
It was answered by another whisper: ‘Quiet, fool! They’ll hear you down. We’re where they want to get. That’s what’s here!’
Stripe froze. To be so high and not high at all! It only looked good from the bottom.
The whisper came again: ‘Look! Over there! Another pillar. And… and another! Pillars everywhere!’
‘My pillar,’ Stripe moaned, ‘is only one of thousands! Something is wrong, but what else is there?’
His life with Yellow seemed far away. Yellow! She knew something. ‘I wish I were with her. I could go down,’ he thought. ‘I’d look ridiculous but maybe it’s better than this.’
Stripe’s thoughts were interrupted by bursts of movement above him. Everyone seemed to be making a last effort to find some entry to the top. With every push the top layer tightened. Finally, one caterpillar gasped: ‘Unless we try together, nobody will reach the top. Maybe if we give one big push…’
But before they could act, there were cries and commotion. Stripe struggled to the edge to see the cause. A brilliant yellow winged creature was circling the pillar, moving freely. A wonderful sight! How did it get so high without climbing? When Stripe poked out his head the creature seemed to recognize him. It tried to grab him. Stripe caught himself just before being pulled out of the pile. The brilliant creature let go and looked sadly into his eyes. The look thrilled Stripe. Words from the past returned to his mind: ‘.butterflies alone.’ Is this a butterfly? And what did it mean? ‘The top. they’ll see.’ It was all so strange. Yet it was supposed to be. Could it be.? Impossible! But the excitement wouldn’t stop. He felt happy. Somehow he could escape. As this possibility became real, he felt he shouldn’t escape like this. Looking into the creature’s eyes he could hardly bear the love he saw. He wanted to make up for all the times he had refused to look at the other.
He stopped struggling. The others stared at him as though he were mad. Stripe turned around and began to go down the pillar. This time he didn’t curl up. He stretched out full length and looked straight into the eyes of each caterpillar. He marveled at their beauty, amazed that he had never noticed it before. He whispered to each caterpillar: ‘I’ve been up. There’s nothing there.’
Most paid no attention. They were too intent on climbing. One said: ‘It’s sour grapes.’ But some were shocked and even stopped climbing to hear him better. One of these whispered in anguish: ‘Don’t say it, even if it’s true. What else can we do?’ Stripe’s answer shocked them all, including himself: ‘We can fly! We can become butterflies! There’s nothing at the top and it doesn’t matter!’
As he heard his own message he realized how he had misread the instinct to get high. To get to the ‘top’ he must fly, not climb. Stripe looked at each caterpillar inebriated with joy that there could be a butterfly inside. But the reaction was worse than before. He saw fear in their eyes. This news was too good to be true. And if it wasn’t?
The hope that lit up the pillar dimmed. The way down was so long. Doubt flooded Stripe. The pile took on horrible dimensions. He struggled on. It seemed wrong to give up believing. Yet believing seemed impossible. A crawler sneered: ‘How could you swallow such a story? Our life is earth and climbing. Look at us worms! We couldn’t be butterflies inside. Just enjoy caterpillar living!’
‘Perhaps he’s right,’ sighed Stripe. ‘I haven’t any proof. Did I make it up because I needed it?’ He continued down, searching for those eyes, which would let him whisper: ‘I saw a butterfly—there can be more to life.’ Finally, he was down.
Tired and sad, Stripe crawled off to the old place where Yellow and he had romped. She was not there. He was too exhausted to go further. He fell asleep. When he finally awoke he found the yellow creature fanning him with wings of light.
‘Is this a dream?’ he wondered. But the dream creature acted awfully real. She stroked him with her feelers and looked at him so lovingly that he began to trust what he had said about becoming a butterfly. The butterfly walked a little distance, then flew back. She repeated it as if indicating that he should follow her. Stripe complied, and they came to a branch from which hung two torn sacks. The creature kept on inserting her head, then her tail, into one of them. Then she would fly to him and touch him. Her feelers quivered and Stripe knew she was speaking. Slowly he seemed to understand. Somehow he knew what to do. Stripe began making a cocoon. And Yellow waited. It got darker and Stripe was afraid. He felt he had to let go of everything.
Until one day.
Courtesy: The Awakening Ray
This piece is an extract from ‘Hope for the flowers’, a fully illustrated book, published by Paulist Press and can be purchased through their website www.paulistpress.com’
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