I’m not a native of the city but I try to act like one. I miss the wildlife mostly. You can walk from the meatpacking district all the way to St. John the Divine and never see a sparrow. At home we mark the change of the seasons by the birds at the feeder―mockingbirds in the spring, red-winged blackbirds in summer, warblers in the fall, and juncos in winter, before the first snow. Here they use the shop windows. And they slap a giant park in the middle of it all like an eloquent apology.
Today I found a caterpillar on the 79th St. transverse through the park. I was on my way to work and the rain was picking up, so I set my bag down under the overpass to pull up my hood. The caterpillar lay fat and sluggish on the wet cement, ready to pupate, its tail-end attached to a smooth twig that had been plucked by a thoughtless child, or the wind, or who knows. Some ignoble mixture of charity and curiosity made me thrust it in my pocket and keep walking.
David got me a job a while back at a little market called The Whole Shebang. It’s one of those neighborhood food co-ops that’s out to save the earth, and I’ve been oozing with guilt since I hooked up with that place.
They have an annual 5K called the Tofu Trot to raise money for LGBTQA awareness, and they also have these local simple-living chapters to help you rid your home of plastic and chemicals of every stripe. I’ve come to tolerate the smell―a strange mix of exotic bulk grains, coffee grounds and nag champa, which is inexplicable because I’ve never seen any burning incense in the store, but I kind of suspect the cashiers of burning the stuff after-hours to cover up the smell of marijuana and sex. The place is poorly-lit, and the aisles are a little too narrow so you’re always bumping into some kind of homeopathic end-cap. Or a clerk with a bull-ring and vegan shoes, like David.
I am an INTJ, a brilliant sub-group of Meyers-Briggs testers who represent only 1.5% of the population. I have a hard time believing that, because no one ever accused me of being brilliant until I took that test online. David is an ENTJ, which I think means that he would make an excellent world leader. My point: if Meyers-Briggs could recommend a grocery store for me I’m pretty sure it would be the opposite of The Whole Shebang. But, I keep working there because I am trying to save the world. That’s the short answer. A slightly longer answer is that I love David, and David is trying to save the world. An even longer answer: local economies, pesticide run-off, Big Organic, the ozone layer (Do people talk about that anymore?), fair-trade, banana republics, BPA, child labor, personal responsibility. I could go on but willful ignorance is powerful. Big box stores are destroying the world because they make the world’s most powerful influence, the American Consumer, believe that she is not personally responsible for her purchases other than to swipe her credit card and load up her trunk—here is your receipt please do not think about the poor orphans who picked your bananas.
I learned all this, perhaps too quickly, from David. Most people experience gradual enlightenment―they stumble upon some new truth, and they’ve got a little time to adjust to a lifestyle change before they discover the next thing. But David spews enlightenment like a leaky faucet; before I know it I have enlightenment pooling around my ankles like floodwater. And then it’s too late―I can’t pretend I don’t know. With great knowledge comes great responsibility and all that.
It’s helpful to know that David was raised on millet and dried figs, and he’s studying entomology to become a professional beekeeper. I studied theater and I was raised on peanut butter and banana sandwiches. The kind with the deliciously creamy peanut butter that can only be achieved with the use of chemical stabilizers, on the white bread that can only be achieved with the use of bleached and bromated white flour. Neither of us could’ve predicted what an impediment this would be.
The day I found the caterpillar, a new girl came into The Whole Shebang in a dress that looked like it might have been made for Laura Ingalls when she was five, black tights and work boots remarkably similar to a pair that languished in the mudroom at my childhood home. She wore an unflappable expression and vintage jewelry. Her too-short dress made her arms seem unnaturally long, like a praying mantis.
“Can I help you?” I said, which was not what I was trained to say. I was trained to say “Shalom,” or “Namaste,” or “Blessings,” or some equally mystical greeting that I can never manage with the same level of subtle irony that my coworkers―and David―find effortless.
“Is David here?” she said.
“What do you want with David?” I said.
I didn’t really say that. I said, “I don’t think so,” like an idiot. And she looked at me like the idiot I was verifying myself to be, raising her eyebrows to the level of her blunt-cut bangs.
“He isn’t,” I added. “I’m meeting him at the Met later.” And I answered the phone, and turned my back to her. It all felt perfect―subtly affirming my relationship to David and shunning her at the same time. Then I pulled a pencil out of my pocket to take down a number, and both I and the unflappable girl gasped in unison.
There, on the tip of my pencil that was not a pencil but the stick I had forgotten, the caterpillar was gyrating spasmodically. Its skin was peeled back away from its body and a tender, glistening chrysalis was slowly revealing itself.
Recognition, then disproportionate horror, flashed across her face. “Oh my God, why is that in your pocket?” she cried, with the emphasis on “pocket,” as though mine might be full of parasitic wasps. Her arms extended forward in a lightning-quick motion as she lunged toward the pupa.
“What are you doing?” I said, jerking backward.
She sidestepped, and for a moment I thought she might try to jump over the counter. “You can’t carry a pupating monarch around in your pocket!” She was leaning over the cash register. “Where did you get it? Why didn’t you take it to safety?”
“I thought I had,” I managed. How did she know it was a monarch?
“Please give it to me.” She was very still now, with her hands folded in front of her, predatory. Then it hit me.
“Oh God. You’re studying entomology with David, aren’t you.” I said. She tucked her hair behind one ear, and I tried in vain to read her expression. My confidence faltered, and, as is customary for me in moments of self-doubt, I started to think about bananas.
Bananas have no place in the sustainable lifestyle. They require too many transport resources, and there’s too much corruption within the market. I used to dream of flying to South America for a banana vacation in which I would find banana trees growing wild on the sides of the road and I would eat them until I could no longer walk. After I met David, I didn’t eat a single banana for two years. Then I had a little episode.
I passed a supermarket and saw them in the window―an exotic yellow hill in the produce section―and I was paralyzed. I forced myself to think about little children with brown faces, picking bananas in the hot sunshine, sweating and being sworn at by an invisible taskmaster. I thought about an evil Banana Republic gunning down some small plantation owner in an invisible South American village. About a giant diesel truck, spewing black smoke, driving a load of bananas from Mexico through the midwest, its grill awash with dead butterflies.
Then I thought of my childhood kitchen table. A green melamine plate bedecked by a tower of soft white sandwich bread, creamy peanut butter and glorious bananas. I thought about chocolate milk, and I snapped. At the supermarket I bought eight bananas, a jar of creamy peanut butter, a loaf of white sandwich bread, a can of powdered chocolate milk mix, a half-gallon of conventional milk from cows leading a wretched life of confinement, and a bag of Cheetos. And soft toilet paper, not the recycled kind. The cashier was so annoyed trying to stuff everything into my floppy hemp bags that she finally gave up and bagged everything else in plastic. By then I was feeling that strange mixture of elation and shame which comes to people who knowingly break the rules they have set for themselves. It feels like winning and losing at the same time.
When David came home I was halfway through my second sandwich. Plastic grocery bags were strewn over the countertop. “Cheetos?” was all he said. I licked my teeth clean behind pursed lips.
The unflappable girl was still sanding there, motionless―waiting for me to make the first move, I could tell. There was something on the tip of my tongue about the folly of ridiculing attempts at goodness that fall short of perfection, about the integrity of the small gesture. Who said that? And who was this girl? In my head, I was feeling INTJ brilliance. I was ranting against elitism, championing the cause of sincerity. It was all happening, in my head.
I said, “I’ll leave the chrysalis in the park after my shift.”
“Try to find a flowering bush or, if you can, one that will flower in a couple of weeks,” she said. “Just don’t leave it in your pocket.”
Trying to do everything right is so goddamn difficult, like trying to memorize the train schedule. Just when you think you have it figured out, you don’t.
I frequently meet David at the Pandora, because that’s where we first met. People think it takes a lot to bond two people together, but sometimes you just need one thing. Redon’s painting of Pandora is the only thing we agree on at the museum and most other places. When we first met he told me that inside her box there were governments and corporations and pesticides and guns. I don’t think he makes much distinction between them. He said hope remained in the box so we could fight. I said if she wanted us to fight, why didn’t she let hope out of the box so it could do us some good, and he smiled the Mona Lisa smile of someone who knows everything and gets handed an angle they hadn’t considered. We’ve been meeting at the Pandora ever since. We stand side by side staring at the first woman looking down on her ineffable box while we catch up on the more effable moments of our week.
I kept the chrysalis in my pocket and went on to meet David. He settled into his contemplative stance, and made sure I was doing the same before he spoke. He never looks at me during this strange ritual we’ve created. Or, he looks at me by looking at the painting. I wonder in these moments what pulls him back to the Pandora over and over again―if it’s the closed box, the evil that will escape, the hope that will remain, or me.
“Have you heard of butterfly butter?” he asked finally.
“Butterflies make butter? Wait―please tell me this isn’t something we eat.”
“No, no, no.”
I cast a glance in his direction and followed the line of his unkempt beard, which shifted slightly when he smiled.
“Butterfly butter is what happens inside the chrysalis,” he said. “People think caterpillars just hang out in there and sprout wings and a proboscis. But the truth is crazier: they dissolve. Entomologists don’t have a name for it so they call it ‘butterfly butter’.”
I turned toward him, but he continued to stare ahead. I didn’t tell him about the chrysalis, because I don’t like the way he smirks at me when I make even the most subtle references to fate, synchronicity, karma, whatever.
“Its caterpillar cells break down into a stem cell ooze,” he continued, “then reform into butterfly cells―wings, legs, antennae, proboscis, body. Everything is new. But its all programmed in there somehow. The cells know what they’re supposed to become.”
I reached into my pocket and felt the cool, toughened skin of the chrysalis. I stared ahead and tried to imagine it, translucent and green, hanging from the tree behind Pandora. I imagined it until I saw it, until I could hold it in my vision, and I considered my words. There may have been five minutes of silence between us but to me it was a fullness, an era, the Age of the Caterpillar.
“A girl came looking for you at work today,” I said.
David turned to look at me, and I tried in vain to read his expression. I tried to imagine them together at a lab table, her unnaturally long arms brushing his. I thought, they deserve each other. She’ll bite his head off.
I went back to the park and walked around until I found a large bush in bud. I pulled the twig from my pocket and squatted down in the dirt, thrusting my hands into the wet foliage. There was no good way to attach the twig to the bush, so I nestled it as best I could between two forked limbs, then I took off my coat and sat down in the wet grass. Now I stare. The chrysalis dangles precariously amid the budding branches. I stare at it like David and I stare at the Pandora. I stare until my coat and skirt are soaked through with rain. I stare until I see it, until I can hold it in my vision, and I wait.
Thank you to Heather Sinclair Shaw for sharing the complete text of her story “Chrysalis” for free on the web. The complete book, Best of Ohio Short Stories: Volume 1, features seventeen additional stories. Click here to find the book on Amazon. E-books are also available from all major digital retailers, click here for links.
Heather Sinclair Shaw was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, but now writes on her small family farm in Newark under the watchful eye of several cows, chickens, a dog and three somewhat-domesticated children. She came to the farm to raise food for people and stayed for the peace and quiet. She would like to become a saint, but writing will suffice for now.