Little man stood under a small tree, looking for the hummingbird hiding somewhere in the leaves. It zipped out of the branches and up to a clothesline, cheeping in metallic clicks as it looked around. He sipped his orange juice, watching it glitter in the sunlight as it bobbed on the line. It took flight, a shiny green dot sailing up the white walls of the apartment building and past the billowing shirts of Mrs. Leonardis. After she finished hanging her laundry, she came downstairs, holding the railing as she stepped into the yard. She waved at little man, her thick bracelets jingling, and grabbed her watering can from its table under the stairs.
The backyard was wild. Tangled blackberry bushes trailed along the fence and the dry grass was filled with shrubs and small trees. Only the tall, green, tomato plants seemed cared for. Mrs. Leonardis called out to little man as she watered them, who was playing with his pulpy glass like a telescope. Wiping the ringlet of juice from his eye he ran over to her.
She held up a caterpillar, green with black stripes, motioning for him to lay his palm out flat. She laid the little creature in his hand. It was soft and tickly; its feet gently pinched themselves together, gripping his palm as it climbed towards his fingers.
“Here, bring him over here.” Mrs. Leonardis led him to a short plant with broad leaves at the edge of the grass. “Put him on there. Be careful with him.”
Little man set his glass down, putting his finger in the caterpillar's path up his forearm. As it climbed over, he lifted it up, dropping it onto the leaf.
“Let’s not let them eat my tomatoes, help me bring them over.”
They made several trips. Carrying them with cupped hands, he dropped them onto the sacrificial plant. The caterpillars seemed happy, some already gnawing away, leaving a trail of bites along the edges of the leaves.
Mrs. Leonardis inspected her tomatoes, gently cleaning them and brushing away some foreign leaves. It reminded him of the way his mother brushed dirt from his hair or sand from his pants when he entered the house. He wandered down their rows, the large red tomatoes sagging on their vines. He parted the leaves of a small bush at the end of the row, finding little balls of red and green fruit.
“Look berries!” He pulled Mrs. Leonardis over to them.
“Those are cherry tomatoes, sweetie,” she said, searching through the stems and plucking a ripe one. She extended it to little man. He stared apprehensively. She smiled and popped it in her mouth, “It’s good, try one.”
She picked a fresh one and held it out. He tried it, the tart insides bursting out with a rush of sour slime. He spat it out immediately. She smiled, the wrinkles of her soft dark cheeks rising under her eyes.
“You’d make a terrible caterpillar.”
“So, are these baby ones?”
She turned, noticing his eyes glancing from the cherry tomatoes to the ripe Romas sagging on the vine. “No, they stay small.” She turned back to her plants, overturning the last leaf. “Oops, one more.” She scooped up the last caterpillar and dropped him into his hand. “Wanna bring him over to his brothers?”
He shook his head. “I wanna show my mom.”
“That’s a good boy. Tell her you helped me a lot today.”
She patted his cheek and continued watering. He stared down at the caterpillar as it wriggled in his palm. He cupped his hands as if it would fly away.
His mom was on the phone in her room with the door closed. He waited outside a second then went back to the kitchen, dropping the little caterpillar in a small glass. He placed a piece of paper over it, then, unsure of how strong a caterpillar is, replaced the paper with a small porcelain plate. He watched his caterpillar moving around, little black feet feeling against the invisible walls, before realizing he’d left his glass in the yard.
He found it where he’d left it, under the broad leaves of the caterpillar plant. There were fewer than before, but he noticed their shadows moving under the leaves. He squatted down, studying the way their bodies would scrunch together and expand outwards with each step. He knew they’d be butterflies but couldn’t see how.
He rushed up the stairs and froze as he entered the kitchen. The counter where he’d left his caterpillar was empty. He searched under the table and chairs, crawling over dried pieces of pasta and cheerios. He wiped the grit of the floor off his palms as he rose, scanning the kitchen desperately. It felt like the time he’d left his favorite stuffed animal on the bus on the way back from the library and his mom had to explain between his screams that he wouldn’t be getting it back, that it was gone. Just as he was going to call for her, she came in from another room, holding the glass in her hand. She’d swapped his plate for a paper towel, a rubber band holding it tight against the glass, small holes poked in the top. She set it back on the counter, the caterpillar stretched fully along the side of the cup, making its way upwards in a circular climb.
“Poor little thing was suffocating.” His mom thumbed through the mail, looking over the top of an envelope at her little man. “Why’d you cover him up? He needs to breathe.”
“I didn’t want him to run away.” He walked up close to the glass, looking in concernedly. “Is he ok?”
She knelt next to him, rubbing his shoulder. “He looks fine. Cute huh?”
He nodded, his fingertips in a row along the edge of the counter, his upper lip nestled into the back of his knuckles.
“Look, this is what he’ll turn into.” His mother held her phone up, showing a picture of a monarch butterfly. He studied it a moment, observing the orange wings, covered in white spots and black stripes.
“Is that where the stripes will go?”
“What do you mean?”
He pointed at the caterpillar’s black stripes, then traced his plump finger down the wings in the picture.
“Oh, I guess so. But I think in their cocoons they change completely.” She showed a picture of a cocoon and explained how the caterpillar would stay in there and emerge a butterfly. He said some parts of it had to stay the same, how could it grow up completely different than what it was before? She said she didn’t know.
He was happy to learn that the caterpillar was a baby, smiling proudly as he wrapped both hands protectively around the glass and took it off the counter. “I’m going to name him Leo.”
“After Mrs. Leonardis?”
He furrowed his brow, shook his head, and took Leo to his room. An hour or so later his mother came in. He was on the floor, drawing crayon drawings of Leo in his glass.
“Hey, I think your caterpillar probably wants to go home now.”
He looked down at Leo, who was curled up at the bottom of the glass.
“He's probably hungry. And misses his brothers.” She lingered in the doorway another moment, little man staring at the glass. “You can visit him; he’ll be right outside.”
He nodded and took the little caterpillar back to his plant, dropping him gently on the broad leaf. He stayed outside, watching Leo nibble his way around until his dad got home and he was called in for dinner.
After dinner he sat on the counter next to the sink, drying the dishes his dad handed him, who was pretending the utensils were dinosaur fossils.
“Look,” his dad said, plunging his hand into a pot, circular rainbows of soap and grease shimmering on top of the water. “Could be a T-Rex tooth.”
He rinsed off a butter knife and handed it to his little man, who dried it, smiling because he knew it was a knife and not a tooth, and he knew his father knew.
After dishes he was given a milk carton of compost and raced down the stairs to toss it out. On his tiptoes he dropped it into the bin, an egg shell rolling off the top of the carton. He knelt to grab it, pausing to look around the yard.
The back stairs light was dark orange and the tall grass and small trees seemed to glow in the black night. He could see the caterpillar plant but didn’t want to go out into the unknown grass surrounding it. A door slammed shut somewhere and he ran back upstairs.
The next day school dragged along even slower than usual. He was rushing to his cubby and dragging his backpack to the yard before the final bell had stopped ringing.
From the back seat he told his mom to hurry, asking if she’d seen Leo, if she’d watered the plant, if they’d have to get a new plant for Leo and his brothers. She replied with gentle no’s to all his questions, that the plant would be fine without water, and that Leo had plenty to eat.
He dropped his backpack by the front door and raced down the hall to the backyard. He tripped a little on the stairs and jumped down the last few steps. He rushed across the yard, slowing as he neared the tall grass, scanning it a moment before he came to the caterpillar plant.
The tops of the broad leaves were empty, and he remembered that they hid underneath. He searched under the leaves and along the stem but found nothing. He checked the plant twice and then went over to the tomatoes. They were empty too.
He started looking through the grass and noticed a little black clump moving along the ground near his foot. It was Leo, covered in ants. He was squirming and writhing in pain, the ants taking bites out of him, carrying him off on their backs to their nest. Little man scooped him up quickly but stood paralyzed by indecision, staring at his palm where a cluster of ants continued to eat Leo. He realized what he had to do and rushed to the watering can under the stairs. He leaned it halfway off the table and watched the ants wash over the edges of his hand. As they scattered, he hunted them with his free hand, grinding them between his fingers into black paste, wishing he could hurt them even more for what they had done.
After the last ant was dead, he raced inside, laying Leo on the table and crying for his mom. Leo didn’t move; the water had dried from his soft body, but now clear fluid ran from his many bites and his little feet were curled in towards themselves.
His mom rushed into the kitchen, terrified he’d cut himself or fallen and sighed with relief at seeing the caterpillar on the table.
“Honey I think Leo is just sleeping,” she said, kneeling beside him and putting her arm around his shoulder, “why don’t we put him back outside and let him get some sun? He’ll probably even turn into a butterfly and take off without us even noticing.”
Little man stared at the cold little caterpillar, crying because he knew he wasn’t sleeping, and he knew his mother knew.
Roland Greedy was born and raised in San Francisco. He graduated from SF State with a BA in film in 2018. He’s working towards a career as a writer/director and sees filmmaking as a continuation of the story-telling tradition he’s always been drawn towards.
Photo by Stella de Smit on Unsplash
This is so wholesome, but also so sad
Beautiful tale of the joy, curiosity and heart ache of a child growing out of innocence.
It was great. The story beautifully reveals the wonder, joys, and heart ache of growing through the innocence of childhood.
In this short time, little man learn the wonders of life, it’s cycle with gentle support from family and neighbors. More to come! This story held my interest.
Loved this, the gentle rhythm of a boy’s life. Took me back to my childhood and the wonders of it.
I love this. Tears in my coffee.
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January 19, 2021
I love the way this lingers in the mind, long after reading the last word. The ending hits the perfect emotional note.