He believed my lament to be a love song, the first he’d ever heard, but caterpillars are impatient creatures, so he interrupted.
“Have they gone, those beaks, those beady eyes?”
The flock was by then just a speckle on the sky, carrying away my lost Prince, who was no more than a golden fleck. Reduced from royal company to larval. I shook the tears from my petals. “I’m afraid we’re quite alone.”
Caterpillars know exactly what they want and never pretend otherwise. He emerged from behind the smaller volcano. “Sing again.”
I understood at once: even the rose’s sorrow charms. “Do not ask this of me, don’t make me think of him again, not at sunset.”
“But the melody was sweet as a stamen, and I crawled half way around the world to understand it.”
“A grand boast for a small world. And the other caterpillars?”
“It’s their dinnertime.”
“As always. I suppose the ordinary flowers over there sing a little?”
“Never. They chatter about soil and sprinkling cans.” He crept closer. “Though they’re very kind to caterpillars.”
Brazen, these caterpillars, but forgiven, because they’re the promise of a butterfly. In all my fascinating life I’d never seen one. “Will you be very beautiful?”
“If you’re kind to me.”
The rose is ever magnanimous, but his undulation was too eager, his mandibles looked too sharp. Raising all four of my thorns I cried, “Stay back! I’ve slain tigers.”
“There are no tigers here.”
“From which you may draw your own conclusions.”
“I have. I’m hungry. You look tasty.” He hastened to me.
As darkness arched over us, there came the appalling sensation of his many crochets on my stem. “Appearances can be deceptive. For both our sakes, stop!”
If I embellished, it was in the circumstance of a ravenous progress towards my lower leaf. “I’m poisonous,” I cried into the night, “Horribly, devastatingly, excruciatingly. There is, alas, no cure for me.”
He fell away. I heard the pattering of departure without goodbye. Cold pierced my bloom. Two abandonments in one day! I listened to myself weep, wept again for the caterpillar’s perspicacity, for the melody was delicate indeed.
Woken before dawn by increasing sounds of mastication (noises which rose shall not elucidate), I found he’d lingered. The caterpillar had found a shoot, or, as he explained, another shoot, just beyond my roots.
“Baobabs,” he said, with his maxillae full. “Or maybe roses.”
Caterpillars make poor horticulturalists. There are no other roses. I am She. His victims were therefore baobabs. The Prince had been meticulous about weeding them. Though I’m naturally immune to jealousy, I’d teased him for it. It occurred to me, too late, that his daily dig had been for my benefit. Baobab shoots ignored are inevitable trees, within whose shadows I would wither.
I have a particular horror of withering. “The baobabs are delicious, I hope?”
“Everything is,” the caterpillar sighed, “Until they’re gone.”
“You graze efficiently, dear friend, if not painstakingly. But tomorrow there will be new shoots.”
“Too late. I’ve wasted my time on a love song. I’ve eaten too little, and the flowers are far away.” He curled up against my stem and closed his twelve eyes. “I’ll never fly. Sing again.”
“What will happen to you if you don’t become a butterfly?”
“Caterpillars only get one chance at happiness.”
As I turned towards the rising sun, the smaller volcano coughed. With nobody left in the world to tend it, a convulsion followed. The earth of my roots shook. I could not prevent the disaster. One of my petals, one of my perfectly placed, delightfully crimped, dewy, fragrant, beloved petals fell from my bloom and floated, with tragic grace, to the ground.
The caterpillar regarded it. “Horrible, excruciating,” he said, settling back into defeat.
In her heart, the rose expects to blossom forever, but after one petal has fallen, she knows that the others will soon follow. This I considered, watching the volcano puff out smoke rings. I could not bear to watch my pride wither on the ground around me, uncomforted, alone but for the recriminating husk of a starved bug.
“Caterpillars make poor horticulturalists,” I told him, “So you wouldn’t know that the rose has as many chances at happiness as she chooses. I’d be happy if I made the acquaintance of a butterfly. With great endeavour, a supreme triumph of will, I shall avoid poisoning you. That is why I gifted you that petal, as a sign of good intention, please do me the courtesy of enjoying it.”
The consumption of that dear petal was an agony, for, though I averted my gaze, I heard all. Singing the caterpillar’s love song, I shook most of the rest down to him, keeping barely enough for modesty. He left not a trace to mourn over, made a tickling ascent red-faced, to begin his repulsive spittle-spinning. All I endured with hardly a complaint, certainly fewer than were justified.
“Talk to me,” he said before entirely enclosed, “I’ll be listening.”
The rose does not tittle-tattle, she knows the value of a well-placed silence. She talks of herself, her anguishes and difficulties and dangers, only when circumstances demand it. She prefers to speak from the soul, of the temper of the stars and wishes on breezes. Of the last, I spared him the sulphurous details. I explained to him the intensions of each dawn and the auguring in every sunset, made vivid by the volcano’s effusions. I knew he heard, understood that he was comforted by my voice during tremors, as was I, holding my last petals in place. If once or twice I urged a swifter metamorphosis, it was out of regard for his safety, not the rose’s.
Aside from the glistening, which is a matter of taste, he was beautiful, though his colours approached excess, he was beautiful, despite inky limbs and twitching appendages, beautiful. In a quite different way to the rose.
“I’m pleased to make your acquaintance, butterfly.”
“Dear rose, we’re hardly strangers.”
“I hope you’ll overlook my appearance. It rains dust today.”
“Don’t be embarrassed.”
“How could I not be, when your grace is beyond the reach of art?”
“Because you have been brave and kind. The kindest flower in the world.”
“A small compliment in such a small world.”
“Because, dear rose, a part of me is you.”
I know the value of a well-placed silence.
Ash fell upon the butterfly, and at last he observed the volcano’s fractures, the billowing steam and smoke stacked above.
“When it erupts, as surely it must, which way do you think the molten rock will flow?”
“What does the dawn say?” He fluttered about me.
It was a pleasant sensation, if wistfully so. A butterfly is a caterpillar who has the exact thing he wanted, and has found that instead of happiness, doubt results. “I flew once, as a seed, though it felt more like falling. The rose does not fly. She holds tight to her rightful place. You must go.”
“The song,” he said, “I understand it now. I know what it means.”
But butterflies, like Princes, are creatures of impulse. Away he flew.
Perhaps he’ll bring the Prince back, or a sweep or a fireman, or an elephant with a trunk full of water. No matter. The rose is not afraid of ashes. I tell you, laughing stars, she’s not afraid of anything.
Jenny Gaitskell lives, writes and hunts for antique dictionaries in Lewes, Sussex. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in the anthologies Tales from the Old Hill, Hysteria 6 and Everyday Epics.