Exoskeleton

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Photo: Mr. Vulcan

Heather Wilhelmina is taking a horticulture class at school.We have caterpillars in the house right now, as part of a class project.

Plastic boxes with blue ventilated tops.

Breathing space.

They’ll become Monarch butterflies in the next few weeks. But we’re not there quite yet.

I like to watch them eat or just sit silently on a milkweed leaf. Their yellow, black and white striped bodies look surreal resting on their light green and stoic scenery.

Surreal. As if the caterpillars were plucked out of the sky after a long wait and then placed on a temporary leaf.

These caterpillars seem to never stop eating and growing, focused solely on themselves. Little black shits line the paper towels at the bottom of the case.

Caterpillars are basically munching machines. This is the stage when most of the eating and growing happens. The caterpillar’s insides grow, but not its outside—when it gets too big for its skin, the covering  splits and is shed. A new exoskeleton lies underneath. A caterpillar sheds its skin 5 times, then becomes a pupa.

The last time the caterpillar sheds, a hard casing called a chrysalis forms around its body. Inside the chrysalis, big changes are happening. The pupa is growing six legs, a proboscis, antennae, and wings. After 10 to 15 days, the chrysalis breaks open and a butterfly emerges. At first its wings are wet and crinkled, but after about an hour, they are straight, dry, and strong enough for the butterfly to flutter away. 

I stood in front of the case this morning, watching the caterpillar hang effortlessly from inside the bright blue top with the built-in breathing space.

It’s readying itself to become a pupa, finding the highest point inside its plastic box, settling in for the chrysalis phase.

This phase? The caterpillar does it alone.

No matter how much I stand over the box.

No matter how much I tap the case with an impatient finger.

No matter how much I remind it that there’s another caterpillar in there with them.

No matter how much I want the milkweed leaves to whisper in my ear about what will come next. 

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