Cat-ah-pil-ah! [#ShortStory Winner – Muse Of The Month]

“Cocooned for fourteen days, limited in space and movement, completely transformed. Yet she is still herself.” A short story.

Here is the third winner of our December 2016 Muse of the Month contest, Bhavani.

The cue for this month was “There is love and understanding in this knowledge. There is sorrow.” – Namita Gokhale, Shakuntala: The Play of Memory.


It was a bright sunny day. She went up the tiny street and made her way down the broad avenue. The leaves along the narrow street were reduced to mere stubs. Now she needed to find an untouched street. There must be other creatures living in this large food-house she thought to herself when there was a movement just above. She looked up, looked right and then left, before she saw something floating in the air and settling on a street near where she sat.

“Hello there little one.” A shrill voice dropped down from this being.

“Err… Hello, are you talking to me?”

“Yes, yes.”

“What are you?”

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“I’m a sparrow. And do you know what you are?”

She scrunched her eyes wondering and then said, “I am me?”

Cheep cheep cheep, came a noise from above.

The ‘spa – ro’ as this floating thing called itself opened its beak and made a funny sound. With its eyes shut it cocked its head from side to side saying, “Cheep cheep cheep.”

“That is my issue with you butterflies…” Spa Ro continued. “The mum doesn’t stick around and you squiggly little things burst out of eggs… don’t know who you are! Bah, it’s funny actually… Imagine not knowing what you are and then, ceasing to exist anyway! ” Spa Ro shook his head, then looked down at that said squiggly little thing.

“You, my dear one, are a caterpillar. Little still, but soon you will eat your way through all those leaves on all these branches of this tiny tree and you will swell, become big, and then you’ll… cease to exist!”

“A cat a what? Pil-ah? What’s that!”

“Oh cheep! Now I have to be mommy and daddy rolled into one. Listen. You were born as an egg. Then you burst out. You started eating. You will eat, and eat, and eat. And then, eat some more. You really eat a lot for someone so young. Don’t your jaws hurt?”

“But I’m hungry! Why shouldn’t I eat?”

“Go ahead, I’m not stopping you. But eating is your only purpose in life. You eat some and then eat some more… and then…”

“Ok, ok, ok, I get it, I eat a lot. Can we move on? Then what? Why do I eat so much? What happens? Do I… do I… bu…bur…”

Squiggly had a doubt, would she eat so much that she would burst? She could see herself splattered all over the avenues and streets that she called home and the sparrow had called a ‘tiny tree’. Oh that would be terrible! She didn’t want to be splattered.

“Bu??? I don’t know what you are trying to say but you become really big. Then you get into a small silken home and lock yourself inside. Then you die and something else comes out; it’s called a butterfly.”

Squiggly listened. That didn’t make sense. She would eat, and eat, and eat, and then she would die? It wasn’t as dramatic as being splattered across the branches and leaves for sure, but death… and death that was planned. Death that stamped in her future when she was born. Destiny? Fate? That was not the way she saw her life going.

“I ddiiie?” She asked in a loud yet hesitant voice.

“Hmmmm… well we’re getting philosophical here Squig-Wig. You know, find your mum, ask her. All I can say is you need to eat. But also be wary of things around. Do not talk to other birds because they tend to fancy a squishy plump caterpillar for breakfast. The fibre in the green leaves helps our digestion and to put is as nicely as I can, it flushes our systems really well. I just ate one for breakfast so don’t fancy you right now.”

With that Spa Ro took off. Squiggly watched it go from being a big float-y thing above her to a speck in the distance. It moved so fast she thought. Now she was alone again in these big avenues and multiple streets. What Spa Ro hinted said was that she would die, she would cease to be her. She would become something else, someone else. No, no, that did not sound good.

She was now stressed out. She needed to calm her nerves. She ate one leaf, and then another… Finished all the leaves in the street to her right, and then all of them to the left, and made her way up the big avenue eating the leaves on either side. In front of her was a sea of green, and she left behind a desert of brown. Yet, she hadn’t calmed down. She couldn’t stop, her breath came in faster and she ate quicker. She moved even slower now, her body big, round, wobbly and squishy.

Dng dng dng dng dng dng dng dng dng dng dng dng dng dng dng dng dng dng dng dng dng dng …

Suddenly, the entire street she was standing on started to vibrate… it moved up, down and from side to side. From the lower part of the big avenue she saw a black cloud rising up. Should she run? Ah well, she couldn’t run… couldn’t even manage to walk, at best, a slow crawl.

Dng dng dng dng…

The speed at which the black thing was rising meant she couldn’t escape. Was this the enemy Spa Ro had mentioned? The one that liked juicy things? She looked at her body, that stretched down the street in a curved line… She was plump, soft and tender. Oh, all those leaves she’d eaten in her stress were going to be the end of her. If only she could float away like Spa Ro.

Dng dng dng dng…

The long black line kept approaching as the street and avenue began to shake even more, making her own 16 legs (including what some call her pro-legs) quake.

Hold on, she told her. Breathe. She told her herself. Stay calm. She told herself.

She was shivering.

Dng dng dng dng…

Then the black army seemed to dissolve into individual smaller units and one of them approached her.

“Hello there,” the voice seemed surprisingly friendly to her ears.

Then Hellos vibrated down the entire branch.

“How you doing?”

“How you doing?”

“How you doing?”

“How you doing?”

She remembered what Spa Ro had said and kept still, holding her breath.

Then in came a chorus,

“We are the Ant-Army-From-Yonder-Grey-Hill-At-The-Bottom-of-LowHangingTree. If you are dead we will take you home for supper, but if you are alive, we will pass by. Speak now or be our meal forever.”

“I’m alive,” she shouted. “I’m alive.”

“We will be back later to check on you.”

… be back.

… be back.

… be back.

Echoed the army as they marched by.

Squiggly went to a nearby leaf and hid her face behind it. She sat munching. She liked her life. It was filled with juicy, crunchy, yummy fresh leaves. She never ran out of leaves. It was cool in her network of avenues and streets. She didn’t know what a butterfly was… Maybe it looked like one of those horrible black things that marched up and down trees. Maybe it was like a leaf that some other cat-a-pil-ah would eat. But she wanted to stay as she was… round, soft and squishy.

She made neat curves on the leaf, eating from one side to another, her head bobbing in rhythm. This was a good life she had. Why would anyone want to change anything?

But if she continued eating, she would change. If she stopped eating so that she never changed that army of ugly black things would come and take her away. By now she was on the next leaf and had almost finished it. She continued down the street, eating leaf after leaf. This life was comfortable but stressful she thought. Her jaws kept moving. That regular movement relaxed her; released happy hormones that made her feel calmer.

When she reached the end of the street, it dipped low, and threatened to drop her down to the ground, so she turned back and slowly made her way back to the large avenue.

Spa Ro was hovering when she reached back.

“Spa Ro,” she cried out. “Where have you been? I do not want to become a butterfly. I do not want to die. I love being me. I want to stay in this skin, in this body, as a cat-a-pil-ah!”

“Don’t fight what is inevitable. You will change. You will become a new body and it’ll all be fine. Many have done it before.”

“Did you need to do that?”

“No, I was born like this.”

“Why can’t I be a Spa Ro like you!”

“But that isn’t the way it works in nature. You were born to this family of caterpillars and transform you will.”

“Spa Ro,” she cried again as he spiralled away into the distance, “don’t leave me. Help! Oh, why did you tell me about my death?”

Suddenly she felt a gentle itch to one side, and then another itch to the other. Her skin seemed to be coming off, and hardening. She didn’t even feel like eating anymore, or ever. She was confused, and sleepy. Very, very sleepy… and before…

Nothing was heard from cat-a-pil-ah for many days after that. Not a squeak, not a sound and you wouldn’t catch her hobbling down the avenue or street. She was hidden deep inside a chrysalis. Spa Ro came to check on her. Ant-Army swarmed all over to see if she was dead inside. And the tree went on about its life.

In fourteen days, the time that it takes the moon to wax or wane, something was changing about the chrysalis. There was movement, a small nudge here, another there. A small knock from inside and then a crack. That crack grew till something seemed to be pushing out.

This new body slowly emerged from the shell. It looked nothing like the cat-a-pil-ah. The head was raised and rotated around, stretching after the long hibernation, though it was more a metamorphosis. Cocooned for fourteen days, limited in space and movement yet completely transformed.

Spa Ro sat on a branch close by and watched.

Once fully out it paused, for what seemed like eternity, taking in a deep breath, filling up its lungs with fresh air. It seemed in no hurry, content to just stand, while its body got used to this new form. It slowly opened one limb, which spread into a wing, and then the other. It sat there, wings stretched wide and beautiful. The sun gently shimmered on the wings, and two antennae sought the world in front.

Seated on the branch above, Spa Ro, cocked his head to one side and said,

“Hello there! So what are you now?”

The newly emerged butterfly spread out its wings and took flight. It rose slowly, hovered at the level of the sparrow and then said, in that same low soft voice as the cat-a-pil-ah,

“I am me. Still.”

Bhavani wins a Rs 250 Flipkart voucher, as well as a chance to be picked one among the 10 top winners at the end of 2016. Congratulations! 


About the Author


bhavani is an independent writer. Her fiction will soon feature in an anthology by Aleph. Her short fiction "A Fragrance That Could Have Been" was the winner of the 2016 Out of Print-DNA Contest. read more...

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