Cathryn Essinger

In the wild, one in one hundred Monarch
eggs will hatch into a caterpillar.

As nearsighted as I am, I can almost see him
moving inside the egg still attached
to the underside of a leaf.

His dark eye rises to the top of the dome,
that tiny cathedral to memory
where he has been doing his work.

He takes one bite, and then another
and now he is a translucent speck
no bigger than a thread.

I watch as he eats the rest of the shell,
turns and takes his first bite
of milkweed, that sweet poison

meant to keep him safe from other
hungry things—aphids and ants,
spiders and wasps.

I snip the leaf, rub the remaining eggs
into my palm, hoping to hatch
them in a safer place.

I know that I am playing favorites,
hoping to tip some balance
that doesn't belong to me.

In exchange, perhaps, I can offer
an apology for things neglected,
promises undone.

I stash the eggs away like coins,
a purchase on days to come,
but when I look away,

try to refocus on the larger world,
everything blurs into a smear
of light and wonder,

grotesque and untamed, where
even the smallest thing
must earn its way.                           

                        Fifth Instar
Does the Caterpillar Dream of Flight?

It is impossible to tell whether her back propels
her front, all eight legs moving forward in pairs,

stripes on her body expanding and contracting
like an accordion, or if her four front feet

initiate the change, pulling her forward so the back
can follow. Either way, she moves in ripples,

like a woman in a many layered dress, with only
the toes of her patent feet appearing in succession,

a little four-step that lets her climb ever upward
around leaves and stems to some place where

she can dream, the way we all do, about leaving
this bulky body behind, trusting in a change

so profound that she will not recognize herself
in her next life. For the moment she is content

with her art deco stripes, neither high fashion
nor vaudeville, and a modesty not unbecoming

a changeling who trusts in a transformation
so complete that it could make you believe

in resurrection, if it were not so predictable.
Inside the chrysalis, she will  be remade,

stems cells echoing their original intent until
she arrives crumpled and wet as a newborn,

one of the beautiful creatures, bedazzled,
but with new instructions. Now, she must learn

to measure the sun, drink from flowers,
fly on wings made in another life.

The myths are always about resurrection,
or reincarnation, pure and simple,
leaving one life behind and escaping

into another: butterflies etched on prison walls,
butterfly tattoos, white butterflies in the tombs
of pharaohs, honoring the souls of lost children,

the unborn, those sacrificed so others may live,
or your ancestors perhaps, come back to explain
that the myths are symbolic, but necessary.

And yet this fellow, preparing to bury his face
in a blossom so fragrant he would not choose
to be anywhere else, cannot imagine a summer

that is not made for him. He is born to consume
the world one leaf at a time, while somewhere
within his clownish body, he plans for the future,

wing pads thickening along his sides, antenna
and proboscis, stomach merging into thorax
and abdomen. It is not myth making, but a plan

so much a part of his DNA that there is no room
for suffering and loss, anguish and grief,
or even the convenience of myth. Soon he will

slip his skin, drop the remnants of caterpillar life,
and tuck into a chrysalis so tight and resolute
there is no room at all for metaphor.

In October, We Count Our Losses

I go out in the evening’s chill to cut
a handful of parsley and come in
with a caterpillar so large and hungry

that I set him in the middle of a bouquet
of parsley, dill, and rue, where he continues
to eat while we set the table, stir the soup.

Fifth instar, so late in the year, we list the things
he must have survived: September storms,
the starlings that stripped the garden,

drought, first frost—but now, suddenly,
this abundance, more than he can consume.
We talk about our losses as well—

people and places that cannot be reclaimed,
and how grief can become its own comfort,
even in the middle of the night.

By morning he has wandered away. 
It will be a month before I find him
wrapped into a papery chrysalis,

plain and nondescript, a little mummy,            
tucked on the underside of a chair,
where he will wait until spring, sheltering

on the porch while snow and rain pelt
the aging screens. Occasionally, I think
of him in his little ark, and the antifreeze

that he must have concocted in order
to survive this weather. About the time
I forget to worry if he will emerge

in the spring, I find him reborn, clinging
to the farthest screen, wings catching
the sunlight, warming to a new day.

There are so many of winter’s little griefs
that I might bring with me into this Spring,
but I open the window, let them fly away.

Brukner Nature Center, Troy, Ohio
April, and already the Spring casualties are arriving.
Blown from their nests, abandoned in attics,
broken from falls,

they all arrive cold and hungry with a story to tell. 
If they share their fears, take comfort in each other,
we have no way of knowing—

they are mouths to be fed. The nestling spreads his
wings and cannot keep his balance, but his mouth
opens steady as a flame.

We poke insect paste down his throat. How easily
we imitate a mother's bill. He eats and poops
and sleeps—the perfect baby,

except for his hunger which arrives like forgiveness
every twenty minutes. Designed to survive, they
cry and squirm and accept

the world that is given to them. The albino tumbles
with his siblings in a Tupperware nest. He does not
imagine himself unique.

The turtle with the broken shell accepts his medicine
as if it were his lot to open his mouth
and swallow things whole. 

They have no way of knowing they are expendable,
that they are working the odds, that Nature
always over provides.

A knock on the door and another litter arrives—kits
laced so tightly in the bottom of a box they are
impossible to count.

Cathryn Essinger is the author of three books of poetry—A Desk in the Elephant House, from Texas Tech University Press, My Dog Does Not Read Plato and What I Know About Innocence, both from Main Street Rag. Her poems have appeared in Poetry, The Southern Review, Antioch Review, The New England Review, as well as PANK, Spillway, and Midwest Gothic among others. Her poems have been nominated for Pushcarts and “Best of the Net,” featured on The Writer’s Almanac, and reprinted in American Life in Poetry. She is currently writing about the WWII generation and working on a collection of poems about Monarch butterflies, hoping to preserve the annual migration from the Midwest to Mexico.



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Peter Leight

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