The chrysalis hung as Thomas had left it, quiet and unmoving in the humid darkness of the basement. The room had been a wine cellar back when the farm was still up and running, and on warm days it still smelled thinly of fermented apples, the ghosts of enterprise past. Now the weather was turning there was only the scent of damp and neglect, although Thomas had started coming down to the basement multiple times a day to monitor the conditions.
He switched the overhead light on to get a proper look at the chrysalis, which still had not changed in all the weeks he’d kept it there. Thomas had dreamt of its pliant surface parting in steaming swathes, a slick set of crimson wings wetly uncoiling like rolled meat in the window of a delicatessen. He saw himself touching its frail limbs as he cupped it gently near him, the beautiful birth that he had tended for so long.
Yet there was still nothing to be seen in the cellar but the casing, latched ingeniously on a hook that Thomas had drilled into the ceiling for that very purpose.
Maybe the variables had gone wrong, somewhere: the temperature in the basement, the quality of the specimen. Truthfully the hatching had never worked any of the previous times he had attempted it, but then again, Thomas was only an amateur collector, not an entomologist, for all the books and magazines he’d read.
But there was a certain poetry in the stasis of his subject that comforted him, an eternity encapsulated in pupal form. Perhaps it was this that Thomas had been seeking, all along: not transformation, but an equilibrium, the purgatory state of a life in between.
And he had done it, him, who’d little schooling to speak of, with nothing awarded to him by his late parents but this husk of a house and its barren land.
He, Thomas had brought something here, and kept it alive when all else was death and dessicaton, a small miracle when pollution and the over-dry summers rendered the earth a waste.
It seemed a shame that he could never broadcast his prestige. Doubtless the scientific world would chastise his methods and, thus, condemn their outcome. As for the general public– they could never know, and would never, if Thomas was careful.
Not that there was much need of caution; the farm was a good five miles from any probing neighbours, the soil being of such poor stock that any agriculturalist with sense gave the area a wide berth. Moreover, the likelihood of insect enthusiasts determined enough to trek the distance from the closest town in pursuit of Thomas’ obscure work was little to none— and yet as he raised a trembling hand to touch the chrysalis he felt the strangling coil of possession.
The creature within its protective sac flinched from his touch, which spoiled the fantasy somewhat. Worse, still, that he had to unfasten the cocoon about its head to feed it—the other acts of caretaking were much the same, a grimy disillusionment.
It was the uncovering of the face, however, that disturbed Thomas the most. Though tongue, ears, and hair had been removed upon capture he had left the specimen’s eyes untouched. Hazel and harrowed, they stared at him with a mammalian terror.
Thomas was reminded, suddenly, of its—her—old name, and that he had found her, pungent and weary, at a roadside gas station, fresh from a break up, the sullen owner of a geriatric Honda Civic that wouldn’t last the drive out of Ohio.
Bethany, she’d been called, then. Now, if Thomas ever spoke to her—a rarity, and more to himself than to the specimen—he called her ‘Bug’.
She didn’t resist as Thomas ladelled a blended slop passed her lips—early obstinate days of enduring a feeding tube had well instilled this lesson. Besides, there was little enough that she could do against him, both arms and legs having been clipped to the first joint, leaving hip and shoulder hollow.
Thomas had hoped that new limbs might grow in those spaces, but perhaps the very act of subduing his subject had inhibited her metamorphosis. He might merely have strapped her down, as he had her predecessors— and yet each time Thomas parted the leather bag that served as her cocoon the breastless, alien oblong of her new body seemed, to him, the ideal transition between the caterpillar and the butterfly that she would never be.
It was while raising a hand to seal the chrysalis again that he saw a tear on one pale cheek. Suddenly, briefly, she was Bethany again, who’d had a bandaid on her left thumb which she’d kept picking at on the drive over to the farm to use his phone, Thomas had told her, to call the father she’d never hear from, then, nor ever again.
Here, once more, was the girl who’d sung all the wrong words to every track on the radio, who’d told Thomas that she’d chipped her front tooth cycling down a rocky hill when she was eight years old, and was too afraid to ever get back on the bike again.
This was the girl who’d downed two laced cups of coffee before she’d realised that there was something wrong; Thomas had watched her stagger over the front porch like a wasp drowning in a beer glass, letting her have a moment’s flight over the top step before she’d crumpled down into the grass.
That was the woman she had been: young, and strong, and stupid.
Yet now, as Thomas tugged the cocoons’s zipper up over the back of Bethany’s head and ascended the narrow basement stairwell, he didn’t wonder what she thought about within her fleshy tomb, nor whom she missed, nor if she still dreamed that someone would come to take her away from here.
To him she wasn’t Bethany any more, for had she ever been, merely a caterpillar in an unusual skin.
Thomas wandered through to the farmhouse kitchen, rubbing at one shoulder, which he had strained somehow. He seemed to ache more now in semi retirement than he’d ever done while helping his folks on the farm.
It worried him.
Thomas’ father had suffered arthritis in his late thirties, and then there was the cancer on his mother’s side, of bone, of blood, of the brain. The factory spill of ’89 had caused it, people once said, but the news had made such little impact at the time that few remembered it now, for all its evil.
It occured to Thomas that he’d done himself no favours waiting so long in life to start his butterfly collection; Lord knew how much his back would start to play up when he went after the other specimens. When the sickness of the dry land sunk in, as it had the other farmers, a decade ago.
Thomas hoped to keep of his next hunt alive, all of it, this time, a lepidopterarium in the latent dark.
He poured himself a cup of black coffee and went out to sit on the porch to watch the sun go down, as had become his routine. The raucous song of cicadas out in the fields was sweet to him, reminding him that something else besides himself still lived out here in the rear end of nowhere.
Mostly it made Thomas think of the other insect, under the house, eight feet down.