Death and Painted Ladies

So we got our kid a Painted Lady butterfly kit as part of his science education this year–if you watch kids’ or educational channels, you’ve seen these kits on TV.

The ads appeal to the scientist in kids, and to the “hey, cool” factor in parents, so we willingly sent off for the butterfly treehouse, and when we got it, filled out the coupon and sent for the live caterpillars.

The first Painted Lady caterpillars arrived a week later, five of them, all about the size of mouse droppings (I have lived in some exciting places in my life, and know what these look like), and unfortunately, all DOA (dead on arrival).

The kid took it pretty well, considering.

Warily, because while the first batch was cheap, the refills were expensive, I sent off for a second batch.

These arrived in wonderful shape, vigorously munching away in their safe, moisture-free container, and within a few days, we had five chrysalids ready to be transferred to their treehouse, where they would complete the change from lumpy, ugly caterpillars to lovely butterflies. All was well, the kid was thrilled, I was relieved.

The kid and I pinned the paper on which the caterpillars had attached their chrysalids to the inside of the butterfly treehouse, and carefully following instructions, found a sturdy surface where they would not be in direct sunlight, would not get knocked over, and would be able to complete their transformation in peace and safety.

We imagined a future scene something like this:

In a perfect world, this is the way things work.

In the Deep South, however, we have fire ants.

If you can drive a riding mower over an anthill and have the anthill stall the mower, welcome to the Deep South. If you can do it twenty or thirty times in the same yard (I do not have a lawn, I have a yard) welcome to my world. Fire ant mounds get to be about a foot-and-a-half to two feet across, and can hit a foot in height. The mounds, furthermore seem to have territories with about a seven-to-ten foot diameter, so if you’re mowing 3 acres of barely-converted pasture, you’ll hit a lot of them.

Don’t step on them, don’t mess with them. Be a little careful about ever going to sleep. And, if you have a well and value the drinkability of your water, learn to live with them.

BUT ALSO….

Ignore every carefully-detailed instruction in the pamphlet on raising butterflies that in any way suggests you should keep your butterfly treehouse on the floor.

We came out today to one of those Wild Kingdom lions-ripping-the-innards-out-of-zebras scenes in miniature that makes you more than a little queasy. The fire ants had found the crysalids, and were tearing into them with the sort of gusto they’d exercise on us if we couldn’t get up and run.

Looking at that mess, I figured our future butterflies were all dead. I dragged the thing into the kitchen, with the kid trailing me, and started pulling everything out of the treehouse. The kid was tragic–stoic on the outside and mad and on the edge of tears, his hands balled into fists.

Two of the chrysalids had gaping holes in them. A third did not, but did not wriggle when touched—odds are he was dead right then. Two others still wriggled, and I passed this news on to the kid, who underwent the sort of transformation I was hoping for from the damned bugs. He became radiantly happy and full of hope.

I killed all the ants in the treehouse (with my thumb–anything that would kill ants would certainly kill butterflies), shot their corpses out of the mesh with a can of compressed air, put a napkin on the bottom of the treehouse, put the three chrysalids that didn’t have holes eaten into them into the ant-free treehouse, and my hubby and I hung the thing from a knob on a high cabinet door, with the door swung open to be out of convenient reach of ants. I hope.

It may not help. By the time we got the chrysalids into the treehouse, none of them were still moving. So now we wait ten days, to see if any of the potential survivors survived. The kid knows that, in spite of everything we did, they’re probably all three already dead. We’re giving them a chance and hoping for the best, but this is one of those life lessons where the outcome will almost certainly hurt.

We aren’t soft-selling this. We didn’t shield the kid from the holes in the two partially-devoured chrysalids. I didn’t hide the nastiness from him when I cleaned out the mess. And he and his dad were with them when the last two stopped moving.

Life has consequences, we screwed up by not considering that around here, we have ants, and they’re nasty. We were responsible for the Painted Ladies’ lives, the kid and I, and we were responsible for their deaths. Something I’ve learned from personal experience as well as watching the parade of tragedies that came through my various ERs was that people who don’t learn how to deal with the consequences of little tragedies—who were shielded by their parents throughout their childhoods and who grow up thinking life is soft and safe—are people who fail to prevent preventable big tragedies, and who don’t have any tools to deal with any tragedies—preventable or not—when they happen. Kids who have had to deal with the pointy end of life early on, whether it’s butterflies-in-waiting devoured by invading predators or old cats who finally give out, are a little better braced for the bigger tragedies that await every one of us.

Go with grace, enjoy the beauty of the day and every sweet breath, because life is an amazing gift and a wonderful opportunity. But preview your actions for possible consequences—think before you leap. And watch your back.

It’s still a jungle out there.

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About the author: Novelist, writing teacher, on a mission to reprint my out-of-print books and self-publish my new ones.

5 comments… add one
  • hollylisle Apr 22, 2008 @ 11:20

    Wow. Thank you for the wonderful review, Tina. And I can’t believe people are already reading it. This one kind of crept up on me.

  • TinaK Apr 20, 2008 @ 12:43

    Totally off the subject here but I wanted to let you know that I got The Ruby Key in the mail when I returned from my Texas vacation and spent all day Saturday reading it. LOL I’ve posted reviews on Amazon, B&N, Scholastic and a Canadian site that I closed the window for and can’t remember the name of. I also posted a review on my blog and am offering a free copy to the winner of a drawing.

    http://tinakulesa.com/weblog/?p=653

    As always, excellent book Holly. I can’t wait for Hawkspar and The Silver Door. I hope YA is wildly successful for you.

  • lilliputianfists Apr 19, 2008 @ 14:36

    Reminds me of the tragedy of the water filter. Growing up, we had a medium sized fish tank, and quite a few fish, including the tiny, rainbow-iridescent tetras. As a Christmas present to the fish, we wanted to buy them a new water filter for the tank. We went to a fish aquarium, we explained exactly what kind of fish we had, the kind of tank, etc, and asked the clerk what would be a good filter. He recommended one, we bought it, and set it up. The next day, next to all of the tetras had been sucked up into the filter and were dead. We’re all able to laugh about it now in a morbid way, but at the time we (this being my mother and sisters and I) were pretty upset that we had inadvertently murdered our fish. Also, we’ve had plenty of tragedies when it comes to cats (we’ve had many over the years). There were two that ran away, one that somehow had liver failure even though she was only three, and two that both died of leukemia. Those two we had bought at a pet store (rarely a good idea) and we loved them tremendously. They were a brother and sister, very sweet, we named Harlequin and Shamrock. Well, only a year after we’d had them, we discovered Harley had leukemia. We watched him die a slow death, trying to save him but it was no use. Then we found out Shamrock also had it (our other cat, thankfully, did not contract it). We put Shamrock to sleep. My whole family was devastated. But even though that happened, I’m still glad to have known them, even for a little while. I really hope the remaining chrysalids live, even though it is likely they are dead. Stranger things have happened — we had a fish one time that was out of the water for perhaps 30 seconds, maybe more (I had accidentally knocked over the bowl). He had stopped flopping, and my mom thought for sure he was dead. My sister, however, had watched “Mr. Rogers” and he recommended putting the fish in a bowl of water with baking soda. We tried it and he lived for another three years. Go figure!

  • Keely Apr 18, 2008 @ 17:50

    Ummm … that was supposed to be ANT traps.

  • Keely Apr 18, 2008 @ 17:49

    If you want to try again next year, may I suggest you buy one of those inexpensive and traps that you are supposed to hang above hummingbird feeders. You just fill it with water hang it from a hook in the ceiling, hang the treehouse below it and voila … homeland security!!!

    Give my (((HUGS))) to “the kid”.

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