Illustration by Scott Fray. Used by permission of Ruth-Inge Heinze, (1994) editor The Bear Knife and Other American Indian Tales. Bramble Books.
The Butterfly Girl
(First published as: “The Little Girl Who Wanted to Know What It Is Like to Be a Butterfly”)
There once was a little girl named Ella who loved to visit her grandparents in the country. They had a cozy house with a garden in back surrounded by woods. Ella loved to spend her afternoons looking at the plants and watching the creatures of the garden. Her grandpa often sat with her, telling her the names of the birds, what they ate and what flowers and trees they liked. He taught her how to water the plants, how to pinch back the old flowers to keep the plants blooming and the best way to pick vegetables. When Ella found an odd looking bug, her grandpa always knew what it was called and what its job was in the garden.
Ella liked the flowers, the birds, and all the good things to eat. But, best of all, she loved the butterflies. They flew through the garden on the most delicate of wings, which allowed them to walk along the edge of a flower petal without squishing it. Then they’d slip their long tongues into the center of each fragrant blossom to drink its sweetness.
One day, as they were sitting next to the camellia bush watching a brown striped caterpillar chew on a leaf, Ella asked, “Grandpa, what’s it like to be a butterfly?”
“That’s a good question,” her grandpa replied. “Let me get my books and I’ll show you.” He went inside and brought out four thick books filled with drawings and photographs. Together they searched for all the pictures of caterpillars, cocoons and butterflies. After he’d read her everything he had about butterflies, Ella sat next to him twirling a tiny stick between her fingers, thinking very hard. Finally she said, “I liked learning all those neat facts and the pictures were really nice, but Grandpa, I want to know what it’s like to be a butterfly?”
“What’s it like? Well, umm, hummm,” he said, crinkling his nose and squinting his eyes as if he was trying to see an answer in the ground in front of him. “I know a way to find out!” he exclaimed, standing up quickly. Ella jumped up, ready to follow her grandpa, because he could find the answer for any question.
Around the side of the house they went past the woodpile and into the old storage shed. “Let’s see what we can find in here,” said Grandpa. After moving a lot of boxes, disturbing three lizards, and many spiders, he let out a cheer. “Here it is. I knew we still had it somewhere.”
“What is it, Grandpa?” asked Ella, looking at a very dirty and cracked old fish tank.
“This is going to be the future home of butterflies!” he said, dusting off the tank. “Grab that old mesh screen behind you.”
Ella looked around and saw the bent screen her grandpa had taken off the kitchen window last year. “This one?”
“Yep, that’ll be perfect.” He tore all the metal frames off until just the mesh was left. Then they took the tank, the mesh and some string and went out into the garden. First they filled the bottom with dirt, then they added twigs and leaves. “Now we go caterpillar hunting,” Grandpa told Ella. They found lots of yellow and green ones, two with black spots and a very hairy orange one. Grandpa helped Ella place them on the sticks. Then he put the wire mesh over the top and secured it with the string so the caterpillars couldn’t climb out. When they were finished, they put it in a corner of the back porch. “All you have to do is keep it filled with tasty leaves, watch it closely and soon you’ll learn what it’s like to be a butterfly.” Grandpa explained
Ella checked it every day, while the caterpillars ate and ate and ate. After a few weeks, one by one, they all built cocoons. Then it was really boring because nothing happened for a long time. Grandpa decided to cut one of them open to show Ella what was inside. At first she was very curious, but all they found were strange parts of a half way caterpillar, part way butterfly and lots of yucky mushy stuff. Then she was very sad because that caterpillar would never get to learn what it was like to be a butterfly. She thought that was Grandpa’s worst idea ever.
One day when the flowers had been blooming for many weeks, Ella was passing by the back porch when she noticed movement in the old fish tank. A cocoon was shaking and quivering. “Grandpa, Grandpa! Come see what the caterpillars are doing,” Ella yelled as she raced back into the house.
“Those aren’t caterpillars anymore,” Grandpa said, as he joined her on the porch. Then he took the top off the tank and carried it to the garden. Ella and her grandpa watched as one of the cocoons opened and a beautiful orange butterfly emerged. It clung delicately to its old home, opening and closing its wings in the sun. With a little spring it launched itself into the air, followed by Ella who ran behind. She jumped in circles on the ground as the butterfly flew back and forth among the flowers and trees. Over the next three days many different butterflies emerged, striped and dotted in browns, oranges, reds and yellows. They were dressed in all the colors of the flowers and the earth. After the last one had come out of its cocoon and Ella had danced around the yard with it, she walked slowly over to her grandpa. “Grandpa, that was fun watching them come out of the cocoons. But I still don’t know what it’s like to be a butterfly”
Her grandpa drummed his fingers against his chin as he thought very hard. “I’m sorry Ella, I don’t know any other ways to explain to you about butterflies. We’ve gone through all my books and you got to see how they’re born. I don’t know what else there is to teach you.”
Ella walked away and sat down by the woods to stare at the butterflies dancing with the flowers. The summer continued with birds to watch and vegetables to eat. Sometimes Ella saw a butterfly she was sure she had witnessed being born. It would fly around the garden enjoying the daisies and daffodils.
Fall came, school started and she spent less time in her grandparents’ garden. Then one Saturday, near the end of October, her grandparents took her into town to get a costume for Halloween. As they walked down the sidewalk trying to decide which store to go into first, they passed a secondhand store they had never noticed before. In the center of the display window was a shimmering butterfly costume. The body and wings were all shades of yellow and orange, and it had black tights to go with it.
“That’s my costume! I want that one.” Ella shouted, bouncing up and down in front of the store. It was exactly her size, so they bought it for her. As soon as they got home, Ella pulled the costume over her head and slipped her legs into the tights. There were fluffy pink antennae sticking out of a barrette that she fastened onto her head. Then her grandmother helped her slip the wings over her shoulders and attach them to her back. After Ella put it on, she ran around the garden, jumping and hopping and smelling flowers. Her grandparents got so tired from watching her that they had to sit down. As her circles around the yard grew smaller and smaller her Grandpa called out to her, “Hey, there’s the prettiest butterfly I’ve seen all year. Now do you know what it’s like to be a butterfly?”
Ella stared out into the woods beyond the garden for a few moments. She wanted to agree and say: yes, I know just what it’s like to be a butterfly. She almost said it, but instead she looked her grandpa straight in the eye and said, “Grandpa, I know a lot about what it’s like to be a girl running about in a butterfly costume, but no, I don’t know what it’s like to really be a butterfly.”
They all stood there for a moment and then her grandma smiled at her and went inside. There was something about the way her grandma smiled that made Ella run after her calling “Grandma, Grandma! Do you know how I could find out what it’s like to be a butterfly?” Her grandma sat down at the kitchen table and looked at a picture of her own grandmother that was hanging on the wall. It was a faded brown photo of a tall, old woman standing next to a tree with a deer sniffing her outstretched hand. Ella glanced at it, then back at her grandma. “You do! You do!” She sang as she danced around the table. “You know how I can find out what it’s like to be a butterfly.”
“Yes, I do,” Grandma agreed. “But it’s not going to be easy. What you are asking for is to see and feel the world as if you were something else. It’s hard enough understanding how other people see the world, let alone a flying butterfly! It’s not something you can read about or observe or pretend….”
“I know, Grandma. I tried all those other ways. It did teach me some things and some of it was really fun. But it didn’t teach me what I really want to know.”
Grandma paused until Ella was quiet and listening again. “It will take time and a lot of patience, so I want you to think about it. If you decide you really, truly in your heart, want to know, then I do know a way you can learn it. But you’ll have to do exactly what I say. And even then you won’t know until spring.”
“Oh yes, Grandma, I want to know. I’ll do everything you say. If I do a good job can you show me by Thanksgiving?”
Grandma just smiled at her and said, “It’s not about showing you. It’s helping you to learn in a different way. I want you to think about it for three days first. Then, if you still want to know what it’s like to be a butterfly, I’ll help you.”
She stood up and started to prepare dinner, as Ella pleaded, “But Grandma, I already know. I’ve known all summer. Please, please, can’t I start now?”
Grandma handed her a bowl full of peas in the pods. “Shell these and we’ll have them tonight with some basil and thyme from the garden.” Ella chewed on her lower lip and tried not to say anything else about butterflies while she helped her grandma with dinner.
Three days later she ran over after school and told her grandma, “Yes. I want to know what it’s like to be a butterfly. I’ll do whatever you tell me.”
“Okay, we’ll do it in the spring. That’s when it’s butterfly time,” her grandma told her.
Ella thought the winter was the longest one ever. Every time she tried to get her grandmother to talk about butterflies, she’d look outside and say, “It isn’t that time of year yet, just think about caterpillars for now.”
When the weather finally warmed up, Ella announced to her Grandma, “I saw a caterpillar today. Can you teach me how to be a butterfly now?”
“Well,” her grandma replied, “that’s a sure sign of spring coming if I ever heard one. If you’re going to learn to be a butterfly, you’d better do what the caterpillars are doing now.”
“They’re eating all the new leaves off the azalea bush you love so much.”
“Little girls don’t need to eat that kinda stuff, but you’ve got the right idea. It’s time to eat and drink a lot,” Grandma said. Then she quickly walked outside to see if she could convince the caterpillars to eat another plant instead of her favorite flowering bush. For the next few weeks Ella ate and drank everything her grandma gave her. She also watched caterpillars, just in case there was anything else they were doing that was important, but all they seemed to do was eat.
One Saturday morning, two weeks later, when Ella sat down at the breakfast table, she noticed there was nothing there: no juice, no fruit, no cereal or toast, not even a muffin. Her grandma patted her gently on the shoulder, while saying, “Go up to your room and put on your most comfortable clothes. Bring a warm sweater too.” When Ella came down, they went out to the garden together. Near the woods was an assortment of cardboard, blankets and the plastic sheets her grandpa used to cover the vegetables when it got too cold at night. Grandma sat her down and explained how she could use all these things to build a nest big enough to crawl into. She finished by saying, “To know what it’s like to be a butterfly you’ll have to build a cocoon for yourself and stay in it until you know. Do you still want to do it?”
“You mean I’ll have no food or water? And I can’t get out and play at all?”
“But Grandma, it took weeks and weeks for the caterpillars to change!” Ella said, remembering how she had watched them last year.
“Well, for little girls it usually takes one day and one night. I won’t think badly of you if you decide not to do it. I’ll still love you and be proud of you just the same. It’s your choice.”
Ella bit her lower lip and tried to quiet the uneasiness stirring in her stomach. “I want to do it.”
So Ella, with the help of her grandma, built herself a cocoon. The blankets made a soft, warm nest with the cardboard forming the sides and top and over it all they draped the plastic to protect her from the dew. While they were working on it, Grandpa came by asking questions. “Shouldn’t she take some water in at least? Won’t she be too cold at night? What if she gets scared?” He kept talking on and on as the two of them worked. He walked away shaking his head after they crawled underneath the cardboard together to try to arrange the blankets so there would be a little room to squirm around in.
Just as the sun started to peek above the trees, they finished the cocoon. Then it was time for Ella to climb in. Her Grandma closed up the entrance, reminding her once more, “If you have to come out before one day and one night are finished, I won’t think badly of you.”
The first hour passed quickly. Then the second hour took longer. By the eighth hour Ella decided she knew exactly what a caterpillar feels like while it’s waiting to be a butterfly. It was very boring, a little scary and she got very thirsty and hungry. By the time the sun was setting and it was getting colder Ella wanted to crawl out very badly, but her grandma had said that if she emerged too soon, she’d have to wait until next spring to try again. So Ella huddled in her small dim cocoon waiting for something to happen.
As it got darker and darker, the noises from the crickets and bugs got louder and louder. The birds began to sing even though it was nighttime. They all seemed to be saying, “Come out. Come out.” It was coming from the top of her cocoon, not the bottom where the opening was. As Ella squirmed up to try to hear better, she noticed there was a lot of room near the top.
“Why didn’t I use this space before? I wouldn’t have felt so squished all those hours waiting in here,” Ella said to herself as she kept crawling.
There seemed to be a light up there too. As she crept toward it, it got brighter and the sounds got louder. Soon she found herself in a circle of crickets, birds, and bugs. There was even a fluffy owl. They were all dancing around a gathering of fireflies, so bright it looked like a fire burning in the middle of their circle. When they saw Ella, they crowded around her, urging her to join them. As she danced with them, she bounced up into the air. With every jump she stayed airborne a little bit longer. Then she was floating in the sky. Looking behind her she saw huge yellow and orange things attached to her back. She was so surprised she stopped waving them and she drifted back to earth. She stood up on her six thin legs and twisted around to look over her shoulder. There were big, beautiful, butterfly wings coming out of her back, just like the costume. But now she had an extra muscle extending from her shoulder blades down the center of her back that made her wings open and close. Ella gently rose back into the air. She felt connected to everything: the other insects, the trees, the rocks; she could even taste the air and knew there would be rain the next day. Looking around she saw all the creatures and plants as her friends. Some might eat her as a butterfly and some she might eat, but not tonight, because they were all celebrating together. Ella danced in the air, fluttering around and around the circle.
In the morning she squirmed out of the cocoon she’d built for herself. She crawled out the bottom where she had come in a day ago. The top looked as small as when she and her grandmother had first made it. She slowly unbent, until she was standing tall and straight by the time her grandparents came over to her.
“Well,” her grandpa asked, “do you know what it’s like to be a butterfly now?”
Ella looked up at them. “Yes, grandpa, I know.”
“Tell us: what’s it like?”
“It’s well, um, ah, um,” Ella tried to say. “It’s just like … Well, you know it’s kinda like … um.”
“You mean you didn’t find out?” her grandpa asked. “All that work and time and you still don’t know.”
“I know. I know,” said Ella. “I was a butterfly.”
“So tell us: what was it like?” he asked again.
“Being a butterfly is just like … well it tastes of dew … I mean it’s … floaty … ” Ella frowned and tried again. “I’m sure it’s, it’s … maybe kind o … ” She moved her arms and waved her hands at them, but the words didn’t come. “I can’t explain it!” Ella said, with tears in her eyes.
Her grandma knelt down beside her. “That’s all right Ella. Some things just can’t be said in words. After all, butterflies don’t talk in words, do they?” Ella shook her head. “And you do know inside how it feels to be a butterfly, don’t you?” Ella nodded. “Just because you can’t explain it, doesn’t mean your experience wasn’t real.” Ella nodded again, a grin starting to spread across her face, as she remembered the feeling of being a butterfly.
Her grandpa sat down next to them. “I understand,” he said. “There are some things you learn in books, some things you understand by watching. Pretending is a good way to discover things too, but when you want to know what something feels like, it helps to learn through experience. So instead of trying to explain it with words, why don’t you show us, in your own way, what it’s like to be a butterfly.”
“I can do that,” Ella agreed, nodding her head. Her grandparents got comfortable on the ground, with their backs against a tall tree, while Ella walked a few feet away. First, she reached to the ground as though she was eating armfuls of grass and leaves. Then she hugged herself tight and knelt on the ground, covering her head with her hands. She stayed still a long time, then her grandparents heard her humming. As the sound grew louder her arms started to lift. Her head rose slowly, with her eyes tightly shut, and an expression of pure joy on her face. Her hands floated higher, pulling her whole body up. She started to twirl, dipping and fluttering her arms. She was humming loudly now and her arm/wings pulsed with the sound.
Her grandparents looked at her in awe as she circled the garden. After the third time around she came back and stood in front of them. “Can you tell now, Grandpa, that I know what it’s like to be a butterfly?” Ella asked.
“Yes, I certainly can,” he agreed. “You also showed me how you can’t put that kind of knowing into simple words.”
Grandma looked up at Ella and said, “Not only do you know what it is like to be a butterfly, you’ve also learned that if you want to know something, you can always find a way to explore it.” Then she smiled at her granddaughter. “Even though sometimes the way you learn it is kind of strange and magical.”
“Yes, that’s true,” said Ella, thinking of the circle of creatures she was dancing with. Then her stomach rumbled. “And I discovered something else too.”
“What?” they asked her.
“When you lie in a cocoon for a day and a night without food or water, you get hungry. Can I have something to eat now?”
“Certainly,” grandpa said. “In fact, we fixed your favorite breakfast to honor all the effort you put into learning what it is like to be a butterfly. Come on,” he said, standing up and holding out his hands to both of them. “Let’s go!” And they all walked into the kitchen together.