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And Then, Ephemeral

Approximate Read Length: 5 minutes

In a patch of stinging nettles, a glassy sphere the size of a pinprick. The upper surface of the leaf is peppered with them. A polka dot pattern in pellucid white.

It hatches. Unfurling, its pairs of legs judder into subconscious action. Spines bristle outwards. Its segmented body wriggles across the leaf.

To begin with, feeding is its primary purpose. And its mandibles cut and chew. A serrated hole is left behind.

When it has had its fill, it folds itself within a tent. Silk like superglue. A tiny hammock created for a tiny fleeting life.

Then, at night time, an aerial bombardment. The tremor of it pulses through the whole plant as a predator lands nearby. The drone of it. The brush of its black and yellow abdomen against its nest.

Three of its brothers are taken in their sleep. But that is just the way of things. Re-emerging as if no spine-chilling massacre has occurred, it returns itself to its interrupted feast.

A grain of rice. A fingernail. A broad bean. A half strand of liquorice. These are the staging posts of its growth. Eating, resting, eating some more. Blind faith compels it onwards. Total certainty in the reincarnation that is to come.

After three weeks, it senses that it is ready. No sensei to guide it, just an innate inner feeling of time and place.

Leaves are drawn together. Edges pasted with its adhesive silk until it is inside a Chinese lantern of cocooning foliage. Its chrysalis. A tomb for the caterpillar that is no more.

Inside is life suspended. Hanging upside down like a bat, it digests itself. Abdomen and thorax, prolegs and head all dissolved within a swamp of matter. Oozing, it is a soup of life and death.

The blueprint of its second self has always been there. It is the black box that survives the trauma of its decomposing. The recipe for its new existence.

Metamorphosis is destruction and rebirth. The amorphous broth is the low point fuelling the rapid division of microscopic cells according to nature’s detailed scheme. Legs and eyes and fluttering wings – here is a 3D printer that performs a miracle of design.

 

As time passes, the colours start to bleed through the outer covering. The hint of its patented patterning that gives it its common name. This is a signal of intent. The butterfly is ready to emerge.

A small crack at the base of the chrysalis, slowly pulsing like a resting heart. A pair of compound eyes peer outwards. Its proboscis tastes the air. From these tentative movements, its cradle rocks back and forth. Gradually, gravity does the rest.

Sliding downwards, panic imbues its alien body. Legs, which are gangly and weak, desperately cling to its cocoon to prevent it from falling to the earth. This is a fairground ride that it never expected. Violent back and forth swinging. Twisting in one direction and then the next. But when the motions stops, it starts to climb.

The realisation of its wings is a revelation. They are moist and soft to begin with and must be pumped with blood until they harden. Impatience. Waiting like a little child who is yearning to rip into his Christmas presents.

First flight is an aerial corkscrew of delight. Fluttering, flittering, free-flowing thrill of enthralling theatricality. It is enchanting and exhausting all at once.

There is no time to hang about, though. Nature impels it to learn quickly to find nectar; the fermenting flesh of a windfall apple lying on the ground.

Swooping with the wind, it avoids the dive-bombing bird who tries to snatch it in its beak. It banks away from the spider’s web of glistening dew. And remembers the buzzing of the wasp.

‘I am an Admiral now,’ it taunts them. Showing off its orange chevrons. The white stars that mark its rank.

When the time comes for the cycle to begin again, it lays its eggs on the upper side of a nettle leaf and abandons them to their fate.

 

One last dance in the evening sky, it thinks, before it feels its body start to slacken. The end times are approaching. Its fleeting existence flashes before its eyes.

An egg again. A larva rolling itself in its foliate nest. The psychedelic sarcophagus of the chrysalis. The resplendent flittering of its final stage.

It finds a branch on which to rest itself. Its wings fold themselves by its side. Through its faltering eyes, it soaks in one last vision of the multi-coloured world.

And then, ephemeral, it dies.