The Lesson


He was heart-broken.

Lessons in life land hard on 13-year-olds. Just out of childhood, they don't yet see things in the larger perspective, and small tragedies loom despairingly. Then again, do we ever really change?


It was a cute caterpillar that he found, as caterpillars go. Small, furry and friendly; nothing like its prickly, aggressive, tomato-eating cousin. So he kept it in a can, punching holes in the lid and feeding it; first on the Lilac leaves that came from Grandma's, then on bushes from home. The caterpillar ate and ate and ate, growing fat and happy.

Eventually "that feeling" overcame it, and, as caterpillars are wont to do, it spun a cocoon, settling down for a life-changing sleep. He watched over his little friend, cleaning out the unwanted leaves until there was just a twig, a few dried leaves, and the cocoon resting in the can. Every few days he would lift the lid and check the progress.


After a few weeks he left for camp.

On the day he returned the lid came off the can.

There inside, sitting on the twig and blinded by the sudden light, was a pure white moth. An inch long, with wings straight up, it waited. He admired this change, this new life that had emerged from the cocoon. A hatchling looking for freedom. Maybe he saw a bit of himself in that moth - emerging from childhood into the uncertainties of the adult world, new freedoms beckoning and threatening at the same time.

After looking at it for a while, he took the fledgling outside, into the freedom of the wide world. Out to the garden, where it could be free to find others of its own kind, to continue the chain of life.

He opened the can and pulled out the twig with its cargo. Released from a well-intentioned prison, the moth paused. On the cusp between confinement and freedom, it finally flexed its wings and bounded into the air. With a typical meandering flight, it wandered down the garden path.

"Fly, little moth, fly," went unsaid, but very much felt.


That's when Mother Nature, a realist if there ever was one, interrupted in the form of a bird. Swooping down from a perch on high, it nailed the infant moth dead on, sailing away with a tasty morsel and all of my son's joy.

Half a second was all it took to turn a delightful lesson in change and growth and life to a bitter, inconsolable lesson in death and destruction.

At times like this, no one wants or needs to hear the obvious. "Maybe you should have let it go in the front yard instead," or "Well, you had it for a while, anyway." Things we adults tend to say to fill the void.

No, this is a time for bereavement, consolation and solace. A time for holding his crushed and sobbing body silently as he grieves, and only saying softly, "It was a pretty rotten thing for that bird to do, wasn't it?"


A few days later I brought up the subject. I showed him where a single worm had reduced an entire tomato plant to two tomatoes and a stem. "Caterpillars eat our food, and we get mad at them. Most millers and flies and mosquitoes are food for the birds, and not very many survive long enough to lay eggs. The birds were just doing what they had to to live."


"You really liked that miller, didn't you?"

"Yes," he nodded. Then he added reflectively, "Maybe we could kill all the birds."


by Evan Barnum