The Woolly Worm: A Very True and Real Story

Meesha and Rog/Roy

‘Oh, I’m at home in these woods,’ she sang, twirling through the last leaf greens, the new yellows, the old oranges, and those rarified reds. The chill October air about us was fresh lilac and forever pine, and it buzzed with busy bees closing up shop, and little late-season flyers, those that bite and the rest who whistle in your ear. Hazy white beams of sun broke through the canopy, catching Meesha in the shimmery pillars. She pranced the forest floor, springy with millennia of old tree trunk, lost mosses, mycelium highways, and the unplanned graves of countless critters. And now she leapt and called out, ‘Ah!’ and then, ‘Sorry, little guy!’

Meesha bent down and waved me over. ‘A wee one!’ she laughed. 

We watched a woolly caterpillar, dressed in black and ruddy orange fuzz, slink its way across the trail. 

‘I almost crushed him,’ she said. Meesha reached down and took the hairy bug in her hand. Quickly it crawled up and down the hills and valleys of her knuckles, between her fingers, around her wrist, and up her sleeve, before Meesha urged the caterpillar back into daylight. 

She held up the bug to her face and chirped, ‘Hello.’ 

The fuzzy bug raised its head, seeming to examine her face, which must have been the visage of a gentle titan gazing down affably. The caterpillar rounded itself a few times and lay down to sleep.

‘Like a little dog,’ Meesha squealed with joy. ‘I shall pet you,’ she said and ran her pinky across the body of the bug with care. 

The woolly worm’s tiny mouth opened wide and closed. 

‘He ya-a-a-awned,’ Meesha whispered. Tears welled in her eyes. ‘My boy. I will tuck him into my hood and keep him there, very warm, until he wakes and wishes to go on his own again.’ She smiled at me, the tears still balancing on her bottom eyelids. Her joy was radiating. 

Soon the frizzy caterpillar was snug within Meesha’s hood. A light snore emanated from its sleeping place. ‘Aw, he’s so adorable,’ she said. 

‘What’s his name?’ I asked.

‘Roy,’ she answered without hesitation. 

We trounced on, I with my binoculars (a birthday gift from Meesha: ‘To find all the birds!’) and Meesha with her slumbering woolly worm. 

We climbed a hill that overlooked Grimtown. Up there, free from shadows, the sun was finally warm. We sat on the exposed rock and pulled sandwiches from our pack. We ate and breathed in the air mixing with our lunch. There was a certain mintiness and earthiness added to every bite. Neither of us complained. 

‘Roy is just the best,’ Meesha said, some minutes later.

‘I can’t think of a better caterpillar,’ I concurred. 

‘How is he in there?’ she asked.

I peeked into her hood and there lay Roy, snoozing and drooling his bug drool. ‘He’s cool as a cucumber,’ I told her.

She smiled. ‘Probably dreaming about being a flutterby someday.’

I finished my sandwich, gazing out onto the town below us. All our lives spent down there, all our love grown, all our houseplants and socks. I lifted the binoculars to my eyes. Meesha turned to me. She laughed. I had the binoculars aimed right at her. She pushed them away. 

I searched the autumn skies for autumn birds. Ospreys were passing each other, exchanging quick words with every flyby.

___________________

At home, Meesha was busy in the kitchen fixing up a dinner for Roy. She wasn’t sure what woolly bears ate, so she scrounged together a dish of lettuce and zucchini and broccoli. Roy watched her from the counter where he waited curiously. Meesha smiled at him while she fixed his meal. Once she was satisfied with the selection of greenery for Roy, she lifted him carefully in her hand and they sat together at the dining table. Roy crawled onto his plate and ate some lettuce.

‘He’s eating,’ she called out to me. I joined them, sitting between the caterpillar and Meesha. 

‘His first meal with us,’ she said with a giant smile on her face. ‘These are the moments we’ll remember.’ 

‘I’ll take a picture,’ I said.

______________________

Meesha made a bed of cotton balls for Roy on the night table beside our bed.

‘Only the best for our boy,’ she said and smiled at the woolly bear sitting on her pillow. Meesha fluffed the cotton balls, making sure his bed was as soft as could be. ‘Do you think he’ll need a blanket?’ she asked.

‘Maybe,’ I said. ‘He is quite furry though. He might be warm enough as is.’

‘I’ll give him a blanket made of tissues, just in case.’ She pulled a tissue from the box on the night table and folded it to the right size for Roy. ‘We’ll sleep without the overhead fan on too. Don’t wanna make Roy too cold.’

I looked over at Roy on Meesha’s pillow. He was staring up at her. With adoration? It seemed so.

Meesha tucked the woolly bear into his cotton bed. I turned off the lights. Roy was snoring before either of us.

_______________________

At some point in the night I woke up with a full bladder. I slid out of bed and made my way down the hall to the bathroom. The dining room light was on. I stopped. I knew I had shut it off before we all went into the bedroom. I glanced around the corner into the dining room. I didn’t see anyone. Living in the city, I was very paranoid of a break-in. The apartment was silent. There was no home invader.

I must have thought I turned off the light. I could be somewhat forgetful. I continued on my way to the bathroom. I completed my urinary duties and flushed. 

Back down the hallway and into the dining room. I had my hand on the light switch, ready to sink the room into midnight. My hand faltered. 

‘Roy?’ I said.

At the dining table, the woolly bear sat on the edge. Just sitting there, but seeming more alive than I had ever taken a caterpillar for. 

‘Roy,’ I said again, and this time he looked up at me. ‘What are you doing out here?’ I asked, instantly questioning myself for asking a question of an insect. 

‘I couldn’t sleep,’ he replied. 

I sat down in a chair beside him. I gazed at him. 

‘My name isn’t Roy, by the way,’ he said. ‘It’s Rog. Short for Roger.’ His voice was soft as summer grass, warm as August wind. 

‘Rog is really close to Roy,’ I told him. 

‘It is,’ he admitted. ‘It’s like she knew me. Meesha.’ He said her name with a lovely sigh.

‘Why can’t you sleep?’ I asked.

‘I often can’t.’

I watched the bug on the table. 

‘I don’t want to change,’ he said. Before I could ask, he elaborated: ‘To a moth. I don’t want to be a moth.’

‘You’ll be able to fly,’ I offered.

Rog/Roy shook his head. ‘No, I don’t want that.’

‘I don’t think you have a choice, unfortunately,’ I said. ‘I think becoming a moth is just…part of your process. Like all the processes you’ve been through so far.’

‘I am just a series of processes,’ Rog/Roy lamented.

‘Life is a journey?’ I don’t know why I said it as a question.

‘The journey brought me here, to her,’ he said. ‘I’m happy with this being the finale. There is no need to fly.’

‘Come on,’ I whispered, ‘let’s go back to bed.’

Rog/Roy didn’t move. He had turned to look out the window. Orange streetlights flooded the nightscape. ‘Alright,’ he agreed, and I let him slink onto my hand and to bed we returned. He settled onto his cotton ball mattress, snoring himself to sleep.

_______________________

In the morning, Meesha woke me with a start. She was crying, ‘What’s wrong with Roy?’ 

I leaned over in bed. There was Rog/Roy in his cotton ball bed, curled up and unmoving. 

‘Is he dead?’ Meesha asked, poking his bitty body. He rolled in the cotton ball bed but didn’t unfurl. 

I had to think for a moment and then I realized. ‘He’s on the next leg of his journey,’ I said.

Meesha looked back at me, her face sodden and furrowed with confusion. ‘His journey?’

‘He’s becoming a moth,’ I told her.

Her head jerked back toward Rog/Roy, inert in his bed. ‘He’s not dead,’ she mumbled. ‘He’s becoming a moth.’

I hugged Meesha, and her body, which had been ever so rigid and timorous, sank into me, and she cried still, until she fell back to sleep.

_____________________

Laying in his cotton ball bed, Rog/Roy formed a cocoon and pupated. Meesha and I, we could do nothing but wait and wonder.

______________________

Rog/Roy emerged from his cocoon on the afternoon of November 1st, 2023. First, he thrust a leg through the leaf thin wall, then another leg, an antenna, an eye peeked out through a crack, and before the sun could go down, Rog/Roy sprang forth from his pupation a fully formed moth. He glowed a deep yellow in the setting sun’s light, dotted with black spots across his thorax and wings. From woolly caterpillar to isabella tiger moth, for that’s what he had officially become—Meesha had done some research.

Rog/Roy fluttered into Meesha’s cupped hands and sat there for some time while she doted on her now-moth friend. We ate dinner together that night, Rog/Roy with his tiny plate of grass and leaves, specially prepared by Meesha. We lit a few candles and played music on the record player through the evening, it was an occasion to remember. But as the night wore on, we found that Rog/Roy kept flying to the closed dining room window and pressing himself against it.

‘He probably wants some fresh air,’ Meesha suggested and opened the window. Rog/Roy stepped across the window sill and leaned against the screen, his little fingers through the holes. It was a warm night for November, and the southern breeze ruffled Rog/Roy’s fuzzy hair. 

‘It’s getting late,’ Meesha said, standing up.

‘I’ll sit out here with him a little longer,’ I told her, gesturing to Rog/Roy against the window screen. ‘He seems to be enjoying the night air.’

‘Don’t stay up too late, you two,’ she warned us and smiled. Meesha disappeared down the hallway and into the bedroom. 

Thirty minutes passed, maybe more. 

‘How is it?’ I asked Rog/Roy.

He looked back but didn’t take his hands off the screen. ‘The wings? They’re interesting.’

‘How’s flying?’

He thought about it and said, ‘I guess it’s something.’

We stared at each other until he looked away, back into the nightland beyond. 

‘You’ve been at that window for a while,’ I pointed out. 

‘Yeah,’ he said.

‘It can be pretty brutal out there,’ I told him. I wasn’t lying.

‘Yeah,’ was all he said again, and there was quiet. The fan in the bedroom down the hall droned. 

I said, ‘She’s gonna be really sad.’

‘I know,’ said Rog/Roy.

‘You told me you were happy with this being your finale.’

‘Now I can fly.’

‘That never interested you before. You said so yourself.’

The breeze blew around and under his wings, lifting them. He settled them back down. ‘I know.’

I stood up and walked to the window. I looked down at the moth against the screen. ‘She’s gonna miss you terribly.’

He said something but I’m not sure what.

I reached down and opened the window screen.

Rog/Roy careened into the night, flying in the drunken way moths fly. I’m not sure what isabella tiger moths seek, what their purpose is—it was Meesha, after all, who did the research. Someday I would ask her, after her many tears dried up and her shattered heart mended, I would ask her.

Meesha and our friend, Rog/Roy, the woolly worm

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