* Welcome to The Big Jewel, where we prefer to celebrate the holidays with peculiar tales of caterpillar pets gone wrong. Please say hello to Tarja Parssinen, whose first piece for us is sure to warm your cold, cold heart.


By: Tarja Parssinen

I am pet-resistant.

This is a difficult thing to admit. An un-American thing. A cold-hearted bitch of a thing, but seeing as how I’m a cold-hearted bitch of a mom, you can understand, can’t you? Oh, come now, be reasonable. I’m already raising two wild things and I have to walk them and feed them and clean up poop every goddamn day. The good news is they’re lovable and don’t shed, the bad news is they slobber and track dirt in the house and hate leashes.

But in the same way that I get soaked to the bone every time I wear my stupid water-resistant jacket, being pet-resistant does not mean I’m pet-proof.

And that’s mainly because the five-year old hounds me on a daily basis for a hound, with the next best thing being “a turtle, and when that dies then a tortoise, and when that dies, then a fish.” (I’m slightly unnerved by the fact that my son can so easily imagine the demise of his pets, which leaves me wondering how he knows my poor track record with orchids so well.)

The child also happens to be bonkers for bugs, which are small and quiet and hairless, so I decide that’s how the wee Noah will start filling the ark of my home. I’m not crazy enough to jump straight into the Praying Mantis Egg Case kit, but why not a cup of live caterpillars that turn into butterflies and then you release them? Are you following me here? Pets that come with their own food, you enjoy them for two weeks, AND THEN THEY’RE GONE. The concept is so simple, so beautiful! Until a cup of five caterpillars — Ken, Len, Sten, Ben, and Den — arrives in a box that the UPS man dumps on the doormat and which my son then proceeds to kick around the house, forcing me to yell, “THOSE ARE LIVING, BREATHING CREATURES!”

As it turns out, Eric Carl was right: caterpillars are very tiny and very hungry. The first week was manageable (minus tiny hands that kept tapping the cup, shaking the cup, and covering the air holes of the cup), but it was evident to everyone that Den was a little slow on the uptake. Poor latch? Reflux? As long as he was inching along, I couldn’t be too concerned.

All I know is that on the seventh day, Len climbed to the roof of the cup like a motherfucking vampire and hung there. And that’s when things got weird.

Ken, Sten, and Ben followed their leader (Den decided to ascend later, being slow and all), and then the four of them hung down in the tell-tale “J” position JUST LIKE THE BROCHURE SAID THEY WOULD! One minute they were caterpillars and the next they were chrysalides. They had wrapped themselves up like tiny Tutankhamuns and hung there, still and silent on the kitchen counter.

I started having chrysalide anxiety dreams where I had either killed them or they had emerged. Life or death, they were both equally terrifying. I had to justify the strange cup to the cleaning lady, grandpa, the babysitter, the pizza delivery guy. “Science!” I would shrug, inwardly re-imagining Anne Rice books (Interview With the Caterpillar!) and the 1987 movie The Lost Boys (a gang of vampire caterpillars is up to no good, starring Corey Feldman as Den).

And then things got even weirder.

On the third day of the vampire stage, I was instructed to move the chrysalides from the cup to the butterfly habitat — to take the paper ceiling of the cup to which they were attached and tape it to the side of the habitat. Easy, right?

Except that when you touch the paper ceiling, their little mummified bodies start moving and twitching and freaking out BECAUSE THEY’RE LIVING, BREATHING CREATURES and so you try to do it fast and not to forget to remove all the string hanging around them because the butterfly wings could get stuck upon emergence and they could DIE but then Den falls off and you have to scoop his twitching body up with a spoon and shove it on the floor of the habitat and then tape the paper to the side, where they are all twitching so fast that the tape won’t stick and you’re whispering “DAMMIT DAMMIT DAMMIT!” and your son is yelling, “Don’t kill them, Mommy! Why did he fall off? Is he dead? Mommy! Mommy Mommy!”

When I’m done, I collapse on the couch, twitching and freaking out, but it’s done! I am so badass! Look at me care for animals! I’m like Jack Fucking Hannah! Of course, there’s the underlying fear that I’ve mortally injured Den and traumatized Ken, Len, Sten, and Ben, but I must radiate calm and positivity. “This is how it’s all supposed to be,” I tell my son.

And strangely enough, it is.

All five caterpillars complete metamorphosis and emerge not as Corey Haim with fangs and wings, but as normal butterflies. Despite all odds — the overpowering love of a five-year-old, the idiocy of his mother — they seem to be just fine. They even eat the nectar I prepared! The butterflies think I’m a great cook, despite the contrary beliefs of my entire family!

I am so dazzled with my abilities to assist fat, worm-like creatures transform into beings of sheer beauty, so anxious that they live in their natural habitat, that I bungle the release, sending them flying into the twilight air on a wing and a Mariah Carey butterfly joke.

“It’s kind of cold — can they survive?” my husband whispers.

“They’ll be fine, it just can’t be below 55 degrees,” I hiss.

“It’s going to be 52 tonight.”

Proving once and for all that if a butterfly flaps its wings in one part of the world — namely three feet away from you — it can, indeed, cause a hurricane. Of self-accusation and guilt.