“Caterpillar”

When my baby was born, I told everyone he looked like a caterpillar. My friends and even my husband thought it was funny at first, but I knew the head nurse didn’t like it. Every time I said, Please bring me my little caterpillar, she’d reprimand me with her strict nurse-like eyes and say, I can certainly bring you your little baby, with lots of emphasis on the word baby.

After three days of this—after all, my caterpillar didn’t crawl out of me but was cut out with a pair of scissors—I grew frustrated.

I said loudly to the nurse as she came into my room that third morning, Please hand me my caterpillar, with lots of emphasis on the syllables cat and pill.

The nurse stood there at the foot of my bed with her hands on her hips. She made me feel helpless and sad as if I were just five years old pretending to be a mother to a baby who was really just a doll.

My eyes filled with bubbles of water that distorted her figure until all I could see was a formless blue object in front of me with a pink bubble-gum head.

The nurse sighed loudly and said, Why do you call your baby a caterpillar?

The bubbles of water tumbled forward and down and I could see her a little better again.

I said, I can call him what I want, and he is a caterpillar to me.

Caterpillars are ugly, she said. Ugly little worms. They are grubs, you know. And it’s not but a short slide from grubs to maggots.

Well, I don’t call my baby a grub, I said. Or a maggot.

But a caterpillar equals grub equals maggot, she said.

No, it doesn’t, I insisted.

And so she left my room with a strong puff of air. I was sure the nurse muttered the word Kafka under her breath as she left, but my husband said that that was highly improbable.

I never saw the nurse again during my short stay in the hospital. I guess she only wanted to go into rooms where mothers had delivered babies that weren’t caterpillars.

I began to wake in the night thinking of this nurse, especially in the moments when my husband handed me my crying caterpillar in the dark comfort of our home. I sometimes imagined that the silhouette beside my bed handing me my baby was not my husband but was the nurse who reprimanded me for calling my baby a caterpillar.

I started looking for the nurse in the eyes of the many people who lived in our town, and even started doing research on caterpillars in case I ever ran into her on the street. And everyone knows what I then knew: that grubs live below ground and caterpillars above. Something like that anyway. I only looked at children’s websites because I really didn’t want a lot of detail. I didn’t even check into the maggot dilemma.

I was sure I’d walk by the nurse one day as I was out pushing my caterpillar in his colorful stroller on our long open-air walks. And I knew exactly what I would do. I’d call out to her to stop, and then I’d lift my baby from the stroller and hold him up as I said what I had to say. I sort of laughed when I thought about it, and decided it might be a nice touch if I held her wrist firmly when I said it, too.

But then something happened about a year after my caterpillar was born.

Someone—probably me—had scraped some food from our dinner plates that missed its intended terminus. The food must have sat there for days behind the trashcan in the boiling hot weather.

My husband called me over to look.

A mass of small grubs—my husband called them maggots—had wriggled into our home and were feasting on our leftovers, writhing and rolling in the rotting food in the way that dogs sometimes roll around in squirrel feces.

Well, my husband said, laughing, now you know what a maggot looks like. He pulled me close at the waist and laughed again, saying, I’m certainly glad you don’t call our little beast a maggot.

I looked at him, confused. How had these faceless, eyeless, voiceless creatures found their way into the corner of our kitchen? Where had the come from? Had they popped into being from the food itself? Or did they crawl in through the door from outside? And why did they need this food when there was food of other kinds out there in the world, in other homes and yards and forests?

And why was my husband laughing at me?

I looked over at my baby in the living room. He was leaning into the edge of the sofa holding two blocks in his hands. He seemed to be thinking about something with a great deal of seriousness.

And in that very moment, seeing how my baby was standing upright and all, I stopped calling my caterpillar caterpillar.

But there are times I can’t help thinking of my baby’s continued caterpillarness, especially on nights when it is exceptionally dark and the weather has turned cold. On these nights I go in to check on my baby and see his small figure sprawled out as if he is trying to take up as much space in the world as possible. I marvel at how soundly he sleeps there on his stomach with his trucks and dolls tucked in beside him in his big guy bed.

Quietly, I sit down beside him in the sleeping dark and listen to him breathe with the long earthy breaths that dreaming toddlers own.

And as my eyes adjust to the dark, I begin to see the wiggling beneath my small son’s bareback shoulders. I bend down to examine the soft wriggling of these miniature webs and feel certain that they are just about to unfold into dryness.

Sometimes I touch them gingerly. They are moist and sting with energy.

It is then that I whisper to my sleeping baby, It won’t be long, my little caterpillar.

It is then that I find myself standing in the open-light street and I am staring at the nurse and she is nodding at me and it is not just me who is smiling. She is smiling too and she is touching my arm. We are both smiling and looking up and she is rubbing my arm and holding my wrists gently. And I don’t feel so sad. We are both nodding.

About Andrea Witzke Slot

Andrea Witzke Slot writes poetry, fiction, essays, and academic work, and is particularly interested in the places in which cultures, ideas, and genres intersect. She is author of the poetry collection To find a new beauty (Gold Wake Press, 2012), and her work is forthcoming or has recently appeared in such places as Spoon River Poetry Review, Southeast Review, Poetry East, Nimrod, Mid-American ReviewBellevue Literary Review, and The Chronicle of Higher Education, while her academic work on poetry and social change has been included in books published by SUNY Press (2013) and Palgrave Macmillan (2014). She’s been a finalist, runner-up, and honorable mention in several recent writing awards, including Southeast Review’s Gearhart Poetry Prize, Black Lawrence Press’s Hudson Award for her second book of poetry, AROHO’s Clarissa Dalloway book prize for her first novel, and the 2014 Calvino Prize for her short fiction. She lives between Chicago and London.