I was eight years old the year our home got covered in caterpillars.
Well, not our home, really. But our property. They were everywhere in the flower gardens, the grass, the driveway. Tall, stalky holly hocks stood sentinel around the garage, and they turned furry with black-and-orange woolly bear caterpillars. You had to be careful where you stepped in the gravel around the cars; the little white caterpillars blended in with the rocks. The solid orange ones stood out wherever they went. The solid black ones blended in to nooks and crannies.
It was late summer when they started turning up. The season was warm but not the stiflingly hot that usually comes with late August in Illinois.
On a Sunday afternoon, while Mom tended her flower garden, I sat nearby in a patch of dirt, petting a collection of fuzzy caterpillars. I had scouted the yard throughout the afternoon, plucking caterpillar-bearing leaves off plants and leaving a pile of caterpillars in my dirt patch. Few of them bothered to escape — they seemed content to sit on their leaves, regardless of whether the leaf was attached to a plant or deposited in bare yard.
I remember having a bounty of caterpillars, although in reality I probably only had four or five. To my eight-year-old self, that was a lot. Content with my efforts to round up furry-crawly playmates, I sat down to pet them and play with them.
Except when I touched them, they curled up and no longer moved.
I could only assume I had killed them. We were always told not to touch butterfly wings because we might hurt them. Caterpillars turned into butterflies, so it made sense that touching a caterpillar might also hurt or kill them.
Grabbing a stick, I dug a series of graves in the dirt, all in a row. I dumped a caterpillar in each grave, then covered it up.
It was in the burial process that my older sister came outside and spotted my digging — and burying something — in the dirt. In true nosy older sister form, she approached me and asked what I was doing.
“Burying my caterpillars,” I said.
“Why?” she asked.
“Because they’re dead.”
“Did you squish them?”
“No. I touched them. They curled up and died.”
At this point, she raised her voice to tell me caterpillars weren’t dead when they curled up; they did that out of defense because they’re scared.
Fortunately for the caterpillars, my graves were shallow. One had already risen like a zombie and was inching away, dirt shaking off its fur with every step. I dug out a few more — a white one had turned completely gray with grime as it crawled away.
One had to be reburied, though. The afternoon’s events proved to kill it after all.
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