THE TALE OF THE FAT CATERPILLARS
Randal Lee Cummings
Something was amiss among the caterpillars. What had begun as a vague intuition soon gave way to full-scale suspicion, and suspicion grew rapidly into wide-spread alarm. To say that the kingdom of caterpillars was close to panic would understate the situation. The common caterpillar on the street, the caterpillar in high places, the old and the young caterpillar alike were gripped with the soul-penetrating anxiety that seems always to accompany a deep-rooted fear of the unknown. Something was indeed amiss, and although everyone sensed it, no one could say exactly what it was.
Rumors naturally circulated. Some of them were so wild, however, that they tended to defuse the feasibility of the more credible rumors. Such rumors as the "giant-killer-cannibal-caterpillars from outer-space" or of a hypothetical war with the strange and foreign silkworms tended to counterbalance stories of plagues and a mysterious virus strain. The only real facts known to the general populace of caterpillars were concerning the relocation of cocoons.
For some reason a decision had issued from the highest authority to gather all cocoons into one central location; a location somewhat surreptitiously referred to as "the catacombs" by the workers who transported the cocoons there. Whenever questions arose as to why the cocoons were not left to lie-in-state until metamorphosis, as was customary according to the most ancient of caterpillar traditions, the official reply always came back vague and full of bureaucratic hems-and-haws, red-tape, and rhetoric. The eventual official reply was, of course, "We know what is best," and, "You will be fully apprised of anything you need to know if and when the situation warrants."
For some time this was how things stood. Eventually, however, this state of quandary and perpetual perplexity grew intolerable. Everyone knew of some caterpillar, quite often an elderly family member, who had "gone cocoon" only to be scuttled off immediately to the well-guarded but otherwise inaccessible "catacombs." Consequently, the enraged outcry of the news media and the persistent rabble-rousing of the out-of-power political parties forced the authorites, at the brink of social upheaval of the most extreme sort, to make the full facts known.
At six o'clock on a Tuesday morning the Prime-Minister beamed a state-of-caterpillardom message across all the caterpillar networks. The Prime-Minister's color was noticeably pale and his tone grave as he spoke. His notes trembled before him as he looked askance, seemingly searching for words:
"My friends and fellow caterpillars, we are now confronted with the worst catastrophe in the history of caterpillardom; a crisis that not only is reflected in our physical being, but one that may have deep spiritual implications as well. To inform you of the details of this grave situation, I give you Dr. Hans Offenmund from the Ministry of Health, Science, and Metamorphosis. Doctor..."
A dignified and somber caterpillar began to speak.
"Due to as yet unknown causes, certain physiological transformations are no longer being attained to our knowledge by any of our species. In fact, such transformations are apparently no longer possible.
"Quite obviously, this is of the greatest possible consternation to us all. I, myself, am not getting any younger, and, like all caterpillars, took it for granted that I would one day become a butterfly and with a pair of golden wings join my ancestors among the plains of flowers in the outer regions.
"There is no telling how this happened, it is the most mystifying mystery of my entire scientific life, but for some unfathomable reason the ability to become butterflies has left us." Pulling from a small satchel file-after-file of bound papers he continued to speak as he flipped through the pages.
"Case after case, experiment after experiment, we have tried to stimulate the process artificially, but to no avail; we are completely baffled. I am afraid to say, that once a caterpillar goes cocoon, instead of it being merely a temporary housing it is now to be an eternal sarcophagus. We are doomed to death without hope of butterflydom!"
At having concluded those words, the doctor collapsed, weeping, into the arms of the Prime-Minister.
Just as the announcement was unanticipated and unparalleled in the history of caterpillardom so too was the effect. The immediate result was an alarming number of attempted suicides, accompanied by an immediate and voluminous increase in alcoholic consumption. Drug abuse abounded in leaps and bounds. Some drugs so dulled the senses that the absence of an existence beyond this one became a concept too difficult to grasp. Other drugs induced the feeling that one was already a butterfly. No one reported to work, for no one wanted to get out of bed, so suddenly had life appeared as absolutely meaningless: a quirk in the unending reality of nothingness, a cruel joke at the hands of a blindly fathomless fate... Industry was at a standstill and the economy was headed for a nose-spiral crash, but no one cared.
In the midst of these symptoms of shock, indeed at the very peak of despair, a sudden spiritual revival swept the caterpillars as if by storm. A young evangelist had emerged with a message of hope and renewel.
"Now is no time to cry over spilt milk," he would say, "but a time for repentance of the sins which have led us into the spiritual decay that is the sole cause for our loss of grace!"
The words of the evangelist found a home in the hearts of great multitudes of caterpillars. The believers felt they would soon be led through their hour of need. New churches could scarcely be built fast enough to accommodate the new converts daily added to the faith. As the religious fervor grew, so did the economy, for the believers worked hard at earning money in order to build beautiful and mighty temples, complete with kitchen facilities and fellowship halls.
As the power and influence of the evangelist increased, he began to promise his converts that they would all soon be transformed into butterflies. However, after a great length of time went by without anyone changing into butterflies, and the cocoons kept piling up, skeptics began to arise. Those who never accepted the faith now had something to live for: They could point with laughter at the "believers."
As the strength and fervor of religious conviction began to wane, concern was expressed among the higher officials of the faith. To put the tension at ease and to stop the schisms that were at work and, not least of all, to silence the voice of the skeptics, the leader let it be known that he had been contacted by a messenger from the Realm of Butterflydom.
"I have been given permission for which I have long been praying," he said, "I will perform a miracle that will once and for all eradicate doubt and establish the authenticity of the One True Faith."
Dressed in the robes of a high priest, before the largest gathering of caterpillars ever assembled and the representatives of all the major networks and news media, the leader prepared to pass through a blazing oven.
"From which, " he stated, "I will return without a singe to the least of my furry caterpillar hairs."
He was burned to a crisp...
Although some of the firmer believers maintained the faith, their numbers were few. (So few in fact, that they all became fabulously wealthy when they eventually converted the vast properties of the church into capital and invested it in private enterprise, thus coining the term "caterpillar-work-ethic," but that is another story...)
For that great majority who quickly turned from the faith, Butterflydom was indeed no longer a hope, but, they were much too overcome by their own feelings of foolishness to dwell on the ramifications of meaningfulness, or , lack of it, to their lives. Besides, no one had ever fully believed that this religion could do for them what science could not.
One night, on a popular talk show, a prominent psychologist attempted to put into perspective all the events that had transpired since the Prime-Minister' s catastrophic announcement:
"As a result of the tremendous void left in the psyche of most of our species due to the loss of an existence beyond this one, countless caterpillars sought a means by which this void could be filled. Compelled by feelings of emptiness, these caterpillars saw the solution to their problem in the form of a religion. Of course, this did not solve anything, but, as they say, ' A drowning caterpillar will grasp at straws.'
"Perhaps this religion was a necessary crutch to aid them over a dire psychological dilemma. But, I think the danger is over now as we realize that we still have this life to live for and to make the most of, and, afterall, it's not such a bad life."
The words of this psychologist found such a home in the hearts of the caterpillars that they soon became the catch-phrases and toasts of caterpillar society as a whole.
The mass realization that this was the only existence pervaded all aspects of the caterpillars' social, philosophical, and economic endeavors. Caterpillardom was no longer viewed as a waiting period for a richer existence in the beyond. In fact, the acknowledgement that there ever had been something "beyond" came to their minds as some far fetched myth. Life was that all too short period into which one was to pack as many pleasurable experiences as possible. The demand for new and more exciting experiences was even further stimulated by manufacturers and their advertising firms. Such slogans as, "You've only one life to live, so grab all the gusto while you can," became highly popularized creeds.
The pleasurable experience became the benchmark and standard of practically everything. Pleasure was the basis for friendship and was possibly the most essential element in love. Since social position largely determined the consistency and degree-of-intensity of the pleasures to be enjoyed, every caterpillar in its right mind sought the higher positions and would do anything to attain them. It often seemed, however, that no matter what goals one achieved, there were always more to be attained "just up ahead." Whatever stress resulted could always be analyzed, tranquilized, or anesthetized, and, thus, managed.
So, fun was pleasure, pleasure was happiness and the goals society began to instill in her young all orbited around a life in which the most amount of pleasure could be achieved with the greatest amount of comfort. Was not life itself a game with the rewards hopefully outweighing the pitfalls? The unwritten cardinal rule was: "Anything goes, as long as you don't get caught or lose the approval of those you can gain the most from."
As it often happens, however, no matter how well established the patterns, no matter how strong the currents, there appears that creature who has to run against the grain and swim against the stream no matter what everyone else seems to be doing. Perhaps it is simply a law of the cosmos that every species must at some time or another manifest its unique and different individual. However that may be, for the caterpillars, Arzo Ralli was certainly the one caterpillar who marched to the beat of a different drum, a fact that is well emblazoned on the memory of all caterpillars to this day.
Arzo Ralli was of the generation of caterpillars who knew nothing of real butterflies except as fanciful nursery stories, yet even long after his larva stage, he persisted in drawing pictures and writing poems and little songs about them. Rather than playing "Climb the Ladder of Success" he would much rather read the old stories that had long since fallen out of vogue.
"It's an impediment to his socialization skills," his teachers used to say. In fact, the one fragment preserved from his early stages was recorded by his analyst when he was finally put into therapy as a result of some of his teachers' prodding.
When asked why he was not orienting himself to chase the dream of the good life like the rest of his contemporaries, Arzo Ralli answered, "So what if I could have hot-and-cold-running-everything right when I wanted? Would I be happy? What if possessing the cornucopia does not measure up to the dreams and fantasies which drove me so hard to achieve it? Insatiability can never be satisfied, it's just the bottomless pit at the end of a never-ending vacuum. Instead of these games that drive us I think we should spend our time on things that build, things that help us grow spiritually. That would be the master game, that would be life." Arzo Ralli was deemed to be eccentric, but harmless.
Much to the surprize of many of his former teachers, Arzo Ralli actually graduated from a small caterpillar college and went on to become a successful writer of social satire.
His satires often displayed the rich merchant whose beautiful and slinky wife could not be faithful for a minute, whose employees robbed him blind, whose friends (the best money could buy) slandered him behind his back and under his nose, whose doctor was a money hungry quack. The mechant himself, however, never caught wind of any of this and even thanked his lucky stars for being so blessed in life. The crowds would roar with laughter at this bumbling idiot who greatly resembled someone they themselves knew.
Arzo Ralli's satires were huge hits. Political buffoons, snot-nosed snobs, elitist clowns, status-symbol whackos, hyper-pious bigots, were all characters who could not escape unscathed from Arzo Ralli's sarcastic wit. Eventually he began to appear on the late-night talk shows which were very popular among the caterpillars.
On one of the shows, Arzo Ralli stopped short in the midst of casual chit-chat about his latest project to predict that a blazing meteor would strike a power transformer outside the city.
"No one will be seriously injured," he said, "but there will be a total blackout for seven hours."
Arzo Ralli was immediately labeled a "kook" by the gossip columns and caterpillars everywhere could not stop talking about what a fool he had made of himself, that is, until the meteor struck and everything was exactly as he had said.
Talk shows could not wait to have him back, for now he was deemed to have "psychic powers of the most prophetic proportions." This time he appeared on a mid-afternoon show, which were also very popular among the caterpillars. No one missed the opportunity to tune-in the show that day.
The hostess was gracious and slinky, charming and curious as she introduced and began to interview Arzo Ralli.
"Arzo," she peered scrutinizingly, in a sexy-sort-of-way, "How did you...how did you know about that meteor? It seems, so the astronomers tell us, that it could only have been seen from the dark-side of the moon. Have you been there lately? Is this some kind of miracle or what?"
Arzo Ralli smiled as he spoke.
"Well," he said, "I compare it to sitting on the pinnacle of a hill with, say, your friends at the bottom. Now from that perspective you see a herd of elephants that your friends can't see so you call down to them and say, 'Hey! There's a bunch of baby elephants coming your way.' Now, when they get there it would not be so much of a miracle as it would be of a vantage point from which to see. My mind was at such a vantage point that I could 'see' the meteor."
"But how do you do that?"
"Well, the first step is to know what is possible, then, with firm discipline of mind and body, to pursue the possible. By the way, that sometimes works with the impossible as well."
"How do you know all this?" asked the somewhat puzzled hostess.
"A butterfly told me."
The mouth of the hostess dropped open. The other guests suddenly became attentive.
"Could you explain what you mean? I am sure you do not mean a real butterfly, I mean, nobody believes in butterflies. You're speaking symbolically, right?"
"You know, that's the trouble; nobody believes in anything anymore." Arzo Ralli winked at the hostess as he playfully nudged the guest next to him.
"You're quite a jokester," laughed the hostess, "can you imagine telling somebody you saw a butterfly? Whew! But, seriously, now, Arzo have you had any more visions lateley that you could share with us?"
"Oh, yes, I did have one dream last night which seemed rather significant, but in the excitement of being on the show and all, it seems to have slipped my mind. Now, what was it? Oh, yes. I dreamed the sun exploded engulfing our entire solar system."
The studio was filled with the sound of gasping. Several caterpillars grasped their hearts and many of the older ones fainted, some looking as though they were ready to "go cocoon" right on the spot.
"Good grief!" screamed the hostess, "What can we do?"
"Oh, just replace the old sun with a new one before it goes out," chuckled Arzo Ralli.
The hostess turned and eyed him coldly, "I am afraid your joke is in rather bad taste. You really scared the life out of a lot of us."
"Well, that's only because you all take life too seriously. What if the end did come tomorrow? It's got to come sometime. It certainly would be a solution to over-population, not to mention the drug problem. It's funny, every caterpillar I know lives like there is no tomorrow but expects to go on like that for a million years."
Some of the guests made obvious grimaces of displeasure and whispered among themselves. One turned his head and snapped sharply at Arzo Ralli, "It's easy to criticize others for wanting to cling to something they enjoy. I suppose you plan on 'going cocoon' tonight."
"Actually, death, if that's what you mean, is one disease I am not going to catch from the rest of you. As a larva, I caught your colds and I almost caught your insanity."
"Insanity!" screamed the hostess. "Look who' talking about insanity. Your brain's 'gone cocoon' already!"
"I'm sorry to have offended you, but, I really must be going."
Arzo Ralli began to glow, his furry caterpillar skin seemed to be dropping from him. From out of the skin Arzo Ralli emerged in the form of a multi-colored, dazzlingly brilliant butterfly.
"You see," he said, "it is possible to become a butterfly, yet."
With a wave of his wings, Arzo Ralli was on his way out of the studio.
"Don't worship me!" he cried to the throng of astonished, fat caterpillars, "Just follow me!"