Monday, February 16, 2009

Winter Butterfly

     O green caterpillar, I came upon you on a twig in July; I fed you blackthorn leaves (which you ate so seriously and ardently, as though they were the only task at hand), and with such unceasing appetite; finally you were fat, pretty to behold and golden as a pear. Then you hung yourself up by a thread on the branch and focused yourself inwardly; giving yourself to stupor, immobile, inert towards everything—you had one goal before you. And one morning it was all ready: an angular chrysalis hung on the branch which resembled a knight’s shield.

     I am recalling this all now because I had completely forgotten the green chrysalis stashed since summer in cotton batting until he began to rustle in his box just last night. You have come out, beautiful swallowtail, you emerged fitfully and shook your dapper wings. Perhaps you might not want to take wing in the middle of the Czech winter? You tremble in excitement, unfold your delicate wings, run about, flap those wings sharply and impatiently and fall. Aren’t you a weakling! If I had wings… I’ll start again. Your little wings quivered, all awhirl as you ran along the edge of the table, and rose up bodily on your gallant little legs, headed for that electric Sun, O little Icarus!1 You fell to earth like a dried leaf, like a discarded scrap of paper, like a wisp in a storm.

     The butterfly sits on my finger, newly born. He unfolds his antennae, exercizes them in a game of perception, stands on his legs and studies; his golden-black wings beat uncertainly and steadily in the exciting moment just before takeoff. The little body is rising, the legs scarcely touching my finger, it only has to let go and —are we flying? The whole delicate figure of the butterfly’s body shakes with zeal. The wings jerk, and this golden leaf crumples passively to the ground.

     A butterfly was born to me yesterday and taught me how to fly. Now it sits facing the window, mangy, wings battered. This big four-cornered thing might be the sun. The big hot thing in the corner might also be the sun. The swallowtail knows nothing except the desire to fly. I found him on the ground twenty times. His wings do not tremble any more with the fever of flight. It is an agony of enthusiasm. He only occasionally tries to take off and falls down in a somersault. Such a tiny instant of flight! Now it is sad to watch a butterfly learn. He sits, impatiently walking at times, beating his wings, but he seems resolved. “The weather’s not right. You can only fly when it is nice out, when the sun is shining on butterflies. I’ll wait for the sun.” This morning he will lie on his side and be done for.

     It is true, little butterfly, that the weather is not right even for us, (you know, for people, who are only just large and gluttonous caterpillars). Perhaps we are as confused in the date as you are, and have suddenly begun to beat our wings enthusiastically, by the thousands, in the middle of the Czech winter. We all have such wings in ourselves — you, called Psyche in classical language,2 must understand this. We feel wings in ourselves and want to soar in flights of freedom. We even tremble in anticipation. And we we have fallen so many times that your little legs are not enough to count them all. It wasn’t the right weather for flying and you can only fly when it’s nice out.

     One more moment, little butterfly, before you lie on your side. It isn’t the right weather, and it isn’t even that flying is so hard—on the contrary, it is such a natural thing. Discussing things, however, is not flying, and if that sentence doesn’t quite hang together, it is because we have fallen on our heads. Must we wait for better weather? Must we renounce everything as you have? Many caterpillars have done so, but I think that they are not right. You’re alone, and have no friend, no female, but there are so many of us big caterpillars, so very many, that we can do something. We cannot fly any more, but we can begin to make better weather. If every caterpillar spins out one sunbeam, then what a large sun we would have! And what then would be easier than spreading one’s wings—

     The winter butterfly falls on its side.



1 Icarus (Ikaros) -- Hero of a Greek myth, who boldly flew to the sun on wings of feathers and wax.
2 [The original has "in Latin" where "psyche" is Greek. I feel more kindly disposed towards Čapek than translating precisely and tossing in a (sic)]


Wendy Whaples Scully said...

Excellent- I was able to visualize it perfectly....

Andrew said...

I am pleased, then, at two things:

1) The quality of Čapek's writing.

2) My modest skills at bringing it across