Skip to main content.

Isabella Tigermoth by Charles Allen Wyman
published in Volume 8, Issue 1 on July 1st, 2001

Gerald Sooth Cripplekins woke one Monday morning to find that he had been miraculously transformed into a large caterpillar. While many boys his age would have been frightened or at the very least taken aback by the curious metamorphosis, Gerald handled it in a most serene manner. He casually oozed his way from the bed to the floor and paraded vainly in front of the mirror, preening the black and brown filaments that covered his newly fuzzed body. He announced to himself, in a very proud voice, "I am quite a fuzzy caterpillar, indeed."

When he was called down for breakfast, he chose not to respond, thinking it quite out of character for a furry young larva to be yelling across the house. After ignoring a series of progressively threatening "Gerald"s, he heard his motherís shoes on the stairs. A moment later, the door jerked open.

"Gerald! Just what do you thinkó" His mother cut the reprimand short when she saw him lying on the rug. "Oh my God, are you all right?"

"Of course I am, Mummy. Iíve just turned into a caterpillar, thatís all."

"A what?"

"A caterpillar, of course. Why do you think I have no arms and have these fuzzy hairs coming out all over my body?"

His mother did not see a large caterpillar scrunching its way across the floor; she saw only an extremely naughty boy who was running late for school.

"Gerald, you are not a caterpillar. Now get up off that floor and get ready for school! Good God, youíre not even dressed yet!" She grabbed the boy by the shoulders and went to lift him, but he let out such a terrible howl that she released her grip and backed off a step.

"Owww, Mummy, no! No! I am a caterpillar! I am-I am-I am! And now youíve hurt my gentle fuzziness!"

The fact that Gerald was usually a quiet, studious child made the outburst seem all the more unexpected and strange. As Martha Cripplekins glanced about the room looking for causal factors and excuses, her gaze tripped over the book on the bedside table. A quick read of the title caused a simmering expression to bubble in her eyes. Thrusting her head into the hallway, she yelled aggressively down its length.

"Herbert!"

Her husbandís lackadaisical "What?" came floating down from the bathroom.

"Come here, please!" It was a steam-broiled flavor of "please."

"Martha, Iím shaving."

"Would you get in here this minute!"

Gerald scrunched a bit further from the door as his father came grumbling down the corridor in response to the Voice of Command.

"What-what-what? Okay, Iím here," Herbert Cripplekins said as he entered the room, his face half-coated in Barbasol. "Whatís the big deal?"

"Thatís the big deal." She pointed at Gerald.

"What about him? Oh. Why, um Ö why is he lying on the floor?"

Martha crossed her arms and fixed her husband with an accusing look. "He thinks heís a caterpillar."

Herbertís eyebrows began to resemble caterpillars themselves as they slowly inched up his forehead. The vaguest hint of conscience could be seen establishing itself beneath his rapidly blinking lids, but a solitary "Ah" was all he offered in response.

His wife was on the remark instantly. "ĎAh?í ĎAh?í For Christís sake, Herbert, I told you a boy of eleven shouldnít be reading Kafka! Oh, but no, ĎBut the boyís intelligent, Marthaí; ĎHe wants to read it, Marthaí; ĎDonít treat him like a child, Marthaí. Okay Herbert, you got your wishĺ heís not a child anymore! Heís a caterpillar Ö and I hope the two of you will be very happy together, because I am going to work!" Her mouth twisted into a manic caricature of a smile as she marched out. The heavy door slammed behind her.

Geraldís father gazed at the closed door for several reflective seconds before turning to regard his son.

"So. Weíre a caterpillar, are we?"

"Yes, Father."

"I see. Now Gerald, I realize that the book I gave you may be a hair beyond your present powers of comprehensionó"

"Oh, donít be silly, Father," the boy interjected. The senior Cripplekins relaxed and felt that he had assessed the childís intellectual development correctlyĺ until Gerald added the qualifier. "Caterpillars donít read books."

"Caterpillars also donít get to eat ice cream or go to the movies oró" The door opened behind him as he chastised his son. It was Geraldís younger brother, Simon. "What do you want, Simon? Ohóand they get eaten by birds too, Gerald."

"Itís time for Gerry and me to leave for school, Dad."

"It would have to be a very large bird, Father," the boy on the floor pointed out.

His father ignored the comment and trotted out an ironic tone. "Iím afraid youíll have to go to school by yourself today, Simon. As you can see, Gerald is now Ö a caterpillar!"

The confused, younger boy exercised his talent for vocalizing the apparent. "No he isnít."

"Oh, yes! Yes, he is! Look at him! Isnít it obvious? Just go to school without him."

Simonís lower jaw unlatched. "Dad! Thatís not fair! He gets to stay home just because heís pretending to be a caterpillar?"

Gerald spoke for himself. "Iím not pretending. I really am a caterpillaróa furry black and brown caterpillar. See?" He hunched upwards to show off the tails of his pajama shirt.

Simon shook his head in hurt disbelief and stormed out, his grumble greatly resembling his fatherís. "Itís not fair. This is so not fair."

Herbert turned back to his prone son and said, "Okay. Youíre a caterpillar; a very naughty caterpillar that is grounded to his room the rest of the day and night. Is that clear?"

Gerald smiled innocently. "Of course, Father. What with my new body, I wouldnít have much to do anyway. Although I would fancy some yummy leaves to munch on."

"Leaves?"

"Yes, leaves."

Herbert Cripplekins shook his head and wiped dried shaving cream from his chin with the back of his hand. The door slammed a second time as he left, and as soon it closed, the boy on the rug inched his way back under his bed covers and went to sleep.

At lunch time, his father brought in a B.L.T. and some potato chips, but when he checked later, Gerald hadnít eaten anything but the L.

"Son, you have to eat."

"Yes, I am most frightfully hungry, Father, but I really donít think that bacon and potato chips are very good for a caterpillar."

"To be completely honest, I donít think theyíre very good for humans either, but thatís not the point. You have to eat something."

"Well, I did enjoy that wonderful lettuce. Do you think I might be able to have more of it? Or perhaps some basil leaves from the garden? I think the other caterpillars must enjoy them very much; there are always so many holes in them." His expression was positively cherubic.

Herbert glanced out Geraldís window. The tiny garden on the far side of the trash-burning pit was bushy with late spring growth. "You want something from the garden?"

"Yes."

"Well, how about some spinach then?"

"Oh yes, spinach would be lovely."

Cripplekins exploded. "Now Gerald, you know damn well you hate spinach! Stop all this foolishness this minute!"

The boyís only reply after a prolonged pause was "I really am quite a hungry caterpillar."

His father coughed a strangled burst of frustration, threw his hands up and left the room. The caterpillar boy, completely unfazed by the older manís antics, began to warble what he had come to realize was a common form of caterpillar speech. By wrinkling his nose upwards and forcing a high-pitched nasal singsong through his sinus cavities, he was certain that others of his kind would hear and revel in his existence. This thought brought him much pleasure.

Gerald did get a heaping bowl of fresh spinach for supper, but his parents also included three of his favorite homemade honeycakes on a side plate. When his mother checked on her sonís progress, she found the spinach entirely consumed and the cakes untouched. She tried a gentle approach.

"Gerry, I thought you liked my honeycakes."

"Oh no, Mother. Those are for bees and sugar ants and such. But I did very much enjoy the spinach, thank you."

His mother wore a grim face as she wished the boy goodnight and slowly pulled the door closed. Since Gerald wasnít especially tired, he did some joyful inchworm laps about and about the floor of his room. After a short while, he heard his parents conversing in the hallway and stopped to listen.

"I donít know what to do," his mother was saying. "Heís so convincedĺ and heís eating spinach! Somethingís really wrong. Maybe we should call Marie."

His father sputtered. "What? You mean my sister Marie? Martha, I really donít think a psychiatrist is called for. Do you?"

"Well, she is family. And she probably wouldnít charge us. It would be nice to have a professional opinion."

From the silence that followed, Gerald could tell that his mother was drilling his father with her expectant look. Herbert Cripplekins usually crumbled under its weight and this time was no different.

"Okay, Iíll give her a call tomorrow."

"Tonight."

"Alrightótonight! Jesus, canít I have a second of peace in my own house?" His fatherís oxfords could be heard clicking their irritation as they negotiated a descent of the staircase.

Many boys would have been a touch intimidated by the prospect of a psychiatristís visit but Gerald was not "many boys." His Aunt Marie was a nice lady who would never step on a caterpillar or mush its brains out for any reason; this he knew to be a fact, and the fact made him feel very warm and comfortable indeed.

The next morning, Herbert stuck his head in and asked his bed-ridden son if he was still a caterpillar. The answer was "Of course. A very furryóyawnóand sleepy caterpillar."

The boy rolled over towards the wall as his father went to wake the younger son. Since his room was adjacent to Simonís, Gerald heard everything that happened next.

He listened as the door opened and his father said, "Simon, time to getóWhat are you doing on the floor, Simon?"

The younger boyís voice piped through the cardboard-thin walls. "Iíve changed into an earthworm, Daddy! It must be contagious. I certainly canít go to school like this."

Gerald heard nothing until his father issued a rage-trembling proclamation. "Well Simon, in this house, earthworms get spanked! With a belt! Are you an earthworm, Simon? Huh? Are you?"

The sound of his brother scrambling up from the floor and admitting "No, no Daddy! Iím not an earthworm! Iím definitely not an earthworm!" gave Gerald a distinctly uncaterpillarish sense of satisfaction. He returned to his slumber with a thick smile brushed across his furry palette.

Later in the day after Gerald had risen and eaten a nice bowl of lettuce (sprinkled with young, fresh basil leaves), his Aunt Marie knocked on the door and entered. She did not look at all surprised to find him slowly circumnavigating the floor in his pajamas.

"Hello, Aunt Marie. Itís nice to see you."

She sat on the edge of the twin bed. "Itís nice to see you too, Gerald. How are you feeling?"

"I feel fine. Maybe a little sleepy. How do you feel?"

His aunt gave a wry smile. "I feel fine too. And a little sleepy. So, youíve become a caterpillar since the last time I saw you?"

"Yes, I have."

"And how do you think that happened, Gerald? Little boys donít generally turn into caterpillars; they turn into men."

The boy became pensive. "I donít know how it happened really. It just did. One day I was a little boy, and the next day I was a furry caterpillar."

"Oh. So, youíre a furry caterpillar?" Aunt Marie gave an odd emphasis to the word "furry."

Gerald spoke slowly, thinking it important to choose just the proper words. "Yes. Very furry. Black and brown. Many caterpillars are furry, arenít they?"

She smiled genuinely. "Yes, many are. Where are you furriest, do you think? Under your arms, perhaps?"

The boy performed a kind of caterpillaresque shrug and timidly admitted, "Thereís some there, yes. Where my arms used to be."

"And other parts?"

"Yes," he blurted, a blush threatening, "other parts too. But thatís normal for caterpillars."

"It is very normal. How old are you now, Gerald?"

"Eleven. Why?"

Marie pursed her lips and nodded slightly. "No reason. Just curious." As she rose to her feet, she caught sight of the book still lying on the bedside table. "Reading Kafka, huh?"

There was an extreme pause from the boy and then, "I have never heard of Kafka."

His aunt nodded again. "Well, Gerald, it was nice talking with you. How would you like it if I came to see you again on Monday? Iíd come sooner, but I have a conference to attend over the weekend."

"I guess that would be okay."

"Maybe when I get back youíll be a boy again or maybe even a man, hmm? Boys do turn into men, you know. Itís a natural thing."

"No. No, Iím quite sure that Iíll still be a caterpillar."

Geraldís aunt noticed that he did not sound quite sure at all. "Well, I have to go talk to your parents now. Ohóand Gerry? Itís okay if you donít want to be a caterpillar yet."

His response was soft, almost wistful. "But I want to be one."

"Thatís okay, too. Thatís okay. Iíll see you after the weekend."

The moment the door closed behind her, Gerald squirmed over and placed his ear next to the open space between it and the hardwood floor. Since the three adults were downstairs, he could only catch snatches of their conversation.

Marie: "Itís a common Ö Ö adolescence Ö Ö a question of gender identity Ö furry Ö hairy Ö and you know what Freud would have said about the shape of a caterpillar. Just let the situation Ö Ö Ö sick of eating spinach eventually."

His father: "Why is it always Ö Ö goddamned Freudian, Jungian Ö Ö So, itís coddling, is that it?Ö Ö not my fault, not my goddamned ..."

His mother: "Ö Ö be screwed up too if Herbert was the only male role model Ö Ö Listen to her, sheís a professional Ö Ö It is your fault, you spineless Ö Ö Ö Sorry, Marie Ö Ö never takes responsibility Ö Ö Herbert, just go burn the trash or something. Make yourself useful for a change!"

Shortly after the conversation ended, Gerald heard the front gate close. The door that led from the kitchen to the backyard slammed a few seconds later. Feeling even more fatigued, the caterpillar boy crawled laboriously onto his bed to get a peek out the window.

In the backyard, Herbert Cripplekins was angrily throwing a melee of cardboard boxes, scrap wood, and other refuse into the trash-burning pit. Unfortunately, his blackened mood had profoundly affected his aim. Much of the garbage was bouncing out onto the grass on the far side. The resonant anger clouded a thickening backyard paste as Gerald watched his father round up the wayward trash and prepare to light the pile with a Blue Tip and a dose of gasoline. By the purest chance, the elder Cripplekinsí eyes settled on the visage of the caterpillar boy scrutinizing him from the second story window. A look of restrained vindictiveness came across the manís features as he lit the oversized match. For long seconds, his gaze remained viciously locked on his sonís face.

Unable to handle the pressure of his fatherís eyes, Gerald turned and rolled beneath the covers. The loud Foof! and crackle of the inferno made him tremble for reasons he couldnít quite define.

His justifying mind eventually found an excuse. "Caterpillars donít like fires."

As Marie had prescribed, Geraldís mother and father went along with the delusion, even going as far as purchasing books on caterpillars in an attempt to understand his madness. They brought him delicious caterpillar foods and tried to engage in light-hearted conversation but neither was a very good actor. Their cloying discomfort always manifested itself in the form of a strained and painful silence. Thus they were almost relieved when, on Thursday, he took to hiding beneath the twin bed, enveloped in his hunter green blanket. The seclusion certainly indicated an odd turn in an already curious pattern of behaviors but it did release them from the disagreeable duty of watching him course wormily around the room, a practice that made them both remarkably uncomfortable.

Throughout Friday and into the weekend, Gerald became increasingly reclusive and non-communicative, eventually offering only the simplest responses to their questions.

"Gerald, are you sleeping under there?"

"Yes."

"Are you feeling all right?"

"Yes."

"Do you want something to eat?"

"No. Just sleep." In truth, Gerald was incredibly, almost mysteriously tired. The overwhelming fatigue made him loath to deal with his parents, and non-responsiveness seemed his only defense.

It worked.

His mother and father let him lie there through Saturday and most of Sunday but became so worried at his lack of movement that they actually encouraged him to crawl around on Sunday afternoon.

His refusal came in a single word. "Tired."

"At least eat something then," his mother urged. "Youíve hardly touched a thing in two days, Gerry."

"Just tired."

She gave up trying to talk to her caterpillar son but did mouth to her husband on the way out, "This is all your fault."

Herbert Cripplekins stood silent in the boyís room for a vacant stretch of minutes. His only comment before he departed was a plaintive whisper that seemed crowded with self-interest.

"Snap out of it, son."

On Monday morning while quietly sipping their Earl Grey, Martha and Herbert were surprised to hear sounds of boisterous movement coming from the boyís room upstairs. With trepidation rampant, they sprinted the steps and threw open the door. Inside, Gerald had emerged from the self-imposed seclusion and was leaping around the room in his underpants, flapping his arms like a mad grackle.

"Gerald!"

His motherís voice brought the boy to an anxious stop in front of them, and he smiled a youthful, spring-like bliss. "Oh hello, Mother! Hello, Father! Isnít it wonderful?" He performed another flapping lap around the floor.

"Youíre not a caterpillar anymore then, honey?" his mother asked with mental fingers crossed.

The boy stopped again and looked at her as if she had uttered the most absurd remark possible. "Of course Iím not a caterpillar anymore."

Herbert and Martha emitted audible sighs etched with their relief.

Gerald went on. "Who would want to be an ugly, old, hairy caterpillar? No, Iím a butterfly now! A beautiful, airy-winged butterfly! And I must fly Ö and fly Ö and fly!" Each time he sounded the word "fly," the boy leapt lightly into the air and fluttered his arms.

His motherís mind unhinged, and she slumped into a hunchbacked pose while wordlessly watching her eldest son cavort around the room in his underwear.

His father reacted quite differently to the revelation. A deep, serious expression clambered onto his face and he asked, "Youíre quite sure that youíre a butterfly, Gerald?" Something Herbert Cripplekins had read the day before had prodded him to pose the question.

The boy sang back as if his soul was dappled with Halley dust. "Yes! Yeeeessss, Father! A butterfly, free as the wind, painted like nature! Born to fly Ö and fly Ö and fly!"

"I see. Excuse me for a moment; Iíll be right back."

Geraldís father left the room and returned less than a minute later with one of the newly purchased books on caterpillars. Leafing through it quickly, he found a particular page, covered its bottom half with a palm, and held an illustration out for the boy to see.

"Excuse me, Gerald? Gerald, stop for a momentóthank you. Is this the kind of caterpillar you were? Black and brown and fuzzy?"

Gerald looked at the illustration for a flighty moment and exclaimed, "Yes! Yes, Father! Thatís exactly the kind of caterpillar I was! Isnít he ugly compared to my beautiful butterflyness now?"

A look of supercilious knowledge lit Herbert Cripplekinsí features as he jabbed a finger at his son and barked, "A-ha! A-HA!"

His wifeís inactive stance was broken by the loud exclamation. "Herbert, why are you screaming at the boy?" Gerald had also been startled by his fatherís outcry and stood with a questioning aspect.

"Why? Because, Martha, this particular caterpillaróthe Woolly Bearóturns into an ugly, hairy moth, not a beautiful, dainty butterfly! I got you, Gerald! You made a mistake, didnít you? If youíre going to pretend to be an insect, next time you might want to do a little studying beforehand! Now cut all this crap and admit you made a mistake. Come on. Tell your mother and me that this was all just a stupid act! Admit it!" His wife was staring knitting needles at Herbert for pushing the child so hard, but for once he didnít care. He had nailed his lying son dead to rights and was going to wait for a confession. "Well, Gerald?"

The boy didnít speak for a long time, but the adolescent wheels in his mind could be heard desperately clunking and whirring. Finally, a weak admission wriggled out.

"Youíre right, Father. I did make a mistake. I guess Ö I guess Iím not a butterfly."

"Now, see, Gerald? That wasnít so hard, was it?"

The boy seemed not to hear his father. "Iím not a beautiful butterfly. Iím just a moth. An ugly, old, hairy moth." The young voice seemed suddenly to take on an excess of years, the way a ship with a shattered prow takes on mirthless salted waters. The father took no notice of the boyís empty tone, taking instead a murderous step in his direction.

Galvanized by instinct, Geraldís mother stepped into her husbandís path. "What do you think youíre doing, Herbert?"

"Iím going to kill our first-born, honey." He was only partially kidding.

Troubled emotions lashed the tested womanís face and she directed them towards her husband. "Get out of this room this instant, damn you! This is all your fault, you no good son of a Ö Just Ö go burn the trash!"

Herbertís original comeback was totally derailed by his wifeís stunning non sequitur. "WhaóI just burned the damned trash three or four days ago!"

"Well, I say it needs to be done again! So, go do it! Now!"

Cripplekins usually jumped when his wife adopted such an adversarial attitude, but his patience had been stretched like an obscene thread of gold.

"Iíll do it Ö later," he said icily as he turned and stalked from the room.

Her husbandís incomplete capitulation was reminiscent of a boxerís rebellion, and it left Marthaís jaw aching. It was the nearest to defiance sheíd experienced from him in thirteen years. She threw a "Now!" after him to let him know that he wasnít going to hold the upper fist. A "Later" jabbed back impudently from the stairway.

Furious and unsettled, she swiveled back to deal with the problem of her son. Gerald had resumed his circular pattern but had stopped leaping. The thin arms flapped pathetically, and his eyes were ringed with a strange hollowness, almost as if their animating soul had fled into the ether and left the corpselike body on automatic.

"Gerald?"

Instead of responding directly to his mother, the boy began chanting, "Iím a moth. Iím a moth. Iím a moth."

Caught between tears and an angry helplessness, she decided to leave him in peace for a while.

The sound of Geraldís circling continued throughout the day prompting his father at one point to go to the bottom of the stairs and loudly offer, "If you donít stop him, Martha, I will!"

A lengthy argument ensued which he ended by screaming, "Fine! Fine! You go up there and cater to ĎThe Little Moth Boy,í and Iíll go burn all the garbage! Okay? Okay, honey?" The "honey" dripped with a stinging sarcasm.

Gerald heard the back door slam as he circled the room. Each time he flapped past the window, he could see his father hurling wood and smashing boxes. The fire pit was being quickly overwhelmed.

His mother entered the room quietly, and after watching nine or ten circuits, she asked Gerald to stop. Somewhat to her surprise, he came to an abrupt halt and stared straight into her eyes.

"Mother?"

"Yes, Gerry?"

There was a lengthy pause. "Is Aunt Marie coming over today? She said she was going to."

His mother scratched the side of her cheek. "Uh, no, sweetie. She called to say that her flight was delayed. But she said sheíd be over tomorrow, Wednesday at the latest. She said to say ĎHi.í"

The boy looked down at the floor. "Oh."

"You know, your father and I love you very much? Is there anything we can do?"

Gerald started circling again. "No, Mother. Iím just a moth. I donít need anything. I do think Iíd like to be alone though."

"Sure, Gerry. Sure." She left as quietly as she had come.

As the moth boy fluttered in a depressed motion past the window, he noticed that his father had built a truly monumental burning pile. With the ruthlessness that antipathy imparts, Herbert Cripplekins had cleared the pack-rat junk from the garageóold broken chairs, lampshades, magazinesóand constructed a stout temple of flammable memories. Gerald stopped near the curtains as his father shook great gouts of gasoline onto the heap from a rusty, red can. Apparently inspired by the boyís appearance, the older man emptied the entire two gallons on the pyre and let it soak in well. After striking the wooden match, he held it up for a few seconds purposely drenched in symbol. His eyes sought the eyes of his son and communicated a peculiar message that seemed devoid of civilized content.

This time, Gerald didnít flee the eyes or the blaze but stood still, affecting the wide, empty gaze of an opium smoker. The flame caught and spread quickly, leaping to heights of ten, even fifteen feet.

When he was certain the fire wasnít going to spread beyond the pit area, the older man walked directly across the yard and disappeared into the house. Had he bothered to look at his son along the way, he would have seen the slowly flapping figure melt from the window like an exorcised spirit.

Herbert Cripplekins had just settled into his chair at the head of the dining room table when he noticed Gerald quietly descending the stairs.

"Martha," he whispered across the table. When his wife begrudged a single eye from her gardening magazine, he pointed to the underwear-clad boy.

She put the magazine down softly and spoke to her son as he halted near the table. "Hi, honey. Itís good to see you downstairs again. Are you hungry?"

Gerald gave a zombie-like nod.

His motherís mood lightened considerably at the admission of hunger. "Oh good. Iíve got some sandwiches made, out on the kitchen counter. Do you want to go get one? Oh, and thereís some pop in the fridge if youíd like, sweetie. Okay?"

The boy nodded silently and drifted down the hall to the kitchen. His parents regarded each other amicably across the cherry-wood table and had almost recovered something like their former smiles when they heard the back door open and close. The grandfather clock in the hallway ticked a few singularly audible tocks while they gaped at each other, puzzled.

"What is he up to now?" Herbert Cripplekins asked his wife.

She gave a subtle shrug that was cut short by the advent of a chilling thought. Martha Cripplekinsí eyes became immense porcelain orbs as her lungs involuntarily inhaled a cloud of the gasoline-scented air. The horror plainly visible on her husbandís face made it clear that he had arrived at the same realization.

They had vaulted from their chairs even before the screams began to sound from the backyard.

go to this issue