A True Story of Betty the Butterfly.
Betty is a beautiful Giant Swallowtail, with silky black wings spotted in bright golden patterns, and a gorgeous fuzzy gold body to match. The vibrant color of her body sets off her large black eyes, long legs, delicate antennae and artistically curled proboscis. She is perfect in every way.
Her life is simple, but it is good. It is a life that causes those who see her to exclaim in delight as she passes by. “Look, a butterfly!” they squeal as she flits past in search of the next nectar.
She doesn’t understand them or care, content in her tiny bug mind to simply be who and what she is. Yet her very existence brings pleasure, and her instincts cause her to bring good things into the world as she spreads pollen around, nurturing the flowers and trees everywhere she goes.
The eggs she lays with the various males she mates with continue not only her species but the cycle of life that is needed for the plants she visits to be sustained and grow fruit. By doing what comes naturally to her, she gives unconditionally to everything around her. And brings pleasure to every human who sees her.
One day as she is flitting down to explore a small citrus tree, she is suddenly torn from the sky.
A cat has caught her in its claws, and pulls her to the ground. This cat bats at her, teasing her, playing with her as if she were a toy. She’s alive, but stunned, and desperately tries to escape. Again and again the paws come down, shredding her wings, piercing her thorax in one place, hurting her. Though she struggles to get airborne, she’s simply too hurt. Flopping about like a fish out of water, Betty sees her doom bearing down over her, ears and whiskers quivering as it sniffs her.
But just then a human hand reaches down and gently pulls her away from her attacker. She hears the human voice saying; “Oh no, not a butterfly!” She feels the human hand sweep her up and away, and views an enormous single-irised eye look into her multifaceted ones. Sensing the safety, she crawls into the human palm and stays there, resting, in shock. The human warms her, and calms her. She chooses to stay on the hand for the rest of the day. She’s not sure if she will die or not. She’s in too much shock to know.
For hours she clings to that human’s palm, shifting only when the human attempts to put her down a few times. Each time, Betty rejects the place she’s being guided towards, and climbs back onto the human hand, content to stay there. Finally she hears the human say (not that she can understand it);
“Well, I guess you’ve decided if you’re going to die, you’d rather die feeling compassion and love and warmth, even if you don’t understand what they are. So you can stay here in my hand until you go.”
“I’ll grieve for you when you’re gone, to honor you and the joy you brought into this world. But I’ll sit here peacefully with you until that happens, so you can feel the calmness of my spirit and hopefully take that into your own.”
She hears the human sing to her as she sits on her hand the rest of the day. The human tells her how perfect she is, even with shredded wings. How beautiful. How much the human appreciates her.
She hears the human describe how wonderful life is with Betty and all butterflies in it. How each on is so unique and the variety and differences of them all create so much beauty in this world.
She hears the human compare the many types of butterflies to the many types of every other creature on Earth, including other humans, and talk to her about how every one of them is equally important and special because of it.
“Now if I can just remember that about myself as well, I’ll be a better person!” the human laughs.
Betty settles down and gets comfortable with this human, not wanting to leave the warmth and safety of that hand.
But after many hours where Betty rides along quietly while the human goes in and out of the house doing things, works on a computer, makes phone calls, and finally just sits and sips tea out on the patio where Betty was rescued, the human finally decides Betty isn’t ready to die just then after all, and needs a safer place to sit. She also needs her hand back.
So the human gently dislodges Betty from her hand and places her inside a small clear box where she’s placed some leaves, stones and nectar water. Betty ignores the nectar water since she doesn’t recognize it in the bottle cap, but she moves over to some of the leaves of the Milkweed plant, which she are familiar to her. She settles down there, and goes to sleep for the night.
She doesn’t know the human is surprised Betty is still alive after all the damage done to her. Nor does she know the human fully expects Betty to expire overnight, and is wondering if it wouldn’t be kinder to have allowed the cat to finish the job, or perhaps to put her in the “deep freeze” death recommended on butterfly sites as the humane way of killing them when they’ve been severely injured.
Betty sleeps the sleep of the innocent. Or at least the sleep of a bug. But at least it’s not a restless sleep. It’s so still, in fact, the human is fairly certain Betty has died.
In the morning Betty is shocked awake, however, when the human picks up the box too quickly. The human exclaims when Betty flutters her wings and moves her legs, she thought for sure Betty was dead. But Betty isn’t ready to go anywhere yet, and so the human puts her and the box outside in the sunshine to spend the day. She nudges Betty towards the nectar cap, but Betty still doesn’t know what it is and ignores it.
Betty spends the day moving about in the small box, which is clear glass so she can see out of it. She crawls across the leaves, and flutters her wings from time to time to air them out and test them, but she’s tired still, and her strength is very low, so she rests a lot.
Finally the human puts her finger inside the box, and recognizing it, Betty climbs onboard once more. The human smiles as she lifts Betty out, appreciating how special it is for such a tiny creature to trust one so alien and gigantic in proportion to it. Betty seems to enjoy being on her hand, and stays there with barely any movement as the human waters the garden. When she’s finished, the human sits down a moment, and Betty takes the opportunity to flutter her wings again, harder this time.
For a moment she senses a breeze, and trying to catch it, leaps off the human’s finger. But her torn wings won’t hold her aloft, and after a brief moment of floating, she gently falls to the ground in large circular flutters.
Very gently the human puts her fingers down next to Betty and coaxes her onto them again. This time Betty stays firmly on, and the human, in sympathy with her plight, raises her up high into the air as she clings to the fingers.
The human “flies” Betty around the garden, taking her first to a branch on the citrus tree, then to some purple flowers on a bush, then up very high to where some Morning Glories are growing on the fence. As she does she sings to Betty, saying; “Remember, little one, this is how you fly! Feel the wind under your wings!”
Finally Betty is placed back into her box, only this time the human puts her onto the nectar in the bottle cap. Betty still doesn’t eat it, so very, very gently the human uses a paper clip to help Betty unroll her proboscis into the sweet water so she understands what it is. Finally Betty drinks it, sucking in the sweet syrup for at least ten minutes, only pulling her proboscis up into its tight little curl once more when she is startled by the human moving her box inside.
Once more Betty settles into sleep, so completely still and unmoving that the human again thinks surely, this time Betty has died or is dying.
The human decides that night that if Betty survives until the next day, and she begins eating on her own, she’ll get her a butterfly cage so she has a real home and can crawl about more freely. But if Betty doesn’t begin to eat on her own, and remains so still and unresponsive, the kindest thing will be to put her in the deep freeze, rather than allow her to suffer slowly.
After all, it’s obvious Betty will never be able to fly again. Not with all of that wounding to her wings, which cannot be repaired. Per every expert the human has now researched and read, Betty’s flying days are definitely over due to the extent and type of damage done. So a decision has to be made.
She’ll either be captive in a cage for the remainder of her days if she gets better, or put peacefully into a forever sleep if it’s obvious she’s languishing. Betty sleeps the night away unaware her future is being planned by another.
The next morning the human gently opens Betty’s box, and is surprised when Betty responds and wakes up. But Betty is sluggish and slow.
She places Betty’s box outside in the sunshine again to warm her, and makes some tea. She sits beside Betty, talking to her, noting if she moves and if she goes over to her food. Betty doesn’t move much, and ignores the food again.
“Perhaps it’s not fresh enough now,” the human thinks doubtfully, beginning to feel she’s about to face the more difficult decision of deep freeze. She doesn’t want to do it, but honestly feels it would be best. Still, she goes inside to prepare some fresh nectar just in case.
When she comes out, Betty remains basking in the warm sunshine on one of the rocks inside her box, unmoving. The human reaches in to pick Betty up to change the nectar and help feed her once more, determined to give it one last try.
But as she does, to the human’s surprise, Betty suddenly gets agitated and begins to flutter her wings quickly, beating them against the sides of the box. Concerned Betty may hurt her wings further than they already are, the human gently guides Betty to her fingers and picks her up into her hand.
For a moment Betty quiets down as she feels the familiar hand under her feet. Her wings slow down and wave a soft rhythm into the air. Her legs tickle the human’s knuckle as Betty shifts. Betty seems to peer at the human with her gemlike eyes, multifaceted orbs meeting singular irises. And then…
Betty feels the sun on her back. She feels the wind under her wings. She feels the strength in her legs. She senses the world around her.
She wants to be free. She begins to flutter faster and faster. And then Betty the Butterfly, with tattered wings that aren’t supposed to be able to bear her weight anymore, takes off.
She flies up, up to a branch of the citrus tree. The human, certain Betty will fall, runs after her, hands out to catch her if she does. But Betty doesn’t fall.
Instead, she leaps off the branch and beats her wings harder, flying further up to the purple flowers of a bush nearby. Again, the human is there, raising her hands under Betty to catch her should she fall. But still, Betty doesn’t fall.
She clings to the flowers for a moment, then up she goes again, higher and higher until she comes to the Morning Glories on the back fence. The human is scrambling to keep up with her now, desperate to help Betty should her wings fail her as they did before.
But from high on the Morning Glories, Betty sees the sky… and so she heads towards it, climbing higher and higher, further and further, until she disappears.
And Betty the Butterfly with her broken wings, flies into her freedom again.
Despite the pain she suffered, despite the injuries she endured, despite the irreparable damage done, despite the odds against her, despite the experts who said she couldn’t, despite the human who didn’t believe she would – Betty decided she wanted to fly again.
So she did.
And that right there, folks, is a lesson for all of us.
This isn’t just an allegory. This is a true story, and it happened to me.
The picture for this story is Betty on my hand.
My cat Dexter caught Betty, a difficult moment for me as one creature I loved caught and was attempting to destroy another creature I love, not out of malice but out of instinct and play. Yet I didn’t blame or chastise him for it, it was what it was. All I could do at that point was try to care for the critter if I could, or help it to die as calmly, quietly and with as little pain and as much love as possible.
I thought for sure, based on her injuries, it wouldn’t take long. About 1/2 of her wings were gone at the bottom, and the upper 1/2 left were so torn up they’d lost nearly all of the feathering on them. I could see the delicate, clear membrane of tissue that connected one spine in the wings to another. Pieces of them kept falling off the entire time I had her with me. It seemed obvious she would never fly again.
Imagine my surprise when this little butterfly decided to hang out on my hand literally the entire day. And more so, didn’t die.
Imagine my greater surprise when she made it through that first night. And then once again hung out on my hand while I puttered about my garden. And still did not die.
Imagine my complete shock when she suddenly took off in flight that third day.
And imagine my total awe and amazement as I realized the route she took to leave me was the very one I’d “shown” her the day before as I carried her around the garden balanced on my fingers, singing to her about how to fly again.
I searched for her after. I looked everywhere on both sides of my fence where I’d last seen her, certain she must have landed somewhere close by, or gotten stuck on a branch or in a bush, or even on the sidewalk or street. But she was nowhere to be seen.
Butterflies don’t live long – an adult Giant Swallowtail, after leaving the chrysalis only lives about 14 days or so. For all I know, Betty was already old and on her last legs.
But it doesn’t matter whether she lives many more days and manages to lay thousands of eggs, pollinating trees and flowers, or only lasted one more day simply fluttering about before finally passing on. The fact that she was able to get up and fly on her own again, wild and free, when all the odds were against her, was a miracle I will never forget.
Miracles are real, and they happen all around us in so many ways. And it is often the smallest ones that make the most impact.
So if you see a tattered looking butterfly flitting around you, remember Betty.
And remember this when you do: It takes a lot of character to try to fly again when you’ve been hurt so badly that everything and everyone is saying that you can’t.
But just beat those broken wings faster and faster, and be free.
By JEANETTE DUBOIS
Jeanette is a film & tv editor, writer, director and producer who’s worked on Emmy & Telly Award winning shows, movies, and music videos for a variety of networks. She’s also a trained operatic who mostly sings to her cats now, though sometimes she expands her audience to her family & friends. She loves gardening, good books, good wine, and good conversations, preferably all at the same time.
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