With apologies to Lewis Carroll.
The caterpillar crawled slowly out of the bushes (low grasses really; after all, he was only five inches long – it had been three, not too long ago, so to speak, and had he cared to bother about it, he might have felt a bit smug about the extra two) among which he had been resting, and headed for his smoking mushroom.
He circled the mushroom’s base, taking his time, inspecting the cap and nodding in satisfaction – no nibbles around the edges for once, good – and then lazily climbed up the stalk and across the underside and then the top of the cap, perching himself finally at the apex, where he kept the hookah. The gills on the underside tickled a bit as he squiggled his feet among them – or they would have if he had been so crass and uncultured to acknowledge such a thing. He filled the bowl of the hookah (the new herb that had started appearing in the smoke shops made him feel so much more pleasurably languid than before), lit the charcoal above it, and settled down to his first smoke of the day.
A sudden rustle on the path beside the mushroom snapped the caterpillar out of himself. It was the rabbit, white with pink eyes and a waistcoat, muttering about the time and about the white gloves and fan which it didn’t have.
“Again?” The caterpillar’s voice rolled out as if from a fog bank.
“That Mary Anne!”, the white rabbit barked out crossly. “Every time I get things almost back in order, she pops up again and gets me all discombobulated! And a different reason on every occasion! ‘Sequels‘, she says one time. ‘Reimagining the franchise‘, another! I’m spending a fortune on house repairs! And, the time!”
“And, the gloves?”
“What gloves … My gloves!! My oh my, what shall I do now! I will be so very late! Drat that Mary Anne! And she had to bring a friend this time!”
“A friend?” This was different …
“A man, all in brown – horrid clothes for any sane creature to be wearing – carrying a box and a clipboard. I hope he doesn’t cause any more trouble, I have enough as it is! Oh, I’m so very late ..!!” The rabbit scurried off down the path, watch in his bare paw. The caterpillar resumed smoking … with perhaps just the slightest shortening of the interval between puffs.
A little while later, the man appeared. He was dressed all in brown, as the rabbit had said – but those clothes were torn and misshapen as if the body inside them had grown and shrunk, suddenly, without warning, and to alarming proportions. The shirt, in particular, was little more than a random assortment of rags. He walked, or, rather, stumbled, in great pain, as if he had almost been cut in two at the midsection. The man’s face was set in a mask that proclaimed his determination to complete his assigned task as the only possible means of preserving his sanity. That task was clearly linked to the box and the clipboard in the man’s hands, to which the rabbit had also referred, and which the man was carrying in an awkward way, as if both were now considerably larger than they had started out to be.
The man’s eyes had been focused on the path down which he had been traveling, but then they found, and tracked up, the mushroom, and when they encountered the caterpillar, they lit with a glimmer of recognition. And hope? The eyes of the human and the insect locked, and for a moment there was stillness, and silence.
The caterpillar spoke first. “Who … are you?” The tone he wanted was ‘indolent insolence’, but it was marred by a slight nervous tremolo, about which he was instantly irritated with himself.
The response was business brusque. “UPS”, said the man. “And you will be Hookah-Smoking Caterpillar, Rabbit Hole, Wonderland. Thank God. Package for you, sir. Sign here.” He struggled to pass the clipboard, with its pen the size of a steel water pipe, to the top of the mushroom.
“Refused. Take it back.” The caterpillar’s voice was stern, and edgy.
“What?!?” The clipboard clattered to the path, dangerously shaking the mushroom and the UPS man. “Please don’t tell me there’s another Hookah-Smoking Caterpillar in this nightmare!”
“There is none other. I am he.”
“Well, then, didn’t you order this? Is someone sending you this by mistake?”
The caterpillar’s response bordered on strident. “I did not say ‘I do not recognize the package.’ I said ‘I refuse the package.’ Take it away.”
The UPS man was stubborn, not least because he had no idea how he himself was going to get back to base, never mind shlepping this refused package along with. “I need a reason.”
“Do you know what’s in that box?”
“That, sir, is none of my …”
“I will tell you. They are wings, and instructions for mounting them.”
“Butterfly, or moth. I haven’t yet taken the trouble to find out which kind fit me. As I’ve mentioned, I do not want them.”
The UPS man was astounded, incredulous. “Buddy, what the hell do you have against flying?!? I’ll take those wings in a New York minute! Especially if I can use them to get the hell out of here!”
The man’s outburst actually helped the caterpillar to regain some of his composure. “I would gladly give them to you, if I had any hope that they would fit you, that you could learn how to use them, and you wouldn’t get into trouble with your employer for accepting them. As things are, I fear, they will be of no use to you.”
“But they will be to you! What is your problem with them?!?”
The caterpillar paused, took a pull from the hookah, blew out a giant smoke ring, and watched while the ring floated back up the path whence the rabbit and the UPS man had come, slowly dissipating. When at last he spoke again, he spoke quietly, almost lazily, but under the languid tones there was a barely-suppressed intensity. “I take it, my man, that there are aspects of Wonderland that you find to be somewhat less than satisfactory.”
The UPS man sputtered.
“I thought as much. I find matters to be different. Food is plentiful, as is [ahem] smoke. As I tend not to wander down strange passages, unlike yourself, I encounter mostly peace. Indeed, I am seldom interrupted, except by white rabbits, the occasional playing card, and, lately, young females of your species, which have been responsible for most of the disruptions that I have experienced. We caterpillars lead lives of peace and ease. Long lives. Years long, even decades, many of us.”
Gradually the caterpillar’s speaking lost any pretense of being laid back.
“You say you dream of flying. Are you prepared to bear the costs, sir? Of throwing yourself into a case, you might even say a coffin, and sitting there while every part of your body is dismantled and reassembled?
“Of finally getting released from that case – if you are so lucky – and standing there exposed to the world while those precious wings fill out, hoping against hope that nobody and nothing comes by to interrupt that process and render those precious wings useless?
“To finally get those wings – which can never be repaired – and use them in a desperate search for girls?! For which task you get a whole 24 hours, because while your body was being reassembled to get wings, it was taking away your ability to eat and drink?!? So you flap madly around looking for those chicks while you feel your body starve and dehydrate, knowing that you are going to wind up, any moment now, in a bird’s stomach or a collector’s box or a pile of leaf litter on the forest floor, and you just hope that getting your rocks off comes first?”
The caterpillar, which had been screaming, paused. Sighed. Took a pull on the hookah, blew out a smoke tower. Sighed again. And, in more measured tones, repeated: “Are you prepared to bear these costs, sir?”
The UPS man stared back at the caterpillar, staring but not seeing. For several moments, he and his empty gaze simply stood there. Then, with a violent start, he shook himself, grabbed hunks of the mushroom in each hand, one hunk from the left side and one from the right, turned, and, screaming “TMI!!!” at the top of his lungs, ran back up the path from which he came.
Leaving the clipboard behind. And the box.
The caterpillar watched him go, waited while the wonted quiet of his part of Wonderland once again settled in around him. As peace descended, he smoked gently.
The box rattled.
He smoked harder.