“You don’t actually believe all that do you?”
“You’re such a baby!”
“Caterpillars don’t become butterflies.”
“The adults just switch them when you’re not looking, you idiot.”
“Magic’s for babies.”
“Leave her alone! You’ll ruin it for her.”
“Maybe you’ll turn into a big smelly cockroach!”
Loz tried to look away, but her cousins were circled round her. She bit her lip and frowned, trying to shelter her excitement from their taunts and laughter.
She thought about the caterpillar she’d been given at school that day. It was so tiny she’d been too scared to touch it. It hadn’t eaten the big leaf in its jar, so she’d gone exploring in the greenhouse and come back with some elderflowers. She knew they would be tasty, but the caterpillar didn’t touch them either. It just wriggled along its twig doing silly dances. None of the other children’s caterpillars were eating either. Miss Carruthers said not to worry—caterpillars don’t like being watched—they would eat everything up once the children were back down in their bunks.
Miss Carruthers wouldn’t lie to her. Would she?
“Aww don’t cry!”
“I was joking! You won’t really turn into a cockroach.”
• • •
The leaf and flowers were all gone the next day. So was the caterpillar. In place of the squirming noodle of yellow and green stripes, Loz found a shiny blob, hanging from the twig like a little leaf bud. It felt crispy when she stroked it, but Miss Carruthers said not to touch them too much because they were so delicate.
It was a chrysalis, she learned. The middle stage between caterpillar and butterfly.
It was pretty, but it didn’t do very much. The class spent their excitement making butterfly stencils and decorating some of the dingy corridors beneath their classroom with colourful butterfly prints.
Loz joined in, but she couldn’t stop thinking about what her cousins had said. The way the caterpillar had changed suddenly overnight did seem suspicious. She was afraid to ask Miss Carruthers about it, in case she got in trouble, so she came up with another plan.
Insects turning into other insects was the most magical thing they had learned at school so far, but it wasn’t the only magical thing. There was also magnets—magic metals that pushed and pulled each other without touching. They had even made their own hands magnetic one day by dipping them in tubs of magnetic paint.
While the other kids painted even more butterfly stencils, Loz snuck into the class store cupboard. She stole a splodge of magnetic paint—just enough to cover her chrysalis, which was the same colour anyway. When her butterfly hatched, she would test it with a magnet. If it didn’t stick, her cousins were right—the adults were just pretending.
• • •
Loz’s butterfly was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. It was mostly purple, but there were other colours scattered around like bits of broken glass. Probably every colour from the rainbow was there. And it was perfectly symmetrical.
They were supposed to name them. Loz had come up with the name “Hope,” but she would only use it if her experiment worked out.
It was standing on the twig, flapping its wings, but not fast enough to actually fly. Loz took her magnet from her school bag and opened the jar. Her heart was going so fast it felt like it might fly instead of the butterfly.
She touched the magnet against its wings. They snapped shut, flattened against the invisible pull of the magnet. Loz shouted “Yes!” so loud she was worried all the other children would look round, but they were too distracted by their own butterflies.
Then Loz noticed Hope was making a strange buzzing noise, like the lights in her and her cousins’ bunkroom. Loz pulled Hope free from the magnet in case it was hurting her, taking care not to damage her delicate wings, and did a big sigh of relief when the noise stopped. But something was wrong. Hope wasn’t moving. Loz watched, her mouth open in disbelief, praying for Hope to flap her wings, unsure whether two or two million seconds had passed before she started crying.
When the children took their jars to the greenhouse to let their butterflies loose, Loz was still standing there. Miss Carruthers came over and Loz told her everything that had happened.
“Don’t worry, Loz. Your cousins were right—we do swap the insects between classes. The only reason the magnet worked was because your butterfly is actually made of metal. You haven’t killed anything! Your magnet must have broken its electrics.”
Loz stared at Miss Carruthers as she processed this information. First she felt relieved, but then, really angry. How could her teacher of all people just lie to her like that? Then she felt worried—maybe Miss Carruthers was only lying now to make her feel better, and she had killed her butterfly after all.
“You shouldn’t learn this for a few years, so don’t tell your classmates, but butterflies went extinct along with all the bigger animals. We have some frozen eggs, but we won’t activate them until the earth has healed. In the meantime, we need these robotic ones to pollinate our plants. We pretend to children they are alive because although losing this belief one day will be painful, it’s an important kind of pain. It stops the Big Extinction from becoming some meaningless story. So we can learn from it, and when we finally get back out there, we will have evolved as a species.”
Loz cried all the way to the greenhouse room. She was proud to know the truth, but she also wished she was as happy and carefree as the other children. Still, she smiled to see the greenhouse alive with dozens of electric butterflies. In their colourful, fluttery dance, she could almost imagine Hope was there.
Copyright © 2023 Don Redwood
Don Redwood lives in Glasgow, Scotland. He likes cycling, wildlife gardening, juggling, and imagining future and alternate worlds. He has just finished writing his first novel about mental health and the climate crisis, stretching from the present day into a supposedly utopian near future. His short stories have previously appeared in Daily Science Fiction and Mycelia. He is a member of the friendly but ruthless Glasgow Science Fiction Writer's Circle. Find out more at donredwood.com.