“Alas! We are doomed to die as caterpillars, never having become butterflies.” Lickspittle shook his head. He gazed up and shook several fists at the sky.
Sobersides sighed gravely. “Perhaps tomorrow morning.”
The two caterpillar fairies had woken that morning, and that meant that they were still caterpillars. And that would have been fine, save that they had both reached the age where most caterpillars had already formed cocoons and transformed into butterfly fairies.
Lickspittle stared into a puddle that had formed in the crack of the branch on which they lived. “If we haven’t cocooned by now, we never will.”
They both knew what that meant. Caterpillar fairies who didn’t cocoon by a certain age would die. They would go to sleep one day and never wake.
“If that is our lot, so be it. We have lived sweet lives.” Sobersides wrapped a few arms around his friend. Sobsersides had grudgingly accepted this fate and was quite content to spend the rest of his life in the branch where he lived with his friend, snuggled up in his favorite a nook, quietly reading the leaves.
He said as much, and normally, Lickspittle would have agreed to the plan, and showered Sobersides with compliments about how it was the best plan for them to end their lives.
Instead, Lickspittle spent many hours that day, pacing their branch, nibbling nervously on leaves, until finally, he marched up before Sobersides.
Sobersides set down the leaf he was reading.
“We must have one last hurrah before we die,” Lickspittle said. “The queen of the star fairies is holding a ball tonight. We must attend this ball.”
Had they become butterfly fairies, they would have attended many a sparkling ball. But as caterpillars, they hadn’t attended any, for most caterpillars waited until they were butterflies to debut themselves.
“We can’t go. We’ll just be turned back,” Sobsersides insisted.
“Why would we be turned back? It’s an open invitation to all fairies.”
“Officially, yes. But you know how it is. The unspoken rules, and all that.”
“Well if the rule is unspoken, then it doesn’t count, does it?” Lickspittle sighed. “And besides, we’re caterpillars. And we’re still among the fastest of caterpillars, I’d say. If we are turned back—we won’t be, but if we are—then we can run home in no time and do what you want to do for the rest of our lives.”
“Won’t you feel embarrassed to show yourself? Everyone will know that we haven’t cocooned. We’ll be pitied, whispered about.”
“Then let them pity. Maybe that pity will earn us some gifts or favors or something. And let them whisper. Our names will live on even after our shapely bodies have withered away into dust.”
Sobersides made a sound that sounded like a grumble.
Lickspittle raised a bushy brow. “After you’re dead, will you care about what people say about you?”
“No. I won’t be able to. I’ll be dead. But—“
“Then why care now?”
Sobsersides grumbled again. “Is this truly what you wish to do with our last days?”
“Truly it is. I’ve always wanted to go to the star queen’s ball.”
“I had thought you left that dream behind.”
“I wanted to wait until we were butterflies, but I would rather go as a caterpillar than not go at all.”
Sobersides almost smiled at that. Though it made his days—his life—more difficult when the usually accommodating Lickspittle occasionally insisted on having things his way, he was always glad to see Lickspittle stand up for himself.
“Whatever will we wear?” Sobersides said in somber jest.
“Whatever we want. I might even go bare.”
Sobersides widened his eyes. “Bare…?
“You could as well. Your green is still as vivid as the day we met. Do you remember that day?”
“You should rather ask do I regret that day.”
“Well, do you?”
Sobsersides frowned and reached for a scarf. “It will be night. I’ll get cold.”
“Wonderful choice, but wear it pulled down a bit, so all the butterflies can swoon at that shapely neck.”
The somber caterpillar’s frown deepened as he wrapped the scarf tighter. But feeling somewhat restricted, he loosened the scarf until it fell away slightly from his neck. He looked down at his reflection in the puddle of water that had collected in a nearby leaf.
Lickspittle joined him. “We may not be as young as we once were, but we’re still pretty.”
Sobersides peered into the puddle and huffed out an uncharacteristic laugh. “That we are,” he said.
Being caterpillar fairies, Lickspittle and Sobersides had no trouble at all running to the ball, which was being held leagues away from their home in a grand and sparkling ballroom. They happened to be among the fastest runners of their kind. Age had not slowed them in that respect.
The caterpillars stopped outside of the entrance to the ballroom, where the greeters were welcoming all the arriving fairies.
Lickspittle and Sobersides marveled. There were all manner of fairies they had never seen before, like the flickering candle fairies, the many-colored jewel fairies, and the mysterious ghost fairies.
“So few limbs,” Lickspittle commented, straightening his shimmery jacket. “How do they all get about?”
Sobersides shushed his friend and tried to rearrange his scarf. It had come slightly undone during all that running.
Both caterpillars felt a certain sense of dread as they made their way to the entrance. They noted from the corners of their vision that other fairies had noticed their presence. And surely enough, in a loud whisper, someone asked if their eyes were playing tricks on them, or if there were two caterpillars seeking to enter the ballroom.
So it begins, thought Sobersides.
The greeter whom they encountered was a pixie. Her membranous wings clapped together behind her when Lickspittle and Sobersides stepped forward.
Her face broke into a wide grin, and her glistening wings began to flutter. “Oh welcome, welcome. In the name of the queen, I bid you come in and enjoy. I am—we are—most happy to see you.”
Lickspittle and Sobersides bowed their heads, presented the bundle containing their gift for the ball’s host, and shuffled onward.
“Lovely scarf, sir,” the pixie greeter said as Sobersides passed her by.
They took the steps up toward the door to the ballroom.
“Do you supposed she was mocking us?” Sobersides asked.
“She seemed sincere.”
“To me as well.”
“A good start then,” Lickspittle said. “Here’s to a good middle.” He held a few hands out to his side. Sobersides clasped them and they shook as they passed across the threshold and into the grand ballroom.
As it turned out, the pixie was not the only fairy who greeted the caterpillars warmly. Though there were sundry butterflies flitting about, Lickspittle and Sobersides were the only caterpillar fairies in attendance. And they soon learned that they were the only caterpillar fairies who had ever been in attendance.
As such, every fairy they encountered seemed to be delighted to see them.
Sobersides was worried that this might mean that he and his friend would be admired only as curiosities. He glanced about, expecting to see heads bent toward each other, whispering and staring. He did not.
They first encountered a kitchen fairy, who was delighted to see them, and invited them to go to the kitchen and ask the head cook to serve them a special caterpillar delicacy. Lickspittle and Sobersides they politely offered to try some later.
Thereafter, they encountered a wind fairy, who smiled at Sobersides and offered to make his scarf flutter. Sobersides allowed it and a small cheer was raised by those nearby.
Next they met a flock of fairy sparrows, who warned the caterpillars that they best have fun lest the sparrows would eat them. The sparrows laughed, but when they noted that Lickspittle and Sobersides were clutching each other, one of the sparrows silenced her fellows. She insisted they were only jesting and that she thought the caterpillars would know that fairy sparrows did not feed upon the same food that ordinary sparrows did. Then she begged the caterpillars not to leave, for the sparrows would be scolded at least, perhaps even shunned, if any thought that they had driven the caterpillars away.
All were happy to see the caterpillars, but none fixed their attention only on the caterpillars. After all, there was much to enchant the senses at the ball. Music, food, games, and entertainments.
“I feared we might be a spectacle,” Sobersides said to his friend. “But we are just guests.”
Lickspittle adjusted his jacket. “I’m going to dance.”
Before Sobersides could respond, Lickspittle made his way to the floor where dancers were twirling and swaying to the lively music.
When Lickspittle began to undulate his long caterpillar body, and to gyrate in rhythm with the music, there was a burst of gasps and a few dropped gazes from the more modest among the guests.
Sobersides crossed his arms, smiled, and nodded. For this was the type of spectacle he did not mind a caterpillar making.
Yes, thought Sobersides, let them all see how a caterpillar cavorts.
As he watched, a crowd began to gather around his friend.
Lickspittle waved Sobersides over, even though he knew that Sobersides did not dance. Perhaps he hoped that the gathered crowd would cajole his friend into joining him upon the dancing floor. But Sobersides shook his head every time. He would not let any fairy pull him or push him onto the dancing floor. He only swayed to and fro to the rhythm of the pipes and drums.
They passed a while like that, until the music slowed a bit. Then Lickspittle wormed his way back to Sobersides and proclaimed, “I’m famished.”
The caterpillars went in search of the kitchen fairy they’d run into as they entered the ballroom. When they found her, close to the kitchens of course, she was all too eager to bring them to the head cook, as she had promised.
The head cook was a sovereign among the kitchen fairies, and when she saw the two caterpillars marching toward her, she abandoned the sauce she was stirring and waved them toward her. She led them to a cupboard near the back of the cold pantry.
“I have been cultivating this treat—a variety of my own making—for many a ball now,” the head cook said, “just in case a caterpillar were to attend. But it has all gone to waste…until now.”
She opened the cupboard and within was a potted plant growing a bunch of luminescent eight-petalled flowers.
Sobersides looked askance at the sight. “What are they called?”
The head cook laughed. “The name? I will not tell you that, fair caterpillar. My secret would be revealed, stolen.”
She picked a flower for each caterpillar and warned them to nibble as slowly as they could.
Each flower was glowing with a honey-yellow glow.
Lickspittle closed his eyes as he breathed in his flower’s aroma. “Intoxicating,” he said.
And so it was.
Before Sobersides was done eating the first petal, he began to feel lightheaded. The flower’s glow seemed to intensify. As he glanced around the kitchen, all the colors seemed to bleed and streak and twirl.
“Licks,” he whispered, “I don’t think I feel well.”
Lickspittle chuckled as he nibbled the tiniest bit of his flower. He wasn’t even a quarter of the way through his first petal. “No, I’d say you feel quite spectacular.”
Sobersides tugged at his friend’s elbows. “We must escape. We’ve been poisoned, I fear.”
“She told you to nibble it slowly.”
“I did nibble it slow.”
“You practically swallowed that petal.”
“Well, I was hungry. She should have given us some hearty sunflower seed first.”
“Yes, she probably should have. But she was excited to give us the glow.” Lickspittle erupted in a fit of giggles.
“What shall I do? I’m not ready to die. Not yet. Not here.”
“You’re not going to die.” Lickspittle shook off his friend’s hands and pointed to the windows. “Why don’t you run it off?”
“Run it off. The glow will burn away, enough so that you can tolerate it at least.”
“Will that work?”
“How do you know?”
“That’s what I do when I’ve had a bit too much honeysuckle.”
Sobersides nodded. But then he stopped. Each time he moved his head, the room seemed to move in the opposite direction. It was most disconcerting for the normally sober caterpillar.
Lickspittle guided him to an outer door that led from the kitchen to one of the gardens outside. There was a small grassy enclosure where Sobersides could run alone without fear of hitting anything or anyone.
So, Sobersides ran. He ran and he ran. And sure enough, he felt the slightest bit steadier. So he ran a bit more. And felt steadier still, steady enough to leave the enclosure and run a farther distance. He looked up at the great ballroom, and began to run around and around the outside of the hall where fairies were making merry at a sparkling ball.
He did not stop running when the glowing feeling became tolerable. He kept running until the feeling was quite gone and he felt himself again. He returned to the enclosure and caught his breath for a moment before returning inside. But when he tried the door, it was locked. He knocked and called out for Lickspittle.
“What is a caterpillar doing here?”
Sobersides twisted around. At first, he could not see who had spoken, and he feared he was still under the effects of the glowing flower.
But then his eyes discerned the faint outline of wings and antennae. It was a butterfly fairy. He was perched on the fence that surrounded the grass enclosure. And he was black from wing to thorax, completely black.
Sobersides drew up his chest. “The invitation to the ball is open to all fairies. I am as welcome here as you are.”
The butterfly flicked his wings. “I did not mean to offend. I’ve just never seen a caterpillar at this ball, or any ball, come to think of it. I was never brave enough to attend when I was a caterpillar.”
Sobersides frowned. “And what is brave about a caterpillar showing his face at a ball?”
The butterfly twitched his antennae. “I keep offending you, though I don’t mean to. I only meant that I should have come. All caterpillars should attend. But they don’t. And…I think it’s brave to do a thing that others should do but don’t do.”
Sobersides stopped frowning. “Well, thank you.”
“And also, I saw you running and I…you are incredibly fast.”
At this, Sobersides felt somewhat disarmed. “Well, yes…uh…I have been, since I was young.”
“Flying is a marvel. But I do miss running sometimes. Though, I was not quite as fast as you are. I’m certain you would have caught me, every time.” With a wink, the butterfly launched himself into the air and fluttered away, leaving Sobersides feeling not quite sober after all.
When Sobersides felt a good deal steadier, he made his way back inside. Lickspittle was still carousing with the kitchen fairies, and still slowly nibbling on the intoxicating delicacy. He seemed a bit louder and jollier than usual, but otherwise unaffected. Perhaps he had a greater tolerance.
“You’re just in time,” Lickspittle said, wiping a bit of spittle from his mouth. “The queen is about to sit for the presenting of new guests.”
“Then I came in too early,” Sobersides said, crossing several pairs of his arms. “Come, let’s get some air before one of your new friends decides to toss us before the queen’s feet.”
He tugged at the collar of Lickspittle’s shimmery jacket, expecting resistance. He was surprised when his friend rose and set down his food.
“You’re quite right,” Lickspittle said. “It won’t do to get presented to the queen, then die before the next ball, and never show up again. She’ll be insulted.”
Sobersides sighed. “Yes, I wouldn’t want to insult the queen by dying.”
Their passage to the outside of the ballroom was hindered now by all the fairies who advised them that the presenting was to start and they should get ready. All whom they passed thought the caterpillars were going to get themselves cleaned up, and perhaps to put on perfumes and decorations before presenting themselves to the queen.
“Can’t we stay and watch?” Lickspittle asked, still munching on his glowing flower.
“We can watch from afar.”
“We’re not leaving, are we?”
“No, no, of course not. But we will just slow down a bit, perhaps, eh?”
Sobersides was so absorbed with guiding his tipsy friend to the periphery of the ballroom that he ran into a fairy, who seemed also to be rushing, though in the opposite direction. He glanced up and took a breath to apologize when his breath caught in his throat.
For the fairy they had run into was the very one he had sought to avoid. The host of the sparkling ball.
The queen of the star fairies.
“Caterpillars,” the queen breathed. Her eyes went wide with wonder. She blinked and recovered herself and curtsied before them. “Welcome, caterpillars.”
“Your brightness!” Lickspittle said, and he bowed all the way to the ground. “Most luminous of all stars! Thank you for inviting us to your most exquisite ball.”
The queen of the star fairies beamed so brightly that Sobersides had to shut his eyes. When he opened them again, she had passed them by and was on her way to the seat where all the new guests in attendance would present themselves to her.
Sobersides found his breath again. “I didn’t bow.”
“Oh, it’s all right,” Lickspittle said with a wave of a few hands. “Met in passing there is no need to bow. And anyway, I bowed for the both of us. It’s as if I were your herald or your squire, eh?” He elbowed Sobersides, who recovered himself enough to begin sweeping his friend away again.
Lickspittle sighed. “Do you think a star fairy could ever go for a caterpillar?”
“I don’t see why not,” Sobersides said gruffly. He cleared his throat. “And it would be her gain.”
Lickspittle turned to Sobersides and gave a gasp of mock surprise. “Why Sobersides, you do love me!”
A few nearby fairies chuckled as they cast their curious glances toward the caterpillars.
Sobersides tugged at the scarf and pulled it slightly away from his neck. “Come, let’s get something real to eat.”
And so they did, perching themselves upon a table against a far wall, and munching on sunflower seeds. They had a brilliant view of the presenting stage and watched as fairies came before the queen and gave her thanks and gifts.
As happened sometimes during such gatherings, a fairy appeared who felt rebuffed, having not been invited to the party where everyone was welcome.
On this night, in a swirl of sickly gray-green fog, a toad fairy appeared. He transformed into the shape of a human man and strode toward the queen of the star fairies.
The music was silenced, and the crowd parted to give way.
“Queen of the star fairies,” the transformed toad fairy said, “you have insulted me greatly.”
The queen of the star fairies remained seated as she asked, “How so?”
“I received no invitation to this sparkling ball. I heard of it only by chance.”
“Any fairy is welcome to my ball. This is known to one and all.”
“No excuses,” the toad fairy said raising his right hand. In that hand, he held a wand. A sickly gray-green fog began to swirl at his feet as he brought forth the wand.
“For this great insult, I must punish you and all your guests.” He began to turn the wand in the air. “Try no spells, for I have frozen all spells. You cannot spirit yourselves away. You must stay, so that I may curse you.”
The queen of the star fairies rose then, and the toad fairy took a single step backward. But then stepped toward her again.
“There is no need for curses,” the queen said. “Sit and have a drink with your fellows.”
“It is too late for that, your dimness.”
With that, the toad fairy began to chant the words of his curse.
“Is there anything we can do?” Lickspittle whispered to the group of fairies closest to them, a few flower fairies and a firefly fairy.
“There’s only one thing that toad is afraid of, and that’s his mum,” the firefly fairy said. “But she’s leagues away.”
“And that fog has frozen all our spells. See the queen’s guard trying to whisk her away? Their spells are failing.”
Sobersides leaned toward Lickspittle. “That fog may not affect our legs. Caterpillar speed is not a spell.”
“It’s just a part of what we are,” Lickspittle whispered, understanding.
“Worth a try, I’d say.”
The two caterpillar fairies asked their new acquaintances where this toad mother lived.
While the toad fairy was distracted by his chanting, some who could flee were fleeing. Among them, ran Lickspittle and Sobersides. They ran all the way to the bog where the great toad mother lived. They found her in repose upon a rock. As quickly as they could, they explained the crisis and begged and entreated her help. The toad mother’s gray-green skin seemed to shift to a bright shade of maroon. She vanished in a bubbling mist. And the two caterpillars ran back to the ballroom.
“We have no need to be here. Why did we come back?” Lickspittle whispered to his friend. For the ballroom was now thick with gray-green fog. The caterpillars had to perch upon a table to stay above it.
Just as the toad fairy was about to utter the last words of his curse, a loud croak resounded through the ballroom, a croak so thunderous, so bone-rumbling, so rippling with menace that all save the queen of the star fairies were forced to cover their ears.
And the toad fairy stopped his chanting.
When the sound of the croak faded, a voice spoke.
“Just what in the boggy depths do you think you are doing!”
The toad fairy’s eyes grew wide. His human formed collapsed and melted back into his native toad form. In a quiet squeak, the toad fairy uttered a single word.
The sickly gray-green fog that swirled about the ballroom puffed away.
The great toad mother drew back and in one hop landed before the toad fairy.
“Ungrateful child,” she said. Her tongue leapt from her mouth, stuck to the toad fairy’s wand, and yanked it out of the toad fairy’s grasp. The toad mother swallowed the wand and said, “Explain yourself.”
The toad fairy blinked, his eyes wide, and filming over with moisture. “I was…just going to teach these fairies a lesson…for not inviting us.”
The toad mother’s throat ballooned as she peered at her son. “It is an open invitation to all fairies,” she said in a low and measured tone.
The toad fairy glanced about the room, as if searching for aid. But he received no help from those he was about to curse. Realizing this, he seemed to find his courage. He drew himself up, his own throat beginning to bulge.
“Great fairies should be invited by name,” he said. “Great fairies like you, mother!”
“You have been learning some poor lessons, my son,” the toad mother said, “and not from me.”
The queen of the star fairies approached them both, her gown glowing with soft starlight. “Thank you, toad mother, for saving us all from a terrible curse.”
The toad mother turned toward the queen. “Rest assured, your brightness, his punishment will be a terrible one. For a life without a name is a terrible life.”
Gasps were heard in the ballroom then, for as terrible a crime as the toad fairy was about to commit, the loss of one’s name was…well, it was unspeakable.
The queen of the star fairies raised a hand to halt the toad mother. “Perhaps, as you have indeed saved us and no harm has come to anyone this night, there is room for a bit of mercy.”
The toad mother croaked. “I would not grant mercy, brightness. But the stars are wise, wiser than this old toad mother. As you wish it. My son will lose his name for three moons only. If he survives, he will never darken your ballroom again.”
With that, the great toad mother opened her mouth and swallowed her son, the toad fairy, so quickly that Lickspittle, having blinked, actually missed it.
The toad mother bowed to the queen of the star fairies and then vanished into a bubbling mist.
As the mist dissipated, it seemed all the breaths that had been held were released at once. Tense shoulders softened. Moist brows were wiped. Fainted fairies were brought to again.
Before too long, the merriment resumed. The queen finished receiving the thanks and gifts of new guests, and she made her way around the ballroom, greeting and chatting with all her guests, old and new alike.
Lickspittle put a few arms around Sobersides. “A lovely night it has been.”
“Yes, yes it has.”
Lickspittle gazed at the queen. “My friend, I fear I am lovesick. And as I am sick, you must take me home.”
Sobersides chuckled. “If I must, I must.”
The caterpillars made their way to the entrance of the ballroom. As they came out into the crisp night air, Sobersides pulled his scarf a bit tighter and he gazed up at the twinkling stars.
“I’m not at all tired,” he said. “Perhaps we can have a drink of nectar when we get home.”
“Replace the ‘perhaps’ with ‘indeed,’ my fair caterpillar,” Lickspittle said.
But before they reached the bottom of the steps, they saw that someone was waiting for them there.
“Your brightness,” the caterpillars said in unison. This time, both bowed all the way to the ground.
The queen of the star fairies smiled at them. Her complexion was dark under the night sky, but her eyes glittered like…well, like stars of course.
“I know what you have done, caterpillars, for the eyes of a star can see far.”
Lickspittle and Sobersides glanced at each other.
“Your brightness, we meant no offense by not presenting ourselves,” Sobersides said. “But we are humble caterpillars.”
“Though we did leave our gift to you with the greeter. Did she deliver it?”
“I offer to grant you a wish,” the queen said, “in return for the noble deed you did this night.”
Lickspittle’s bristles began to bristle. Sobersides knew that meant his friend was excited. He also knew that he would let Lickspittle take the wish, for he was the one who had brought them to the ball. So Sobersides remained silent.
Lickspittle spoke. “Your brightness, I can think of nothing. You see my wish is already granted. You have granted it, and your guests have granted, and my friend here has granted it. My wish was to come to the sparkling ball and to have a grand time. And I have.”
The queen smiled. “No one remembers a time when we have seen any caterpillars at my ball. Everyone was just so happy that you came.”
Sobersides could hear what others could not, the touch of the bittersweet in his friend’s speech. They were at the end of their lives. So what use would they have for a gift from a queen? There was no need to ruin a merry night by saying so, however.
“I agree, your brightness,” Sobersides said. “You have already granted our wish.”
“Are you certain? There is nothing else you desire?”
Sobersides thought for a moment, not of a wish, but of the possibility that the caterpillars might be insulting the queen by refusing a wish. But as they had said their wish was granted before it was spoken, he deemed they had shown the proper respect.
Both caterpillars again insisted that the queen had already granted their wish.
“Then grant me a wish,” the queen said, “let me shake your hands.”
The queen shook each and every one of their hands, in thanks, she said, for saving them all from a terrible curse. It took such a long time that after the first few dozen, an audience began to gather, and when it was done, they entreated the caterpillars to stay just a while longer.
And so they did. Lickspittle and Sobersides went back inside, to eat, to drink, to make merry, and to run circles around the ballroom as the butterflies cheered them on.
It was near to dawn when they made their way back to their branch, still singing songs, and chuckling to each other about the night’s events.
They settled against the coziest leaf.
Sobersides chuckled. “You weren’t much of a lickspittle tonight, my friend. I heard you give many compliments, but none were unwarranted.”
“And you weren’t much of a sobersides tonight, my friend. I heard you telling naughty jokes to the kitchen fairies.”
They were silent for a moment. They leaned toward each other as drowsiness overcame them both. It seemed they would soon fall asleep, but then Lickspittle spoke.
“Do you suppose this is the last night of our lives?”
“If it is, we made it a grand one. I carry no regrets.”
“That’s good,” said Lickspittle. Then there is not much left to say.”
“Perhaps not anything left.”
And again they were silent for a bit, and again Lickspittle spoke.
“I love you, Sobersides.”
Sobersides smiled. “Do you know, Lickspittle, you are the best friend I have ever had,” he said, for he had still not quite worked up the courage to say the words he meant to say. “I’m happy to know you.”
It was only when he was certain that Lickspittle was sound asleep that he said, “And I love you, too.”
Leaning against each other on their cozy seat, the two friends fell into a deep sleep. A sleep from which they never expected to wake. And in truth, the caterpillar fairies as they were never did wake.
For by morning, there were two cocoons leaning against each other in place of the two friends. But that is another story. This one must end with the sleeping friends.
For it’s quite lovely how the caterpillar fairies ended their last night.
Copyright © 2019 Nila L. Patel