May arrived thick with caterpillars. Their squirming bodies swarmed the trunks of trees, like something out of a horror movie, while sunlight sprinkled through half-munched leaves. Cassy hated it. Those first days of spring were filled with dreadful anticipation of the caterpillars’ emergence. They’d descended upon the city, painting it in squiggling speckles of black.
“They’re harmless,” Jake assured her.
Tell that to the trees.
This was the third year of the tent caterpillar infestation. Cassy read online that infestations could last from three to seven years. It was a natural cycle. By mid-June the insects would pupate, by July be replaced by millions of brown moths.
“I could almost forgive them if they turned into butterflies,” she told Jake, helping him step over the ledge of the tub, lifting his leg when his right foot caught.
“What’s wrong with moths?”
Cassy lowered her husband into the lukewarm water. She tilted his head back, rinsing his hair with an old plastic cup. “Nothing.” She worked unscented shampoo into the roots of his hair, careful to avoid his incision. “But butterflies are prettier.”
“You never could stand ugliness,” Jake joked. “You know me,” she laughed, eyeing the line of sutures knotted across his head.
On Friday, when family came to see Jake, Cassy took a needed break from caregiving to go for a run. She jogged through the treed pathways along the river, crunching caterpillar bodies beneath her sneakers. She tried to focus on her breathing and form, ignore her worries about Jake, money, appointments. Curtains of invisible caterpillar silks billowed against her face and she pawed them away with an irritated hand.
When she returned from her run, Cassy headed to the couch where Jake spent his days slipping in and out of consciousness. She leaned over the back of it and planted kisses on his forehead, cheek, lips. “Doing OK?”
Jake’s eyelids fluttered open; a thin smile stretched across his lips. He ran an unsteady hand through her hair and pulled something from behind her ear, like a magician doing a coin trick. Instead of a quarter, his palm held a fat, writhing caterpillar. Cassy shuddered, picked up the caterpillar between forefinger and thumb and popped it like a zit.
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A week later, Cassy drove Jake to the doctor to remove his stitches. The doctor snipped the knots, used tweezers to tug at the thick black thread burrowed in Jake’s scalp, placed the gummy strands one by one on a tray where they clumped together. Cassy looked away from the discarded sutures, too like the dark snarl of leaking veins in her husband’s brain scan.
Back home, Jake tucked in bed — worn out from his short trip to the doctor — Cassy ripped tangles of caterpillars from the trunk of their defoliated chokecherry tree. She placed their wriggling, black bodies in a bucket, struck a match, and watched them burn.
Lauren Seal is an emerging writer, librarian and mentor for the teen and young adult poets of SWYC, the Spoken Word Youth Choir. Her poems have been published in the League of Canadian Poets anthology You are a Flower Growing off the Side of a Cliff, the Capital City Press Anthology and she was a participant in the Writer Guild of Alberta’s 2021 Mentorship Program