Volume 21, Number 3

The Migration

Barry Ryan

The Young Monarch Butterfly sat on the edge of his leaf. His wings hung limply behind him, unfamiliar and lifeless. It was two days since his sisters had taken their first step by hurling themselves towards the forest floor. The air had quickly gathered them up, oscillating them towards a blue sky. But the Young Monarch had been unable to step from the leaf that was his home. His wings felt clumsy and far too heavy to be supported by the air’s delicate hands. For two days he sat in the middle of the leaf and watched as his sisters explored the whole tree, the pond and sucked sweet nectar from flowers beckoning from below.

On the first day his sisters had returned occasionally, coaxing him to jump. They had sung softly to him of the freedom of flight and rolled out their tongues, spreading nectar onto his lips to tempt him with the promise of unexplored flowers. But the nectar’s sweetness drove him crazy, and as he had attempted to jump, the anger made him tense, binding him to his leaf. Eventually his sisters had stopped coming, relying instead on fly-bys to try to draw him over the leaf’s edge and into the wind.

The loneliness had worn him down. At night he retreated to the back of his leaf and curled up beside the remainder of his broken cocoon. It felt hard and cold and offered little comfort. He longed for past nights when, as a caterpillar, he had snuggled against his sisters on the leaf, waiting for the morning dew to settle. On waking, they drank dizzily together before chewing on the leaf’s edge. But even then, the height had made him nervous. He ate at the back of the leaf nearest the stem, while his sisters teased him by chanting:

We will fly higher than the stars,
Over hills towards our ancestors,
Over mountains bathed in quiet snow
And fall together to fields below

That had been before the long sleep when his sisters had spun their cocoons on either side of the Young Monarch. And there they rested, swinging like bells in a warm wind.

The Young Monarch had been first to crawl out of his coat and land on unsteady legs. For a whole night he waited alone, until dawn, when his sisters scratched and crawled their way from their sheaths and landed solidly beside him. They shook and stretched their wings, puffed up their chests and without a thought, threw themselves towards the forest floor. The Young Monarch flinched as they disappeared over the edge and cautiously peered into the void. The wind had gathered his sisters and was launching them upwards as they giggled excitedly together.

“Come fly, brother”, called the first sister.

“Spread your wings and let go, jump into the wind”, sang the second sister before disappearing from sight.

But the Young Monarch just sat in the middle of the leaf with his head hanging and his wings folded limp behind his back.

That was already two days ago and during this time, one by one, monarchs had fallen out of the tree, until the Young Monarch felt as though he was sitting on a leaf in an orange blizzard. Now and again his sisters would appear out of the blizzard, just in front of him, smile and disappear again while trying to encourage him to take the plunge. But their happiness only saddened him until, eventually, when they appeared, he just dropped his eyes and ignored them.

On the third night with the setting of the sun, fatigue was starting to wear out the Young Monarch. His legs had grown unsteady from tiredness and his head dizzy from hunger. The orange flakes had started to thin out as a chill filled the air and the Young Monarch could hear an excited chattering on the uppermost leaves of the tree. The journey was approaching, and soon, even his sisters would leave him, alone, on the leaf that they had always shared.

Shivering, the Young Monarch drifted slowly towards sleep and dreamed that he was left behind on the leaf. He dreamed that his unused wings had become rolled up like two fingerless arms while birds circled around him, swooping down with their claws. He lifted his arms over his head, time and again, trying to fend them off, until eventually a large crow captured him with its claw and lifted him off the leaf, flying higher and higher until the forest below looked like a field of grass. At the last moment, just before the Young Monarch fainted, the black bird released him and let him fall to his death while the wind ignored his flapping fingerless arms.

The Young Monarch woke with a fright and disorientated, he stumbled. Before he could catch himself, he fell over the edge. The forest floor approached with terrifying speed. He twisted in mid air. Screamed for his sisters. Tumbled around until he didn’t know which way was up. Then his back arched. The strain stretched his whole body. A shadow covered him and he looked over his shoulder. He saw a huge pair of orange and black wings lifting him upwards until he landed exhausted on a white petal soaked with dew. The Young Monarch drank until he thought that he would drown and feasted on nectar until the dawn opened the night into glorious day.

Excitedly, the Young Monarch looked up into the tree and tentatively stood on the edge of the petal. He closed his eyes and jumped. Once again the air pressure arched his back and the wind spread his powerful wings. He flexed them a couple of times to feel their strength. His face was forced upwards towards the sky and as he passed the uppermost leaves of the tree he sang to his sisters:

Come, follow, I am now free,
Follow, fly, so we may be three.

The two sisters woke from their sleep and filled with joy, leapt from the uppermost leaves to join the Young Monarch. They flew in circles, laughing and singing, higher and higher until they almost disappeared into the blue.

The commotion woke the other monarchs, and they struggled to greet a new day. The circles that the Young Monarch and his two sisters were making entranced them and their laughing and singing broke the peace of the morning. Excitement spread around the leaves, until eventually, the monarchs launched into the sky creating an enormous orange funnel reaching up as far as the eye could see. Once again, the long migration south had begun.