The Birth Of The Owl Butterflies

They hung in our kitchen for days,
a row of brown lanterns that threw no light,
merely darkened with their growing load.
Pinned to a shelf among the knick-knacks
and the cookery books;
ripening in the radiator’s heat:
six Central American Caligo chrysalids,
five thousand miles from their mountain home.

My father had brought them here,
carefully packed in cotton wool,
to hatch, set, identify, and display:
these unpromising dingy shells plumped up
like curled leaves, on each a silver spur,
a tiny gleam or drop of dew
Nature had added as a finishing touch
to perfect mimicry.

For weeks the wizened fruit had been maturing.
Now, one by one, the pods exploded,
crackling in the quiet kitchen,
and a furry missile emerged – quickly,
as if desperate to break free,
unhinged its awkward legs,
hauling behind it, like a frilly party dress,
the rumpled mass of its soft wings.

It clung unsteadily to the cloven pod,
while slow wings billowed with the blood
that pumped them full.
The dark velvet began to glow
with a thousand tiny striations,
and there, in each corner,
boldly ringed in black and gold,
two fierce owl-eyes widened.

Uneasy minutes, these, before Caligo
can flex its five-inch wings and fly.
They drooped still, gathering strength,
limp flags loosely flowing.
When two butterflies hatched too close,
and clashed, each scrabbling for a footing,
one fell and its wings flopped
fatly on the kitchen floor.

I pictured them shattering later
on taps and cupboard corners;
but my father gauged his moment well,
allowed a first few timid forays,
then swooped down, gentle-fingered,
with his glass jar for the kill.
The monstrous wings all but filled it,
beat vigorously, fluttered, and were still.

(from Birth of the Owl Butterflies, Picador, 1997)