Author’s Note: This short story was inspired by a wonderfully, whimsically beautiful mixed-media artwork by Michelle L. Saxon. I am including an image of the artwork at the beginning of this post, with Michelle’s permission. Please visit her website, Teabags & Gardenias, LLC (http://www.teabagsandgardenias.com) to see more of her gorgeous artwork. I just love it and can’t get enough of the vibrant spirit that seems to flow from each piece. I only hope this story managed to capture even a teeny bit of this piece’s spirit and joy for life.
(a short story)
“Annalisa Maria, you are God’s special child. You are a wonder, and don’t you never let no one tell you different.”
That’s what Nanny Z always said. Annalisa Maria loved Nanny Z more than anyone in the whole, wide world. Maybe even more than anyone in the entire universe — although the idea of a universe felt scary and distant to Annalisa. She thought it was the kind of place where no one knew you, and where you would be lonely and cold because you had forgotten to bring along your favorite sweater and stuffed animal. It didn’t seem to fit Nanny Z at all. Nanny Z was lumpy and full of life. She smelled like peppermints and Ben-Gay, and she wore nubbly sweaters, even in the middle of the summer. She laughed at all of Annalisa’s jokes, including the goofy ones that didn’t make any sense. Her lap was soft and comfortable, and there was just enough room to curl up for a story before bedtime. Nanny Z always had time for Annalisa, and Annalisa always had time for Nanny Z. Annalisa couldn’t think up anything bigger or grander than the universe, and so, even though it didn’t seem warm enough or cozy enough, nothing else would do. Nanny Z was Annalisa’s whole world, and the universe was the only thing good enough to hold a love like that.
Annalisa loved it when Nanny Z told her she was God’s special child. “Say it again! Say it again!” she would demand, jumping up and down as her excitement bubbled over into the world around her. Nanny Z would laugh and call Annalisa a silly hopping frog, but she always said those special words — over and over again, as many times as Annalisa asked. This was one of Annalisa’s favorite things. It made her feel warm and tingly all over, like someone had opened her up and filled her, from head to toe, with the perfect mixture of warm honey and sunshine. Deep in her heart, Annalisa suspected those words couldn’t possibly be true, no matter how much she loved hearing them. No matter how happy and filled with love she felt each time Nanny Z said it.
Annalisa was trapped somewhere in the middle of a large family. She had three brothers and three sisters, and they were all good at something special. They all had normal names, too, like Toby, or Katherine, or Josh. Her oldest sister, Katherine, played the flute. Sometimes, she played for the rest of them at bedtime. Annalisa loved falling asleep listening to that music. It never failed to give her sweet dreams. Her next oldest sister and her oldest brother, Debbie and Toby, sang all the time. They sounded like angels, and that wasn’t just Annalisa’s opinion. Everyone said so, and they sang in the church choir. Annalisa tried hard not to be jealous of them, especially during church, but it wasn’t easy. She loved the way those choir robes swished and caught the light “just so”. She thought she would like sitting with the choir, too, because they got to be up higher than everyone else in church. Annalisa wondered if that meant they were all closer to God, but she was afraid to ask. Maybe she was afraid the answer would be “yes”, which, in a way, would be too painful. Her next oldest brother, Josh, was a great football player. At their team’s last game, Annalisa’s mom told her some scouts were coming to watch Josh play. If they liked him, he might get a scholarship to go to college. Annalisa wasn’t sure what “scouts” were, but she thought they might be people from the Boy Scouts or Cub Scouts. She looked and looked all around the stands that night, but she never saw anyone in a uniform. Or making the Boy Scout salute. Or even helping an old lady cross the street in back of the stadium. Her youngest sister, Clara, was a photographer. She spent every free moment wandering around town and the fields near their house, taking pictures of everything. And her pictures were beautiful, too. Annalisa thought Clara’s pictures were more beautiful than real life. And then there was Henry, who was the youngest. He was even younger than Annalisa, who was only seven, but he could already recite all his multiplication and division tables. His teacher told their mom Henry was a math prodigy. Annalisa didn’t know what a “prodigy” was, but just hearing the word made her want to be one, too.
Annalisa wasn’t good at anything. She sang off key, and she wasn’t able to play any musical instruments. She had tried the guitar once, but three of the strings had snapped before she managed to play more than four notes. Once, Clara had loaned her a camera, and Annalisa had spent a happy day following a family of mice in the field behind their house. She had returned home full of stories about them, only to realize she had forgotten to take any pictures. It seemed photography wasn’t for her, either. Annalisa didn’t much like sports; in first grade, she had gotten a “U” in Gym Class. “U” stood for “unsatisfactory”, which Annalisa thought was a bit harsh, especially since she had tried her hardest. It wasn’t her fault she couldn’t run very fast or do any push-ups. And she didn’t even like to think about math, so there was no way she was going to be a “prodigy” like Henry, no matter how much she wanted it.
Annalisa was shy and quiet, and it was easy for her to get lost in the hustle and bustle of her family’s busy life and noisy house. Often, her parents seemed to forget all about her, and Annalisa spent a lot of time alone or with Nanny Z. Annalisa didn’t mind all that much. Or, she tried not to. Sometimes, it hurt her feelings — like the time when Mom and Dad forgot all about her birthday, so there wasn’t a card or a cake or anything special. But, mostly, it wasn’t so bad.
Annalisa knew she wasn’t like her brothers and sisters. In many ways, she was a strange child. She lived in her own, imaginary world most of the time. She liked to spin and spin and spin in the sunshine, until she couldn’t tell which part of the world was up and which was down. She liked to follow the rainbows through the field behind her house after a big storm. Annalisa just knew she was going to find the end of a rainbow, one of these days. So far, it hadn’t worked out that way, but she kept trying. Annalisa loved animals. She made a little pair of ears, and even a tail, out of cardboard. On days when there was no school, she wore her ears and tail all day long. She liked to play hopscotch alone and pretend she was a cat or a dog or, sometimes, even a little pig. Annalisa loved pigs most of all. She couldn’t explain it, but there was something about them. Pigs seemed wise, in a way, like they understood all the best things in life, and Annalisa loved the way their faces always wore a smile, as if they had the most wonderful secret in the world.
So, how, Annalisa wondered, could she possibly be God’s special child if she was easily forgotten, had strange habits that no one else understood, and liked pigs? Annalisa was thinking about this the day she found the caterpillar. It had stormed the night before, and she decided to get up early to check on the family of mice that lived next to the big rock in the field behind her house. As she skipped along, hopping over mud puddles and enjoying the cool warmth of early morning sunshine, Annalisa tried to figure out what made her special. What was it about her that God might like? God was bigger than Annalisa’s mind could fathom. He was bigger than the ocean and the universe. Annalisa thought, maybe, He was bigger than the way she loved Nanny Z. But she tried not to think about that because it made her a little sad, and that made her feel guilty, although she didn’t understand why.
She was so lost in thought that she almost didn’t see the caterpillar. She hopped over a particularly large puddle and nearly landed on top of the poor little guy. He was stuck in the mud, half in the puddle and half out of it, and it seemed he couldn’t manage to break free. Annalisa crouched down beside the puddle and watched for a moment or two as the caterpillar struggled to pull himself out of the murky water and sticky mud. He wasn’t having much luck, and she realized one of his legs had broken off. Several others were stuck fast.
“You’re not a very pretty caterpillar, are you?” Annalisa asked, poking at the hapless insect with a small twig.
Annalisa felt guilty almost as soon as the words left her mouth, even though there was no one around to hear … and she was only talking about a caterpillar. Still, she figured caterpillars might have feelings, too. It was true, though. He wasn’t pretty like the yellow, black, and orange caterpillars she had seen in the woods last spring. He wasn’t furry like the ones that crawled under the front porch in the fall. He was chubby and a little bit short. And green — but not a vibrant, bright sort of green. He was the kind of green a person might not notice at all, unless they knew to look twice for it. There was nothing outstanding or incredible about this caterpillar. He was plainly ordinary in every way. Annalisa wondered if the caterpillar knew how unremarkable it was. Probably not, she decided.
She sighed and poked at it again, gently, with her little twig. She hoped she could wiggle the twig underneath the caterpillar’s chubby body and use it like a lever to heave him up and out of the mud. After that, she figured the caterpillar could find its own way back to wherever it belonged. No matter how hard she tried, the caterpillar remained stuck fast. Even worse, it seemed afraid of the stick, so it shimmied and wiggled away from Annalisa’s efforts to help it. Annalisa squinted up into the sky, which was a clear, deep blue with no clouds in sight. It was going to be a scorcher of a day, and she knew the caterpillar would never survive.
“I don’t much like bugs,” Annalisa told the caterpillar. “Not to be mean or anything. Just … well, you scare me a little bit. You have too many legs.” She paused for a moment or two, considering her options, and finally shrugged in resignation. “I guess there’s nothing for it,” she continued, “That’s what Nanny Z says. It means there isn’t any other choice, and, if the thing you have to do is something you don’t like … Well, you just better get it over with. So, here.”
Annalisa held out her hand, resting it on the ground near the caterpillar. She was afraid, and her fingers shook at first. The caterpillar raised the front part of its body up out of the mud and rested some of its legs against Annalisa’s fingers. Its touch was light and gentle, reminding Annalisa of the way bird feathers felt against her cheek, and she knew she didn’t need to be afraid. She used her other hand to scoop the caterpillar into her palm. She thought, maybe, it was relieved to be out of the mud. If she had been a caterpillar, Annalisa knew she would be happy for someone to come along and rescue her. She hoped she had done the right thing, but, now that the caterpillar crouched quietly in the palm of her hand, she felt almost giddy with excitement. She couldn’t wait to show Nanny Z!
Annalisa ran all the way home. She found Nanny Z sitting outside on the front porch, rocking back and forth.
“Nanny Z! Nanny Z!” Annalisa gasped, leaning against the porch railing to catch her breath. “You’ll … never … believe … what … I got!”
“Goodness, child,” Nanny Z replied, “You look a mess and a half. Mud all over your shoes and dress. Hair every which-a-way. Did a monster chase you all the way back from the field?”
Annalisa giggled. She knew Nanny Z was teasing her. Nanny Z was the only person Annalisa knew who didn’t care one bit if her hair was brushed or her shoes were clean. Annalisa had overheard Nanny Z telling her mom, more than once, that kids were supposed to play outside and get dirty. It was good for them. Even so, Annalisa tried to brush some of the dirt from the front of her dress with her free hand. It wouldn’t be a good idea to let Mom see her like this.
“No,” Annalisa said, still giggling, “There’s no monster back there. Just mice. And maybe a skunk or two. But, really — look what I got! You’ll never believe it!” She bounced up and down on the balls of her feet, unable to contain her excitement.
“Well, come on, then,” Nanny Z said, smiling and motioning for Annalisa to come up onto the porch. “Let’s see this amazing discovery.”
Annalisa stumbled up the steps and leaned against the arm of Nanny Z’s rocker. Very carefully, she opened her fingers to show Nanny Z the caterpillar. She was careful not to breathe on it. Nanny Z leaned over, squinting to get a better look at the chubby insect.
“Oh my,” she muttered. “He’s a fine one. A fine one, indeed.”
“Really?” Annalisa asked. She frowned down at the caterpillar, suddenly doubting her own excitement. “I don’t think he’s all that much. He’s pretty ordinary. But he was stuck in a puddle, so …” Her words trailed off, and she finished her sentence with a shrug.
Nanny Z chuckled under her breath and gave Annalisa a quick hug. “Sometimes, ordinary things can be the most wonderful,” she said. When Annalisa gave her a questioning look, Nanny Z laughed and shook her head. “I can’t explain it, child. It’s just something you’ve gotta learn by living.” She heaved her body out of the rocker with a slight groan as she continued, “Come on, then. We need to find some food and a proper home for your new friend.”
Annalisa spent the rest of that morning happily trailing along behind Nanny Z as she meandered through the garden, selecting certain leaves and gathering up a bit of moist earth and a sturdy looking twig. Annalisa was careful to keep the caterpillar safe, shielded from the breeze and sun by her cupped hand. She still didn’t think he was much to write home about, but, if Nanny Z saw something special in that caterpillar, Annalisa was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Once they had all their supplies together, Nanny Z took Annalisa into the kitchen and told her to take a wide-mouthed jar out of the recycling bin. She showed Annalisa how to poke holes in the lid and how to place the dirt, leaves, and twig inside the jar so her caterpillar would have a safe and cozy home.
That night, Annalisa was almost too excited to sleep. She couldn’t wait to see what her caterpillar would do tomorrow. She placed his jar on her desk, right across from her bed. That way, she would see him first thing each morning. As she drifted off to sleep, she dreamed that her caterpillar grew into a friendly giant. And they had adventures with elves in the woods behind Annalisa’s house. There was even a talking pig, who ran the general store and was her caterpillar’s best friend.
The next morning, the caterpillar looked exactly the same. He had chewed on some of the leaves, but he still was plain, ordinary, and an ugly sort of green. Annalisa watched him for a while, but he didn’t seem to know how to do any tricks. And she was pretty certain he wasn’t going to grow into a giant and take her to meet a talking pig. She sighed in disappointment and went about her day.
This happened often. Each morning, Annalisa would wake up full of hope and excitement, expecting the caterpillar would have, somehow, learned a neat trick overnight. Or that he had changed into a more interesting or more active or prettier creature. But, each time she looked into the jar, the caterpillar was just the same: chubby, hungry, green, and ordinary. It happened so many times that Annalisa eventually forgot about the caterpillar. She would remember every other day to check his leaves and give him new ones if he had eaten through most of them. But, other than that, she hardly ever noticed the caterpillar. He was just a fixture on her desk, living out his quiet, gentle life in the transparent isolation of his jar home.
One day, Annalisa glanced into the jar and got the shock of her life. The caterpillar was gone! In its place, a globby green shell hung from the twig Annalisa and Nanny Z had put in the jar. Annalisa yelled for Nanny Z and, when she came into the room, she showed her the jar.
“He’s dead! My caterpillar’s gone and died, Nanny Z,” Annalisa said.
She held the jar up so that Nanny Z could inspect it. Even though she had found the caterpillar disappointing, Annalisa was sad now that it was gone. She had gotten used to it, and her room, somehow, seemed emptier. But that was silly. It was just a bug — and not a very pretty bug, at that. Still, the sadness was there.
Nanny Z smiled and hugged Annalisa. She took the jar and cradled it gently in her hands, tilting it so that Annalisa had a good view of the green shell stuck to the twig.
“He’s not gone, child,” she explained, tapping the jar right over where the shell hung. “He’s in there. Now the show starts. Now … we’re gonna see something special. You just wait.”
And so, Annalisa waited. And waited. And waited some more. Each day, she peered into the jar, expecting to see something extraordinary. And each day, she felt the bitter sting of disappointment. When she complained about it, Nanny Z told her Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither was the universe. Annalisa wasn’t sure, but she thought that meant she was supposed to be patient. But it was so hard! Secretly, she suspected the caterpillar had let her down. She suspected it had been nothing more than an ordinary bug, which meant nothing was going to happen. That was the way things worked in Annalisa’s world.
After what felt like an eternity to Annalisa, something happened! She peered halfheartedly into the jar, expecting things to be the same as always: no caterpillar, one ugly green shell hanging from the twig. This had become the routine over the past few weeks. But, today, things were different. Annalisa was so used to the same, old boring view inside the jar that it took her a few seconds to realize the shell wasn’t green any longer. It was clear, like glass, and she could just see different colors through its sides.
Annalisa could barely contain her excitement. She grabbed the jar and dashed out of her room, clattering down the stairs and almost tripping over the loose carpet on the bottom step. She ran through the front door, wincing as the screen banged shut behind her. Mama yelled from the kitchen, telling her she needed to come back and close that door properly, but Annalisa pretended not to hear. She didn’t have time to stop; she was in a hurry, but she silently promised to apologize later — even if it meant getting punished. As she had hoped, Annalisa found Nanny Z sitting on the front porch, rocking and watching the day go by.
“Nanny Z! Nanny Z! It’s happening! It’s happening!” Annalisa called, the words riding out of her mouth on a wave of giggles.
“What’s happening?” Nanny Z asked as Annalisa came to stand next to the rocking chair.
“I don’t know what, but something!” Annalisa replied. She held the jar up to Nanny Z as she continued, “Look! It’s all different!”
“Well, look at that,” Nanny Z said, shaking her head. “It is a wonder.”
“So? What do we do now?” Annalisa asked, giddy with excitement now that something — anything — was happening at last.
“Nothing for it but to sit and wait,” Nanny Z said, nodding. She laughed at the disappointed expression on Annalisa’s face as she pulled Annalisa into her lap for a hug. “I know. It doesn’t sound like much. But watching and waiting is an important thing. Otherwise, you miss out on everything.”
Annalisa didn’t agree with this, but she knew better than to argue. So she nodded and settled in, cuddling up against Nanny Z. She held the jar on her lap, and they rocked and watched.
Just when Annalisa was about to give up on the whole thing, the shell split down the middle. And, out of all that mess, came her caterpillar! Only, he wasn’t her caterpillar any more. Instead of a chubby green bug, there was a beautiful butterfly. He perched on the twig, and Annalisa marveled at how the sunlight came through the glass jar and caught the jewel-toned colors in his wings. He sat still for what felt like a long time, but Annalisa didn’t mind. She was lost in the wonder of it all. How could something so ordinary and plain turn into this?
“It’s time to let him go now,” Nanny Z prompted when the butterfly fanned its wings.
Annalisa hopped down from Nanny Z’s lap and carried the jar into the yard. She stopped next to her mama’s rose bushes, thinking that might be a nice place for a butterfly to start his new life, and unscrewed the jar’s lid. At first, the butterfly didn’t move. Annalisa wondered if he really wanted to stay there inside the jar, where it was safe. She remembered what Nanny Z had told her, though, and she waited. It made her feel special, because Nanny Z had said waiting was important. And waiting was something Annalisa could do. Eventually, the butterfly walked to the edge of his twig. From there, he climbed onto the jar’s lip. He perched there for a second or two before unfurling his wings and taking flight. Annalisa realized she had been holding her breath, and she let it out in one long sigh of happiness as she watched the butterfly flutter away. For a second, she thought he would head right for the biggest flowers on the rose bush, but the butterfly flittered back toward her. He perched right on Annalisa’s nose. She could feel his light feet against her skin, and she smiled as he fluttered his wings at her.
“You’re welcome, Mr. Caterpillar,” Annalisa said, smiling. “I guess you weren’t so ordinary, after all.”
“Annalisa Maria, you are God’s special child,” Nanny Z said.
Annalisa stood there watching the butterfly flutter away. She felt the warmth of the sun on her skin and the fizzy feeling of love that filled her when she heard Nanny Z’s special words. God’s special child. For that moment, Annalisa knew exactly what it meant.