You know when you were a kid and there was always that weird boy who would stomp on caterpillars just to see its green guts splat out, and everyone would call him the Caterpillar Killer? I think that’s just what life is; the Caterpillar Killer. We’re all just caterpillars being stomped on by life, completely unprovoked. Sometimes you try your hardest to be a good person. You pay all your bills on time, tip your servers, and wait for your friends to enter their houses before driving off, only to still be stomped on by life. Just when I think I'm finally doing well academically? Stomp. Gotten my finances in order? Stomp. Seeing my parents live a long and happy life? Stomp.
It was a huge relief when Dad passed. The boot crushing me had been lifted, albeit it left marks that would never heal. As he approached 50, he was diagnosed with early stages of Alzheimer’s. I was only 10 at the time, so I didn't think forgetting where you put your keys was that serious; but by the time I was 12, I noticed he was telling the same stories to the same people, and when I turned 15 I felt like I was taking his years from him; as I grew older he became infant-like, forgetting how to walk or to feed himself. By the time Dad was 57, he could barely recognise me. His deterioration was like watching a lethal injection travel through an intravenous tube, waiting for it to enter the bloodstream; painfully slow, yet forthcoming.
I used to be able to cocoon myself in his arms. We would sit out on the porch swing with my mum and he would point out the different constellations; Orion, Crux, Pisces. Mum said that he took her to the planetarium he was working at on their first date, and mapped out both their star signs’ constellations with her. Dad loved telling that story and I always let him. I loved hearing him tell it; his eyes would always light up when he spoke about Mum, no matter how bad his dementia became. Mum always said that astronomy was his first love; he lived and breathed the universe. He’d make an event out of anything; the solar eclipse, the winter solstice, Halley’s Comet back in ’86. In his last years, we positioned his bed by the window so he could gaze up at the night sky. It was frightening to see a man who seemingly invented life, drained of it.
I carried him in my hands. He was enclosed in an urn, his personal chrysalis, and for once he felt the safety and comfort I always did when I was wrapped in his arms. I pulled the straps of my backpack to tighten it as I ascended the cobblestone stairs. The path ran through the hills, and the moonlight unveiled the life protruding stubbornly from its cracks; moss and miniature purple flowers dotted in the weeds. On either side of the stairs were yellow bulbs, phosphorescent as they drank up the moon.
It was already dark and the stars shone brightest in the countryside, the sky untainted by the urban smog. It was a full moon tonight too, the hills alight with a muted glow, and the further up I trekked, the closer it appeared; I could almost reach out and touch it. I looked back at the now-miniature town residing below me. The moon hung low, seemingly grazing the earth as stars surrounded it like cosmic confetti.
A soft breeze had picked up as I trekked onward; the night was warm and washed me in memories of summer nights on rooftops, when Dad would invite all our friends over and the adults would share bottles of chardonnay around the fire pit. The kids were enveloped in blankets or giggling inside pillow forts, watching a movie in the makeshift outdoor cinema that Dad had set up. I was really going to miss him. Although he was gone, he wasn’t dead; he was entering his metamorphosis stage. Preparing to be reborn; free from his shell to wander in his astrophysical form.
I checked my watch as I summited: 11:17pm. I set down the urn and swung my backpack to my front, taking out its contents bit by bit and organising it on the ground. Tissue paper, metal rings, glue, string, candle wax, paper towels, tape and two cotton sacks.
I began building. I had built a few trials at home so this one didn't take me as long as it used to. Once the cylindrical structure was complete, I left the paper towels to soak in candle wax.
I twisted the lid of the urn and pulled it off, a soft pop echoing. Gingerly, I poured some of Dad’s ashes in the two cotton sacks before tightening their drawstrings and double knotting them. I hung the sacks from the metal rings, on either side to maintain the balance. The lantern was ready.
I placed the candle wax-drenched paper towel in the centre of the lantern and lit it. A flame erupted, burning tall before flickering. I raised him up into the air, the breeze carrying him higher and further from the summit where I stood. I lay down on the ground, flat on my back in the shape of a star, watching Dad in his rocket ship, flying into the cosmos. No matter where he landed, he would make life for himself; grateful for the circumstances that surrounded him. Whether they were positive or not, he would not be hindered, and neither will I. The destination does not exist, so I will choose to be thankful for the path, wherever it may lead.
As the lantern floated into oblivion, merely a speck now, I felt a tickle on my finger. A travelling tickle. A tickle with legs. I sat up bringing my hand towards the moonlight to inspect it. A caterpillar! Its fat yellow body lugged itself across my hand; it was almost ready to cocoon.
I placed it back down on the grass and watched as it crawled away at a steady pace, oblivious to its terrain change.
“You’re going to be just fine,” I said.
Hebah Ali is a second-year Communications student, majoring in Media Arts and Production and Creative Writing. Her hobbies surround creativity and the outdoors, as she’s always either reading, writing, filming, or gardening.