The Caterpillar Star By Billy Brooks

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Now and then, when the moon flaunts a particularly peculiar hue, one is overcome with an insatiable yearning to fall backwards. The first port of call is more often than not the scrapbook. But, typically, upon looking at the postcards within, memories fade into milky incandescence. Some girls will then turn to systematic meditation, sitting in their secret garden beneath the stars to conduct an internal excavation of the labyrinthine galleries of memory that course around the mind’s inner temple. However, a momentary lapse of concentration at such a time is inevitable, even in the most seasoned manipulator of the Dharma. The more curious nostalgist must therefore undertake extreme measures in order to enact a visceral descent into the metaphysical realms of her memory. Opium. Mescaline. LSD. Dimethyltryptamine. And while consumption of these substances no doubt lends itself to lucid reminiscence of days gone by, personally, I was always looking for something with more of a kick.

It was most fortunate, therefore, that I last month received correspondence from a Professor W.M.A. Darling. She described herself as, I quote, “a distinguished author of the occult” and “renowned cartographer of pan-psychic medicinal practices throughout the northern regions of Central America”. It seems she had, by chance, come upon a collection of articles from The New Oxford Journal of Psychology which made explicit reference to fragments of my case history. Much to my surprise, as I had assumed all traces of those records had long ago rotted away in the depths of a municipal dung heap in some obscure quarter of the world. Nevertheless, Professor Darling had apparently been so greatly moved by the detailed accounts of my former childhood delusions that she thought it necessary to track me down and offer her unique assistance, just in case I were still consumed by any desires of reliving those experiences.

It was with this in mind that she wrote of a substance with particularly powerful hallucinogenic capabilities. A plant, to be precise. Said to grow in the moist and shady regions of the Cloud Forest in the Sierra Mazateca. Once consumed, the ground seeds of this psychoactive plant, known locally as the Drinneuatl, and used for thousands of years by Mazatec shamans in their healing brews, would bring upon the most sanguine textual harmonies between memory and flesh imaginable. It would, she wrote:

…shepherd the consumer to the gates of their spiritual domain and present them with the most transformative memories from their past. With all mental and physical concerns abandoned to the ether. More effective than any weapon in the pharmacologist’s arsenal, I can assure you.

Inside the envelope Professor Darling had enclosed a small wooden figure, wrapped in tissue paper. It was jaguar-like in appearance, sitting upright, flashing a set of enamel fangs. I soon discovered that upon pulling at its tail the statuette would open its mouth to reveal an interior compartment, within which was housed a small chest. And there, inside, were a handful of seeds, imbued with picture-book tints of tangerine, crimson, indigo and mulberry.

I set aside jaguar, seeds and letter for some weeks, at first believing the whole thing to be nothing more than a Venus fly-trap. Perhaps planted by one of my nieces or nephews, all of whom had always seemed keen on putting me out of misery, thereby terminating all visiting duties they had been obliged to perform since my sister’s passing. During their last biannual visit to the home, I observed how my eldest nephew and his wife were hardly able to hide their repulsion at seeing me when I had been wheeled into the garden by Nurse Rooney. They looked upon me as if I were just a bag of withered prune skins, shrinking and diminishing in the autumn sun. I concluded, therefore, that it was not beyond the realms of possibility that one of them had sent me a poisonous substance and constructed such an elaborate set of false documentation in order to ensure my consumption of it. For I was quite sure they’d always known of my desires to return to the past, and would have no hesitations in exploiting those particular obsessions.

In fact, it was on being first driven here that I overhead my eldest nephew complaining to Doctor Waller of the infantile delusions from which I had been suffering ever since he’d known me. He enquired whether or not there was a cure. Doctor Waller replied that such delusions were unfortunate but not uncommon in women of my age, especially those dealing with such intense unresolved traumas and wish-fulfilment phantasies as I. Nevertheless, he had learnt over the years that these psychological wounds could be quite effectively remedied by healthy reminders that what’s past is past. “Let them see for themselves that even with such childish thoughts in their head, they cannot live as they used to,” he said. “For their fragile bodies will be unable take the strain of the childhood imagination, one so boundless and naïve in its scope for future growth. Women like your aunt will soon realise that, quite simply, they have grown too infirm to crawl down those holes and into those tunnels and play pretend as they once did in the summer days of old.”

And yet, despite Doctor Waller’s warnings, the prospect of even the vaguest of insights into those now long-forgotten worlds of my childhood wanderings, before the inevitable culmination of my physical decay, proved far too alluring. And so, following Professor Darling’s precise instructions, I hid two of the seeds within the folds of my dressing gown and, after supper, was able to crush them into a fine powder between knife and spoon over my peppermint tea, wholly unnoticed. Poison or not, my insatiable curiosity was in sore need of some form of gratification.

There were no instantaneous effects on my mental faculties or physical condition, beyond a bitterness on the tongue, coupled with a dry mouth and a rather grievous loosening of the bowels. However, such sensations were nothing to be alarmed by at such a place, especially following evening mealtimes. It was only following my third trip to the lavatory, when a particularly ill-tempered Nurse Rooney observed with some annoyance that my face had begun to ever so slightly swell, that I felt a rather brilliant change was about to take a hold of my body. And yet, all initial sensations were concentrated not around my apparently swollen face but upon my tongue, where the dryness dissipated and I instead felt the warm taste of plum pudding and custard, followed by roast turkey, cherry tart and hot buttered toast. Revelling in such sensual pleasures on my palette, I must have started drooling onto my gown, for Nurse Rooney groaned and tutted in disgust as she wheeled me away from the dining room and towards Doctor Waller’s office.

“Always kicking up such a fuss,” she grumbled. “Doctor Waller will take a quick look at you, then it’s straight to your room, straight to bed.” But when I gazed upwards I no longer saw Nurse Rooney’s plump, fleshy visage glowering ahead, but an altogether different beast. Some specimen from a crypto-botanical playground. A half-camellia, half-nurse, with fleshy pink petals growing in small trapeziums around her face and a large yellow anther, coated in pollen, outstretched where once her nose had been. I gave a quick yelp of delight at her fantastical appearance, which must have come out as a scream of anguish, for Nurse Rooney quickened her pace and wheeled me with some force into the doctor’s office.

Doctor Waller looked up from behind his desk and slithered along the carpet towards us. The Doctor Waller who I had known during my many years at the home, it should be stressed, did not usually slither, but this Doctor Waller was a lot more reptilian in design than the Caucasian model I had first encountered all those years ago. He pressed an ice-cold claw over my eyelid and pulled up the flesh, before inspecting my pupils. Then, placing a wooden lolly stick down onto my tongue, he peered into my mouth. After a twitch of his eyes, he turned to Nurse Rooney and sighed. “She’s taken something again,” he said. “Looks like she’s had an allergic reaction this time. We’ll have to get it out of her to stop the swelling. Might be fatal, given her physical state.” Nurse Rooney’s arms, sharp like thorns, wound around my bony shoulders with a vice-like grip, causing me to let out another scream. Then she carried me from my chair, scolding me like an infant while she did so, and placed my crumpled body down upon one of the hospital beds in the corner of the office. One by the window overlooking the meadows which bordered the home. The meadows over which I now saw glide thousands of white rabbits in a procession beneath the darkening night sky.

It was when Doctor Waller leant over my prostrate body with a needle poised for insertion beneath my leathery skin that I had a sudden urge to stretch out my legs. Coinciding with the satisfaction of that particular urge was another scream. Not one of my own, but one of Nurse Rooney’s. Craning my neck, I saw that in stretching out my legs I had inadvertently smashed a hole in the glass window with my feet and, in the process, sent the world-renowned doctor’s reptilian body flying through said window and hurtling across the pale meadows beyond like a gently skimming stone upon a moonlit sea. And yet, even then, as I watched my feet dangling in the distance, I only wanted to stretch out further. The lower half of my body felt like a telescope in an observatory, with each stretch revealing a further compartment hidden beneath the skin. It was as if my toes could almost touch the blades of grass and the soft white rabbit furs over which Doctor Waller’s reptilian body had been sent flying.

I turned to face Nurse Rooney, who was feverishly trying to open the door to Doctor Waller’s office and make a hasty retreat but for a large, outstretched finger, about the size of two saltwater crocodiles, which was blocking her path. Following an unfortunately timed muscular spasm that worked its way through the upper half of my body, I soon realised that the finger was my very own. With only the gentlest of twitches, I had sent Nurse Rooney’s flailing, stem-like body crashing through the door and out into the hallway in a sea of pollen, where the other residents and nursing staff had gathered to see what had been the cause of all the commotion. Realizing that in the process of kicking out my telescopic legs I had ripped my dressing gown and undergarments clean off my body, I quickly felt myself blush a shade of peach when the others set their eyes my way.

And yet, far from recoil at the walnut wrinkles which enveloped my ever-expanding naked body like layers of the earth’s crust, or the winding varicose veins which pulsated around my skin like thousands of blue and green streams, they looked up at me in awe. All of them smiling uncontrollably, like new-born infants on first hearing their mother’s voice. Invigorated by the radiant warmth of their smiles and subsequent cheers, I felt, for perhaps the first time in twenty years, that I might be able to stand up. As I did so, the top of my head broke through the ceiling of Doctor Waller’s office. But I felt only the lightest of tingles as my neck and shoulders crashed through the harsh concrete. The bones around my neck, which once would cause me to weep in agony at the slightest touch as I lay on my bed, felt as brittle and sharp as the ivory tusks of a Pacific walrus. I pulled the rest of my expanding body, which had rapidly grown to the size of a mammoth, up and out through the ceiling and, without looking to cause any more damage to the building, took one precarious step from Doctor Waller’s office and into the garden.

A group of residents and other patients soon collected outside to join me, so captivated were they by my appearance. And they looked up at me with a golden glint in their shrunken eyes that told me they wanted to know what special sweetener I had sprinkled over my tea to produce such magnificent growth. I bent down and carefully curled my arm around the sides of the building and through the window of my own room. With unimaginable sleight of hand, given my gargantuan proportions, I located the wooden jaguar sent to me by Professor Darling and handed it down to the gathered crowd below. On finding the seeds within, they one by one began to rush inside, before crushing and then pouring them over their tea cups as I had done so earlier.  Within minutes, the effects had taken a hold of them. However, none grew in size as I had done. Some, in fact, shrunk to the size of a peanut. Others sprouted translucent wings and pinkish feathers along their spine, before hovering up and around my naked body like a flock of flamingos. One of the women saw the few grey hairs on her head multiply and then wind around her torso down to her feet like thousands of roots. Each one tinged with red and orange, so that from the height at which my eyes had now reached, she looked like a walking column of flames.

Feeling like chef de partie at my very own kitchen of alchemical delights, I gazed out over the meadows, and saw the lights of distant cities twinkling along the horizon. I felt that with only twenty paces I could reach London. I considered making visits to my nieces and nephews along the way. Perhaps peering through their windows into their bedrooms and informing them that any obligations to visit their mad old aunt could from this point onward be thoroughly disregarded. But, looking up, I saw a particularly peculiar gleam in the moon’s eye. And as I reached upward to move myself closer to the vast expanse of stars in the night sky, I glanced a phosphorescent feline grin gradually materializing on its lunar surface. And then, as I squinted my eyes, now the size of two great crystal lakes, I saw curled tightly around the North Star a purple caterpillar, wreathed in lavender smoke.

I recalled Doctor Waller’s absolute conviction that such a deteriorated and deflated body as mine would be powerless beneath the weight of any childish fantasies. However, as I stretched my head up towards the cat’s shadow painted upon the moon and the caterpillar curled around his burning star, I came to the realisation that, despite all my life’s yearnings for moments past, for falling down a rabbit hole one last time, I’d not looked back once, all night.

A girl like me never needed to look back. As long as she kept on growing.

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Billy Brooks

Billy is a writer and filmmaker currently based in Greater London. In his work he explores the darker sides of the creative impulse and the boundaries that separate fantasy and reality, especially in relation to the realms of memory. Much of his work has been inspired by mythology, fairy tales, English folklore, and classic children’s stories. His dramatic monologue for radio, “Elaine”, was released in Winter 2020, while a stage adaptation, “Orpheus and Elaine”, was shortlisted for the Mono Box Theatre’s Playstart Competition in 2019. Both works, like “The Caterpillar Star”, reimagine and speculate on potential post-narrative trajectories of fictional women.

One day he would love to see a kingfisher in Richmond Park.

Image from Clker Free Vector Images on Pixabay

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