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The soft breeze twirled its way through my long blonde hair as I rocked slowly back and forth on the rickety old swing set. The cow, with its smooth black and white skin which had earned him the name Oreo, twitched his tail in an attempt to swat away the flies that surrounded him like a pack of angry dogs. The rooster crowed and the chickens scampered around on their frail little feet, driving their beaks into the ground like hammers and coming back up occasionally with a worm wriggling helplessly between their tightly clenched jaws. The dog barked and sprinted off between the trees in pursuit of an invisible squirrel. It was fall. The leaves on the trees had changed from a dull green to a variety of bright and fiery reds, yellows, and oranges. I jumped from the swing, my feet landing with a satisfying thud against the cold ground.
She sticks the landing! I thought to myself, standing tall, imagining myself in a leotard, a crowd cheering as I, the six year old gymnastics prodigy, finished a perfect routine on the uneven bars.
I shuffled my feet as I walked through the yard, kicking up fallen leaves with my shiny, new yellow rain boots. I breathed in the cool air, allowing it to fill my lungs and spread an intense and calming chill throughout my body. I loved being outside, allowed to explore the world beyond the restricting walls of my home. It was as if all the magnificent things in the world were out there waiting, having been created specifically for me to discover. Suddenly, I caught sight of a miniscule movement out of the corner of my eye. On a nearby stump, something I could not see was causing a pile of leaves to tremble. I crept up to the rotting stump, careful not to crunch any leaves beneath my feet. I reached a small, shaky hand toward the stem of one of the quivering leaves. I prepared myself for some horrible unknown beast lurking just under my fingertips. I squeezed my eyes shut until they were little slits, my vision spotting with the pressure. I tore the leaf away to unmask the hidden creature and slowly opened my eyes wider. There, resting among the moss and leaves was a caterpillar.
This was no ordinary caterpillar. It was plumb, as though it had overeaten at Thanksgiving dinner and its insides were now about to burst through its own skin. And what skin it was! Thick black and brown striped fuzz coated the caterpillar, reminding me of the mink coats I saw women wear in the old fashioned movies they played on television. I reached out and brushed a finger carefully across the caterpillar’s back. It felt similar to the soft bristles on my older sister’s makeup brushes. Cautiously, I slid my palm underneath the mysterious creature and held it close to my face. I looked him in the eyes, or rather, what I guessed to be his eyes. It was hard to distinguish any facial features hidden underneath all the fur. As I stared intently at my discovery, I knew that this caterpillar was special. I needed to protect him and preserve his beauty. I cupped both my hands around him and skipped back through the yard to the front door.
“Wooly” I said aloud, peering at him through the cracks between my fingers, “I will call you Wooly.”
Wooly was my new best friend. I created a home for him inside of a pink bucket I had unearthed from the sand box. I filled it with all the things he loved; moss, grass, leaves, and twigs. Every day, I would lift him carefully from his shelter and cradle him in my palm. We would walk around the backyard, touring the beautiful world I had grown up in. At night, he slept in his bucket, resting on the railing of our front steps. I had wanted him to sleep inside with me, where he would be safe from the dangerous monsters that lurked in the night. However, my mother insisted that Wooly would be much happier sleeping outside under the stars. After much consideration, this seemed like a reasonable request. I knew Wooly loved his new life with me, but I also understood that he was wild at heart; he needed some freedom, and being cooped up indoors during the night, just would not do. Besides, he was safe, wasn’t he? In the home I had built for him, surrounded by all his most valued possessions.
This was where I was wrong.
One morning I woke up, yawned, and leaned my head against the window, as I did every morning. This morning though, my view of our front yard was blurred by rain drops that clung to the window screen. It looked like it had rained hard in the night. My mind immediately flew to Wooly, helpless in his bucket, as the large droplets of water shattered around him, flooding the dirt floor. I raced to the kitchen and wrenched open the door, my heart pounding. I yanked the bucket to my chest and peered down inside.
Wooly’s home lay in ruins. The leaves and moss were soggy and the twigs I had arranged for him to climb on had all snapped in two, crushing the earth laid out beneath them. And there, cowering in a corner underneath the debris was Wooly. I reached him and scooped him out, rocking him slowly in my arms like a baby doll. I examined the damage. Wooly was okay, frightened certainly, but okay. I pet him gently, humming along to an unknown tune until I was able to coax him out of the tight ball he had formed in his fear. Tears stung my eyes and dripped down my rosy cheeks.
How could I have let this happen?
I had thought that it was my duty to take care of Wooly, but now I saw that not even I could protect him from all the dangers in the world. I had wrenched him from his pleasant home out of love, but now I saw the damage I had caused. I knew what I had to do.
I slipped my feet into my rubber boots and climbed down the front steps. I stood at the edge of my mother’s flower garden, cuddling Wooly close to my chest. My mother appeared in the doorway.
“What are you doing?” She asked.
“I have to set Wooly free.” I replied determinedly. My mom smiled knowingly and watched as I knelt down next to the garden. I spread my palm flat and allowed Wooly to wriggle his way into the soft soil. I watched as he wove his way through the last of the surviving flowers my mom had planted that summer. I knew he would be happy here. As I stood, I lost sight of Wooly as he burrowed his way deeper into the camouflaging soil. For a moment I imaged one of our evil chickens ripping Wooly from the earth and swallowing him whole, and a wave of panic shot through me. I took a deep breath.
No. I thought quickly. This is for the best.
It was hard to let Wooly go. But, as I walked back up the front steps and into the house for breakfast, I realized that sometimes you have to let go of the things you care about the most.
From time to time, on my excursions through the back yard, I would see a furry little caterpillar like Wooly, and I would wonder: Could that be him? Sometimes I would pick one up and stroke the soft bristling coat. I would sit there, with this caterpillar and imagine Wooly, having made a home for himself, with a wife and children. I saw him giving his family tours of the yard, just as I had done for him. Or teaching them all how to climb across the skinny twigs like a tight rope walker at the circus, just as I had taught him. But mostly, I just hoped, that wherever Wooly was, he had not forgotten the little girl, with the long blonde hair, who had loved and cared for him so deeply.