Danaus awoke from a seven day dream of having been a bird with wings that stretched out far into the sky. But emerging through the cone of her egg sack toward the light of day, she found she had no wings for flight. Only a cluster of many slow and uncoordinated legs.
She was still very new to the world, however, and had yet to shed the memory of the dream. Looking up the long milkweed stem she stood on, she measured it would likely take her entire life to reach the top, but if she started now, perhaps one day she would feel the open wind beneath her long cumbersome belly.
Upon reaching the second level of leaves, Danaus found her movements had become too strangled and suffocated to go any further, so that all she could do was perch and rest awhile.
“It’s good to rest,” came a voice from above. “Don’t be discouraged. I assure you, resting is a part of the journey also.”
She wanted to ask who it was that spoke, but her face was too tight now to form words, and the lids of her eyes closed shut by themselves.
Danaus dreamed again of soaring the skies, and in the morning, greeted the sunrise as though she was busting out of her skin. And in fact, that is exactly what she was doing. Away fell the shell that had held her prisoner in her own body, exposing fresh skin that tingled as the sun brushed its gentle fingers across her back.
“Are you ready now?” asked the unseen voice of the day before.
“Yes! I am ready to take on the world!” she replied.
“It gets more dangerous from here,” the speaker warned. “There will be birds above waiting to make a snack of you.”
“I’m not scared. I was born to fly. I will reach the top.”
“In that case,” he told her, “you should eat. Not carefully like you have been. Dig down to the white beneath the stem. That’s where the poison is.”
“You want me to ingest poison?”
“Yes. For you it is not poison, but medicine. It will keep the birds from eating you.”
“I don’t know I should trust you,” she said. “Who are you?”
“I am Asclepius,” he replied. “Named for a great god of healing.”
“I am Danaus. Nice to meet you,” she told him, before digging in for a meal, as she was instructed.
After filling her belly until it sagged heavy between her many feet, she resumed her ascent. The sun felt hotter and the breeze stronger and when she looked around her, the wonders of the world spread out before her in the way a distant spider web shimmered, and in the dance of the spotted lady bug as it scurried over the long arch of a blade of grass. All of these things she could never have imagined before, so that she knew there must be many more unseen things waiting to be discovered.
But each time she began to make progress, her movements would become constricted again until the casing of her too small body brought her to a standstill. Rallying against her own skin, and exhausted she would say, “I can’t go on,” but remembering her dreams would add, “I must go on.”
“You will,” Asclepius would assure her, “when you are ready.”
Danaus had no time to rest, having been born with the fear that she would not have enough life to realize her aspirations. But her body choked her into a forced rest at its will, so that each time she had no choice but to wait patiently for the outer layer she no longer needed to break away.
Danaus awoke one morning, feeling much too large for the way she remembered herself. “Good morning!” Asclepius greeted her. “How do you feel on this fine day?”
“Fantastic! But strange. As though I have doubled my size.” Danaus replied
“You’ve done more than that,” he said. “You will have grown two thousand times your size before you reach the top.”
“Will that be soon?” she asked.
“Yes” said Asclepius.
“And then I can see you at last.”
“I am not sure I will be here that long. I must fly myself soon.”
“Wait for me? Please.”
“Danaus,” he said, “I wish I could promise you that, but when my wind blows, it will be my time. But don’t worry about me. You must worry about your dream.”
“My dream is to fly. Wait for me and we will fly together.”
Danaus worked her many legs as fast as she could up the stem of the milkweed, until at last there was nowhere further up to go. The pink petals of the wild roses blushed below her as bees kissed their centres. The wind at last tickled her belly and shuffled her antennae. But her friend was nowhere to be seen.
“Asclepius!” she called with panic.
“Yes,” he answered.
“I was scared you had already left. Where are you? I can’t see you.”
“I am inside this pod here, along with many many others. It is getting very tight and crowded here. Soon our wind will come and we will be launched out to our destinies.”
“Can I come with you?” she asked.
“Have you formed your wings yet?”
Danaus looked down the long wrimpled folds of her body. There were no wings. She had reached the sky, but she was not yet a bird.
“Ah,” said Asclepius, understanding her silence. “They will come yet, but not before I leave, I fear.”
Danaus was sad, as she looked out into the open sky. “It is so big,” she said. “If you leave before me, how will I ever find you?”
“There is no chance, Danaus. Together we are all part of a much larger cycle of things. Only one in ten of your kind ever make it, and yet you did. It was your role in the cycle to be that one who survived. When I leave, don’t worry. If it is a part of our cycle, we will meet again.”
Danaus sat quietly and reflected on how far she had come. No longer could she remember the moist smell of the earthworms, or the glint off the black ant’s back. The clouds were so close now she could almost touch them, but it was not far enough.
“Danaus?” said Asclepius.
“It is time. My wind has come.”
“No,” she cried. “I will go with you.”
“You would fall to your death Danaus, and then how would we meet again?”
Just then the pod that held him cracked open with a snap, as a gust lifted Asclepius by the fluffy tuft of his fine hair, carrying him far away from her.
Danaus stood peering hard into the horizon, until he faded beyond the blue and white of the sky. And then he was gone.
The sun hurt through the tears in her eyes. Defeated and earthbound even at her great height, she crawled from the light to the underside of a leaf to be alone with her loneliness. But it was not alone enough, so she wound her crippled body up tight until it was hidden in a chrysalis far away from the world that had not given her wings when she needed them.
The weeks passed and she gave up on wanting to return to the outside. All her dreams inside the dark cocoon were filled with the promise of flight, but Asclepius was gone and she was only asleep.
And then one day Danaus came unexpectedly awake again. Her back itched and she suddenly missed the feel of the sun. She didn’t know where she would go or what she would do if she went back out into the world. But she thought maybe with the last of her life, she would jump from the leaf and take the final risk that it would cost to feel her body move freely through the air.
She pushed out of her little shell, her body damp and strange feeling to her. Blood pumped from her shoulders out beyond where she had remembered having had sensation before. She crawled back to the top of the leaf, and standing there under the morning sun, caught the wide shadow she cast.
Turning her head and looking back she saw them now, the great wings she had grown in her dreams, the sun baking them hard and ready for flight.
“Come, sister!” chattered one hundred voices above her.
“Is this my wind?” she called back.
“Yes,” replied the many fluttering orange and black creatures as the passed overhead. “This is the south wind that leads us home.”
Danaus filled her lungs with breath, and as if by reaction to the tickle of the wind, let her wings shiver in ripples, until she rose up into the air to join the mass Monarch Migration.
Her travels took her over thousands of miles to where the leaves were thick and green and the fruit ripe. The weather was warm and the sun shone often, but still she thought constantly of Asclepius, her lost friend.
Then one day, when she least expected it, the wind came again—the kind of wind that calls the heart to follow. “Can it be?” she asked.
“Oh yes,” replied the Monarch who was perched next to her. “For each of us, there comes a second wind.”
Danaus did not know where her second wind would lead, only that it was hers and must be followed.
She flew many weeks back over familiar places that now appeared strange—the flowers and grasses shrunken, but exploding with vivid colour. She flew until the wind no longer blew for her, and then, exhausted, she settled on a milkweed to rest.
“Danaus?” the milkweed asked.
“Yes. How do you know who I am?”
“By your feel. I knew you in darkness, so how could I not know you now in light?”
“Asclepius!” she cried. “Where are you?”
“But I don’t see you?”
“I am right here.”
Danaus lifted a foot and looked at the flower beneath it.
“I know, I am much bigger now. And you? Look how you have grown? You have your wings. And I have my roots.”
“But you cannot fly with me now,” Danaus said disappointed.
“It is all part of the cycle,” Asclepius assured her. “I will feed you nectar from my flower to give you strength, and you will carry pollen out to the other flowers for me, and bring pollen from them back here to me.”
And so Danaus was Asclepius’s wings, and he nourished her for it. Until one day when Asclepius had little nectar left to offer the already waning Danaus.
“I am very tired,” she told him. “I am not sure I can go out again.”
“Yes, I know,” Asclepius told her. “There is a new wind coming for you.”
“But I don’t want to leave you.”
“You won’t,” he said. “You will always be right here with me, but this is the way of our cycle together. You will lay your eggs on my leaves, and when they awake, I will feed your children and keep their dreams of flight alive.”
Danaus did as Asclepius asked, and placed her eggs in his care, but her heart felt so heavy, she did not think she could fly again when the new wind came for her.
“Asclepius?” she said.
“I think I must rest now.”
“I think I must rest now.”
“Yes, Danaus. It is time now for you to come up here to the top. Your wind is almost here.”
Slowly Danaus crawled to the top of Asclepius’s dwindling flower and looked out across the meadow that spread before her. She was once a caterpillar that dreamed of wings, and now she was a butterfly who had travelled half the world and back again to find her friend.
“Close your eyes and rest now,” Asclepius told her. “I will hold you until it comes.”
Danaus kissed him softly with the last of her breath and fell away into a sleep that transcended the touch of sunlight.
And as her babies dreamed they were birds, the wind came softly under her still wings and carried her body over the sea of milkweed, the seeds of Asclepius trailing softly behind her.