Chapter 5 - Millie Monarch
Millie was dreaming, and her folded wings twitched and fluttered in dream moves. They weren’t bad dreams. Just confusing and a little bit anxious. And through the night she went from dreaming to half-dreams to moments awake and a revisiting of early memories sparked by the dream. She dreamed of that time before she came to live in the Arbor, that time when she seemed to be someone else, someone very unlike what she was now. She dreamed of the time when she crawled slowly along the stem of a milkweed, slowly chewing off leaf after leaf until she was too full to eat any more. She didn’t know why she had to eat the milkweed leaves, just that she had to. In her dream she crawled ever more slowly until she came to the perfect spot. And dreamlike she felt herself slow to a halt, her whole being motionless, even her thoughts. She couldn’t move. She became a statue, a prisoner within her own body, and the world became nothing to her, no sound, no movement, no sense of anything but a frozen calm. The dream shifted. She felt movement. She felt the need to struggle against her imprisonment. She shoved with her shoulders, she strained every bit of her body to free herself. And then she felt something break and she could thrust herself free, first her shoulders, then her arms, then her head was free and her feet managed to do the rest. The imprisoning material fell away from her. She lay still while her body dried in the sun and the breeze. She was there again, on the stem of a milkweed. But now she felt another need, to cast herself into the breeze and go somewhere. To find a flower.
The next thing she knew, she was up in the air and no longer bound to the earth or the stem of a milkweed. There were thousands of creatures that looked like tiger lilies fluttering up and down around her, millions of orange and black flowers flying all around her. In a cloud, they all descended in unison into a large flowering tree, and there they fed. Millie was content. Millie was happy. She looked at herself, or as much as she could see, and she was beautiful—sweeping orange wings with black beauty marks like veins and edged with white circles like owl’s eyes, slim hips, two lovely black antennae that hung down nearly to her eyes. And she felt the joy of sweeping through the air as quickly and gracefully as a ballerina. Life was good.
She and her companions cavorted up and around and in through trees and flowers. The days seemed endless, the nights comfortable as they slumbered in the protective arms of trees and bushes.
But then the air turned cooler, the nights even chilly. And some time later the air turned cold, the nights downright shivery. With no group decision, the whole congregation of monarchs instinctively began a flight to the south. They followed a route known in their genes. They flew and flew and flew to the south, farther and farther, spending nights in whatever shelter they could find, the days continuing their southern flight.
At last they could rest. They had arrived. This country was warm and humid and their numbers could spread out and live the good life.
But as the days and months floated by, there came a time when Millie felt a strange pull on her spirit, the need to take flight again, to move north to the place she first remembered as home.
The same drive took hold on all her companions and they again, with no group decision, flew in a mass toward the north.
The route they took eventually brought them over the Arbor, and many of them, Millie among them, feasted for days on the orange and grapefruit blossoms. When the time came for them to move north again, Millie stayed behind.
She had met Rollie and Buzz and Fred and most of the other inhabitants of the Arbor, and she enjoyed them so much she overcame her desire to fly north with her monarch companions. Instead, she remained in the smaller of the orange trees and socialized with her new friends.
“Millie! Are you there?” called Rollie one late spring morning. Millie flew out of the depths of the orange branches and circled Rollie’s head.
“Yes, I’m here. Here and there and everywhere,” she said as she went around and around his head.
“Stop that, Millie. You’re making me dizzy.”
Millie laughed and landed right on top of Rollie’s head, right between his ears and eyebrows. “Poor baby. A dizzy rabbit would be a rare sight indeed. You’d probably hop around in circles and then fall flat on your nose.”
Rollie rolled his eyes up, trying to see his tormentor, but Millie crept backwards on his head. “You’ve been with us for only a few weeks,” said Rollie, “and already you know how to bug me. Or should that be, ‘butterfly me?’ Tell me, Millie, when you were on your journey here, what kinds of places did you see? I want to know more about the outside world. The world outside the Arbor, that is. I just know there must be somewhere better than here.”
“Well,” Millie began, “I was very high in the sky when I was flying north and couldn’t see very much from up there. But whenever we came down to eat and spend the night somewhere, we managed always to find trees and shrubs and flowers and water. Some places were better than others, more beautiful. The earth was pretty barren on our last day’s flight here, many wild flowers living on the sandy soil, but not many trees and what there were of those were small and flowerless. And some of them were tall and green and leafless with mammoth branches that came out from the sides. But these trees had many sharp stickers all over them and we monarchs tended to avoid them.” She paused, thinking about that last flight. “But when we got here, there were many flowers and trees such as these orange and grapefruit trees you have. I think part of the reason I stayed, other than the dear friends I’ve made such as you, Rollie, is the beauty of this place, especially here in the Arbor.”
“Millie, dear, would you please leave my head and find a nice branch to sit on while I talk to you? I feel like I’m talking to myself and people will begin to wonder about me. But then, they already do. Many think I’m the village idiot.”
Millie flew to the end of a branch where it had been trimmed by Tucker’s reach, about two feet above Rollie’s head. “There,” she sighed, “is that better?”
Just at that moment, they both saw a flash that went right between them. The flash became Buzz Hummingbird when he turned sharply at the edge of the yard and flashed back to land on the branch next to Millie. “What’s up, you two? I’ve just been to my favorite feeder and now I’m full to the brim with sugar. Too bad you guys can’t stick your little beaks into that tiny hole that hides the sweet water. I guess, Rollie, your beak couldn’t be considered little.”
“I could have some if I wanted to,” said Millie, “but I have enough flowers around here, I don’t need to share your sugar water.”
Buzz had been the first one she met when she arrived at the Arbor. She and many of her monarch friends were feasting in the large grapefruit tree in the Yard when he circled the tree at high speed, just a blur as he went around and around, making her feel dizzy. That was where Millie learned that little trick she’d used on Rollie. Buzz had settled onto a branch near Millie and introduced himself.
“Hello, Gorgeous. My name is Buzz, Buzz Hummingbird, and I’m here to admire your beauty.” Buzz fidgeted and rolled his neck around as he gazed at Millie, fluttering his little wings anxiously.
Millie was so shocked she didn’t know what to say. Why in the world, she thought, would a bird find her attractive? Especially a bird as tiny as this Mr. Hummingbird. He was the handsome one, emerald green body with a ruby-red throat that looked almost like a gem. Handsome, even to a butterfly’s eyes.
“I, I, I’m Millie Monarch, and I’m very pleased to meet you, Mr. Hummingbird.”
“No, no, it’s Buzz. Why so formal? And you’ll be Millie to me. When did you and your friends get in? Musta been just this morning because I’d have noticed if it was earlier.”
The monarchs on the four trees in the Yard were so numerous they looked like flowers in motion as they flitted in and out among the real blossoms. “All right, then . . ., Buzz. But most birds find us, me, unattractive. Some birds spot one of us and think we might be a nice meal, but when they get close, they turn away and speed off with their noses high.”
“Those musta been birds with poor taste. I think you and your friends are most beautiful. And I’m a very good judge of beauty.” Buzz fluttered his wings and did a little vertical maneuver before settling down on the branch again. Buzz couldn’t sit still very long. His was a life of nearly constant motion, whizzing in and out on his sugar water runs. Just then Gabby and Greta Grackle flew into the Yard, returning from one of their daily forays at the nearby golf course.
“Well, if you’d just gotten in that cart when you were supposed to, you’d have gotten away with a full bag of peanuts,” Greta complained at her husband Gabby, as they settled to the ground beneath the orange tree. “But no, you just had to primp and preen in front of that hussy Grizelda Grackle. And by the time you got back to our business, the human was already gone. That just serves you right for being such a ladies’ grackle. But now I have to go without any peanuts too. You male grackles are all alike. Think you’re so handsome every female for miles around wants to just swoon all over you. Puff yourself up like a black balloon and strut around. Just you wait till you molt and lose all your neck and tail feathers. Then you won’t be so handsome. No respectable female will want to even look at you, let alone bat her eyes at you.”
Greta and Gabby were two of the great-tail grackles that lived in this area. The males have long tail feathers that act like the keel on a boat, and in flight they are graceful. But when they molt, they look like stubby-tailed birds from Hades.
“Are you about done with all that gab, Greta? You know, you shoulda been named Gabby the way you gab all the time. And I should be Garth. Don’t you think I look like a Garth? A handsome Garth?” He strutted around in a circle and fluffed his long tail up in the air like a flag. “Garth!? You look more like a ‘grubby’ than a Gabby. That’s what I should start calling you, Grubby.”
“Oh, yeah? Well, the years haven’t been so good to you either, Miss Blabber Mouth!”
Buzz and Millie and six or seven nearby rabbits listened to this harangue and all just shook their heads. Millie was new to the Yard, but she’d heard much the same argument the day before, and all the residents of the Yard were quite familiar with this daily fights between the grackle couple.
“And since you couldn’t get us any peanuts,” said Greta, “why don’t you fetch one of those pretty butterflies up in the tree and that will be my dinner?”
“What!?” whistled Gabby in his shrill grackle voice. “Are you crazy, woman? Don’t you know what they taste like? Why, once a long time ago, I pecked a bit of wing from one of those ‘pretty’ butterflies, and I nearly died. It was just awful! They may look pretty, but they taste pretty bad. You’re welcome to try one, though. Be my guest. Go ahead, try one.” “I think I’ll pass on that offer and go back to the golf course by myself and see what I can steal. I just know there must be one of those humans with an unprotected cookie or two. But none for you.” Greta flew off, leaving Gabby staring off after her, shaking his head back and forth. Buzz looked at Millie with a question in his eye. “Is that true, Millie? What that shrill old grackle just said about you?”
Millie looked down and couldn’t look her new friend Buzz in the eye. Her butterfly cheeks were red with shame. “Yes, Buzz, it’s true. We must taste pretty bad because no bird will come near us, and they certainly won’t eat us. I guess it’s because of the milkweed we eat as youngsters in that other life, the one before we become able to fly. The Great One must have built that into his plan for us, to protect us from creatures who would make a meal of us. The milkweed juice gets in our systems and is poisonous to everyone but us.” She looked up and into Buzz’s eyes. “And that’s why I feel so ashamed.”
“Why should you feel ashamed? I think it’s a wonderful thing, not to have to worry about any of those out to kill you. Everybody should have such a protection. My speed is my protection. I’m so fast no one can catch me. Besides, what self-respecting predator would consider me a meal. A hawk hors d’oeuvre maybe, but certainly no meal.”
The two became fast friends after that.
Now, she returned her attention to Rollie and his questioning of the Arbor and Arbor life. “Why do you want to know about the world outside the Arbor, Rollie? Don’t you think this is about perfect?”
“I don’t know,” Rollie replied. “I don’t know anything except the Arbor. But I feel there must be another place even better.” He looked at his tiny friends and smiled sheepishly. “I’m even writing a song about it. Would you like to hear what I’ve got so far?”
Millie and Buzz exchanged a look that said “A song? A song?” Both nodded.
Rollie cleared his throat and, in a soft, tremulous rabbit tenor, he began: “Life in the Arbor is good, so good, / So why do I feel so bad? / Life in the Arbor with all my friends / Should be fine for this rabbity lad. / But I feel a need / That I can’t ignore / To find a place / With more, much more.”
Rollie looked at them and anxiously asked, “Well, what do you think? That’s all I’ve got so far but I’ll keep working on it. Please don’t consider my voice, just my words. Were they all right, or, or . . . just awful?”
“I liked it, I liked it,” Buzz said. “But I still don’t understand why you feel bad about living here.”
“I thought it was delightful,” Millie said, “especially the part about ‘this rabbity lad.’ But I agree with Buzz. I too don’t understand your sadness.”
“I don’t understand it either. It’s just this feeling I have. Buzz, you’ve been in and out and up and down and around and about. What’s it like outside our Yard? Is it worse or better?”
Buzz was flattered that Rollie would ask, but in all truth, he hadn’t really scouted very far from the Arbor. This was his home too, and he never felt much need to go more than a yard or two to the south or north or east or west. “Uh, I’ve seen a bit away from the Arbor but not much. And what I’ve seen isn’t any better or any worse than the Arbor. Actually, I haven’t seen any other yards with arborvitae such as we have. So I guess our yard is actually better than any others.”
The more Buzz thought about it, the more he realized just how narrow his world was since he was born. And he thought, maybe, just maybe, he too would like to see what else was out there.