Maren Karlson: The Dust Speaks

Maren Karlson
The Dust Speaks
Online exhibition supported by FUTURA
Centre for Contemporary Art
May 15th 2020 - Forever
Photography by Caroline David


My face heats up as I try not to cough. Tears sting the outer corners of my eyes. As I hold my breath, a violent quake ripples up through my rib cage.
Avoid eye contact with the teacher! He won’t notice. What’s his name again? Stop stop stop please stop.
“Kiera, are you alright?” Ugh, shit.
“Oh, yeah, can I use the bathroom?”
I lunge for the door. The hallway is quiet. My chest bursts open, erupting spasms of thick wet air.

The worst part about being sick is trying to hide it from everyone and failing. Your body betrays you and gives out, despite your best efforts to remain invisible. I’d heard some of the students at this school had stopped referring to me as “the new girl”. The only thing they’ve learned about me in the first month of ninth grade is that I’m sick. I don’t really talk to anyone, so I guess it’s only fair they come to their own conclusions since I haven’t revealed much else for them to work with. Walking down the hallways, I avoid eye contact and just look straight ahead. I find it easier than attempting to greet strangers I don’t know. The less material they have, the less I can be made fun of. When I wait for my mom to pick me up I always pretend to be talking on the phone to someone, so I don’t look like a loser waiting alone.

Today my mom is picking me up early because the nurse called her at work. I have a fever again. I’m tired, sweaty, and relieved to skip track practice.


She pulls up in the big white Saab we call “the boat”. A piece of the front fender is still missing since I begged her to drive into the huge leaf piles on our street. She didn’t notice the cinderblock buried underneath one of them. The boat with the missing tooth.

“Hello, HellooOH!” her signature, overly cheerful greeting.
“Hey mom, ugggh”. I’m barely holding it together.
“Sorry you’re not feeling well again, Kier. I picked up your antibiotics so you can start them tonight. I didn’t know bronchitis could even last this long. The doctor says it could be stress related. Are you stressed? You’ll have to stay home and rest until your fever goes down, then we’ll see. But try to cheer up, ok? I stocked the fridge with rice pudding.”
I shrugged and glanced at her left hand because it looked strange, like a claw. Her fingers had formed a sort of cage, which she was resting on the top of the steering wheel awkwardly.
“What is...are you holding something?"
She smiled and slowly opened her fingers, moving her hand carefully closer to me. A fuzzy white caterpillar speckled with black dots arched its neck in my direction and leaned towards my outstretched fingers.
“I found it on the driveway, remember when you used to play with these when you were little? You loved them so much.”

The caterpillar makes a bridge with its body and reaches over from my mom’s hand to mine. It hurriedly crawls up my wrist, stopping a few times to sway its black head back and forth wildly. I feel the soft prickles of its spines brushing my arm hairs, and the undulating movement of its legs on my skin. Its feet press gently into me, giving me a tiny massage. The caterpillar keeps searching until it finds a suitable spot to take a pause, and rests on my shoulder for the remainder of the drive, watching the road ahead. When we get home, I carefully pluck it off my shirt and lay it on a big waxy leaf that’s jutting out of the closest bush. My curious companion inches out of sight into the shade.


The next day I wake up with matted hair in a pile of mushy tissues. My room is slowly becoming a graveyard for juice glasses and soup bowls. Still groggy, I notice something sitting on my dresser that wasn’t there last night. I get out of bed and pick it up and examine it. A light green box, with photos of butterflies and happy looking children printed on it. On the front side in bubble letters it reads “BUTTERFLY GROW KIT. WATCH NATURE COME ALIVE! Ages 4 and up”.

I guess Mom really wants me to do something other than watch TV for 2 weeks

I tear off the front tab of the box and line up the components of the kit on the dresser. There wasn’t much in there, just two objects– a flattened out cylindrical net, and a transparent cup sealed tight, containing five black baby caterpillars.

The caterpillars are so small they look like worms. They’re crawling atop a brown congealed substance, and frantically consuming it.

Over the next four days in between sleeping and drinking more herbal tea than anyone should, I watch them grow. They eat, and eat, and eat. They inch around the small cup, wriggling over each other, and eat some more. They’re starting to look more like caterpillars now. A kind of spiny fuzz is developing all over their flexible bodies and their eyes are more visible. Dark, shiny orbs bobbing from side to side.


The sky is bright auburn. I’m walking to the forest behind my house with the overgrown path. I step over the rusty chain right onto the prickly weeds, but they don’t hurt my feet this time. There is no wind, but the trees are rustling and shaking violently. Branches snap and fall to the ground. I run deeper into the woods towards the source of the sounds. It gets so loud I cover my ears, wincing. The wood creaks, screeching as it breaks. I come to a small opening where the bushes are low enough that I can step over them and look up at the tall trees whose branches and leaves are high above me. Nests. White webs of floss coat the leaves and branches. Each one is small, maybe the size of a football, but there’s hundreds of them connected together, enmeshed into one gigantic covering that blocks out any light from where I’m standing. Inside the nests is a frenzy, I can see the movement of the caterpillars. They’re chewing and chewing and chewing absolutely everything.


Morning. I wake up tired from the fever dream and look over at the cup. The caterpillars aren’t visible, or moving. As I examine closer I can see that overnight they’ve all relocated to the lid of the container, and enclosed themselves in cocoons. They’re hanging, only twitching ever so slightly in their hardened cases. I lightly tug on the seal and pull it off, it’s time for them to move into a bigger house.


The woods again, this time quiet. No traces of ravaged trees. I walk along the path until I get to a small stone cottage. I peer into the dusty window. The single bulb hanging from the ceiling is lit. The bulb is a funny shape, it’s not totally round. It’s more elongated and in the shape of a J. It’s not actually hanging either. The chrysalis is floating in the center of the room emanating radiant pastel lights. It changes from sun yellow to soft green. Its center is beating like a heart. The room gets brighter and brighter, so bright I have to look away. The brilliant light floods out the windows of the cottage, and everything turns white.


I’m not sure how much time has passed, but I feel like I’m getting better. I’ve been sleeping so much the days and nights blur into a continuous thread, like a slow moving wave. It feels like I’m following the transformation of the creatures inhabiting my bedroom. I like being in sync with their time. Cocooned in my bed covers, I move a bit like they do. Just twitching once in a while. Twisting and turning gently under the sheets, my very own chrysalis.

At some point, the creatures stop moving entirely. They seem hard, impenetrable like stone. I hear a faint crackle, then a few more. One by one, the insects split open their pods and slowly emerge. They’re wet, wrinkled and dark. I watch them stretching, limb by limb. First antennae, then tongue, legs, and finally, wings. The first flaps and steps out onto the mesh net are hesitant, cautious. Then they’re still again for a while. I think maybe they need some time to think about what it means to be a good butterfly before I let them go, so I decide to take a nap.


I don’t recall ever being in this field with tall grass before. Bending down to pick a tiny violet colored flower, I grip the stem tightly between my fingers. An amber butterfly with black and white splotches on its wings floats in front of my face and drops down to inspect what I’m holding. Another one lands on my shoulder, then my arms, my face. I’m surrounded and I feel them settling on every inch of my body. Their soft, flitting wings make my skin tingle. I close my eyes. They feel heavier, like they’re pressing into me. I’m warm, cradled, weightless. I open my eyes, and they’re gone. There’s a coating of dust all over my skin, painted in the same pattern as their wings. My entire body is orange, with black and white splotches.

For the first time I wake up and my pillow is dry. I take a deep, long breath. My lungs don’t rattle. All five of the painted ladies are still in the net, waiting.

I put my finger through the loop on the top of the net and anchor my other hand on the bottom to make sure it's steady. I carry them down the stairs and throw open the back door. The air hits us. This is the first time the butterflies get to breathe in the outside air, and it feels almost the same for me. As I unzip the net, the first three rush out in a burst. They flutter their wings so fast my eyes can barely follow them. They all head out in completely opposite directions. The fourth butterfly lingers for a moment, until leaping assuredly into the garden and landing on some potted azaleas. There’s only one butterfly left now, and it’s not moving. I reach my hand into the net and it slowly clambers into my hand. I try to persuade it to fly over to the azalea bush, with its bright pink enticing flowers. The butterfly finally takes off in the direction of the woods. In the center of my palm where it stood is a smudge of orange dust. I don’t brush it off.

Instead, I float.