Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Zerynthia temernika

Wake up, kids! It’s time for another

Tonight’s story is called

Andrei and Lilya were cousins, and much in love. They spent most of every summer at her father’s dacha near Rostov-na-Donu, playing together in the forest. One June afternoon, when Andrei was eleven and Lilya eight, nineteen strange aircraft flew overhead, issuing colorful clouds that steeped all the trees in a new pesticide. While this pesticide scarcely accomplished its purpose, it did manage (in a matter of days) to make the local bats as small as bees and the butterflies larger than seagulls. This was especially true of the vibrant Ciscaucasian festoon butterfly (Zerynthia temernika), a species common to that part of the woods. These insects had in fact become so enormous that they could no longer fly in the usual manner, but were obliged to scramble up a tree trunk and glide off a suitably elevated branch. This made them easy to catch, even for a pair of children with fishing nets.

Upon apprehending one of the creatures, Lilya would hold it still while Andrei gently sliced off its wings—which they would store away with the intent of using later for binding books. Then they would epoxy the butterfly by its legs to a long, sturdy stick. This they would suspend over a large jar of honey, chutney or a similar preserve, granting the lepidopteran full access to the sweet substance.

Without fail, the long probosces would uncoil willingly and slurp ounce after ounce of the stuff. The insects’ bodies grew visibly plump, and their multiple corneas would twinkle with possible merriment. Perhaps they ate to forget their recent mutilation—or perhaps they’d forgotten already. One the jar was emptied, the children would twist off the creature’s head and hold the body over an open fire, roasting it to golden brown.

Ah! The pastries of Copenhagen and Provence could never compare with these succulent layers of melting flakes interspersed with wells of true ambrosia! Lilya’s father couldn’t understand why they were never hungry for dinner. Were there ever a snack one could never tire of, this was it.

Sometime in early September, while the adults were out mushroom hunting, both Andrei and Lilya quite suddenly became ill with pronounced gastric pains. Their conditions swiftly worsened and they were rushed to a hospital that very night. There they lingered for weeks, incontinent, heaving violently whenever fed, staining the sheets a bilious green. The doctors had no idea of how to proceed with these mysterious cases, and by the month’s end both children were found dead in puddles of their own filth, their faces frozen in painful grimaces usually not seen on patients so young.

THE MORAL: It’s always fun until someone gets hurt.


Monday, September 29, 2008

Citrus juglandis

PHOLILOTUMNUS, son of Hermes (Mercury) and the Naiad Astophaxibia (ibid.). Variously described as the tutelary spirit of false prophecy, of prevarication, or merely of fibbing. He appears in most accounts as a gaunt, stooped figure who claims to be advanced in age but responds to threats with surprising vigor. The dingy hue of his long robe makes it impossible to determine if it is clean. He always bears in his fist a small garland of Sicilian burr shaddocks, also known as walnut limes (Citrus juglandis), which he will offer as a remedy for whatever ails those he befriends.

But he is not to be trusted. Depending on the obscure walnut lime's stage in life, its effects on man vary sharply: As a bud, it is a powerful emetic, effective on contact with the skin; when blossoming, its ripe fruit (legend has it) can rid one’s blood of any harmful poison. But once dead, its dried zest is said to corrupt the flesh and eventually kill those who touch it. The hard outer casing does not change throughout the growing season, making the state of the fruit difficult to confirm.

The better-known tales have Pholilotumnus outwitted by clever intended victims, such as Pratinoxos (ibid.), who, aware that Pholilotumnus was, by character, lying about the fruit’s property, ruled out his initial claim, leaving two possible conditions for the plant — which, through further deduction, he narrowed to one: the dried and lethal stage. Pratinoxos then used the limes to vanquish the giant serpent poisoning his well (rather than attempt to purify its waters).

Fragments of early Satyr plays depict Pholilotumnus using his garland to threaten groups of paunchy Sileni, who, also aware that he is lying about its danger, snatch the fruits away, and either eat them (if they are ripe), or, if they are in bud-form, overpower Pholilotumnus and force him to vomit.

From: Clema Meskine Vermelt, Mythological Glosses for To-day’s Readers, Cambridge: Rohaurght & Druffton, 1871: p. 327.

Thursday, September 25, 2008


Saturday, September 13, 2008

Calidris bellicosus

Our stance on this matter is reaffirmed by none other than Herodotus, who cites a Sinopian traveler as having seen, outside a Scythian encampment on the banks of the Gerrhus, a pair of Maeotian bull sandpipers (Calidris bellicosus) incited to combat for the benefit of a crowd. He noted that the birds sparred with great fierceness, though conical muzzles of stiff hide hindered their beaks from dealing grave wounds. A spectator explained how a rousing fight could boost the virility of these ornery waders, producing not only larger broods, but more robust chicks that grew into meatier birds. It was to the breeders’ advantage, then, to set the sandpipers against each other, though not to the death; thus the sport flourished with these checks in place.

It emerged that within this site, the municipal chieftain staged similar battles, but his craftsmen would rig out the birds in more elaborate restraints, binding their already-clipped wings and weighing down their legs to impede both movement and equilibrium. This filled them with a wild vexation that departed only when they were allowed to mate — with gainful results for their keeper.

And further east (the historian concludes), in the heart of the Scythian territories, those alleged descendants of Skythes known as the Royal Tribes imposed yet grander curbs, enclosing their downy pugilists in bronze-girded spheroids of cured pelt. Preceding a match, the keeper would open a tiny exterior flap to introduce a ration of air and a caress from an opponent’s feather — an action sufficient to fill a bull sandpiper with the spirit of Ares. What ensued resembled nothing so much as a skirmish between strangely motile eggs. In fact, to stifle and goad the species in this manner could supposedly conjure the conditions of an actual egg within the casing, making the adult bird a renewed embryo, but in magnified terms, so that it emerged from its second hatching a superior creature, doubled in size. Herodotus was dubious of this claim and we may dismiss it entirely.

From: Burncourtin Raldice, Littoral Avians Delineated from Known Specimens, London: Ficknor & Velsonport, 1829: p. 248.