The roads of the lion city are dominated by hedges of camwood, an African treelet that probably gained traction with local planners for its leguminous ability to thrive in poor soil, the shy, undistractive flowers that never seem to set seed in this country, and a singular lack of character. The plant's high tolerance for regular pruning is a boon to estate managers who spare no effort in creating bland, green walls that separate pavements from parks and screen the street from the smart. The natural habit of Baphia nitida is markedly less tidy, however; left to its own devices, the shrub tends to explode in all directions with long, intrusive sprigs bearing dark, shiny leaves, and may even grow a trunk and attain its true height under a canopy of blight.
Strays are seldom allowed to mar the serenity of suburban fences, so every sapling that breaks the monotony of sanctioned thickets is removed with extreme prejudice by men who are also under orders to inspect the gutters that run alongside the hedges and slice off any shoots that peek out from the slopes. The ferns, vines and herbs that temper the harder edges of the heartlands suffer a cropping but they come back again and again with every breeze and storm that sends spores into the ditch and seeds down cracks and culverts, where they vex the efforts of councils on the warpath against untrimmed maladies.
The green reapers do miss a few spots that are hard to reach, easy to overlook or hidden between paths where few bother to stop and nobody gives a damn. One such recess, tucked in one of the busiest corners of a satellite town, ends by a deep monsoon trench as a grassy cul-de-sac fringed by camwood and ornamental gingers. Palmflies, day-flying moths, grass blues, chocolate pansies and small brown skippers rest on leaves between sips, changeable lizards guard the feet of rain trees, and bees – blue-banded as well as carpenter – work their way through the costus, unbugged by passers-by consumed by sweeter stuff. The vegetation also harbours a flutter of dragons: some use the shrubbery to recharge after flights of passion over a nearby pond, while others hunt from the safety of dense foliage until they gain the livery to make a play for open waters.
The farthest end of this nook also hides a wild cinnamon, barely visible among the camwood but still holding its ground against the onslaught of municipal blades to reach the height of its neighbours. The bushlet has also managed to weather the appetites of browsers, with perhaps a little help from parasitoid friends, but the odds evened out for at least one common mime fresh from its penultimate moult as a wingless grub and sitting smug on an exposed leaf. Having run a gauntlet of beaks, stings and bites for nigh ten days, the cat probably felt entitled to a breather and a break from its daily routine of hide and feed.
In its earlier stages, Chilasa clytia discourages predators by offering a passing resemblance to fowl poop, but the disguise probably wavers as the cat grows and crosses the line between excrement and enticement, from shit to sweet. By the fifth instar, protective mimicry has given way to trigger warnings that bring up the memory of off-flavours and bitter treats. The pre-pupal mime, a gaudy contrast to the greys, browns and greens of other local swallowtail cats, sports a streaky pattern of cream and pale black, with rows of carmine spots and bicoloured processes between the head and final abdominal segments.
The cat presented a chance to observe the later stages of its life-cycle, so its perch was plucked, rolled into a makeshift cocoon and shoved into a side pocket. It then spent the next four days in the safe haven of a clear plastic container, munching on young cinnamon leaves (picked from a largish tree by a quiet bend in a nearby neighbourhood), resting for hours at end to process its meals, and extruding copious pellets of frass that recall black peppercorns but consist of globules of undigested fibres. When molested, the cat readily everted an osmeterium from its prothoraic segment, creating the effect of a miniature kaiju as it reared up and issued silent screams of rage and odorous emissions accompanied by the thrashing-about of pudgy forequarters.
The cat put a halt to four days of surreptitious detours when it abandoned its feast and fury to take up a spot on a twig in its cage. After securing its butt to the bark and throwing a belt of silk around its back, the caterpillar entered a stupor that caught me off-guard, for it shed its skin during a mid-morning economic noodle run, by the end of which the larva no longer resembled a bug but the broken remains of a minor stump, albeit with an ill-disposed head capsule at its base. The pupa then dozed for nearly a fortnight before the imago emerged, again with infortuitous timing, to float around the desk and frustrate the other captive cat as it sought the sky beyond a wall of glass. There was a brief pause, for the record so to speak, then the mime found a crack in the screen and fled this high estate for a spell on the wing and sips of heaven in the gardens of a city on edge and in loathe with its drains.