Once upon a time, there was a man who took a walk in the woods as the sun rose. He strolled among the beautiful trees, and as he did so he spied a single, lonely butterfly cocoon hanging from a twig and trembling. The man peered closer at the cocoon, and saw one slender antenna force its way out. Holding his breath in awe, the traveler scooped the cocoon into his hand and, ever so gently, used one fingernail to help the little insect. He carefully slipped the brittle brown casing away and discarded it, letting it flutter to the ground like a crushed leaf in autumn. Beneath the dull wrapping, a pair of brilliant orange and black wings lay furled close to the butterfly. Still struck speechless by this miracle of life and rebirth, the man brought his hand close to his face and painstakingly picked the tiny scraps of cocoon from the bug's delicate body. And then, with the butterfly exercising its newly grown wings, he continued on his path with a spring in his step.
Ten minutes later, the butterfly had not yet departed. It had stretched out its marvelous, tiger-patterned wings and was flapping them in the early morning sun, but still did not even attempt to take to the air. The man did not mind; it was a beautiful creature and he felt very peaceful and secure, holding this newly transformed life in his hand.
A half hour passed, and the man grew worried. He did not know how long it took other butterflies to use their wings for the first time, but surely a half hour was not practical. Still, he marveled at his tiny companion's fragile beauty and intricate wings as he walked deeper among the trees.
Another hour elapsed, and the sun was hanging high among the sparse clouds. The man grew weary and sat upon a rock in a shady clearing, wiping sweat from his brow. His stomach growled, for he had left before breakfast, and his arm became sore from being held upright. He set the butterfly on his knee and watched it flex its wings and sedately explore the fabric of his rough leather leggings.
"Butterfly," he asked it at last, "why have you not flown away? The day is clear, the wind is calm, and you have two splendid wings with which to carry yourself." The butterfly said nothing, but the traveler heard a chirping giggle up in the trees. He looked up, and called out warily to the unseen presence.
"Who's there?" At his words, a chubby sparrow hopped to the end of a branch and peered down at him. The little bird giggled again, then spread her dusky brown wings and flew down to alight on the baffled man's other knee. She preened her wing and then looked up at him with amusement.
"Foolish man," she said to him, laughing a high, fluting laugh, "by helping this butterfly from its cocoon, you have sentenced it to death."
"What! How have I done that?" The man gasped, alarmed and offended. He had helped it from its prison and protected it when it could not fly away; certainly that was no death sentence. The butterfly flapped its lovely wings again and rested, sad and silent and unaware of the fate the bird had predicted for it.
"A butterfly must fight its way from its own cocoon." The sparrow explained, pecking at a loose thread on the man's tunic. "It needs this strength to make its first flight. And now it has none; this butterfly will never fly. It would have been all right if you guarded it in that way. But you have fought its first battle for it, and now there is not hope for it to ever fly. The same is true for every living creature." The bird fluffed her feathers, glanced up at the sun, and continued patiently. The man listened, a feeling of dismay settling over his heart.
"If I had helped my chicks hatch from their eggs, true, the beginning of their lives would have been easier. But the world is a harsh place, and to face it prepared, they needed the strength of a challenge overcome." For a moment, the little bird looked sad. She cocked her head and looked up at the man, feathers ruffling again. "But you have taken that from this butterfly. Butterflies live to take wing, but this one's wings are too weak to carry it now. You have as good as killed it yourself, my good man."
With that, the sparrow took the helpless butterfly in her beak. Its wings flapped in agony once, twice, and then the insect was still. The tiny bird winked at the dumbfounded man and took flight, hurrying home to feed her hungry children.