They lined the bookshelf above my desk in the tiny bedroom my sister and I shared. Glass mayonnaise jars that housed crickets, grasshoppers, spiders, beetles—one jar even housed a small garter snake. I loved lying on my bed, the top bunk of a bunk-bed set, and watching the small creatures move around in their makeshift habitats.
My sister, who slept in the bottom bunk, didn’t like them. Oh, she was a good sport. She tried to drum up an interest in creepy crawlies, but she didn’t share my enthusiasm for them.
I spent hours catching flies for the spiders and snake, worms for the beetles, and cutting greens for the crickets and grasshoppers. I enjoyed my little jungle until the crickets offered a rousing chorus one night, keeping my whole family awake.
My mother, in an uncharacteristically diplomatic move, insisted that I put the crickets outside, but allowed me to keep the rest of the creatures on my bookshelf. That lasted a few more days, until my sister and I woke up to large red welts on our arms and legs.
My spider, a common garden variety and not poisonous, had laid eggs. The eggs had hatched and the tiny baby spiders had escaped through the pinholes I’d pounded into the metal lid. Though the spiders weren’t poisonous, the itchy bites meant that my whole collection needed to move outside.
So I lined up the jars in the back of our yard, where the locust trees would shade the inhabitants from the summer sun. I’d learned what could happen to tiny creatures trapped behind glass when the sun shone in strength. It wasn’t a pretty sight.
I loved my tiny captives because the circumstances of my life had helped me to fist notice, then observe in detail, the habits of the smallest creatures. As a very young child, the flies that crawled along our grimy apartment window were my only friends. It was because of what my mother called my “unnatural” interest in watching houseflies defy gravity by walking up the glass, then eventually crumple and die, littering the windowsill, that caused her to allow my uncle to give me a book to look at instead.
I remember a lot from when I was very young. Sometimes, now that I’m an adult, when I look at a one, two- or three-year-old, I shake my head and wonder how I can have such clear, consistent, accurate memories from when I was that young. My master’s degree studies have led me to research that shows that a child’s awareness level can be increased by early, consistent trauma. In other words, if a young child has enough of a reason to think about survival on a daily basis, he or she can act in ways that are uncharacteristic for an average child of a young age.
Themes also remind us of times earlier than our conscious memories. That’s one way society and families imprint ideas of what is right or wrong, normal or not, onto their children. If a child is treated kindly, and if each time she reaches out, someone reaches back, she learns to trust.
I learned that life was long, cold, dusty and hungry. At times I wanted to have less awareness, so that parts of the tedium and challenge of life would pass by unnoticed. Since that was not the case for me, I studied what I could. My fascination with flies, ants, and other small creatures in early childhood grew to a fascination with insects of all kinds by the time I was eight or ten.
The summer that I moved my mayonnaise jars into the back yard beneath the locust trees, I also started an insect hospital. I learned, when I found a grasshopper floating in our pool, that unlike a human, a grasshopper wouldn’t die if its head was under water. The grasshopper had been trapped for a long time but as I watched it very carefully I noticed its abdomen moving rhythmically. A closer look with a magnifying glass showed me tiny holes along its abdomen, allowing it to breathe.
The grasshopper was the second creature I saved. The first was a cricket our cat was playing bocce ball with. Normally, though a cricket’s enticing hops might catch our cat’s attention, the insect would soon be able to escape by making fantastic leaps that allowed it enough leeway to escape under a flower pot. This cricket was trying to leap, but wasn’t able to move very far. When I saved it from our cat, I saw that it was missing a hind leg.
So I placed the one-legged cricket into a grass-lined jar, punched holed in the jar’s lid with a nail and hammer, and placed it under the locust trees. When I found the grasshopper languishing in our pool, I discovered that I was out of jars. Since the two creatures ate similar food, I thought it would be safe to put them in the same jar.
The grasshopper that had been trapped in our pool was a magnificent creature. It was almost three inches long. I worried whether it would attack the cricket, especially since the much smaller creature was missing a hind leg. The two insects seemed to get a long, though so I took the jar holding the cricket and grasshopper with me when I went to my friend Beth’s house for an overnight stay.
She wasn’t interested in insects, but was amazed at the size of the grasshopper. Still, her mother said I had to leave the jar holding the insects outside. Which I did. I found a cement-lined crawl space that afforded protection from the sun and went to sleep, sure that my two insect buddies would be safe.
The next morning, I ran outside after breakfast to check on my tiny pets. Beth came with me. As I picked up the jar, Beth’s face turned from mild interest to disgust.
“Ewwww, gross!” she cried, pointing at the jar.
“What?” I cried back at her, lifting the jar so I could see inside.
To my surprise, the small, crippled cricket had eaten the grasshopper. As I held the jar, it was still chewing on the thorax. When it finished, all that remained of the grasshopper was its head, the oversized compound eyes staring at me as if to say, “Why did you save me from the pool only to make me a meal for a cricket?”
In a way, that mirrored my life up to that point. I knew I’d come to Earth this time around with a purpose. Yet ever since I’d come, it had felt as if I’d been being nibbled to death by everyone and everything.
I let a lot of the creatures in the jars beneath the locust trees go after the cricket ate the grasshopper. Somehow that one loss had shown me that limiting even the smallest of creatures was no different, especially to them, than my own limitations, that had been imposed on me by despairing, dysfunctional parents.
I kept the garter snake in a larger container until it rose up and bit me one day as I was showing my mother how it would take crickets—yes, crickets—from my hand. It only left a scratch but the display shattered my mother’s nerves for the fiftieth time that day, finally allowing her a target to transfer all the tremors into a major eruption that was all my fault.
I wonder if that’s the origin of the idea of fault? Fault—fault line.
Interesting, what watching the smallest of creatures will teach.