That day was so bright I wore sunglasses to avoid laugh lines at the crook of my eyes, but then removed them for fear of round tan lines from my forehead to my cheeks.
I watched my son, Johnny, regardless of shades.
How could I not? He approached everything with curiosity and lush. However I stepped, he stomped. What I said, he yelled. If I cried, he wailed.
Before Johnny, I used to drink a glass of pinot grigio on the bench by the pond in my backyard, where I waited for my husband, Cory, to come home. Then, after only four years, I was at a loss for that blanket of sun, my feet tapping the crisp leaves, the calm of the koi fish lulling in the water, without my worry that I had become responsible for them.
We drained the pond for my fear of Johnny drowning, and Cory's dismay at maintaining its cleanliness, the “balance” of algae and bacteria in the water for the koi. It was some kind of science. After, though, we had a hole of tarp, dying lily plants, and occasional puddles for bugs to wade in.
Because of the pond that had once burrowed into our dirt, Johnny had a high number of snails and toads to marvel at. The creature’s displacement was pretty evident. These nomads hopped and slugged around our yard, searching for some place to live.
Finally I had bought a yard-plaything to attract Johnny from the pond wreckage and the edges of our yard—rows of trees and poison ivy, gatherings of mosquitoes and gnats. For forty dollars at a garage sale, I bought a large plastic jungle gym, with holes like swiss cheese, and a slide faded to pastel green from someone else’s heavy afternoon sun.
Johnny was apprehensive at first, as he sized up the height of the slide, circled around the gym, peered in the holes under the platform. Finally, he giggled and crawled through into the shade and out again.
“Johnny,” I said. “Try the slide.”
“Yeah,” he said and walked over, anxious to climb up its incline. There were two snails lazing in the very middle, having claimed their resting place. “Mommy,” he said. “Look!” He plucked the snails up between the chub of his fingers and threw them down. Then he stomped on one, and laughed.
“No,” I said. That’s it, I thought. I’ve raised a snail-killer. “Don’t hurt them.”
He stepped on the other snail and delighted in its crunch. When I squealed again, he hung a finger from the corner of his mouth, and stared up at me.
“Why?” Johnny asked when I told him not to stomp the snails.
“Because,” I said. “That snail has a mommy and daddy snail. They will look for him.”
“Oh,” Johnny said.
More than two years before, when we still had the pond, I saw my first blue heron--at least the first that made any impression on me. Its wing span flapped prehistorically, and at first, its size frightened me. It would take flight as I pulled in the driveway, having perched at our pond hunting our expensive koi pets. Cory draped orange plastic netting over the length of pond after we found the heron nipping at our large gold koi one morning. I admired the heron from the kitchen window, and was sad that we were being unfriendly. It was the gap of scales and flesh the heron's beak tore from our largest fish, as he lost grip of the heavy meal, that made him my enemy. Cory took the weighty fish out of the pond since the front of his face (do fish have faces?) was missing. I tugged at the sides of my skirt, and gritted my teeth to keep from crying over a pet I hadn't even named. Cory's long arm threw the fish, still floundering about, to the ditch next to our yard. I swore the other fish never swam the same after.
The summer after Johnny's snail stomping, we played with the toads, since his touch was gentler, and more precise. He had a creature cage for caught insects or toads. This way, Johnny could poke and prod and scrunch his nose at the things. He sometimes jerked his head back if they darted against its sides too hard. Like everything, even hot dogs, toads lost their appeal to Johnny. I set the cage down on a chair and ran after him while he slapped wildly at his Spiderman ball, rolling it through the grass.
The next week, I told Johnny we couldn't close the toads in the cage, so he threw a tantrum, pounded at the ground. I debated showing him the perished toad I had mistakenly imprisoned since the last time we played in the yard, how it had starved probably some time around Wednesday. I kept that secret to myself, and let him scream at the grass beneath him so all the ants could hear.
Later that afternoon, Johnny was gathering the snails from the walkway parallel to our back door. There were four of them spaced out over ten feet of cracked field-stone. Meticulously, he lined them up, similar to how he lined up his matchbox cars on the windowsill.
"Johnny, whatcha doing?"
"The snail family wants to be together," he said. The tips of Johnny's nails were little brown grins, bobbing up and down as he picked the snails up and moved each forward, and forward, and forward, his own version of checkers.
"They are going for a walk," he said.