He woke me before the sun began to lift above the horizon. All long limbs and floppy hair and little boy giggles curling around me to wake up and play. I fought against waking. The pull of sleep is strong, but the pull of a giddy four-year-old is stronger.
That was hours ago, and now the sun sits low on the eastern horizon, filling the yard with golden light. As I poured my second cup of coffee, my son pulled on clean clothes, then removed all but his underpants and asked me if we could go outside. Now I sit, reading a book about parenting and holding my lukewarm caffeinated lifeline as he splunks toys down in the small plastic pool on the patio. A weak substitute for the lap pool we both so wish we had access to.
“MAMA!!” I’m snapped from my revelry at the curious and joyful cry. “What is this?” His hand stretches toward me and I see it: a tiny gray slug on his finger. I fight the urge to recoil. Slugs are slimy. They’re sticky. And I won’t say how I know this but they squoosh in the grossest manner when you step on them with bare feet.
Yet here my child stands before me in his underpants; a grin on his face radiates from ear-to-ear. I think it’s gross. He doesn’t.
“It’s a slug.” I hope my tone doesn’t convey the thought I have playing on repeat.
Don’t ask me to hold it. Don’t. Ask. Me. To. Hold. It.
“Aww, it so cute!” His voice rises with every word.
I’ll admit, it’s kind of cute. I still don’t want to hold it.
“Mama? You want to hold it?” Suddenly there is a tiny gray slug inches from my nose.
“I’m okay. He’s your friend.” I set my coffee down and lean toward him while trying not to cringe away. Every inch I get closer to his body is an inch closer to the slug. “Tell me more about your friend!”
He’s turning his hand over and back, watching the slug creep down his finger.
“Well.” He pauses and looks at me as he thinks. “He lives outside. And he has a family, but I don’t know where his family is. And Mama?”
“What do slugs eat?”
“Plants, buddy—like the grass, or those dandelions over there.” I gesture to the far end of our yard.
“Oh. Okay. So Mama, his name is Gus. I will call him Gus. And he is my friend.” I’m reminded of Dory from Finding Nemo, and her encounter with the baby jellyfish and grin thinking about how this slug is for the moment, my son’s Squishy.
“That’s a good name for a slug!” I say, as he delicately sets the slug down on the damp concrete patio and races off to find a few flowers.
I’m struck by a memory of me at four and wonder when I stopped seeing worms and slugs as fascinating and started seeing them as gross, frightening creatures. When I was my son’s age, if not a bit younger, I had an Easter dress with a white woven hat. My mom had a small collection of rubber worms, the kind used as fishing bait. Hers weren’t for fishing, but for art.
At that age, I loved worms. So a bunch of rubber worms? Heaven. I don’t recall doing it, but I remember the feeling of hanging each worm from the brim of that white hat to slightly obscure my little chubby-preschooler face and the thrill of having a hat of worms.
I don’t know that I would do that now, even with artificial worms. As I grew older, I became more wary of bugs that leap and creep and crawl. Spiders especially. Even now, I can remember spending hours upon hours as a grade-schooler reading and rereading Charlotte’s Web and trying to reconcile the idea of a spider who would save a pig with the spiders that crept into our house and dangled above me as I slept in my loft in the summer.
Some Pig and humble woven into a web in a barn by a spider that could talk? Maybe if the spiders had talked to me I’d be less frightened. I used to think that. Now I wonder how much of my fear of spiders and general sense of being grossed-out by worms and slugs was learned. Girls are sugar and spice and all that’s nice, and boys are the ones who play with slime and slugs, right?
Perhaps, though, I can learn from the books of my youth and the joy of my son whenever he finds a new bug to gently poke and follow around. Every time he finds a spider or bug, indoors or out, he squeals in excitement and names them. The mud daubers I cannot seem to keep away from our front door are all named Flappy. The spider racing away on the patio is Speedy. And now we have Gus the slug to add to the collection of bugs-that-aren’t-pets. Now I’m the one who is scooping spiders into cups to relocate them back outdoors, instead of fleeing or hoping my husband can find and chase them back outside.
I pause, wondering if he will ever think that bugs are gross, weird, or creepy.
“Mama?” Once again I’m pulled from my thoughts. I look up and see a small pile of leaves and flowers at my feet. Once again, Gus the slug is perched on my son’s index finger.
“Can we keep him?”
“Only outside. He has a family.” I’m gentle as I choose my words. He sighs and looks down. As gentle as he can be he plucks the slug off his finger and sets it down beside the plants before wandering back to his pool.
I hear another squeal.
“Look! Mama! A spider! I’ll call him SUPER SPEEDER because he is going SO FAST!”
I chuckle, pick up my coffee, and vow to dig out my old copy of Charlotte’s Web. It’s been too long. Perhaps I, too, can learn to make spiders my friend.
A life of books. A life of soul. Karen Swallow Prior poignantly and humorously weaves the two, until it’s hard to tell one life from the other. Booked draws on classics like Great Expectations, delights such as Charlotte’s Web, the poetry of Hopkins and Donne, and more.
This thoughtful, straight-up memoir will be pure pleasure for book-lovers, teachers, and anyone who has struggled to find a way to articulate the inexpressible through a love of story.