My Sister's Friends
In spite of being a fallen WASP, I still well remember the preachings of my youth advising me that forgiveness is healthy, not only for the forgivee but also for the forgiver. Not sure I buy into all that but whatever, I’m still wondering today if my sister Betsy has ever forgiven me for the variety of wildlife to which I joyfully subjected her for years. Yes, years.
We are both in our 80s now, she’s 2 years older, and yet still the subject comes up, again and again. Come on, after eight decades, shouldn’t we all just move on? Apparently not. I’m not so sure that “forgiveness,” at least on this issue, is in her lexicon.
Here’s the deal; I love animals, ALL animals, slimy, unidentifiable, legless, wild, domestic, dangerous, gross, hairy, toothy, bald, roaring, or malodorous. Betsy? Not so much. She knows they are out there, but she’d prefer they stay out there, preferably hidden. Me? I invite them all in.
We grew up sharing a bedroom, and attended the same high school for a while. There was a lab in that school, and in that lab were cages of white rats; big sweet funny loving squirmy white rats, all on death row, placed there by our teacher, Mr. Bissell. We obedient students were expected to murder them, slice them open from butt to chin, pin their hides open in wax-filled pans that looked suspiciously like cookie pans, and we’d all get to play with their wet, warm innards. Sorry folks. It’s how it was back then. To this day I still have no clue how doing all that furthered my education, but I felt precisely the same way about Home Ec, too. But we knew we had to do it, so with apologies to those beautiful rodents, we shut our eyes, chloroformed, sliced and pinned them, and learned, like it or not, where rats’ livers, lungs, bellies, intestines, personal parts etc. etc. were located. Hey, we didn’t have Google back then---everything was hands-on.
But—LC of Arc that I was, I would sneak into the lab when Mr. Bissell was canoodling with Miss Yardley in the small Bunsen-burners, beakers, test tubes storage closet, and I’d kidnap a lot of those rats. It became my life’s cause to save as many as possible. Alas, because I’d have to sneak them onto the school bus in my bra, I could only take the small ones. Yes, I absconded with the grateful creatures but the condition of my undergarment at the end of the day was a little---well, let’s say nasty. But, did I care? No. I was on a crusade.
However, where to stash the dear rodents? In a desk drawer with food and water of course, where they’d wait for my return. But you see I shared that desk with Betsy, and when she’d pull open a drawer to find tumbling, roiling white rats in there and leaping out at her to play---well the sound that came from her can only be described and a kind of slow, deafening, keening sort of noise. A sort of long, thin sword to the ear. Oh, it was simply delicious. I’ll never forget it and still smile at the memory.
Recognizing I’d hit on a good one, my next adoptions were of course the occasional garter snake in her bed, and then came the great jars of thick, umber slime from a nearby brackish pond that was loaded with pollywogs and snails and lots of unidentifiable wriggling creatures. Oh, the smell—wonderful! Up they went on Betsy’s closet shelves. I quickly realized if the closet door was kept closed the smell would somehow quadruple, and get richer by the hour. I’d prop myself up on my bed, engrossed in the latest Confidential magazine, and I’d wait. And wait. Eventually my poor sister would go to the closet to get her outfit ready for the next school day, (I know my eyes were glittering like a snake’s) I’d watch her innocent hand turn our closet’s doorknob and then, oh that fabulous, fabulous scream. Like no other anywhere! How happy my sister could make me by emitting that sound. A symphony!
Forgiveness? We have a wary relationship now. She never mentions these things, I mean unless we’ve invited a lot of people over for dinner, and then of course these old boring memories of hers bubble up. She does have a rather nervous tic in her right eye that I notice gathers speed when she starts to babble about all this. She really should see someone about that.
Has she forgiven me? Hmmm—not sure. But when she talks about those halcyon days, she forgets my best animal incident. I used to spend part of every day in the woods as a kid and would happily bring home tons of specimens, sometimes live. Well, always live actually. One time in January I was trudging through the snow in the woods and found this sort of cocoon thing on a small twig, so I broke it off and took it home. It was so pretty. I put it into a lidless jar under our night table, and forgot about it.
That scream came when I was sleeping. I just thought I was happily dreaming so I smiled, rolled over and ignored it. This particular keening, shrill noise got worse, louder, so I sat up and turned on the light. What to my wondering eyes should appear but my poor dear sister, in her nightgown, lying on her back, her mouth, ears, nose, hair---everything---stuffed and covered with thousands of baby Praying Mantises. That pretty cocoon thing in the jar under the night table next to her, thought the warmth of our bedroom meant that spring had arrived, so they hatched! All of them! Lots of them! Millions of them! Poor Betsy looked like a bad science fiction movie; she was simply encased in crawling, baby Praying Mantises. I mean they were everywhere on her, like tiny Biblical locusts invading Betsyland for food. Who knew that many were hiding in that cocoon awaiting their birthday?
Betsy has never spoken of that glorious night. I think it’s a Freudian Forget thing, y’think maybe?