hunting for nightcrawlers
find your flashlights, kids; it's starting to rain
Worms littered the sidewalk on my stroll this afternoon. They bolted their holes to crawl along the damp pavement last night, not knowing today’s respite is tomorrow’s demise.
But today the sun shines and worms fry. The red-breasted robins peck at tufts of sweet grass, pulling up creepers and crawlers.
I walk and remember the summer nights after storms, when the thunder stopped and the rain slowed to drips and drops. Dad would round us up out of bed, my tow-headed sister and I. We’d troop out to the yard with thick flashlights. Shine them in the tall grass, in the mulch on the flower beds, under the bushes dense with fallen flowers.
We chucked them in small plastic buckets (wrigglers wriggling, glinting in the dim beam of our dense, kid-proof torches). The sliminess satisfies something, something you didn’t know you liked, something base and simple and pure. Pure as squishing mud through your squeezed fists.
It doesn’t take long before the teeny plastic pail is half full, the yard cleared of worms and our bare feet covered in grass.
In the morning dad would wake us again, bundle me in canvas shorts and a grimy old t-shirt, tuck me in the back of the truck with my knees bumping the tacklebox.
I remember napping in the pre-dawn. A quick stop as dad ran into the gas station store for chocolate milk, a couple maple bars and some sunflower seeds to crack. The winding mountain roads gave way to the Powder River, then the Snake.
If we were early enough we’d set up camp at the end of the long wooden dock. Dad would pull out the worms and pick one from the top. He’d rip it in half, still wriggling, and thread it on the hook. I’d stare at the gush of guts from the half not speared, shifting and squirming against the unwitting masses waiting their turn.
Base instinct again: the un-speared worm would push down, nudging the bodies of its companions as though digging, as though it were back in the grass with the soil not far below. And dad would say nothing—he’s not much for words—and throw some slack in the line, hold it loose as he nudged the bail arm up, and swoop the baited hook over his shoulder, ready to cast.
If my childhood home had a sound it would be a running lawn mower, or a coffeepot gurgling, or the whiiiiirrrr and kerplink of the worm and hook sailing, far over our heads and across the river, crash-landing in the water it fought so hard to escape.
But that worm turned into the siren song for spiny perch and shimmering rainbow trout. Dad caught, released (or less often, kept), baited, cast, reeled again. The bobber would rumble along, leaving a miniature wake. I’d skip rocks and stones or race worms on the slivering wood of the dock. And in the late morning or early afternoon we’d stand, shake out our achy limbs. Dad would kill the fish, slit its belly, release its warm guts. The rot would waft from the sinks. The entrails piled up, shocking and pink.
We’d fry them or barbecue them with lemon and pepper; mom would roast the potatoes in foil until their edges blackened. And I’d eat and lay in the now-dry grass, tired. Grimy. Happy.
I won’t tell you I was one heck of a fisherwoman—my patience lasted about as long as it takes to rip a worm in half. I won’t tell you I liked watching entrails creep from the torn worms’ guts, or that it didn’t make me wonder whether it’s wrong or wonderful to keep wriggling when you’re ripped apart.
I will tell you that I think often about those worms, those fishing trips, those dusky hunts for nightcrawlers in the damp grass. As we grow, we grow cleaner, meaner, more miserly with our time. I could go months without spotting a worm if I didn’t look down—I might have gone years without the immense pleasure of squishing mud through my fingers.
But I did look down. I sat in the grass and dug my fingertips in; pulled up a weed and accidentally squished a slug. There’s decay mixed with death wrapped up in new life. And I look at the bulbs behind the house in the morning, at noon, at night—the tulips are rising like hot air balloons, higher every time I check. The leaves we spread to cover the irises last fall are rotting now, and as I look off the porch, past my bare feet, a worm pops up above the soil.
Decay, mixed with death, wrapped up in new life.
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