Colors penetrate the buttery, grainy scenes. The reds are too red, blues iridescent, and greens as deep as rivers. For decades now, the memory has flickered and made me feel lonely the same way television light in house windows at night do.
My cowboy chaps, hat, and vest made me sweat. I sought relief as I laid atop the dusty blow-up pool that no longer held air. The plastic was hot in the sun and I put face to the grass. The caterpillar crawled out onto a blade. The ground smelled of earthworms and house dust. Beyond the caterpillar, the leaves on the apple trees drooped a little and the silver maples turned green and gray in the hot breeze. Above, the clothes and white sheets on the line rose and flipped.
Curious, I tilted up on an elbow, pulled my six-gun out from beneath me, and poked the caterpillar inching along. It reared up and continued along my finger. It was soft, like a thread of yarn.
Picking the young insect up between thumb and forefinger, I found it was cool as the grass. I rolled onto both elbows in my flattened pool and watched it writhe in the air. The sweat beaded on my forward and ran a drip into my eyebrow. I grasped the caterpillar in my fingers and pulled it apart. Its milky, yellow insides oozed from under the greenish skin. For a second I wondered if it felt pain or if it had even died.
Pain meant something then, physical, harsh. It tasted like electricity. But I was as distant from the caterpillar as the moon. My fascination with the young insect removed me from my sister and brother playing in the yard by the fence. Time stopped. The world froze in space.
My mom leaned out the back window of our tiny house.
“What did you just do?” she yelled.
I came to and ditched the two wriggling pieces. I rubbed my fingers in the grass.
“He killed the caterpillar,” my sister said. She’d been watching as my mother had. In my trance, I hadn’t noticed that my sister had stopped playing and moved in close. “He pulled it apart.”
“Dammit, Patrick, that’s cruel,” my mother said as she disappeared from the window. She rushed out the back door and across the yard. I felt shame and fear.
“I didn’t do anything,” I said.
“Show me,” she said as she rushed up. “Show me where you put it.”
Without thinking I looked to where I rubbed the caterpillar into the ground. As with all small things dropped into grass, it disappeared.
“Don’t lie to me,” she said. She was angry, her face twisted and sharp.
I tasted electricity.
I don’t remember the caterpillar every day, but often, and every time I cringe. The memory is vivid not because of the violence that followed my bug’s death but because my mother had dinner ready. I don’t recall the ritual washing of hands or the sounds of my sister and brother fumbling up into their chairs. After the current running through my mouth, I next recollect sitting at the Formica dinner table, my sister and brother watching at me. We prayed. My father knifed into his round steak.
His gaze cut through me. “Eat,” he said. “And don’t ever do that again. It’s cruel.”
I didn’t know what cruel meant. But I knew that steak once wandered in a field that spread out from a white house and a red barn. Chickens scratched in the yard and a pig oinked in a muddy pen. The smiling farmer wore overalls and held a pitchfork. The cow sat on my plate next to the creamed corn and mushed up potato. Its muscles smelled and, I knew, tasted good.
A caterpillar torn in two.
I was four years old.
I don’t eat animals anymore. It’s due only in part to a caterpillar four and some decades hence. That incident was one in a lifetime of cruel moments. The collection sits by itself, filed away in my head like dead documents in a cave. Until now, I’ve left them in the dark. But their presence troubles me. I’ve thrown them out a thousand times. They won’t go away. I’ve ignored them and denied their existence. In doing so, I’ve only moved them to a different part of the cave. The rent for them now taxes my ability to pay for other things. At some point they need to come out into the light. I need the energy for other things. If I expose the memories to the light of day, inventory them somehow, I think, they will shrink, dry up, and become harmless ashes in the corners of my mind.