For decades now, a 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 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. Beyond the caterpillar, the leaves on the apple trees drooped a little and the silver maples turned green and gray in the hot breeze.
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 climbed up on my finger. It was soft, like a thread of yarn.
Picking it up between thumb and forefinger and rolled onto both elbows in my flattened pool and watched it writhe in the air. Sweat beaded on my forward. I grasped the caterpillar in my fingers and pulled it apart. Its milky, yellow insides oozed from 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. 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. “He pulled it apart.”
“Patrick, that’s cruel,” my mother shouted. She rushed out the back door and across the yard. I felt shame and fear.
“I didn’t do anything,” I said.
“Don’t lie to me,” she said as she rushed up.
She was angry, her face twisted and sharp. She raised her hand. I tasted electricity. Her slaps and blows reduced me to a whimpering mass.
I remember the caterpillar often. 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 next recollect sitting at the Formica dinner table, my sister and brother watching 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 in front of 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 tasted good.
A caterpillar torn in two.
I was five years old.
I don’t eat animals anymore, in part, because of a caterpillar five-plus decades hence. But that incident was one in a number cruel moments. The collection sits by itself, filed away in my head like documents in a cave. Until now, I’ve left them in the dark. I’ve thrown them out a thousand times. They won’t go away. I’ve ignored them and denied their existence. The rent for them now taxes my ability to pay for other things. They need to come out into the light. If I expose the memories to the sun, inventory them somehow, I think, they will shrink, dry up, and become harmless ashes in the corners of my mind.