Worm Walk

CIMG3041It wasn’t raining when we left the house.

We turned left up the street, and then I walked over to look at our vegetable garden while my daughter waited on the sidewalk. The Mark Twain tomato plant was upright and its leaves looked perky, so I was hopeful that the central stem had finally mended itself. The plant was smaller than the other three tomato plants, and the stem was bent at a couple of places, but it appeared to be a healthy plant after a lot of worry.

“C’mon, Mom!” called my daughter from the sidewalk. I gave Mark Twain one last smile and walked back through the grass to the sidewalk.

We started up the walk, and I thought about the summer I’d visited Mark Twain’s burial place in Elmira, New York. My college roommate was from Elmira, and the summer after graduation, I’d taken the bus from Ohio to visit her. She’d transferred to a school in Connecticut after our sophomore year, and although our visit was pleasant, our previously close connection had grown threadbare. Our whole visit felt like a goodbye.

As we rounded the curve of our street, I heard rain drops in the leaves overhead.

“It sounds like it’s raining,” I said. “But I don’t see any drops in the puddles. And Daddy said it wasn’t supposed to rain.”

From inside her fleece hood, my daughter looked up at the maple leaves. I kept walking, and she skipped along beside me up the hill. Between two houses there were some vines overhanging the sidewalk.

“Look,” I said, tracing the path of the vine with my finger in the air. “Bittersweet. It’s taken over that whole oak tree.”

“That started from the ground?” she asked, incredulous.

“Yes. See, there are the oak leaves. The bittersweet is just choking the poor tree.” We started on again. “If I could tell where the bittersweet started, I’d just cut that plant and let it die.” I envisioned the green leaves wilting then browning as the oak leaves emerged healthy from among them. Stealth gardening, I thought, and wondered what my neighbors would do if they caught me removing invasive plants from their yards.

“Look, Mom! A squirrel!” She stopped and pointed at the grey squirrel spiraling up the trunk of a tree in the next yard. It leapt from one branch to another. “He’s so agile!” she said. I started back up the sidewalk feeling a chill on my neck. Was that mist? “It looks almost like he’s flying!”

Deft, I thought, thinking of a new word my daughter had encountered in her lessons this week and wondering if it would be correct to use the word “deft” to describe the squirrel and whether it could or not whether I ought to point this out to my daughter, who was still standing watching the squirrel even though I was trying to walk on.

“There’s more bittersweet up here,” I called back to her. As she came alongside me I pointed. “See? There are bushes underneath all that bittersweet, but you can’t even see them anymore.”

“Wow!” she said. It was definitely misting now. My glasses were speckled with water and my neck was feeling uncomfortably chilly, but my daughter didn’t seem to mind.

“That’s a Norway maple,” she said two houses up. “I can tell by the color and shape of the leaves.”

“And if you were to take one of the leaves off, you would see a milky sap at the stem,” I said.

“What? Leaf soft?” Her voice had that edge of frustration it gets whenever she doesn’t immediately understand something.

“No, if you take one of the leaves…off,” I repeated, enunciating more clearly, “you’ll see a milky sap.”

“Oh. Milky sap. Got it.” When we got back to our house, I would have to remember to pull a leaf from one of our Norway maples and show her the sap.

At the top of the cul-de-sac, she stopped again. “Look at the worms, Mommy!” She bent down to try to pick up the pink worm from the wet sidewalk. “It’s really squirming,” she said, but in a moment she cradled it in her palm as she dropped it gently into the grass.

“Oh, look! There’s another one!” As she bent to pick that one up, I surveyed the sidewalk and the adjacent few feet of street. Worms and worms and worms.

“There’s more over here,” I said.

“Where?” she asked, looking up with the worm squirming between her fingers.

“Everywhere,” I said, indicating with my hand a worm-filled three-foot radius around us.

“I don’t want any of these worms to dry out in the sun,” she said.

I looked at the grey sky and felt again the chill of the mist on the back of my neck. I pulled the hood of my fleece up over my ball cap, the one emblazoned with the name of my alma mater.

“I don’t think there’s much risk of that today,” I said.

My daughter, unmoved, continued saving worms.

“They’ve got that band on them,” I said. “What’s the band for again?” My daughter looked up from the worm she was trying to save at the worms I was pointing at.

“It’s called the saddle. It’s for reproduction.” Then, just to make sure I understood she added, “for mating with other worms.”

“Oh, yeah. I thought it was something like that.” Standing over my daughter as she squatted over a worm, I felt my feet in my sneakers and tucked my chilly fingers into my sleeves.

“Come on, little guy,” she said to the worm that was squirming into curls every time she tried to touch it. “This one doesn’t want me to catch it,” she said to me.

“It’s afraid you’re a robin,” I said. She stood up and held out her hand.

“I got more slime than worm,” she said, and as she drew her fingers apart I saw the threads of worm slime trailing from them. Gossamer, I thought, and surprised myself by needing to swallow back a gag. “They make the slime to protect themselves from predators. I need to get a stick or something.” Seeing no sticks immediately she added, “or a thick piece of grass.”

I looked around us. We were up at the newer, McMansion end of our cul-de-sac where the power lines were all underground and the yards were each an expanse of manicured lawn. No trees, so no sticks. I looked at the grass at my feet. There was a yellowed piece of something. I picked it up. It wasn’t as thick as straw, but it was a little stiffer than green grass.

“Here, try this.” I handed the not-straw to my daughter. “I don’t know if it will work…” I began, but she slid it under the worm with no trouble.

At least the worm rescue will go faster now, I thought. Maybe we could still do the rest of our walk. I thought of the brisk walk I’d envisioned this morning when I invited her out with me. I thought of the tightening of my muscles as I climbed the hills and the cool of the air as I breathed it into my lungs. Then I looked again at the expanse of worms around us.

She would save them all. And I would take a walk another day.

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