On a cool Thursday night in suburban Texas, I smothered my first soul. I remember the florescent glow from the garage as my mother approached me holding a clear glass jar, beaming. Inside it, a large moth with a wingspan of over three inches and a lunar imprint along the fuzzy husk of her abdomen fluttered wildly, incandescent eyes darting along the seams and praying for an escape.
“For your science project,” she whispered, as if the frantic pixie beating its breast against the walls she held between her fingers was as soulless as a soda can or a box of soap. Ever the straight-A student, I nodded, taking the vessel from her with a sick fascination and placing it into the freezer to wait for the thing to extinguish itself.
I was eleven.
Queasy with what felt like a rotting olive pit in the nest of my gut, I waited. “Do you think she’ll survive if I take her out now and set her free?” Killing was not my strong suit, and I was already having regrets.
“Well, sweetie, she would probably be eaten by something much bigger than she is later in the night if she stayed outside and kept circling that streetlamp.”
There it was. The undeniable nihilism and bravado of a species on top. I slunk upstairs until the deed was finished. Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.
Later that night, I would press a silver pin through the delicate crunch of her stomach, careful not to damage her powdery paper wings. I threw up in the guest bathroom.
When I was a young thing in 1998, all Houston middle-schoolers were required to take biology. We studied standard stuff, mostly, taxonomy, the cloning of sheep, and body anatomy, the year culminating with a huge project in which we were to capture, kill, and identify at least 30 different species of insects from 9 different families. We were to arrange them artfully on sheets of white styrofoam with long metal pins for optimal crucifixion. More carcasses meant extra credit. Highest score won a prize.
It seemed innocent, at first; I had always loved digging up worms and launching spiders off sticks as I trampled through the forests of my youth. However, there was something about the clinical nature of making calculated attacks every weekend for two months that undulated through my body like a sickening wave. Death began to follow me the way a dark cloud might comically follow the protagonist in a children’s storybook.
It began with the wasps on the windowsills. My mother’s new boyfriend would call and, wanting to impress her, insist that I come over so that he could gift me the curled cadavers of bugs that had kamikazed their way into a windowpane. I remember peeling back his thin, crepe curtain to reveal a honeybee and two hornets. The head of one was broken and tumbled away from its midsection as though a rogue, miniature soccer player had punted it into the crown molding. Reverent, I bowed, left her where she lay, and scooped the other two specimens into a plastic bag for later.
Next came the flower brigade. Each year, in early April, Indian Paintbrush broke out like a rash across the countryside. On the broad edges of rural highways near the town where we lived, my mother and I would pull over and thumb through the fragile stalks at the base of each plant to sift our hands into the miniature world below. I nabbed beetles, ants, earwigs, and anything thick enough to spear. My thirst for high marks was intensifying. I was marvelously hungry in the wake of my killing spree.
My prized dragonfly had to be stolen illegally from a state park. Desperate for something from the order Ordonata, I stalked along a slow creek bed with a small butterfly net slung over my shoulder like a bank robber straight out of Middle Earth. Flecks of sunlight glittered the shore where water kissed the gravel bank. Afternoon harmony. There he was, levitating at the water’s edge, flirting with gravity and sex in his flamboyantly cerulean attire. I snatched the bug before he even stood a chance.
By this time, I was rich with invertebrates. The currency of annihilation colored my world, and a cold stare crept across my brow as I worked, carefully arranging my victims on a pallid piece of styrofoam.
“Steady the articulated joints in the legs so that they don’t fall off.”
“An ant holds better with a smaller pin through the head. Mind the mandibles.”
“The suffocated ones preserve much nicer than the bugs that died of natural causes. Just look at that proboscis!”
Whatever murderous train was required of me to succeed, I climbed aboard. The pathetic fallacy I once ascribed to small creatures had begun to fade. I turned in my project, received an A+, and then promptly threw it in the trash bins at the back of my house. It felt nauseating, but I acted like the perfect student. Mommy’s little sociopath.
Compromise is a cruel thing. It steps on your chest in mud-covered boots and leaves only a fraying tightness of the nerves and a vague exhale of integrity. It can rip a hole through your insides if you’re not careful; a cheap locomotive roaring through your aortic valve as your sensitivities sputter out and onto the linoleum.
It’s funny how a mind can adapt so quickly to radically shifting social norms and externally imposed values. I killed for my grades. I killed for my teacher, and I killed for my mother. I curiously fingered the disembodied limbs of my specimens, and I skewered them like opalescent earrings on display.
I followed the rules, but I held fast to a gleaming hint of girlhood stuck deep in the den of my heart. I returned to the forest to weep and cleanse and heal. I counted constellations with my fingertips and secretly believed that fireflies were faeries. I am committed to keeping the channel open, and I am radically resilient. Grant me the serenity to change the things I cannot accept.
Our fetishistic obsession with coolness is not something to be extolled.
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