Category: writing


“Gladys!  Come in – it’s so good to see you.  It’s been far too long.  You look wonderful – how are you?”

“Oh, I’m fine, Eleanor, fine.  Lovely to see you, too.  Sorry I’m a bit late – the storm yesterday blew one of those old trees down, right onto the main dragline, and they had to cut that section out and re-build it.  Gosh, the place looks great!  Are these new tuffets?”

“Yes, what do you think?  We were a bit worried about the colour – ordered them on the web.  But I think they fit in all right, don’t you?”

“Yes, they look great!  Ooh, and just the right height.  Plump enough to be comfy, but perfect for keeping a claw on the floor for vibrations.”

“Can I take your palp-bag?  And would you like some tea?”

“Oh, I’ll just stow it over here out of the way, if you don’t mind.  Just in case my phone goes – I’m expecting a call from Robbie’s OT sometime today.”

“Sure, sure – is everything all right?”

“Well, yes… you know, they’re both going through this rapid-moult phase at the moment.  Tina got a leg stuck last time and was home by herself, poor thing, and she’d worked herself into a panic by the time we got home – almost pulled the leg off herself, but we managed to get her out.  Well, I think Robbie got a little scare, so his latest moult went a little more quickly than usual, but then when he got out, he just didn’t flex his legs enough before they hardened… ”

“Oh, dear…”

“So yes, he’s walking a bit stiffly for now.  We’ve told him it will all be normal again after the next moult (and I don’t think he’ll make that mistake again!), but you know how it is – he feels awkward about it, and I’m sure the other kids laugh, so we’ve taken him to see an OT to see whether we can loosen up the joints at least a little in the meantime.”

“Ah.  Well, I’m sure it will be fine, and as you say, the next moult should fix everything anyway.  Sorry, did you want tea?”

“Oh, yes, thank you, I’d love some!”

“I’ve got some fresh beetle-bars too, if you’d like to try one?”

“I really shouldn’t, but your baking’s always so divine…”

“Oh, go on, there’s nothing really bad in there.  As if you need to worry about that tiny waist!”

“Well, all right then, thanks.  New recipe?”

“Yes, it’s from my old standby, Just Good Grubs. You know, I’ve made so many things from that book, but never noticed this one before – and I have to say, I wish I’d found it sooner!”

“Ooooh, yes, just the right crunch – do you use fresh wings, or dried?”

“Well, the recipe calls for dried, but I only had fresh – I did throw them in the oven for a little while to brittle them up first.”

“Well, they’re delicious.  Can I have the recipe?”

“Of course!”

“So, how’s everything with you?”

“Oh, well, can’t complain, really.  I did lose a contact last week, but I’ve got a new one on order.”

“Oh, not too inconvenient in the meantime, I hope?”

“No – it was one of the rear ones, and they’re almost the same size as the front four, so I just moved one of those around – I find it less distracting to have three in the front than just one at the back.  And the large ones are the most important, of course.”

“Still, a bit of a bother.  Have you got any spares?”

“Well, I did, but then I found out Rosie had taken my last one and used it to trap and watch humans with – like a little observation dome.  She has a bit of a fascination, I’m afraid, but it really was rather clever – she showed me.  She just drops it over one of the small ones and they’re perfectly trapped underneath.  She can photograph them and everything!  Of course, I couldn’t exactly wear it after that.”

“No, of course.  So… you still have a few humans around?”

“Yes… especially now that it’s getting colder.  It’s not exactly an infestation, but there do seem to be more of them inside in the winter.  One the one hand, I don’t really mind – they do help to keep the pigeons under control, I suppose – but I’d rather not see them all over the place.  They’re just a little, you know, creepy.”

“I know – I think it’s the way they move, so jerkily.  Just not enough legs!”

“Yes, exactly.  And not enough joints.  Ugh.  I did consider installing one of those intermittent humanicide-sprayers up in one corner, but it’s bad for the fish tank and I’m not sure it’s entirely safe for the kids either, whatever the adverts say.  I’m getting better with humans, anyway.  I don’t go out of the way to kill them any more – Rosie has a fit, she always wants me to call her so she can put them outside – and they do tend to leave a nasty red smear when you smash them.  But, well, I don’t mind saying, if they get in the way when I’m vacuuming, I’m afraid I can’t be held responsible.  Their nets do look so messy, and you know, sometimes the pigeons hang there for days – so unsightly.  But at least I don’t wash them down the sink anymore.”

“Well, that’s good.  I don’t really like to have them around either, especially with the kids – they’re going through a phase where they’ll try biting anything, and the human adults get so territorial – I know they’re not usually dangerous, but I just don’t like to think of their pointy little sticks coming anywhere near the kids’ faces, you know?  Especially the hairy ones – I think they’re the females?  We almost had a disaster the other day, in fact; I caught Tina playing with a small human, just as the adult came running over – well, I’ll admit, my mothering instincts kicked in and I stepped on it.  And then Tina claimed I’d caused the rain the next day!”

“Funny myth, that one.  I wonder where it came from.”

“No idea.  Perhaps it’s distantly related to that ‘Itsy-bitsy human’ song?”

“Yes, perhaps.  Interesting how rhymes and legends get passed down like that – everyone knows them but no one knows who spun them first or why.”

“Yes, odd, isn’t it.  Say, what kind of tea is this?  It’s delicious.  And how’s your sister?”

“Oh, you like it?  It’s a cicada-peppermoth blend.  I bought it on a whim and I have to say, I’m rather fond of it too.  Judith is well – busy with the wedding planning, as you can imagine.  Some new drama every time we talk.  She’s taken it into her head now that she doesn’t want to wear silk.”

“Really?  Why not?”

“Thinks it will look too home-made, or some such nonsense.  I told her not to be ridiculous – after all, there are at least nine different kinds of silk, and I’m sure the designers are always developing more!  How can she just dismiss them all?  I even suggested silk worms – such a lovely texture, and of course they’re delicious when the job’s done! – but she wasn’t having any of it.”

“Well… good luck to her.  I’ll be interested to hear what she comes up with in the end.”

“Yes, although she’s got plenty to think about besides her wedding.  Have you heard about those ‘vegetarians’ in Central America?”

“Vege-what?”

“There’s this tribe that’s just been discovered, with the strangest eating habits. They mostly eat some kind of plant protein nodule – a few ant larvae on the side, but mostly, these nodules.  It’s just not natural.  And now, Judith’s daughter Beth has decided that she wants to be ‘vegetarian’ too.  Judith is worried sick that she’ll be undernourished and never reach her final moult.”

“Goodness.  What’s she eating at the moment?”

“Well, not very much.  First she insisted on what she called ‘quick-kill’ food – nothing bitten and left hanging to liquefy for a few days, you know?  Someone at school put this ‘insect rights’ business into her head.  For a while she was campaigning against storage cocoons – honestly, we all know they just go to sleep, or at least I’ve never seen one wriggling longer than a few hours – but she was marching around, wearing buttons that said ‘GL bugs me’ (‘GL’ is for gradual liquefaction, Judith informs me), but now she just wants to order this plant protein and give up her natural diet entirely.  Judith is at her wits’ end – she’s starting to pull her bristles out over it.”

“Let’s hope it’s just a phase.  Perhaps when some nice boy brings her his first offering, she’ll reconsider.”

“Yes, that’s what my mother said.”

“Oh, how is June?”

“Oh, she’s all right – getting a bit grumbly, worried about small things, the usual.  She’s afraid her eyesight will fail and she won’t be able to keep her web tidy enough for the neighbours’ tastes (or to avoid the neighbours’ tastes, I should say) .  And she still has rheumatism – mostly in the coxa-trochanter joint, she says, but I think it’s all stiffening up a little.”

“Well, at least she’s around to see her grandchildren.”

“True.  As long as they don’t sneak up on her – she’s less sensitive to vibrations now, but once she knows something’s there, there’s nothing wrong with her bite.  Although she’s convinced her venom is weakening, of course.”

“Poor old dear.”

“Yes, but that’s enough about my tribe!  You mentioned Tina and Robbie, but how’s Morrie?”

“Oh… he’s fine.”

“Wait, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing… I… no really, he’s all right.”

“Well, you don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to, but if you need to get anything off your sternum, you know I won’t tell anyone.”

“I know, El.  It’s just hard to talk about, but maybe I’ll feel better.   He… well.  Rosie’s almost as big as he is now, and although he’s really good with her, I think he’s starting to get a little nervous.  And since the accident, you know, he only has the one palp left – I think it looks rather rakish, actually – but he just seems to have lost confidence in himself.  It’s like he’s worried he’s not good enough anymore, like he thinks I’ll turn on him one day and just eat him, like some kind of monster.  It breaks my heart – I get an actual pain, all the way down my abdomen, just thinking about it.  He’s the gentlest male I’ve ever met, El, but he’s always had that quiet strength, and to see that ebb away… I just don’t know what to do.”

“This is going to sound harsh, Gladys, but have you thought about doing the kind thing?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, you have Rosie, and she’s such a darling.  And if I read your appetite right, you’ve got another sac in the making, am I right?”

“Well, yes – is it that obvious?”

“Not to just anyone, but we’ve been friends a long time, Gladys.  Congratulations, by the way.”

“Thanks, sorry, I should have known you’d know.  Sorry I didn’t tell you outright.”

“Don’t worry, I can see you have other things on your mind.  So, have you considered the fact that one day, he might leave in the morning, and just never come back?”

“Oh, he would never run off, El, never!”

“Yes, but a small male, with one palp left and low confidence… someone could just take him.  I know it’s hard to think about.  It’s ok, let it out – here, would you like a lacewing?  They’re quite absorbent.”

“Thanks.”

“Of course.  So, all I’m saying is… you have a family already, and you’ve had such good times together… maybe you should think about… whether he wouldn’t rather that someone just be you.”

“How awful – I can’t even think about it!”

“Well, all right then, don’t, if it’s that upsetting.  Maybe things will get better.  I’ve heard that loss of a palp can cause depression, but that sometimes the post-recovery results are… pleasantly surprising, if you know what I mean?”

“Actually, that seems to be true…”

“Oh, really?  That’s wonderful!  Well, maybe all you need to do is gently suggest that he spend more time at home?  I’m sure you could suggest it in a way that would make it appealing – a little wiggle of the spinnerets would probably do it, you sly thing.”

“Oh, stop it, you’re terrible!”

“Well.  What did I say about that tiny waist, after all.  I hope you’ll forgive my suggestion earlier – I was only trying to help.  Hope I wasn’t too blunt.”

“No, it’s all right.  I know that some females are like that, but I just couldn’t.  But I know you were trying to be kind.”

“I was.  Are you all right now?  Would you like more tea?”

“No, I should be scuttling off, actually.  I need to pick up some cabbage moths on the way home – they’re Morrie’s favourite.  Unpleasant after-effects, of course, but it’s still nice enough to sit outside the tunnel after dinner, thank goodness.”

“Oh, you’re too good to him.”

“I know, but I can’t help it.  He’s such a sweetie.  Say, I know he’d love to see you – would you like to come around to our place next week?  Same time?  This is such a lovely tradition – we should keep it up.”

“Well, sure.  I’ll check Rosie’s schedule – she’s moving to the next level of artistic weaving, but maybe not until week-after-next.  I could bring that recipe along, if you like.”

“Oh, perfect, thanks!  Only if it’s not too much trouble to copy it out?  You have such lovely, spidery writing.  And that’s wonderful for Rosie.  She’s so talented – takes after her mother.”

“Now, stop it.  Did you get your bag?  Good.  Shoo, now, you old flatterer, and give Morrie a big hug for me – four legs’ worth.  I hope he keeps improving, and in the meantime, well, enjoy yourselves!”

“We will – don’t leer at me like that, you’ll give me the giggles.  Thanks again for tea, it was gorgeous.  Hi to Robbie and Tina.”

“Sure – wait, isn’t it Rosie’s birthday soon?  Maybe we’ll get her a human farm.”

“Oh, don’t!  You’ll only encourage her.  But nice of you to think of it.”

“All right then, take care, now, and I’ll see you again next week.  I’ll drop you a line in a few days to confirm.  Watch out for that sticky patch on the left – I had to refresh it this morning and it’s still a bit gluey.  Rosie’s supposed to do it as part of her chores – it’s her end of the deal for the weaving classes – but it doesn’t always get done.”

“Ah, kids.  Well, as they say, ‘fangs again.’ I’ll keep a few eyes out for something tasty for next week.  See you then!”

“You’re most welcome, and feel ‘flea’ any time.  Ta-ta, Gladys.”

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the french bath

in october of 2007 i spent a week in paris visiting museum collections.  while i did chronicle some of those experiences here, i had the best of intentions for others but never got around to them.

well, i re-read my travel journal the other day and feel the time has come to tell you about the place i stayed during that week.  here is what i recorded about my b&b in paris:

‘marble floors, carved wooden furniture with gilt accents, curly brass fixtures and candelabra, frou-frou knickknacks and figurines.  the whole nine yards.  my room has a very firm, but comfortable, double bed with a frilly white satin bedspread.

‘icing on the cake: the bathroom.  wow, the bathroom.  pink fixtures (tub, sink, toilet, and – i believe? – bidet, plus radiator, vanity and linens), ornate black tile walls, mirrors in elaborate brass frames (about four of them, including one over the tub), countless bottles of cosmetics and lotions.  scented pink toilet paper dispensed in small, individual squares.  interestingly, taps all pretty much require a wrench to turn off completely, as i discovered when i tried the cold tap on the ?bidet out of curiosity – just wanted to see what the water actually did in there!

‘shower is a true engineering marvel, packing maximum inconvenience into a small area.  shower head hangs on a prong at waist level.  endlessly perplexing – does one sit under it or hold it while in use?  shower-head weighs about 3kg, so holding is tiring; the balancing kneel/crouch option is also not ideal.  pressure is so high and holes so tiny that the shower-head is like a water-blaster – tolerable on thickly padded scalp, excruciating on, say, nipples.  tried to soften the spray during first shower by turning the taps way down – resulted in sinusoidal temperature fluctuation between pleasant and antarctic, about once a minute.  an additional problem of the high-pressure head: the shower curtain is quite flimsy, tending to blow inward and stick clammily to the bather, but also does not reach the edges of the tub, so keeping shower spray contained while in holding-the-head mode requires extreme concentration.  finally, a stream of searingly hot water dribbles constantly from the tub spigot exactly where one’s feet are normally positioned.  did get the general hang of this by the end of the week, but the first shower (after the 46-hour trip from nz, lest the importance of this shower be overlooked) was pretty much spent frantically hopping around, and required a large number of the helpfully abundant pink towels for post-shower mopping.’

meat is the new veg

i heard recently that new zealand has the lowest proportion of vegetarians of any western country.  (and although i can't validate this statistic at the moment, i'm going to pass it on to you, because when did spreading wild unsubstantiated rumors ever get anyone in trouble?  of course giant squid get to 60' total length and can eat sperm whales!)

i didn't think too much about this stat at the time i heard it, apart from a kind of vague 'huh, that's interesting.'  i think i made a few tenuous mental connections, since my sister bumbly is vegetarian and lives in new zealand.  it also reminded me of my first experience living in nz, where i flatted with an assortment of kiwi guys from around the country.  that was my first experience with cooking for others on a regular basis, since we were each in charge of dinner one night a week, and i think it's safe to say that every night was an adventure.  i often made fresh salad with my dinners because i had grown up with it, and it unfailingly received suspicious proddings, tentative tastes and then surprised appreciation, because apparently fresh vegetables just were not on the mid-20s-kiwi-male radar as food.  in turn, they introduced me to many novel dishes designed to maximize carb input while minimizing time wasted consuming (two of the guys were runners and the third was majoring in outdoor education), like spaghetti on pizza, or pretty much any normal food (including pizza, ice cream, and sandwiches) made into a(n extra) sandwich.  one of the flatmates also seemed to be on a personal quest to see how many ways you could combine pasta and hamburger/mince (and on special occasions, sour cream and mushrooms) into a 'different' meal. 

but i digress.

on saturday night, four of us (including bumbly) went out to dinner in ohakune, a small town in the south central north island where we were staying in the hopes of being able to ski one day this weekend.  (gale force winds and ceaseless downpour mandated that we stay inside and play all possible permutations of settlers instead.)  bumbly had a pizza craving, and i wanted a burger, and i think the guys were willing to go along with whatever, especially by the time we had checked the menus of about 15 different places in two different parts of town, been told in several otherwise promising places that there was a 30-45 minute wait, and gotten drenched in between by the gale-force downpour.  we ended up returning to a small alpine-themed restaurant whose menu we had checked earlier and ruled out because it had neither pizza nor burgers.  so it goes.  there were not many people inside, it was warm and dry with a nice fire, and cozy and quiet, and we all found things we were willing to eat.

then our server arrived. 

she had a rich accent from somewhere unplaceable (but definitely not alpine – later questioning revealed it as indonesian).  when queried on the soup of the day, she replied, 'ees, eh, bumpkin.'  she also extolled the virtues of the daily vegetable, 'rrrrrrrroast potatoes,'  and made many game attempts (about 10) to pronounce the guys' beer of choice, gösser.  regardless of language barrier though, we assumed that she (as employed waitstaff) would be conveying our orders to the kitchen with some semblance of accuracy.

well, we got our first warning when bumbly ordered the only vegetarian option on the menu, helpfully called 'vegetarian pasta.'  our server smiled obligingly, wrote it down, and asked if bumbly wanted ham on top.  bumbly blinked, and said carefully, 'no, the vegetarian pasta.  i'm a vegetarian.  i don't eat meat.' 

'sorrrrrrry?' the server asked, looking genuinely startled.  'wheesh pasta?'

bumbly pointed to the vegetarian one, and said 'the VEGETARIAN pasta.'

'ahhhh, ok,' said the server, still looking confused but obliging.

the rest of us ordered various meaty things without incident, with sides of rrrrrrroast potatoes and the other vegetable option, steamed vegetables, allegedly comprised of carrots, broccoli, and bumpkin.  the pebbles ordered fries instead of potatoes.

about ten minutes later, the server came out, looking apologetic.

'i sorry,' she said, 'i get de potatoes wrong.  today ees scalloped potatoes.  ees ok?'

yes, we all nodded, fine.  whatever.

another ten minutes later, the meals arrived, and they looked good.  the roast pork with 'cajan' spices was nicely spicy, and bumbly's pasta appeared to be full of sundried tomatoey goodness.  as the plates were set down, however, the server gasped and said 'oh – de potatoes!  i forget!'  and indeed, in place of rrrrrroast or even scalloped potatoes… we all had fries.  oh well.  potato is potato, i guess.

as we were beginning to tuck in, the steamed vegetables arrived – carrot, broccoli, but no bumpkin – BUT the broccoli came wrapped in a strip of limp, pink bacon that appeared to have been steamed and then actually knotted around the stem, an interesting touch.  luckily bumbly was not waiting on steamed vegetables.  instead, she was picking through her pasta with the odd, quavery expression that means she thinks (usually correctly) that she has found meat in her food. 

'i think there's bacon in it,' she said, and produced a very bacon-like substance for me to try.  i wasn't sure; at first the taste and consistency were like a grilled cheese crust, but if so it was very bacony cheese.  in succession, everyone else at the table weighed in their opinions (one said bacon and one was with me on the bacon/cheese fence), but i was pretty sure the vegetarian would know what meat tasted like if (when) it cropped up in her dinner, so i went to the kitchen and spoke to the cook.  he assured me (with what appeared to be much higher recognition of the word 'vegetarian') that indeed, there was absolutely no meat in it, only mushrooms, tomatoes and cheese.  so i apologized and took word back to the table, where bumbly looked dubious, the other cheese/bacon proponent tried it again and proclaimed 'cheese,'  and most of the rest of the meal passed without incident, except that bumbly pretty much just picked at the pasta, and i don't blame her.

the final feather in the cap of the alpine cafe, though, came when bumbly asked for a takeaway box for her pasta (which someone else was planning to eat leftover).  this received another blank stare from the server, until we tried the phrase 'doggie bag.'  (we were half expecting her to ask if bumbly wanted a bacon-lined box.)  she disappeared into the kitchen and returned with… a plastic bowl and a piece of plastic wrap.  these she produced with a flourish, looking triumphant.  we did manage to keep straight faces as bumbly dished her bacon-cheesy pasta into the small bowl and tucked it in gently (perhaps they wanted to make sure it stayed dry outside), and as we paid, but then it was too much and we bolted for the door as one, and barreled howling into the night.

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a cheeky fable

once upon a time, there lived a lonely sand spirit.

a cheeky fable

he watched over a giant black sand dune, surrounded by trees on three sides and a small stream that slowly filled a nearby valley, creating a lake.  the sand dune was too far inland for the sand spirit to visit the ocean, or for other sand spirits to visit, so he entertained himself by swimming in his lake and scaring the eels who lived there, and by rolling down the steep sides of the sand dune, and by making strange footprints and beautiful wave patterns in the sand.

a cheeky fable
a cheeky fable
a cheeky fable
a cheeky fable

a cheeky fablemost of the time, the spirit looked like a small, stout man made of living, shifting sand, but he could also change his shape.  sometimes he would sneak snake-like through the toetoe and rattle the stems, or send clouds of sand hissing through the tassels.  sometimes he would spin himself into a whirlwind and dance over the top of the dune as a giant column, his million grains of sand sparkling in the sunlight.a cheeky fableone day, he made a giant broom of toetoe tassels and began to sweep the whole dune completely smooth.  he hummed happily to himself as he worked, erasing the footprints that crossed the sand.  just as he was nearing the water’s edge, he noticed an unusual set of footprints. someone large, with only two toes on each foot, and very long legs, had walked along the water just recently. the sand spirit followed the tracks up to and into a dense thicket of toetoe, where he bumped into a large, knobbly knee.  squinting upward, he saw feathery grey plumage blending with the toetoe tassels, then a long, slender, elegant neck… and a large eye, staring right at him.  the eye was a deep chestnut brown, framed with long dark lashes, and the sand spirit thought it was the most beautiful eye he had ever seen.  he bowed.

the ostrich had never seen a sand demon before.  she had lived on a farm nearby for many years, but had grown tired of the green fields and set out to follow the stream that ran through them, wherever it would take her.  she was fascinated with the small, sparkling spirit that now stood near her knees, and she bent her head down to see him better.

hardly daring to breathe, the sand spirit picked up a soft toetoe tassel and tickled the great bird under the chin.  she half-closed her long lashes and crooned, deep in her throat.

from that moment, the sand spirit and the ostrich were inseparable. he showed her how to catch small fish in the lake, and how to slide down the great sand dune.  when he whirled as a column of sand, she pirouetted gleefully beside him.  sometimes she would let him ride on her back, racing along the peak of the dune.

he built her a vast, soft nest of toetoe tassels, and in it, she laid a large, sand-colored egg.  after months of sleeping under warm ostrich feathers and carefully arranged blankets of sun-soaked sand, the egg hatched, under the wondering eyes of its unlikely parents.  the child that emerged was even more unlikely – the squat, round body of the sand-spirit, reproduced in miniature, atop long spindly legs, with great brown eyes and long lashes.  in place of the sand spirit’s stubby arms, there were short, fluffy wings.  it cheeped shyly, and sneezed out a small cloud of sand.  its parents gazed in wonder.  the sand spirit spun for joy, while the ostrich nudged the baby gently.  it whistled softly and fell asleep.

as the fledgling grew, its parents tried to teach it to play and fish, but its odd little body couldn’t run without falling over, couldn’t roll without tangling its legs, couldn’t fish without a beak or hands.  the sand spirit and the ostrich watched with great concern as the child tried and tried to be like them, never quite succeeding.  when it grew tired and cried, they carried it back to the nest, where the ostrich crooned and the sand spirit made sand-patterns.   exhausted, the child fell into a deep sleep and dreamed its first dream.  a giant eel rose from the lake and told the child sternly it must choose to be like either its mother or its father, and when the moon rose, it must wish for one form or the other, with all its heart.

in the morning, the ostrich and the sand demon went to the lake as usual.  the fledgling peeped over the edge of the nest, watching its mother’s graceful neck and quick beak catching the silver fish, and its father’s clever fingers sieving along the lake bottom for crayfish.  as the sun climbed in the sky, he saw the ostrich leap and dance over the sand on long legs, while the sand demon gathered a small whirlwind and carved spirals in the sand dune.  as evening fell, the child’s heart grew heavy with choosing.  the night breeze sighed through the toetoe tassels, soft like his mother’s feathers; the stars came out in the sky, twinkling like his father’s sand grains.  he dreamed again.  the eel asked if he had chosen.  the child replied sadly that both his parents were kind and good.  could he  keep a part of each?  the eel smiled mysteriously and slid back into the water, whispering that the moon awaited his wish.

the child awoke as the first silver sliver crept above the horizon. gazing at his mother’s closed eyelashes and the sand wraiths dancing across his sleeping father, the child thought of the beautiful sand-waves the sand spirit made, and looked to the moon with brimming eyes.  the moon seemed to wink, slowly, and the child fell into a dreamless sleep.

a cheeky fable

when he awoke and stretched, he saw arms and fingers in place of his fuzzy wings, and short sandy legs with small, five-toed feet.  resigned to the smaller form of the sand spirit, he climbed from the nest and tried a small whirlwind.  he walked a few paces with his new feet, then smoothed out his tracks with his new fingers.  as he did so, he also felt the ghosts of his fuzzy wings pass over the sand.  walking, then running, he felt his short legs lengthen and carry him
faster and faster.  a rainbow appeared above the lake, and he danced down to the water’s edge, eager to try fishing.  as he splashed in the shallows, stretching his magical legs longer and shorter, a large shadow swam toward shore, unnoticed until at last a pair of somber eel-eyes appeared at the surface.  the child shrieked in fright and jumped straight out of the water, at once returning to his small sand-spirit body…

a cheeky fable
with the instincts of an ostrich.

dancing antsies

i met the ghost of an ant. 

i was standing in the shower, mentally composing an email to invite bill bryson over for dinner.  (i kid you not.  he's touring new zealand right now. but i seem to have missed his local appearance.)  i was in no real hurry, since the hot water was slowly unknotting the lower extensor muscles along my spine; a vigorous horse-ride on saturday had turned them into concrete riddled with loudly complaining nerves in place of rebar. 

thus lost in thought, gazing over the top of the shower, a tiny movement in mid-air caught my eye.  it was the husk of a small ant, no more than three millimeters long, suspended and slowly drifting on an unseen current about two feet away.  it revolved slowly, gracefully, then wafted upwards a few inches and hung in place for a few seconds more.  the ant appeared relaxed in death, its legs and antennae draped to one side rather than curled in on themselves.  its slow dance in the air was hypnotizing.  it reminded me of the animated version of the velveteen rabbit, when he becomes Real and can finally leap with the other rabbits. 

the scientist in me wondered about the forces at play – whether a column of hot steamy air was responsible for the remarkable post-mortem flight, or perhaps one of our resident spiders was puppeteering this dance on the end of an invisible thread.  the latter seemed unlikely, given the considerable distance to the ceiling and the wide, irregular path languidly traced by this wisp of former life, but as the ant pirouetted far out from the shower without dropping, the air cushion theory also deteriorated. 

but some things are more magical left unexplained, so mostly i just watched the tiny figure as it dipped and turned, animated in death beyond its wildest living ant-dreams.  

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a whisper of truth

i heard a whisper of truth today. 

every once in a while, i come across something written or spoken that sums up with perfect succinctness a thing or many things that i have thought or believed, with varying degrees of abstractness, for a long time.  the brilliant simplicity smacks me between the eyes, leaving me slightly stunned, often wordless (obviously not today), and in great admiration for the wisdom of the articulate author.  the first time i read ishmael i felt like that for most of the book, and a while afterward.  louise erdrich often evokes the same response. 

today it was a guest on the american public media program speaking of faith, which my mom introduced me to several weeks ago.  previously my favorite interviewee was wangaari mathai , who was interviewed on the show in late 2006.  in the program i listened to today, the host interviewed katy payne, the biologist who first recorded and studied whale songs, and was later the first to recognize the use of infrasonic long-distance communication in elephants.

dr payne responded to questions and told stories about her whale and elephant research.  her friendly voice reminded me of jessica tandy and also my grandmother, as she talked in simple, declarative sentences about individual animals she had known and studied, and people she had worked with.  but she also voiced concerns over the wider implications of some local conflicts she had observed, and shared some of her personal fundamental philosophies.

i sat listening in my office as i worked on preparing and illustrating tentacular hooks from one of the squid species i'm studying.  my office-mate was out, but i had headphones on all the same, so my entire attention was focused down the eyepiece of the microscope and on the voices speaking only into my ears.  and about halfway through the show, in explaining her own quaker spirituality, dr payne said:  

'My church is outdoors, mostly.  What’s sacred to me is this planet we live on.  It’s been here for more than 4 billion years.  Life has been on it for only 3 billion years.  Life as we know it… for a very short time.  It’s the only planet where life has been found.  And that to me is… what I ultimately consider sacred.'

looking through the scope, at the exquisite detail on the tiny piece of the small specimen of one of many million obscure species that 99.99% of the people on this planet have never heard of, i thought,  yes. YES.  the diversity of life forms that have evolved successfully, that all live together at this moment, most of which are unknown to science and the sum total of which represents less than .5% of all the species that have ever lived on this single planet – that is, truly, what is most amazing and sacred about our world.   and that is what, as a result of overconsumption and overpopulation, is on the brink of damage beyond repair.

but because i cannot match dr payne's simple eloquence, i will leave you with her own humbling final words on the subject.  (and i cannot recommend too strongly that you take an hour to listen to the interview yourself.)  following a question on the problem of poaching, she said:

'I don’t want to [divide the world into good guys and bad guys] at all.  I think that whatever relief to the situation comes, is going to come as the result of a lot of integrated effort, of people who are helping in human development… people who are interested in wildlife conservation, and people who are using law enforcement in a considered and careful way, to protect a marvelous species that’s in danger of extinction – these elephants in the African rainforest are living in an amazingly diverse place.  One of the ironies of our situation is that the places where you find most diversity, the most kinds of animals and plants, tend to be the places where people are poorest.  And so we’ve got a lot to think about.  There’s a lot that we, who have too much, can do about this, because one of the very big driving forces that leads to the exploitation of the forests and of the minerals that are in the forests could be called ‘greed’ on the part of people in the developed countries.  We don’t need to have as much, we don’t need to use so much gas… we can use other kinds of energy and so forth and so on.  If each of us restricts our own lives to what we need, there’ll be more for everyone… so that’s our task, you see.  Here we are on the radio.  Our task is to make this real.  This planet is the only place where we have this kind of life.  Let’s not blow it.'

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