Instant Karma, Thy Name is Mermaid Girl
At least, I thought I was conscientious.
The night before we left, I couldn't sleep, so in the middle of the night I set out to wash my shells at the sink; I'd noticed the bag was starting to smell kind of, um, fishy. I sorted through the dozens of swirly and evocative fragments I'd gathered, rinsing them off and wrapping the most fragile ones in paper towels for the next day's plane trip .
Then I picked up one of the few complete, unblemished, shells I'd found: a small, perfect murex that looked something like this. I was admiring it, as I rinsed it, congratulating myself on the find, when a small claw slipped out of the opening: a hermit crab had made its home in the shell, and had died there while it sat in my plastic bag.
It was a sickening feeling: I felt guilty and creeped-out and disgusted all at once. I'd destoyed one of nature's creatures! (never mind that I eat oysters all the time.) I'd unbalanced the ecosystem! I'd broken a rule written on a big sign! Plus, it was three in the morning, the time of night when every little incident takes on epic proportions. Thoughts about the tsunami might have been somehow feeding into all this, too.
I dithered. This was a crisis of conscience: should I pull out the hermit crab and keep my ill-gotten gains? Or not? How could I right the wrong I had done? I came very close to whipping open my brother's laptop and writing a tortured and eloquent post about it right then and there, but fortunately refrained. In the end, I wrapped the shell up in toilet paper and threw it in the garbage.
I thought I'd be too ashamed to tell anyone about it, but in the morning it didn't seem like such a big deal. I told my sister-in-law, who convinced me to keep the damn thing after all. So I removed the tiny dead crab and put the shell in my carry-on backpack.
And that would have been the end of it. Except that I had to say something about "feeling guilty about that shell" to RW in the car on the way to the airport.
Mermaid Girl jumped on it: What? What hermit crab? Mommy, you should not have done that. You weren't careful! You killed the hermit crab! I'm a little mad at you. I'll always be a little mad at you, Mommy. Forever. Until I'm dead. Don't you know I love the little hermit crab? If I found a little shell like that, I would look at it carefully, carefully, carefully. And if I saw a little creature in it I would put it back down on the beach for a wave to get. Next time you see a swirly shell, just leave it! Don't pick it up. Just in case.
Me, guilty, weary, sleep-deprived: I know, Mermaid Girl. It's true. I'm sorry. I thought I was being careful, but I guess I wasn't careful enough. I'm sorry to hear that. I didn't know you even knew about little hermit crabs. Did you read about them in a book? Oh, you didn't know about them before, you just love them now? Well, you're right. Looking carefully is a good thing to do. I'll do it next time.
And finally, desperately clawing at any way out of this verbal assault: What do you think I should do with the shell, then?
She answered so immediately, so assuredly, it was like a voice from the Oracle. "Give it back to the water. So another hermit crab can find it and move in it and settle down."
So I did. Or rather, I pulled it out of my bag and gave it to my brother, who promised to throw it back in the water next time he was at the beach. And I felt better. Lighter.
But by then the Girl had become totally insufferable, any genuine sorrow overlaid with glee at her moral superiority, and continued to castigate me and grieve for the little dead hermit crab most of the way to the airport. I apologized for a long while, and then, slightly giddy with repentance, said, "Okay, I'm starting to feel a little less sorry now." Which did not go over well.
And the moral of the story is: If you ever do something that you feel guilty about, and subconsciously think you aren't being adequately punished for, just tell a 4-year-old about it.
Or, maybe, don't.