Monday, January 03, 2005

Instant Karma, Thy Name is Mermaid Girl

Last week in Florida, we went to a beach with the most gorgeous, varied, and plentiful seashells I have ever seen. Beachcombing is a big pastime there, and we went at it with gusto, especially Mermaid Girl (true to her name), and me. Actually especially me. There were just incredible shells, all over the place. Not all of these different kinds, but at least half of them. There was a big sign at the beach entrance prohibiting the removal of any live animals from the beach. So I checked all the seashells before putting them in the bag, and conscientiously left any that weren't empty of sea creatures.

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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sounds like Mermaid Girl is ready for the lesson on Compassion. For Mommies. (She's already learned the one for hermit crabs.)

1:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I did a thing like this once. I had a praying mantis land on my 6th floor apartement windowscreen and watched it with joy and admiration for two days, and then one night unthinkingly *closed the window*, squashing the praying mantis between the glass and the screen. I felt SO HORRIBLE.

I cried and yelled for twenty minutes, and I was so sorry, and it was just a bug, after all--but sometimes it really hits you. It sounds like you have a wonderful child.

(I've been sent here by your cousin Ellen Kushner--thank you both!)

best, Elizabeth Wein

11:02 AM  
Blogger Jo said...

I killed a bird! By driving! And there were a three-year-old and a seven-year-old in the car, and we didn't stop talking about it for days. Mom is so cruel and horrible!

5:39 PM  
Blogger Kate R said...

Ahhhhh but ain't NO ONE can do sanctimonious like a 14-year-old. They have the vocabulary and tenacious memory, not to mention the real desire to witness mom make an ass of herself. Again.

7:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Reminds me of a story--I think it was in Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek--which has always stuck with me since I read it perhaps 15 years ago. Of a teacher putting a cocoon into a jar in the classroom, and the students watching the moth emerge, but not taking it out of the jar in time, so that it couldn't spread its wings before they hardened and it was thus deformed into a terrible monster moth which couldn't spread its wings. And then the students taking it oustide to "set it free," but it couldn't fly so they watched it slowly hobble away across the schoolyard, crippled by their avaricious curiosity.

I do feel for you. Honestly, this is one reason why I don't eat meat, so that whem something like this happens I can say over and over to myself "I don't usually do this, I don't usually do this." Like once Kristi was driving us home at night, and following another car rather closely, and there was a dead deer lying across the highway and she had to drive over part of it. It was already dead but we were both horrified and I had to summon up pictures of 20 years of no meat in order to think of anything but the terrible sound the car made passing over its skull.

I just read The People of Sparks (sequel to City of Ember, thanks for the recommendation, I don't know if my nephew liked it but I loved it) and it was all about how conflict and war come to be and how obvious it is from the outside that we all could share if we just tried. Our horror at tiny violence tells me that somewhere in the human condition there is something worth saving; we just have a lot of trouble making contact with it most days.

And the wonderful thing about Mermaid Girl's reaction is that it contains both these parts: Our I hope fundamental recoiling from violence and death, and also the roots of sanctimony and ideology.

On a less philosophical note I love that you told her you were beginning to feel a little less sorry. What a parent you are! What a perfect response!


11:55 AM  
Blogger Anna said...

Moral superiority aside, I love her solution of throwing it back in the water. Good on you, Mermaid Girl!

6:30 PM  

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