Two weeks missed. So now that that’s over with, let’s get back on track:
When I was very young, I received a fuzzy toy caterpillar. Memory suggests that it came in one of those packages with bright cardboard backing, the toy itself encased in plastic lightly smudged with fingerprints. The caterpillar was vibrantly colored (a subtle blend of shades of the rainbow) with big googly eyes that seemed to look outwards and upwards simultaneously. It fit, with only slight dangle, in the palm of my hand, and it was, for all intents and purposes, alive.
I’d been wanting this toy for a while, and it was my intention to treat it with the utmost care. On a paper insert included with the caterpillar’s packaging were instructions with corresponding illustrations. I only remember a single one of them: two words (“Avoid water”) and a picture of the caterpillar bent into a sort of backwards “S” curve, several cartoonish drops of water hanging a few inches above its body. It looked like it was having fun, swimming its way through a penciled-in flash-flood. But I was uncertain, because I didn’t know the meaning of the word “Avoid.”
Then as now, I possessed an essential stubbornness. When I set my mind towards figuring out a problem or overcoming an obstacle, I did it entirely myself, even if the results were, in 20/20 hindsight, invariably catastrophic. Such was the mindset that led a can of paint to be spilled all over my parents’ new shag carpet or a rental car to roll backwards down a relative’s steep-incline driveway to the road below. (Per human nature, the bad in these cases tends to stick out more than the good.)
Then as now, I was more a visual than a verbal person, so I trusted my initial impression of the illustration—that the caterpillar was having fun in the water and I should oblige his desires. I took my new toy, received just minutes before, into the bathroom and turned the sink faucet on full force, the sound of it somewhere between a forest waterfall and television snow-static. Then I put the caterpillar, plush and fluffy in my hand, directly under the stream.
I knew immediately that I’d made a mistake. All of an instant, the caterpillar’s vibrancy vanished; its fuzzy hair—light to the touch—became clumpy and bedraggled (its body seemed to be weeping, begging for respite). The soaked fur made the caterpillar look smaller than it was, as if it were shriveling, and this only called attention to the midnight of its eyes, which pooled into darkness—an illusory dilation. Though they remained in the self-same position (looking at once outwards and upwards), they were dying. It was the eyes that finally cued my reflex to pull it away.
I held it now above the sink, my sadness swelling, my own tears forming. My mother heard me and came to see what was wrong. She saw what had happened and, after I’d calmed down somewhat, explained to me the meaning of the word “Avoid.” We put the caterpillar on a windowsill in the direct sunlight, hoping it would dry out and resurrect. But it only became hard and brittle, its black eyes separating into a misshapen, diagonally-spaced horror. After a day or two, I threw it into the trash. I recall it landing on the heap of fruit rinds, torn-up papers, and potato skins, its body battered and broken, at just the right angle so that it looked up at me one last time.
This was the first thing I killed.
Keith Uhlich is Editor of The House Next Door and a contributor to various print and online publications.