Helen was still young enough that dreams were not clearly separable from memory. Her mother was a babysitter, but told other grownups she was a caregiver. It took a lot out of her. She said this to other adults, “It takes a lot out of you.” Helen thought what was taken out of her mother must be hidden beneath, because nothing had gone missing from her mother’s outside except the bad moods. Though Helen was too young to have words for that.
Fall, a PA day. Her mother took the daycare to the woods. Sometimes they were allowed to leave the path. And romping Helen tossing handfulls of leaves found an eye to elsewhere in a tree stump. She stopped running. She kneeled to look into it.
A centipede, black and leggy, slipped from the hole, smelled the air, disappeared into the leaves. Helen began to notice. A lone ant climbed the rotting bark. A daddy longlegs floated on its thin brown legs. Two slugs coiled together on a leaf. Creatures teemed on every surface, every fold of leaf and log. Helen parted the rustling leaves to find the centipede. A thread of worm moved in lunges by graybacked pillbugs, earwigs, rove beetles, proturans, pseudoscorpions, uncoiled millipedes, thousands of mote-sized springtails. She saw things it seemed impossible to see. She may have seen the protozoa, tardigrades, bacteria, swarming in their droplet seas. And when she blinked she saw the spring peeper, perched nearby, small as her finger, its lungs pulsing, as she caught sight of the very last legs of the centipede sliding deep into the leaves.
The forest seemed changed. The details explosive.
“Helen!” her mother called.
Helen feared a massacre. If she lifted her black boots she knew she’d see hundreds of bodies crushed together. She needed to be on the path, where she could see what she stepped on. She could not take a step. Her mother waved her over.
“Helen, come here.”
Other children stood with her mother by the stroller. They all watched her. A wind brought more leaves sailing down.
“Helen,” the old mother flared up, “Helen. Right now.”
Tears and snot plugged the pipes of her face. All the other times Helen ran and galloped and stomped through the woods, what worlds ended beneath her boots? Constellations of tiny dead things swirled incoherent, collecting their eyes on her.
Anger. “Helen. I’m going to count to three. One.”
She would have to clear a path in the leaves to the trail.
She was terrified to be left alone.
She knew no words to say it, no child’s language of mercy came to her lips, no means to despserately convey the important thing: that the other children must stay on the path, they must keep their eyes on their feet.
She heard boots plowing through the leaves. The rustle. Sticks breaking like bones and exoskeletons. Her mother gripped her roughly by the arm. Animals like hidden beads were all around them. Helen resisted being pulled. Her mother picked her up by the hips and Helen went happily slack.
For the rest of the walk Helen clung to the stroller. The other children kicked leaves by the path, yelling at the sight of gliding snakes. Helen was petrified, watching the ground between her boots. Moss, roots, ants on pebbles. It was hard to be delicate when the stroller jerked her forward but Helen managed not to step on anything.
She had a long time out on the stairs at home. But Helen felt deep relief to be in a place where the floors were bare.
The others left.
Helen played cars on the kitchen tiles. Her mother ran between the counter and the stove pot with handfuls of vegetables. She paused for a moment to watch her mother, and saw a leggy black ribbon step out from under the oven. A centipede. Like the first had followed her.
It’s hard to say how but Helen was changed by that centipede, the accident of her mother’s foot, which fell precisely to crush only the centipede’s head.
The writhing body frenzied to escape its own crushed brain.
Even supperless and alone Helen couldn’t stop screaming.