When my brother and I were young, we made a lot of our own fun. This included (among our other games) tying balloons to the cat, cheating viciously at the Nintendo Power Pad game, and going on expeditions.
At that point, we lived at the edge of a fledgling suburb, where the urban sprawl from Portland collided with Willamette farmlands. In between the cow pastures and the quickly blooming school districts there were wild little bits of earth, unclaimed by developers or blueberry-growers, which seemed to us to be as fiercely exciting as any tangled jungle or searing African plain, if not more so.
After all, wasn’t it our wilderness? We were the ones who knew where the camel-hump tree was. We were the ones who knew how to spot the squirrel nests. We were the ones who knew the best paths to get to the creek and the shallowest places to cross to the other side. We felt that secrets were the real currency of land ownership, and we were certainly rich in secrets.
These were our woods, and we spent plenty of our summer days scuttling through the shade like chipmunks, pointing out empty bird’s nests and climbing trees to find the most comfortable places to sit and watch for intruders. We hid things there from time to time. Boxes of candy or sandwiches in plastic bags that we always returned to and ate the very next day. Occasionally we’d return and find caches of oranges mangled and scattered through the ferns, but this only made the return-trip after hiding our treasures even more exciting.
So one day, when I was about seven and my brother was nine, we took a walk into the woods together.
Rather, Ben was taking a walk in the woods. I was following behind him, and our cats were following me, so Ben’s solitary expedition had sort of turned into a caravan against his wishes. Ben, naturally, resented this a little bit. He didn’t mind the cats so much. They were happy to trot along twenty feet behind, occasionally diving into the bushes after something tasty, and kept out of his way, for the most part.
I didn’t. I moved about as quietly as a jet engine and talked incessantly, asking Ben what was this, and did you hear that, and where were we going, and what were we going to do there, and why didn’t we go this way, and did you know how photosynthesis works, and how many ants do you think are in this forest right now, if you had to guess, no really, just make a guesstimate, because I think it’s probably more than a billion.
Ben suffered through this in silence. He understood that his little sister was the price he paid for freedom from our parents. He was allowed to go far from home, so long as he took his little sister with him, if she wanted to go.
And oh, I always wanted to go.
On that particular day Ben had a little less patience than usual, and he got a little idea.
“Where are we going, anyway?” I asked him, jumping up to try to hang from the branches.
“Crawdad fishing,” Ben said. I stopped jumping and considered this. In the little creek, we had occasionally found crawdads, skating through the deep slime on the bottom. I had always been a little afraid of them, because they were essentially tiny lobsters, and lobsters, I had always felt, were sinister.
“How are we going to catch them?” I asked. Ben snapped a long, willowy stick off a bush as we passed.
“Fishing poles,” he said. “Find some long grass.”
The next half hour was spent searching for the longest grass possible. The cats helped by consuming the reject blades and yowling when we stomped too noisily through the underbrush, scaring off their snacks. While I crawled around examining each plant for its plausibility as fishing line, Ben was deep in thought. His idea had grown into a full-fledged plan, a plot for revenge against me for basically being an idiot most of the time. I continued looking for ‘fishing line’, completely unaware that I was about to become a victim.
Eventually we had our fishing pole, and we carried it to the creek. The creek at its widest and deepest was only a foot and a half deep, but about ten feet wide, with high edges that prevented you from getting too close to the cold, mucky water. Our usual ‘creek spot’ was a thick tree trunk that had fallen across the way in a wind storm several years before. There were often bugs on it, and it creaked ominously if you tried to walk across without being very careful, but today we were being bold. We hobbled onto the trunk and sat, dangling our legs over the side.
It was a little ways down.
“Here,” Ben said, handing me the fishing pole. “I see a crawdad over there. Get it.”
Now, this should have been my first indicator that Ben was planning something sneaky. Usually when I followed Ben around, he told me I was lucky to watch him use that magnifying glass, or watch him dig with the little trowel he brought. I was never allowed to use his advanced equipment because I was a little sister, and therefore, likely to break it. This sudden level of trust should have been alarming and bewildering, but I was so interested in the prospect of catching a crawdad that I was blind to the signs. I took the fishing pole eagerly and squinted into the water.
“See it?” Ben asked. He pointed at a vaguely moving dark shape somewhere in the mud. “There.”
I couldn’t quite see it. The shape he was pointing to might well have been a clump of algae or some fallen leaves. Maybe a squirrel carcass. It was also well out of the range of my makeshift crawdad catcher.
“I see it,” I lied, and thrust the fishing pole out over the creek. The grass-line ended an inch above the surface. It didn’t even interrupt the water bugs who were dancing on the top. I waggled the fishing pole a bit and tried to lower it, which resulted in another inch that just barely got the fishing line wet. Ben sighed.
“No,” he said. “You’re doing it wrong. The crawdad’s over there.”
Again he gestured vaguely.
“I can’t reach over there,” I groaned. “It’s too far. I’ll just catch a crawdad here.”
“That’s stupid. There aren’t any crawdads here. You just have to reach.”
I tried to reach. It didn’t work.
“It’s not working,” I whined.
“Reach farther,” Ben said. I angled my shoulders and leaned forward so much that I had to tighten my knees around the tree trunk to resist slipping off.
To this day, Ben insists that he didn’t push me. One minute I was stable, my eyes pinned to that woobling dark patch that might have been a crawdad, and then I was airborne. I tumbled shrieking through the air for a brief second before I bellyflopped into the creek.
I was immediately coated in mud and slime. I looked up at the tree trunk where Ben was laughing hysterically. I felt my lip wibble.
“You pushed me,” I said, sitting with my knees poking out of the icy current.
“No, you just fell off. This is why you shouldn’t follow me out into the woods.”
“You pushed me,” I insisted.
Ben didn’t answer. He was too busy laughing.
“You pushed me!” I yelled. Suddenly, I was aware of a tickling on my leg, and I remembered the crawdads. The crawdads with their beady black eyes and threatening pincers, scuttling through the sludge like demons in hell. I was instantly convinced that I was covered in crawdads and began screaming and splashing furiously around.
“They’re on me they’re on me they’re on meeeeeee!”
This only caused Ben to laugh harder. The cats, who had decided not to risk the trunk and were sitting on the edge, were watching me with mild interest and concern. With my Lion King t-shirt soaked and black with mud, I flopped to the edge of the creek and wildly tried to pull myself up. The crawdads were going to jump out of the water and catch me. I was in a panic.
Ben had had his fun. Still sniggering, he reached down and pulled me up on to the trunk, where I shivered in fear and fury.
“You pushed me,” I said icily. “I’m telling Mom.”
“I didn’t push you,” Ben said firmly. “But you can go tell Mom if you want.”
“Come with me.”
“I want to go home.”
With as much spite as I could muster, I stood and began a dignified trudge out of the wood. I left soggy footprints in my wake. There were bits of things in my hair and my eyelashes were matted with dirt. The cats, deciding that I was the one most likely to feed them in the nearest future, followed me. With my disciples at my heels, the weight of the world’s injustices heavy on my shoulders, I imagined that this was very much how the baby Jesus must have felt. My cousins had told me about the baby Jesus, and all of the awful things people did to him because they didn’t understand how awesome he was. This was a very accurate comparison, I thought, for my life as a beleaguered and misunderstood little sister.
I guess if there is a moral to this story, it is: “Never trust a brother,” but that seems unkind with the level of Little Sistering Ben often put up with. So let’s try again.
How about, “Crawdad fishing is less fun than it’s made out to be.”
Yeah, that seems about right.