One morning my husband is reading aloud to Paris and the Littles on our bed and I am brushing my teeth when Molly’s head pops around the bathroom door. She looks worried, and keeps her voice down.
”Mummy, there’s a spider eating a beetle outside the window,” she says.
“Orgh, glurg,” I froth, and shrug.
She glances behind her. “The thing is, what if the–”
“What is it, Molly?” Violet appears under Molly’s arm, having been summoned by that invisible radar that small children operate which alerts them whenever something interesting is happening nearby but out of sight. Let someone start wrapping a gift or unwrapping a candy bar two floors away, and a blip appears on the small child’s inner screen and off she trots to investigate.
Wiping my mouth, I say, “It’s just a beetle.” Which, of course, is a mistake.
“A beetle? Where?” Paris has bounded down the hallway. Phoebe trails behind, naked apart from the lime-green tutu she donned before waking everyone up.
“You don’t want to know,” Molly says, backing towards the window.
“What–? Let me–!” say the jostling younger ones, crowding her.
“Aw, cool!” Paris yells. “Daddy! There’s a beetle stuck in a spider’s web and it’s still alive and the spider is wrapping it!”
The little girls press forward to see. There is a rapt silence which Paris eventually breaks.
“Poor beetle,” he says softly.
Molly and I exchange glances. As one, we look towards Violet and Phoebe. As if on cue, Violet’s face crumples.
“We have to save the beetle!” she bursts out, “We have to do something!”
Oh, how inadequate are words in the face of a heartbroken four-year-old! I try to reassure her with platitudes about how the spider gives the beetle “a kind of medicine” so he “isn’t frightened,” and how “actually spiders help us,” by eating insects and feeding birds, and how, in any case, the window is painted shut and “it’s two stories up, so by the time we found a ladder–”but it seems terribly lame in light of the cruel inevitability happening before our eyes, and Violet weeps as though she will never stop.
Of course, she does. The beetle expires. With tear-streaked faces, four children watch the spider creep to the edge of his web to wait for his next course, and eventually, like rubberneckers on the freeway, we manage to pull ourselves away.
“Who here wants to play a secret agent game?” Paris asks, loudly changing gears. “Me!” everyone else says, with varying degrees of enthusiasm.
My husband and I settle down with coffee and the Washington Post.
“Shall we go to the zoo today? There’s a new farm exhibit,” I suggest.
“Okay,” says my husband, turning to the op-ed pages.
Some time later, Phoebe reappears. She is no longer wearing her tutu. She looks pleased.
“Mummy,” she says proudly, “I didn’t draw on myself!”
“Good,” I reply. Then the penny drops. “Oh. What did you draw on?”
She beams at me. “Guess!”
Once she drew squiggles on half-a-dozen doors. Twice, when she was a step younger, she pried the “t” and “y” keys off my laptop and lost them in the sofa cushions (I still have to bang those keys much harder than other letters). Today, she has quietly ransacked Molly’s desk for pink and yellow highlighter pens, and has walked from the top floor to the ground floor, trailing them. Wavy pink and yellow lines now run the entire length of the banister.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake–” and I catch myself, remembering the story of a woman who discovered her toddler coating the wallpaper with glue. She was about to shout, when it occurred to her that she ought to inquire as to his reason. “To help you and Daddy keep the house strong,” replied the doughty little fellow, reducing his mother to a puddle.
“Why did you do it, Phoebs?” I ask tenderly.
“Because I wanted to draw.”
Later that day, driving around doing errands with the windows open, Molly and I pass a large poster advertising cable-knit sweaters for fall. It’s late June: Time to stock up on tweed. We turn off the main thoroughfare and are passing through a quiet suburban neighborhood when I notice something pink and floundering up ahead, in the middle of the road. It is a bird on its back, pink feet clawing at the sky, grey wings thrashing. “Poor dove,” I murmur involuntarily. Which is a mistake.
“Stop the car,” Molly cries. “We have to help it!”
“We can turn him over, at least,” I say, and hand her my tennis racquet. She nods, opens her door, looks both ways, and runs back to the panicked bird. In the rear-view mirror I see her poking him, trying to get him righted, and then, in a little flurry, she manages it. The dove tucks in his injured wings, and rests, probably in infinite relief, in the middle of the road. Molly runs back to the car.
“I’m going to try to move him to the grass,” she tells me, leaning in the passenger window, and I am just saying, “Okay, but be careful, because–”when still in the rear-view mirror I see an SUV silently appear and hum towards us, shimmering a little in the heat as if emerging from a mirage.
We all have moments when real life feels like cinema noir and this is one of them. It is only three hours since the incident of the beetle, and there is a curious feeling of celestial filmmaking in what happens next. It is a splendid summer day: golden sun, azure sky, the usual. Flowers bloom prettily beside smooth lawns and neat asphalt driveways. And through this tamed, moneyed landscape the SUV moves like a death foretold. Molly and I watch aghast as the vehicle approaches and one tire runs over the dove. There is an audible splat. And the SUV rolls past us, signals, and takes a right-hand turn out of sight.
“No!” Molly cries, “No, no, no, no!”
The air is hot and silent again. I get out of the car and hold her. Tears prick my eyes, too.
“They can’t,” she sobs, “It’s not fair, they didn’t have to hurt him–”
“He wouldn’t have lived anyway, with a broken wing,” I manage, eventually.
“But it’s so cruel–”
“He would have been eaten by a fox, or died of thirst. It was gruesome for us but it was quick for the dove. And you helped make him more comfortable–” I continue, uneasily conscious that I sound like a Dutch doctor.
She weeps wretchedly for a while longer–”Why did it have to be a dove?”–before signalling the righting of her equilibrium: “Why couldn’t it have been some horrible slug that had been eating someone’s flowers?”
We never did get to the zoo that day. It had been my plan to take the children to the newest exhibit, a storybook barnyard enclosure where children can pet goats and learn the origins of the ingredients for pizza. (Really.) This gentle rendition of farm life has been widely disparaged for giving cossetted city children an unrealistic notion of how their pepperoni actually makes it to the plate. But after a day so red in tooth and claw–or perhaps I should say, red in web and wings and red in steel-belted tire and feathers–I think we’ll take a short break from nature even in its stage-managed form.
–Meghan Cox Gurdon, an NRO columnist, lives in Washington, D.C.