Toads, Chipmunks. Ants and Snakes - A Tribute To Early Mentors

Submitted into Contest #92 in response to: End your story with a truth coming to light.... view prompt

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Creative Nonfiction

Toads, Chipmunks, Ants and Snakes – A Tribute to Early Mentors (Words: 1,858)

In the spring of 1958, not long before I turn eight, my mother announces at the dinner table that we own our very own cottage. She explains that she has found a great bargain through a friend at work. The lady who sold her the property is leaving the kitchen table and dishes for us to use, as well as some cots, a dock and a boat.

“We’ll drive up north to see it next weekend,” she adds.

 My father lifts his goblet of wine for a toast. My mother, older brother and I reach across the table to touch everybody else’s glass with a gentle ping. “Cheers!”

Bursting with excitement, I want to shout, jump up and down, but proper table manners are never to be disrespected.

I count the sleeps until it’s time to venture north. My brother and I have to share a room. Three years older, he isn’t happy with this arrangement.

“Why do I have to sleep with HER?” he grumbles.

“Unless you want to sleep outside, where else is there?” remarks my mother in her matter-of-fact way.

My feelings are hurt, but I don’t let on.

Our cottage is built at the north end of a small island on Lake Catchacoma in the Kawartha Highlands. The baby-blue cabin is nestled among fresh smelling cedar, hemlock and birch trees. White window frames match a picket fence that hugs the base of the building. Steep stone steps lead up to the front door. To the right of the entrance is a four-seater kitchen table where we sometimes eat beanie weenies and hot dogs, play crazy eights, and gaze out a picture-window at our slope of land which leads down to the shoreline of a narrow bay. The gentle splash of waves or buzz of a passing motorboat sound so different from the rattling and screeching of Toronto streetcars. At nightfall, we listen to the crackling of the fire in the pot-bellied stove, or the haunting call of a loon. Our dog, Jane, claims the one, sagging couch. Two cramped bedrooms, separated by a cardboard wall, are furnished with foldout cots, tiny bureaus and orange-crate bedside tables.

Pine needles, moss and tree roots layer the ground. A dock, tethered to two sturdy evergreens, floats at the base of the hill. A wooden boat, with a six-horsepower engine, jostles against the edge of the wharf. Edward is allowed to run the motor by himself, provided he wears a life jacket. When my brother returns from circling the bay, Daddy shows me how to tie the boat to the dock again so it won’t float away.

Starting in late May, we drove to our getaway every weekend. Trilliums bordered the country roads, blackflies tormented us. In July, when school let out, Mommy, who was a psychiatrist, went back and forth to the city because she had to work. Daddy was a cartoonist, so he stayed at the cottage with my brother and me. Every Friday evening, my mother arrived at the mainland dock, the car full of supplies – groceries, gin, rye, cases of beer, red and white wine. I was always excited to give her the bouquet of buttercups and daisies that I’d picked just for her.  

Soon after she received her flowers, however, I’d be told to amuse myself outside.

           “Mommy, Mommy, come for a swim!”

           “Not now, maybe later.”

           “Can we play crazy eights?”

           “Victoria, your father and I want to have a ‘grown up’ talk. Stop interrupting.”

           “But I’m bored.”

           “Stop pestering your mother. Go outside. There’s plenty to do.”

I scaled shoreline rocks, built forts, fished off the dock and swatted mosquitoes. My brother and I, forced to share our insect-infested bedroom, thought nothing of squishing the annoying pests against the cardboard wall to create a splattered mural.

           Edward found a friend his age on the other side of the island, so I had to play by myself.

I was allowed to swim without supervision in shallow water and paddled around all day. My dark blonde braids never had a chance to dry. Mommy told me, wrinkling her nose, that my hair smelled just like my bathing suit when I forgot to hang it on the clothesline.

 I loved to catch little toads to keep me company. I built them homes made of sticks, pine needles, leaves, and moss. I tried to feed them ants, but they weren’t hungry. Some of them managed to escape. I cried when the rest of them died. So I caught some more.

Daddy made me let them go. “You cannot keep wildlife in captivity,” he lectured. “It’s cruel. I forbid it!”

The thought of giving up my new friends was unbearable. That very evening, as soon as Daddy wasn’t watching, I found another toad and hid him behind the outhouse, on a stump under a plastic cup. I plotted to build a special, secret fort first thing in the morning.

 I awake to bright sunshine, the promise of a new and exciting day. Edward is still asleep. I scamper out of my bedroom, eager to retrieve my new toad. My father intercepts me beside the woodpile at the back of the cottage. His face is ruddy red. Not good.

“Look what you’ve done!” He grabs my arm and yanks me towards the tree stump. The plastic cup is still there. So is my little toad, smothered under the beaker, scorched by the sun – a piece of crispy bacon.

           “Poor thing suffocated! You killed it! Go to the bedroom and stay there!”

           Horrified, I slink back inside the cottage, banished, repentant. I hadn’t meant it. Honest.

I wasn’t allowed to swim the whole day. At dinner, nobody talked to me and after eating, I had to go right back to bed. They played cards and board games without me. Certain my family hated me, and, face down to mute the sound, I sobbed into my pillow.

The next day, free from captivity, I stay invisible, out of the way, oblivious to the irony of my reality.  Exploring the shoreline, I search for some sparkly rocks. A ripple of excitement energizes me when I suddenly spot an enormous toad squatting on the sand. Its tongue darts out to seize passing ants. I want to capture it, make it my special pet, in spite of what has happened. This time will be different.

Sneaking up from behind, my grasping hands reach to clutch it around its tubby tummy. Before I get a hold, it jumps upward, turns in mid-air, and lands at my feet with a thud, ready to square off. Its bulging, beady eyes challenge mine.

A prickle of fear travels up my spine. Nevertheless, I persist with my plan of capture. It lunges, grabs my thumb in its gaping mouth. I shriek, shake it off. When it lands, it stands its ground, defying me. I back away slowly, full of fear and newfound respect.

Never again did I terrorize toads. Nevertheless, I felt empty without my collection of unwilling hostages. Having had an introductory lesson about the negative outcomes of obsessive efforts to control, I moved on to a new, more benign activity.

I sit, still as a statue, at the top of the cottage steps with popcorn kernels in my outstretched palm, resisting the urge to swat mosquitoes. I have laid an enticing path of treats all the way from the tree roots at the bottom of the hill, up, up, up, to where I perch.

Finally, a chipmunk creeps towards me to snatch the kernels out of my hand. I spend many hours at this pastime, no longer lonely when my brother plays with his friend and Daddy goes fishing.

Eventually, my new friend Chippie comes whenever he hears the sound of my clucking tongue. I adore his fat little cheeks and giggle when he jumps on my shoulder. He disappears down a small hole beside the roots of a nearby pine tree with his stash. I wonder if he has a family or if he lives all alone in the dark. I know better than to dig around his shelter. I have patience and respect for his autonomy. Our relationship is reciprocal. I am no longer a threat to innocent creatures, am learning to live and let live.

One day, when I run out of popcorn kernels, I decide to watch ants. Fascinated, I track the arduous journey of a lumbering black ant as it drags a dead beetle three times its size up the hill towards the cottage. Pine needles, rocks and crevices impede its way. In spite of the obstacles, it finds ways to proceed with amazing strength.

After struggling for about twenty minutes, it encounters a deep hole between two tree roots. Having seen pictures of the Grand Canyon, I imagine this challenge from the ant’s perspective. It drops the beetle and runs in circles near the edge of the precipice. I consider helping by placing the ant’s cargo on the other side. But then, what would happen to the ant? Should I then try and capture it in my hand, and transfer it over as well?

Suddenly, two other ants arrive out of nowhere. The three of them flip the beetle to form a bridge and then march across, like soldiers, in single file. Incredible! Safely over on the other side, they flip the beetle again. The original ant continues on its way alone. The other two disappear as quickly as they arrived. Fascinated, I continue watching until the ant drags its cache under the cottage. Then I write a journal about my observations and save it for school. I show my notes to Daddy and he smiles. He helps me with some spelling and tells me I’m a good writer. Has he forgiven me for my sins against toads?

A few days later, Daddy returns from fishing. I’m sobbing. A garter snake has captured a poor tiny toad in its mouth.

“Daddy, make that horrid snake let him go!” I wail.

“The toad is already dead. The snake needs to eat. You have to let nature take its course.”

“But it’s not fair!”

And when I hear my own words, a bigger truth sets in. The snake, slithering off with its prey, is simply surviving.

           The concept of letting go has been a lifelong challenge. Looking back, I can see that Life continuously tries to teach me. Whenever I grasp and try to control, outcomes backfire. Mr. Toad was my first teacher. Chippie, happy to engage with me, scampered about, interacting on his own terms rather than mine. The industrious ant taught me about a network of communication far beyond my control or understanding. Rather than meddle, I was able to observe and marvel at the process of a Higher Intelligence. The snake helped consolidate this insight.

           I have had many more teachers along the way, as these lessons are repeatedly presented for review and reinforcement. I am a life-long learner. My early childhood encounters with those cottage creatures will forever hold a place deep in my heart.

May 02, 2021 21:10

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