My Friend the Worm
by Olivia Zubrowski
I spent many afternoons of my childhood in the thin suburban forest behind our house. I was an only child. I would dig up worms. We would sit together and listen to the sound of the nearby highway. The cars filled the humid air with something like the intake of breath before someone speaks.
For many years, I managed to dig up the same worm every time. Worm was always happy to see me. One day in October: upon uncovering Worm there was a hunger in my solar plexus. I sat on the remains of the stone wall just above Worm. Worm and fallen copper oak leaves glinted in the light.
I often had dark dreams. In most dreams: moonlight but no moon. Many took place from that same vantage point, atop the rock wall. This wall, in turn, a single spoke in a breadth of many walls whose deterioration marked the untidied borders of large, quiet houses.
Later in life, I took a short-term job at a private school teaching science to seventh graders. In March of my first year, we were discussing light. I brought them to the basement. Until the previous afternoon, I hadn’t known the basement contained so many rooms. What was once an old brick wall now opened up into broad, metal stairs, coated and worn smooth by many years of hands. I brought ten students down to the furnace room, conducting an experiment on total darkness. The children were a quiet bunch and continued to be in the dark.
I waited for some time. I had planned to speak, but it seemed like the children no longer needed sound to understand what we were doing here. The dark metered our breathing into a running stream: the metal door latch below my hand slipped shape and grew warm. My chest-breath expanded into the increasing space. Body sounds—swallow, itch, scratch, foot-scrape—muted the dark softly with no individuation.
How much light does a person need? I opened the door after only eleven minutes. Into the hallway and up the stairs we went, still in the same trailing line.
Each morning until summer, I returned to the unused furnace room. From early sunrise over the parking lot to deep night: bone horizon to black aorta. Sometimes I fell asleep and woke to the otherworlded sound of my phone alarm announcing the children’s arrival. I would slip in during the afternoon dismissal, a pebble loosed from the mountain stream. I never stayed the night.
My last week of school, we made a camera obscura in the small utility closet at the end of the upstairs hallway. You could hear the fourth graders giggling behind the wall. One at a time, I let the children into the camera obscura: five minutes each. The change on their placid faces, when they opened the door, was brief, if at all—the limn of a summer cloud reflected in a still pond.
In my dreams, I still sit on the rock wall behind my childhood home. Now it is afternoon, and there is light enough to see the sky appear again, fractured, in the swamp, among the cattails.