At the bottom of a shallow stretch of river, protected from swift currents by slippery boulders and various water plants, lived a slug. He was a brown, non-descript fellow, lacking even the adornment of a shell. Just brown. Brown and squishy.
Despite his humble appearance, this particular gastropod had an adventurous spirit. He often crept from the underside of the boulders that served as the usual grazing grounds of local slugs and snails, in search of more interesting rocky landscapes and exotic algae, leaving a thin, winding trail of glistening mucus behind him.
The day was bright and warm. He stretched his eyestalks forward, sensing a patch of filtered, wavy sunlight reflecting off a surface ahead. Those spots were his favorite. He would bask in the glowing rays of the sun, scrape a feast of slime from the river rocks, and dream.
But as he made his way toward the sunny spot, he happened across the strangest texture of rock he had ever encountered. It was warmer than the surrounding rocks, and naked of any slime or algae. Intrigued, the intrepid explorer decided to hang out for a bit to examine the curious surface further, a decision that would change his life forever.
* * * * *
The sun was already high that summer afternoon by the time we arrived at the river’s edge. My son bolted down the bank toward the rushing water. Fascinated by the movement and noise and lacking the understanding of potential danger, his dad and I had to quickly intervene to prevent him from splashing right into the river, shoes and all. He bopped up and down impatiently as I removed his shoes and socks and squealed as my husband lead him by the hand into the cold water.
I took off my sneakers and waded up to mid calf. The water was indeed cold, squealishly so, as my son had indicated. The rocks on the bottom were jagged and uneven. The boulders were slimy. I was now decidedly less enamored by the tranquil scene and found a place to sit near the edge, keeping just my feet in the water.
I grew uneasy watching my son and his dad move further out into the river. “Watch out! It’s really slippery!” I warned my husband. “Do you think it’s too cold for him? Don’t go too far; the current looks fast!”
My boy continued enjoying himself, oblivious to my concerns.
It may seem hard to believe, but I, too, was once adventurous and brave. My childhood years were spent climbing trees, building forts, and tromping through the swamps of my backyard with my brothers.
But I’m not that person anymore. I’ve been conditioned by this universe to jump from one crisis to the next with very little downtime in between, surviving on pure adrenaline. Moments of calm are not a chance to relax but a chance to catch my breath and mentally prepare for the next crisis, my anxiety on a hair-trigger.
I breathed a sigh of relief as I watched my husband leading our son back to the riverbank. Victory! We had enjoyed nature, unscathed.
I dried my son’s feet with a small towel, which I then handed off to my husband so he could dry his feet while I put my son’s shoes back on. Then it was my turn to dry off.
Rubbing the towel over my feet, I noticed a piece of brown leaf had attached itself to the pinky toe of my right foot. I brushed at it again with the towel. It didn’t come off. I tried to wipe it off with my finger and realized it was not a leaf. It was squishy. It was alive. And it was attached to my toe.
“Oh my God! Leech!” I shrieked. “There’s a leech on my toe! Get it off! Get it off!”
I was so horrified I couldn’t bear to look at it, no less remove it. Eyes shut tight I hugged myself and wailed, “Get it off! Get it off!”
In a flash, my husband crouched down and removed the offending organism from my toe, flinging it back into the river. I was afraid to look at my toe. Anytime someone removed a leech in the movies, it always left a bloody wound. “Is it bleeding?” I half-sobbed.
“No, you’re fine.”
I looked at my toe. No blood. Not even a mark. I put my socks and sneakers back on, gathered our stuff, and took my son’s hand to help him up the riverbank. We walked back toward the car in silence. The adrenaline subsided. My mind cleared.
“That wasn’t a leech,” I stated sheepishly. “Was it?”
“It was a slug or a snail or something.”
The whole ridiculous episode made me realize that my anxiety isn’t just something that makes me miserable. It’s an energy that flows outward through constant trickles of nervous verbal warnings or tidal waves of over-the-top emotional reactions. I’ve been aware that sometimes this energy makes others want to murder me with ball-peen hammers. But now I worry that my intense anxiety might be contagious, like icy river water threatening to chill my son’s adventurous spirit and dampen his curiosity.
Would my neurosis rub off on him? Would it confirm his fears that the world is as big and dangerous and scary as he thinks it is?
Not only that, but in this particular situation my anxiety had had a direct negative impact, however small, on the world in general. A state of panic had clouded my judgment so much that I had lost control and an innocent creature had possibly been harmed or killed by my overreaction.
Honestly, I wouldn’t have felt nearly as bad if it had been a leech hurtling to his death. I don’t take issue with swatting flies or killing hornets that build nests on the eaves of our house. But it felt wrong to hurt an innocent slug. I was reminded of the wisdom of Atticus Finch. “River slugs don’t do one thing but eat slime off rocks. They don’t suck your blood or carry disease-causing germs. They don’t bite or sting you. They don’t do one thing but eat slime off rocks. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a river slug.” I’m paraphrasing, of course (with apologies to Harper Lee).
I told the story to my friend Pat over coffee at Barnes and Noble, expressing my remorse over the fate of the harmless gastropod.
“Are you kidding?” she laughed. “That was probably the most exciting thing that ever happened to it.”
* * * * *
“THIS IS THE MOST EXCITING THING THAT HAS EVER HAPPENED TO ME!” thought the slug as he soared in a great arch through the air, hitting the surface of the water with a barely perceptible BLOOP! When he came to his senses, he found himself surrounded by delicious detritus and decaying plants, the likes of which he had never eaten before. The water here was deeper and colder, but the locals were friendly, and soon the slug became quite a legend as he regaled gastropod neighbors, young and old, with details of his adventure.
Turns out, the little slug had a flair for dramatic storytelling and always ended his tale in a way that would have inspired standing ovations from his gastropod audience, had they more than one foot on which to stand and hands with which to clap:
“We may be small and squishy, my friends, yet we’re fierce and terrifying to the largest of creatures!”
*With humblest apologies to Harper Lee,