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NEW FICTION : Scientific Method

July 01, 1990|ETHAN CANIN

I WAS AN INSECT COLLECTOR and was learning from my brother Lawrence to worship the scientific method. In grammar school I made a project of pinning the insects I scooped from the molding pile of grass and leaves in the yard next door to our house. Hundreds of earwigs and silverfish and slate-gray potato bugs scrambled in the glovesful of dirt I lifted from the pile and then sorted over a mayonnaise jar behind the back porch. I punched air holes in the lid and closed it over a piece of cheesecloth from my mother's kitchen. In the jar the insects ran furiously. They climbed jerkily on the walls and slid back into heaps while a faint gray powder--some product of their wings or bodies--gathered on the lower, curved edge of glass. I collected it and tried to look at it through Lawrence's mirror microscope, though in the view piece--whose bright-circled ring resembled a weird, lunar eclipse--it never looked like anything more than magnified gravel or, as I said to Lawrence when he asked me to systematically describe what I saw, little pieces of dirt.

My sister Darienne put her hand on her small breasts the first time I showed her the strange, turned-over sight of the insects' prickly legs and dark underbellies against the glass. "Edgar Gordon," she said softly, leaning back against the wall of her room, "you are a cruel tyrant." I laughed. She was three years older than I was but something about her made her seem younger. She had petit-mal epilepsy for which she took medicine every day and because of which, as our mother said, she had unusual sympathy for things. All the windows of her room were open because a fly had come in and she wanted it to leave. In one corner stood her easel, propped against the glass so that she could paint the sparrows that nested in our buckeye, and in another stood her music stand and the black, pocked-plastic oboe case. I set the jar down on it.

"Pick that up this instant," she said.

I shook it in my hand and the hundreds of scrambling earwigs and silverfish and potato bugs flipped and landed like a pancake. Darienne took hold of the window seat. "I'll tell you one thing," she whispered, "vermin are not coming into my room."

"They're my project, Dary."

"Well, my project is to keep them out of the house."

I clenched my jaw. While she sat there I held the jar in front of us and positioned its wide bottom so she could see the thousands of legs against the glass. That evening before dinner when I set the sweating jar in the pantry, my mother picked it up and took it out through the back door. Darienne sat smiling at me. That night before I went up to bed I went outside and peered inside it with a flashlight to where the insects had organized themselves into layers roughly by species. The fat potato bugs lay curled in the gutter; the silverfish made a low layer along the bottom; the dozens of earwigs milled on top. In the flashlight's weak yellow beam, antennae rose against the glass, as black and thin as threads.

But the next morning when I went out to the yard only a few silverfish lay in the bottom of the jar. They were stiff and barely moving, their bodies flattened in the early throes of death. I leaned down. All the earwigs and potato bugs were gone. I was nine or ten at the time, and this was my first encounter with the mysteries of nature. The punctured lid was tightly screwed in place. I knew something of the life of insects, that they changed forms in concealed, stupendous ways--caterpillars into butterflies, larvae into wasps--and when I went in to breakfast that morning I had the feeling of having seen a rare demonstration. We ate eggs and rye toast with the crusts cut off, and when I had waited sufficiently long I told my mother and Darienne and Lawrence about what I had seen. My mother nodded and smiled, put down her fork as I spoke. "That is a miracle," she said. "A miracle of nature, but a miracle all the same."

Darienne drank from a glass of orange juice and set it down. Then she told me insects could metamorphize and slip through the small holes in cheesecloth or a punctured lid. She took another sip from her glass. Such was the miraculous tumult of nature, she said. This was the actual phrase she used. Lawrence was quiet. That year he had begun teaching science at St. Ignatius High and had been silent around the house for months, thinking of more important things. The jar stood just outside the screen door to the kitchen, and I looked over at it while Darienne explained miraculous escapes in nature: Tadpoles in danger turned into frogs and hopped away. Lawrence sipped coffee as she spoke. Flying fish took to the air. Imperiled, my insects had returned to their spore stages and evaporated. She lifted her hands and flapped them like wings as she said this. She returned them to her lap and smiled across the table at me. Then Lawrence said, "Bullshit."

I looked at him. The way I saw it, he and Darienne had been allies for years. "Bullshit," he said again.

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