By Ruby Gaffney
Angel is holding the worm down flat on top of the wall, and then she lifts one of her fingers and pushes it down hard in its middle, pressing, until it splits in two. One half tries to wriggle away, but she grabs it and pulls it back to her.
“Because it’s a fact about worms,” she says, when Elsa asks her why she did that. “If you break one in half, it doesn’t die, it turns into two worms. Look.”
Elsa looks. Both halves wriggle and squirm under Angel’s fingers. “You can touch them,” she says.
Elsa touches the two worms. Their skin is thin, like wet, slimy paper, wrapped round something that’s warm and shivering.
Angel says, “First, I had just one worm, but now there’s two. A new one and the old one.” But which half is new, and which is old? Elsa thinks. Is it the head or the tail?
“Let’s put them back now,” says Elsa.
Angel looks at her, narrowing her eyes. “But if you split these in half again, then there’ll be four worms. Look.”
Angel does things like this. Once, she had reached into the fishbowl in her room and scooped up Nemo. Nemo lay flat in the palm of her hand, not in the water anymore, but still glistening, yellow, slicked wet. “Look,” Angel had said. She held Nemo up close to Elsa’s face. Elsa watched his body move up and down, his one eye staring at her, him flat and silent.
“One, elephant, two, elephant,” Angel was counting, all the way to twenty. As the numbers went on, Nemo breathed less and less.
“Will he die?” Elsa burst out, suddenly scared.
“No, he’s fine. Look,” said Angel, and she dropped him back into the tank. They both watched for a second, Nemo’s fish body limp, paralyzed. Then he burst with a jolt of electricity, bamboozled, and swam away. It was like nothing had happened. After that, Angel showed Elsa how to feed him, scattering his food into the water, where it floated like tiny corn flakes in milk.
Another time, they were playing Hairdressers. Elsa and Angel both have model dolls to play it with, with long blonde hair. Elsa likes playing this game. She knows how to do things that Angel doesn’t, like French braids. Angel’s doll is the worse one of the two, because she has a faded pink-gray body, and her eye has rubbed off; Elsa’s is clean and new.
Angel didn’t say anything while they played, just watched Elsa braid silently. Then she said, Llook, I can do it, too.” She grabbed Elsa’s old cat, Moby, and took two clumps of his long hair in her hands, twisting them around each other. He had let out a high-pitched noise, like an alarm, and swatted Angel’s face with his paw, scraping her. Angel yelled, and her plastic doll came down hard on Moby. He moaned again and zipped out the door to hide.
“Your cat is violent,” Angel shouted.
“It’s because he’s old, and he’s a boy, so he doesn’t want to have a French braid,” Elsa had said.
She was angry with Angel that night, but then the feeling went away the next day. This was just how things went—you could pull and push things that were smaller than you. It was like how when Angel’s little brother threw his cup at them, he immediately looked embarrassed afterwards, knowing he had got it wrong. He was young, so they hit him; it was never the other way around, not yet. It was like how Lucas in the class above would twist the skin around your arm until it felt red hot and prickly. He called the younger girls into the corner of the playground, one by one, and they had to take turns to be burned, knowing there was no point complaining; this was just what happened. When he finished with each girl, he would send her to locate the next one, still touching her stinging arm, shouting: he says it’s your turn now. You have to go.
Elsa watches as Angel turns two twisting worms into four. Then the bell rings, so they forget all about it and turn to run back inside. In the classroom, it’s math on the board: fractions, one number above the other, split in half with a clear black line. The d-d-d-d of rain sounds on the window. Back on the stone wall, one worm, original height quartered, inches its way slowly back to the dirt.
What I like about this is how matter-of-fact it is. Angel’s behaviour is uncomfortable to read, yet there’s no heavy-handed moralizing. Elsa is a child and she interprets the behavior as a child.