Earthworms can think

Dockleaf1

My brother is an idiot. He says that earthworms can think.
‘Dumbo,’ I say. ‘They can’t.’
He looks at me with muddy brown eyes. ‘Philip told me.’
‘You and Philip have holes for brains.’ Philip is my brother’s best friend.
My brother’s mouth wobbles.
‘You ate three worms when you were a baby.’ I sing the words. ‘Worms, worms, worms.’
He sniffs and I scowl and stick out my tongue but he just stands there in his flapping shorts and scabby knees and I rip a daisy from the lawn and tear off the petals. ‘What about daisies?’ I say. ‘Can they think too?’
‘I don’t know.’ He’s blinking now.
‘Ask Philip. He’ll know.’ I stamp on the daisies and run back into the house. Music is playing on the radio, tinkly and sweet. My mother is in the kitchen chopping vegetables. My father is at the desk in the study. It is always cold in the study because there is only one cramped window, low down, and the wall that faces the road is damp.
‘We must fix that wall,’ my father says. ‘The foundations are sandstone. It’s porous, lets in water.’ My father studies rocks. He knows about these things. But he can’t put up shelves. Not for toffee, my mother says.
‘What are you doing?’ My mother calls from the kitchen as I race up the stairs. ‘Where’s your brother?’
‘He’s gone to the moon! He won’t be back.’
*
After lunch my brother throws an earthworm at me. It leaves a faint smudge on my Aertex shirt before falling to the ground. For a while the worm lies still and I think it’s dead but then it starts to move away slowly and I lose it in the grass. When it has gone, I sink my teeth into my brother’s arm, leaving a wobbly circle of marks on the skin. The marks look like a small planet.
My brother bawls and goes running inside.
‘Go to your room!’ my mother shouts. ‘How many times have I warned you, Lucy?’
‘He started it!’ I stamp my foot, not once but three times.
‘I don’t care who started it. He has bite marks on his arm. How do you imagine they got there? Martians?’
I run upstairs, away from the buttery, sweet smell of flapjack that my mother is making. I want to lick out the pan and cut the flapjack into pieces when it comes out of the oven. Instead I sit on my bed and listen to the gurgle of the water tank. The wooden top is painted gloss white. This is where I keep my collection of shells, feathers, pine-cones and home-made spells. Most of the spells are in jam-jars, the liquid inside green, brown and red. I also have a matchbox which contains dry rice, stained yellow with poster paint. The label on the side says: KEEP OUT! DANGER! This spell is for when Mummy is being nasty. I shake a few grains out into my hand and pick up my father’s old magnifying glass. The rice grains turn into eggs. My shells are covered in dust the size of footballs. The pine cone looks like a giant tortoise.
When I am done with the glass, I look out of the window. Beyond the garden is the church with its spire and lightning conductor like a green snake. The church is built of sandstone. Perhaps it lets in water like our wall.
‘Lucy! It’s tea-time.’ My mother has decided to be nice after all.
Before I go back down the steep, winding stairs I peer out of the window again and my heart does a big jiggery leap because there’s a unicorn trotting across the lawn. Its hooves leave silver crescents on the wet grass. As the unicorn ducks under the willow tree, its horn catches on a branch. It whinnies a little, untangles itself, crosses the wooden bridge over the brook and disappears into the dense thicket of the dingle.
*
Next day my brother and I make up. We climb the willow tree and sail the seven seas. Our mother is lying in her darkened bedroom. She says she has a headache.
‘What about lunch?’ I ask when it’s lunch-time.
‘There’s bread and cheese on the table.’ She puts her hand to her forehead and closes her eyes. ‘I need quiet. Can you be quiet?’
In the afternoon my brother and I step into our Wellington boots. We zip past Charlie’s place where he lives with seven brothers and three dogs. We fly by the electricity sub-station, the muddy pool and the row of spindly poplar trees. Behind the poplars is a ploughed field, scattered with crows and behind the crows is a red brick house with white framed windows.
‘Have earthworms got eyes?’ my brother asks.
‘Have you seen eyes on an earthworm, stupid?’
‘I’m not stupid.’ He looks stupid. He is sucking his thumb and pulling at his ear.
‘All right. You’re not stupid.’ I only say this because I’m happy about the unicorn. ‘I bet you can’t guess what I saw in the garden yesterday?’
‘A cat.’
I shake my head.
‘A fox.’
‘No. Something magic.’
‘I don’t know,’ my brother says grumpily.
‘You’re not trying.’
‘A hedgehog?’
‘No, no, no!’ I hop up and down. ‘A unicorn.’
His eyes become large pebbles. ‘What did it look like?’
‘Like a silver horse with a narwhal’s horn sticking out from the middle of its forehead.’
‘What’s a narr-wall?’
‘Don’t you know?’
He wrinkles his nose and sucks at his thumb again.
‘Like a seal with a long twisty horn.’
‘Is that one in the pond?’ He peers over the low painted railing. A fish has jumped and left ripples in the water.
‘Narwhals live in the ocean but that’s a long way from here and anyway you can’t swim.’
‘Philip can swim. He can swim from one side of the pool to the other without stopping.’
‘Bully for Philip.’
My brother stares at his feet. There is a worm on the pavement near the toe of his boots.
‘What do worms think about?’ I ask.
The breeze is rustling the silvery leaves of the poplars. The leaves sound like unicorns running through the grass. But then a car passes on the road, spoiling everything.
‘Tunnels,’ my brother answers. ‘They think about tunnels.’
‘Perhaps,’ I say although I don’t believe it.
We turn left down the cinder track where they keep the dumped oil tanks. The tanks smell of oil and rust. Beyond the tanks is the sewage farm but we can’t smell that today. On the far side, a path runs alongside the mill stream where stinging nettles grow and gnats whirl in great clouds.
‘Let’s go and play in the tanks.’ I like hollering inside the empty tanks because my voice echoes like a monster’s and I like the smell in there, oily and old.
‘I want to go to Dead Man’s Curve.’
‘Why do you want to go there?’ Dead Man’s Curve is where the motor cyclist died. I try to make my voice light like the breeze but it wobbles.
My brother folds his arms. ‘You’re scared.’
‘I’m not.’
‘You are. Scaredy cat!’
‘All right. You win.’
To the right of the bend is a patch of scraggy grass and a wooden gate. There’s a ditch down there too, full of stinky water. Above, the road rises steeply to the farm and on along the ridge to the gooseberry fields. We stand on the pavement, just where it runs out and we look up the hill. A crow squawks and a cloud passes over the sun. Nothing else happens.
‘It’s boring here,’ I say. ‘What are we doing?’
‘We’re looking for the ghost. Philip says there’s a ghost.’
‘Have you seen it?’
‘No,’ my brother says.
I stare at the thick white lines painted in the middle of the road. I stare and stare and then I see something, like a patch of mist. ‘What’s that?’
My brother shrugs. ‘I can’t see anything,’ he says.
But a shape rises up out of the mist: a young man in blue jeans and a creased black leather jacket. The jacket has an eagle stitched on the front.
*
My mother is sitting in the living room with her feet up, drinking tea.
‘I saw a ghost.’ My head feels strange and light.
‘What ghost?’ My mother’s forehead puckers as if she was eating something sour. Or perhaps she still has the headache.
‘The motorcyclist.’
‘Never mind that,’ my mother says firmly. ‘Where’s your brother?’
‘I don’t know,’ I say, my breath puffing out like a train.
‘Didn’t you look out for him?’ my mother says crossly.
‘I was scared. I ran.’
‘For goodness sake, Lucy.’ My mother shoves her feet into her outdoor shoes and grabs her coat and we take off down the road, past the pool, the poplars and the worm, all the way to Dead Man’s Curve.
‘Is this where you left him?’
I nod. I can’t see the ghost now.
She frowns and shouts my brother’s name, over and over.
We take the track by the rusted petrol tankers. When my mother calls her voice echoes off the empty containers. But no one is here, only rabbits, birds and gnats. So we loop back to the village, passing our neighbour’s geese, the cottage where the street cleaner lives, and the plaque of St. Christopher on the wall of the white house. My mother stops and looks over the bridge at the millstream but my brother is not down there.
‘Has anyone seen Robert?’ she asks in the butcher’s, Weaver and Guest’s, the café and the Post Office but everyone shakes their head and says, ‘Is everything all right, Mrs. Turner?’
We hunt for him everywhere: at the back of the village green, in the wooden cricket hut on the recreation ground, in Pincher’s Close, the wood yard and the church. We search the graveyard and the shed behind the yew trees where the grave digger keeps his tools but there is no sign of my brother anywhere.
‘What were you thinking of?’ my mother yells, pulling me past the cherry tree. ‘Maybe someone’s taken him!’
‘We were talking about earthworms.’
‘What’s that to do with anything?’ Her face slips and she looks like she’s going to cry.
We go home.
My mother twists her hair through her fingers and makes phone calls to everyone she knows. ‘I don’t know what to do,’ she says to her friend, Bessie. ‘It’s already been over an hour. Anything could have happened.’
‘He’ll be back soon,’ I say.
‘You don’t know that.’ My mother’s hand is twitching. She looks like she wants to slap me. ‘I’m phoning the police right now.’
‘He never gets lost.’
‘Did you see a car?’ She slumps on the sofa. ‘Maybe he got in a car.’
‘I saw a ghost,’ I say. ‘I already told you.’
*
‘Where have you been?’ My mother flaps her hands like washing on the line. ‘I’ve been worried sick.’
My brother is looking quite pleased with himself. ‘I was at the pond looking for earthworms.’
‘For goodness sake, Robert, don’t we have worms in the garden?’
My brother’s mouth quivers. ‘These are special.’
‘What’s so special about them?’ Now my mother’s hands move to her head. Perhaps she has another headache.
‘They’re radar worms.’ He digs his hand in his pocket and pulls out a worm. It is muddy and disorientated from its journey. ‘Look,’ he says, pointing to a band on its tail.
‘All worms are like that,’ I say.
‘They’re not.’
‘They are.’
‘Stop arguing!’ my mother shouts. ‘I can’t take any more.’
‘Can earthworms think?’ I ask.
‘For goodness sake, Lucy,’ my mother says again and she fills the kettle with water.
‘We want to know,’ my brother says. ‘It’s terribly important.’
‘Ask your father when he comes home. Let me have my cup of tea. My head feels like it’s going to explode.’
*
‘It all depends what you mean by thinking,’ father says, scratching his eyebrow. ‘Thinking is consciousness, abstractions, reasoning. I doubt if a worm functions at quite that level.’
‘Oh,’ my brother says. He has already lost interest in worms. ‘Can I see a picture of a narwhal?’
‘Now there’s an interesting beast.’ My father goes to fetch the encyclopaedia.
While they discuss narwhals I read about worms. There are 6,000 species in the world. Without worms we’d be nothing. I think about that for a while. Then I think, maybe my brother is not so stupid after all. But I don’t tell him that. After all, I don’t want him getting a big head, do I?

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The home of writer Bronwen Griffiths