By Meredith Bailey
“You ready?” Cory asked, a look of anticipation glowing in his eyes.
“Almost,” Sophia answered, stretching out her arms as though she were balanced on a tightrope.
In fifth grade homeroom that morning, he’d bet her that she couldn’t make it to her father’s bookstore with her eyes closed. She hadn’t lost a dare yet and she wasn’t about to start now. Besides, she was wearing her lucky outfit: black converse, tapered stonewashed jeans with zippers at the ankle, and a white cotton peasant blouse that was too big for her, yet she insisted upon wearing because it had belonged to her mother.
Her father’s bookstore wasn’t that far. Sophia just had to make it down the rest of Market Street, take a left on Second, and then listen for the windchimes that hung just outside the door. Sophia and Cory traveled this route after the 3:00 bell rang at Pocomoke Elementary just about every day since she and her father had moved to this small town on the Eastern shore of Maryland a few months ago.
“OK, I’m ready,” Sophia said, wiping her hair out of her face and closing her eyes. Who needed sight when you could navigate by sound?
She heard noises she hadn’t noticed before: the wind rustling leaves that had yet to turn brown, the swish of a broom as someone swept the sidewalk, and a voice on someone’s car radio talking about President Reagan. When Sophia got her bearings, she took a deep breath and let out a series of squeaks and clicks.
“What are you doing?” Cory asked.
“Using echoes. That’s how dolphins find their way.”
“No cheating. You have to remember how to get to your dad’s store. Besides, you’re not a dolphin,” Cory added.
He was a slight boy, in fact the shortest in his class, with delicate features and a smattering of light brown freckles across his nose. Like her friend, Sophia was slim and wiry, but taller. Strangers often mistook her for an older child because of her height.
“Maybe you’re not,” she replied, pulling her tangled black hair into a ponytail. Sophia secretly felt that there had been a terrible mix-up before she was born. Instead of the flippers, dorsal fin, and smooth, rubbery skin that she deserved, God had mistakenly packaged her in a pale human body with lips that were too big for her face. She longed to dive through ocean waves, yet was condemned to walk on land.
“Wait! You need a blindfold in case you try to peek,” Cory told her, as he removed his sweatshirt and tied the arms securely around her head. “Now you’re ready.”
Sophia took her first step forward imagining an audience staring up at her and holding its breath as she walked a razor thin high wire. She carried a long pole and balanced a stack of books on top of her head. Many feet below her was the unforgiving ground; a safety net was for amateurs.
“What’s that?” Sophia asked, her right foot crushing something soft and slippery.
“Just a slug,” Cory replied.
“Is it dead?”
Sophia removed her makeshift blindfold and knelt down over the brownish yellow blob.
“I think I killed her,” she whispered softly. It didn’t seem fair that you could cause death just by walking. “Do you think slugs have families?”
“I guess so. Why?”
“They might get worried when she doesn’t come home. What if they find her all smushed like this?”
“Her family would probably be mad. Maybe they would tell all their friends. One night you might wake up to find slugs crawling all over you trying to get revenge,” Cory replied, tossing aside his Scooby Doo backpack and playfully wiggling his fingers at her.
“That’s not funny. What if the slug was pregnant? What if they’re babies inside her?” Then not only would Sophia be responsible for one death but several.
“Guess they’re dead too…we could bury her,” Cory offered.
“Not yet. She might need surgery to get the babies out,” Sophia said.
“You don’t know how to operate.”
“No. But I bet my dad does,” she replied, a glimmer of hope returning. Her father would know just what to do. After all, he’d had experience with this sort of thing.
“How do you know it’s a girl slug anyway?” Cory asked.
“Just do,” she replied. Sophia tended to assume that all animals were of the female gender unless faced with evidence to the contrary. She wasn’t a child who easily made friends with other girls. She didn’t understand their games or their cliques, so she sought out an alternative kind of female companionship.
“Give me one of your books. And a ruler,” Sophia demanded. “Hurry! We don’t have much time.”
Sophia’s father Glenn was on his knees organizing a display of children’s pop-up books in the front window of his bookstore. He scratched his blonde-going-gray goatee now and then as he hummed along to a Doors tune coming from the cassette player at his feet. The store was still in a slight state of disarray—boxes of books waiting to be shelved were spilling out of the stockroom. There just weren’t enough hours in the day to fix up an old house and start a business, all the while caring for an impetuous daughter.
The sting of being asked to resign from his high school teaching position still fresh, Glenn had decided it was time for him and Sophia to leave Baltimore and take a leap of faith to do something he’d always wanted to do. Though he regretted having to quit, he did not regret helping his students organize a protest against the school’s celebration of Columbus Day. It was a peaceful event; however, the student’s parents and the school board did not appreciate Glenn encouraging teenagers to question authority. Now, no one much cared about his so- called radical teaching practices when they were browsing titles at his bookstore.
It had been Sophia’s idea to name the store The Condor: New and Used Books. And she was always the first to explain the meaning of the name to anyone who asked.
“It’s my mother,” she’d say proudly. “When she died she became a condor because dad says that’s what she was before she was a person.”
Often, Sophia received confused looks or startled expressions, but she assumed they were just the result of people trying to remember what they were before they were human. On the day The Condor opened, John Gibbons, the preacher of the Baptist church, looked particularly alarmed upon hearing this news. Standing on the stool behind the register, Sophia patted him on the arm and said, “Don’t worry, most people don’t remember until they die. But I’m a mind-reading apprentice. Give me your head.”
Before Preacher Gibbons could back away, Sophia lunged over the countertop, placed her palms on his temples, and stared penetratingly into his light blue eyes. Adults fell into two categories for her—those like her father and those not like her father. The preacher was the latter because it was obvious he didn’t believe in her ability. He only believed in God. His eyes were empty, devoid of animal instincts, and disappointingly human, though his face did bear some rodent-like qualities.
“Sophia, honey, I don’t think Preacher Gibbons wants to have his mind read. Why don’t you go pick out something for us to read later, OK?” he asked, as he appeared from the stockroom carrying a book.
“Gopher,” she had whispered in the preacher’s ear as she hopped down from the stool.
Since then, Glenn had requested she refrain from practicing her mind-reading abilities on customers. Unlike most parents she had observed, her father did not ask for much, so she willingly complied, saving her future practice sessions for her best friend and her cats.
The wind chimes clanged as Sophia and Cory burst through the front door of the bookstore. One bearing the recently deceased on a math book, the other holding a ruler out in front of him edged in brownish looking goo.
“Well, what have you got here?” Glenn asked.
“A slug. She’s dead but she might have babies inside her that you need to cut out. Hurry, before they die too,” Sophia replied, as she shoved Cory’s math book in front of him.
Glenn squatted down and said, “Honey, slugs aren’t like people. They don’t grow babies inside them. They lay their eggs in the dirt or under a rock and then their babies hatch.”
“Are you sure?” she asked skeptically.
“Well, maybe you should take out the eggs then.”
“I think the best thing we can do is give her a proper funeral and bury her in the grass out back. Maybe beneath the oak?”
Sophia lowered the math book and stared at the remnants of the slug, now a formless blob whose life she had ended because her eyes had been closed. Her teachers often told her that her schoolwork lacked attention to detail. Turned out her life was no different. Perhaps God suffered from the same problem. This slug’s life, like her mother’s, had ended unnoticed.
“What if they’d done that to me?” Sophia asked angrily.
“Done what?” Glenn replied.
“What if they’d just buried mom under a tree and hadn’t taken me out of her? I’d be dead, too!”
“Honey, it’s not the same thing. I know you want to help, but there’s nothing more we can do for the slug or her eggs.”
Glenn had always told her the truth: Her mother had simply died when Sophia was born. It wasn’t her fault, he’d said repeatedly, though she had a hard time believing the two incidents weren’t somehow related. To Sophia, the dead slug was just further evidence that she was cursed. The simplest actions, being born and walking down the sidewalk, which for most people produced innocuous results, for Sophia, led to homicide.
She couldn’t help wondering if she had hurt her mother so badly at birth that she’d killed her. Or was it more complicated than that? How did a baby get its own soul? Perhaps she’d taken her mother’s soul when she was born, a thought that truly horrified her.
Glenn always said that a person’s soul lives on forever, but Sophia didn’t really know what a soul was, what it looked like, how it traveled, or what it felt like to have one, or worse, to have taken someone else’s. Supposedly, it was invisible. But sometimes you just needed tools like microscopes to see organisms too small for the naked eye.
In science class, they’d gotten to look at amoebas. Sophia had excitedly raised her hand and asked which part was the soul. The teacher gave her a funny look and said you couldn’t see it.
“Amoebas don’t have souls.”
“How do you know?”
“Sophia, I think your turn at the microscope is over. Move along please.”
It was then she began to learn there were certain questions you could not ask. Questions that made adults uncomfortable and caused teachers’ eyes to drift over your raised hand and call on people like Know-It-All-Kate, instead, who acted like she was better than everybody else because she had pierced ears and a swimming pool with a slide.
Sophia returned her attention to Glenn who was smiling, yet she couldn’t help but notice the weighed-down look he always got when she talked about her mother, as though he’d just dressed himself in a pile of sopping wet clothes. Buried within her was a cloudy memory of waking up to voices in the kitchen late one night. Sophia had crept downstairs to find her father sobbing at the table, her aunt’s arm draped around his heaving shoulders.
“The doctor said she shouldn’t have children. Why didn’t we—” he had choked out, before putting his head down on the table.
A cold, cavernous feeling had spread through Sophia’s stomach and limbs freezing her hand to the banister, a draft that would never quite leave her. It seemed like someone should have given Sophia a choice in the matter of being born considering the consequences. Yet like a spoiled brat, God did whatever he wanted, took whatever he wanted without asking. Clearly no one had taught him any manners. Who’s to say at any moment he wouldn’t selfishly just whisk away her father as well?
Sophia tried never to disappoint Glenn or upset him—after all that was the least she could do. Glenn was all she had and if he disappeared, she’d be alone. If she could just perfect her mind-reading skills, she’d always know what he was thinking, and she wouldn’t have to be scared that one day she would wake up and he’d be gone.
“I’m sorry,” she said, putting down Cory’s math book, wrapping her arms around him, and burying her nose in her father’s neck. She loved his scent—wood chips and worn paper, mixed with an old adventure story like Treasure Island, and some extinct animal. Maybe wooly mammoth.
“It’s OK. I wish we could have helped your friend.”
“Can we bury her now?” Cory asked.
“I guess,” Sophia replied, “Let’s put her under the tree. Should we get a box or something?”
“I think she’ll be happier just lying in the dirt.” Glenn answered, leading the funeral procession out the back door to the oak tree.
“Is her soul still inside her?” Sophia asked.
“No, I think her soul is crawling along in a big garden in slug heaven.”
“What if you died and someone buried you while your soul was still inside. Would it be stuck in the ground forever?” Cory asked.
“No, your soul can’t be trapped inside anything,” he replied, squeezing Cory’s shoulder. “Look, I have to get to work soon, so why don’t you start the service and I’ll be right back.” Glenn disappeared inside and left the two of them kneeling on the ground under the tree.
“I’ve never been to a funeral. What do we do?” Cory inquired.
“We should both say something nice about her.”
“But we didn’t know her.”
“Make up something. I’ll go first.” Sophia closed her eyes and held the math book out in front of her like a sacrifice to an ancient god. “She was….a courageous slug. And she was…prettier than any of the other slugs.”
“How do you know which ones are pretty?” Cory whispered in her ear.
“Sshh! Doesn’t matter.”
“Yes, it does. I don’t think you should lie at a funeral. What if the other slugs thought she was ugly?”
“Will you just say something!” Sophia exclaimed.
“Fine. She was a nice slug… I guess.” Cory reluctantly added. “But what if she wasn’t? What if she committed a lot of sins? And what if she never got saved?”
“Saved? What are you talking about?”
“At church, Preacher Gibbons says that if you don’t give your heart to Jesus than you aren’t saved, and you can’t go to heaven when you die.”
“Where do you go?”
“Hell,” he whispered.
“What happens there?”
“It’s bad. There’s fire and it’s hot and demons poke you with sharp sticks and they only serve meatloaf for dinner,” Cory said, the ground beef concoction being his most hated food and the impetus for several mealtime battles with his parents.
“People poke you with sticks while you eat meatloaf?” Sophia asked incredulously.
“That sounds made up.”
“Well, it’s true,” Cory replied, crossing his arms with authority.
Outside of her former next-door neighbor who handed out bible tracts instead of candy on Halloween each year, Sophia had had little exposure to religion. Glenn talked about God sometimes, but not in a good way. On more than one occasion she’d overheard him blaming God for taking her mother away. It wasn’t clear what Jesus’ involvement had been, but she was suspicious.
Sophia gazed down at the slug’s squashed body feeling awash with confusion. If people changed back into animals, then what did animals change back into when they died? Did they become people who then went to hell where they got poked with sticks just because they didn’t give their heart to Jesus? What if you wanted to give your heart to someone else? Or what if you didn’t want to give it to anyone at all?
“Do you go to hell if you don’t give your heart to Jesus?” Sophia asked her father, who’d emerged carrying a trowel he’d found buried in the bottom of at box in the stockroom.
Before responding, Glenn leaned against the oak tree and stared up at its leaves, gathering his thoughts. “Well, some people think so sweetheart. But people believe a lot of things, and just because they believe them doesn’t mean they’re true for everyone.”
Sophia furrowed her brow. Her father often responded to her questions in this manner—his answers were never really answers; they only led to more questions.
“Cory says that the slug will go to hell if she isn’t saved. Is that true?”
“Her soul doesn’t need saving. In fact—you saved her—you scooped her up from the ground and brought her here so we could bury her beneath this tree.” Glenn said, tucking a strand of black hair behind his daughter’s ear. Sophia thought about pointing out the fact that she was the one who had killed the slug in the first place, but she didn’t want to disappoint her father. She wondered if her attempt to save the slug’s babies somehow made up for what she’d done.
“Do you believe in hell?” Cory interjected, as he traced geometric shapes in the dirt with his finger.
“No, as a matter of fact I don’t,” Glenn answered.
“Then is Preacher Gibbons lying?”
“No, no of course not. He means well. But Cory you have to think for yourself. You can’t believe everything adults say just because they’re adults. You’ll soon realize that most of us have no idea what we’re talking about even though we like to pretend that we do. Even me,” Glenn replied, putting his hands in his pockets.
Appearing puzzled by this revelation, Cory exchanged a glance with Sophia, who derived no comfort from her father’s words. It made her feel as though she were the lone survivor of a shipwreck, desperately clinging to a floating piece of wood in the middle of the ocean. If only she were a dolphin she would have nothing to fear, she could just let go.
Sophia looked up at her father whose gaze was fixed on the ground. She wondered what he was thinking about but felt too apprehensive of the answer to ask. Breaking out of his reverie, Glenn passed her the trowel and said, “It’s getting late. We should probably turn our attention to Mrs. Slug. Sophia would you like to do the honors?”
Sophia began digging into the moist earth as question after question popped into her head. If her mother was a condor, where was her soul? Did she give her heart to Jesus before she died? If she didn’t, was she in hell? Was it all Sophia’s fault? Could she be forgiven? Who would forgive her?
It was a paint-by-number with too many colors and no lines. Each shade bled into the other distorting the image. Sophia felt tears pricking her eyes so she bent over further, dug deeper, wishing she could twine her long hair all the way around her body like the linens used to wrap mummies.
Once the hole was dug, Cory placed the slug in the earth, and Sophia gently sprinkled soil over her departed friend. Perhaps it was the dirt that caused the soul to change, allowed her mother to sprout wings and would allow this slug to sprout arms. After all, flowers grew petals and trees grew leaves. When it was her turn, she hoped a giant dorsal fin would stretch out of her spine like a tower, slice through the dirt, and lead her to deep blue water.
Copyright Bailey 2012