Once you notice the worms you can’t un-notice them. After every rain they’re there, glistening, flesh-pink and naked, crawling with great determination towards drowning in an overflowing gutter, as blind and vulnerable thing as has ever existed. And once you’ve helped one, picked it up with the stem of a nearby leaf and popped it back on the grass, once you’ve realised that it’s easy, it is impossible to justify not helping the others, even though your friends become exasperated with you and threaten to leave you behind, too afraid of being late for school to care about a few stupid worms.
Eventually you become an adult and although office workers don’t go out in the rain as often as kids, you still help worms if you happen to see them on your way to the bus stop, tucking your skirt into the fold of your legs when you crouch down and carefully keeping the mud off your shoes.
You’ve grown up into someone with paper-thin skin. You’re almost farcically lacking in resilience. Perhaps this is the inevitable fate of the kids who stop to rescue worms. You don’t follow current events and you never watch the news. It upsets you too much. But you can’t avoid everything and at times all the grief and pain and fear in the world presses down on you, suffocates, haunts you. A coworker tells you about a documentary she saw about eating dogs. Many years later remembering her words still roots you to the spot, sucks the air out of you. Is it any wonder you’d rather read manga?
You don’t give to charity. Which charity would you give to? There’s so much need. Elephants and orphans. Abused women and cancer sufferers. Ambulances and stray dogs and autistic kids and sea turtles and homeless people and earthquake victims and climate change and underfunded classrooms and endangered birds and the list goes on and on. You tell yourself you’re too poor, that you’ll do it when you’re older.
You grow up some more and you get married. You go on honeymoon to Rarotonga. You and your new husband walk down the beach, paddles in hand, toward where the kayaks are waiting, and you notice that the receding tide has marooned a sea cucumber on the sand. Can sea cucumbers survive out of water? It looks pathetic in the hot sun. You scoop it up with your paddle and put it back where it belongs. A few meters later there’s another one. A step beyond that there’s three of them. You scoop and scoop.
“Lovey…” your husband says. His voice is gentle. “Look up.”
You realise the beach is covered in sea cucumbers. There are hundreds. Maybe more. It’s your worst nightmare. Saving all of them would take hours. You force yourself to walk on and leave them to die. The kayaking is not as fun after that.
Time passes again. You’ve had a couple of kids and moved house twice. Your husband has a decent job and you finally donate money regularly to charity, but it’s almost comedic in how blinkered it is, in how firmly it keeps you in your lane. It is only this: you anonymously donate fresh fruit and vegetables through your local co-op to poor families in your neighbourhood. It is a good thing to do, you are sure of this, but it is nowhere near enough.
You believe passionately in many things but never do anything about any of them. You don’t write to politicians or march on parliament. You don’t volunteer your time anywhere. You don’t even share political memes on Facebook. You know that you’re insulated by your privilege, that others care so much because they don’t have a choice. They must fight for their rights or perish. You’re ashamed of it. And still you can’t shut out the world. You worry endlessly about climate change and covid and you ache for victims everywhere. Sometimes you look down at your two hands and know that there’s so much more they could do, there are places that they could make a difference, but it seems impossible. You barely have time to shower as it is. And the children are watching.
They don’t mind when you stop for worms even as they sit in the pram and wait for you, pouring rain chilling their little hands. They have a natural sympathy with tiny and fragile things. They only want to know that you succeeded.
Sometimes you wonder if you’re doing them a terrible disservice when you pick up worms in front of them. Because of you, they know the names of all the types of bird that visit your garden and they stop to look at pretty flowers and they pick up interesting leaves and they are fond of sunsets. It all sounds idyllic but you know where it leads. It ends up with you being the only person in Waterloo station watching the sky for a second flash of lightning in a storm, while everyone around you smokes and talks and looks at their phones.
“Did you help the worm, Mama?” they ask every time, and you hesitate. Even in this you are unsure. You know the worm left the sodden earth for a reason, but surely it is better for them to brave an unknown future on the damp grass than to face certain doom at the feet of your fellow pedestrians. And this is all you can do, now, today.
“…yes”, you say. “I helped”.