The sun streaked through the forest canopy and warmed a patch of springy, star-shaped moss just to the side of Ayla's hand, with its bitten nails grubbed full of dirt. She did not notice the dew sparkling in the diminutive emerald leaves, because her focus was on the forked twig she was maneuvering into place. She balanced one end on top of a pile of sand, and the other into the small hole she had dug. The twig stayed where she had placed it, creating the perfect slide. A slug slide.
Ayla rocked back on her heels and peered down into the pit that served as a slug hotel. In the bottom of the hole was an enormous slug with an orange sheen as well as several smaller specimens. The pumpkin-colored mucus felt sticky when she reached out to caress the biggest creature, which she had named Beast. She studied the goo for a moment, glistening on the tip of her index finger, and then she wiped it on her shorts. The slugs weren't doing much, although one of the smaller ones was taking hesitant -- she paused -- steps? Was that the word? Glides? In any event, it was moving towards the center. It looked enthusiastic.
"You are my champion," she muttered, sliding a finger underneath the slug, which immediately balled up and rolled off. She made her fingers into a cage, picked up the slug and pivoted to place it at the top of the slide.
The twig stayed steady but the slug fell off, into the pit. With the patience of a single child, Ayla replaced the slug on the twig.
"Slide," she commanded, but it fell again. She replaced it a few more times, with little success.
"Okay," she said, and plopped it on a thicker branch, suspended over another shallow hole.
"You can do pull-ups instead," she told the creature, and indeed, it remained on the wider stick. Satisfied, she turned her attention away for a minute, glancing up at the massive oak that she sheltered behind. Ayla touched the trunk, letting her fingers run through the channels in the bark, feeling bumps of gray-green lichen. She watched a red spider mite so tiny she had to squint at it. The wrinkled bark must be mountains and canyons for such a creature. Lichens would loom up as mighty forests, and the lightning bug that crossed its path, antennae waving, a terrifying megafauna. The spider mite disappeared into a valley, and the lightning bug crawled up towards the post-it note Ayla had attached to the bark. She had stuck it there at first with tape, but it had fallen, so she had secured it with a tack snuck from her mother's desk drawer.
"Slug Village," read the note, "Population: 5. God: Ayla."
She paused to admire her own handwriting, the result of a battle waged in the classroom last year. The letters finally stood up tall and thin, just like her teacher had wanted. Now she couldn't understand why it had been so difficult to make them correctly. She shrugged. She had only been little then.
Turning back to her slugs, she picked up the big orange one, disregarding the slime.
"Here comes Beast," she said, swinging the slug up above her eyes so she could look at its underbelly. Soft, slug-like, much like the top. She wondered how that would be, to have every bit of your body nearly indistinguishable from every other bit. No knees and armpits, ears or heels. She regarded the slug closely, and then put it into the biggest room she had created, the gymnasium. There were sticks and rocks all over the bottom of the shallow depression. She brushed away a bumbling carpenter ant with one hand and placed the slug atop a large, rounded stone in the middle. There were birch leaves spread at the base of the stone. This was the ocean, and with one finger she prodded the slug until it flew off and plunged into the briny deep.
"Cliff diving," she murmured, but the slug remained still, stunned, perhaps, on the leaves. When she picked it up, it squirmed.
"You beast, Beast," she said, pleased.
After the slug had performed enough dives to qualify for Slug Olympics, Ayla stroked its back with one finger.
"Nice work, Beast. Now you need a nap," she said, placing the slug in the hotel. Wiping more slime on her shorts, she looked up to see the neighbor's puppy racing toward her, all tongue and ears flapping. The dog was small, spotted brown and white, not especially intelligent but able to outwit the neighbors. It escaped from its pen at least once a day. Ayla's mother had been clear that the dog was not allowed in the garden. If Ayla saw it she was to take it by its collar and drag it across the lawn and back to the Randall's house. She was to knock politely and wait for Mrs. Randall to answer.
Ayla despised Mrs. Randall, who always wore fancy dresses and gold jewelry in the middle of the day and never smiled with anything but her mouth. Ayla had brought the puppy back many times, and each time Mrs. Randall had shaken her head and frowned, as if it was Ayla's fault, not the puppy's. So as much as Ayla yearned for a puppy of her own, she was not happy to see the dog arrive.
The puppy, whose name was King, started right in with the licking, getting Ayla across the nose, down one arm, and on both knees. Ayla yelped and stood, to avoid the soft pink lashing. The puppy put his nose down and started snuffling around her feet, exhaling in snorts that sent up puffs of sparkling mica dust. He darted from side to side. Ayla tried to grab his collar, but her fingers just kept brushing his soft fur.
She got mad, because the dog's careless paws were trampling all over her Slug Village. Her careful work was being ruined by a dog who didn't even belong. She lunged for his collar, but King evaded her again. To her horror, he then plunged his head down into the slug hotel. Ayla let out a guttural shriek and her hands finally clamped around the ratty dark-blue collar on King's neck. Leaning back with all her weight, she pulled the puppy out onto the lawn.
Subdued by capture, King sat on Ayla's feet, which were bare. She leaned over the dog to look into the hole, her eyes confirming the worst. There were no slugs left. Not even Beast. On her feet, King licked his chops.
Ayla's anger was transporting, and she was on the Randall's porch, banging on their front door, in a fury. Her mother had taught her to knock three times and then sing her abc's twice before knocking again, but now she just kept pounding on the door with her free hand. The other still grasped King's collar, although he had slunk down to the ground, hiding behind her legs. This meant that she was leaning, her arms spread at an impossible angle, when the door opened. She almost fell in.
Mrs. Randall was standing there, in a dress with green daisies and a look of repulsion so strong that Ayla was momentarily cowed. But then she remembered Beast, his quiet determination and graceful cliff diving.
"King ate Beast!" she hurled the words at Mrs. Randall, with a scowl.
"Excuse me?" Mrs. Randall drew back.
"He ate my slugs!" Ayla repeated, pointing down at the dog.
"I have a slug village, and he stuck his head in and he ate all of my slugs. Even my best one, Beast."
Mrs. Randall stared at her, and Ayla stared back. Her fury was being edged out by fear of Mrs. Randall, who grew taller, filling the doorway.
"You have a collection of slugs?"
"It was a village," Ayla said, and she felt tears start. She had worked so hard, on something so fragile, and now it was destroyed.
Mrs. Randall stooped down and dragged King by his collar into the house. He scampered away, down the hall.
"You fed my dog slugs? Do you know that slugs can make dogs very, very ill?" She paused, and the silence expanded to adult size. When she spoke again, Mrs. Randall's voice was a snake's furious hiss, "If King gets sick and dies, it will be your fault. Your fault, you dirty, disgusting little girl. Your fault."
Ayla's eyes widened, tears flowing. The words seemed impossible, and she shook her head. She wanted to run, but she was pinned to the step by the power of Mrs. Randall's adulthood. The safety of her own yard was miles away.
A long moment passed. Ayla sobbed, and Mrs. Randall glowered.
"Scram," Mrs. Randall said, her voice so low and full of malice that Ayla set to flight. She ran until her lungs ached, until she could collapse behind the shelter of her oak tree. She leaned her back against the trunk, gasping until she ran out of tears.
When she finally calmed, she rubbed her arm across her face, clearing her vision. She took in the destruction of her village. It was complete. Now it was nothing but a dusty patch behind a tree. The carefully placed sticks, leaves, and rocks were transformed into mere forest detritus, strewn by an impatient god.
But wait, she thought, suddenly flooded by hope, the champion! Had she ever taken that small, spunky slug off of the pull-up bar? No, she was certain she hadn't. Of course, it would have survived! She found the pull-up bar, which had been dislodged and covered in a fine layer of dust. No slug to be found.
"No, no, no," Ayla muttered, pushing her fingers into the sandy dirt around the stick, searching for the soft, the slimy. She felt nothing, broadened her search. She looked all around, but she couldn't see the creature. She flopped down on her stomach and surveyed the area from a slug's-eye view, taking in the impenetrable forest of lawn. She imagined the champion making its way boldly out into the unknown, escaping the massacre befalling its compatriots, setting out for freedom, eyestalks outstretched and earnest.
This made her feel slightly better, but as she stood, she felt her shoulders sag. Her eyes caught on the sign, still stuck to the tree. She ripped it off, knocking the tack into the dirt. She crumpled the note and shoved it into her pocket, where it would be forgotten until it emerged, transformed, in the dryer. She took a step away and then, reconsidering, leaned down to pick up the tack. She stuck it back into the tree, at eye level. Such treasures ought to be preserved.
Ayla slumped across the yard, headed toward the house. She was thirsty, from all of the crying. Her steps felt heavy, and she thought that she was probably getting sick. A leftover hiccup bubbled up and out of her.
As she got closer to the house, the screen door creaked open and slapped shut, disgorging her mother onto the wide front porch. Her mother, tall, thin, and with two worried lines that creased her forehead, watched her approach.
"Look at you!" her mother called, "I don't think I've ever seen a filthier child in my life!"
Her mother, Ayla knew, meant this as a kind of compliment, but she felt her eyes begin to prickle with tears.
"Oh, baby," her mother said, and she stepped close and hugged Ayla hard, "you know I don't mind that. But it is probably time for a bath, wouldn't you say? Is everything okay? Were you crying? Did I hear you yell? Was that the Randall's dog I saw earlier?"
Too many questions, and Ayla was trying not to cry, so she just shook her head and pushed her face into her mother's stomach, which smelled like no-nonsense soap, brown and scratchy.
Her mother petted her hair and waited.
When the tears were done, Ayla let go and looked down at her dusty feet. If she told her mother about the slugs, then she would get in trouble when King died from eating them. If she just pretended it never happened, maybe she wouldn't be blamed.
"You looked like you were creating whole worlds out there," her mother said. She linked her fingers through Ayla's and pulled her towards the house.
"I did, but it got wrecked," Ayla managed to say as they entered the kitchen. Her mother filled Ayla's favorite purple mug with tap water and placed it into her hands.
"Well," her mother said, turning to the pile of dishes in the sink and running the water a moment to warm it, "you'll simply have to begin again."
Ayla sipped her water, and wondered if this was true. Could she just begin again? She took another sip. A brilliant idea flashed, fully visualized. What if she tried with worms? She pictured their muscular, segmented bodies. They would outperform mere slugs. And she knew where to find the big night-crawlers. They lived next to the big rock, the one she could barely lift, right by the Japanese maple and the ferns. She put the mug down on the table, too hard, and ran back out the door.
"Thanks Mom!" Ayla called as she left.
Her mother leaned over the sink, watching Ayla, all fluid limbs and bouncing hair, dashing towards the back of the yard. The soapy water sloshed over the edge of the sink; she didn't notice. Ayla was crouched down by the edge of the garden digging in the dirt. She must have found something that pleased her, because she stood and ran with it behind the tree. A worm, perhaps. The child had always liked small creatures to watch over.
The dish water was growing cold where it had soaked through her shirt, and so the mother returned to her tasks. There were dishes to wash, laundry to fold, dinner to make, and a bath battle to win. So many discrete tasks to keep the small village running. She sighed, and craned her neck out the window to catch another glimpse of her dazzling, magnificent creation.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Sarah Starr Murphy. All rights reserved.