I was responsible for one of the first animal deaths I ever witnessed. I was six years old on a hot Saturday and I’d managed to gently lure a tiny black lizard into a Dannon yogurt tub on the sidewalk outside my bedroom window. I planned to keep him and observe him, honoring him the way only a six year old can. With unsolicited adoption. At a little more than an inch long from tip to tip his prehistoric body was graceful, and perceiving his diminutive size as vulnerability, I was overtaken by a sense of responsibility. I took a nail from one of my dad’s drawers in the garage and poked holes in the clear plastic lid so my new charge could breathe; and then four years too young to know what the greenhouse effect was, I set him out in the sun to warm him.
After the time span of a single episode of Little House on the Prairie, I returned to the sidewalk and kneeled on the rough surface before the container. Would I find him warm and at peace the way I’d observed babies tucked into blankets? Had I created a transcendent moment for him, marrying the comforting bake of the sun with his delicate black skin? Was he rested and sun-drunk the way I liked to be when I found myself standing still with eyes closed in the field behind my school while it expanded away from me on all corners like a picnic blanket, mine because I imagined it, crunchy grass beneath my tennis shoes? Had he napped better than ever before, safe in his incubator?
I peered down through the lid and focused on the tiny black form. He didn’t move. I shook the tub. To my horror, what had been the most delicate creature I’d ever gotten to know slid like a dried scab across the diameter to the other side. And there on the sidewalk on a sunny afternoon I realized I’d cooked the innocent in a chamber of my making. The reality materialized inside me, expanding one slow, dreadful heartbeat at a time. I was no longer zoo-keeper, but curator of a dehydrated body. Dread drummed low and slow in my abdomen as I faced the permanence of what I’d done. I was responsible for death. I was capable of creating horror. I’d ruined something irreversibly.
In some ways the tragedies of six year olds are far greater than those of adults. You have a limited ability to cause car accidents, start fires, and fire a gun. But at six, in your own home, you annihilate and don’t mean to. Your grandest intentions go wrong. The things you hope to create sag into horrible forms or get glued to your hands. You lose your most precious belongings. You wash Barbie’s hair, tie her to the fan blade to dry it, set it on high, and watch a friendly household appliance, angered and awry, spin out of control. You burn things the way Hitler would. You forget to tell your mom the important thing your teacher told you to because you can’t wait to get home and see whether filling a whole page with red crayon will use up all of the stick or not. Your curiosity about the properties of things like ice, melted wax, lipstick, and tempera paint end in messes too epic to hide, your furious moments of discovery lingering long after they were intended as embarrassing monuments–stains on wallpaper and hard dried knobs of glue in the carpet. Somehow you’re able to embrace the mad scientist. The engineer. The artist. But the first time you kill, it’s different. It opens what can never be shut. It’s your first inkling that although you might be capable of any great thing on this earth, that the opposite possibility is very true. You might be very bad.
Over two decades later, the outline of the lizard frozen in death is imprinted on my mind–a mental tattoo of sorts. It was the first proof that my own great intentions can end in complete rubble. The tragedy of the irreversible has been repeated in latter years. It doesn’t carry with it the original shock-wave of dread that it did that first time, but it doesn’t feel any less horrific. We can screw up really bad. But somewhere between the lizard corpse and optimism is reality. Redemption is not necessary. But forgiveness is. Bury the mistake. Find a shady place in your back yard. Dig a hole in the dirt with your thumb. Lay the lizard’s body in the hole. Gently sprinkle the dirt onto its silent form making a cushion between it and the living world. Pluck blades of grass and lay them carefully and dutifully over the place as a headstone of sorts. Know that you’ll never find that exact spot again. What else is there? At twenty-eight, I feel closer to six than I ever thought possible, and the proximity surprises me.