The Five of Hearts
On a temperate Sunday morning, I walk briskly to church in fog so thick I can’t see the prominent buildings on campus. They are so emblematic of the University that I’m surprised they can’t, by sheer self-importance, cut through the forces of nature to be viewed. Due to the overnight precipitation, my gait is rather slowed by the existence of creatures whose normal lives have been abruptly interrupted; they have come to the surface.
A friend recently asked me why these pinkish nuisances appear on the sidewalk during and after rain. “As I understand it,” I explained, “since they live in the soil but breathe oxygen, they would drown if they were to stay down, as the rain soaks into dirt. The water fills every pocket of air that they need, so they must come up for survival.”
As I walk staring at my feet—and thus unable to take in the pleasantly eerie ambience of this foggy morning—I view them all with disdain, one after the other. I see one, fat and throbbing, inching across the ground. I hate how it looks, and I hate the thought of it dying, most likely very soon. I see one that has been squished beyond recognition (unless you knew what to look for). I hate it for its pale color and shriveled aspect. I see one bright pink, floating in a puddle, surely drowned. I hate it for its futility; it made its way to the surface, only to meet its demise in water anyway.
I hate them all. I hate them because they offend my aesthetic. I hate them because they remind me of mortality. I hate them because they distract me from looking around, breathing deeply, and thinking contented thoughts.
I hate them because they make walking, one of the first skills I learned in life, a game of Russian roulette. I could step on one at any moment, and the full force of my weight would come crushing down upon its head or one of its five hearts. Despite my disgust, I would be racked with guilt for at least the next thirty seconds over ending even one of the millions of lives that now cover the concrete.
They fill me with hate because they remind me to wonder, “What are the odds?” Why does one creature get smashed while another is drowned and that one is still alive? What makes one so privileged that it lives, one so lucky that it’s killed in one blow, and one so despised by chance that it’s half stepped on, forced to decide, in pain, whether to move without the faculties of half of its body? Their ends are varied, based on being in one place at one time, meeting one foot or—not.
When they feel the rain start and recognize that they must seek the surface, do they realize the peril that they are facing in the world above? Do they know the open air is only slightly less dangerous than the certainly suffocating environment underneath? “I’ll surely drown below,” the creature says to itself. “But above a large creature who pays about as much attention to me as Mother Nature does could just as blindly take me out in transit.” Of course, they all take the chance—that is instinct, after all.
As I walk, I am keenly aware that I’m far larger and more powerful than every one of them by sheer measure of force. If I don’t take care, I’ll take them out. But unlike spiders or ladybugs that invade the personal space of my room or my house, I won’t purposely kill these rain refugees. If I do so, by chance or choice, I’ll feel their ghosts seep up through the bottom of my converse sneakers.
It’s the attention paid that counts; that’s what takes chance out of the matter. If I look where my feet step and avoid both those alive to avoid taking their lives and those deceased to respect their memory, I can be sure I won’t disturb them. Even though I grumble about needing to look down, I know that I’d rather mind my feet so I reduce my chances of taking the lives of these creatures—that I yet hate—to almost nil.
Perhaps it would be even more gallant of me to rescue those alive and place them in the grass, where hopefully they could wait out the rain with far less fear or danger of wheels or feet. But I won’t do that because I, taller and wiser and stronger and yet having fewer hearts, have more important things to do. I am too blinded by what I perceive to take the time and the effort to imagine what a terrifying and random existence an earthworm leads.
I am content with the lot I have been cast—what a gamble it is to seek to understand otherwise.