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Of Angleworms and Others, by Tove Jansson

One summer, Sophia was suddenly afraid of small animals, and the smaller they were, the more afraid she was. This was altogether new. Ever since the first time she trapped a spider in a matchbox in order to make it her pet, her summers had been full of caterpillars, tadpoles, worms, beetles, and similar uncompanionable creatures, whom she provided with everything they could want from life, including, eventually, their freedom. Now everything was changed. She walked about with cautious, anxious steps, starting constantly at the ground, on the lookout for things that crept and crawled. Bushes were dangerous, and so were sea grass and rain water. There were little animals everywhere. They could turn up between the covers of a book, flattened and dead, for the fact is that creeping animals, tattered animals, and dead animals are with us all our lives, from beginning to end. Grandmother tried to discuss this with her, to no avail. Irrational terror is so hard to deal with.

One morning, they found a strange bulb washed ashore on the sand. They decided to plant it outside the guest room. Sophia put her spade in the ground to make a hole, the spade cut an angleworm in two, and when she saw the two halves writhing on the black earth, she threw down the spade, backed up against the wall of the house, and screamed.

“They’ll grow out again,” Grandmother said. “They really will. They’ll grow out again. It’s all right, believe me.” She continued to talk about angleworms as she planted the bulb. Sophia calmed down, but she was still very pale. She sat silently on the veranda steps with her arms around her knees.

“You know,” Grandmother said, “I don’t think anyone’s ever taken a sufficient interest in angleworms. Someone who’s really interested ought to write a book about them.”

That evening, Sophia asked whether “some” was spelled with an o or a u.

“O,” said Grandmother.

“I’ll never get anywhere with this book,” said Sophia angrily. “How can I think if I have to worry about spelling all the time? I lose my place, and the whole thing’s a mess!” The book consisted of a lot of blank pages sewn together at the spine. She threw it on the floor.

“What’s it called?” Grandmother asked.

A Study of Angleworms That Have Come Apart. But I’ll never get it written!”

“Sit down somewhere and dictate,” Grandmother said. “I’ll do the writing, and you tell me what to write. We’ve got lots of time. Now where did I put my glasses?”

It was a particularly good evening to begin a book. The setting sun threw plenty of light through the window, and Grandmother opened to the first page, which already carried an illustration of an angleworm in two parts. The guest room was cool and quiet, and Papa sat working at his desk on the other side of the wall.

“I like it when he’s working,” Sophia said. “I always know he’s there. Read what I wrote.”

“Chapter One,” Grandmother read. “Some people fish with worms.”

“Space,” Sophia said. “Now go on: I won’t say what their names are, but it’s not Papa. Now take your scared worm—it will pull itself together to…How much does it pull itself together?”

“To, say, one-seventh of its length, which makes it little and fat and easy to stick a hook through, which is not what it had in mind. But now take your smart worm. It makes itself as long as it can so there’s nothing to stick a hook through, and then it comes apart. Science does not yet know if it just breaks, or if the worm is being clever, because you can’t always tell, but…”

“Wait a minute,” Grandmother said. “How about if I put ‘…whether this is from overstretching or shows real intelligence’?”

“Put anything you want,” said Sophia impatiently. “Just so they’ll understand. Now don’t interrupt. It goes on like this: The worm probably knows that if it comes apart, both halves will start growing separately. Space. But we don’t know how much it hurts. And we don’t know, either, if the worm is afraid it’s going to hurt. But anyway, it does have a feeling that something sharp is getting closer and closer all the time. This is instinct. And I can tell you this much, it’s no fair to say it’s too little, or it only has a digestive canal, and so that’s why it doesn’t hurt. I am sure it does hurt, but maybe only for a second. Now take the smart worm that made itself long and came apart in the middle, that may have been like pulling a tooth, for example, except it didn’t hurt. When it had calmed its nerves, it could tell right away it was shorter, and then it saw the other half right beside it. Let me make this a little easier to understand by putting it this way: Both halves fell down to the ground, and the person with the hook went away. They couldn’t grow back together, because they were terribly upset, and then, of course, they didn’t stop to think, either. And they knew that by and by they’d grow out again, both of them. I think they looked at each other, and thought they looked awful, and then crawled away from each other as fast as they could. They they started to think. They realized that from now on life would be quite different, but they didn’t know how, that is, in what way.”

Sophia lay down on the bed and stared at the ceiling and thought. It was getting dark in the guest room, and Grandmother got up to light the lamp.

“Don’t,” Sophia said. “Don’t light the lamp. Use a flashlight. Listen, is ‘presumably’ right?”

“Yes,” Grandmother said. She turned on the flashlight and put it down on the night table and waited.

“Presumably, everything that happened to them after that only seemed like half as much, but this was also sort of a relief, and then, too, nothing they did was their fault any more, somehow. They just blamed each other. Or else they’d say that after a thing like that, you just weren’t yourself anymore. There is one thing that makes it more complicated, and that is that there is such a big difference between the front end and the back end. A worm never goes backwards, and so for that reason, it has its head only at one end. But if God made angleworms so they can come apart and then grow out again, why, there must be some sort of secret nerve that leads out in the back end so that later on it can think. Otherwise it couldn’t get along by itself. But the back end has a very tiny brain. It can probably remember its other half, which went first and made all the decisions. And so now,” said Sophia, sitting up, “now the back end says, ‘Which way should I grow out? Should I make a new tail, or should I make a new head? Should I go on following and never have to make any important decisions, or should I be the one who always knows best, until I come apart again? That would be exciting.’ But maybe he’s so used to being the tail that he just lets things go on the way they are. Did you write everything I said?”

“Every word,” Grandmother said.

“Now comes the end of the chapter: But maybe the front end thinks it’s nice not having anything to drag around behind it, but who knows, because it’s hard to tell. Nothing is easy when you might come apart in the middle at any moment. But no matter what you think, you should never fish with worms.”

“There,” said Grandmother. “End of book, and the end of the paper, too.”

“That’s not the end at all,” Sophia said. “Now comes Chapter Two. But I’ll work on that tomorrow. How do you think it sounds?”

“Very persuasive.”

“I think so, too,” Sophia said. “Maybe people will learn something from it.”

They continued the following evening under the heading “Other Pitiful Animals.”

“Small animals are a great problem. I wish God had never created small animals, or else that He had made them so they could talk, or else that He’d given them better faces. Space. Take moths. They fly at the lamp and burn themselves, and then they fly right back again. It can’t be instinct, because that isn’t the way it works. They just don’t understand, so they go right on doing it. Then they lie on their backs and all their legs quiver, and then they’re dead. Did you get all that? Does it sound good?”

“Very good,” Grandmother said.

Sophia stood up and shouted, “Say this: say I hate everything that dies slow! Say I hate everything that won’t let you help! Did you write that?”

“Yes, I’ve got it.”

“Now come daddy-longlegs. I do a lot of thinking about daddy-longlegs. You can’t ever help them without breaking two of their legs. No, write three of their legs. Why can’t they pull in their legs? Write: When little kids bite the dentist, it’s the dentist who gets hurt. Wait a minute.” Sophia thought for a moment with her face in her hands. “Write ‘Fish,'” she said. “And then a space. Little fish die slower than big fish, and yet people aren’t nearly as careful about the little fish. They let them lie around on the rocks for a long time and breathe air, and that’s like holding somebody’s head under water. And the cat…” Sophia went on. “How do you know it starts from the head? The cat might be tired, and maybe the fish doesn’t taste good, and so it starts from the tail, and that makes me scream! And I scream when you salt them, and when the water’s so hot it makes them jump! I won’t eat fish like that, and it serves you right!”

“You dictate too fast,” Grandmother said. “Shall I put, ‘it serves you right!’?”

“No,” Sophia said. “This is a book. Stop after ‘it makes them jump.'” She was silent for a while, and then she went on. “Chapter Three. Space. I will eat crayfish, but I don’t want to watch when they’re cooking them, because crayfish are awful when they’re being cooked, so you have to be very careful.”

“That’s true,” said Grandmother, and giggled.

“Jesus,” Sophia burst out. “This is serious. Don’t say anything. Write: I hate field mice. No. Write: I hate field mice, but I don’t like it when they die. They make tunnels in the ground, and then they eat up Papa’s bulbs. And they teach their children to make tunnels and eat bulbs. And at night they all sleep with their arms around each other. They don’t know they’re unfortunate creatures. Is that a good word?”

“Excellent,” said Grandmother, writing as fast as she could.

“And then they get poison corn, or else they get their hind legs caught in a trap. That’s good that they get caught, or their stomachs get poisoned and explode! But what are we supposed to do? Write: What are we supposed to do, since we can’t ever punish them until they’ve already done something, and then it’s too late, anyway. It’s a hard problem. They have more children every twenty minutes.”

“Every twenty days,” Grandmother muttered.

“And they teach their children. Not just field mice—all the little animals that teach their children. And there get to be more and more of them, and they all teach their children, and so they’re all brought up wrong. And the worst ones are the ones that are so small they’re all over the place, and you can’t see them till you’ve already stepped on them. And sometimes you don’t even see them, but you know, so you have a bad conscience anyway. Whatever you do, it’s just as bad, and so the best thing is not to do anything at all, or else think about something else. The End. Is there enough room for an illustration?”

“Yes,” Grandmother said.

“You draw it,” Sophia said. “How does it all sound?”

“Shall I read it?”

“No,” Sophia said. “No, I don’t think so. I don’t have time right now. But you can save it for my children.”

—Tove Jansson, “Of Angleworms and Others”, from The Summer Book

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