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CNF: Hellgrammite

by Nancy Lord

 

For years, I tried to find her. Not determinedly but sporadically, inquisitively, wonderingly. Guiltily.

She’d been my best friend in fifth grade, sixth grade, seventh grade. She was the only girl I knew who loved nature the way I did. In the woods and creek behind her house we collected caterpillars and salamanders. We cut open galls that ballooned on the stems of plants to see what parasites lived inside. We made an art of tearing away the tissue of leaves to reveal the skeletal networks of veins.

One winter day, sledding at dusk, the snow-covered road was suddenly brightened by the lights of an on-coming car, and we turned into a hard-packed snowbank. When I landed on top of her, her arm swelled with a painful lump. Her father got mad, and it was two days before her mother snuck her to a doctor for an x-ray and cast.

Her father was both fun and difficult. He took the two of us fishing and was as interested as we were in what we found—once fly larvae with impressive pinchers, fluttery gills, and acrobatic moves. I learned these were called hellgrammites. I had also learned that my friend’s mother slept on a cot in their laundry room. If that seemed odd and a little sad, I didn’t think too much about it.

For eighth grade I transferred to a different school and our lives diverged. Later that same year, listening to the radio in my room, I heard a news announcer say her father’s name and “self-inflicted gunshot wound.” I told my parents and went back to my homework. Suicide seemed like something adults should deal with. I don’t know if my parents did anything. I didn’t ask; they didn’t say. Our mothers had been Girl Scout leaders together.

My friend, her mother, and her two sisters moved across town. I may have helped. I at least recall a truck piled with furniture, driving away. Not a moving van—a pickup truck and some young men, perhaps friends of the older daughter. I recall beaming faces, as though there was some joy in the occasion.

The other side of town seemed immeasurably far away. A couple of years went by and I heard that my friend had dropped out of school and had a child.

Years—many years—passed. I lived very far away. I thought about my friend every December on her birthday, wondering what might have become her life. When the internet arrived, I looked for her there. I found her father’s obituary, nothing about her or her mother or sisters.

Every few years, I typed in her name. Finally, there she was, birth name along with another. She’d been dead already for a year, dead at 67 “after a period of declining health.” She had lived all her life in the same town where we’d grown up. She had two sons. In six short paragraphs I read that she “loved nature and spent much of her time enjoying and photographing the flora and fauna around her home. She experimented with the cross-pollination of some of her plants and flowers. She also bred and raised quail, chickens, ducks, and geese. . . But her happiest pastime was fishing in a canoe on Lake Massabesic.”

I read this again now, years later still. I picture my friend floating on that lake on the edge of our town, casting a line, reeling in a brown-sided bass with large scales and sharp fins. Who is she with? Who does she tell about what makes her happy?

 

 

 

Nancy Lord, a former Alaska State Writer Laureate, is the author of three short story collections, five books of literary nonfiction, and the novel pH. Her narrative work, which focuses mainly on environmental and marine issues, has appeared widely in journals and anthologies and has been honored with fellowships and awards. She currently teaches science writing for Johns Hopkins University. She lives in Homer, Alaska. www.writernancylord.com

 

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What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “Hellgrammite”?

I’d been thinking about my childhood friend for years and had made a couple of unsuccessful efforts to write about our relationship. I decided one day, after rereading her obituary, to compress my memories and grief into something very short, relying on just a few images. The day of fishing and examining hellgrammites with her father had always stayed with me. The piece I wrote was 700 words. I further compressed it to meet the word limit when I submitted it to your journal.

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