By: Samuel Evans
Ilsa crouched amid the clumps of fallen leaves, examining the beetle intently with narrowed eyes. Her little brother— whose fascination with the beetle had worn off several minutes ago— stood next to her, waiting impatiently. For the moment, Ilsa did not touch the creature. She was waiting to see what would happen.
However, being only seven years old, her attention span was not much longer than her brother’s. She had come to the conclusion that beetles were quite stupid— certainly this one was, rocking around on its back, unable to do anything other than squirm its tiny legs helplessly at the air.
A smile spread across her face as a memory surfaced. A few weeks ago, she had seen a dead spider on the back porch, swarmed by ants. She had liked the ants, and had watched them for hours as they frantically marched to and fro.
If they had come for the spider, they would come for the beetle.
She stood, walked to a nearby tree, and tore off one of its smallest and lowermost branches. Crouching once more and leaning forward so that her nose was only a few inches from the flailing legs, she then pushed the branch into the beetle’s belly, gently but forcefully, until she heard a soft crunch.
“EEh, Ilsa!” said her brother, “Why did you do that?”
“So that the ants will come.”
Her brother’s mouth hung open in shock, eyes wide with a concern which faded to horror as he realized the finality of what had happened.
“It was a little bug,” he said, on the verge of tears, “It wasn’t hurting anyone.”
“You’re a little bug,” Ilsa replied angrily. She was genuinely disturbed to realize that what she had done might have been considered cruel, and it frightened her.
“What does that mean?”
“It means your stupid,” Ilsa said indignantly, hoping he wouldn’t realize it was nonsense.
Taken aback by the insult, he began to blubber, “You-u-u-u killed it!”
“It was just a beetle!” The words came out with a force, not loud, but edged with irritation, as if they were a challenge to anyone who might disagree.
The boy subdued himself but continued to stare at the beetle with mourning. “Please don’t do it again.”
Ilsa rolled her eyes and began to search for something else to do. The whole thing had left a sour taste in her mouth, and the ants had lost their appeal.
“Come on,” she said, grabbing him by the wrist.
They walked through the woods in silence at first, always keeping the house in sight, like their mother had told them. After a while, things returned to normal. Her brother seemed to have forgotten the beetle entirely— or at least forgave her part in its destruction— and she was more than happy to pretend the whole incident had never happened. It was not long before she became bored once again, and began to take an interest in the gurgling creek which ran parallel to the path they were walking. She liked the way the shallow water bubbled and spun over pebbles, alternately smooth and fragmented.
She pointed. “C’mon. I bet there’s lots to do down there.”
Her brother looked down into the water critically, as if sizing up its potential. The water itself was shallow, probably no higher than their ankles. However, it ran through a ravine, which was a few inches deeper than he was tall.
“We won’t be able to see the house from down there,” he said cautiously.
Ilsa gave an exasperated sigh. “Yes, we can. We just need to poke our heads up every once in a while,” she said, knowing quite well that she had no intention of doing any such thing.
They climbed down the side of the ravine, careful to grasp roots that would hold their weight. Ilsa went down first, and waited for her brother, watching to see if he needed help.
There was plenty to do in the creek. For a while they turned over rocks, looking for the bugs which often hid underneath. When that had grown old, they tried using the rocks to make a dam. This had proved ineffective, as the water had simply run through the gaps between the rocks. They had just decided to try stuffing mud in between the rocks to fill the gaps, when a man appeared.
He was walking up along the side of the creek, looking nervously from side to side as he went. His stride seemed both awkwardly purposeful and clumsy, as if he were overthinking each step. When he saw the children, who had stopped what they were doing to watch, his eyes attached themselves to theirs. He lowered himself down cautiously and then splashed his way over to where they stood.
Before he even spoke, Ilsa hated him. There was something about him, the way he held his eyes perhaps. He seemed nervous, in a nearly aggressive sort of way. Ilsa stepped in front of her brother, almost out of reflex, planting her feet protectively.
“Who are you?” Ilsa demanded, when the man got close enough.
“I’m a friend of your uncle. You must be Ilsa.”
“My uncle’s inside.” He was staying with them for Thanksgiving.
The man nodded, and he looked up the house. All this time he had been moving closer and closer and now had quickened his pace.
“What do you want?” Ilsa asked.
When he was a couple of feet away, the stranger lunged forward, seizing Ilsa by the shoulders and tossing her aside, so that she landed harshly on her side in the pebbled creek bed. Her brother screamed and ran.
The man did not give Ilsa a second glance, but charged after the boy, giving one last fearful look towards the house.
Ilsa stood too, snatching the biggest stone she could find in a tight fist. Her pulse throbbed throughout her whole body, heat rushing up her cheeks. The pain had made her angry; the sight of the man chasing after her brother had made her livid.
Shrieking, Ilsa charged at the stranger, who turned and stumbled slightly, startled. Still clutching the stone, she swung her palm into the man’s knee, causing the leg to give out under him with a shout. Next she was on top of him, raining the stone down on his forehead. She did not think— she just did— and she did not stop until she heard a soft crunch, just like the beetle.
When it was done, her parents were there, as well as her uncle. As the rush of anger faded, she suddenly felt very alone and very afraid. She let the stone drop from her hand, and began to cry, shaking sobs pouring out one after the other.
She looked up at her parents. Their arms were clutched protectively around her brother, and neither of them moved to comfort her.
She let the stone drop from her hand, now red and sticky. Her brother was safe, and she felt a little bit of pride that it was because of her. Looking into her parents’ eyes however, there was not pride.
In those eyes, which before had held nothing but love, was something else entirely.