A Wriggly Secret

Courtesy Elva Trevintildeo Hart

In the seventh grade, I discovered the scientific method. The science fair was announced with lots of fanfare. The projects were to be judged by visiting dignitaries from San Antonio. I stayed after school to talk to my teacher about possible projects. He suggested several, one of which I latched onto immediately.

Planaria are flat little worms that live in water and look like tiny arrows. They have a head, a tail, a gullet, and not much else. What's fascinating about them is that they have the ability to regenerate severed parts of their body. They are so insistent on living, that even if you behead them, they will grow a new head.

I proposed to cut up the little creatures in ways I was sure no one had thought of, pushing the frontiers of basic science out to where they had never been before. I proposed to do all this following the scientific method exactly, varying only one factor at a time while keeping all others constant, taking extensive notes in a lab notebook so that other scientists could follow my groundbreaking work.

When the planaria arrived in the mail, I fed them right away with raw liver rescued from my mother's dinner plans. They're fastidious little things, wanting their dinner removed as soon as they're done eating. I changed the water three times until it was clear.

Then I got a razor blade from my father's shaving kit and started the surgery. I figured they would be less likely to move a lot if they were full of liver. First I performed the predictable experiments to make sure I had a good bunch of planaria. Cut off the tail, it will grow a new one. Put the amputees in a separate dish with a piece of numbered masking tape marking the dish. I really couldn't imagine that new heads would grow when I beheaded some, but the guillotine fell on three of them to make sure. A third set got both their heads and tails cut off, leaving only the midsection with the gullet intact. Of course I saved the tails and the heads in separate dishes to see if they would grow new bodies. I recorded all of this in my lab notebook, noting the day of the surgeries and the number of each petri dish.

There were two last predictable experiments. If you take a triangle cut just below the head, you should get a smaller head growing there. If you split the tail in half, you get two fully developed tails.

Then I went wild. First I tried to sew two heads together. I sterilized the smallest needle in my mother's sewing box by passing it through the blue flame on our gas range. That's the way our neighbor sterilized needles for piercing baby girls' ears. I used red thread so I could see what was happening. It was a mess. The initial surgeries had been easy, as I made the cuts right in the petri dish, having dumped most of the water out. But to suture the little buggers together, I had to take them out and handle them.

The directions said to keep the planaria in a cool place. Cool places are hard to find in a South Texas house when it is spring and you have no air conditioning. I kept changing my mind as to where the coolest places were.

After observing their progress one day after school and recording changes in my lab notebook, I decided to put them under one of the twin beds. As I was pushing them to the darkest corner, I saw a triangle of green sticking out between the headboard and the box spring. It was a book--a brand new book. The binding was totally unbroken, and it smelled just like the books at the book fair, fresh off the press.

I had never seen a book in our house before. School books of course, battered books covered in brown paper with lots of doodling and brown smudges from previous students. But this book was pure, pristine, untouched.

In my mind, I went through all the people who lived in or came to our house to see if I could fathom how this stranger had gotten in. Amá? Apá? Ridiculous. Rudy? Dee? Delia or Delmira? I had never seen any of them with any book other than a school book.

I started reading on page 1. It was obviously a novel, but it read like pure drivel to me. The guy had an attitude; he didn't like anything, and he wrote paragraphs that went on for pages. I leafed through it to see if it got any better toward the middle. It didn't. I decided I must be missing something. The book must be important somehow or else it wouldn't be in the house, brand-new, and hidden so well. I leafed through it again more slowly and hit upon the phrase "Egyptian f---."

The book was Henry Miller's Tropic of Capricorn. I had never read or even heard of Henry Miller, but now I knew why the book was hidden. I got up and made sure there was no one in the house besides Amá. She was busy in the kitchen making dinner. Then I sat in the front bedroom by the window so I could see immediately if anyone came to the door. I got a piece of paper and went back to page 1. I turned through the pages fast, skimming the words until I got to another hot passage. I read it and noted the page number on my piece of paper. It was amazing how the writing got clear during these passages. The writer seemed to slow down and finally write in a language I could understand.

I wasn't finished when Amá called me to dinner. I hid the book in a new place, in the bedroom closet under Amá's suitcase where she kept Apá's naturalization papers. If anyone asked about the book, I would know who the guilty party was. I still didn't know if I would tell that I had it or not.

Over the next few days, I read the passages over and over, getting more and more titillated each time. After I had decided to tell no one, my friend Manuela told me a dirty joke one day at lunchtime.

"I have a book!" The words burst out of me like a little explosion before I could catch them.

"Book?" she asked, alerted by the tone of my voice. She made me tell her the rest.

"Bring it to school!" she said.

"Are you out of your mind? I'll get expelled!"

"Who would ever know? We all carry books around all the time."

I covered it in brown paper just like my textbooks, and then doodled all over the cover to disguise it further.

My planaria were all but forgotten. Oh sure, I fed them, moved them to cooler places, and desultorily recorded which ones had made progress and which ones had died in recovery. The day before the science fair project was due, I stayed up all night making a three-sided stand-up poster to display at the fair, along with a few petri dishes that displayed the most dramatic results and my lab notebook.

The next night I didn't sleep either, as I had to catch up on homework that had been postponed because of the planaria and Henry Miller. By now, the book and list of page numbers had circulated all through my friends and were in the hands of friends of friends. My constantly growing anxiety made me demand it back many times, but it always had to go to just one more person.

At 10 that morning, a page on the intercom interrupted my English class to call me to the principal's office. I knew of two boys who had been expelled for having half a bottle of beer, but I knew of no girls who had ever been expelled. I wondered who had turned me in.

But the principal was smiling. He extended his hand to congratulate me on winning first place at the science fair. I burst into loud, uncontrollable sobs. He led me to a chair and said maybe I had been working too hard.

At lunch I demanded the book back and wouldn't take no for an answer. On the way home after school, I walked out of my way to throw the book into the garbage behind the grocery store.

No one at my house ever mentioned that it was missing.

Elva Treviño Hart, MS '78, is working on a novel and on a collection of her short stories, The Maids of San Miguel. Excerpt from Barefoot Heart: Stories of a Migrant Child, copyright 1999 by Elva Treviño Hart. Published with the permission of Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingüe, Tempe, Ariz. 85287-2702.