In my small hand, I wield a thick junk-drawer sharpie like a dagger over the pages of James and the Giant Peach. I thought things were going well with James after his peachy escape, and everything was fine until Mr. Centipede said a bad word: A-S-S-E-S. I was startled to find this word in a book I bought from my favorite event: my elementary school’s Scholastic Book Fair. It’s a word I’ve never said before, I swear. Not even in secret to my friends! Not even to myself just to feel how the forbidden word fits between my newer adult teeth, until–
Asses, I say, so quiet that my sister playing on her bed a few feet away can’t hear me and tattle. The sound of it is separated by brief flickings of tongue against teeth to stop the air. Speaking the word feels like a worm cut in half that then wriggles itself back together. Instantly, I feel ashamed and think of the spanking I would get if my mom had heard me. I offer up a brief prayer and curse the existence of centipedes. They always startle me when I discover them under buckets in my sandbox; they will always make my heart beat a little faster.
I much prefer the calm nature of caterpillars. Their bodies inch on low branches like bars on tiny typewriters, slow, predictable, and full of transformative potential, and yet still so innocent. What I mean to say is that a caterpillar would probably just say butts, and then I wouldn’t be in this situation right now.
The Sharpie’s thick tip makes giant fuzzy lines of black on all the sentences with bad words. My unsteady hand smears the ink to other lines, which was not my intention, but these are my safe, dark, hungry caterpillars. My sin insurance. After a few deep breaths calm my beating heart, I walk feet-heavy up the stairs to my mother making dinner in the kitchen to confess my discovery of the transgressive insect. I show her my censorship and explain that Mr. Centipede said A-S-S-E-S.
Her brows furrow in concern, and my stomach sinks because I think I am caught in my lie. Mom ears can hear anything – probably, definitely – including little girls trying out curse words in their room for the first time. Cover, quick! So, I ask with feigned innocence: Doesn’t it say in the Bible that Jesus rides into Jerusalem on an ass? Mom quits stirring macaroni on the stove and blinks several times.
My question stopped time for a moment, and in the stasis we both questioned what we really knew about each other. She breaks the spell and explains how we say donkey now and maybe you shouldn’t read that book anymore. That’s it. No spanking or grounding. Not in trouble. My cautious caterpillar censorship worked, and I retreat in victory when our conversation ends. My brave journey left both the depths of my soul and my rear end intact.
But I never like to leave a story unfinished. When I open James and the Giant Peach again, I realize that the ink bled through several clusters of pages and rendered many parts unreadable. Mourning the loss of something once complete, the last words my mother spoke to me before I returned to my ruined book repeated over and over in my mind. She has said it many, many times: You know you can always tell me anything.
Chelsea Campbell teaches literature and composition at the University of South Dakota while she pursues a master's degree in English. Her creative thesis is a yet-untitled volume of poetry which examines the intersection of patriarchy with Christianity and how she is recovering from its trauma. She recently published her first poem in the most recent issue of Persephone's Daughters.