YUMMY! What a delicious fine fall day, too nice to be stuck inside sixth-grade science class, listening to old Dr. Swift go on and on about ostrich eggs and platypus feet or something equally gross. Boy, could he get into it!
Climbing trees - that's what I should have been doing. All the way to the top to watch the leaves fall from up above. Swaying with the branches. Shimmying down as fast as ever. It was that kind of day. Made you want to be outside having fun. Climbing ... or bicycling ... or picking apples in the bakery-warm Indian summer sun.
What? Had someone called my name?
``Er, yes, Dr. Swift.''
``Do you know the answer?''
Answer? What was the question?
The whole class was looking at me expectantly. Usually I was pretty good with answers, but not today. Today was too.... My mouth moved but nothing came out.
Everyone but Dr. Swift laughed.
``It's laryngitis,'' a voice behind me said.
It was Mitsi (short for Margaret) Peace. Figures. She loved science and Dr. Swift. Loved school. Homework. The works. What a ditz! But did she know a McIntosh from a Golden Delicious apple? Did she climb trees? No way.
``Alex,'' Dr. Swift said, ``you were admiring the fall day, and I don't blame you. It is a beauty.''
Surprise! He was actually smiling, something he did a lot, I have to admit. I think he found us kids sort of funny. He was a popular teacher even though he was, I guess you'd say, strict. Kept you after school if you didn't do the work, called your folks, things like that.
Now he said, ``I have a job for you, Alex - and Mitsi. The two of you are to go outside - together - in back of the school where that stream runs by the building and capture a couple of crayfish for our class aquaterrarium. Take this carton with you. These fish nets, too. Enjoy the day while you're out there. Talk to each other. Be friends.''
``Aquaterrarium'' was a word Dr. Swift used for the large glass enclosure he kept all his plants and critters in, mostly tiny toads, snails, and goldfish. One side was like a mini-pond, wet and weedy (at least it looked that way to me), full of spiders and crawly insects. It gave me the shivers just to know the thing was nearby; that's why I sat up front.
Mitsi said, ``Do I have to?''
I was thinking the same thing. On a day like today, getting to go outside was a daydream come true, but with Mitsi? Bummer.
``Yes,'' Dr. Swift told her. ``And take your time.''
Happily, the sunshine cheered us both up. A shady copse of trees hugged one end of the brick building, and a stream burbled on the playground. Unusual for a schoolyard. In fact, we were so far off the main street you could barely hear the traffic, busy this time of day. Some kindergarteners were playing on the swingsets, but otherwise Mitsi and I were alone.
``Think we'll find any crayfish?'' she asked me.
Her crow-black hair sticking straight up made me smile.
``Never seen any,'' I said. ``You?''
``Nope.'' She shook her head. ``You like apples?''
Just like that she asked me - out of the wild.
``Sure,'' I said with surprise. ``Er, you?''
``Love 'em. Especially Macs.''
She laughed when she saw my face.
``Come on,'' I said quickly. ``Let's try down here.''
Turned out it was a good spot. We put the carton down on the sunny edge of the bank, where the water was at its deepest, about a foot. During the spring thaw the stream was much deeper and ran fast downhill, but now it kind of took its time, winding this way and that, sidewalk wide.
``I'll walk on this side, and you....''
``Hey!'' Mitsi interrupted. ``There's one - got him!''
She had - in her net. Quick as could be.
Then I got one, too. Another and another. And another. The place was alive with crayfish: Backstroking downstream. Jackknifing off the rocks. Warming their tiny bodies in the sun, four-inch lobster-look-alikes everywhere you looked.
``Dr. Swift must've known,'' Mitsi guessed.
I counted how many we'd put inside the box for safekeeping - 10, 11, 12. An even dozen. Suuuuuuper!
``Oh, look,'' Mitsi exclaimed, ``a turtle!''
That it was, sunning itself on the warm dirt, a brownish-green turtle about the size of a pancake. Mitsi snuck up from behind, caught it with her net and - plunk! - dropped it inside the box before closing the lid.
``Yikes - a frog! Over here! No, here! Quick!''
The two of us were on the move - up and down both sides of the water, scurrying about, jumping from rock to rock, sloshing and swooping and pouncing. Swisssssh ... sniiiiick ... plunk!
Ten minutes later we were done, out of breath, faces wet with sweat, hot and excited at the same time. Laughing like a couple of those kindergarteners. A leaf floated down and landed smack on top of Mitsi's head.
``Let's see what we caught,'' I suggested.
We carefully lifted the lid off the box and looked inside. Twelve crayfish, a turtle, three medium-sized frogs, a small salamander and, maybe best of all, a striped garter snake. Not poisonous.
Mitsi and I gave a whoop.
``Dr. Swift won't believe it,'' she said.
I was all set to help Mitsi carry our wonderful box of surprises back to school when she said, ``How many crayfish were we supposed to bring back?''
``Er, Dr. Swift said a couple.''
``How many's that?''
I shrugged. ``Three or four.''
``Do you think he'll want this many?''
My guess was probably not. The aquaterrarium was large but not that large. Critters - all kinds - needed space to move around.
``Let's take, er, eight out,'' I said.
``Right,'' Mitsi said.
We put them back in the stream and watched them swim away fast, bottomward, out of sight. Bubbles popped on the surface.
Back at the box, Mitsi said, ``Look at the turtle.''
``What about him?''
You couldn't really see the turtle because his head and legs were inside the shell. When he was sunning himself on the dirt, though, they were sticking out. There the turtle looked to be smiling.
``It's scared,'' I said. ``Or shy.''
Mitsi nodded, her black hair bobbing up and down.
``Scared,'' she said definitively. ``The frogs, too. Probably of the snake. We would be too if we were frogs.''
We let the snake go - zing! - into the bushes, but it didn't matter. The turtle stayed put, out of sight. The frogs looked unhappy, huddled into one corner, flopping on top of each other.
``They need water,'' Mitsi surmised.
``Right. Sprinkle some on.''
We did, but it didn't help.
I looked at Mitsi, and she looked at me.
``Let's put them back where we found them,'' I said, starting to wonder what Dr. Swift would say when, er, if, we told him.
The frogs dove from our hands into the water. Three frogs, three splashes. They kicked with their back legs. And the turtle dove underwater. I'd never seen a turtle move so fast. Probably the last time he'd ever sun himself on the dirt. Yes, sirree.
``Say goodbye to the salamander,'' Mitsi said.
Zip - it was gone, off to catch some bugs.
Only the four crayfish were left. Mitsi and I stared at them, unmoving as rocks, in the bottom of the box. Even a few handfuls of water did little to get them going. We both knew what to do without saying a word, and a minute later the burbling water carried the crayfish happily downstream.
``Have an apple,'' I said to Mitsi, pulling one out of my pocket. ``It's a Golden D, almost as good as a Mac.''
She took one and ate it one the way back to school. We found Dr. Swift by himself in his room, setting up some microscopes.
``So, how'd you do?'' he said excitedly. ``Any luck?''
``We caught 12 crayfish,'' I blurted out.
Mitsi said, ``And a snake and a turtle, three frogs....''
``And a salamander,'' I added.
Dr. Swift was beaming - never looked happier.
``Let's see,'' he said, opening the box.
His face fell, his eyes grew dark. He pulled at his chin.
``Did they escape?'' he asked us in a puzzled voice.
``Er, sort of,'' I mumbled.
Mitsi and I looked at each other, took a couple of deep breaths, and told Dr. Swift the whole story, about as fast as those crayfish swimming downstream.
I thought he'd be angry but he wasn't, anything but.
In fact, he was smiling again.
``You know,'' he said, ``I'd have done the same thing. Let all the critters go. You're not going to believe this, but I was thinking of dismantling the aquaterrarium for good, putting the toads and snails, goldfish and all the insects back into their natural environment, have science class outdoors every so often. See how critters - all kinds - manage to survive. Good idea?''
We all thought it was.
I took another apple out of my pocket, a Golden D, squishy and bruised all over from being in there so long. I was going to offer it to Dr. Swift, until he said, ``Wait,'' reached into a paper bag and pulled out three of the yummiest looking Macs I'd ever seen. Perfectly shiny, bright red.
``Here's to nature,'' he toasted.
We all took a bite. `Kidspace' is a place on The Home Forum pages where kids can find stories that will spark imaginations, entertain with a tall tale, explain how things work, or describe a real-life event. These articles appear twice a month, usually on Tuesdays.