The first creature I recall dissecting was a fly that had been caught on a pest strip twirling in the breeze on our patio one summer. I remember how excited I’d become in seeing it struggling there, still living and intact. I’d run inside and commandeered my mother’s tweezers, taking the fly paper down carefully and watching the creature struggle for several moments. Satisfied with my observations, I seized one of its legs with the metal instrument and pulled until it ripped free, collapsing onto the glue. I paused and watched it squirm. An idea struck me and I wondered what might become of it if I tore all its legs off, setting it free in removing its glued limbs. Intrigued, I set to work extracting each of the tiny black appendages. They were no thicker than a piece of thread, and so I quickly found the tweezers to be ungainly and difficult to maneuver on such a small form. The last popped off and I half expected the fly to buzz and jerk free, but instead it collapsed on its side in the glue, barely struggling. Did flies have pain receptors, I wondered? I reached for a wing, fully of the opinion that I shouldn’t let this opportunity go to waste.
When my mother found me, she screamed. She ordered me to put the pest strip back and never do such a horrible thing again. When she discovered her tweezers in my small hand replete with fly remains firmly pressed between the metal tips, she was nearly hysterical. My father materialized as if from the air itself whilst her hyperbolic reaction escalated, inquiring as to the cause. He was by contract unperturbed by my actions and barely glanced at me, telling his wife that she was overreacting. That all boys eventually did things like this by their very nature, just as little girls play house. When she carried on, he promised to buy her an entirely new beauty set, winked at me and told me to keep the tweezers. This solved the bulk of the issue in my mother’s eyes as she’d been given a reward for her tirade. The matter settled, my parents left and I was thereafter far more careful with where I performed my experiments.
They never found my little laboratory behind the shed. My tools were makeshift utensils swiped during special occasions when the house was full: a steak knife from the holiday dinner party, a skewer from the barbecue, a set of pins from the sewing club and so forth, leaving my mother to conjecture which good-for-nothing invitee had taken it. I’d found a discarded piece of plywood to use as a dissection table, and pulled a pair of my mother’s cleaning gloves from the trash after she’d bought new ones. All of this accumulation was a slow process, but was quite necessary to my budding career as a biologist.
At first I dissected other insects, which no one cared about: flies, moths, worms, cockroaches and so forth – anything I could catch. After that came small animals like frogs and mice, of which I required several and thus were best collected and examined in the spring when they were reproducing and in large supply. I made diagrams and only later compared these to the books in the library, interested in discovering it all for myself. I couldn’t fashion a reliable blueprint from only one carcass, particularly because I lacked the chemicals necessary to preserve it throughout its disassembly.
The following year my father constructed a second shed in the backyard which was to be my “clubhouse.” I theorized that he’d observed my steadily growing and completely unquenchable thirst for science, and had opted to give me a place to follow my whim. Initially I’d feared that he may have found my outdoor lab, which I’d been careful to tear down and disperse after each session. In hindsight it was more probable that he’d stumbled across my diagrams and notes and hadn’t bothered to sort out where I was creating them. It would provide me with a place to do “boyish things” with my friends: this was the mask which hid the truer purpose of its construction from my mother’s horrified eyes. My mistrusting mother was only assuaged when my father insisted that he, too, had a clubhouse when he was young – only his was in a tree, so she’d better not keep fussing or it would be up in a tree he’d place it. My father knew full well that I lacked a use for friends, being so entirely self-contained and independent as to always have my own agenda. I had no urge to socialize, and in fact I found it tiring. My clubhouse, then, became a makeshift lab, upgraded from the one I’d pieced together behind my father’s shed.
I found the value in work at an early age. Money was a means by which I could acquire more tools for my research and experimentation. My mother was pleased when I began running errands and doing chores for neighbors for pay, because it raised her status in the local eye as her son was so industrious and responsible. Had she but known what I’d turned around and used that same money for she’d have torn down my clubhouse and despite her general distaste for me, forbid me from leaving her sight. That never did happen, however, and so my secret was quite safe.
My interest in life expanded to an interest in chemistry and I immediately became that much more powerful. I could create explosives from common household materials for example, not that I’d needed them. The other children at school were but mice inherently frightened of my owlish stillness and intense observation. I was not bullied; rather, I was generally avoided. This was perfectly satisfactory to me; I had little use for humans as I couldn’t legally experiment on them.
The only exception to this was one compassionate and low-born yet amazing little boy who displayed intelligence equal to my own. His interest lay more in history than science and he had a rather peculiar taste for unexplained occurrences. He would unfailingly begin our conversations by telling me a story, following it up with a series of open-ended suppositions that he laid out just before settling and looking to me in askance for my opinion. He inquired after the scientific theories behind my answer whenever I offered one. When I didn’t, he would come to some succinct conclusion about the tale’s greater meaning. He at once straddled the world of the affable jock and the studious recluse, both impulsive and thoughtful. He was, in short, a string of contrasts thrown together and somehow cohabitating in a single body: the type of boy that other boys wished to become.
He was the trigger that ignited most of my few fond memories of my younger years. He had an angelic face and soft-hearted nature, but his restless interest often left him bored and in need of something to feed it regardless of the recklessness or potential harm inflicted by his chosen course. That is where I and my science came in, much as his fearlessness and social adaptability intrigued me. In reading his obituary now, I can only laugh. He’d amounted to nothing and had died pointlessly, as so often happens. Had the robber who’d shot him only left his brain intact, I might have requisitioned it for study in the name of science using my pull at the university, as he was surely an organ donor. I’d long ago forgotten his name, much as he’d been such an amusement to me during grade school.