My first book was yellow. On its cover was a bumblebee and the words ‘All the best things in the world begin with a b.’ I look at the words, and the words make sense, and suddenly the book springs into story. All these years later I can open that book’s hard yellow covers and I am six years old, alone at night, and making a discovery that will mean I am never alone again. There is a boy, there is a butterfly, thand there is a bumblebee. They all begin with a b, they are all found in the book, and they are all the best things in the world.
They are still there in that book waiting for me now, although I am not quite sure where there is. I haven’t seen The Bb Book for a while, although I’m sure it is around somewhere, maybe in a box under the stairs. These days the books have run amok, they fill shelves, sheds, cupboards. There are too many of them to house and my companion, B, has taken up the iPad. He says he has hundreds of books stored on it, but I just scoff. Books are for touching, I say. If you run your finger down a spine, you remember where you were when you first touched that body, the desire that kindled in you with the dust jacket, the stray thought that took form as your eyes roamed across words that became you as you read them.
‘Sure,’ he says, ‘so the next time we travel you carry the suitcases.’ He travels lightly, a satchel nonchalantly strung over his back, while I lug computer, camera, books, papers, then stuff my clothes into the cracks. Nevertheless, he is still subject, as I am, to the obsession with possessing a cossetted form, and is driven again and again to linger, to touch, to breathe in a book’s promise of containment. He has a room lined with books and he is fussy when it comes to them; overly proprietary, I think. It’s a sore spot between us that I niggle away at, sneaking into his room at night and stealing a read, just as I did as a child in the room I shared with my sister.
Maybe these days when I sneak into B’s room at night, I’m sneaking a leaf from my sister. Trying to catch up on those lost nights of reading, those books I was never allowed to see, to touch, to smell. B has a cupboard running the full length of his room. A mustard cupboard not too dissimilar from the ugly ochre twin wardrobes of my childhood room. Behind its closed doors are deep shelves lined with row upon row of books. Maybe The Bb Book has wandered in there by mistake, but there is no way of knowing what is behind those closed doors, and I’ll never get in.
• • •
It must have been 1967 or thereabouts when my dreams first began to weave their way through the gauzy wings of phasmids. I would waken in a tangle of blankets with no-one to turn to but my sister, who was never someone to call on in the night. She didn’t like me. Well, I’m being overly modest. At night, she would sit on her bed and conjugate French verbs: ‘Je vous déteste, je vous détestais, je vous ai détestée, je vous détesterai …’ I have always stumbled over French verbs despite the years living in France. Put me in a context where I have to conjugate and my palms begin to sweat.
The doors of her cupboard were always shut. Each time she slid open the door I would catch a glimpse of books, like mine, reaching up through dressing gown and raincoat, but hers—she had several years on me—touched the hems of her dresses. I would try not to let her see me look, try to hide the desire smacked across my face, but she knew. As the door slid shut, I would hear the crackle of a beetle’s shell crushed underfoot, a loathsome beetle, a cockroach, crunching to the sound of a rolled r.
Decades later, wandering in the labyrinths of Clignancourt, I turn a corner into the smell of that room and nostalgia overwhelms me, long before I see the collector’s wares. The unmistakable scent of mouldering insects—as if, and here’s the contrary thing, as if happiness was there, in that room, that cupboard, those books, that insect collection.
• • •
I am becoming an entomologist, I tell everyone excitedly, unabashedly. Nestled among the books in the bottom of the wardrobe my collection grows, bedded down in my father’s slide boxes, their lids labelled and dated—until we move house and the insects go into a box and never come out. My mother has seen, decided and dispensed with my closeted wonderland. Aristotle writes, ‘It is through wonder that men now begin and originally began to philosophize; wondering in the first place at obvious perplexities, and then by gradual progression raising questions about the greater matters too, e.g. about the changes of the moon and of the sun, about the stars and about the origin of the universe.’ 1 I wonder if girls had been included in that sentence, back then, those two collections might not have become the prompt for the kind of thinking that occurs when wonderment wanders into bewilderment.
Insects, like books, brought questions of form and narrative to the fore. Their segmented, winged bodies were so teasingly different. With the help of books, I matched them with lives as mysterious as those found in any fairy story: girls who bespoke toads and vipers; men who married women only to sever their heads; keys that should not be turned; paths leading widdershins into other worlds. Unlike the fairies, the insects had not yet begun to disappear from the world, and their lives, as contrary as their composition, told stories that fitted the world of my family into a larger cosmos of shape-changers and timekeepers.
In the evenings and early mornings, my father and I would stroll through the garden, peering under leaves and through branches to find the myriad small creatures whose world we shared. Every stone upturned revealed an underworld: gesticulating worms looping back into the soil; anxious spiders whiskered and white-eyed; blue-back pupae shuffling like zombies newly woken from the dead.
I fell in love with the cicadas, deeply, obsessively, without thought of return. These sleeping beauties of the garden—their seven-year sleep ended with a drum roll as the beast dropped its armour and beauty unfurled her wings. We would find them on early summer mornings sloughing off the mucous, their discarded shell-selves still clawing their way to the light. On the best of all possible mornings I would find a King cicada—its fearless tiger stripe beating out a warning to the birds—and wear it on my box-pleat uniform, its stained-glass wings making a sacred day. I would walk to school chirping my own secret cicada chirrup as I counted the Yellow Mondays and Green Grocers flashing their neon signs amid a dark throng of Black Princes and Cherrynoses, drumming in their thousands on the long white arms of the gums, their fingers interlacing across the sky just like mine when I made the church and steeple.
By my eighth birthday evening strolls with my father through the garden had given way to light traps, nets, mounting boards and a killing bottle procured from the pharmacist. A Child’s Wonderland of Nature had fallen to handsome volumes on The Insects, The Ants, The Bees, The Spiders.
Spiders were everywhere. The redbacks, poised in delicate webs lacing the creek banks, were domestic in their habits. Small and contained, they flashed a polite warning, please do not disturb. At night the leaf spiders threw their fishing nets across the garden. A gentle stroking of the web would soon bring one of the leaves caught in the web to life, a black and white body would ease out of hiding, its spindling legs creeping down the line. Trapdoors were deadly, but nestled on its bed of cottonwool in one of my father’s old yellow slide boxes, my trapdoor was just hungry. The ants had eaten out his insides and there was nothing left of him but his shell.
I spied him—an adrenalin pulse away from being squashed—as I ran barefoot in the garden, reclaimed him from the ants, and took to him with a magnifying glass and a pair of tweezers. My old soldier. His armour-plated underbelly was tufted with soft brown hair that must have burst from his shield when he was alive. His red chelicerae still struck up a defence. He didn’t scare me, but his egg sacs found their way into my dreams. Sticky golden pillows billowing with venomous life, they were invariably mistaken for sacks of food, or treasure, as I wandered lost in dark tunnels searching for a way out of the castle. I knew what they were. I had seen photographs and read descriptions, but sleep left me wandering on the far side of knowledge, unknowing, unread.
The funnel-webs left their nests every January. Under the cover of night they roamed the garden, sniffing out a mate in old shoes, under doors, in all the places a child’s hand might wander. One morning the laces of my shoes stood up and waved their long hairy legs in the air. I keep the funnel-web in a bottle, and in the company of a book that I keep apart from all the others. On the cover of Snow White the witch hands the girl an apple. Anyone can see she is a witch but Snow White mistakes her for a kindly old grandmother. The apples fall from the basket, the old lady cackles, and Snow White swoons dead to the floor. I wrap the book in a paper bag, then wrap it again in a pillow-case, and then stash it in the farthest corner of the cupboard, along with the bottle that houses the spider whose bite can kill in three ways.
• • •
I read The Bb Book propped up in my brother’s bed alone and late at night. I don’t know what I’m doing there, why there is this confusion of beds and rooms, but, sure enough, I remember myself propped up in the wooden trundle-bed my brother slept in as a child. He had collections too, rocks, stamps, and a science lab with its own killing bottle of blue crystals.
I can conjure The Bb Book’s contents page by page, word by word, illustration by illustration. The book begins with a bumblebee named little b who is tired of being a bee and of spending his days bumbling among the flowers and bringing home honey to the hive. He wants to be something better than a bee, so he goes to Big B and tells him he doesn’t want to be a bee any more. But Big B says all the best things in the world begin with a b, and invites little b to fly with him to see the world and to discover for himself that everything best in the world begins with a b.
They meet a boy with a bicycle, a blackbird and a butterfly. They see a barnyard, a blue balloon, a field of buttercups and a bantam hen. Does a boy begin with a b? little b asks Big B. Yes, says Big B, boy begins with a b. The boy is the best and most beautiful thing little b has ever seen, and buttercups, balloons, bantams and barnyards are all beautiful too, and they all begin with a b. At the end of the book, little b is happy to be a bee, and to spend his life bumbling among the flower beds and bringing home honey to the hive.
I had trouble with bs and ds. They were always on the wrong side of the bed, turning out instead of in. But that night, with little b’s help, I could stand the two ends of the bed up and make bed begin with a b and end with a d.
My brother, too, began with a b, because he was a boy, and my brother was the best thing in the world. He said ‘see ya t’morra’ and ‘see ya t’s arvo’ quicker than any other kid, and he could say ‘cor blimey’ like the boy in the movie. He ate earthworms without chewing, holding his head up high, and sucking them down his throat as my sister ladled them into his mouth. He had a wolf-whistle that could fill up the whole sky. He cupped his hands and out came a bellyful of sound, high and whooping. He could shift his hands and make huge yelping hiccups like a frog that had lost its way. He taught me how to make toffmal, it was our secret. We stole sugar and jam lids from the kitchen, and burnt the sugar in fires we lit in the gutters of other kids’ streets. As the sugar melted and boiled, we’d dip our sticks in again and again, until we had a eucalypt-scented toffee-apple. Toffmal is what I had when the other kids just had lollies. When they asked me what I was doing on the weekend, I would say ‘makin’ toffmal’, and my chest would swell in my box-pleat uniform. My brother then. My brother now. Between the b and the d, the e sits in there like a split o. An o with a line through it except for that little gap in the closed circle.
• • •
It strikes me that I haven’t seen The Bb Book for a few years. There have been clean-ups and, of course, the endless moves. Three different cities in ten years, and houses—well, I put myself to sleep at night counting the houses—so it’s not surprising there are boxes that have never been unpacked, move after move. I set off in search of The Bb Book but, by the end of a morning spent lugging boxes off shelves and rifling through cupboards, I start to think that maybe it would be easier to find a virtual copy of the book on the internet. Maybe B is right. Maybe I should get an iPad, or worse, maybe the dog pack at work has won the day.
I have just had another contretemps with the Hound—I call him the Hound because I’ve taken to seeing academics of his type as dogs of one form or another; it helps negotiate the ‘dog-eat-God’ nature of life in a university, and I’m thinking, as I trawl through the boxes, that even the universities are emptying of their collections now, their cloisters, their dark and secret labyrinths of wonder, their leaf matter. The Hound has let drop we are moving into a paper-free office. A move is afoot and the books just have to go. He says it with a smile and a helpless shrug as if it is all too hard to bear. He will keep his elegant suite with lounge, antique reading table, and wall-to-wall shelving, but the rest of us are moving into the future. We are following the trend and leading the pack. Hot-desks—this new word of the new university—mean no space for the hard matter of books.
He is wearing a dark Italian suit with magenta silk lining and, as he leans over me in a conspiratorial kind of way, his coat sleeves keep winking at me: ‘She wrote about it in the TLS, didn’t you read it? She was selling her London apartment and got rid of all her books, you know, thought they were her, a question of identity, but once they were gone she never missed them. They don’t sell any more, you know—houses with books—realtors prefer a clean facade.’ Dogs, I find myself musing, don’t begin with a b. But then it occurs to me that I am thinking about the Hound as I search for The Bb Book, because all that winking and blinking of magenta silk brings to mind little b’s magenta honey pot.
Now there is something to think about! When Clifford Geertz takes up Gilbert Ryle’s idea of ‘thick description’ in his famous work The Interpretation of Cultures,2 he turns to two essays of Ryle’s addressing thinking and reflecting, and the thinking of thoughts. He asks us to imagine two boys twitching and winking. A camera couldn’t discern the difference between the two, but a vast conspiratorial signal—a public code—separates them. Max Weber writes that we are all animals suspended in webs of meaning of our own making and, as I pause thinking it is definitely a wink not a blink, a blink may be innocent of hidden messages but a wink never is, I see little b in his jaunty sailor’s cap swinging his magenta honey pot and winking to me across the years. It occurs to me, then, that philosophy doesn’t begin with wonder but with the moment that one apprehends the web that wonder has spun.
I can’t find The Bb Book on the web. There is no e-book of The Bb Book, nor can I find any virtual image of a big yellow book with a gold and black bumblebee on its cover, carrying a glossy magenta honey pot home to the hive. I am going to have to muddle through without it now, to try to make sense of what I was doing in my brother’s bed, trying to be a b, as I nestled into that little space between the b and the d, an o with a line through it except for that little split in the closed circle.
• • •
My father kept bees and I was often his little helper bringing back the honey from the hive. On hot summer days he would collect the honeycombs as I stood well back. Bees could sting other insects without harming themselves but I knew that if a bee were to sting a girl, it would lose its innards to her. I had read about a bee from Mount Hymettus that foolishly asked Jupiter for the gift of a fatal sting. She wanted to protect her honey from marauding thieves, but Jupiter preferred to protect the lives of men, so he gave her a hive of hard-working sister-bees, who would spend their days and nights making honey for gods and men and a sting that would kill her if she used it.3 As we spun the honey from its waxen beds the bees buzzed furiously at the screen door, desperate to stick us with their stings, but I just turned on the tap and let the honey flow, filling jar after jar, labelling and dating them: ‘Flowering Gum: Summer 1967’ … The summer the cicadas woke up from their seven-year sleep, I learnt to read, my sister practised her French verbs, and my brother told me the story about the birds and the bees that began with a b and ended with a d.
It was around that time that the dreams began in which he gave me the gift of spiders. In the dream I am sitting in our family car waiting to go on a journey when my brother comes out of the front door of our house with his cupped hands held out. I open the car window and hold out my cupped hands—laughing at our shared game—and see the unmistakable black, hairy body tumbling into my palm. I count off the seconds before the poison reaches my heart. One, two, three, four, by the time I get to five, I have woken, sweat drenched and spurting terror into the sheets.
I remember the wonder I felt at those strange destinies so different to my own, living their lives all around. If I couldn’t hear the music they moved to, I knew they sounded a tune that made the simple rhythms of my day—of breakfast, lunch and tea, of school buses that came at the same time every morning, and of bells that rang me in and out of class—a mere nursery rhyme of ordered beats. Wonder sets the child in motion, giving her the thread to find her way, but at a gentle stroking the web’s sticky debris shudders into life. I knew I lived in a mutable world; shape-changers were all around. The brother whose shadow I longed to fill was also the boy who crept into my room at night, to whisper stories to me about the secret world of the birds and the bees. If I held his hand in mine and followed him there, he would teach me its ways, just as he had taught me how to make toffmal, build cubbyhouses and make a wolf-whistle that could fill up half the sky. In his story, my father was a dicky bird with a sharp beak and my mother a soft furry peach that had split down the middle.
In that world, which was right here in the room with us, fathers and brothers helped sisters and mothers split their peaches open by making cuts in them so that they could play a game with a strange sound. A rut, a tut, a tut, like the cuckoo clock on the wall outside my bedroom that poked its head in and out of its little door all night long. Inside the clock was a room where the cuckoo lived but you couldn’t see it, until the clock struck the hour and the bird came out. My brother knew how to strike the hour and he had my father’s razor to help him open the door. But I was a collector. I knew about trapdoors and their silken pillows. I knew about spiders that go courting every summer. I knew that a bee’s honey pots are attached to their legs, and that they carry their nectar inside their bodies in a honey stomach not in their sting. It was kids’ stuff I had read about in The Wonderland of Nature,4 where I had also read about the lazy drones that were pushed out of the hive and could never get back in. But worker bees could metamorphose again and again. They started off as nursemaids but ended up as warriors. If a dicky-bird came into the hive the worker bees would sting it, even if it cost them their lives. And so, there is a moment when every child collector must put aside wonder and ask, what ticks? •
Jennifer Rutherford is the Director of the J.M. Coetzee Centre. Her work explores the intersections of creative nonfiction, memoir and critical thinking. She is currently working on The Encyclopedia of Lost Things, a memoir in 26 essays.
- Aristotle, Metaphysics, Aristotle in 23 volumes, vols 17, 18, trans. Hugh Tredennick, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA; William Heinemann, London, 1933, 1989, sec. 982b.
- Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures, Basic Books, New York, 1973, pp. 6–7.
- The Fables of Aesop, illus. Edward. J. Detmold, Hodder & Stoughton, Edinburgh, 1909, p. 75.
- Nuri Mass, The Wonderland of Nature, The Writers’ Press, Summer Hill, 1964.