Of waminals in themselves

It is instructive, sometimes, rather than tell people what they mean by a word, to ask them. A good example was from my younger son, whom I took on walks, when he was little. (Now he is turning thirty!) His term was waminals. A good father would correct this to “animals,” but I was a bad father. I decided that I preferred waminals, and to this day I retain the prejudice. Animals to you, gentle reader, are waminals to me. The point isn’t really arguable. Animals are; and waminals are just like them except, different.

I assumed, at first, that my boy meant wanimals as opposed to vejtabuls — the animal kingdom of beasts large and small, as opposed to the vegetable kingdom of fwowers, pertatoes, twees, and the like. But then I asked. He meant everything that has legs and walks. Thus to my lad (who is Down syndrome, incidentally), a bider (“spider”) was a waminal, but a fish was not — nor a worm, nor a snake, nor a bird except when landed.

An amphibian, such as a frog (we shared a phoneme for this) was a waminal when out of water but a fish when in. The same for crocodiles. A bird was a waminal, but not in flight. Then it became a burd. Bipedes, such as humans or cats (when batting at things dangled from strings), were as acceptable as quadrupedes. (I’m told the plural is “quadrupedi,” but I don’t care.) Ditto, hexapedes, at least in principle. Of octopedes, he began to express doubts, but only once I told him that, unlike biders, the average octopus likes to stay under water. (We’d seen biders that knew how to walk on it.) Of centipedes, he did not want to know.

He had no concept of evolution by the age of six, and I was careful not to give him one. Instead, he freely accepted metamorphosis. This was especially obvious in the case of ducks, which may mutate from animal, to bird, to fish, at will, and within a few seconds.

I asked him about angels. This he considered to be a new category. “Angles are angles, dad,” he explained, with a theological confidence that left me in awe. And this, just as a fwower is a fwower is a fwower. Some things don’t change, the way my boy could, into a fish. (He won many swimming medals.)

More generally, in the child’s ontological reasoning, a thing is what it is, so that even a duck remains a duck through innumerable transformations. Thus, categories aren’t so important. What kind of duck might be, however, because that is about the duck.

The concept of what is and isn’t an insect had no importance to him at all. And this because he had no concept of “bugs” as a nominal category, only of bugs as an action, a verb. Indeed, as a bloody nuisance. But one should be wary of Wolf Biders, in themselves. It is true, they can both amble and jump (and so might be classed with kangaroos), but the significant point was, they might bite you. Moreover, if they were very large, they might chase you down, then finish eating you entirely. (Here I must admit that I had given him some wrong information about the maximum size of wolf spiders, in the course of a tallish tale.)

Of course animals are scary, or potentially scary, but that is part of the attraction: they are real. The idea of being captured by a Giant Grackle made smaller grackles the more fascinating. Whose babies would they fly away with? He had thought this through, but in a way not quite intelligible to me, because his category for “babies” did not, for instance, include eggs. When I told him there is a baby inside each egg, he took it for a revelation.

“How does the baby get inside?”

It was a good question. I couldn’t answer it. I might have said something stupidly reductive and false, such as, “the mommy makes it.” But my son would have seen right through that. It was eggs, not eggshells, he was asking about.

The outer shell is just so much calcium carbonate, formed to an incredibly high standard of engineering, with countless thousands of precisely gauged pores; the exterior, when decorated, with sublime art. But that’s the easy part. The hard question begins at the cuticle underneath, and grows until it becomes unimaginable. It is about the baby inside. How did it get there?

(By a miracle, of course!)

And there are so many questions, that a child has asked. As we grow older, we forget what they were.