When I'm asked whether I have siblings, I usually say no, I'm an only child. It's true that I'm the only child of both my father and my mother, and it's true that I grew up alone, but strictly speaking, I did have siblings. My mother was my father's second wife, and he had two daughters and a son with his first wife. They were much older than I, though; my brother, who was the youngest, was 25 when I was born, and all three were married and had kids already.
For reasons I won't get into here and now, I never really knew the oldest although I remember her vaguely, but the other two, and their families, were parts of my childhood and much loved. I didn't see them so often because they lived in Copenhagen and we lived in a smaller city that was then 3 or 4 hours' journey away, but still often enough to prevent them from becoming strangers between visits even when I was just a toddler.

One summer, we went to stay in my sister's home for - two weeks? I'm not sure, but it must have been the year I turned 9 in August, only earlier in summer, for there were still strawberries in their garden which I helped my brother-in-law pick every day.

My sister Tove had two sons, one who was then 15 or 16 and one who was 12. The younger - we didn't see much of him during the day, he was off soon after breakfast to join his mates. Sometimes he was home for lunch, but more often he came later, built sandwiches of an astounding size, creativity, and not least number, gobbled them up, and escaped through the kitchen door before my sister had time to say "Clean up the mess!" She probably preferred to do it herself anyway, she was a perfectionist - like me.
(Yes, we're difficult to live with. You'll all be grateful the morning everybody wakes up blind and we nevertheless find the jam unerringly. You'd hate shoe polish on your toast - or whatever you'd get if we let your definition of tidiness prevail.)

The elder boy was a less social type as far as mates were concerned, he liked to read or go for long walks, mostly alone apart from a German shepherd he "borrowed" from a man in the village whom they called 'uncle' - I don't think he was a blood relative, though. I should explain that the family had moved from the city to a modern house they'd bought in one of those villages that were becoming fashionable in the early '60es and are now more bungalow suburbs than villages, but at the time I'm talking about, it still had its old charm, and the area around it was very beautiful and unspoiled. And that summer, Steen, as the boy was called, took me with him on his walks.
I loved it! We walked in a big forest full of birds and squirrels and other animals, there was a fair-sized lake as well, and one day we walked further and reached a big lake about which I knew a song - pure adventure for a little girl. I loved the dog too, it was very well trained and could be let loose because it always came when Steen called its name, so we threw sticks for it to fetch and played with it in other ways. Sometimes we tried to hide from it, but of course there's no fooling a dog's nose.

One day, we found a slow worm on the path, or perhaps the dog saw it first. Instead of running away, it stiffened - the Danish name for it is actually 'steel worm', and now we knew why - and we picked it up. Then, for some reason, we decided to take it with us. I'm not sure how we transported it; I think we had a small canvas bag with some dog biscuits and, not unlikely, some Steen-and-Ulla treats as well. The slow worm was fine in there, we checked its well-being regularly, and it was quite relaxed. So we all trotted back, delivered the dog to "Uncle", and found our fathers sitting on the veranda at home. We produced the slow worm which they admired, and a nice talk about its gender, habits etc. followed. Then the women came out of the house.

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My mother reacted fastest. She raised her arm, pointed a trembling finger at the slow worm, which I happened to be holding, and screamed: "A S-S-SNAKE!!!" We all stared at her, and I, who knew my mum's ignorance about wildlife - she never seemed to listen when my dad taught me about it, and she was terrified even of mice - said soothingly: "He's not a snake, Mummy, he's a slow worm. He's related to the lizards." As I could have expected, she didn't hear me. "Let go of that s-s-snake!!", she screamed.
That woke my sister from the stupor she appeared to have fallen into. "No", she said in a voice that almost didn't shake, "do not let go of it here. I could crawl into - I don't want it in the house!" "Okay, Mum", Steen said, "I'll put it in the garden, don't worry."
No dice. "You'll do no such thing", she declared. "I don't want it in my garden - take it back where you found it."
"But Mum", Steen said, "that was quite far away, I --". "I'm glad to hear that", was the merciless reply. "Take the - animal back there. All right, use your bike if you don't to want to walk."

Everybody gaped at my sister, even my mother who would have fainted long since if she hadn't realized that none of us would notice. My father tried to convince her that slow worms were good to have in a garden since they ate snails and slugs and other critters that eat one's plants, but to no avail. She didn't want it in her garden, and that was final.
When my sister said 'final', one had two options: give in or shoot her, and we all knew it, so I don't know what possessed my brother-in-law that afternoon since he exclaimed: "For the love of Mike, Tove, there must be at least half a dozen slow worms in the garden already!" Apart from the foolishness of opening his mouth at all, it was the ultimately wrong thing to say. Well, if he wanted to be told to go pack a suitcase, buy a ticket to India, and not even dream of returning home without a mongoose, I guess it was the right thing to say (yes, she'd have remembered the suitcase - I told you she was a perfectionist). She had decreed her garden slow worm-free zone, and so it would be; resistance was futile.
Fortunately for him, she chose to go into denial: "There are no such animals in my garden", she snapped. "Steen - do as I told you!'

Everybody kept quiet. Steen took the slow worm from my little hands, wheeled out his bike, and left. I was told to go and scrub my hands with soap "since you have touched a slimy snake", as my mother put it. I objected that it wasn't slimy, but quite dry and nice to hold. My sister agreed on non-slimy and didn't contradict the rest - she was a sensible woman as a general rule - but nevertheless seconded the hand-washing. Everything settled back to normal.

As for the drama's leading, although mute, character, Steen let it slither under a hedge in the next street and found himself a comfortable spot to day-dream in until he was expected back from his long ride. He assured me our little friend would like its new home.


Here's some info on slow worms. Pictures too. www.wildlifewatch.org.uk/beast-of-the-month-slow-worm




Note on names: the ee in Steen is not pronounced as in 'keen', but more like the e in 'pen', only long. Tove is linguistically identical with English 'dove' (and German 'Taube') and is known as a woman's name from early medieval times. It has two audible syllables in Danish (like in German).