BY: JESSICA LOVE
Julie likes to collect butterfly wings. Davie is a fan of legs, mostly crickets, but sometimes, if he’s lucky, a Granddaddy or two. Nadia pops the eyes off of flies; she insists ‘pops,’ even though, really, it’s more of a carve. Carolyn dissects caterpillars for their hearts, because, obviously, caterpillars have the strongest hearts especially if they can become something altogether new. This is important. Mark grabs ants by the handful and stashes their thoraxes in piles. Christopher cradles praying mantis heads. Rosanne loves the lungs of cicadas. Melissa steals the exoskeletons of spiders. Lee is an admirer of cockroach brains. Who wouldn’t be?
Mark, Julie, Davie, Nadia, Carolyn, Lee, Melissa, Christopher, Rosanne.
They call me Mrs. C. I’m not married, but that never stops them. No matter the year, it’s “Mrs.,” crawling out of their mouths with extra syllabic legs. Our classroom is in a trailer, annexed to the backyard while improvements are being made to our hallway, repairs necessary after the storm during winter break. It’s March and our old classroom is still plastic-tarped. Here, in the trailer, the siding sealant deteriorates in the wind and leaks moisture on dew-dripped mornings.
Reading, Science, Math, Social Studies.
My mother’s funeral will be a disaster.
She passed in the night, that’s what the nurse said. Sudden, not sudden passing in the night. She’d been sick. A handful of strokes. Cancer. It was only a matter of time. She wants a Catholic funeral even though she hasn’t been to Mass since she was in elementary school. One last shot at being holy. I’ll need to find a priest who’ll preside over a funeral for a woman he never knew, because, right there in her will, second line after leaving the property to Anne was “funeral Mass required.” Of course, she’d leave the property to Anne, the first-born. Anne, who’s in Ireland working on a peat farm with her husband and their kids, researching the effects of burning peat on the ozone.
The bits and pieces of insects line the desktops of my students. They are spelling and respelling this week’s vocabulary list, kingdom to class: Animalia, Euarthropoda, Pancrustacea, Hexapoda, Insecta. My own desk usually holds the answers hidden in folders. But today, I worry about the alphabetical arrangement in the scientific classification of insects. I before E except after C and always I before U. Think of yourself first. If you want a Catholic funeral make sure you put it in your will, legally bind your kids to submit, even though it’s ridiculous. We’re not even Catholic.
Math lesson after lunch: multiplication and finding points on a grid. Take three butterfly wings and multiply them by four cricket legs and you get? Julie will more than likely raise her hand, powdery with wing-dust, begging me to call on her. She’s smart. She’ll know the answer: an amalgamation of twelve butterfly winged-cricket legs. Next question: what is the distance between two caterpillar hearts on a grid? Caterpillar Heart One is at (6, 2) and Caterpillar Heart Two is at (-4, -7). Maybe Carolyn will call out the heart-mapped answer, her voice bouncing in all directions of our tiny trailer.
Science will be tricky. The praying mantis revolves around the earth. No. Reversed. The earth revolves around the praying mantis. A geocentric universe seems more plausible, especially for first graders. The center of everything is their everything. The cycle of the insect: egg, larva, pupa, adult. The metamorphosis.
Mom was fit until the strokes, up until the cancer, healthy all through my childhood. I don’t ever remember her getting even the sniffles. Even when Anne and I—she, ten; me, eight—had the flu at the same time, Mom nursed us without getting sick herself. We both had fever dreams nearly every night for a week. Anne would wake every few hours, crying, and retell her nightmare, something with dark shapes and nonsense terror, and beg Mom to sleep with her, who without pause, would carry her own pillow from her master bedroom to Anne’s twin bed and curl up tight against her daughter’s fevered frame. I suffered in jealous silence across the room twisted up in my own blankets, cold wash cloth on forehead.
Can bugs get cancer? Do the cells of Mark’s ants suddenly multiply uncontrollably until everything that was once alive is destroyed? Maybe the hearts of Carolyn’s caterpillars can become clogged by too much photosynthesis. Is that how that works? Is this how anything works? My mom’s body, this very moment, is being embalmed. Is she in the early or late stage of her metamorphosis?
Nadia stands in front of my desk and says, “Mrs. C, I can’t find my mayfly eyes.” Her own eyes are red. She’s been crying, the free-flowing child tears, summoned on cue. I haven’t cried yet. I know that I should cry and that it should be organic, not something forced. Anne cried when I called and told her about Mom. It was tomorrow in Ireland and she cried something awful when I told her, like she’d been bottling up all her tears for that moment.
“Where did you last see them?” I ask. Nadia isn’t one to misplace her things. She’s very particular.
“They were right next to my housefly ones, in my desk. I didn’t move them. It was Davie,” and she points to Davie, who shouts:
“Stop lying,” from his seat, third row back. He’s making letters with his cricket legs—Ls and Ts and curvy, crinkly Ss. “I didn’t touch them.”
“Davie, please don’t yell,” I say and stand. My right leg is asleep, and I am wearing mismatched shoes. One flat is dark blue, the other, black. “Everyone, please be on the lookout for Nadia’s mayfly eyes. They seem to have wandered off.”
A tiny hand rises, sticky with the life-goo of cockroaches.
“What is it, Lee?”
“This cockroach doesn’t have a brain.”
“Did you lose it?”
“It’s not where it usually is.”
Next to Lee’s desk, I see he’s almost spelled ‘hexapoda’ correctly. Everything’s in order but one letter. “You’re just missing the ‘x.’” His hair is almost the same color as mine, a light reddish-brown. I didn’t shower today. I could never shower again and I doubt the kids would notice; for them, the bodies of adults must seem so far away.
“That’s why I need my cockroach brain,” he says, annoyed with my obliviousness of the importance of his plea.
Mom was easy on Anne. Anne who got married and had two kids. Anne who’s done her duty. I am unmarried and un-kidded, except for my students. I wouldn’t be a good mother. Not even an adequate mother. I don’t have the patience. I want to tell Lee to just use a moth brain instead, or move on to the next word. I am taking too long to instruct him and he is restless. Picking the answer out of my silence, he squishes the brainless cavity of the cockroach head and pulls it apart at the seams. “X marks the spot.” Problem solving.
I’ve never felt the need to commiserate with the other teachers. All kids have their quirks. Mrs. Kay’s sixth grade class has a museum of moldy things. Mr. Jonah’s fourth grade collects hair—all kinds, from humans and animals alike. Mr. Isiah and his kindergartners make art of fingernails and toenails with Elmer’s glue and construction paper. They’ve made a gallery in our hallways, walls exhibiting curiosities. Breakroom talk is always about how great their students are, how much fun they have conducting science experiments on the moldy bread they’ve been growing for weeks in the back of their classroom. Mom never gave in to our childish fantasies. Not even macaroni art because the thought of foodstuffs and glue mixed together, she couldn’t stand. There were no galleries of elbow-noodled faces in our house. Instead, family portraits from every year lined the living room wall, bodies in the same position, smiling. Now that I’m annexed, at least I hardly find myself in the breakroom.
Julie has finished her spelling and has started designing shapes with butterfly feelers. “Triangle. Circle. Triangle,” she says when I stand beside her desk. Her tiny fingers work with dexterous precision.
I tried once. To get to know her. This woman who brought me into the world. I wanted to leave my hometown for good. Move to another state where phone lines were sometimes fuzzy. Mom called me, a month or so after college graduation, and told me Dad was dying. “He needs you,” she said. I returned home and it was the three of us. Anne had already settled into marriage across the country where the windchill was worse than the temperature. I started working here, at a school one town over from my hometown. A thirty-minute drive to my parent’s house. Mom and I nursed Dad together. Every quiet moment, when we were alone—the two of us busy at our own tasks—I’d probe her with small talk. The kinds of questions you know about your parents without asking: a list of favorites, hobbies, “Do you drink coffee?” I thought I’d build a relationship from the topical up. She answered, but never returned the question. When he died, I watched to see how hard she’d weep. Not even a voice crack. Two days after the funeral, I asked her if she’d cry if I died. “Don’t let your life go by unfulfilled,” she said.
“Let’s wrap up our spelling and get ready for recess,” I say and clap my hands. I’ve never clapped my hands before, but it feels like the moment deserves a final note, an end. Chair legs scrape the floor and everything shuffles. Insect pieces go back into their homes. Legs tucked into pockets, thoraxes nestled into Ziplock baggies. Kids line up at the door, giggling, shifting, shivering with the excitement of a thirty-minute non-stop run in the sun.
One of the benefits of our trailer is that our door opens right onto the playground. The jungle gym greets us and welcomes us, rising castle-like out of the woodchip ground. To keep up with the practices of the main building, we walk our graveled sidewalk for nine feet in a straight line, then I tell the students to have fun, be careful. Nadia and Davie and Christopher run to the grassy patch to pick apart clovers for fallen flies and crickets and mantises. Lee combs the saplings that sprout along the property line for hidden roaches while Julie follows butterflies down the slide. My first kiss was on a jungle gym during recess in third grade. Jimmy Goodman—or Goodwin—pecked me on the lips after I chased him with a cattail I’d found growing by the ditch. Our teacher saw us, put us in time-out, and called our parents. Mom took me out of school for the rest of the day and made me clean out the refrigerator while she berated me with my failings thus far: Anne was in sixth grade with a tenth grade reading level; you’re kissing boys during recess.
Lee gets a headache after ten minutes of sun and sits by me on the bench for the remainder of the break. We have the playground to ourselves until the second graders march one by one from the main building and we return to our trailer.
Back inside, dirt-hemmed and sweaty, the students line up at the sink to wash their hands. Melissa, first in line, turns on the water to let it run until it gets hot. It takes a few minutes since our trailer is so far from the main building.
Lunch boxes sit on desktops, filled with peanut butter and jelly and ham/turkey/chicken and cheese sandwiches, sometimes a cookie or two, juice in lidded-cups, carrot sticks. Most of the students eat the same thing every day. I wonder if their parents even realize it. Anne played volleyball in high school. Mom fixed a special diet for her during the season. Lunches packed with energy-fuel: ripe blueberries and boiled eggs carefully peeled of shell. I ate over-greased cafeteria food provided by the school.
Carolyn sits at her desk, forehead touching the tabletop. I ask her what’s wrong.
She rolls her head to the side and says in a breathy whimper, “My chest hurts.”
“Sit up and let me see.” I touch her shoulder lightly, three fingers—a subtle, I’m here. Her body shakes slightly.
She straightens in her seat and lay her hands left over right above her heart. “Something’s itchy in my skin,” she cries, then crouches over once more.
“Take slow deep breaths,” I say, and she does. “You’re just tired from playing during recess.” The tears stop, but she’s sick. I’ll call her mom during naptime. I should call the funeral home during naptime, too. We’ll have to put off the funeral at least for a couple days. Anne and her family need time to fly across the ocean. She knew Mom was sick when she moved two years ago. Of course, she wasn’t as sick as she was in the end. But, still, sick enough that Anne should’ve stayed state-side.
I have a strict rule. No insects during lunch. But, today, I catch Mark and Christopher exchanging ant bodies and mantis heads. They are having fun squishing the parts together and I don’t stop them. Today is not the day for rebuke and punishment. Lunch is thirty minutes, then it’s a thirty-minute nap, and after nap time, Social Studies: categorizing the relationships within the families of bugs. What is the hierarchy within the colony? The Species? Do silverfish follow a matrilineal descent? My own lunch is left-over pasta from two days ago. It’s one of the first recipes I learned from watching Mom cook. I left my silverware at home. But I might have a spare fork somewhere in my desk drawers. The drawer screeches when I pull it open.
“Mrs. C, Rosanne threw up,” Julie says and she’s right. Rosanne’s desk is right in front of mine. Carrots mix with half-eaten carrots.
There are not enough paper towels by our sink, and I have to rummage through our supply closet to find more, but I get Rosanne cleaned up enough, and lay her down on her mat. Two parents to call during naptime. That’s almost a record. Everyone finishes their lunches while I clear Rosanne’s desk. I disinfect the whole thing, use up almost a whole bottle. The sick smell still lingers, but now it’s lemon-scented. I’m not going to have time to eat my own lunch today. That’s nothing new. I’m not hungry.
“Mrs. C, I can’t feel my leg,” Davie says. He leans on Melissa’s desk, his hands sticky with dirt. He didn’t wash after recess.
“It’s probably just asleep, Davie,” I say.
“But I can’t move it. See.” Davie stands straight and his right leg buckles under him. I catch him and promise him that his leg is just asleep.
“Lay down and the rest of your body will catch up.” I walk him to his mat on the carpet behind the desks and tuck his blanket around him. The placement of blue mats and sloppily-folded blankets span the alphabet. Davie sleeps between the letter ‘A’ and ‘Z.’
Mellissa asks me if she can nap with her spider skeletons and Mark and Christopher overhear. So, I say that today, and today only, everyone can sleep with their insects. I turn on the music. Always forest sounds: nature’s symphony, string quartet and all. I tried once to play acoustic covers of classics and no one slept a wink. I have a night-light at my desk, a lamp I never used from the guest room in my house. We have no windows in our cramped trailer and other than the lamp, our room is dark and filled with the calls of insects.
The day is half over, and I want nothing more than to take a nap myself. I want to shed my clothes, slip into my bed, and sleep as long as I can. At my desk, I lay my head down. Two parents and the funeral home to call. After naptime, I’ll let the kids color the afternoon away. After today, they deserve it. They can trace their insects and create stories in crayon. Green cricket legs for grass. A million yellow fly eyes for the sun. Tree bark of cicada skin. Petals of butterfly wings on flowers made of caterpillars. Amalgams of beauty. I’ll hang them on the wall of our new hallway once the renovations are done. Give the kids something of theirs to revel in, pieces of themselves galleried, so they can stop on the way to and from with parents and offer dialogue on the importance of insect-hood.
I call the funeral home first and whisper questions about the timeline of everything. Mom’ll be ready for the casket in three days. The headstone is already there above Dad; her name will be added. There’s a chance of rain so they’ll put up a tent. The funeral director gives me a number for a priest, who answers prayerfully. I introduce myself. He says, “Everything’s taken care of. Nothing’s changed since we last spoke.”
At first, I think it’s a mistake, but then, I realize. Anne. I want to be mad. It is infuriating to think that after all I’ve been worrying, Anne would go and do this. Fix everything. But, I let myself think, this is her helping. This is the least she could do. I thank the Father and say goodbye.
The next track of forest sounds begins: xylophone rain ascending and descending. It’s six hours ahead in Ireland, dinnertime in Dublin. Anne and her family will be cozied up around their table. I make the other phone calls. Rosanne’s mother doesn’t answer, but I reach her dad. He’ll be here as soon as he can. Carolyn’s grandmother will be here in two hours which is basically the end of the day. I’ll let Carolyn sleep the rest of the afternoon.
Then, I dial Anne’s number. She answers on the first ring.
“Ruthie,” she says.
“Annie,” I answer. It is loud on her end. The line is half static. “Where are you?”
“At the Dublin airport. Heading your way. Flight leaves in two hours.”
I hear a tiny voice ask for water, “Mama,” and then her sister adds “M&M, please.” I wait for Gary’s voice to intervene, but instead Anne hushes her daughters. Before I can say anything about the Father, Anne speaks.
“Mom loved you,” Anne takes a breath that spans the Atlantic, “Mom loved you best.”
I don’t know how to respond. It’s absurd. Something that should be said at the passing of your parents, sentiment-filled, but empty, and yet, I can hear the unexpected weight in Anne’s voice. I see Mom’s oak vanity, doily topped and lined with Anne’s and my school pictures. I was dressed in whatever I found that morning. Anne is pinned curls and stiff, starched dresses. Anne’s smile screams.
“I’ll see you in eleven hours,” she says.
I manage a quiet, “You, too,” and the line is silent.
The music has ended. My watch tells me that naptime is over, but in the darkness, no one stirs on their mats. For a moment, there is stasis.
When the lights come up, the mats are full of crawling things. Tiny, small things. A butterfly flutters circles where Julie slept; a cricket scratches its legs in Davie’s place; a fly twitches on Nadia’s blanket; a caterpillar slinks where Carolyn dreamed; a red ant hisses where Mark drooled; a praying mantis poses atop Christopher’s shoes; a cicada sings where Rosanne tossed and turned; a spider spins a web over Melissa’s mat; and, where Lee lay, now a cockroach scurries. They cry out, but their bugspeak is indiscernible. I can’t understand anything they say. Loud chirps and screeches drone and buzz all around me. I imagine this is how Mom must’ve felt after her stroke. Maybe this was the problem all along: Mom and I spoke to each other on different frequencies, in different sounds, unable to translate each other to each other.
I make a hammock out of the bottom of my shirt, pick the bugs up one by one, and nestle all my little insects against myself. I cradle them in my lap until their parents come to hear their cries, swelling inescapable. This, this is Social Studies.
Jessica Love is a graduate of the Fiction MFA program from Columbia College Chicago. She’s bartended, adjunct instructed, wrestled pigs, and, currently, teaches high school English. She lives in Memphis, Tennessee with her husband, their dachshund, and her many, many dying houseplants. Her work has appeared in Fiction Southeast, Your Impossible Voice, Psychopomp Magazine, and elsewhere.