Teaching June Bugs to Swim

March 1, 2008 at 6:51 pm (Skrifa) (, , )

Momma found her, like she found all of us, and took her in, and kept mum about her, and the rest of us. It wasn’t like Momma was breaking any laws by taking us in; I think one of us may have even been the Sheriff’s, over in town; but you only learn what you hear, and my ears were too small to catch all that was being said, if you get me, anyway, if one of us was the Sheriff’s, that one wouldn’t have been the Sheriff’s wife’s, no-how. It may have been Sarah, it may have been Baby, or Miranda; it may even have been me. I was told, not in so many words, that Momma was doing the town a service; what I knew was that for Momma, it was a labor of love.
Anyway, back to Sarah; she’s the reason I’m telling this story, to keep her in my mind. She was so spindly that Momma used to say that she had to tuck the ends of her overalls into her shoes to keep the pant cuffs from swallowing her toes. She had a thin face, engulfed by dark hair, unless she pulled it back, in which case her nose and mouth suddenly leapt into relief. She wore old two-toned shoes and flowered blouses. The heat of a perpetual summer shone out of her skin, even when she was dead. She smelled like sweet grass and haymaking, and of the cricks out in our little patch of the backwoods.
Her eyes were the color of overripe strawberries, a deep gentle, juicy brown. She let the sky watch over her when the heat was up, baking herself golden like a true flower child, but she never spoke of politics, or peace, or love. Well, she never spoke, but if you knew her, you would get to know what she did next, because she was a drifty kind of person, efficient, but slow.
She made kaleidoscopes, with bits of shiny foil and paper tubes, and hung them up in our house by long bits of cotton string, reachable even by the little ‘uns. She hung them by the windows; Miranda pretended they were telescopes, that would let her see into distant places. Baby always used to grin and remark on this, in his own kind way.
She could also milk cows and tend chickens, but Baby did not like her to work too much. He said her hands were too fine for grunt work. She was good at milking; she whispered to the cows, but not too low, because cows don’t like snakes and if you hiss at them the milk will sure as anything go sour. The chickens followed her like a messiah; she multiplied grain like loaves and little fishes. Whenever I did the chickens I always managed to scatter less grain than she, though we both started with the same grit in a paper sack. I used to watch her run, because she could run like anything and Momma often sent her lolloping after the cows when they decided that Miss May’s farm over yonder was tastier than here.
Baby fished her out of the river after the storm. We can’t say much more’n that. We all went to bed, and said our prayers, and she was gone by the time the lightning hit the tree outside the farmhouse.

Miranda loved to crawl in the small spaces and tell stories in her quiet, little voice. She would tell me of things long past, when knights and ladies still roamed the kingdoms out back. She used to mix cows and chickens in with the stories, so that the privilege of being a prince was not mucking out the barn. Her stories kept me in thrall; because of Miranda, my childhood suddenly became a fairy-tale. Even though she was so much smaller than me, she held some sort of mystical sway, a pigtailed swami, constantly sticky from the vast amounts of thick cut orange marmalade she consumed.
Now, this all happened when I was six or seven, so maybe Miranda’s stories mixed up in it all, anyway, I’ll tell you how it went, the only exciting thing ever to happen here.
This farm has a history of boredom, one which it proudly nails up over the porch, for all to see. My granddaddy (well, Momma’s daddy) got so stir crazy he used to try n’ teach June bugs to swim in his water glass. They’d get waterlogged and he’d dry them out before they drowned, with a corner of his checkered handkerchief. Momma told me about that, cause granddaddy died in the War, when he was still young, too young to die, only just thirty. I tried to make the June bugs do cannonballs in the water but they just bobbed at the surface, upside down, waving their legs like ship signals. I guess granddaddy never succeeded in making them do the breaststroke.
I can’t remember in what year, or on what day exactly this story really happened, but I do recall that we had just had what momma sarcastically called “the Reckoning”: good old-fashioned, Noah’s Ark type weather, which was usually in October. Anyway, on that night, Miranda woke me up at about half-past three in the morning, a good two hours before Baby got up and milked the cows.
Unless my memory is mistaken, she was wearing a floppy straw hat that fell over her eyes and about seven pairs of underwear, and she had pulled a pair of Baby’s firecracker-red woollen socks all the way up under her skirt. She poked me in the arm and shoved something very slimy and smelly, covered in cheesecloth, into my hands. I dropped it onto my quilt and rolled over, brushing her away with my fist. She poked me again with her fat finger and handed the slimy thing to me. I sat up and held it in my hands, looking at her with that perceptiveness kids can get before they forget how.
“Do I have to carry it?”
“Yep. ‘N git dressed! Momma’ll hear us. Be quiet.”
We took the old cheese that Miranda had been storing under the porch and crept up to the attic. She was just a bit too little for the stairs; Baby made them to his own scale. I had to wait for her at the top, not daring to offer help, watching her hoist herself up with both hands on the banister. She got to the landing and took the cheese from my hands, cradling the hulking bundle in her arms because otherwise she’d drop it.
Baby was of indeterminate age; a boy momma picked up on the road when he was nine or ten perhaps and then raised. She called him her baby, baby. He was huge, and gangly, and quite a disciplinarian when we were being too big for our britches. His bedroom was at the top of the landing, and so we crept along, convinced of our quietness, not wanting to have our bottoms tanned. In reality, we must have sounded ridiculous; Miranda, by virtue of being five, thought whispering was just talking without the music; she sounded like every young child when it attempts to whisper: really loud. She shoved the old cheese into my hands and crouched down to talk to me (like Momma would do), but I was taller than she, and so it seemed like she was pep-talking the line of ants marching purposefully across the floor-boards towards the bathroom, where the soap must have been dropped. I never understood why ants eat soap; sure, it’s got glycerine in it, but they must have funny tastes, because pork-fat soap sure doesn’t taste like bacon (I tried it).
Miranda said: “You have to buck up, Charlie. We have to do this for her. She told me to look-out for her, and if she didn’t come back, to tell Momma.”
“Miranda, she don’t talk.”
Miranda sniffed, self-importantly. “She talks to me.”
“Yeah? How?”
“I know what she wants.”
“Yeah, well I’m older n’ you, and I say she don’t talk to you.”
“And I say she do.”
“What’re we doin’ up here, anyway?”
“She wanted me to look for her; she says she was in trouble. The ogre got her, now, he got her. This time every week. She’s a Princess. She has to go to the ogre every week, until a Prince can break the spell. And she said, don’t tell Momma. Momma wouldn’t believe, anyhow.”
“We watchin’ from the skylight?”
“Yeah. This…” and here she shoved the very fragrant cheese into my nose, “…is fer food.”
“What about to drink?”
“Don’t be addle-brained, Charlie. We won’t need to drink. It’s only until the cock crows we have to watch.”
This childhood logic made less sense to me at seven than it would have at Miranda’s age, but as you may have guessed, Miranda’s personality was like a whirlwind; at present she was only a little dust-devil, a zephyr blowing on the corn tops, but she would grow into a typhoon of a woman, that was for sure. So, I didn’t press the point.
For reasons still mysterious to me, I was commissioned to hold the cheese while Miranda, as stealthily as she could, manipulated the squeaky doorknob to the attic. I guess she was in charge, and wanted to seem less scared than me. I think she needed someone to be more scared than her, because otherwise she wouldn’t be able to go through with it. I remember the attic always gave me the willies after that night, and I’m sure it would still, forty years on.
The attic was a mess, but only because the space in it was over-used. Momma, the perfect constitution to keep five kids and a young man in check, was the soul of order. She kept everything of importance, and perhaps some things that weren’t so important to us but were to her, in that attic. It was stacked high with every type of container and carton under the sun; it weren’t easy to get made-to-order boxes where we were, and so Momma was forced to keep her precious things stored in orange crates and her momma’s jewellery in tin cans.
Granddaddy built Momma a window seat, under the huge skylight in the attic, so she could look out over the wood that afforded protection to our little house from the elements, and so that he could play with June bugs while watching the sky for bombers, hoping he wouldn’t get drafted. At present there were old gingham cushions on the window seat, and luckily for us, the night was clear.
After your eyes got used to the dark, you could see the backyard, the chicken coop, and the dark line of trees from the skylight. There was a path, through the trees, over the crick, that led to the road, a mile or so distant, and it was this that Miranda instructed me to watch.
I half believed her, that there was an ogre, and that Miranda had been instructed to look over Sarah. I know that Miranda would never lie to me. I know now that what must have happened was that Miranda, excited by a nightmare, had come to the attic to sit, and that was when she saw something that scared her. The attic was her refuge; she made up all her legends on the gingham cushions, using her kaleidoscope telescope to see neighboring kingdoms. Miranda had seen something that had scared her, and she had come back every night since to watch for it. When it happened again, the next week, she resolved to take me along the following week, so that, like I said, she would have someone to be more scared than her.
I don’t think Sarah would have spoken to her actually, but Miranda was keen-eared enough to hear words unspoken, especially if she heard them in the place where she wove stories, especially if she heard them at night, after a bad dream. I have comforted Miranda after a bad dream, and let me tell you, talking to her was an experience I never could compare anything to, until I saw a man having a bad LSD trip, when I was much older, and even then, he was an adult; he had done it to himself, and deserved what he got. Miranda, on the other hand, was a victim of her own imagination, and especially when she was young, it surrounded her and almost ate her alive sometimes.
She wasn’t imagining this, though; I was sure of that. Something had scared her, and bad, too. I put the cheese down by the window seat, downwind, so that I wouldn’t be distracted by it, and stared out of the glass, straining my eyes to see. Miranda clambered up beside me, and reassured me that I wouldn’t have missed anything; what we were watching for was regular as clockwork, at five minutes to four, or thereabouts; Miranda hadn’t ever thought to bring a clock, just knew at what time she had got up, the first time she saw it.
She was right, too. My eyes had adjusted well enough to the dark by the time something happened, but when I saw the first movement in the trees, they overcompensated, real quick. I saw it all, crystal clear. When the brush rustled first, I was convinced, for the longest second of my life, that there was an ogre in the trees. He would be the color of hog shit, all draped over with moss and pine needles, and he would have a girl’s leg in one hand, like a piece of chicken, and a huge greasy lump of cornbread in the other. He would be looking for dripping, to dip his food in; he would find me and Miranda, and make sauce from our bones.
A slim white arm flashed out from the trees. It was Sarah. I looked at Miranda in relief, but she was wide-eyed, not relieved. The arm was followed by her dark head, and finally, all of her. She wasn’t moving with the kind of grace you expected from her; she sort of staggered across the grass. And then she stopped, to tie her shoe. She bent down like an old woman with shaking-sickness; I bet she had trouble gripping the laces.
I wanted to ask Miranda what Sarah would do next, as though everything she did was part of some ritual that Miranda knew by heart: next, she’ll scratch her nose, on the left side, and then, she’ll tighten her belt by one hole, and then, she’ll hop on one foot, until she gets to the chicken coop, and then…
I saw that the moonlight was making her skin white as a ghost. I became convinced that this was not the same girl I knew. This was Night-Sarah, in the thrall of magic, freeing Day-Sarah from entrapment in a cell. Maybe Night-Sarah talked; Whole-Sarah had split in two, and her Night-Self needed her voice, to incant magic spells, and call for help. Day-Sarah need just be happy; no need to talk to those who already understand you; so she had given up her voice to her unhappier, weaker Night-Self.
Up until now, everything she did was ordinary, which I found frightening in its own right. I mean, you’re not supposed to care about whether your shoe is tied right or not when it’s cold out and you’re dressed in a thin shirt, you’re staggering around as though drunk as a skunk, and you’re a thirteen year old girl returning home from god-knows-where at four o’clock in the morning. But then, after only four steps across the grass, she bent down and untied the very same shoe, and pulled it off.
She did the same with her other shoe. And then, both socks. She unbuckled her belt, tossed it on the ground. Then her jeans, and her shirt came off. Her skin, lit by the faint glow of the porch light and the moon, glowed a white that blended her into the rest of the night; she looked like a silver birch hit by moonlight rather than a person. I became more convinced than ever that this was Night-Sarah. Day-Sarah was golden, her sunburned back the color of red corn.
She was wearing underpants, and nothing else. This did not seem shameful to us; the situation was so unfamiliar, we wouldn’t have been ashamed had she sacrificed a chicken on a makeshift altar, fashioned from the woodpile, to some hoary night-god. She gathered her clothes, and walked to the pump, dropping her clothes in a pile next to it, not caring that they landed in the mud. She stood there for a brief moment, then stripped off her underpants and added them to the pile.
Then, she turned on the pump, and began to wash. She washed everything, starting with her hair, and her face, in between each finger, in between each toe, even though they were smeared in mud from the pump-puddle. She washed in between her legs; this she took a really long time to do. She even stopped in the middle of it, to reach for the soap hung up on a nail on a post next to the pump. She looked, to me, like a water nymph, replenishing her life, not shivering in the cold, because she could not feel it.
Beside me, Miranda was obviously feeling as confused and scared as I was. We felt that this was not something for us to see. Maybe that was why Miranda included the part about not telling Momma; maybe that was why I believed that Sarah wouldn’t have wanted us to tell Momma.
Sarah picked up her clothes, leaving her pants and shoes behind, and walked, naked, to the bare patch of earth next to the chicken coop where the soil was fouled because of chicken waste. She dumped her clothes down there, and walked around the side of the house, I presume to the garden shed. She was gone for a short while; Miranda didn’t move, and so I kept watching.
She came back with a red can, the one I recognised as Momma’s lawn-mower gasoline, sprinkled her clothes, and set the can down beside her. In her shoe, she found a small square object, and fiddled with it until she had a small flame. She threw the cardboard match onto her clothes, which burnt readily enough, being cotton soaked in gasoline, and watched, buck naked, as her clothes were quickly reduced to black scraps and a burn mark on the soil. The brief but intense light from the clothes slid over the bright red gas-can in a way that really unnerved me; it didn’t touch Sarah, either. She stayed pale and ghostly; the bright light of the fire didn’t reach her because she was Night-Sarah; the moon was her mother. When her clothes stopped burning, she put on one of her shoes, and scuffed the ground where the fire had been, to cover the burn mark.
“Miranda, she’s got no clothes! We should take her something…”
Miranda shook her head, and I understood. If we revealed that we were watching to Night-Sarah, she would vanish; the wind would blow through her and she would be dispersed, like smoke. Besides, she didn’t feel the cold.
I was still enthralled with what I was seeing when I felt Miranda crawl down from the window-seat. She picked up the cheese, which, surprisingly, we hadn’t touched, and began to walk towards the attic door.
“She’s just going to return the red can and go inside, Charlie.”
“But what can we do?”
Miranda, for the first time, looked truly puzzled. “I don’t know, Charlie. She needs a Prince to break the spell. Until then, she don’t want us to tell, I know.”
“What about Baby?”
Miranda handed me the cheese, and reached with her foot for the first step on the staircase, using both hands to lower herself. “He’s not a Prince, Charlie.”
I followed her down, craning my neck to the left and right to see around the cheese. “We need to find one, or else tell Momma.”
She looked up at me, from a step or two below me. “If we can’t find a Prince, we’ll tell Momma. Okay?”

We had another storm, in mid-November. The old oak tree next to the house, one that had been there before the land had been cleared for our farm, lost a limb in that storm, due to lightning. Of course, this wasn’t what killed Sarah. Maybe she wanted out of her magic spell once and for all, maybe she got pregnant. Maybe the ogre didn’t want her anymore, and tossed her away like so much trash. We never knew who the ogre was, suffice to say he wasn’t anyone I knew, and I never entertained theories about who he was; those wouldn’t have gotten me anywhere. I never knew how Miranda, in her small way, had got to the heart of what was going on; maybe she understood more of what she heard than I did, but that would mean that Momma knew what was going on, which she didn’t. Some time after, I found some money of Sarah’s, more than Momma had ever given her to buy food and clothes, but I don’t like to speculate where it was from; I know well enough. It was in an envelope labelled in Sarah’s round and happy writing, simply: Abroad.
We grew up, and I began to realise that Miranda’s voracious imagination would claim many lives over the span of her life; not the least being her own. Miranda would always be victim to it, it would shape this event and others, so that all she remembered would be nightmares. I eventually told Momma what happened, and she wept, and wished that Miranda and I could eventually forgive ourselves, because we were children, and knew not what we saw, but I knew that if Miranda hadn’t understood so well what was happening, it wouldn’t have been this way. Maybe if she hadn’t known so much, maybe if she hadn’t seen Sarah’s shame shining out through her like a beacon, maybe it would have been different, but I can’t change what happened, and I can’t live my life thinking about that. I am not ashamed, and neither is Miranda.
I was there when Baby fished her out of the water, with his own two hands, and I remember thinking that the water-nymph he had found was Night-Sarah, dead at last, and that Day-Sarah had been set free from her magic, this farm, us, our small life, and the endless, eternal, fields of bright, waving corn.


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