A farmer had two Volkswagen Beetles, both of them white with spreading rust trim and not a running board between them. He’d interchanged their parts so many times in his efforts to keep at least one of them running, now, neither one would start. Their driving days were over. Hoping to find some cheap replacement parts, the farmer clomped out to get the morning paper, but found only a pamphlet someone had left beneath a stone on his porch:
LIFE IS AN ECHO: YOU REAP WHAT YOU SOW
“Must be a good day to plant cars then,” he said. But long after his laughter died, the idea remained, tenacious as a spider in its web. If he could coax corn from a field full of rocks, why not?
That settled it.
The farmer hitched the cars to his tractor, dragged them to a pasture where only stones and witch grass grew, and sprinkled a little manure for luck.
The cars, who had traveled each other’s distances through their shared parts, did not understand why their owner had abandoned them. The wind howled through their broken windows and the long, dried grass hissed through their rusted floorboards. Huddled together, they comforted each other through the long winter with the music of long silences, the memories of engines stalled, the ghosts of radiators past.
When spring came, a hundred gray spiders landed on the old cars’ hoods.
The spiders weren’t car shoppers but refugees, tiny aeronauts borne on the wind. Whisked away after the walls of their little world erupted, the vastness of the new world frightened them. When they landed on the cars, the spiders liked what they saw. Solid ground! Safe at last! Halleluiah!
The cars, thrilled to be useful again, welcomed the spider family. The spiders, having hatched from the same egg sac, were blood relatives, but neither they nor the cars minded. No problem in this world has ever been able to cite “inbred arachnid DNA” as its root cause. At night, the old cars sheltered the spiders from the wind and rain. In the morning, dewdrops caught in the spiders’ webs sparkled like a million tiny circus lights; and the spiders, exceptional aerialists, performed gravity-defying feats to the cars’ delight.
As I write this, the Children I Forgot to Have are looking over my shoulder.
“This story is stupid,” says my daughter. Today her name is Eleanor. She was Lucinda yesterday, Octavia the day before that, and tomorrow, for all we know, she might rechristen herself Wheezie-Gidget or Burpelina. She says it’s only fair on account of her having never been born.
She’s never forgiven me for that.
“Is not,” says my son, Carl Louie David, who’s named after all the boys I loved who never loved me back. Sensing yet another round of unborn sibling rivalry, I hunker down at my computer and keep writing:
The rain dribbled into the dark crevasse between the cars, an alley littered with the husks of dead insects and dragonfly wings. The spiders scattered husks as busily as the farmer scattered seeds. Corn or dragonflies, all dreamed of bumper crops…
“You can’t grow dragonflies,” Eleanor says, stubbing an accusatory finger against the screen. “That’s a lie.”
“Not if it’s part of the story.” Carl Louie David pulls her pigtails. “You just don’t know how to believe.”
“This room reeks of intention,” she says, pulling away from him. “But it’s not real; neither are you.”
He shrugs. “I’m as real as I want to be.”
Carl Louie David is my favorite. If I tell Eleanor, maybe she’ll think twice before ruining another of her Un-Mother’s dragonfly gardens.
The spiders with bodies like fat, dark tears hang in their webs and are lulled to sleep by the summer breeze. They walk in the spider dreamlands and leave no footprints.
When it rains, the spiders crawl inside the cars and warm themselves in the gasoline-scented shadows of neglect.
A family of wasps tried building a nest in one of the car seats once.
“Hey, Mom?” Carl Louie David puts his chin on my shoulder and does that thing with his jaw that sends a jolt down my arm. “Do spiders dream of driving?” He makes racecar sounds: engines revving, tires squealing. Around and around and around the spiders go, left turning into infinity, racing to win a cup from which none of them will ever drink. Helmetless, unbelted, they hit the wall at warp speed. Their gray bodies shatter and scatter, mingling with the track’s dust and discarded debris.
Still muttering, Eleanor rechristens herself Master Lucy and exacts disdain upon a circle of nameless dolls. Nameless, because nothing good ever lasts: Barbie head, meet Smaug body—the distance between Malibu and Middle Earth a short, sharp snap. Inquisitorial ghosts marvel at Master Lucy’s outrageous alchemy, while the disembodied heads of the unfortunate, trapped in her purgatory of injustice, proffer mute, shocked stares.
“Maybe the spiders dream of eating the drivers.” Carl Louie David makes deeply disturbing slurping sounds.
“One of your stupid spiders just barged into my laboratory—and now it’s all over my shoe!”
“So call the janitor.”
“That’s you,” says Master Lucy, her voice a bony finger jabbing between my ribs.
I throw a box of tissues at her head. Bye-bye, baby teeth!
In the field, a crow flies through the web town, the strands strung with carnival dew. The spiders mend their shattered skeins without complaint.
“Howcum you nehwer writta grocewy wist?” Not-so-Masterful Lucy says through the wad of bloody Kleenex. “Weer outta shlokat miilk.”
I wait for Carl Louie David to chime in, but he’s upstairs. I can hear him rummaging around the room I can’t use for sleep. Too many boxes haunt it. I hope he’ll find something worth keeping. “Only real children drink chocolate milk.”
Eleanor storms off. “You’re the worst mother I never had!”
One day, a woman found the web town in the field where only stones and witch grass grew. She took a jar out of her backpack, trapped one of the spiders, and screwed the lid down tight. “My students will love you,” she said.
The spider tried to free itself, but the sides of that jar were as slippery as ice.
The woman, who taught earth science, took the spider to school and set it on a window ledge. Next to its jar was one that housed a single bumblebee. “This spider is going to feature prominently in our experiment next week,” she told her class.
For days, the spider stared through the jar and the window. This was not its home; the children who pressed their dirty faces against the glass were not its family. The spider refused to eat, refused to weave a web.
“This spider’s broken,” one student said.
The teacher put the bumblebee in the spider’s jar.
Until then, spider and bee, mortal enemies, had lived in adjacent jars on the same shelf. Through the curved walls of their identical prisons, the spider that would not spin and bee that would not buzz reached out to one another with their minds, until a single idea sparked on the invisible tether of their shared loneliness.
Survivor: Earth Science ended in murder-suicide.
“Sweetheart, what’s for dinner?” asks the Husband I Forgot to Marry, a man who doesn’t look like my father, my ex-boyfriends, or any man I’ve ever met: he looks like what having a husband feels like.
“You promised to take the kids out for pizza.”
He sighs, stale cigarettes and whiskey. “But I wanted to watch the game tonight.”
“I’m sure you’ll find the time,” I say, noting a smudge of something red on his collar. “For children, pizza… everything.”
After he’s gone, I miss the kiss he didn’t give me.
In the field, the spiders have mended their webs again. They swing in the wind, singing their spider songs.
A man and a woman are walking through the field. Summer’s gone; the grass is long and dry. As the woman walks, its withered blades scratch a love poem across her bare thighs. “Look at all those spiders. We should take a picture.” She pulls out her cell phone.
She’s always calling them “We” and it makes him uncomfortable.
She loves photography and tells herself that one day, she’ll just take pictures for a living. Once she’s famous, she’ll dump this loser whose car smells like stale pizza and date a rock star.
“Kneel down and shoot up the gap between them,” he says.
“Cool! They’re in silhouette.” She hands him her cell phone.
The spiders hang in the wind, saying nothing. The man and woman are too big for them to eat. They’ve never had their pictures taken before. They don’t know how to be celebrities.
“I bet I could sell it to a magazine,” she says.
“I just posted it on Facebook.” He waggles the phone at her. “I bet we’ll get a thousand hits!”
“We? What’s this We shit?” She glares at him. “That was my picture!”
Thunder rumbles, echoing in the space between them. Rain falls. The spiders scurry inside the cars. The man and woman run.
Everyone runs for cover but the man on the porch and the young women in the bright red VW. They’ve come to the farmhouse bearing good news: the world should be ending any minute now! No time to dawdle, get drunk, or screw, the Creator’s about to manifest his Great Plan! A handful of lucky winners will grab immortality’s brass ring, while all those other sorry buggers will crash and burn. The harvest is at hand: it’s a great day for schadenfreude!
The farmer reaches behind his rocking chair, recalling the words on their last pamphlet:
LIFE IS AN ECHO…
Truly. The prophet Remington agrees. Namaste, ramma-lamma-ding-dong—KA-BLAM!—Papa’s reaped a brand new Bug!
Blood and rain collect in shallow pools on the lawn.
The farmer fires up his tractor.
Beneath the eaves, another egg sac bursts.
The wind moans…
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