The barber-striped blades of the level crossing fell and, one breath later, civilisation fired past like a bullet from a gun. I waited, Rum tensed at my side, and then continued on, releasing the extension lock on his lead, the swish of his ribboned tail communicating his pleasure at this small freedom. At the crest of the road, I stepped, and Rum bounced, over the sagged section of fence wire and into the field. The land lay fallow, my Hunters squelching in the waterlogged grooves of the soil, dull and lifeless in the shadow of the fir forest. On rare summer days, when heat distorted the air into ruffled fabric, the line of firs shifted and undulated, an emerald curtain revealing another world – which, for me, it did. Every morning, I came to learn more about its indigenous race of insects – gods of nothing, my husband called them – while Rum conquered the undergrowth with a raised hind leg, each of us in our element. My latest academic paper was on the Andrena fulva – the tawny mining bee – due for publication in the forthcoming volume of Entomologist’s Gazette. I never used to believe that I had the intellectual capacity for science, but time taught me that brains came second to commitment and, after six years married to Paul, I was more committed to my work than ever.
Rum galloped – Gordon Setters are horses in canine bodies – through bog myrtle with destructive elegance. I shushed at him as I watched a chequered skipper alight on a patch of stair-step moss. To the inexperienced eye, a butterfly is no more than a passing flutter of colour, bright and delicate, a pretty nothing, like sugar paper origami; the moss, an ugly cancerous splotch. Look closer, look deeper, and both are greater: the butterfly, the pterodactyl of its peers; the moss, a primordial jungle as vast as the Mongolian-Manchurian steppe. Entomology sets you apart from other people: you capture flies and transfer them to glass slides and everyone else bludgeons them with rolled up Metros.
I often felt that I was in between species, half-belonging to that which I was born and half to that which I loved. Maybe one morning I’d wake up with a stinger and I could fuck Paul for a change. Wouldn’t that be something? God knew it would make a change from his semi-flaccid roving. His desire for me had become desperately forced ever since the GP had broken the news to us that I could never have a child. For Paul, an essential part of my muliebrity was missing; as if I’d somehow deceived my sex, and him. Traitor. Black Widow.
Rum rushed by, a black-and-tan blur, sending the skipper into flight. I chided him, without conviction, as I put him back on his lead. It had started to rain, anyway, that cruel Scottish brand that made the puddles bubble: the day was lost.
Paul chewed his ribeye and glanced at his wife across the kitchen table. Yeah, they ate dinner at the kitchen table. Maybe country living predisposed you to eating in a cleaner environment instead of dripping grease in front of the television like a city slicker. Whatever. The world was split into slobs and closet slobs. He disliked sitting here because it jacked the tension and general misery. Sometimes, on darker days, he wished she would ask him for a divorce, but she seemed so…so milquetoast – he remembered spying that word in one of those self-indulgent novels she read – as if she wasn’t really there; lights on, no one home, stop by later.
‘Did you find any good bugs?’ he asked, sawing away on his broccoli stem.
‘You don’t need to feign interest for my sake, Paul.’
‘Maybe it’s for both our sakes,’ he said, hoping to rouse her a little, but she didn’t respond.
Or did she consider herself above asking for a divorce? His biggest fear, his deepest suspicion, was that his wife had settled for him because his job resulted only in calloused hands and not a calloused brain. Blue-collar riffraff, good for DIY, fucking and little else. And, now, not even fucking. The fault was hers. A kid would have been their compromise, the truce that every marriage needs. Without one, it was him versus her, polar opposites, chalk and cheese, moon and sun. After half a dozen years with the same woman, screwing had to have a bigger payoff. But she couldn’t give him that.
It wasn’t the same. It wasn’t a puppy. He wanted flesh and blood of his own; Christ, surely there were worse vanities to possess? The atmosphere had soured further when she found out he had been browsing a surrogacy matchmaking website. Paul figured she would have understood. Hell, her bugs existed for procreation.
‘Not eating?’ He nodded at her untouched plate.
‘Why don’t you feed it to the dog?’
‘I’ll just bin it.’
‘That’s good ribeye.’
‘We can afford it, Paul.’
‘You can afford it, you mean.’
Again, ignored, no bait taken. After all, she was his intellectual superior. Still, try he must. Ribeye and greens for two, with a side of hopeful goading, a prayer for cataclysm to bring catharsis. Eat up. He forked his last piece of steak into his mouth, sipped his Shiraz. The taste was off. Paul knuckled his eyes, while his wife got up and scraped her dinner into the bin.
I slipped out of bed and dressed in whatever came to hand. Paul had succumbed to deep sleep an hour ago, too fatigued to muster a passable erection. I felt a slight guilt for spiking his drink, but it was a weak, perfunctory guilt. I was tired of his attempts to find me beautiful.
Rum stirred as I passed unevenly through the kitchen; my brain bobbing, like driftwood, on a sea of red wine. Alcohol wasn’t my forte, it hit me hard, but it was interesting in that my thoughts were lucid.
Go outside, commanded brain and body both, so I obliged them.
A pair of Laothoe populi – poplar hawk-moths – mated across the face of one of the level crossing lights, their furred abdomens haloed in an amber glow.
I wondered, as I trekked the deserted backroad, if my infertility had ever truly bothered me or if it was just Paul’s reaction to it. He was a simple man, and he wanted offspring. Fine. The problem wasn’t that I couldn’t deliver him a child, but that he was unable to accept that fact. It was bad luck, not a defect, and I point-blank refused to be held accountable for it. I could have left, but, as he was the one with the attitude problem, the responsibility lay with him. I didn’t want a child: they were disgusting and demanding and the world had enough of them. I wouldn’t selfishly add another even if I could have. My maternal instinct must have blown a fuse. Faulty goods, Paul might’ve said.
The night wind blew in long, soft sighs through the open fields, coaxing me into the wild and out of my clothes. I was in the forest now, at the mercy of inebriated instinct, Paul’s size 36 jeans pooling around my feet. The darkness was both private and liberating, a rare chance to be natural in nature, my crumpled blouse cast off like an exoskeleton. I stumbled, naked, into the best wilderness available to me, the potent musk of the firs strong in my nostrils, and it felt like going home. Things clicked and rustled, fidgeting voyeurs, perhaps, come to view this white giantess with her small freckled breasts and slackening stomach. I laid myself down where the bracken grew thickest and spread my arms and legs, like a child making a snow angel, and then remained still, waiting for the insects. I wondered how I might look to them, attached lengthways to the surface of their planet, reinvented, more than a middle-aged body – a grand plateau, a marble fortress, an entire continent.
The first to come was, of course, a hunter, a courageous Lithobius forficatus – common centipede – traversing the curve of my thigh on its many legs, coiling upon reaching my stomach, seemingly alarmed by the steady rise and fall. I tightened my muscles; the centipede relaxed.
And then something extraordinary happened.
A phalanx of ants marched over my left shoulder and headed down past my areola. The centipede, poised in self-defence around my navel, awaited them.
It began without pause or warning.
The two forces collided, north and south, a body divided. My body.
Bites and stings burned me, collateral damage.
They were fighting over me. I was wanted, I convinced myself, shuddering with sudden euphoria as life and death unfolded across my skin.
Breakfast, kitchen table, the usual. Paul sprinkled extra cinnamon on his porridge: you had to make it exciting, somehow. His head felt a little heavy, as if he was still short of sleep, yet he had conked out quite early the night before. Age, he reckoned. The only thing to do was fight it.
He finished his dregs, chased them down with a quick gulp of Earl Grey, and then leaned over his wife, who was still eating her own porridge.
‘I was so tired last night,’ he said, reaching into her nightgown and rubbing her nipple with the ball of his thumb. ‘But, as they sing on the record, it’s a new dawn…’
‘I’m not in the mood, Paul. Sorry.’
‘Are you ever?’
‘Don’t start – I’ve heard it all before.’
‘I think that answers my question, then, doesn’t it?’
Unexpected success, target hit, retaliation incoming. ‘What are you trying to prove? You can’t get me pregnant. You can’t get it up. And we both know the two are connected. So, what’s the point?’
‘At least I try.’
‘Do you? Not very hard.’ She paused, spoon halfway to her mouth. ‘No pun intended.’
‘You – cunt,’ he managed.
‘Tell me how you really feel.’
And he had considered her meek. Funny, he thought, how people can delude themselves about another person, even after years together. Yet, he did love her.
‘What do you want?’ he asked, tired all over again.
Rum moaned from the floor: walk me.
‘I want a stinger,’ she said. ‘I want wings, antennae, compound eyes.’
Paul took a deep breath. ‘I know it’s not your fault. I’m sorry.’
There. He said it. Did he mean it? No, but it was true: she couldn’t help the flaw in her design. She couldn’t help being a broken woman.
She looked at him, incredulous, and then she laughed: cold, short, bitter.
‘You think that’s what I meant? God, you’re clueless.’
‘Where are you going?’ he asked, watching her step over Rum.
‘I need to be alone. Take Rum for a walk, won’t you? You never do.’
The morning air smelled damp. I paused by the field to listen those drowsy male crickets whose impulse for a partner had lasted the night. Chirrup, chirrup: breed with me.
When it came to children, men always ended up caring more than women. Kings and nobles once harped on about how it must be a son, a fine baby boy; and, now, failed husbands around the globe wanted a mini-them, girl or boy, to affirm their raison d’être. Pathetic. It was so pathetic. How had I been able to stand Paul for as long as I had? Or myself, an impostor in a skin suit.
The insects. Of course, it had always been the insects, and their secret lives, that tethered me here. So few could see that, for all our genius, our social and emotional intelligence, our cunning, insects were, in fact, the ultimate creature. Long after human beings have perished by their own hand, the so-called gods of nothing would rise from the earth in their castles of dirt.
I walked, lost in this vision of a new world order, until I was no longer conscious of the steps that my feet took. I was in the forest, but no part of it that I knew. The trees hung, bearded and mythic, in the gloom. There was no life here…or none that announced itself.
I stopped. Before me, there stood a lone fir pine, craggier and hairier than the others. A vertical slit ran down the centre of its trunk, large enough for one adult person to enter. Old trees always set me on edge: it was like a face-off with god, had he existed.
There came a time – to call it a mid-life crisis was oversimplification – when why became why not, when you recognised the word consequence as a social construct, when you finally stopped caring.
I stepped up to the opening, and entered.
Half seven. Half fucking seven in the evening. Paul killed the TV, cutting off Buster Keaton mid-stunt. Where was she? He couldn’t concentrate. The dog was moaning. Jesus, when you stormed out on someone, you were meant to eventually come back. A commonplace female tactic used the world over and she couldn’t get that right, either. More than nine hours now. What sort of woman stayed out huffing longer than a Peter Jackson movie?
It isn’t a huff, not this time, and you know it.
Ah, the sinister voice of truth. If truth was a person, it would be a fucking pariah.
Cool it, he ordered himself. Cool it. Paul tried not to swear this much, not even in his head: it was too blue-collar; it was playing into her hands.
And where was she?
Had she done it…had she left him?
Neither of us has the guts, he reassured himself. A half dozen years married – why not a half dozen more?
But did he want that?
Yes and no. Probably more yes than no.
He loved her. He did, he did.
Alright, so she had dashed any hope of a real family, of him becoming the father he should have had, but he loved her, still.
‘I’ll prove it,’ he said aloud. ‘Come on, boy. Let’s go win back the princess.’
Paul locked up and set out. This wouldn’t be too hard. She as good as lived in those woods.
Rum yanked him forwards: quicker, quicker.
He must have caught her scent.
‘Good boy,’ said Paul, letting him off his lead. ‘Go, find.’
The dog bounded through the field and off into the trees.
It took Paul fifteen, twenty minutes to catch up with him: they were in deep.
‘What is it? What’s the matter? Stop that racket.’
Paul brushed past Rum, shushing at his barks. Then he heard a rustling sound.
Something crawled out of the crack in the old tree in front of him.
A beetle – black, bulbous, glistening.
No, it was too big for a beetle. Come to think of it, he was certain he had never seen a bug so big in his life. Christ, he thought, she’d have a field day if she saw this. He knelt and watched it creep over the pine needles.
When it had almost reached him, it stopped.
A strange idea, daft and disturbing, came to him: the idea that it was watching him, seeing him; really, truly seeing him. What the hell was this thing?
Enough. Enough of this.
‘It’s a bug,’ he said. ‘Just a fucking bug.’
And, to prove his point, he brought his heel down on it, sending a jet of entrails and bright red blood across the forest floor.
The bug was still twitching. Paul stomped on it a second time.
Rum quit barking.
Cupping his hands to his mouth, he called out through the falling silence:
‘Are you here, Ellen?’
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