by Sarah Curran
I initially didn’t believe that the bugs were coming to life because Todd told me first. He was sitting in his usual spot on the threadbare couch, watching Excalibur, which told me that it was three in the afternoon. I didn’t need to look at a clock to see the time. My brother-in-law’s afternoon rituals were almost as legendary as the Arthurian epic which served as his current obsession.
It was when the Lady of the Lake gave Arthur his sword that Todd turned to me and said, “They fly around at night, you know. I hear their wings.”
“What are you talking about, Todd?” My back was killing me, and so were my feet: pregnancy wasn’t really my strong suit, though I doubt most women feel like it is. Taking the laundry out in my new physical condition was already tough enough without listening to Todd’s ramblings.
He took a swig of beer and nodded knowingly. “It’s always between twelve and three—the witching hour,” he added, almost proudly.
The bugs were everywhere. Butterflies, some as big as my hand, had been pinned carefully to sturdy pieces of cardboard, along with praying mantises that Charlie had stored in the fridge and then dissected before piercing their wings with some tacks. Centipedes and millipedes were frozen in mid-trundle along the bookshelf in our living room. Fireflies had been glued to sticks and leaves elaborately designed to look like our backyard. What had started as a simple hobby had turned into a nightmare.
And now, Todd’s drunken spiels were only making things worse. “The bugs can’t come to life,” I said. “They’re dead. Some of them are missing their guts, for Christ’s sake.”
But he only shook his head before turning back to the T.V, the empty beer bottle soon joining its brethren on the end table.
Lugging the basket full of clothes upstairs, I found Charlie giving a tour of his collection to some kids from the neighborhood. He picked up a diorama of two mantises boxing each other. “I found these two duking it out on our front lawn,” he told the kids, smiling at their wide eyes and silent expressions. “Took me forever to collect them.”
“Can you tell the children how you got into collecting insects?” their mother asked. She was seemingly repulsed by Charlie’s collection, but summer was here, and the kids were no doubt rowdy and aching to go out and enjoy their few months off. Their mother probably figured showing them Charlie’s bugs would be both educational and give the children a chance to stretch their legs and exert some pent-up energy.
Plus, the bug tour was a decent source of income. Charlie’s obsession was quite Arthurian itself. People wanted to come over, not necessarily to see the bugs, but to see how crazy Bug-Man LeBlanc supposedly was.
Seeing the kids and their wondrous reaction to the insects made it worth it, though, at least for a little bit. The girl’s brown hair was in plaits with little red ribbons on the ends, while the boys had scuffed shoes and shirts with faded logos on them. They stared at the bugs as though they were looking at perfectly preserved dinosaur fossils. We didn’t know what we were having, wanting to keep it a surprise, but seeing the children made it feel more real. I imagined braiding my daughter’s hair, or buying new shoes for my son even though he liked the old worn-out ones better.
And, of course, the bugs would be a part of his or her life regardless. Instead of moons and planets and rockets on the mobile, it would be butterflies and bumblebees and ladybugs. The nursery walls were already a gender-neutral grasshopper-green. The stuffed animals were actually flowers, leaves and other things that bugs like the eat. Our baby wouldn’t be born for another three months, and already it was going to be obsessed with everything that crept and crawled.
I couldn’t bother to listen to Charlie’s response because I had heard it all before. How his grandfather had gotten him introduced to catching bugs in the swamp near their house, the same swamp where Charlie and Todd’s mother eventually drowned herself. Afterwards, Charlie’s zeal for bug-catching seemed to have taken a life of its own, no pun intended. I remember when we went on our first date, not to the movies or some fancy dinner, but to the Natural History Museum because they had a new exhibit on the scarabs of ancient Egypt. Charlie had been captivated by the bugs’ shiny blue-black backs, and I had been impressed that I had actually met a man who didn’t try to get up my skirt on our first romantic night out.
I don’t know why I stuck with him after that. I guess you can say he ensnared me in his web, though Charlie is way too docile to be compared to a spider of any kind. I guess you can really say that the baby became the spider, trapping us in a marriage that I’m not sure either of us wanted. Though somebody as red-necky as Todd would refer to it as a “shotgun wedding.”
As I hung up the clothes onto the line and pinned them on firmly, I caught sight of a luna moth sitting on the pile of shirts and shorts still thrown together into the cracked laundry basket. I don’t know much about bugs, but I know that moths are nocturnal, especially the ones with the fuzzy white bodies and translucent green wings. I reached down to pick up Todd’s work shirt from under the moth. Instead of flying away like I had hoped, it simply repositioned itself on my nightgown. Its feathery antennae moved slightly in the early-summer breeze. Its eyes were wide and black and unseeing.
A crash inside the house pulled my attention away from the bug. Forgetting it and the clothes, I made my way back inside as quickly as my swollen stomach would allow. The girl in the groupd had knocked over Charlie’s centipede display and was shrieking in fear: “It crawled on me! I felt its pincers!”
“That’s impossible,” Charlie said, cradling the bug’s bright orange body in his palm. “It’s dead. My brother killed it himself.”
“Sure did,” Todd said from the kitchen. He had made the rare trip upstairs for another case of beer. “Smashed that motherfucker underneath my heel. Splat!”
“It took me ages to reconstruct it,” Charlie said. There was a hint of pride in his voice, and I couldn’t help but be impressed at his skills of resurrecting smashed insects.
But the girl remained unconvinced. “It was alive,” she said, her voice sterner now. “It was crawling all over me, but stopped moving when everybody started to look.” Then she turned to me with eyes too serious for somebody her age. “Is it true? Are the bugs alive?”
I shrugged helplessly. “They can’t be,” I said. But I was really trying to convince myself rather than her. “I mean, some of them are missing their guts and stuff.”
The kids’ mother looked slightly sickened. “I think that’s enough excitement for one day, children,” she said, gathering them into a group like a hen encircling her wings around her chicks. “We need to get back to the house so I can start dinner.” Never mind that it was only three-o’clock.
As the kids began to move out of the house, the same girl looked back at me with those too-serious eyes. “I think you’re wrong,” she told me. “The bugs come to life. It’s magic.”
“I don’t think magic exists,” I said.
“Don’t worry. You’ll figure it out sooner or later.” And then she disappeared with the others.
My mind continued to stray to that strange moment in the afternoon. Even as I took the laundry back down, made dinner, did the dishes and vacuumed Todd’s basement-bedroom, I continued to think back to the girl’s claim that the centipede had come to life. It was one thing if Todd was the only one who believed that. But a random kid making the same argument? It had occurred around three in the afternoon. Maybe Todd’s beloved witching hour could happen at any time, as long as it was between twelve and three.
I couldn’t sleep that night, mostly because the baby kept moving around but also because my mind was still preoccupied with that bizarre incident. Without rousing Charlie, I slipped out of bed and wandered into the living room. I told myself I was heading towards the kitchen to get a midnight snack, but I really ended up smack-dab in the middle of Charlie’s impromptu bug museum. I looked at the silent, unmoving insects, striving to see them through the eyes of Todd and that young girl. All I saw were empty husks, creatures that were once living and were now no longer part of the air-breathing club.
Bugs. Charlie’s bugs, inspired by a childhood hobby and the childhood horror of watching first-hand the police and firemen fish his mother’s mottled body out of the murky
Pennsylvania waters behind their home. While Todd turned to crime and jail to deal with the trauma, Charlie sought comfort in wings and antennae and pincers and poison. As my eyes ran over the immobile insects, the old grandfather clock in the dining room began to sing the song of new midnight. The baby started to dance all over again, and the bugs began to move.
At first, I thought it was just my tired eyes and aching head playing tricks on me. But the bugs were really moving. The butterflies and mantises were struggling to free themselves from the tacks, and the vicious centipedes were fighting the docile millipedes. The fireflies glowed as bright as a lighthouse as they started to bump and drift against the glass cage, no doubt wanting to be free and explore the summery air. I actually rubbed my eyes like the characters do in those old black-and-white cartoons when something unbelievable is happening. Yet when I refocused on the scene in front of me, the bugs were still alive.
I thought about telling Charlie or Todd, but my feet remained rooted to the floor. The insects didn’t do anything. They didn’t fly to me or whisper my future in my ears: this wasn’t a fairy tale. This was real life, and in real life, dead bugs had momentarily come back to life. The luna moth from before, the only creature I had seen alive, flew in through the open window and alighted itself on my shoulder. Its wings moved slightly, so pretty-green and transparent.
“Shouldn’t you be trying to get to the moon?” I asked. I felt like I was talking to an old friend, as strange as that sounds.
As though it could understand me, the moth flew away, bumped against the ceiling a couple times before finding its way back outside. After it left, I sat down in the armchair and watched as the rest continued to fly and beat their wings and brandish their pincers at each other like they were photographs from National Geographic. It was around one-o’clock when the bugs finally quieted down and settled into their strange death-stances. I guess Todd was wrong on that one: the witching hour only lasts sixty minutes, at least for insects.
It was some time after that when I finally made my way back to bed. My heart was beating wildly, and the baby was kicking me harder because of it. Charlie was still snoring away, the butterfly net magazine still splayed across his chest. I picked it up and placed it on the end table before shaking him on the shoulder.
“Charlie, wake up,” I whispered. “Wake up! Something amazing happened.”
He woke up with a start and cracked open one eye. “What is it? Are you going into labor?”
“No, it was the bugs. Your bugs. They came to life, Charlie! I saw it!”
He merely stared at me as though I had said something mundane like stating the dinner options for next evening’s meal. Then he smiled this toothy smile I had never noticed before and said, “Of course they’re alive, Tiff. They’ve been doing that for months.”
“How come you never told me?” I asked. I felt like this was something that husbands and wives should know about each other.
Charlie shrugged. “I dunno,” he replied. “I guess I was afraid you wouldn’t believe me or something.”
“Of course I wouldn’t have believed you. Some of those things are missing their insides.” I scratched my stomach and added, “There must be a reasonable explanation for this.”
Charlie was more awake now. Sitting up next to me, he said, “Sometimes, Tiffany, there is no explanation. You either accept it or you don’t.”
I figured this was the best explanation that I was going to get. Whether it was magic, divine intervention or just something more bizarre at play, I realized I would never figure out how the bugs had come to life. I couldn’t fall back asleep, though: it’s a pretty hard thing to accomplish after witnessing dead bugs briefly resurrected.
Turning back to Charlie, I asked, “Do you want to sit on the porch or something? It’s a beautiful night.”
His eyes were wide and his smile excited. “I just got a new net and everything. The fireflies are really going crazy this time of the year…”
He started to reach under the bed for said net, but I took him by the hand. “No,” I said. “Let’s just enjoy the fireflies. No catching, no dissecting, no displays. Just you and me and nature.” I nodded at my expanded stomach. “And caterpillar here, too. Just a family.”
For a moment, Charlie looked confused, like he couldn’t understand the concept of looking at bugs without imprisoning them. Then he nodded and followed me past the silent insects and onto our front porch. The night was alive with all sorts of noises, animal and mechanical, and it was somewhat hard to tell what were stars and what were lit-up bugs. Charlie sat down on the front step and I joined him. We just sat like that together, enjoying the silence.
Sarah Curran is a senior at Rowan University who will be graduating with a degree in English and has plans to pursue a Master’s in Library Science. She also hopes to be a published novelist in the near future, with hopes of someday living off her writing. Her favorite genres are fantasy and magical realism, but she loves to experiment with everything else.