It begins under the skin. A single cell. A dark intent. A beetle no bigger than a thumbtack, boring into the bark, leaving a network of destruction. She builds an egg gallery, two, three, more, a mansion where she hangs her art, a pox of white sacs. Children line the unnatural walls.
My brother came home two springs ago. The war was written in his eyes. The rage, though, had been affixed at an early age. My mother. Always my mother. She told my brother about my job at the bar, made up the names of boyfriends, claimed my late nights brought shame to the family.
“And your father gave his life for such nonsense,” she probably told him.
So my brother went to the Stockman, waited outside, waited until my shift was over, until Frank walked me to my car, kissed me on my cheek and faded back through the doors. It was then my brother stepped out of the black, and threw lye at my face.
It took a year and a summer for the burns to heal, for my brother to be pronounced well. He did not come back home, but took a job on a rig near Rangely instead. My mother said nothing is right anymore. A family of moose came plodding through the town cemetery. Clumsy lodge pole legs – one of them knocked over my father’s headstone. My mother sat down, stared out the window, and chewed at her cuticles.
Frank tried. He said I was lucky. I didn’t lose my eyes. Some of me wished I had. I caught him staring, frowning at the scars that pull my face in too many directions. I knew he wouldn’t hire me back, talk of babies and weddings would cease.
I went to the cemetery, attempted to right my father’s stone myself. I looked at the surrounding rangeland, the ridge of forest and mountains. Most of the pines up there still had green heads, but I could feel the infestation. I thought of the grubs under the bark – small, legless, pale. Little brown heads. Little brown mouths.
I am bending once again toward happiness. I keep my mother’s walks shoveled, her house warm, drive my car to the grocery store for her cigarettes. I even shovel her roof once. I take a job at Dr. Miller’s. He appreciates my efficiencies and the warning mask of my face. Little girls who visit learn to be cautious. Mothers learn to love their daughters better.
But I think of the encircling pines, the larva under the bark inching along getting bigger, hungrier.
At Christmas, my mother calls my brother, says she can’t get through the winter without him. He comes home, takes over the cigarette duties, the shoveling. At night, after she goes to bed, he sits in the kitchen with a bottle of whiskey, a glass, a gun. I am careful never to come home late. I watch my brother get drunk. His face turns to rust. His mouth opens, closes, opens.
The larva are big now, their internal organs are shifting, making way for legs, wings.
Spring comes, and my brother talks of going back to the rigs. My mother takes to her bed, stops eating. It rains like we’ve never seen it rain before. Dr. Miller comes to the house, frowns at my brother, tells me he sees nothing wrong with my mom except for the cigarettes.
“She’ll burn in her bed if she’s not careful,” he says.
My brother is convinced that she’s dying. He puts out her cigarettes when they wobble in her dozing hand. He drags her bed so that she can see out the window. They talk about the ridge as if it were still healthy. As if my father still roamed along the Medicine Bow, cutting down the timber. They talk about the night he died. What he gave to save me.
“And look what we got,” my mom says, pulling on her cigarette, and shaking her head at the reflection of me in the window.
My brother says nothing. He brings his whiskey and glass to her bedroom. The gun has disappeared. I think of the beetle, almost an adult, but still stuck in this hungry cycle.
My mother dies in May. My brother sits in her bedroom most nights. As if he still has someone to talk to.
Dr. Miller’s office gets hot. Summer flies hammer at the examination room door. Even the ant that struggles across my desk blotter looks hot and sweaty. I tell Dr. Miller that I’m thinking of moving. To Denver, maybe. Or Laramie.
“And leave this paradise?” he says, but understands.
The devastation is finally apparent. Too many trees have lost their needles and lean against each other like brittle boned old men. The ruinous beetles have flown.
I have my car packed when I hear about the fire. I walk to the cemetery so I can see it. I sit on my father’s tumbled headstone and look. There it is, the thin line of red, the tower of black smoke. My eyes are fixed. I have a hard time getting up and going.
Nan Wigington’s recent fiction has appeared in Gravel, The Airgonaut, Sicklitmagazine.com, and No Extra Words. She has work forthcoming in Fiction Attic Press and Spelk. Nan has worked as an unclaimed property clerk, an accounting analyst, an ensemble actress, and a paraprofessional in a K-2 Autism center classroom.