N. Aneira Warburton
When I was seven, I told grandmother that I would gather the cherries for the pie from the McClindon’s orchard. That was the summer in 1978 when an eighty year old man asked me to sit on his lap so that he could kiss me. His wrinkled lips, covered with grey, sticky mucus, sucked back into his toothless face—holding back the breath. The old man wore a bolo tie and was a member of the Elks’ Lodge of Central City. His mouth smelled like stomach acid. After the kiss, I made chocolate cupcakes in a Holly Hobby play oven with my friend Heather while our parents drank beer in the Belvedere Theatre. We ran freely in the bars of the old mining town that July, playing pinball and eating popcorn. That year, our classmate’s mother overdosed on heroin when the Hell’s Angels showed up in town. Spyder, the first grade boy with dirty clothes, showed up to summer school with cigarette burns on his arms.
In the orchard, I walked along the irrigation ditch in Wheat Ridge, past the wild asparagus bushes and Concord grape vines. I bit a chunk of white meat from a Winesap apple, shivering when a white worm wiggled where my mouth had been. It contorted like a miniature penis. I mashed a Concord grape between my lips, and the bitter, green gelatin sloshed onto my cheeks, full of tiny seeds. The cherries were just coming into season that July. Some were pink, some were lipstick red, and all were sour and a bit too hard. The cherries made a ping, ping, ping sound as they fell into the metal colander with the stars on the side. Soon the bowl was filled with a mound of the cherries, closer and closer to the perfect amount for a bitter pie. But when I looked down at my chest, I saw seven larvae twisting up my blouse, as well as two green spiders. I dropped the colander of cherries, spinning around as I tried to brush the worms and spiders from my top. Suddenly, I saw them. Writhing, arching under every single leaf of every cherry tree, was a mass of black aphids. At first I just saw one leaf covered with bugs, but then I began to notice they were everywhere—surrounding me—falling into my hair and my face. The entire orchard was jerking, and I was only noticing it for the first time. I screamed and ran through the juniper trees, cutting my sandaled feet on the stickers. “GRAAANNND—MAAAA!”
Where there is one, there are many.
Grandmother’s basement was filled with dead spiders and fly carcasses–tucked up in grey silk in the window wells, above the stacks of National Geographic magazines that my grandfather had collected since 1952. There had once been a shower in the laundry room in the basement, but Grandmother had turned it into a storage area, filled with boxes of insect ornaments, stuffed clowns, rose petals, and pine cones for the annual Christmas Tree Decorating Party at the Denver Botanic gardens. I always knew that the concrete shower/storage area was filled with black widow spiders. The storage closet was next to the gun room, where my uncles packed shotgun shells. But it was the regular rifles that were used for target practice in the basement. The “boys” would set up the trap at the end of the hall, drinking a case of beer and smoking hash during the shooting. The kids drew on the pool table with crayons while they watched. Papo even taught me to shoot that year. “When Nahn first tried the pellet rifle, she couldn’t hit a bull in the ass with a bass fiddle,” he used to say.
Around the corner from the gun room was a tiny bathroom with a tapestry that read “Bloom where you are planted.” A nun had given it to my great aunt Sis during a trip to the Broadmoor for lunch. And next to that bathroom was another storage area—dark—full of wooden barrels containing antique china. When my mother was a child, my uncles used to lock her in that dark area under the stairs and dangle spiders from the tips of long, willow sticks. A local girl had been penetrated by a coca-cola bottle in that closet, back in 1967. In that year, my uncle chased Grandmother up the stairs, shouting, “Old Woman! What did you do with my hash?”
At grandmother’s house, my cousins and I created lawn-chair forts, covered with blankets in the back yard, under the maple tree that my father had planted in 1971. It just wouldn’t stop growing. I brought sacks of provisions for our fort—Zingers, pretzels, Fritos, and bean dip. When we reached into the bags of chips, daddy long legged spiders crawled onto our fingers. I came to believe that all bags of chips and pretzels contained spiders.
Grandmother told me to gather the rhubarb stalks. I moved the large, limestone rocks away from the plants, and uncovered nests of worms, rolie-polies, and spiders. If only they could have been lady bugs. I returned to grandmother’s kitchen, where a layer of bacon grease formed a patina on the copper tiling above the stove. When I opened grandmother’s copper canister set to scoop a cup of rye flour for the bread dough, I saw that it was infested with flour bugs. I opened the jar of home-preserved sage leaves for the turkey, and found it encrusted with black beetles. She told me to break apart the butter lettuce from the garden for the salad, and it was filled with earwigs in the crevasse of the head. My neighbor Shelly was entering puberty that summer. She asked me to touch her breast-buds in her motor home. I refused.
In the summer when I was seven, the entire Roosevelt forest was destroyed by bark beetles, leaving orange carcasses on the hillside like World War I cadavers caught in barbed wire trenches. The Brownie troop erected an army tent for our campout at the Golden Gate State Park. Because the tent had no bottom, we carved a trench around its perimeter for a rain-water canal. The tick season was particularly bad that year. While undressing in the tent, I found four ticks on my chest. There black, bulbous bodies were already filled with blood. One tick burrowed into the base of my neck, and my mother removed it with the hot end of a match. “GET IT OFF ME!” I screamed, feeling a flash of cold heat that reminded me of that feeling you get right before you vomit. When the tick backed out of the vein, he flitted around under my hair for several minutes with his little, black legs propelling him against the tiny hairs on the nape of my neck. “CATCH HIM!” I told my mom, wondering if he would try to burrow in again. I had grown up on stories of how the heads of ticks could become buried under one’s skin, even if their bodies backed out. “Rocky Mountain Spotted Tick Fever,” the adults would whisper, sober faces in a concerned furrow. Mom tried several times to blot the tick with a paper towel as I held up my hair. Finally, she grabbed him and pinched him into the cotton, but he refused to die. Like millipedes, ticks are very difficult to kill. Later that fall, my grandfather died of cirrhosis. I stomped down the dead corn stalks in Grandmother’s garden. They fell like golden paper trees. I gathered the pumpkins.
When I turned eleven, my spine twisted like a corkscrew. Grandmother promised me that, after the corrective surgery, after my back was strong enough to remove the brace, I could fly to Hawaii with Uncle Mike and Aunt Penelope, as well as another couple—David and Christie. The monsoons moved in over Kaanapali Beach. I left a chocolate éclair on the counter-top of our condo in Maui. When I came back an hour later, it was covered with billions of tiny ants. The freeway of ants marched along the entire wall of the kitchen, exploring every cupboard and sink fixture along the way. They say that, if a living ant is sprayed with the pheromone that signals death, the other ants will repeatedly carry the live ant to the refuse pile until the smell wears off. As I plopped down onto the sofa in the condo, David gingerly goosed me, and I slapped my hand down hard on his thigh. Uncle Mike, unaware that David had gently touched my crotch for the third time that week, reprimanded me for being aggressive.
After I returned from Maui, my Korean friend, Nam Hee, fainted when she was poisoned by the venom of a stream of red ants that crawled up both of her legs during her birthday party. I too almost fainted when I tried to eat the enormous goblet of boiled baby shrimp that her mother served me on the back porch. I could think of nothing more disgusting than the texture of boiled shrimp. They curled like tiny fetuses. The spongy texture stuck in my throat. Nam Hee’s mother loved to serve foods that still had eyes, and beaks, and claws attached. After the birthday cake, we were offered a heaping platter of chicken feet. The brown flesh stretched thin across the cartilage and metacarpal bones of the meatless claws. When we tore them apart with our teeth, the bones separated from the cartilage with a rubbery crunch. I wondered if Nam Hee also ate grubs wrapped in cabbage leaves. She told me that I was a baby because I had never French kissed a boy.
Before I turned thirteen, Rusty Stringfellow offered to give me my first kiss with a tongue. He leaned me against the wall in the cafeteria and jammed his long, muscular tongue past my uvula until I gagged. He unfurled that tongue like a red carpet in one assertive motion, like a Venus Flytrap. Then he extracted the four inch tongue and walked away.
Shortly after the penetration of Rusty’s tongue, my step-father hid a rubber spider on the toothpaste rack in the bathroom. It was about four inches in diameter. My mother was paralyzed with fear while she sat on the toilet. She divorced him later that year.
After their divorce, we saw a Violin spider on the ceiling one Wednesday night.
“Get a jar, and we’ll get it. I’ll slide a piece of cardboard over the jar, and then we’ll throw it in the toilet,” instructed my mother, grabbing an empty mayonnaise jar.
“Okay,” I said, smacking my gum while I watched The Brady Bunch.
“Now, be SURE that you hold the jar over the spider until I swipe the cardboard to get it into the jar!” Mom said, demonstrating for me how to use the apparatus.
“I’ve got it, Mom. Don’t worry,” I said, swatting her away with my hand.
“DON’T drop it! Be sure!”
“I know, mom. I’ve got it covered.”
After some fumbling with the cardboard and jar mechanism, there was a malfunction. The spider sailed to the floor, sidling its way up the leg of the couch.
“Oh, NO!” squealed my mother. She didn’t sleep at all that night. Mom could always predict things like that. She had received a vision of this very event from an Ouija board two days earlier. That same Ouija board had told my mother that I would die from my orthopedic surgery. Psychics were still wrong in those days, at least some of the time.
In the summer of 1984, I traveled to British Columbia to see my father. That was the summer that granny Warburton warned me about the flukes in the lake at Hundred Mile House. I didn’t know what flukes were, but I assumed they must be something awful. I helped my granny stave off the black slugs from her garden with tiny cups of beer, which constantly overflowed due to the ceaseless rain. My father picked up a slug into the palm of his hand and said, “You know, Sweets, the insects move much slower in the Pacific Northwest than anywhere else in the world.” The slug inched along his palm, leaving a slimy line beneath its tentacles.
One day, we went to the swim beach at Six-Mile Lake. I was afraid to go in the water because my cousin, Kathleen, had warned me that there were leeches on the bottom. My father stood out in the mucky bottom for several minutes, allowing the leeches to crawl onto his ankles. When he emerged to the beach, he showed me the leeches close up. They were black like the slugs, and suckled the white skin above dad’s hairy feet. I backed away, but was still curiously drawn to watch them. “See, Tyken. Its not that bad, eh? You just scrape them off with your fingernail, eh? That way they can’t keep their suction, ya’ know?”
We got into dad’s rowboat so that he could fish. I took my Nancy Drew novel. The water in Six-Mile Lake was thick with olive green algae, and looked like nectar. As I watched dad row the boat, I noticed that his swim trunks bagged around the crotch, and I could see his red penis, curled up like a disgusting snake next to his leg. I was furious. I thought he was doing it on purpose. I didn’t want for him to have a penis, let alone sagging, red testicles. I jumped into the green water, telling my dad that I wanted to swim. Underwater, I pulled tufts of pubic hair out of the sides of my bathing suit to take revenge on my dad for being so gross.
In the morning, dad wanted to take me to the observatory on Tabor Mountain. The trail was rather marshy from recent rains, and created a perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes, which nattered at me through the thin fabric of my thin pants for several hours, while I listened to my father’s voice trail off as he explained theories of economics and discussed astronomy. By the time I got back to Granny’s house, I was covered with fifty bites, which swelled up into boils all over my body. This was not the first attack of killer mosquitoes. When we hiked Sugarloaf Mountain, there were so many mosquitoes that they covered our sandwiches before we could bring the bread to our lips. And in Brooks Lake, the swarms of mosquitoes swirled around my head in a black cloud. I covered my body with a jacket and cinched my hood, covering my face with scarf except for a tiny slit for my eyes. And on the Queen Charlotte Islands, the interior windows of our homemade camper shell were infested with millions of no-see-ums. I have also been bitten by horseflies behind my knees, which caused me to run into Horsefly Lake at full speed at the age of six, nearly drowning due to the sudden drop off. My father ran in to save me, and then we ate Granny’s butter and cucumber sandwiches, Gatorade, and Digestive cookies with serviettes. The horseflies and black flies still swarmed around the wet logs near the lake, biting us with their razor sharp, miniature teeth. I have never liked butter sandwiches. Because I had no breasts, the boys at the lakes told me that I looked like I was eight-years old, even when I was sixteen. I told them they had horse teeth.
Now that I have reached middle age, I have seen many swarms, nests, and breeding grounds. I have been told that my calves are fat and jiggly, like white gorditas (little fatties). Men have told me that I would look sexy if I only had breasts. I have heard the female genitalia referred to with the most disgusting of words—words that stick in my mouth like bitter grape seeds and baby shrimp fetuses. I have been awakened, morning after morning, with repulsive narratives about clothespins on nipples, the possibility that Mother Teresa performed communion on the mons veneris, and discussion of “split tails.” Women, like tadpoles or primordial flagella, crowd together in the waters for survival. Women, swimming upstream like amphibians, rush from the snakes. Women, trying not to be owned or objectified, flock to plastic surgeons like streams of ants. But there is one truth that is inescapable. Where there is one, there are many.
N. Aneira Warburton has written over 35 short fiction works, 40 poems, and is currently revising a novel. Her primary interest is magical realism. Aneira has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, works as a professor, and is developing a psychology textbook.