The larvae escaped. Picture the white grubs, puffy and segmented like the Michelin man, wriggling their way out of some tree and into the wilderness, their children becoming as numerous as the stars in the sky. It seems like a plague, like something for which we dip our fingers into Passover wineglasses, spilling a drop for each incantation of God’s wrath, until we recall the final punishment: “Smiting of the first born.” There’s always a bit of glee as we say that, as if we like to hear about others suffering. Or maybe it’s just me. I don't dare tell Andy about thoughts like this because he’ll say I’m just like my mother. I don’t even tell him that she’s invited me and Heather up to see her and I’m still trying to decide if I should go. He’s the Jewish one. He’s the one who flew me, nine months pregnant, out to the West Coast to celebrate spring with his parents. Mom’s never even seen the girl, and she lives less than two hours away.
Andy catches a few gypsy moth caterpillars in a jam jar and screws the lid on. He places the jar on the kitchen table at breakfast, and we watch the three pupae worm around a sprig of blueberry bush. We discuss what to do with them: put them on the stovetop, drown them in the sink, set them out on the porch as an example to all the other gypsy moths? I name them Snap, Crackle, and Pop, and Andy makes a gagging noise over his cereal. “You were the one who brought them in here,” I protest. He tells me that in some places—Africa and South America, most likely—people fry them up and eat them. He knows anthro Ph.D.s who’ve done it. I respond, “Then why don’t we raise Heather on them?—it will save us money on formula and groceries.” He puts his spoon down. He says they remind him of aliens, and I nod my head. Somehow, what they really remind me of are the pictures of the Iran hostages back in the winter: all those helpless diplomats tied up, white pillow cases around their heads, squirming on a concrete floor. Andy doesn’t see it. He thinks that I’m suggesting we let them go, as if my womanly weakness is rearing its head: first you give them a name, then you set them free, next you’ll want to adopt them. He goes back to his dissertation after breakfast, leaving me alone with our three friends and Heather, who is crying again. We’ve only been here in Grandma Harriet’s country house about three weeks and already I’m beginning to mourn a season lost. The larvae escaped, and now they’re everywhere, and everything is going wrong.
If I stand at the kitchen window, where as a child I snapped mental images of summer, the landscape reminds me of snow falling here over central Massachusetts: the trees stripped bare like winter, the pitter-patter dropping onto leaves and grass, nature moving and swaying, the safe feeling of the indoors with loved ones. Andy scribbles away at economics equations in his office with the door shut. Heather is just over her colic and beginning to sleep again. I press my nose up against the window, an encyclopedia volume in my arms, and I know that it won’t be long until the earth is muffled by billions of soft white flutters—the lawns, the limbs, the sky. I’ve seen outbreaks before, but it has always been limited to a few trees, a couple of plants, isolated areas. Never anything like this.
It requires stepping outside into the July heat, the sun so high, to remind myself that this is summer, that the pitter-patter is caterpillars munching and crapping, that the green and all the surfaces crawl with fuzzy brown larva, defoliating like agent orange dropped from a plane, taking out our aspens, oaks, maples, and Adirondack chairs, trailing mementos of our destroyed gardens and orchards, now reduced to scrap and frass.
They are wooly curtains draped over the window screens. I flick my fingers against the mesh and clear a few inches.
They are dropping on threads from the trees like little paratroopers—first a single creature plopping onto an open page of a bestseller, then a smattering, then a torrent.
They are tufts of fur frizzing all over Malthus, our Springer Spaniel. I brush them off in clumps.
They are twigs in the grass.
I rummage around in Grandma Harriet’s shed for tools, and I come up with an old broom and an ice scraper that I use to clear the windows, porch furniture, and cedar shingles. I stomp across the porch, leaving purple-gray carcass stains like mulberry splats on a sidewalk. Thwack! These feet have never been put to such violent means, and it sickens me to think that I—a mother, a caregiver, a lover of all things living—so relish this orgy of death.
On my porch, I stop my killing spree to listen to them devour summer and strip away any pretense of a New England fall. It is a sound like the noisemakers themselves: soft, writhing, infinite and infinitesimal, the accumulated pop and hiss (like a campfire, nothing more than rapid decomposition) of little wriggles squirming away.
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And up the trees.
But even last month, when Heather finally stopped her incessant screaming, leaving me free to feed her in the backyard, on the grass, in the sun, with a glass of iced tea and a magazine next to me like a normal human being, even then I knew that these things were not of the same life as me. They were too soft and exposed to respect: the hatching, cocooning, molting, shedding, flying, flapping, mating, only to wind up in the morning dew underneath a light bulb, singed out of life. It must have been the first week they’d hatched, because suddenly I looked down at my lap and Heather was crawling with them, like writhing little mustaches inching across my girl’s body. She didn’t mind, no—she’d even fingered one and was pulling it towards her mouth for testing. But I shrieked, picking her up and batting them off. Even Andy came out of his office like, “I’m suddenly the man here in my country plaid and tight jeans.” Now, every time Heather sees a caterpillar, she freezes and screams, like she did all those months through winter and spring. And when Heather shrieks, Malthus kicks in with his yelps and howls, and sometimes I find myself joining in with my own growls, whines, and squeals; mocking them both, baring my teeth, snarling them down. Andy comes out with his usual complaints about noise—between all of us and the eerie creeping of the caterpillars, he can’t get a thought in.
I want to be a good mother and wife. I want to love this. Meanwhile, I follow the news and complain aloud to myself about Reagan. The first two hundred days are all anti-women, anti-poor, anti-international, flag-waving, benefit-cutting, leading us straight into a war with the USSR. I pray for a more competent assassin than Hinckley, swear the president already seemed like a stroke victim before the bullet wound. Andy justifies Reagan’s necessary market reforms—anything, he says, to beat the Soviets without war. I don’t buy it, but there are times when I admire how steady, calm, and secure Andy can be. That’s why he tolerates Reagan. That’s why we fly out to California to see his parents twice a year, though we almost never see Mom anymore. That’s why I knew I wanted to quit all the craziness of my early years, settle down with this man who wore blue Oxfords and prep school ties, and listen to him talk about eternal things like God, history, and baseball. That’s why I don’t complain when we splurge one weekend, hire a college girl to sit for Heather and Malthus, and take the car out to the Cape. We eat clam strips and ice cream by the docks, rent a boat for sunset, catch folk music at a dive, and all the local guys flirt with me until I’m hot for my man.
Other days, I try to forget about Reagan, Andy, Heather, and the end (it’s nigh)—I just pretend it’s the pup and me here. I read voraciously, taming my books, encyclopedias, almanacs, and newspapers—making them my children. I will get to the bottom of this. I will find out how we got into this mess. Perhaps I can find a way out.