Between now and December 31st, three pieces from our 2010 issue will run every Wednesday to Friday, starting with Lee Henderson’s short story Mold, and culminating with an excerpt from Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?
It’s Saturday, Kyle thought, opening one eye to the bright sunlight. He slept on his front, his covers gathered above his head like a fort. His fingers moved blindly across his nightstand to find his sunglasses. With a snap, they settled on the bridge of his nose.
There would be more bruises, at least for a few days. Kyle touched the still-fresh ache of red, raised flesh and winced. They would fade back to nude. It always happened that way, except with cuts. Cuts would settle in with a whitish pucker, made for plucking in the boring hours of the night.
The beatings seemed worse here, but only because his parents were hyper-vigilant for signs of abuse. Their gaze itched at him, watching for his reaction to the tight, stifling streets of suburbia. He watched them for a clue to how he should act. His parents didn’t know that even up north, in the house where they’d lived for twelve years, he’d kept a small tin box filled with Band-Aids and a large tube of Polysporin. He’d often tended to his own wounds, hiding bandages under long-sleeve shirts and scarves. He’d learned to tuck his face away from fists. The tin box also held pre-packaged rubbing alcohol wipes. Under those, a slender, curved pair of cuticle scissors, which he sometimes used to inflict the cuts, and sometimes to excavate the bacteria he knew were hiding under his fingernails. There was comfort in feeling a sharp nick of pain. It had a way of dulling the anxiety, of focusing his senses. The box was in the back of his desk drawer, now.
He tapped his toes on the floor. His closet was filled with clothes organised by colour in a spectrum of beige and grey, interrupted by a swipe of canary; his father’s silk tie waving from a hanger. He put on a T-shirt, over-washed to the point of softness, just before it begins to unravel, and tucked it under a cardigan. Dressed from the waist up. Fingers fumbling over the button clasps. He dressed himself slowly, focusing on easing each leg through the holes of his underwear and cupping his balls with a light, feathery touch. The other, which just then looked like an onion bulb, was curled and dormant. He avoided touching it but even his gaze, clinical and detached, made it twitch. This conjured an image of Ms. Fenwick’s stubble-stippled knees and made him nauseous.
She’d never touched him there, although for some reason, it seemed natural that she would. But her hands sometimes fell to rest on his thighs, and her fingers padded him like cat paws. It worried him, the tightness of his pants. The strange swelling inside him that felt like it was swimming up from a great depth. He shook his head and zipped up his khaki pants.
He made breakfast, after tapping out his pills from a small orange vial. Zoloft, for his moods, as his mother called them. He peered at the small text on the side. Dr. Kim, a placid psychiatrist who had initially prescribed the pills, who continued to do so from a remote distance, even two years later.
“For depression and anxiety,” the doctor had said. His voice level, his body still. “For those feelings we talked about. Those urges.”
To Kyle, the dips in energy were natural. He’d scratched phantom itches on his knuckles and tried to order his thoughts. He’d wanted to say something about defence mechanisms and coping strategies to Dr. Kim. Something about animals, how even dogs sometimes harmed themselves.
Kyle cut the crust off two slices of whole wheat bread. Then, a thin smear of butter, a thick spoonful of raspberry jam. The raspberry seeds crackled in his mouth and his tongue tried to find them, to disarm them first. He swallowed his pills. He imagined them sinking down his throat, falling into his stomach. Swirling in that whirlpool, getting stuck in the machinery. The clock said ten minutes passed while the seeds swished. The clock said 7:30 a.m. when a chime sounded upstairs, and a creak of parent footsteps. Heavy with sleep.
“Hey, buddy. Breakfast all by yourself?” His father, inching along beside the counter. He studied the carnage, where Kyle had picked out random clumps of bread with his fingers and left the rest. Kyle rotated on the stool, his fingernails covered with red, his stomach spotted with seeds.
“You were sleeping,” Kyle replied, averting his eyes from the protrusion in his father’s pants.
“True.” There was an uncertain silence, and they each looked slightly to the left of each other. They took in an arm, a shoulder, half a clavicle. They waited for the mother and wife to interject, to intersect their gazes.
“Kyle,” his mother said, tsking. “What a waste of bread and jam.” Her hands cupped the refuse and dropped it into the garbage bin. “I wanted to tell you, they found you a buddy, an older boy from school. He’ll be kind of like a mentor.”
“Okay.” Kyle was curious about the looks his parents were exchanging, fluttering between them like carrier pigeons. His mother’s face pinched, a sharp contraction. She collected crumbs by pressing her thumb against them.
“We’ll have him over to meet you tomorrow afternoon,” his mother said.
“It’ll be good for you,” his father said, decisively.
Kyle looked away. He was used to this tactic, one parent taking over when the other faltered. “Going to go for a walk.” He heard more than saw his parents exchange a glance, bow their heads in an acquiescent nod.
“Go ahead. Be careful. Did you put on sunscreen? And bug spray,” his mother called after him.
His father hushed her. “He’s not exploring the jungle, Rachel. Cut him some slack.”
Kyle pulled a bucket hat from the front closet and stepped outside, into the cool, white light of morning sunshine. He walked along the sidewalk, allowing his mother to spy on him from behind the dining room drapes before swerving sharply to the side of their house, towards his destination. This was his secret.
There was a ravine running behind his house, sloping downwards into a small pond and an open expanse that gave way to thick woods. Early on, he had bottled fireflies, mosquitoes and trapdoor spiders. He’d collected an Argyroneta aquatica, or diving bell spider. These spiders were his favourite, preferring to live underwater instead of on land. They could build webs and diving bells, filled with oxygen, and live inside them.
Kyle remembered making a necklace of bees, piercing them stinger to head. He’d found them stunned beside a beehive, twitching through the fog of insecticide. He hadn’t realised that they would be killed and he had a moment of disoriented shock when he placed them against his collarbone and they didn’t struggle. He’d tiptoed up the stairs, and pulled a needle and thread from the closet where his mother kept pristine piles of folded towels and old swathes of fabric. Halfway through the necklace, marking the passage of the needle through the bees’ bodies by the crackling, his mother found him with his back against his bed frame. She put a hand to her head, swayed against his desk. Her expression was bald. She shooed him out, and he watched from behind the door as she dusted the fallen wisps of wing into her palm.
Kyle was considering botany. There was something telling in nature, how most lethal toxins and their respective cures were found there. All the tools for extinction and redemption. He wanted to be at a remove from the bugs, whose wings and pit-pattering feet on his skin, snagging on the fine hairs and moles on his back, made him feel sick. A job where he could handle the pincers of crabs and the stingers of wasps with gloved hands, after they’d been excised from their bodies. In a museum, he had once watched janitors dust displays of Vietnamese butterflies, and thought he might envy them; alone, moving unseen and untouched through crowds, buffered by their aluminium carts. Kyle and his father had stayed at the museum until closing time. The lights had begun to flicker off, and only a few stragglers remained. While waiting for his father to finish in the bathroom, Kyle had stood in a room of pinioned poisonous bugs, backlit and casting shadows over the benches. He felt hallowed there. There, he thought he might understand what wonder meant. Wonderment.
It comforted him that there was an entire world that went on, unaffected by human drama. All those small insect lives, somehow deafening and immense. Eagles’ shadows swept gracefully over scurrying mice, racoons lumbered towards open bags of garbage, sparrows cracked skulls against windows. Kyle had found a dead sparrow under the deck behind their house and wanted to bring it inside for closer examination. He knew his mother would find it, when she pretended to fold his clean laundry but ended up rifling through the stacked boxes in the back of his closet. He’d photographed the bird’s decomposition, using the clunky grey Polaroid camera his father had given him for Christmas. The flash was unforgiving, briefly illuminating the holes where maggots had tunnelled under the birds’ feathers, and the ants that streamed from its eyes like tears.
His mother had found the pictures in a shoebox, atop a pile of anatomical drawings of ligaments and a folded article on dwarfism he’d photocopied from the public library.
“What’s this?” she’d asked, her voice shrill.
She’d turned the Polaroids to the side, then upside down, her nostrils flaring. “Is it really?”
He took one from the box, an early one, and pointed at the wing.
“Why did you take these?”
“Kyle,” she’d said, through a stiff smile. “Did you kill it?”
“No. It hit its head against the window.”
A sigh. “Good, good. Listen, Kyle, we’re glad that you’re interested in science. We don’t like all the death, though. We’ll get you a terrarium. Or an aquarium, whichever you want.”
Kyle felt sad for his mother, that she didn’t grasp the importance of death to understanding flight. The only stillness still enough for dissection was death. Even paralysis would have the occasional twitches of nerves misfiring.
His mother’s eager look had made him feel ashamed. He wasn’t normal, he had strange interests. His mother thought a terrarium would be generous, a fake miniature Eden. Food and leaves and an interminable convex that couldn’t be breeched. Kyle couldn’t think of anything more cruel than seeing a world and being unable to touch it. But to soothe her, to soothe himself, he’d bowed his head and whispered, “Terrarium.”
It had appeared on his desk the next afternoon, a giant glass case with a glass lid and an air filtration unit. Its floor was covered in a thin layer of soil, rich green and brown moss, and an assortment of twigs.
A rhythmic hum came from inside. Grasshoppers, making friction. He immediately began an experiment. First, he created a perfect environment, researching the appropriate temperature and provided ample food and water. Then, he stripped it all away, and waited.
His mother sometimes came into his room as he watched the terrarium, her gaze heavy on his shoulder blades.
“What are you doing, Ky?”
“Nothing,” he would answer, grateful that his back was turned to her so she wouldn’t see the clouding of his eyes. A guilty, heavy lidding.
The grasshoppers shed in unison. Underneath, they were the pristine white of snow and vanilla frosting. They moved slowly against the glass, sage black eyes eerie against the luminescence of their fresh bodies. They remained empty spaces in the Polaroid white, small smudges of light.
One afternoon, Kyle came home to silence. His mother had left the lid off and the grasshoppers had found their way out, climbing up twigs towards a new, stucco sky. In bed, phantom mandibles scratched his skin and he moaned into his pillow, regretting everything. God, he thought, must be a nervous wreck. Sometimes, he thought he still heard a chirp from a closet or a corner despite having found several dried husks stuffed with tufts of dust.
Kyle stopped collecting specimens after that, and instead carried with him a lined notebook and a sharpened HB pencil. He learned to crosshatch the soft bellies of beetles and he sketched small ripples to suggest the flail of their legs. It was cleaner this way, but when he reviewed his drawings, he had to admit it was disappointing. There was little satisfaction in facsimile.
At school, some of the younger boys collected grasshoppers and daddy long legs. They played “surgery,” amputating limbs then re-attaching them with CrazyGlue stolen from the craft room. The eeriest specimens were tossed into small Ziploc bags and carried around as badges of honour for an hour or two until the boys’ interest waned. He observed from a distance, never interfering. Sometimes he collected the bags after they were discarded, and laid them solemnly in beds of scooped soil.