Bea lies in her daughter’s bed, in the narrow rut of the mattress, where the small hips of a stomach-sleeping child wore grooves between the springs. It is an upper–bunk bed. As a child, her daughter liked being scrunched tight to the ceiling, boxed in by pillows, an old drapery-like comforter pinning her down. Bea is giving this method of sleep a try.
Menopause has made sleep a difficult thing, a hidden room in a hidden house in a hidden town. She is in her sixth year of symptoms and has come upon a bad time. Her body burns and tingles. And there’s quaking inside her limbs. The bones in her spine have turned to ice. Her ovaries too. She feels them heavy and cold like stones nestled against her womb. She knows hormones would make it all go away but she doesn’t dare. Her mother died from a stroke. Bea takes drugs to sleep. They make her hands heavy but awaken her ears. She has tried ear plugs, but the beats and burps of her body make more noise than clocks and cars and dogs. She has tried sleeping like her husband with a pillow between her legs. She has tried sleeping like her son in a perpetual roll that twists and tangles the sheets. She has tried sleeping as her mother did, hands folded over her chest. She tries to occupy sleep from a different body in every bed. Every night, she sweats through every bed in the house. The sheets have taken on a sepia tinge.
All the beds in the house are empty. Her daughter is in Cambodia fixing cleft palate children. Her mother is in a coffin on a pale pillow deep deep underground. Her son is in Pittsburgh with a wife who knits Bea a pom-pom hat every year for Christmas and sends typed recipes for vegan soups. Bea uses the recipe cards to clean the crack between the cutting block and the stove. Since her husband transferred to his new job at the jail in Danamora, she hasn’t cooked more than grilled cheese and hard-boiled eggs. Sometimes when she can’t sleep, she sits in the breakfast nook with the window behind her open and blowing against her neck. She listens to radio jazz, soaks her feet in a basin of water, and peels hard-boiled eggs. She likes the way her fingernails slide under the shell and sink into the white of the flesh.
Other times, when she’s given up on sleep, she walks the streets and collects caterpillars from the trees. At first, she collected them in an old Care Bear thermos. Her daughter did this in grade school, leaving the square sip straw up so they could breathe. A green Good Luck Care Bear is printed on the thermos, though two paws have worn off from the abrasion of small thumbs. Now she takes the thermos along for water and drops the caterpillars into a bucket, the handle looped over her elbow like a basket of bread.
She walks the streets between three and five in the morning. She wears shorts and a sports bra. The flab of fat hanging over her caesarian scar would horrify her children, but there is no one around. At first, Bea expected to come across other women with sleepless bodies. She imagined they would congregate in the cold night air and share stories, and this would soothe the electricity under her skin. But out in the night in the dark, she is completely alone.
She takes slow shuffling steps to keep the heat at a simmer. She hits her heels against the pavement trying to shake out the ants crawling between her toes. When she gets too hot, she presses her forehead to the cold metal pole of a stop sign. When the metal warms, she moves on. She goes to the places where caterpillars assemble. To the bark of the Grayson’s willow. And the leaves of Mrs. Chin’s pear tree. The rose bushes against the library fence. Also the nest in the Okolsky’s alder. There, the branches are so thick with bodies that their feces fall like rain.
The caterpillars are plentiful, and it is easy to fill the bucket. When she hears the whistle of the five o’clock train, she goes home and disseminates caterpillars in every room. She started doing this two months ago, when her husband put the house on the market. He’s been living in a two-bedroom modular home outside the correctional facility’s wall to avoid the two-hour commute. He is a deputy superintedent now. He likes saying these words. Bea sees him two or three weekends a month. He wants her to leave the house and move to the prison with him. He says since Bea’s retired, and the kids are gone, two bedrooms are all they need. He uses the word downsize, says they should give old toys and clothes to a battered women’s shelter. When their place sells, he says Bea will move to Danamora with him. In the meantime, she’s supposed to pack things up. She’s not in a hurry to empty her life of possessions. And the caterpillars have slowed down the sale.
They’ve nested in couches and cupboards. They’ve curled in the fibers of rugs. Her husband took an end table back with him last weekend, and they settled in the space where the table had been. They huddled in a mass with right-angled corners, taking the form of a table themselves. Bea doesn’t mind. She likes to tend to them. They are her flock. She fills the wheelbarrow with leaves and drops piles near their dens. She sweeps up ringlets of skin when they molt. She puts cloths under their nests to catch the droppings. It gives a routine to her day since she quit her job.
She’s been out of work six months. She was sweating so bad, the patients at the dentist’s office complained. Sweat dripped on their cheeks when she cleaned their teeth. She was changing her scrubs five times a day. Her boss told her to take time off. She retired instead. She came home to an empty house.
The caterpillars have filled that space. She watches them string nests in the corners. She thinks about silk streaming out of their lips. She wonders what it feels like to unspool a suspension bridge from your gut. Would it feel like relief? Or would it feel empty? Would she want the silk inside her again?
She studies the nest over her daughter’s bunk bed. Silk is strung from the ceiling tiles to the My Buddy doll at Bea’s feet. She’s in the chill phase now of a sweat. She huddles under the blankets and watches the caterpillars sleep. Their long dark bodies seem like shadows layered in the sinews and folds of their own white walls. When headlights flash on the ceiling and cut through the weave of the webs, the hairs on their exoskeletons glow. Bea wishes she could sleep like that, her hair ablaze, her body levitating like smoke.
Bea hides in her daughter’s tree house when the realtor brings clients through. The realtor wears colored tights and has porcelain braces that are supposed to disappear against her teeth. Bea tells her husband that the realtor’s hosiery is the reason the house won’t sell. Who would trust teal tights, she wants to know. I’d trust tights before I trusted worms, he says. Caterpillars aren’t worms, Bea says. They’re larva. And in some cultures they’re a sign of luck. She hopes he won’t ask which.
From the tree house, she can see house lights flick on. The realtor never spends more than two minutes in any room. Right now they’re in the kitchen. Bea can see through the window. The wife is obese and standing right near the soft spot of wood by the radiator grate. Bea wonders if they could get sued if the woman falls through the floor. The woman takes a cookie from the table. This morning, Bea let her cream of wheat boil over. The stove is covered with a brown crust, and the house smells like burnt milk. To make up for it, she left snickerdoodles and a note pointing to milk in the fridge. Had she known about the woman’s weight, she would have left bran muffins instead. The group hurries fast through the kitchen. The woman takes another cookie, and Bea sinks down on the mattress that serves as the tree house’s master bed.
Her daughter retrieved it from the curb and hauled it up with ropes and a pulley. At thirteen, she abandoned her bedroom and slept outside even in winter. The tree house has a roof and two glass windows. Her daughter insulated it by stacking roof tiles under squares of carpet. On the walls, she stapled old coats that the thrift store discarded because they were ragged. They give the impression the place is made of cotton and coming apart at the seams.
At the time, Bea told herself her daughter moved out because she wanted to be high in the air. For that, a tree house was better than a bunk bed. And a streak of independence could be a good thing. But really she knew the tree house’s most appealing feature was that it was far away from her.
When Bea spoke, her daughter scrunched her face and rubbed her eyes. From the time she was little, she’d had no patience for anything her mother did and seemed happiest when Bea was in another room. She thought there must be other reasons for her daughter’s irritability. She suspected her daughter was teased at school on account of her clothes. She liked thrift stores. She liked polyester and suspenders. One year, she shaved her head and wrote chemistry equations on her arms in permanent marker. She wrote editorials for the school paper, questioning her teachers’ degrees. Junior year, she stopped eating Bea’s cooking and took up a raw food diet. She mostly ate apples and nuts. Two months in, her pants hung off her hips and her skin had a lavender tinge. Bea thought her daughter suffered from being too smart. But she reserved a particular kind of animosity for her mother, and Bea concluded that all these years her daughter had been angry for the very fact of her birth.
She didn’t have these problems with her son, her youngest. Until he was ten, he called her Mommy. Then it was Ma. He brought his track team friends by the house for snacks. He asked her to proofread his essays because she’d won a spelling bee in high school. He always said goodnight before he turned in. She didn’t have to use kid gloves on him. She didn’t have to pay so much attention to the tone of her voice. Bea had never been disliked by anyone before becoming a mother. The dentist at the office where she worked called her “sweetheart.” Patients requested her for cleanings because she was gentle. They asked her to stay in the room for root canals and difficult extractions, the kind where teeth needed to be broken apart. Without being asked, she held their hands, and no one ever refused. They squeezed so tight her knuckles buckled together. So tight, it was a relief to hear the tooth let go of the gum. Sometimes when she thinks of her daughter and there’s that clench in her chest, she squeezes her own hands. When she lets go, it’s hard to uncrumple the bones.
Her daughter sends postcards from Asia once a month now. The latest announced she was losing her hair because there wasn’t enough food in the village. She said it was the most alive she’d ever felt. She said, people live like this in the world, and it seemed like an accusation. Her daughter signs her postcards with a name that isn’t her name. Bea sends care packages with multivitamins, granola, and fluoride but gets no acknowledgment of their receipt. She has strung the postcards across the pitch of the tree house roof like Tibetan flags. A few caterpillars have wrapped around the string. They hang like hoop earrings, and Bea thinks sleep would surely be easier if her spine could bend like that.
She watches a caterpillar lower itself from the roof joists on a long thread. The wind from the window swings it back and forth, a gentle rocking. She gets drowsy watching it sway. She pulls an old quilt to her chin, lays her head on a pillow that’s leaking feathers, and closes her eyes. In the tree house, she comes closest to sleep. She thinks it’s because of the breeze and maybe the elevation. In that in-between haze between sleep and the sounds of the world, she senses her daughter. She hears her teenage voice cataloguing all the bones in the body, reciting speeches to counter her teachers’ lessons. She feels the skin tight on her daughter’s ribcage. The gnash of her stomach as it contracts into a fist. Then a tingle as dreams crawl out of the fill of the mattress and burrow into her skin. She knows they’re her daughter’s dreams. They have her daughter’s smell. They smell like walnuts and moth balls and ink.
Her daughter’s dreams include fire and masturbation. Tunnels that go down down down. And water that fills all the floors of the school. Once, her hip bones twisted out of place, and she dragged herself down the street with her hands. Once, she misplaced her eyes and the world was dark and she kept hearing guns. Today, her fingers are sharp, and she slices through the skin on her chest. She traces the orb of her breast with her pinkie, slides her hand under the flesh and lifts the whole thing out. She stuffs the wound with grass and goes back for the other. She is careful with the curve of the cut. When both breasts are gone, she wraps her chest in scraps of Mickey Mouse sheets. She buries each organ in its own hole on either side of the cedar. Mosquitos settle on her neck and inject needles into her skin.
Bea lies in the tree house until dark with her daughter’s dream in her mouth. She stays until her belly grumbles. Then slips through the trap door and descends the rungs that her husband screwed through the bark. She plants the arch of each foot against the wood before shifting her weight down the tree. She is careful. Her son would take it badly if his mother died falling out of a tree house. People would call her crazy. The caterpillars would die without her wheelbarrow loads of leaves.
Inside, there’s a message on the machine from her husband. He won’t make it home this weekend. There’s a facility golf tournament and they need someone to pull up their score. He says the realtor called. He says Bea should be more careful with the stove. He says he can’t believe the worms are back. The exterminator will come again in the morning. Bea should be up by seven to let him in. She should come stay with him for a bit. A few days. A week. A month. Leave the house and let the professionals deal with the bugs. He’ll change the sheets on his bed. He’ll pick up steak and eggs. He’s heading to the club for food, but she should call so he knows she got the message. He’ll talk to her soon.
Bea retrieves a bowl of hard-boiled eggs from the fridge. They’re already unpeeled. Sometimes she builds up a surplus. She sprinkles salt, then takes tiny nibbles, working her way through the rubbery white. She wonders if it’ll be the same man this time with the canister of poison on his back that mists through a nozzle. He looked so much like Mr. Rogers from TV that Bea was startled to see him without a cardigan sweater. When he said “neighborhood” twice in a sentence, she asked if he knew the show. He said he did but that his name was Thompson. She hopes he’s the one who comes. He was in a hurry and missed the nest in the attic. After he left, she watched a line of caterpillars crawl out from under the fridge.
The first time, he sucked them up through the hose of a contraption meant for bees. He sprayed chemicals around the foundation. He plugged holes and put buckets of water in the basement and gave her his company card. Even with the missed nest, it took a week and extra hours to replace the caterpillars lost. Bea was relieved they’d only had a few prospective buyers in the time between. While the caterpillars were sparse, she guided them to prominent locations—the banister rails, the chandelier, the space between the windows over the kitchen sink. Luckily, no one made an offer. She guesses this time the exterminator will be more thorough. She should supply herself with knowledge. She should think up a plan.
Her son would tell her, Use the internet, Ma. But the internet makes her crazy. The cursor’s always disappearing off the side of the screen and she can’t get it back without starting the computer again. She’d rather read books. In the attic, she knows, is a box labeled BUGS. She pulls down the attic ladder and climbs up and up and up. The attic is hot, and her face soon drips with sweat. She hunts through boxes. She finds the right one behind a rack of wool suits and fancy dresses. She pops the lid. On top is a book called Butterflies and Moths. Her daughter’s name is on the cover in permanent marker in five-year-old print. Below it is a book called Creepy Crawly Caterpillars. She drags the box to the door and pulls it down the steps.
She comes down sweating. Her hair is wet. Her neck is wet. It’s wet between her legs. She grabs a book and heads for the bathroom. She peels off her clothes and climbs into the tub. Her skin is moist against the porcelain. She turns on the tap so water hits her toes. She folds her knees up and scoots toward the faucet until her hair is spread out on the shiny white, all the inches of her back pressed down firm. With coldness pooling around her, she breathes heat out of her lungs. She breathes and breathes and still a furnace rumbles inside her. She worries her heels will melt through the porcelain and spill water through the floor.
She is thinking these thoughts when something drops into the tub. She lifts her chin and sees a caterpillar flailing above her navel. She inflates her stomach and makes an island for him to beach on. Above her head, a nest is built like a drawbridge from curtain to shower head. Black spots like seeds are caught in the silk. A dozen caterpillars remain behind. Bea scoops up the marooned one and sets him on the floor. Then she cracks open the book, skims through the pictures and reads.
She reads, “Caterpillars have twelve eyes but only see shadows.”
She reads, “Caterpillars molt when their exoskeletons tighten.”
She reads, “The hickory horned devil caterpillar looks like a miniature Chinese dragon.”
She reads, “Birds won’t eat banded wooly bear caterpillars because of their hair but skunks roll them over and over until they are bald.”
She reads, “Tent caterpillar moths have no mouth parts. They can’t eat. They lay their eggs and die.”
She reads, “Caterpillars don’t have mothers. Before they’re born, their mothers are moths.”
She closes the book and thinks about the caterpillars that share her home. Caterpillars whose mouths will erase themselves while they sleep. Caterpillar orphans who grow so fat they explode out of their skins. She has to get them out of the house before the man named Thompson comes with the poison. She devises a plan.
Bea is at the end of stage one of operation evacuation. She is plucking caterpillars out of their tents. The silk sticks to her skin. They curl at her touch like hedgehogs. Tuck and roll, she thinks.
This is how her plan works. Caterpillars to bucket. Bucket to empty fish tank. Fish tank covered with cheese cloth on little red wagon at the base of the stairs. Little red wagon with wheels that roll to the tree house where pulleys hoist caterpillars up and up and up. Up to the safety of the tree. The tree house is their bunker until the poison clears.
She leaves three or four caterpillars in every nest as decoys. She tries to choose ones that look weak. Stage one takes longer than expected. The caterpillars’ hair rubs her fingers raw. Her body is slimy with sweat again. When she climbs the stepladder to get the ones near the ceiling, she gets dizzy and has to rest.
It takes until three in the morning to fill the tank. It takes until four to fly them up to the tree house. It takes until five to pack a suitcase and food from the house. She packs a cooler of ice and the box marked BUGS. Then, she hoists all of it up. Ten times, she goes up and down the ladder. There is fire inside her arms. Her face is red. The vibration in her chest is loud and fast and bright. The last time up, she pauses on every rung, resting her forehead against the bark. Her fingertips are numb, her feet alive with the buzz of bees. The wind in her ears makes surfaces spin. Then she’s up on the mattress and the door is shut and she’s breathing hard. She pushes her limbs away from her body. Her organs bleed together under her ribs. Her tongue is a bloated fish. The mattress sinks under the weight of her steam. Language melts in her head and drips down her throat. And all of it tastes oily and salty and thick.
That night colors come out of the mattress instead of dreams. The color her daughter dyed her hair before leaving for college. The color of bruises on her daughter’s legs when she jumped off the garage and landed on pavement. The color ink of the bird she tattooed on her tongue. The colors cling to Bea’s legs and lap up the salt of her sweat. They feed on her hair and pool into the crevices of her skin. And finally she sleeps. And her sleep is hollow and dark. Her sleep is the color of feces left on the lawn in a bucket the year her daughter moved out of the house and into a tree.
When Bea wakes, the sun has peaked. The exterminator’s truck is gone, but a sign in the lawn says EXTERMINATE WITH THE THOMPSON TEAM. There is panic in her chest. Panic about unlocking the door at seven A.M. It is certainly after that. Her head is heavy and syrupy thick. She scrambles awake and trips down the ladder. Three times she misses a rung. She scrapes her knee, and it bleeds.
There’s a note on the front door. It says she left the house unlocked, and her husband said go on in and get things done. The house has been fogged, chemicals poured behind the walls. The electricity’s flipped off. She should stay out an entire day, then open the doors and windows and wipe eating surfaces with bleach. After that, people and pets can return. Call with concerns.
Bea realizes she’s still in shorts and a sports bra on the front steps. She hurries back through the fence and climbs into the tree house. At the top, she’s winded. A chill corkscrews down her spine. Her feet are heavy with ice. She huddles under the blankets. Not enough. She pulls down coats from the wall and burrows under the layers, her face peaking out.
A caterpillar crawls up a ski jacket tacked to the wood. The ceiling is a tapestry of white tunnels. The fish tank is empty, except for molted skins, paper versions of living things. The caterpillars have wound silk around the rope attached to the postcards. Cambodia’s disappeared under a tangle of gauze. No, the postcards are gone, ingested. Caterpillars dangle from silvery threads. They hang like tinsel. Above them are cumulous clouds with feathers caught in between.
A breeze blows in and the caterpillars sway. Each strand swings in time with the rest. At the height of each arc, the caterpillars curl their bodies up to reverse their course. They lead with their heads. Bea closes her eyes on the circus and slips toward sleep. Everything feels heavy and blurred. All she can do is sleep. Sleep is all there is.
When the sleeping stops, the gossamer clouds have grown. Silk has enveloped the tree. But the caterpillars are gone. Bea’s not sure how long she slept. It seems like years. She touches her face to see if her mouth has disappeared. She feels lips and teeth and tongue. She speaks. She says her name. Beatrice. Beatrice. Beatrice. She sings her name, and it lights the layers of silk. She peels back gauze to find the door, slides the bar on the lock and descends.
The lawn glows in the sun. The exterminator’s sign is gone. For a moment, she thinks her house is missing too, a circus tent in its place with circus stripes and circus peaks and animals grazing out front. She looks again. The tent is the same shape as her house, and her house is there beneath. Above the chimneys, the tent rises in two points like the ears of a cat. There are pillows out on the lawn, house plants, groceries tied in plastic bags. Signs taped between the stripes read POISON. KEEP OUT. A skull and crossbones, big and black. And other words in tiny type.
Bea follows the front walk and feels through the tarp for the door. She takes the tent in her teeth and bites. It burns her tongue. It doesn’t rip. At the corners, the seams are rolled and clipped. The tent is held to the ground with sandbags, red and long like snakes. Bea goes to the back, kicks sandbags out of the way, unsnaps clips as high as she can reach. She pulls the tent apart and crawls beneath. In the bright rubbery glow, she inches her way down the side of the house. She finds the dining room window, presses her fingers to the glass, and pushes up—a broken lock. Her husband opened it once to yell at some kids. The window was locked. He ripped the wood. Bea digs her fingers under the storm window, jiggles the frame, inches it up. A moth with a beard slips out and brushes her neck. She piles sandbags, climbs them like stairs, and hoists herself into the house.
The furniture is gone, but the house is filled with moths, and the moths are filled with light. The light is tinted red and gold and blue, each window hatched with stripes. There’s a film in the air like fog. It is furry and coats her throat. She feels movement on her skin. Fans blow the moths from room to room. The space around her is filled with the white of their wings. They brush one another, and the sound of their brushing is soft. In front of her eyes, they flicker and float like pixels on a miswired screen.
Bea slips through the house. She shuffles so she won’t crush their tiny paper bones. A smell fills her lungs as she moves. Sharp and sweet, something like fruit with sulfur below. A dentist office smell. She hears the drill. Feels powder on her tongue, the resin used to fill cavities. The air smells like that. She closes her eyes, and moths alight on her skin. Their footsteps prickle. They lift off her arms. They just want to touch her once. They say there is something better upstairs. So she goes.
At the top of the stairs, the hallway is dark. In her bedroom, moths drum against the windows. The dull colored light sends them into a frenzy. They bump other bodies. They bump the glass. The closet doors are propped, and inside, moths pretend to be clothes. Bea touches a dress. The moths flutter apart and reassemble as pants. Bea shuts the closet door and goes back to the hall. The attic ladder is down, and moths usher her to its steps. She climbs, and they follow her up. They steady her legs and guide her hands. In the attic, they are thick like down. They coat the walls. The walls are soft. Around the chimney, they huddle in mass. They smooth the chimney’s edges out. They bulge, a tumorous growth, a snowy beast. Bea approaches. She blows them away. Brushes them back. She unearths a cocoon. A cocoon the size of a daughter. A daughter with a bare scalp. A daughter with womanly breasts. And scars on her thighs. A silver pin through her lip.
About the author:
Tessa Mellas won the 2013 Iowa Short Fiction Award judged by Julie Orringer. Her collection Lungs Full of Noise will be published by the University of Iowa Press in October 2013. Her fiction has appeared in journals such as Crazyhorse, Gulf Coast, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Pank, Storyquarterly, and Washington Square Review. She lives with a poet who likes bicycles, a three-legged cat who likes cream-of-wheat and a four-legged cat who collects rubber bands.