Jeremy Packert Burke
The insects revolted that summer. No one knew why. Grasshoppers, locusts, beetles, and bees, buzzing and chirruping, jumping from the grass. They came in chitinous hordes, scrabbling from the earth and shaking the dirt from their gossamer wings, crawling toward the houses of Holloway. We would crunch and squish across a half-inch layer of locusts, ladybugs, and hercules beetles to get the morning paper, only to discover it had been eaten clean through by the moths.
We wore flu masks to keep airborne creatures from burrowing into our mouths, goggles to protect our eyes. We didn’t allow the children outside, afeared of entomic masses carrying kids off, stripping them of their flesh, leaving only pure white skeletons.
These were only rumors, of course, but the insects did kill a whale that way. It washed up on the shores of Lake Hesperus, beached and moaning in the breeze, until—surrounded by thousands of flitting greengold shapes—like a magic trick it was reduced from flesh to white nightmare. A nugget of ambergris was left in the cage of its ribs, which Travis Gehry stole and sold to Bucky Foucault, the perfumiér.
Sunsets were incredible that summer. We all stood on our porches and watched the red-speckled dusk sink into full dark, rays of sunlight bent through the wings of insects, disco-balled in the many facets of their eyes, so that patches of every colored light imaginable danced over the woods and the walls, over our upturned faces. Sweeping over the town as if it were a roller rink. Even at night, the pale moonlight caught the shifting carapaces, the glistering masses.
The leaves fell, red, along the paths of the forest, the roads of the town. Winter came, and the insects froze to death. In the spring it took a week to sweep up, and even then there were little frozen bug carcasses found under piles of melting snow for months.
I never spoke to you again after that summer and fall. Never saw you but at the mandatory gatherings: the cleaning of the town, the parent-teacher conferences, the solstice puppet shows.
During that summer our children grew restless and agitated, trapped inside as they were. They tied twine to the backs of cans and pitched them past their windowscreens. The seething waves of insects carried the cans across town, twine unraveling until another kid spied the can from their window and, reaching with a telescoping back-scratcher or a runcible spoon, plucked the can from the glittering mass and grasped it firmly in hand. They brushed aside any stray insects that clung to it still.
“Hello? Who’s there?”
“Fidel. Who are you?”
“Bonnie. Are you stuck inside?”
As more and more children caught on, sending dozens of cans out to all corners of Holloway, a web of twine rose over the town, a network of string that crossed and double-crossed itself. The lines gathered above the bug-filled streets, dense as a rainforest canopy. They were every color from rose-gold to ultramarine. Pareidolic lines described shapes in the air like constellations: beasts, gods, and heroines of antiquity drawn in multicolor between the land and sky.
In the places the strings touched, they rubbed secret voices into each other. If you were quiet, you could eavesdrop, hear others talking about their pink eye or their missing cat, or singing loudly to each other.
I stood on the porch, beating the waves of insects back with my broom, staring at the net above me and the patches of brief blue sky that broke through. My wife was in the basement, buttressing the defenses at the windows and doors, and I thought of the Christmas party a year prior: my wife likewise basement-bound and seeking wine, the red and green polish of your nails, the way they trailed across the bead bracelet of my son, Poker’s, name, which he had given me in some deranged gift-giving game. Behind your thick glasses, your eyes shone like carapaces. My fingers moved towards yours. Footsteps returning: your wife from the bathroom, mine from the basement. Fingers falling to our sides.
I swept. I knocked a dragonfly from the air. I swept more. My body held, in its hazmat suit, between seething insects and still, suburban dreamcatcher.
When our work was done, my wife practiced her timpani late into the night. BOM BOM-BOM BOM. BOM-BOM BOM BOM. Each BOM sent queasy shivers through me, made me long for your short, painted nails.
Over the course of days the strings became so dense that insects got caught in the web, and the children’s conversations were punctuated by beating wings, bursts of distortion.
“My PRRRR-arents are fighting again.”
“Dad sma-ZHHHH-ed six plates this time, and when they sto-BZZZZ-ed fighting he tried gluing them together again. So now everything tastes like glue.”
A silence full of humming.
“I wish I could THTHTH-ee you.”
“I FWFW-ould like that very much.”
And so on.
Unlikely friendships formed. Relationships. Teenagers discussed various sex acts they would perform on one another if they ever left their houses again. They would sneak out right now, they said, except that Jimothy Tribulant had been eaten by a colossal swarm of gnats (they’d heard) and, well, they didn’t want to turn out like Jimothy. I searched through Poker’s cans, testing them with whispers to see if you were on the other end of them. A map would be helpful. Or better, an exchange, an operator. “Hello, hello?” I called, but was met with buzzing, or silence, or the voices of children:
In the crossed lines, snatches of words meant only for others, dozens of lies, traveled through the string.
“I love you.”
“I love you, too. I have only ears for you, Isadora.”
“This is Daphne.”
“. . . Ah, right.”
Each of my wife’s footsteps below was like the thunder of a balloon popping. I hurriedly sought the can that would lead me to you. The serendipity this would require! My wife was, mercifully, occupied still; I heard the shuffle of her plasticene clothing, the whap! whap! whap! noise of her broom against delicate exoskeletons. Poker I had sent to the attic to read Fielding (the usual punishment for indiscreet plots of fingerbanging). I was safe, briefly. “Hello, hello?”
It wasn’t just me. All of the parents were seeking one another out, their voices coming through Poker’s cans.
“Irene? You there?”
“Roland . . .”
“Uriah, where are you!”
We directed one another as best we could, pretending we didn’t recognize the voices of our preachers, our teachers, our librarians and captains of industry, pretending we were not coordinating a mass infidelity. I knew there was limited time till word reached you. And then you would have to decide if you wished to talk to me, or not.
It was much for us as for the children. “I feel like there’s nothing I can do to save the marriage, not at this point.”
“I WRRR-ish I could see you.”
“Me too. But we never leave the house anymore.”
“Oh, David. I love you. Will this plague never end?”
“This is Frank.”
“. . . Ah, right.”
Just as winter came I found your voice. Mellifluous as bare feet on ice. And I poured out my love to you as you did the same. Poured out grief. The accumulated nail clippings of your wife, the incessant timpani practice of mine. The longing to press against each other, to cross our bodies like the bones on a Jolly Roger—this illicit, piratical love.
But as we talked, the first snow began to fall. Fat, dry flakes poured from the sky. They collected on the tin can network. Small piles built at every intersection, colors obscured by the snow. Our conversation was muffled and slowly faded, quieter and quieter in the precipitation. The snow pulling the lines slowly earthward.
Our devotions became hurried. We told a lifetime of fairy stories, of wishes, of sex acts and gifts, speaking over one another but listening all the same, hoping we’d absorb the other’s words, that we’d have something to hold onto during the long chill. I did not realize until it was too late to say goodbye that the quietening had resolved, finally, to abject, total silence.
The whole town was covered in a thick paste, clinging to windows and eaves and gutters, filling all the crannies and calderas there were to fill. Beneath it all, the insect mass slowed its teeming, delicate gossamer wings were wetter and whiter, colder and colder, legs scuttling with less fury. They, too, were losing loved ones, their pheromone trails washed clean by the snow. The town lost power. At night the cloud-clubbed sky was lit from below, reddish in the light of a thousand candles, burning the dark.
Nobody spoke that winter. We shuffled around our houses, shuffling downstairs, upstairs, into kitchens and closets, shuffling under blankets and into our snow pants, whose polyester sheathes shuffled doubly. Everyone mourned the loss of the rainbow network, the lives within it, the secrets. Regular speech paled in comparison.
Not even the birds chirped. Having gorged themselves fat on insects, they were deep into a collective food coma. Cats and dogs were silent in solidarity with the birds. My wife’s timpani—silent in solidarity with the cats. The whale skeleton by the lake was silent as ever. All the town was swathed in a quiet like a heavy cotton bandage, too thick for any blood to show through.
No one left their homes but to buy canned foods at the grocery. We ate soups and creamed corn and rice pudding, overcome when we looked at these empty cans which would never hold the voices of our illicit loves. I made Poker read Fielding in the attic out of spite. My wife scowled but said nothing. Every night we dreamt of spring.
And it came, as it must. The sun chased off the clouds, the snow melted, light pressed through the tangled fallen web.
School and work were put off for a week while adults and children alike all gathered in the streets to sweep up the insects. Some spoke; some even sang, quietly, to themselves. Most were silent, still.
And the strings—the strings, in all their colors, were worn out and flabby, drooping so far that we knew they would never again be taut, never again carry our voices. The children found one another in person but did not have words for each other. Their brief, stannic glory, which had come through the grace of distance, was now gone. Most adults knew already that this would be the case and did not even attempt to make good on the promises they had made during that summer and fall.
I tried to catch your eye but you refused, wanting not to be reminded of the things we said and said we’d say. You were with your wife and I with mine. A frozen bug fell into your hair and you pulled it out like a bit of dead skin, absentmindedly, unperturbed as you searched for your daughter, Sarah, in the crowd. I watched the bug fall to the ground like a stomped can, and you disappeared into the seething, sweeping mass.
Was it the madness of the summer that had prompted your declarations, now gone stale? Was something recovered that winter, some wound healed so that you no longer longed for unfamiliar companions? Or was it only all a dream, a fantasy world we conjured in the constellations, the conjunctions of tin and string? I waited for you, kept cleaning the street until after the warm black night fell, but you did not return. Our voices trapped forever in the string, or returned to the sky with the evaporating snow. I could hear my wife two blocks away, tuning her timpani. BOM BOM BOM.
The children, unlike us, made the most of their tragedy. It began the next dawn, with Jimothy Tribulant on the street, hauling together—haltingly—a thick handful of stretched-out strings. A dozen kids leapt from their breakfasts and porches to join him. “We thought you were dead!” they said, and Jimothy just smiled and asked them to help him. As the pack moved through Holloway, crunching over stray, frozen moths and dung beetles, over crisp, stiff dragonflies and ladybugs, more and more children joined in. They gathered up their too-long strings, winding the dozens of them into an enormous, glimmering rope, shining with more kinds of light than even they, in their youth, could see. Hands wove in and out, around and up and down, a hundred scuttling hands weaving together the giant rope. When they finished they tramped to the shores of Lake Hesperus, en masse, and tied the rope to the skeleton of the whale. They grabbed hold of the rope and ran down the beach, pulling the glistening white monster behind them until the rope grew taut and the skeleton rose in the air like a kite. All the children marveled in the shade of its ribs, its skull, its vast complex beautiful tail, its bones shaking and rippling in the breeze, swimming through the sky. The children laughed and hollered and ran, and whenever one kid fell, they were pulled aloft by the force of the whale and set back upon their feet. They flew it up the beach towards the town, dancing through the streets beneath it as if it were a parade balloon. We gawped in terror. “Put down that whale skeleton!” Polly Vesp shouted. “What if it falls?” cried Ty Silberman. But the whale was held aloft by group psychology, wind, and string, and did not fall.
It did, however, get stuck in a large oak tree at the edge of town. The children were disappointed, but all agreed that it looked rather nice up there in the branches. They let go of their rope and ran home together, still whooping and hollering joyously.
The whale stayed aloft in the tree, and soon birds, waking from their food comas, took to nesting in it, building homes among the rictus of baleen plates. The colorful pieces of string found new life in the nests of bowerbirds, which they used to attract mates at the beginning of spring.
I watched them every year, long after the kids left, after my wife left and took her timpani; after you, too, left, with your nails freshly painted. Those blue midnight darts in the bleached white bones. I watched every year until the tree was cut down, the whale sent to the chalk factory. I watch them still, from the huge stump, as they carry bits of string through the air to other trees. New birds now, trailing battered frayed rainbow ends through the sky, like messages from the past to the sun.
Jeremy Packert Burke is an MFA candidate at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa. He has work in or forthcoming from the Indiana Review, Puerto del Sol, Quarterly West, Third Coast, Fanzine, the Adroit Journal, the Nashville Review, Split Lip, and other places. He exists on Twitter @jempburke and on the regular internet at jeremypackertburke.com
“Glittering Dark” was originally published in May 2018 by SAND.