Appetites of the Natural World

By Elizabeth Gentry

Fall 2010 Nonfiction

At three-thirty each morning, the single cicada beneath the bedroom window begins to sound so ragged and worn that for the first time I understand his song is not a mere byproduct of summer intended to comfort me in my long night’s dip into death and dreams, but is an intense effort at survival, a remarkable labor. After successive nights, this exhausted screech becomes so distinct and familiar that I come to suspect that the cicada hidden amongst the privet is in fact the same cicada every night, in the same way that the orchard oriole singing on the porch three hours later is the same oriole, and, less obvious, that every other bird is also each the same bird, not just the circling hawk or the hammering woodpecker announcing themselves as novelties, but the apparently interchangeable robins at the base of the dogwood tree, the mourning doves crouched along the violet-covered hillside, the wrens perched on the electrical line sloping down to the street. No longer do these birds seem to be any birds from any place, as if a new batch migrates through every morning. Instead, I realize that they are actually all the same birds, no doubt habitually sleeping and eating at the same places every day, just as I do inside the house, just as the cicada does (since surely not every cicada would sound so thin and parched if singled out and placed beneath my window?).

In the darkness of pre-dawn, as I reach down to smooth and arrange my sheet like a fussy invalid, the cicada’s last feeble strains are so fragile that I can barely afford to scratch the dry skin of my leg for fear of calling too much attention to my own corporeality, much less touch myself as I sometimes do upon waking, not out of desire, but in hopes of creating vigor for the day. This, in spite of all previous mornings’ evidence that the small orgasm produced against early morning resistance only creates more doubt—about the eventual return of larger orgasms in the company of another, about life’s ability to penetrate these newly constructed walls with their heartbreakingly precise lines and smooth surfaces. The light gray walls rise to meet the bright white ceiling, where the contractor, who knew the house even better than I do now, has left stucco sunbursts with his wide, bristly brush. These marks are a commonly executed maneuver intended to make the finishing of the drywall easier, yet I cannot help but see in them an act of love, so many sunbursts delicate and fine across the ceiling as barely discernible as the orgasm.

Even now, one year after the house’s completion, it can at times seem unjust that the contractor found it possible to spend so many weeks carefully crafting each modification and repair (because he believes in good workmanship, because he cared about me), only to abandon it. Towards the end of the renovation he said, well, you must be ready for me to get out of your hair. I briefly agreed, imagining where to hang the pictures, curious about how it would feel to shower in the claw-foot tub, ready to sit on the back porch, with its view of the wooded hillside. But only briefly, since it might have been better to have had visits periodically, to have the illusion of joint ownership. Not because I am in love with the contractor (the feeling of love occurred during the discussion of termite damage among the cave crickets in the crawl space, but it passed), who, after all, has that endearing or faintly irritating quality of starting nearly every sentence with, “I’ll be honest with you.” But because he may be the only other person who knows where the light hits the house from March until June. Because he, and the friend he hired, have been in the narrow space between the dirt and the base of the fireplace where the floorboards had to be propped with cinderblocks. Because we discussed every detail of every square foot, and because he left this final gift of color on the walls. It is possible that no one else can participate in this intimacy, and unclear whether the house represents privacy or is a product of it, perpetuates it, sitting above town with a view of the hospital, against the shadow of the hill.

It took the color so little time to be marred. I had insisted on eggshell, the stylish matte finish. The contractor had hesitated, said, I’ll be honest with you, said eggshell was difficult to clean, concluded, well, you don’t have children. But thankfully the children had come—the nieces and nephews, traveling to christen the house and celebrate the Christmas holiday, a welcome antidote to the silence. They had leaned their hands against the taupe walls. Clean hands, even—only the slightest sheen of grease darkened the gray green. They had put socked feet at the head of the bed, climbing their way up the gray wall, not once, but twice, even after I scolded them like a particular grandmother, scolded myself for scolding them, then reconsidered: they should learn to respect things not belonging to them. On other occasions, I had myself placed hands at the head of the bed where it would have been better to have had a headboard, something to wrap fingers around, at a time when it seemed possible that the house would contain regular lovemaking. And I had left the black smudge of new lingerie against the saffron of the hall when lovemaking was no longer a possibility and what presented itself instead was an opportunity for sex. A surprisingly dark smudge for a thin mesh blend of nylon and spandex. A surprising bit of pleasure, leaving the bedroom curtains open afterwards, watching the lights of the city below—bridge lights over the river, marina lights, street lights, hospital lights—from the same window where each solitary morning, having coaxed my way out of bed, I open the curtains and look out, as if simply standing might signal an event.

At this bedroom window I often stand disoriented, like a patient awaking in a hospital. I make as if to check the weather, then linger there, hoping to see something unusual: in July and August, the white blossoms of the Rose of Sharon tree, steady and reliable in their blooming; in October, someone in tattered layers carrying plastic sacks, climbing the hill in search of the trail into the woods behind the house; the army soldiers in full camouflage in January, humping stuffed backpacks in a training exercise, their voices reaching through the storm windows to unsettle me; a cyclist mounting the hill for the sixth time in April, preparing for an upcoming race. I see more than my father’s mother would have, standing at the windows of her own bedroom not too many hours’ drive west from the house, the breeze wrapping the sheer red curtains around her calves, watching the sun rise against the flat horizon of her husband’s corn fields and listening to the irregular clicks and whirls of the refrigerator, to the accelerated spinning of the ceiling fan when a breeze pushed through. Faced with her day’s routine—collecting hen eggs, hanging clothes on the line, watering the porch begonias with an excavated gourd, watching television soap operas—she might relish the prediction of a storm, the weather an event if none other presented itself, if the party phone line did not ring, if no guests arrived in a cloud of dust down the mile-long driveway, and if her husband chose to continue his long habit of silence (and why should he not?).

Instead of dust, from my window there is sometimes the long cloud of white train smoke first spotted by a friend of my father’s, sitting on the couch looking out of the living room window in the middle of the holiday gathering. “There’s the train,” he said, the only thing he said all day, and the children all rushed to the front window to see. The Christmas train, they said, careful not to raise their voices because of the friend (who was too quiet, too thin—there must be something wrong with him). The Polar Express. We’ll have to go next year, my father said, but to the children, to the friend, next year seemed a long way away. Though he was never introduced to my grandmother, like her my father’s friend once took routine comfort in the gathering of eggs from the hen house and in the television, though he coupled his viewing with cocktails and chocolates, at a time when he had only just become suspicious of the appetites of the natural world, of the consumption that would eventually betray him, leaving him wrung dry.

In the sharp corners of the house, these appetites are most immediately apparent in the population of spiders—six, eight to every room they crowd, a silent demand for space and sustenance. At first they provided not only company but a game: would they compete for food (take the silver fish, I urged, take the centipedes and earwigs), or would the small spiders be cannibalized by the larger ones, so that there would, in the end, be one large alpha spider dominating the territory of the household? But always the numbers remained high, the sizes varied. There were adequate supplies, evidently, including the ladybugs in September, which appeared in quick succession, one or two new ones every couple of days, hovering around the lamps in the gray bedroom, buzzing against the globe of the ceiling light in the kitchen, crawling aimlessly across the golden wood floor to be stepped around. I was anxious not to kill them, though they were already dying (Had they come to die? Or had the house itself killed them?). One dying ladybug was replaced by another dying ladybug, as if the glass panes had begun operating as a waiting room for emergency care, full of worry, pain, and a surprising amount of begrudging patience. Upon arrival they might be eaten by the spider that lived beneath the kitchen windowsill, who, like a negligent husband, threw the empty red shells down onto the kitchen counter for me to clean up. (In the same way, my father’s friend would throw down the IV, time after time, as if he had taken all that it had to offer—and hadn’t he?) The dry husks of ladybugs joined the crushed bodies of wasps in the bathroom, which crawled from the attic through the regulation bathroom exhaust fan (excuse my French, the contractor said, but we’ll have to install a fart fan). Standing beneath the streaming shower, suddenly facing a wasp on the outside of the clear plastic liner, there was, I told myself, nothing to do but fold the plastic in two with my wash cloth and squeeze, letting the carcass fall onto the linoleum, leaving a brown tobacco juice smear. Inches away, the crushed mosquito left a bright red stain of blood on the white linen of the new bathroom curtain.

Such massacres provide superfluous evidence of the feast that each year occurs beginning in early spring and continuing so shamelessly, day after day, through fall: the gorging of living creatures on other living creatures to produce new living creatures, to produce such abundance and excess that I cannot hope to rid the exotic privet of the exotic honeysuckle, cannot hope to rid the hawthorn and spirea of the privet, to make room for the mock orange and hydrangea, the peony and later the cannas that will bloom and die so quickly as to barely merit accounting for, the tulip, iris, and lily that won’t outlast the week and therefore must be cut for the mantel, where they leave a stain of dripping nectar along the eggshell taupe. I scrutinize the trees in the woods for the ascent of the English ivy that wraps thick as my wrist around the base of the trunks all the way to the crown, leaving the trees green even in winter. I cannot battle the invasion with only my garden shears, however, and so each storm another one falls. Two fell early in summer, cutting off power and access to the house for a whole day, so that my neighbor ventured forth on foot for food and came back with burgers and milkshakes from the hospital cafeteria, which we ate on the top of the stairs leading up the hill to my house while we watched the city workers dismember the trees and restore the power lines. After the meal, when my neighbor returned to the June press of yard work, I climbed into bed, drowsy from the surge of sugar and from that month’s first issue of blood. From time to time, my afternoon sleep was interrupted by the sound of the male workers’ voices, which offered the comfort of a parent, sitting with a book beside the sickbed. Eventually, I awoke enough to realize that through the open curtains of my window I could see the heavy-suited electrician in the mechanical basket, mending the transformer across the street. Elevated by the machine, he had become level with my bed, unaware of me, yet both of us suspended above the earth. Like my father’s friend, he was alive, yet in the reach of death, his routine; I was shedding unneeded tissue and cells that might have produced life, my routine.

Yet I have work to do as well, implicating me in this industry of the warm months. Pulling back a patch of soil to plant herbs, I accidentally cut into earth worms with the trowel and churn the sow bugs. I toss the thick white larvae of some unnamable insect out onto the sidewalk for the birds to find, since try as I might, I cannot help but hate their blind and writhing embryonic existence. I mow the dandelions, which rise continuously over the grass. Again and again they shoot up and tower over cut clover, like the tree of heaven that must be plucked by the handfuls each day. Even in the drought, the trees must be plucked, leaving my hands smelling of damp, exotic disease, driving my neighbor to spray poison on the slope. (My neighbor, who wants everything to be natural, takes out the bottle of poison and sprays with a vengeance. All of this must stop, he says, and I agree.) Like Little Red Riding Hood, I take trips across his postage stamp backyard with my red basket to gather bricks from an old pile created when the house next door burned down ages ago. Wearing gloves to avoid the brown recluse, anxious not to meet a copperhead, I pluck bricks as if they are flowers, ferreting them away in the basket to use for plant beds and eroding banks, collecting them like my father’s friend collected eggs from his prize chickens, their thick black and white feathers demurely covering clawed feet (how pitiable they were, cowering in the corner of the hen house when the doors had to be left open, so that, my father said, nature could take its course—which it was already doing, which it had been doing for quite some time).

Unlike Little Red Riding Hood, I am not all innocence. My pants are muddied and there are bits of caterpillar sprayed across my thighs from the weed eating and I have heard the scream of the rabbit, the same scream over and over like a baby, moving quickly from one side of the woods to the next in the mouth of the fox. And I have also seen the red fox, standing at the triangle tip of my arrowhead backyard, looking towards the house, looking towards me, where I happen to be standing at the kitchen window in hopes of seeing something just like this fox, the only moment in the development of this habit of looking out the windows in which my curiosity has been gratified, in which the woods have produced some unusual beauty. This is what I know that distinguishes me from the girl in the fairly tale, merely performing a mindless errand for her mother: industry creates appetite—in the cicada, in the rabbits, in the foxes and in me, wolfing down a sandwich after my chores. Wolfing. Industry goes on and on to produce more life, more appetite, to produce, even, extra energy that is non-essential, that exists only as insurance against the essential, a multitude of cells, multitudes of cells gathered in the bodies of the millions of snails that appear on my sidewalk after a thunderstorm, snails that I never intend to crush by the dozens. They are each beautiful, crawling up the retaining wall that in my industry I must patch—the inspector says so, the insurance agent says so—and so I mix the quick-acting concrete and work swiftly, forgoing the trowel and using yellow rubber kitchen gloves, which allows me to mold the concrete beneath my fingertips, inevitably also coating snails and ants and spiders, enclosing them in a tomb of cheap concrete that will split again six months out, as I sometimes feel entombed in the sheetrock house, as I have seen a man entombed by the zipped up mesh tent of a hospital safety bed, alive and yet not alive, naked and hunched over his knees like an ancient ancestral self, fidgeting with the sheet over the wet spot in the mattress.

As I smooth the concrete, I also work around the yellow jackets, those most curious of busybody bees that clutter the hillside like dandelions, like the clover and the purple violets, in greater numbers than seems possible. Always they are at my feet when I chat with my neighbor, at my hands when I want to lock in the battery of the weed eater, when I reach to pluck a bit of peeling lower lip, a gesture that should be common enough but that now seems the gesture of a sick man (I am tugging at my covers, I am standing at the window, I am pulling on the discarded skin cells of my parched lower lip like a hospitalized man). I have to wave the yellow jacket away from my face, knowing better than he, with all of his instincts, that he is being too careless with himself for no purpose: I am merely planting thyme among the flat stones. That is all. I want the erosion of the red clay to stop. And though the bees were so innocuous that at first I let them crawl across my hands, once or twice something agitated them into a frenzy (was it the sweat from painting the front of the house?) and they started to sting. They almost stung, then flew away, unaware that we had both been rescued by my flinching. Whoever knew this was possible, to have the beginnings of pain alert me in time to avoid the deeper sting.

But there is no industry to beat that of the wasps, which put the yellow jackets to shame, which put me to shame, resting in the swing beneath the nest I left in the corner of the porch ceiling, which put the virus in the brain of my father’s friend to shame. The wasps are working more quickly than all of us. For us there is the new piling of unraked leaves and the choked rain gutters. For us there is the flaccid penis, red and swollen from the violent removal of the catheter, the punctured and scarred wrists, the iron grip of skeletal fingers on sheets and diapers and bedrails. Though I had not known my father’s friend well, I can imagine that he would have reacted to the wasps’ nest much like other guests, seeking solace in another corner of the porch to smoke his cigarette and escape from the need to make conversation with the curious grandchildren, with my father, urging him to eat. But I know that the wasps will ignore me as I sit beneath them. All spring, summer, and fall they build, cultivate, and multiply. If I come close, the wings rise like the hackles on the back of a cat, the heads swivel slightly. When I sit, they resume their activity, ignoring not only me, but the coming cold, so that eventually it becomes clear that they do not resign themselves at some official point at the end of the season, orchestrating a communal retreat or collective suicide, but instead continue to work until they appear to be frozen in place.

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