Sarah lies in the dark, listening to cars and trucks on the distant highway. She pictures them, lumbering along like Goliath beetles, their metallic bodies glinting in the moonlight.
And then he's on her, this man who calls her "wife", scattering her thoughts like spider silk in the wind. "Relax," he tells her, pushing his way in. She tries to remember the name of the bedbug genus in which the female has no sexual orifice. What's it called when the male punches a hole in her abdomen? Traumatic impregnation?
After he rolls off, Sarah turns onto her stomach and wills her body to reject his seed. She hugs her pillow and her secret. She would like to be an aphid, to spill out babies by the hundred. Fully formed clones of herself. An army of daughters.
A few minutes later, he sighs in his sleep and rakes her ankle with his toenails. Sarah buries her face in the pillow, breathing in the clean smell. The sheets and pillow cases are starched and ironed, the way he likes, the way he insists. Was there a time when his voice, his eyes, his hands didn't terrify her?
Sarah listens to the rhythm of his breathing and imagines what it would be like to be a parasitic wasp. This man would be her host. If insects feel something akin to pleasure, wouldn't there be some small joy in piercing his flesh with her ovipositor? Stinging him over and over, leaving him pregnant with his own death. Filled with dozens of tiny eggs that would hatch and feed until he was nothing but a translucent husk.
She clings to that thought until somewhere near dawn when she falls asleep.
In the morning, she's at the stove when he comes up behind her.
"What day is it?"
She licks her lips. "Friday?"
His hand is cool and hard as steel on the back of her neck.
"Friday, yes," he says with mocking patience. "But what's the date, Sarah? The date."
"Oh. I'm not quite sure. "
His hand slides up her neck to close on a fistful of hair. He tugs just enough to make her catch her breath.
"December twenty-fourth," he says. "The day before Christmas. My parents are coming. Remember, now?"
"Yes, of course." But she's lying. So few things stick in her memory anymore.
"And, you're not going to act crazy. You're going to be a good girl, right?"
She wants to turn her head, smile, pledge her allegiance, but he's holding her hair too tightly. Instead she speaks to the green and yellow flowers on the wall behind the stove.
"Yes. Yes, I will, Frank. I promise."
He releases her and her scalp tingles. She's filled with a strange euphoria.
Sarah stifles a giggle and turns toward him. "We don't have a Christmas tree yet."
His frown is full of disapproval. "You know they'll bring a tree from the farm. Like always."
She can see from the way he stares at her that this is something important. But what does it mean? Through her mind flashes a glimpse of a weathered clapboard house and a tree-lined path leading to a pond.
"The farm." She nods. "Yes."
"Time for your medication," he mutters and leaves the room.
A few minutes later, he's back with his medical bag. He straightens his tie and waits while she works up some saliva and opens her mouth to take the two lavender pills he places on her tongue. She pretends to swallow and when he turns his attention to filling the syringe, she sneaks the pills into her hand. She holds out her arm and watches him slide the needle in. There's no pain. He's good at injections.
Before the syringe is even empty, she feels her heels lift off the tile floor. She drifts up almost to the wooden rafters and he begins to sing a Christmas carol. She wants to sing too, but seems to have lost her voice.
"Feel better?" he asks.
Sarah laughs and floats around his head, doing figure eights. He smiles at her. His eyes are dark gray. They glitter like frosty granite. There's an expectant twist to his mouth. He's waiting. What she wants is to fly around the room hissing like a June beetle but an icy wind pulls her down. She panics. Christ, what does he want? Am I supposed to beg for mercy? Fall on my knees? Unzip his pants?
Somehow, she's suddenly back in front of him, watching as he licks a molten ruby dot from the needle wound on her arm. One drop or all of it, he owns her blood. She sees that. He has the power to drain her, to turn her inside out.
"You are God," she says.
"Not quite," he whispers. His facial muscles relax a little, but she can tell he's still waiting for something more.
"I am nothing," she says. "Nothing. An insect."
He laughs and shakes his head. "God, Sarah. Let's not get carried away. You're my wife. That's all." He glances at his watch and adjusts the pager on his belt.
She stares at the stitching across the toes of his shoes and hopes he won't notice that she's trembling.
After a moment he lifts her chin up and says, "Looks like we need to adjust your medication. We want you in a festive mood when my parents arrive." He pulls on his overcoat and buttons it, studying her face.
"I promise I'll be good."
"Of course you will." He ties his scarf and says, "Don't leave the house. Don't answer the phone. Don't invite anyone in."
"It's for your own good, Sarah. Understand?"
"Yes, I know," she says, another lie.
He pulls on his gloves, picks up his medical bag and steps into the foyer.
The front door closes. The key turns in the lock.
Sarah moves to the kitchen window to watch as he backs the car out into the slushy snow-banked road. He looks up at her and waves. She waves back. In her other hand, the lavender pills are sticky with spit and sweat.
He drives away but she continues to stare out the window. Across the road, a deer browses on a scrubby bush in the vacant lot. And she suddenly remembers that she used to be very interested in deer ticks. But that was a long time ago.
The phone rings. The answering machine clicks on.
"Hello. This is Dr. Frank Spencer's residence." Sarah is surprised to hear such kindness in his voice.
Then a woman says, "Sarah? Hey, are you there? It's me, Allie. We haven't heard from you in quite awhile. And well, everybody in the lab wants to wish you a Merry Christmas. And um . . .oh yeah, I wanted to remind you about the Entomology dinner on the fifteenth."
Abruptly, Sarah leaves the kitchen and steps into the long hallway. Something is wrong. She freezes, pressing her spine against the wall, listening to the thump thump of her own heart until she thinks she hears something else. A soft humming sound. Like a faraway hive of bees? Sarah sniffs the air, thinks she smells a faint electronic odor. Hidden cameras? Why would he do that? Does he study the tape at night while I sleep?. She melts into the wall, closes her eyes and sees him frowning, punching buttons, reversing, fast-forwarding as he studies the film, scribbling notes, cataloguing her movements, her facial expressions. To see how she is when he's not there to see how she is. Yes. He would do that.*
Like an insect caught in a stream of sap, Sarah's movements become slowed. The hall has grown vast and cold as the space between galaxies. Over the rest of the morning and through the afternoon, she travels, edging sideways, one millimeter at a time, down the treacherous corridor. All the way to the end.
The study is dark. Sarah smells the air and listens. No cameras in here. Not yet. She flicks on the light and banks of shallow cedar drawers that line three walls of the room are bathed in a fluorescent glow.
In the back of a drawer marked Ephemeroptera, behind piles of bottles of alcohol-preserved larvae, she finds a plastic ziplock bag full of lavender pills.
When she empties the bag, each pill hits the porcelain mortar like a tiny bell. She grinds them into powder and adds water, watching it turn from lavender to purple. Dark and bitter. Sarah drinks it all and waits for something to happen.
Hours have passed. Perhaps even days. Impossible to know. But it's evening now. The lamps are lit, the drapes drawn. He's helped her bathe and laid out clothes for her; a long black wool skirt and a red sequined blouse with billowy sleeves.
He enters the bedroom and stares at her as if she's a statue. "You've put it on backward, Sarah," he says finally, his voice heavy with disappointment.
She looks down at the front of the blouse and watches, fascinated as her exposed breasts weep tiny pearlescent teardrops. Sarah laughs without stopping, until he pulls the blouse over her head and turns it the right way around.
Later, when he leads her into the living room, she has the sensation of stepping into a forest. The air seems thick, full of clouds. Two elderly people, each holding one end of a silver garland turn away from a pine tree and smile like wizened seraphim.
The man brushes her forehead with his lips. "Hello, Sarah, my dear."
Though she wants to answer, to reach out, to let this spark warm her, her tongue feels like lead.
The old woman regards her a moment and says, "Got your figure back, I see." She turns to her son with a frown. "She's much too thin, Frank."
"I know what's best for my wife, Mother." He leads Sarah to a chair near the fireplace and offers, with strange tenderness, a green embroidered pillow for her back.
Something about the way his pale thumbs grasp the velvet borders brings another time, another room, another pillow into crystalline focus.
She sees Frank and his mother bending over a basket on a bed. A bed in a pale blue room with gauzy yellow curtains. There's a vine growing against the window. Honeysuckle? This is the farm. And in the basket...in the basket is an infant. A silent, motionless newborn. There's something terribly wrong with the slope of its forehead and the awful blankness of its tiny face. Frank picks up a pillow and holds it above the basket, hesitating.
His eyes are red and swollen, his cheeks wet. "I can't." He shakes his head. "I can't."
"You can," his mother tells him. "It's an act of kindness. What sort of life would it have? Ask yourself that." She pushes his hands and the pillow down into the basket, holding them there.
No! Sarah screams but no sound escapes. Her breasts burn. She can't breathe. It's as if she feels the weight of the pillow pressing into her own face, covering her mouth and nose.
The snap of a log in the fireplace sends a spray of cinders across the slate hearth, and once more she's back in the room filled with clouds and the scent of pine.
"Carolers!" the old man shouts. He opens the French doors.
"In the middle of nowhere?" the old woman asks.
The cool air carries a few discordant notes into the room. Frank and his mother step onto the balcony. The old man calls to Sarah, "Come along, my dear. This'll brighten your spirits."
She reaches for his outstretched hand and feels a warm sensation deep in her head. Shards of light shatter her vision into multiple images. The old man is now dozens of old men and they all stare at her with the same stunned expression. They watch as she unfolds her diaphanous wings. They witness this metamorphosis.
As Sarah sails off the balcony and over the heads of the carolers standing in the moonlit snow, Frank shouts her name.
But she has no mouth to answer and there is no time. She is a mayfly; Emphemeroptera, creature of spring. And this is the dead of winter.
Appeared in Eureka Literary Magazine, Fall 2004