Sir Reginald F. Grump XXIII presents...
The journal of unlikely entomology
Celebration of Life. Pretty name; pretty concept. I want to scream every time I hear it. For the last six months, I've been walking a tightrope, pretending at normalcy, pretending I haven't lost my only sister. I've surrounded myself with imaginary walls. If I don't feel, I can't hurt.
Now I understand how fragile life is, how quickly it can be ripped apart. What I don't understand is how to put it back together.
I know every bump and turn in the road. It should bring me comfort, heading to my childhood home, but I feel out of sync, as if I'm watching myself through someone else's eyes.
I pull into the driveway and sit for a minute, shutting out the memories of two young sisters laughing and playing. If I focus on the orange trees across the pasture, my gaze skims by the playhouse and the stump of the huge eucalyptus tree that used to hold the treehouse Dad built.
I won't let in the memories. I can't. But on the way to the back door, I almost step on a big black beetle. And that's all it takes for a memory to pop through.
I was seven and Rebekah nine. "Watch out!" she screamed, pointing at my feet. I'd almost stepped on a black bug crawling across the sidewalk. She'd always had this thing for bugs. She was so stupid. Bugs were icky.
She hopped around, eyes closed, worried about the bug. But what about me earlier, when she wouldn't let me color with her? She hadn't been worried about my feelings then.
So, I looked her right in the eye and stomped that bug. It squished under my flip-flop with a loud crunch. Rebekah cried for hours, casting looks filled with hurt and betrayal at me. I pretended like I didn't care, but inside, I was crying, too.
Dad's in the kitchen, sitting in his usual spot at the counter. "Thought you'd be here fifteen minutes ago," he says, without looking up from his crossword puzzle. There's a coffee mug at his left hand. It doesn't take a genius to know it holds more than coffee.
"I forgot how slow everyone drives around here." Hi, Sara. Nice to see you. I missed you. Something along those lines would be nice. But why start now, after forty-five years?
Rebekah and I learned from the best how to swallow our feelings in straight shots of ice-cold vodka.
I carry my suitcase into our old bedroom. It smells musty and there's a scraggly spiderweb in the corner. How in the world did two twin beds, a dresser, a bookcase, and a desk fit in here? There's a worn brown sofa against the wall that folds out into a bed with a thin, lumpy mattress. Last time I was here, Kyle and I were together. We kept rolling into each other all night. It hadn't bothered us in the least.
I wish he were here. No. That's over. I can't give him what he wants. I can't give him me. I don't know where I am.
Memories of childhood engulf me. Giggles with Rebekah in the night. Fighting over the phone, or whose friend got to spend the night. Hours and hours of talking about nothing. Baking cookies. The time Kathy Larson made fun of me at school. Rebekah pushed her down and got paid for her heroics with a black eye. We made it our mission to snub Kathy every chance we got after that. Not that it mattered to her and the other popular girls.
I'd hoped after six months, I'd be ready for Rebekah's Celebration of Life. It was Dad's idea — let the grieving ease, and then scatter her ashes. It'd worked two years ago when Mom died, but this time, the grief is still a raw, aching wound. I'm not ready to let go of my big sister.
I can't breathe in our old bedroom. The walls are too close, the memories too big. My heart thumps against my ribs; my mouth is so dry I can't swallow. I grab my car keys and rush out the door with a mumbled, "Be back soon," in Dad's general direction. He doesn't answer — not that I'd expected him to.
It's a couple of miles down the road to the Quik Stop. When we were growing up, it was a local mom-and-pop country store. Rebekah and I used to walk there for candy, talking about school or our friends. Never about our parents or the arguments. Never about how Dad's glass held more than just water, or how Mom's tears were over more than some silly TV show.
The old store's been remodeled into a gleaming chrome and glass-fronted mini market, the vacant pasture now an asphalt-covered parking lot. I buy a super-sized soda, leaving enough room for a generous slug of booze. It's an old habit that comforts me in a perverse way, telling myself I can top it off with vodka if I choose. It's all about choices these days. So far, choosing to get sober is the only sensible decision I've made in the last ten years.
I plop down on the curb at the edge of the parking lot. Cars come and go as dusk steals the last traces of an orange-colored sunset from the sky.
The full moon rises. I take a long sip of soda, letting the sweetness roll over my tongue, wishing for the acrid bite of vodka instead. The parking lot lights switch on, growing brighter as the sky darkens. One bulb flickers and buzzes, drawing my gaze.
A bug flutters into the circle of light, soon joined by another, and then another. A whirring sound fills the air as a dark cloud of beetles is drawn to the light. There's thousands of them, circling and diving in erratic flight, black carapaces glinting like polished ebony.
The door of the store opens and a small girl, maybe seven or eight, walks out, blonde hair tied in a thin ponytail.
My breath catches and a chill shivers down my spine. She looks just like Rebekah at that age, right down to the knock-knees and pigeon-toes.
I can't stop myself from whispering, "Rebekah?"
Without answering, she sits beside me, delicately crossing one ankle over the other. She points at the swarm of diving bugs. "Ever see that before?"
I drag my gaze away from that too-familiar face to the bugs, now in frenzied flights, their wings beating so rapidly they emit a high-pitched whine. I don't know why I feel calm enough to answer, because inside I'm freaking out. "They come through like this every few years."
"They're so beautiful! And look how they whirl through the air!"
We played with whirlybird seed pods as children, throwing them into the air to watch them spiral down. Rebekah would twirl with them, her arms open to the sky. "They're swans," she'd say, "landing on a lake. And one's a princess, waiting for her prince to come kiss her and then they'll ride away on a white horse and live happily ever after."
Happily ever after didn't happen for either of us, most especially for her. Torn and tattered by man after man, still she'd showered them with attention, immersed them in a womb of love. But she gave too much away, so much there wasn't anything left for herself, and then the rank words that others used against her filled her head and turned in on themselves until she believed each and every one of them. And no matter how well any one treated her, no matter how many kind words were spoken, she couldn't hear them over the sibilant whispers of unworthiness that came from within. Until, even had there been a knight on a white horse, she wouldn't have recognized him, would have turned him away with harsh words and never a backward glance.
In time, only booze had eased her pain, but only momentarily. When the vodka hadn't been enough, the downers came out, even though she was already about as down as she could get by then, looking for a place to hide, a moment of surcease from the pain. But it had her by the throat, wormy fingers reaching into her brain, leaving maggots and filth, and wiping out any trace of the little girl that had been.
"It's okay," the little girl says, patting my shoulder.
I realize I'm crying. I nod and sniffle, taken aback by her maturity and compassion.
Her gaze flickers away and she points at the parking lot. "Here they come."
A bug hits the pavement, followed by another, and then another, until it's a shower, and then a deluge — beetles plummeting from the sky and bouncing off the asphalt, pinging like hailstones.
The girl crouches over a bug, picks it up, examines it, sets it down. Picks another, puts it aside. The next, she peers at closely. She picks up one of the discarded bugs, compares the two, and then sets them both down.
Plop. Plop. Plop-plop. More bugs fall. They lie on their backs, stunned or wasted from their mating ritual, legs waving at the sky. The parking lot is a surging sea of beetles. The little girl wades through their midst.
I anticipate the crunch of smashed beetles, but the black tide clears a path, skittering and flopping out of her way. She turns to me. "Coming?"
She's small and delicate, pointed chin and smattering of freckles across her nose, but she stands with a regal tilt to her head, a goddess on her small island. A gray path of asphalt invites me to follow in her wake.
Rebekah and I always followed the path of least resistance, taking the easiest route in life instead of fighting for what should have been ours. It led to countless bad decisions along the way, especially for her. Too proud to admit her own failures, she shut herself away and rejected everyone who loved her. And then she died alone, thousands of miles from home.
"Hurry! We have to save the Queen!" the girl demands.
She nods, her expression serious. "So she can fly free." She turns and continues examining the bugs.
Reason is already far gone this night. Letting my heart lead me for once, I step onto her path.
Behind me, the beetles close in. She picks a beetle here and there, tosses it aside. "What are you looking for?" I ask.
"The males have big pincers. But the Queen will have the biggest of all."
When we were teens, I took to calling her Queen Rebekah, her nose in the air and a shoulder turned to me. I couldn't break her, though. She wouldn't let me in. Building walls were what we did best, especially invisible ones to keep others away.
"Here she is!" The girl holds a beetle between thumb and index finger. It honestly looks no different to me than the thousands of beetles on the ground. But the girl is practically dancing with excitement. "Come on," she cries, racing to the edge of the parking lot.
Maybe I'm dreaming, and I'll wake up back at home on the lumpy mattress. The nameless girl halts at the edge of the parking lot. My heart aches for my sister. I want to hug her, tell her I'm sorry. I want to tell her how beautiful she was, both on the inside and the outside.
I start toward the girl, to tell Rebekah what's in my heart, but she stops me with an upraised palm. A beetle clings to her hand. She lifts it to the sky like an offering. Slowly, she begins to twirl. Faster and faster, around and around she spins, and then she flings the bug into the air. I see it take wing, outlined against the full moon for one brief second, and then it disappears.
The girl's face radiates a simple, pure joy that moves me to tears. I cry for her happiness. I cry for Rebekah. Most of all, I cry for myself.
When I look up again, the little girl is gone.
I search for her around the building. In the store, I ask the pimple-faced clerk if he saw where she went, but he gives me a blank shrug and says he never saw a little girl.
After a half hour of fruitless searching, I reluctantly head for home, feeling like I've lost something. I feel even emptier than when I arrived, if that's possible.
When I get inside, Dad's in bed. The house is quiet and full of memories. I crawl into the lumpy sofa bed, wishing for Kyle's warmth beside me. Our last argument — if you could call a one-sided monologue an argument — plays over and over in my mind. He'd finally grown tired of my withdrawn silences and my refusal to get married. I couldn't bring myself to tell him of my fear.
He was the guy I'd never dared dream about. He was gentle, respected my feelings, and never put me down. How could he love someone as messed up as me?
So, I left. Five steps away, I'd wanted so badly to turn around, but I couldn't.
Was I really any different from Rebekah?
Eventually, I sleep for an hour or two. The next morning passes with interminable cups of coffee. I'm lost in a sea of unreality, my mind still on the girl and the beetles. Old friends and family arrive. My Aunt Bess grabs me and blubbers on my shoulder while her daughters hover nearby.
I can't breathe with her arms around me. I extricate myself as quickly as possible.
Finally, it's time for the ceremony. After Dad leaves with my cousin, who's going to pilot the plane, the rest of us go outside. I stand alone by the old eucalyptus stump. I look at the ground, not able to face any more memory-laden images of the yard or house.
After several long minutes, I hear the drone of the plane's engines echoing off the windswept clouds like a giant bumblebee. I search the horizon, shading my eyes to catch the glint of sun on metal.
Life is fragile. One minute Rebekah was here, the next she was an empty shell, her spirit at last fled to a safer, quiet place. Our last conversation haunts me. She called to tell me she was in the hospital. She was in pain. She was scared and alone. I made arrangements to go to her the next day.
She didn't tell me how seriously ill she was.
She died before I even left my house. I should have been there, to hold her, to let her know she was loved. Why hadn't she called me sooner?
Why hadn't I tried harder to reach her before it was too late?
The plane tips its wing as it passes overhead, sweeping low enough that I can almost make out Dad's face in the passenger seat. A gray mist flows from the window.
It's her. Rebekah.
The cloud of ash fans out, floating, dissipating, even though I try to hold each miniscule particle of my sister in my gaze. I can't take my eyes off them — it would feel as if I were turning my back on her once again.
The plane circles back. Again, another stream of ash. There's so little substance. My eyes remain dry but my heart feels like a rock plummeting into my gut. On the third pass, they fly even lower. I see the urn come out the window, the last batch of ashes a short burst, quickly lost on the breeze.
Dad sticks his head out the window and waves, and then he tosses out rose petals. The plane waggles its wings and turns for the airport. I hear the others moving back toward the house. My aunt comes and squeezes my shoulder, but when I ignore her, she leaves me alone.
The rose petals, crimson with gold undersides, are all that remain with me. They twist and twirl like sparkling whirlybirds, drifting for what seems forever, suspended on wings of air.
A tiny breeze whorls the petals in a quick upthrust and then they slowly spiral down. They shower me, silent drops of crimson and gold rain. I want to cry again for all Rebekah has lost, but my tears are gone. I'm empty.
I let Rebekah shut me out of her life. I should have tried harder to reach her. But I didn't, and now I can't fix her anymore. I can't save her.
The petals settle to the ground. I pick one up. It releases its sweet perfume on my fingers. I remember the little girl at the Quik Stop last night, the beetles dropping around her in a black rain. Her joy as she set the queen free.
It was so simple for her. Free the queen.
Maybe I should take a lesson from her. Was I holding on too tightly to the past, while letting my future slip by? Had I been hiding behind old hurts, walling myself and Rebekah behind painful memories?
I offer the petal, palm up, to the sky. Then I hold my arms out and twirl. I throw my head back and spin, around and around. I reach for Rebekah, and this time, I let my memory fill with her beauty and generosity. I remember her deep chuckle, her shy, ducking smile. Most of all, I remember how much she cared.
I whirl until the sky spins with me.
I toss the petal into the air. It begins a slow downward spiral. It halts, softens, flickers in the sun, and then impossibly — for the breeze has died away, and the air is as still as death — it lifts. It rises, floating higher, flickering crimson and gold in the sun.
"Fly free, Rebekah," I whisper. I watch until the petal disappears.
Then I let her go.
Slowly the world comes back into focus. A car passes by, its tires whooshing on the old pebbled road. My heart beats lighter, my breath flows without a hitch.
A movement across the pasture catches my eye. From the orange grove, out steps the little girl from last night.
She looks at me, solemn and still. It no longer feels surreal, nor do I wonder any longer who she is.
I smile and blow her a kiss. She smiles back, one hand raised in a silent salute. And then she disappears.
I hope she's happy at last, sealed in her childhood memories.
As for me, I know now what I've been missing, what I've been holding on to, and what I've let slip away. I know what I need to do.
Rose HDR © Brigitte Fredensborg