by Josephine Johnson
The various bees of the world, from the great mumbling giants to the small brown velvet bees like winged moles, move over the cucumber vines which flower and fruit at the same time. In the early morning these cucumber leaves are stiff and spread out in the dew like lily pads, but as the sun moves slowly over the woodpile, they collapse weakly into soft mushy rags, and the path of the sun is marked by their fainting shapes. But no matter how closely I watched I could not detect that mystic moment when the cluster of cucumber pods, silver and sticky as a bunch of burs became one cucumber. Was it chosen to grow of all the lot, and the rest reluctantly drop away? Oh never mind us, it doesn't matter; we'll just wither up here in the grass while you grow big and strong--or did one secretly devour the rest, spines and all, on some moonlit night, and emerge. The One next morning? The world of animal and insect clicks along with such business-like cruelty that the word actually has no meaning any more in reference to anything but man, and the vegetables doubtless share this glorious innocence, this immunity from the tribunal god. And there is no spiritual squealing on each other.
By the summer's end the woodpile is a mass of bindweed vines with their small white flowers, of morning-glories whose delicate seed pods are shaped like winged buds, and the enormous grape leaves are insect-riddled and some shadowy as lace. In the dark cool recesses under the logs grows the shelf fungus, velvety and soft like white kid gloves, and the swollen body of a brown earth cricket moves along the shelves, preoccupied and withdrawn in its pregnancy, waiting for the signal of its time. Sleek as a chestnut, but not at all as cheerful as a cricket, she steps sullenly around the small white cups of the bird's-nest fungus, some filled with the minute egg spores, waiting for a bird not larger than a bee, and some empty and white as porcelain.
The English ivy that grows in a mat outward from the house and never climbs, seeming unable to attach itself to the painted brick, creeps each year nearer to the wild vines of the woodpile; and watching a wasp pick its elegant nervous path along the sliding and the shining leaves one realizes suddenly the moving floor that insects tread--the delicately articulated, shifting floor of leaves. The ivy bends and trembles under the wasp's foot, while we clump heavily over the solid floor of earth.
While pondering on this I saw a small black spider asleep above a leaf, his head bowed on his arms (or feet) like a sleeping cat, when suddenly the small, black, toady head jerked up and I looked directly into the creature's eyes. What an overwhelming experience! Those glittering darts of jet seemed the essence of unwinking evil. Refined and crystal evil of such purity that it held you frozen to the heart. For a long and horrid moment we stared at each other, and then it disappeared among the ivy leaves. As I thawed slowly back to normal it occurred to me that the encounter may have made some impression the other way around. What did it think of me in that chilling moment. "My god!" was he saying to his wife (or do these spiders have wives?--at least to some fellow arachnid), "those great, empty evil pools of green! Cold as autumn algae I saw myself swimming in them! How shall I ever forget this?" And they would huddle together like two black, hairy toads, thinking of what incredible situations one encounters in this world.
We had little or no vegetable garden this year. The small rich plot of ground that our neighbor hopefully plows for us each year with his tractor starts out with a beautiful rich and chocolate bareness, and stakes are set up to give a professional and tidy air. Then comes the selection of vegetables, which is remarkably limited since the children like only beans and carrots and cucumbers, and the rest of us are subject to strange wandering allergies which rule out tomatoes and Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and cabbage. And potatoes, which our predecessors grew by the bushel, will yield for us nothing but strange little plants like old Christmas trees stripped of needles and heavy with bright beetle balls. So we planted a few rows of beans and cucumbers and a row of corn.
Then up through the glistening chocolate soil all around these rows came the native crop of cockle and wild amaranth, dock and sorrel, and the bindweed--which, given time, would over all the world, including the various oceans, and the earth would hurtle through space, a globe of green clinging vines like a monstrous ivy ball. This is always a cause of considerable shame and sorrow to us through each summer, but this autumn, wandering through our seedy jungle, I thought (with that stubborn core of brightness and sunshine which is innate in our incurably gloomy souls)--I thought, no, by heaven, the fruits of neglect are many and wonderful, and the harvest, although different from other people's, has richness all its own! It is not that we would not prefer the golden and substantial harvest of the more industrious man, the cellar, freezer, flowing bin; but faced with the wages of sin, the devious soul inclines to polish up the tarnished coin and use it in those darker realms where it has a value all its own.
Well, this harvest of ours is a tide of morning-glory vines, whose leaves have turned to a gold and dying brown, and some of a polished eggplant color, and in the tide float blossoms of pure and delicate purple and magenta. Also there are green branches of the wormwood weed, delicate and lace-like, branched like cedar trees, with an indescribable aromatic autumn scent, like fir and amaranth, though an ugly and furry weed, has a long ancestry, both as a food for ancient people and as the center of religious rites. As Dr. Edgar Anderson points out in his book, Plants, Man and Life, the seeds are still used by primitive people as grain and can be popped--and were by the Aztecs, who mixed them with human blood, made images and ate them in a sort of communion ceremony. They are also devils, and as I look about me in our garden I feel we may have overdone this devil insurance a bit, and may be at the mercy of our protectors, as so often happens in this devious life.
In the meantime the children had decided this was the day to dig up the ant lions and change them into a smaller home. They passed them about for us to inspect their louse-shaped bodies and scimitar-shaped horns, and held out the lions with one hand while they shook the seeds in the frying pan with the other and talked about their "popping well." The bright black beads of amaranth did begin popping soon, but though we tried too two batches, one delicately fried in oil, we could not keep them from scorching, and they tasted about as delicious as burned sand. They may well require that added gastronomical touch of human blood, but the general feeling was to give the amaranth back to the Aztecs where it came from.
In the tangle of the manifold weeds, the praying mantis (a valuable insect and more effective against the devils them red amaranth, if you have something to protect) comes each year and builds its spongy nest. One of the strangest sights is the laying of the mantis eggs. These are laid nest and all in one curious, foamy operation, as though the mantis had become a green tube of shaving cream, and out of her abdomen foams the gold froth which gradually hardens in the air like a brittle sponge and clings to the vines or weed stems through the winter, holding the eggs, from which will step briskly minute mantes in the spring.
I found one enormous female suspended among the buckwheat vines, her thin thorny arms in the ominous posture, not of prayer but of anticipation; and near her a furry brown-gold caterpillar came crawling along the vines. It came nearer and nearer, and she watched with her pale terrible eyes its nibbling progress around a leaf. Then the caterpillar came to the end of its leaf and reached out blindly to eat on, its jaws grazing the mantis on her leg. In that moment it became suddenly and terribly aware of the pinpoint eyes in their gray orbs watching above it, and retreated, humping, hurrying, actually rippling with horror, at the incredible nearness of its death.
The mantis was probably already satiated and about to bear her nest, because later when I brought her a new grasshopper, stump-winged still, with only gray lumps where its wings should have been, and unable to do anything but crawl, she regarded it coldly, and did not stir, seeming to be preoccupied inwardly with herself and the spongy delivery which was to come.
All around us the land is flat for a mile or so, gashed and white with the gravel quarries, and underlain with ancient limestone and acres of glacial stones. There are old and new quarries and some of the old have filled in to small lakes, blue and pure as only a quarry lake can be. And some of the gashes and holes have become small ponds and arroyos, with a willow-rooted, algae-blurred life of their own.
Toward the end of summer these willow ditches dry down to a mere leaf filled dampness, and along the final margin the algae cling to the hairy willow roots and dry, white and web-like, like rows of fishermen's nets all up and down the length of the vanished pool. In the fragrant shadow of the dying willows, in the bed of ancient black willow leaves from other years, and small white pebbles, there is a minute world of little, dry, dead things, fragile and of myriad shapes--tiny shells like rams' horns, pure white among the black leaves, and the hollow halves of microscopic burs, prickly and brown as porcupines. The transparent wing of a cicada is there and the white ghost of a dragonfly. Under the curled cottonwood leaves whose dry cupped paws are not gray, not brown, but sepia, the color of old faded photographs, are the larger whorled shells of the snails, abandoned to the winter, and once I found the delicate backbone of a bird.
This small aromatic world of falling golden willow leaves and rounded stones is almost uninhabited, except for the water thrush and the field sparrows. The dragon flies have gone and the frogs are sleeping. I have sometimes imagined it peopled with a small sturdy race of beings, not fairies, God forbid, but little persons two inches high with heads about the size and shape of the head of a clothespin, who live industrious pleasant lives, with only small stumpy wings, if any, to overcome the handicap of their size, who have no magic tricks or wands, and who do not indulge in that superior malice or sentimental wiping away of bunny tears which is the fairies' stock in trade.
I have loathed fairies ever since the days of Tinker Bell and the mean slyness of the Alcott fairy who gave the bracelet that pricked. Loathed them at first furtively and guiltily, knowing them to be somehow the literary disguise of adult authority, the power and the sermon sneaking in on silly rainbow wings with thin legs and gauzy dresses, all-wise, all-powerful under its fragility, always beautiful (for the fat and forty love the image of themselves in golden hair, barefooted on the flowers), insistent as mosquitoes, preaching at the helpless human child. Well, these little people I have concocted for the willow ditches are cheerful, work for their lives and not their souls, are ingenious in the use of all that grows wild (they know what to do with amaranth seeds), make themselves quilts out of the milkweed down instead of floating around on it on their tiptoes, make themselves thatched cottages in the summer and burrow under the roots of trees in winter, and are never found tapping innocent fresh babies on the dome with prickly wands.
This September ended with a long dry wind that seemed to have blown without stopping from some western desert. For several days it blew, full of dust scents and the dryness of sagebrush, carrying eastward our own autumn smells of falling maple leaves, green walnut, and the warm lemon odor of quince and yellow apple. With such level blowing all scents must have reached the ocean shores of the Atlantic and, unimpaired, mingled with foam and cooling sands, the smell of salt and fish and marshes. And though, at last, lost there in the sound and smell of breaking water, have sifted downward on the beaches, under the same autumn moon that saw them starting eastward on their journey.
Copyright 1953, Josephine Johnson.
Copyright © 1995 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.