THE LITTLE ONES WEARY

Spring 2016 / Issue 99

Jen Julian

Hilde has come to love the garden. She tries to recall the name of each plant as Aunt Vivian has taught her—rhododendron and pampas grass and wisteria tree, the one with the fuzzy green pods, hard-candy seeds inside. At midday, she hides under the domed trellis of scuppernong vine at the edge of the yard, looks out through a gap in the hedge and sees the city skyline across the sound, metal and gray stone, the old world from which her parents sent her, and which she is already starting to forget. There the castle sits, far off. It blows from its tower a train of white clouds.

Hilde sits and watches the castle while her aunt works in the yard. She dreams of the army that occupies it, the wizard responsible for the cloud. She knows they must be watching her the way that she watches them, so she calls to her aunt, “I’m protecting you from the invasion. This is our lookout. You’re safe now.”

“Oh good,” says Aunt Vivian. “I was worried about that invasion.”

“Me too,” says Hilde, but it is not long before she finds herself sharing the lookout post with another occupant.

It’s a spider. She’s seen spiders before—the gray-brown ones that hide in the cracks in the molding—but this is a beastly, primordial hunter-spider, its abdomen a bright tiger stripe of black and white and yellow, its legs as shiny as the teeth of a comb. It sits very still, and when Hilde twangs its web with her finger, it comes alive and ticks its prickly legs into the leaves above her head.

Hilde peers out the other side of the trellis where she can see her aunt on her knees in the vegetable patch, picking squash and placing them into a plastic grocery bag. “It isn’t supposed to be in here,” she says.

“What’s that?” says Aunt Vivian.

“A spider. It’s a big spider in my lookout tower.” She waits for her aunt’s response. Really, what she would like is for Aunt Vivian to come and eject the spider, since Hilde is too afraid to touch it herself. But she has too much pride to ask.

“Come look at it now,” she demands.

“I’ve seen plenty of those before,” says her aunt. “Give it space. It’s got as much right to be in the garden as you do.”

Aunt Vivian picks up her bag of vegetables and looks toward the vine trellis. In the sunlight, her skin is shining and smooth like the seeds in the wisteria pods, though Hilde, who knows that some adults are older than others, understands now that Aunt Vivian is probably the oldest person she knows.

“Come out of there,” Aunt Vivian says. “It’s time to come in.”

Hilde crouches down and presses her face into the grass, lets loose a muted scream.

“No, ma’am,” says her aunt. “I’ll have none of that.”

“I’m guarding my fort.”

“What fort? This garden? This is my fort. Get out of there now before something bites you. Lots of calamine tonight, and aloe—you’re already sunburned to a crisp, I’m sure.”

The sun bears down razorlike through the leaves of the vine, and Hilde knows the hours of boredom that await her inside. She screams until darkness edges in around her eyeballs and Aunt Vivian comes to retrieve her by the arm. Vivian does not indulge her niece’s bids for power, not even when they are purely imaginative. She can see the castle too, far, far across the water, but for her it holds no wonder, and for the rest of the afternoon, she relegates the girl’s play to the stuffy rooms of the house.

      

The cloud-billowing structure across the sound is not a castle at all. The man in the yellow plastic suit is the one who tells her. He comes by a couple days later.

Hilde’s alone in the front yard when this happens. Aunt Vivian has disappeared behind the carport to get a trowel, complaining about the dandelions and the crabgrass, demon plants of insidious variety, and then Hilde sees him. She’s not sure if he even is a man, maybe he isn’t, because the suit is not like anything she’s seen before. It crinkles loudly and covers all of him, even his face, which she can only half see through the tinted plastic square that shields him. But because he has a face, and because he’s walking a bicycle along the sidewalk in front of their house, she realizes he must have chosen to wear the suit in the same way Aunt Vivian chooses to wear denim.

“What are you doing?” she asks. “Why are you wearing that?”

The man stops and turns toward her. He tilts the bike against the chainlink fence, leans in. “What’s that?” he asks, his voice muffled and echoey inside the hollow chamber of his suit.

Why,” Hilde asks, “are you wearing that?”

“Safety,” he says. He gestures broadly toward the sound. “That way, the power plant. You seen it, over there ’cross the water?”

Hilde stares at where he’s pointing. Now she knows for sure that it isn’t a castle, but for the man in the suit, she pretends she never thought it in the first place.

“Right,” she says. “That power plant.”

“That there’s a nuclear plant,” he says. “It leaking. So I go to my house and lock the door and stay in, but I can’t stay in forever. Can’t spend my whole life in my living room with the walls covered in plastic, no sir, but I still do what I can to keep my insides from boiling. This bike, can’t ride it no more when I wear this thing, so I’m dropping it off at a friend’s place.”

He speaks so fervently that a patch of condensation blooms on the plastic shield near his mouth. Hilde hugs her stomach and feels nauseated.

“What you doin’ at Vivi’s place, little girl?” the man asks.

Hilde doesn’t answer. She is trying not to cry—crying in front of a stranger, very embarrassing—but the man notices.

“What’s wrong with you? Eh? Can’t you speak?”

Aunt Vivian returns. She lets out a shout when she sees the man in the plastic suit, and Hilde, not wanting her aunt to see her tears, pulls her head inside the collar of her dress like a tortoise.

“Who is that? Who the hell are you?”

The man in the suit waves his arm above his head. “Just old Mott, that’s all!”

Aunt Vivian looks baffled, but she is angry now, not frightened.

“What are you doing? Why are you wearing that? Are you terrifying this child?”

“It’s for the nuclear plant, Vivi. Ain’t you heard? You must not’ve heard, being out in the yard like normal. There is a plague on this land.”

“I didn’t hear a word of that,” Aunt Vivian says. “I didn’t hear a word because you have plastic over your whole head. Mott, go home. You’ve lost your mind.”

Mott, in his crinkling yellow suit, takes up his bike and continues on down the sidewalk. Hilde emerges from her dress and watches him through a film of tears, feeling the heat of shame in her neck and ears.

“Don’t listen to him,” Aunt Vivian says. She puts a warm, dry hand on each of Hilde’s shoulders. “He’s a rare bird.”

      

All birds are rare now, but this was not always the case. When she was with her parents, Hilde lived up on the nineteenth floor of a huge gray building, and she used to watch for them from the living room window, black specks against a vast creamsicle sky. She has a memory of seeing birds by the hundreds, flickering checkmarks of birds, but maybe that’s a dream she had. Maybe this was a dream also: lying with her back against the carpet, something dripping in the back of her throat that is salty like blood. She stares at the sky. There’s one—far up. Or maybe an airplane.

Now at Aunt Vivian’s place, following her encounter with Mott, Hilde goes to the kitchen, finds the plastic wrap in one of the drawers, and takes it into the back bedroom. She has trussed up all but the top part of her head by the time her aunt finds her, which gets the woman screaming:

“You stupid child! You’ll suffocate yourself!”

Hilde is made mute by the plastic over her mouth, otherwise she would explain that she has scissors at the ready to cut the eyeholes and mouth holes as needed. But Aunt Vivian destroys her work in a fury. Now Hilde’s protective suit lies about her feet like tattered snakeskin, and she explodes in a fit.

An hour later, when Aunt Vivian comes to retrieve her for supper, Hilde pretends to be dead. Her aunt takes her by the ankles and hauls her a few inches, wheelbarrow-style, but Hilde stays limp, keeps her eyes closed.

“Fine,” Aunt Vivian says. “Go hungry.” She retreats to the kitchen alone.

 

Mott returns around noon the next day, a yellow oversized moonwalker. This time he is carrying a weed eater, and he sets to hacking up the crabgrass that Aunt Vivian hadn’t finished off the day before. Hilde pulls back the linen curtain to watch him as her aunt leans in over her shoulder.

“Surely he can’t see a damn thing,” Vivian says under her breath. “He’ll cut himself to pieces with that machine.”

But Mott is surprisingly deft, and once he has finished, he knocks on the front door and delivers six cans barbecued beans, five cans peaches in sweet syrup, a jar of pickled okra, peas, green beans, beets, Spam, and sweet potatoes (three cans apiece), a plastic container of flour, a bottle of gin, and a loaf of bread he baked himself, wrapped in tinfoil. All this he had been keeping in his own pantry, lined in plastic.

“You and the child shouldn’t eat those veggies from the garden,” he says. “It’s all good as poisoned.”

“What?” says Vivian. “Mott, I swear, I can’t hear you in that costume.”

Mott bows. His bag also contains several lengths of plastic tarp and a roll of duct tape. He goes around sealing the plastic over the windows and doorways of the kitchen and living room, and Hilde is amazed that Aunt Vivian doesn’t stop him. She stands tiredly with her arms folded, and at one point, she mutters under her breath: “Good God. All these theatrics.” But she allows Mott to have run of her place, and when the area is sealed to his liking, he finally unzips his suit.

He is maybe Aunt Vivian’s age, maybe younger, his bald scalp bright and red, dripping with sweat.

“You think all this really works?” Vivian asks.

“I try to limit my exposure best I can. You should too. You should come live with me in my bunker, I got a system worked out.”

She sighs, but Hilde, who first believed that her aunt didn’t like Mott, can now plainly see that she actually does, that they have been friends a long time and that this is just one of the things Mott does. Hilde sits in the current of an oscillating fan while they chat—about mutual acquaintances, about the scorching summer weather. And because it’s lunchtime, Mott heats up a can of the beans and fries some Spam for them. Hilde doesn’t eat the Spam, picks a little at the beans.

“She never eats much,” says Vivian.

“Pale as a glowworm, ain’t she,” says Mott. “You glow in the dark?”

Hilde shakes her head.

“She’s my grandniece,” Aunt Vivian says. “She’s visiting from the city.”

“A grandniece,” says Mott, as if this is an accomplishment on Hilde’s part. “So you from the city. How you like it out here in the sticks?”

She shrugs, unusually self-conscious. Aunt Vivian doesn’t have guests often. A stretch of marsh separates her house from any neighbors, and Hilde is not allowed to explore anywhere on her own. In midafternoon, when the weather is too hot to be out in the yard, the house is deathly quiet. While Aunt Vivian sits at the kitchen table and smokes her cigarettes, Hilde is overcome with lethargy, rolls on the carpet like a beached fish. Mott broke all that, the monotonous spell.

He watches her, mistakes her shyness for fear. “I don’t do all this just to scare you,” he says, gesturing around at the plastic on the windows. “It’s safer out here than it is in the city, that’s for sure. But you look old enough to know that the world’s filled with evil forces. Invisible forces. You’re not really safe anywhere.”

Mott,” Aunt Vivian snaps. “Suit or no suit, I will throw you out in the road.”

But Hilde feels that Mott is right. “The invasion,” she says. “The spider is watching us for the invasion.”

“What spider?” Mott asks. “What invasion?”

Vivian waves her hand. “It’s just something she’s got in her head now.”

After lunch, he puts the suit back on, takes down the plastic, and she leads him out into the yard to show him. Now it is not just one spider they see, but five of various sizes, all occupying large webs in the scuppernong vine. Hilde can no longer even enter its shade without a spider blocking her way.

“Good Lord,” Mott says. “They really are invading. It’s a bad sign, I tell you. Look at this one—I’ve never seen them that big before.”

“Me either,” says Hilde. She thinks the big spider is one she saw three days ago, that it has since grown in size. She is part pleased that Mott is impressed, part genuinely frightened. Now she is more certain than ever that the spiders are infiltrators, that their dark power comes from the fortress over the water.

Mott calls toward the house: “Vivi, come see this!” But Aunt Vivian stays where she is, standing on the back stoop with a cigarette.

      

Later, once Mott has left and the plastic is taken down, Hilde vomits what little lunch she ate onto the carpet in the back bedroom. She doesn’t want her aunt to see that she’s gotten sick again, so she cleans it up with a hand towel, throws it in the trash.

      

A few days after lunch with Mott, Hilde comes down with a fever. She begins to spend hours lying on the back porch with her cheek pressed against the tile floor, staring out through the screen while Aunt Vivian works in the garden. She is running into the spiders too, and every once in a while, when she makes a sharp turn, she jumps back from a too-close encounter. They’ve formed their webs all along the hedge, in the tomato plants, in between the okra stalks, draped over the wheelbarrow, which she keeps propped up against the shed. The females have already laid egg sacs, some as large as Ping-Pong balls. The invasion has truly begun.

Whenever Aunt Vivian comes back inside, she leans down and rubs Hilde’s back. “Let’s clean you up, you’re getting all greasy.” And she leads her down the hall to give her a salt bath and put her to bed early. Hilde eats what she can keep down—cereal or crackers with a glass of ginger ale—and falls dead asleep.

It’s on a particularly stuffy night that the voices wake her up.

At first, she believes she’s paralyzed, on fire. It takes great strength for her to shove the quilt off her chest, but then she rolls out of bed, flops onto the floor, and, free of weight, the feeling comes back in her limbs. She slides her way across the carpet on her back, using her feet to push herself along, and when she gets to the door of her room, she tilts her head back and sees the end of the hall is sealed off in plastic. Mott is here again. He and Aunt Vivian are talking.

Hilde rolls over onto her stomach and crawls forward until she reaches the plastic, which is moving ghostlike in the air of the fan. There’s a hole in it, near the bottom, and looking out she can see Aunt Vivian at the kitchen table, crushing cigarettes into her ashtray. From Hilde’s viewpoint, they resemble a crumpled, ashen little skyline.

“Ugh. They’re everywhere this year,” her aunt says. “Can’t walk two feet without running into ’em.”

“You know it’s ’cause there ain’t no birds,” says Mott. “Birds die. Bugs come out. Spiders get fat off the bugs. No competition.”

Vivian lights up another cigarette. “Thank you, Mr. Ecology.”

“You know they been lying for years about how that thing affects us. Go to the hospital, they lie there too. It leaks, they evacuate everyone within a mile, to everyone else they say, ‘Stay in your homes,’ and we do, we’re culpable. But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up. That’s upon us, only it’s not God that done it. We brought it all on ourselves.”

Her aunt is quiet a moment. “You don’t know it’s the plant, Mott. Could be other stuff. Could be cars, could be, what, pesticides, herbicides. You just think it’s the plant ’cause you see it out there on the horizon, but in truth you might be gettin’ it just as well from the cans you eat out of.”

Mott doesn’t reply at first. Then he starts up, his voice quick and angry: “You don’t even got a TV, Vivi, or a damn radio. You got no way to know—”

“According to you,” she snaps, “they just spin lies, so why bother?”

His side of the kitchen table goes dark and sullen.

“Even if it is the plant,” she continues, breathing smoke from her nostrils, “that ain’t what’s wrong with the girl like you think. She always get sick, get better, get sick again. Don’t know what it is. My sister was the same way. It’s a curse. Cursed genes.”

“They tell you that at the hospital?”

“Oh, get off the goddamn hospital, will you? I’m taking her over there if the fever gets any worse.”

“You ain’t got a driver’s license anymore.”

“I can pretend I do for a little while.”

“What about her parents?”

Vivian sighs. She crushes out her cigarette and lights another. “They don’t know what to do. They children themselves.”

This time, they both fall silent, and when the two of them pick up the conversation again, they begin to talk about money, or want of it. Hilde’s mind clouds and drifts away. She’s awakened when her aunt tears down the plastic from the doorway and stumbles over her body.

“Jesus, girl!”

Hilde opens one eye. Mott is standing in the kitchen, clothed in his yellow suit again. When his muffled voice speaks, Hilde hears it, though Vivian does not:

“The only thing that’d help this child is to take her away from here.”

Hilde covers her sweaty face as Aunt Vivian picks her up. She can’t remember the hospital, but bright lights, the smell of latex and alcohol—these sensations scare her.

     

In the morning, Hilde’s fever has broken. She watches from the porch as Aunt Vivian turns her attention to the spiders. She doesn’t kill them—as bug-eaters, they’re friends of the gardener after all—but their sheer number has clearly made her uneasy. She tears down some of the larger webs with a rake in the hope that they’ll move elsewhere. By the afternoon, they have all rebuilt, and seem to have multiplied.

      

Though she’s gotten a little better, Hilde’s head is still bleary, and she stays inside on most days. Vivian keeps saying she hopes it will rain to cool things off, and Hilde imagines all the spiders getting washed from their webs in streams, carried out to the sound with their legs kicking.

But the rain never comes, the heat carries on, and Hilde struggles to stay awake. Once, in the midst of a heavy nap, she wakens to find Mott, in his suit, on the other side of her window, taping plastic over it. He waves at her and then continues his task until the world outside becomes blockaded in an opaque film. All she can see of Mott now is his shadow.

Hilde assumes that Mott is doing this with Aunt Vivian’s permission, but when she wanders down the hall to the living room, her aunt is reading the paper in the easy chair as if nothing is going on.

“Mott’s out there,” Hilde says. “He’s taping our windows.”

Aunt Vivian looks up. “He’s what?”

From the yard, Mott sees them and waves, but Aunt Vivian shakes her head, shouting, “No, sir! I won’t play this game with you! I said no!” She slams the door as she goes out, and Hilde crawls onto the back of the sofa so she can watch their confrontation from the window. Her aunt yells at Mott, pointing to the plastic tarp, slicing the air with the edge of her hand. Mott holds out his arms at first, sheepish, but then he starts yelling back, gesticulating wildly in the direction of the power plant. Aunt Vivian stands there a moment, arms folded. She can’t understand him. She loses her patience. It happens in an instant, so fast that Hilde has to catch her breath; Vivian reaches up, grabs the hood of Mott’s suit, and rips it open. Mott crouches down as if being beaten, his face in agony, and Hilde is sad to see that his head looks almost shriveled, tiny in comparison to the cumbersome yellow body. She can read the words on his mouth—“What’ve you done? What the hell have you done?”—and when he straightens up again, he shoves Vivian so hard that she stumbles back and falls in the driveway. He flees down the road. His wounded suit flaps in the air.

 

Later, as Vivian cleans the grit from a scrape on her palm, Hilde sits curled up in the kitchen chair. She fights back a tremble brought on by the smell of peroxide and Band-Aids, asking quietly, “Why’d Mott push you?”

“Because,” says her aunt, “he wants to do something he thinks will make the house safe, and I won’t let him do it.”

“Why not?”

“Because he ain’t in his right mind, that’s why.”

Hilde doesn’t know what this means. Is there a wrong mind? A left mind? “But will it make the house safe,” she asks, “what he wants to do?”

“I doubt it.”

“But it could, maybe?”

Vivian looks up at the child, curled in the chair like a pale, wide-eyed shrimp. She can recall a time before the plant, but even then the streams ran with a film and there was always an orange haze, which hung over the city, even when she was a little girl. When the plant arrived, it became the neighborhood devil, as if it had destroyed what was once pristine. But Vivian knows better and she will not leave, doesn’t have the will or money to do so anyway. Each day she tends her garden, and that will be the end of it.

“It’s hard to explain,” she tells Hilde, and lays a bandage over her scrape.

      

In the middle of the night, Hilde can tell that her face is getting hot again, that her stomach is fighting against what little she ate for supper. The whine of a siren is what wakes her, far off, and when she opens her eyes, she sees that someone has lifted up the window. A breeze comes in, carrying the sound with it. Then Hilde squints and focuses on the shape at the foot of her bed, can make out the glint of a bald scalp in the shadows.

“Mott,” says Hilde. “Where’s your suit?”

“It’s busted,” he says. “Hilde, sweetheart, you hear that siren?”

“Yes,” she says.

“That’s from the plant. That means bad things. It ain’t safe here. Your aunt, she means well, but she just don’t know, she don’t keep informed. You come with me, all right? I got my house proofed. I bring you there, and Vivi’ll come along too, okay?”

Hilde rubs her eyes with her palms, blinks them clear. Now she can see the features of Mott’s face, alive with fear.

“Okay,” she says.

He hauls her up, and it feels good, the strength of his arms, the oniony smell of his skin. Her father had a similar smell, she thinks, maybe his sweat, but she hasn’t seen him for so long. Maybe she has no parents, only Aunt Vivian and Mott. He carries her out into the open air of the yard. The spiders sit silent in their webs.

They are at the edge of the front yard when the plant’s siren suddenly dies, and they can hear Aunt Vivian screaming. Now the lights are all on in the house, blazing and golden, and she’s at the front door flailing her arms—“Mott! Mott! What are you doing?” Mott begins to run, and Hilde’s world trembles and shudders, and she feels if he lets her go she will fall, not down, but up into the night sky, moonless and black. “Mott, no! Bring her back!”

“It’s okay,” Mott is saying. “It’ll be okay.” But Hilde can hear in his breathless voice that he’s just as scared as she is, and his gait is slowing down, as if he’s no longer sure he’s running in the right direction.