Writing by Crystal Zhu
In an abandoned parking lot, wind stirs wire bugs in the elm tree. They spin slowly, slowly, like merry-go-rounds of their own. Above them, a girl purses her lips. She blinks at the pavement beneath, strands of grass struggling out from cracks in the asphalt. When the cold weather comes, the grass goes to sleep like a hibernating bear. So do mourning cloak butterflies. They are one of the only butterflies who endure winter as adults.
They’ll be the first butterflies you see in spring and last in fall. Hardy little fellows.
Leaves of her elm tree have already fallen halfway, leaving only a dispersing crowd of crumpled flags. The wire insects, hung from every branch, twig, trunk, knob, are even more visible now, ash borers, moths, cockroaches, spotted lanternflies, a swarm of ants fashioned from a curl of black wire.
You see, Juniper, 20 quadrillion ants exist right this moment; 2.5 million ants for every human in the world.
The girl imagines herself as a human-shaped mound of ants. She could go anywhere she likes, a wave of beings, two and a half million creatures driven by a singular mind, able to sense the countless threads that their ancestors laid out, each path carrying a meaning. Here, the best pollen. Here, danger. Here, home.
But what happens when a foot, huge and shadowed, comes? One step, and she’d be crushed, all of her.
In her hand she fingers a thread of green wire, half formed into the head and wings of a dragonfly. Beneath her feet, hundreds of wire sculptures dance. Everyday, she makes a new one.
They call her the insect girl, the girl who does not talk, the girl who lives above the bakery with her crazy grandfather, who learns not the proper things a lady should learn, but about bugs, beetles, katydids, fire ants.
What kind of girl would come from that? They ask. Unmarried and alone, that’s what.
The girl finishes the dragonfly, loops the wires through each other, twists them to make sharp, hinged legs. From her pocket, she fishes out a length of white twine and loops it through the dragonfly’s head. It reminds her of that fungus, the one that controls bugs’ brains and makes them crawl up leaves and trees and flowers to spread the spores. She thinks about being in the brains of all these insects. She would make them swarm into a wall around this tree, one atop the other, so no one and nothing could ever touch them, this tree, this world.
She wraps the twine around a branch that wasn’t populated with models already, ties it off, watches as it jangles in the cold winter breeze. Great blue skimmer. Her grandpa has a model of one. It was from an Egyptian tomb, or so he said.
She shimmies down the tree, scraping her palms on the cool bark, then starts across the parking lot back home. Last summer, the town’s construction company had posted a notice. The signs had been up all year long. Town of Bluefield, attention to commuters, businesses and residents, proposal to replace parking lot with new housing unit. Etcetera etcetera. But most importantly: The Public Works Department has scheduled the removal of this city tree.
They have no right, the girl thinks. This tree has been full of wire bugs even before she arrived on her grandfather’s doorstep, parentless and hungry. Her grandfather grew up here. He must have been decorating the tree before she was born.
There was no movement for the whole year, but she had seen tractors gathering, men standing in front of her elm tree and pointing. A storm congregating on the horizon.
One of the signs, a piece of paper yellowed from the sun, is fastened on a wooden fence not far from the elm tree.
It takes one hundred Monarch butterflies to weigh an ounce.
She reaches up and rips the sign off, leaving only the corners fluttering on iron staples.
The police come knocking on the bakery’s door. Their breath steams in the bleak air and they rub their hands together. They say to Marion the baker, Marion the gracious who lets two crazies live above her store. They say, this isn’t the first time. They say, we’re sorry about your loss, but keep your girl under control.
Juniper watches from behind a shelf of croissants and danish pastries. Marion nods at every sentence they say, and it feels as if the world is balancing on top of her forehead, wobbling dangerously every time she dips her head.
When the police finally leave, Juniper emerges, and Marion hugs her, smelling like butter and yeast.
“We’re going to get your bugs tomorrow, okay?” She asks, “We’ll save all of them.” Then she turns towards the long line of customers behind her counter, smiling apologetically. A man, bundled in a tan and blue scarf, looks at Juniper. His expression was one of a man who dispenses wisdom daily, and was rarely contradicted.
“Change always happens, little girl. It always does.”
Juniper thinks of butterflies, moths, larvaes of cicadas. She does not want to come out of the soil. She does not want to change.
Dawn finds her at the top of her elm tree. She tries to bend her new piece of wire with frigid fingers. She doesn’t have a clear idea in her mind, but maybe something monstrous, like a staghorn beetle. Something to tear down the approaching excavators and front loaders and backhoe loaders and grizzled men in yellow hard hats. The head ends up tilted sideways, like it’s gazing at Juniper out of the corner of its eyes. Her grandfather would throw it out the window. He was always about perfection. When Juniper asked him about it, why he makes those bugs, why he keeps a book full of moths and a counter full of butterflies, he scowled and said, “Does everything have to have a reason?”
No, Juniper had decided, as long as her grandfather and their attic room stayed exactly as it was, no.
She is working on the staghorn beetle’s shell when voices stab into her silence. Cars pulling over, men climbing out and surveying their clipboards beneath a pale blue sky. They pause, squint, point at the elm tree, murmur among themselves. One of the weary faced men marches up briskly. He rubs his beard and gazes at Juniper with an expression of equal annoyance and admiration. He adopts a tight smile, one for indulging toddlers or children.
“Little girl,” he says, “please come down.”
Juniper does not respond. She clutches her staghorn beetle and climbs higher.
When sensing a threat, the bombardier beetle will spray its opponent with a stream of burning liquid.
The man crosses his arms. He has ears that stick out and a long nose. His breath is a dispersing cloud in front of him.
“Look, this is the city’s order. We don’t want the tree gone either.” He says, “Come down now.”
Juniper closes her eyes. Her hands clutch the furrowed bark, going numb in the cold. Her grandfather rises in her mind. He would be shouting, or filing something to the city office. He would have the perfect words to make the hard hat man tremble like a leaf in the wind.
When the man’s voice rises out of the inside of her eyelids, it has changed in quality. It’s harder, sharper. “Come down now. Or we’ll be forced to call the police. You don’t want to get in trouble, do you?”
Juniper shakes her head. The man says, “Well, come down then.” She shakes her head again. Because she knows she can’t do anything about it anymore. She isn’t a bombardier beetle or a staghorn beetle. She’s only a girl, one single monarch butterfly against a whirling tornado. So, she says nothing, even when the men haul up a ladder, even when they bundle her, kicking and fighting, off the tree.
Back at the bakery, Marion holds her and whispers it’s okay it’s okay it’s okay when
The next morning, Marion closes the bakery doors and leads Juniper out into the winter morning. The girl still feels dazed. When the tree fell, it was not soundless like in movies, but graceless and quick. There, and done.
They walk down the sidewalk, warm breath steaming. Juniper closes her eyes and lets herself be guided blindly, focusing on the fallen tree printed in her eyelids. They skirt half-awake houses and arrive at the local park, where early risers are walking their dogs. Ahead, the sun breaks over the horizon like a butterfly out of its cocoon.
It does not make sense. Her world is in pieces, and yet, there are still waffles on plates, grandfathers in rocking chairs, fake flowers in plastic pots.
When escaping from a predator, the cricket will shed a hindleg that it later grows back.
Would her lost leg ever grow back?
Towards the edge of the park, a small square of dirt is staked off, framed by tufts of newly churned grass. Marion leads Juniper to the plot of earth, and pries the girl’s eyes open. A frizzle of hair escapes nervously from behind Marion’s ears.
“Little cicada. Look.”
Juniper looks, sees, then clamps her eyes shut again, because what she sees makes her heart hurt.
“Look.” Marion whispers again.
Cicada nymphs will emerge from the ground when the soil has reached 18°C. They know when it’s ready.
One breath, two. Using their large forelegs, they will cling to tree trunks, grass, stalks of plants, preparing for their final molt.
Another breath. When the cicada first clambers out of its nymph exoskeleton, it’s body will be soft and white.
Birds sing their morning song. Somewhere, someone named Sarah is retrieved by their mother. The rustle of a leaf hitting the ground. The click of pebbles beside the park river. Around her, the world was waking up, and so was she.
Juniper forces her eyes open.
In front of her, a tiny sapling–the larva of an elm tree–springs up from the soil, and in the sapling, a thousand wire bugs sing in the wind.