By Beth Escott Newcomer
Mary knew there were black widows in the house. This morning, while reaching for a jar of tomatoes, she had seen one in the cupboard and had carefully caught it in a glass with a playing card and carried it outside to the lilac bush, careful not to injure it, planning on not telling a soul about it.
Then, when she was sweeping up some dust around the hearth, she thought she saw two more, darting into a crack in the fireplace. What if it was an infestation? What if one bit the child?
Still, it was important to keep it a secret from her sisters. Important because if she told them, she would have to do something about it. And she couldn’t bring herself to call the exterminator, to arrange to have them killed. That would put her in bad stead with the whole of the arachnid kingdom. And then one of them would surely bite the child out of retribution. Ants, roaches, flies she was happy to spray, stomp, gas. But spiders…there was something special about spiders. Something deserving of her respect. Besides, she needed all the friends she could get.
It was just after 11 on an unseasonably warm mid-April day—nearly time for her sisters to come home from the factory for lunch. Mary laid out the makings for sandwiches and had set a pitcher of iced tea on the kitchen table just as Kay, Jess, and Fern came through the front door, dropping their coats and purses on the sofa and filing into the kitchen.
“Looks good, Red,” said Kay.
“I’m starved,” said Fern.
They all took their chairs around the table and began to fill their plates. As lunch progressed, the usual boisterous conversation ensued. Today, the three of them were cracking wise about the new foreman—a doddering old man, they said, probably the last available man in Eastern Indiana. “Deaf as a stone, dumb as a rock,” they said, talking over each other, finishing each others’ sentences, laughing deep and long about the everyday things that happened out in the world.
It was supposed to get better after the Depression ended. But better how? Mary wondered bitterly. Out of the frying pan into the war. And all the young men gone, off in the Pacific, now—Jess’ Mac, Fern’s Woody, and Kay’s Don. And now here they were in this house of women, the four of them sharing a Sunday dress, pooling their rations, she—only just turned 18 herself—putting her school on hold for now, forever probably. No, nothing ever really got better with the Mooney girls. But they sure did know how to laugh things off. Even when Daddy lost the farm, and they all had to find their own way all of a sudden, it was the deep, throaty laughter that filled their empty bellies. Mary tucked a strand of red hair behind her ear and chuckled about the factory foreman story, in spite of herself. Bunch of comedians.
The fact was—stuck inside all day with the routine chores and the cooking and the babysitting—Mary hadn’t much to add to the raucous conversation. But it was somehow her turn to speak.
“Your daughter—” she began, working to order the incidents of the morning in such a way to tell it as a hilarious anecdote, but her tone belied her, and before she could continue, Jess interrupted with an impatient sigh. “What is it this time, Red?”
As if to say, “There’s a war going on, and we all have to pitch in and do our part.” As if to say, “We’re already bone tired, and it’s only 12 noon.” As if to say, “You’re lucky you don’t have to work in that stifling factory, making rubber gaskets for the Navy.” Or more to the point, “You get to stay home all day while we’re doing real work, bringing home the bacon.”
And then Fern chimed in, looking around. “Yes, Mary, where is the baby?”
The baby. Mary couldn’t stand it when they called her “the baby.” Hardly a baby, the child was now five and impish and spoiled by the rest of them. Mary was the one who bore the brunt of her tricks and misbehavior, knew the true nature of the little girl. Her needs. The baby’s own mother wasn’t the slightest bit interested in Mary’s troubles with the child, only in the clever things she said and did.
“—is over at Mom’s house today, helping with the chicken and noodles.”
Which wasn’t at all what she was going to say. She didn’t bring up the broken window, the dented watering can, the trampled sweet peas in the victory garden. She didn’t mention a thing about how she had found their prized possession—Grandma Sipes’ quilt, brought all the way here on the boat from County Clare—lying half in and half out of the cedar chest, covered with manure and dirty little footprints and handprints. Not a word about how she chased the girl around the house wielding a wooden spoon. And when she was finally caught, the child slipped from her hands, turned, and laughed defiantly, then ran the three blocks to her grandmother’s house. No, Mary kept it all to herself.
And so the lunch proceeded with no more comment from the others except to say, “Mother’s making noodles. Yum.”
Later that afternoon the child returned with such a sweet demeanor and was so helpful cleaning up after supper, Mary wondered how she could ever have raised a hand or her voice to the little girl.
But that night she had one of those dreams that are perfectly real. It was lunchtime again, and the four of them were seated at the table, and as she faced her sisters, she saw three black widows scurry across the wall then down behind a low bookshelf that stood behind where they sat. She nonchalantly got up from her chair to stand in front of the wall, to hide the spiders from the view of her sisters. Curiously, as she came close to the bookshelf, she noticed there were now two identical vases of peonies where previously only one had stood. This was so strange, she bent down to get a close look and saw that one of the spiders had transformed itself into the shape of the second vase, eight black eyes shining between the pink petals. She gasped and as her breath hit the spider, its camouflage melted away, and, her face only an inch away, the spider lunged and bit her on the tongue.
Which felt as if she had literally bitten her own tongue. Which she had. And now she was wide awake. It was 4:00 a.m. Might as well get up and make some biscuits for breakfast. She stepped outside on the back porch and breathed in the sweet night air. The moon was three-quarters full. Not the right time to turn over the soil, to replant and restore the damage done by the child. No sweet peas this year. By next month it would be too late, too hot to put them back in the ground.
Category: Featured, Fiction