He swore, then grabbed the shovel he kept near the door. One of them had gotten inside. It moved slowly across the floor of the screened-in porch, its feelers twitching, leaving a faint trail of orange and purple slime that swirled around its circumference. It methodically turned one way, then another, bewildered. He almost felt sorry for it, remembering the days long past when he and Wendy would net and release the moths and spiders that had slipped through the unrepaired screens. For one weak moment, he thought he might slide the shovel underneath its ooze and gently lift it up, carry it out and tenderly throw it back into the meadow.
But he had learned to steel himself against such feeling. Instead he raised the shovel, brought it down solidly on the helpless mass. It took two thudding strokes to sufficiently pulverize it, and in between the first and the second, he felt the thing looking at him, even though he knew it had no eyes and only the feelers that should have been its top greens. But the second stroke obliterated the imagined appeal it had made to him, and the thing became no more than the rotting vegetable that it should have been. He looked at the juicy mess on the floor that he would now need to clean up before it started to clot and stink. To look at it now, he thought it seemed as innocent as the smashed pulp of Halloween pumpkins on neighbors’ front porches—from a time now long gone.
“As dead as Agamemnon,” he quoted to himself.
He hefted the bulk of it onto the shovel and opened the screen door, performing the acrobatic feat of balancing the shovel and quickly shutting the door again (he stubbed his toe and swore) as he carefully worked his way down the few steps to the path that wound towards the field. Later, he would have to look for the entry point, but now he needed to dispose of it quickly, not for health reasons, he didn’t think, but simply because it was abhorrent. He was being careless, not wearing the protective gear, but he justified it by telling himself he’d be out and back in a few minutes. Partly, he didn’t believe the warnings because he had never experienced the threat in that way. On the radio, they claimed that some people reported bitings. But he couldn’t help think that these reports were myths; attempts to make the present fit with the past: new wine in old skins, he thought bitterly. He remembered the stories from old days about coyote packs that killed cats and small dogs tied up in yards. He remembered when bears attacked the people who happened upon them while taking out trash or who accidentally disturbed denned hibernators under porches. Nothing like that had ever happened to him, but once a bear had wandered onto the property to explore the compost heap he used to keep before it became too dangerous. He had been stacking firewood, when he turned and saw the very black shape that sent the frisson of ancient memory through him before he had time to know what it was. Instinctively, he froze. In reality it was not much more than a cub, an immature male with a soft tawny muzzle, who intently pawed through the vegetable pairings, unaware of just how dangerous humans are.
He knew that he needed to carry the carcass of the thing as far away from the cabin as possible so as not to tempt scavengers. Something would cannibalize it once he left it at the edge of the woods, a strange offering to unseen gods. Despite himself, he became anxious. The radio warned that you were at risk when disposing of carcasses. (“The way sharks used to be attracted to bleeding swimmers,” the host had offered by way of helpful analogy.) He reached the edge of the field that served as his dumping ground and heaved the slop as far as he could. He was torn between fear and the temptation to stay to see what might come for it. But it was unlikely he’d see anything. The old thorny raspberry bushes that no longer flowered in candy pink blooms were too thick and, anyhow, despite the warnings, the radio said that most incidents occurred at night. But there was something else too about that spot. Something a little further beyond. But that was for another time, and he wouldn’t let himself think about it. What’s done is done, he thought with the practicality of an old homesteader, and made his way back through the thickly vegetated field.
* * *
He drove the red Ranger down the mountain, past the boulder that marked the halfway point, down the unpaved road to reach the county highway that led to Masonville. He needed some groceries and was mulling over whether to stop at Charlie’s stand or buy the synthetics at the supermarket. Everybody knew the stuff from the chain stores was no good, but there was also a better than even chance of finding something repulsive in the real fruit and vegetables. Even though the farmer would assure you he had old fruit, he couldn’t prevent the contaminants from getting into his yield, and it was hard to see the wing buds on a blackberry– until it was too late and you realized the red gush from the berry you’d bitten into was not juice but blood. Everybody said it was OK to eat them — they didn’t hurt you — but it had made him lose his appetite for berries in favor of fruit that was easier to identify.
Sometimes he’d allow himself to think of Wendy, sitting on the porch with a carton of blackberries, her legs, smooth, tan, propped up on the table, toenails elegantly painted. Around her, though, books spread, like dead birds, bindings up, open at the places she left off reading. She grinned at him, monstrously, hair askew, seeds caught in the gaps of her purple-stained teeth as she took a break to listen to the public radio station that pumped out music surviving from the past. Blackberries, the way she would go on about their deliciousness, making smacking noises with her large mouth as she voraciously devoured quantities of them. She was insatiable during the season. In truth he had never cared for the taste of blackberries but had learned to eat them out of a kind of jealousy over the pleasure she took in them. Or perhaps a deep desire to know what she knew. He preferred strawberries, cherries, so straightforward in their simple sweetness with no complicated undercurrent of bitterness. He was a simple man. But it made no difference now what anybody liked, he thought grimly. Preference, desire—all irrelevant.
He pulled off the road in front of the stand. Charlie’s hand-made sign with its childish lettering: “Old Fruit Sold Here.” It no longer sounded strange. You got used to things. Or you didn’t. At least, he thought, all the words were spelled correctly. The air smelled sweet with alfalfa and manure. He could glimpse baskets of dark berries through the cracks in the wooden shed. There were plums and peaches, too. Maybe he’d get some peaches—the lighter the fruit, the easier it was to tell, although he’d heard some stories of folks finding what looked like rudimentary embryos inside the peach instead of its pit.
Old Charlie, tired, but long and taut like a cowboy, ambled out from behind the shed, held out his hand in greeting while giving him an up-and-down close reading. He thought to himself, old Charlie, how gaunt he seems. How many more years?
“How’s things?” Charlie bellowed robustly. A touch? A hint of suspicion?
“Good—same old.” He issued a standard reply, but he was no less glad to see Charlie for all that. Now and then some human contact, superficial but still sincere, better for not being tainted by the corrosive effects of sustained intimacy.
“How you making out up there?” he asked, the words innocuous but said with a tone and expression that conveyed a reference to Wendy, or rather to the absence of Wendy. Or maybe it was just a reliable formula that two old men could use to talk to each other.
“I’m OK.” And then quickly, brightly, to deflect any awkwardness or maudlin dwelling on loss. “Come to see what you’ve got today!” And, to make the point, he rubbed his hands together like a character from an animation showing enthusiasm.
“Well, all right!” Charlie mirrored back the forced passion. “A lot of stuff. Lot. Some great blackberries—” but he stopped, and it was unclear whether Charlie was thinking of Wendy’s great fondness for the dark fruit or the ever present threat of contamination. Charlie reversed and said in response to some unspoken accusation, “well, I like ‘em.” Added, “they’re good for you, you know,” as though he needed to defend his partiality to some unknown jury, “they used to always say.” Then his eyes opened wider as he appeared to happen upon a solution to what was vexing him: “You want to taste one, I mean, to look?”
“No, no thanks, but what about those peaches?”
“Oh, yeah, peaches,” Charlie rejoined as though he felt some kind of relief. “Yeah, sure, peaches. Good peaches. Should have some apricots next week.”
It was painful, really.
In the end he bought two pounds of peaches and some green beans that Charlie weighed out on an old baby scale he kept in the shed. There didn’t seem to be any problem with green beans. Boring but reliable. He paid Charlie, picked up the bags of produce, and then stopped, set them down, changing his mind. Maybe some blackberries after all …
* * *
He pulled into the parking lot and parked in the shade the way he would have if there had been a dog in the car. The sign for the Great American loomed over the landscape in its red and blue lettering, standing out starkly and garishly against the muted backdrop of wooded hills. The logo design contained the old icon of bearded Uncle Sam with striped top hat and tails, transmuted now into an African American, pointing his finger, a sinister Bojangles. None of it ever made any sense to him. As he walked through the lot, he passed a middle-aged couple whose collective girth caused them to amble in unison at a painstakingly slow pace, clinging to each other as they made their great journey on edema-ridden ankles. The signs in the big glass windows advertised “Price Slashing” and the sale of “Clean Fruit,” the brand used to market the synthetics.
He bought two pounds of hamburger, a loaf of bread, pickles, some cleaning supplies, and a screen repair kit from a six-foot stack arranged in an attractive pyramid. On top of the pyramid was a cardboard sign emblazoned with the company’s brand, Guardian, and a cartoon rendering of a flying apple, green with red cheeks, and a look of frustration painted on its animated face to indicate it had been thwarted in its attempts to perform pesky home invasion.
Nelly was at the checkout. She looked at him through heavily made up eyes. He noticed her tank top, her breasts, the angel tattoo on her arm, wings unfurled. Her youthful beauty made him wince. Or something else?
“Hey, there.” She greeted him and then picked up the repair kit. “What — did you have one get in?”
“Yeah, but I don’t know where — I have to figure it out.”
“Right, I know,” she added in solidarity, and let the phrase hang as though she wished there was more to say.
There was no one else in the store except a skeletally thin teen-age boy pulling expired goods off the shelves and tossing them into a trash bin. There was also a bin full of vegetables that were “expired,” but you knew that really they had started to transform and crawl. The can of roach spray next to the garbage can told the story. Not even the synthetic DNA was resistant any more to contamination. No one talked much about it, but no one bothered to hide it anymore either. Lies were superfluous. There should have been something glorious about the failure of the synthetics, but there wasn’t.
He imagined what would happen after he left the store and it enraged him: Nelly telling his story to the stock boy as the two smoked electronic cigarettes and sipped watered-down soda from large cups: “Poor man,” she would begin the tale of woe that would mean nothing to the young boy and maybe nothing to Nelly either, but all the same someone needed to go through the motions of a ritual of sympathy. He wasn’t sure how he felt about pity. He wanted it of course but worried it meant he was weak or that people would think he was. Was that something he should think about? Wendy would have laughed at him, would have looked at him in her hard way and said what are you saying? He had lured her up to the mountains with a promise of romantic simplicity and she had fallen for it, embraced it. She thought living in the woods was about eating fruit and reading books and having all the time in the world because he had told her that’s what it was.
It was a simple thing that startled him. He had leaned against the horn of the Ranger. He hadn’t started the truck, was he still in the parking lot? How long? Probably not very. Sometimes he woke up confused, remembering the old apartment in the suburbs, not sure where he was, or where he should be.
* * *
After a few months, she had started to let herself go. They all did. It was hard for country people to care too much about their appearances when there was no one there to see. When he had first met her, she wore make up and flowing, ethereal clothes that looked like brightly colored curtains. But as they became more familiar with each other, sharing a bathroom and the effluvia of living that comes with it, she stopped wearing the pretty clothes or making her eyes dark. It didn’t matter to him, but something seemed to die in her, and she thought she could combat it by long walks in the woods “to enjoy nature,” she said, “and all its beauty.” But then she had come across her first hybrid strewn on a dying tree limb. He had concealed their existence from her -—he had flat out lied when she asked him about them — but shouldn’t she have known anyhow? Was it on him? Crossing the barrier between plant and animal —- the experiment — had flourished in ways no one could have foreseen, like the exotic invasives people had introduced into cultivated gardens long ago as though they might simply remain static curios in a museum. Living things were not like that, he thought dully. They transformed. They changed. They were unpredictable.
“But what about those icky things that they talk about on the news? They aren’t in your woods, are they?” she had asked, grimacing the way a young child would have at the site of a centipede in the bathtub.
“No, no,” he assured her. “Come north with me. We’ll eat real food, not the synthetics from the supermarkets. You’ll see.” Why, he wondered now, had she believed? Why would anyone have?
When she bit into her first wingbud, hidden artfully among the berries, the process was complete. The image was like a photograph for him, her lips pulled back in horror, the dark blood running down her chin as though from a slashing wound on her face.
“They don’t hurt you,” he repeated lamely, like everyone always said, and maybe they didn’t. But there was no point. Wishing wouldn’t make it so, and he could see it starting to happen already.
She started dressing again, putting on makeup, even curling her hair, and volunteered to build scenery for the community theater that brought in several acts a year, the most recent an Irish folk singer who had an impressively full beard and head of hair and played strange looking instruments with verve. She was resilient. She would survive, she told him so. At night in bed, he ran his hands down her smooth back, fingering her scapula and feeling for the nubby protrusions. She wore sweaters now, even when it was warm. It was then he realized that perhaps she thought he was a fool.
She began eating more and more fruit, but especially the blackberries. He’d watch her pull out the bad ones, tossing them into a pot. But when he checked later, they were gone. When he confronted her, she shrugged, lied badly, said they must have sprouted. What did he expect?
In the end, he couldn’t save her. It was for the best, that place on the far side of the field. An act of mercy, Charlie would have called it, he thought. Charlie was his friend, and someone like Charlie knew first hand what had happened to this world we live in. They never talked much about it, but they both knew time was borrowed. How long could Charlie pretend to be selling old fruit and not the fruit of tomorrow?
* * *
Back at the cabin, he searched for the hole and found it behind the woodbox, but it wasn’t in the screen. There was a hole, good sized, that had been chewed into the wood of the floor. It must have been something else that made this hole, a rodent with good teeth, to chew through the wood like this. When he moved the wood box, he found several more, smaller holes, and he felt like he was on a leaky vessel that was sinking. Then he noticed it, like a piece of cat fur caught on a trouser leg, the strand of black wavy hair clinging to the rough edge of the wood at one of the openings.
It had to be an old stray hair shed while she was still living here. Could he have missed it? Why would he just see it now? But that happened. Pieces of life showed up long after it was gone sometimes. He remembered once years after his tabby cat had died he found a claw casing split from her nail in the detritus he cleaned from behind the refrigerator. He recognized the tabby stripe running through the shed white keratin—a big casing, so probably from a back paw, he had thought scientifically. He kept it, put it away in an earplug box. It was something he wouldn’t want anyone to know he did. He did the same thing now with the loose strand of Wendy’s hair that must have come from before. But why would it end up in the jagged edges of this newly formed hole?
The miracle was enough to distract him from the serious concern of the infiltration, but now he returned to the problem. How was he going to combat this? And what were these things that were making the incursions? Surely it wasn’t that flaccid mess he had killed earlier? This was something new and powerful. No Guardian screen kit would keep these out.
For a moment he felt energized, startled out of his laconic resignation. Maybe Charlie could help with this war. He heard the crunching sounds of tires and the grinding of an engine from a car in ascent. Charlie? Yes, he thought, together they might …
When he stepped out onto the porch, he watched Nelly emerge from the small modular car. She waved, and then bent into the backseat, excavating a crate covered by a blue and white checkered towel that looked like fixings for a picnic. As she approached, she waved with a free hand while balancing the crate on her hip, and smiled with horsey teeth. He affixed to his features a pleasant expression of quizzicality but rested his hand on the shovel’s handle.
“How did you find me?”
“Charlie told me.” Then she added, “but I already knew.” She kept walking towards him.
“Stop,” he said, not unkindly. “What do you have?”
She stood in front of him now. When she bent over to uncover the crate, he clearly saw the protrusions at the shoulder blades. Had he missed them before? She pulled the towel off the top with a flourish, as though she were the assistant in a magic act.
In the crate he saw a large stainless steel mixing bowl filled with watery purple turds, the size of rabbit droppings, and smothered with a group of glittering green blue flies whose renegade members broke formation randomly to make a halo around Nelly’s beatific face.
“I thought you looked sad before,” she said, looking up coyly through the buzzing insects. “I thought this might cheer you up, so I stopped by Charlie’s and got these.” She looked triumphantly at him, and then added with humility, “I hope you don’t mind. He said you left them behind. I thought, you know,” she stammered, now uncertain.
For a moment he envisaged, as though it were a science fiction movie, Nelly with the skeletal youth who worked with her at the supermarket, making love in the deserted store, producing horrifying progeny to people the earth and live upon it as a blight.
He gave her a grateful look, imagined that he felt compassion for her and all the rest. “Very thoughtful of you. Please, come on in. Would you like some tea?”
And as she scampered across the threshold and turned her back, his eyes kept vigil on her shoulder blades. The shovel was within reach. The transmogrification was complete. He no longer felt sorry for them.
Wendy Ryden earned her MFA in fiction writing from Brooklyn College and has published short stories and creative nonfiction in journals and collections including An Intricate Weave, The One You call Sister, and Cancer as a Women’s Issue. An English professor at Long Island University in New York, she currently teaches courses in creative nonfiction and American Gothic literature.