Fiction · 05/25/2016

Ephemeroptera

Below the winding river road there are naked sunbathers clinging to naked milk-sucking babies, spotless rainbow of towels, neat corners, not a speck of sand because nudists are worried about getting grit out of all their sensitive cracks and crevices. There are women’s swollen breasts, their sun-oiled babies, the river’s vintage waves, its hollow curves.

In Northern California’s wine country, we follow the hazy swarm of mayflies across a short red bridge; a buzzing gold cloud surrounds our car, slicking the road as we tread a rubber groove into their bodies. We park off the road by curved barbed wire, and angry red bullet-holed signs. In the car I sweat metal heat, watch mayflies try to break through glass. I scratch bloody mosquito bites on my ankles and although I’m not alone, I think about being a woman, alone in the woods by a river. I think about rape, evictions from private property, gridlocked traffic. Standstills. My knotted long black hair.

On our epic dragon hunting journey — dragonflies and land dragons and Gilgamesh and please hold this Western fence lizard and don’t squeeze so hard. My husband hops the fence and jumps down the banks to the river’s edge in search of mayflies, dragonflies, damselflies. Just insects on his mind. Pupae. Slippery rocks.

I ask loudly of my husband, the insect scientist, for statistics and facts: What if the whole world farted at once?

He thinks carefully about this, shrugs straight his backpack stuffed with gloves and tweezers and bottles of ethanol, wipes his neck with his palm. After a few moments, says, “If we all face in the same direction, we can change the Earth’s rotation!”

I wander uphill, up bank, away from green reeds that itch my bites. I mouth the Chinese word for dragon, an onomatopoeia, sound of thunder. I picture warm, electric summer thunderstorms, soggy gray clouds. My eyes graze the blue-green bunch grasses, red barked shrubs. I wave down at my husband from my perch on the river road shoulder, point at my wrist as big as I can, shout, “Ten minutes!” Longer than the lifetime of a mayfly once in flight. I try to estimate the number of insects my husband will find, his hands plunging into the clear water as he turns over wet rocks. Scientists say that social caring is sex with needs. I try to imagine a ten minute lifetime, all you have to learn to care.

Down the road, a sign for a winery: Blue Heron Tasting today. In the gift shop, I buy a two dollar artist’s pencil. The shopkeeper looks like a grandmother; white hair in bun, cool gray eyes, knitting a baby hat. She promises no smudges. A near perfect tool. When she adds tax to the two dollars, she borrows my new pencil and sketches long-hand multiplication on the back of a gas station receipt. A photo in a frame on the counter; the shopkeeper gripping a duck by its neck in one hand, a rifle in the other. I ask her: Do you watch the bird tumble from the sky? What is it like to hunt?

Deep in numbers, she mutters, “Thrash. Thrush. Duck.”

I ask her: What would it be like to live your entire life, literally-literally?

She responds, “Blue Heron. Tasting.” Her laughter, the sound of gravel under tires. She takes my five, shuffles through a wooden box for change, asks, “Where are you from?”

Oakland.

“No.” She hands me back coins and wrinkled dollar bills. “Where are you really from? Where are your mommy and daddy from?” The shopkeeper places my pencil in a small paper bag with the winery’s wine label affixed to the front. She returns to her knitting without waiting for my answer.

Out the shop’s window, a flowering pink azalea bush and bags of trash I had not noticed before. My eyes quickly search, as they always do on quiet roads like this, for the shape of a body inside the black stretched plastic. I’ve never seen murder leftovers before. But once when grandmother was drunk, she showed me her secret photos hidden under her bed, of China’s Cultural Revolution, a man shot in the head, frozen red mist. In the picture, not dead yet. Just almost. Eyes squeezed shut.

D&D and my grandmother will tell you that a silver dragon is good and breathes cold. Outside the shop, I pause before crossing, watch my husband ascend the sandy steep riverbank towards the car, brush cobwebs out of his hair. He reaches our car, flings open all the doors allowing it to cool, evil to good. One hand shields the sun from his eyes as he looks up and down the empty road, then towards the gift shop. He waves, holds a glass bullet up to the light. From his smile, I know that floating inside the ethanol is a stonefly exoskeleton. Imagine: a tiny empty cricket, marbled brown and white, two tails, two antennae, six muscular legs, claws. They cannot travel far from home, a signifier of pure, clean water.

I head back across the empty road, and glimpse the Do Not Trespass sign. I think about all of the hall passes my husband’s been granted in Life. Walks at night alone, free from fear. Questions answered seriously by the mechanic, by the doctor, by his students. I think about famous revolutionary painters: Would I let an old man watch me dance ballet for hours, painting me as I stretch, legs opened? Who gave Degas his hall pass? Why do we keep giving hall passes to the same people? Over and over, again? How do you prove that your grandparents and parents’ life here was more than just visiting, fleeting ephemeroptera? What can I say that will show what it means to live Chinese-American, first-generation; legs dangling, seated on the lip of a hyphen, like living at the edge of a storm? Always. Waiting and waiting.

Back at the car, my husband brushes the sweat off my upper lip with his finger, cups my chin in his hand. Warm ice cream cone.

How do you show love without words? On the back of the tissue box, I list the times that I’d seen my grandmother cry:

She was hung-over and found a dead possum on our porch.

She read an article about a woman with aphasia who could only say Yes and No, who could no longer read or write.

She read that this woman used to be an engineer, a talented artist and musician.

She watched an ant drag a dead ant friend away from our poisonous ant trap.

She learned that cats are used as bait for fighting pit bulls.

She thought she’d lost the secret picture of the man being shot in the head after leaving it on top of the microwave.

She remembered the woman with aphasia, and wondered what she thought about movies she watched.

She watched a home movie of my childhood dogs, brown labradors named Jack and Jill.

For eight years, until the day he died, Jack accompanied me (I was then, just nine-years old) up the stairs to bed. The first night after Jack died, I waited at the bottom of the stairs, my parents and grandparents watching, waiting, not knowing what to do. It was Jill, younger than Jack by just one year, who got up from her warm spot by the front door, nudged me with her wet nose, placed one arthritic paw on the lowest step, sharing the love Jack had left behind.

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Nancy Au’s short stories are published or forthcoming in Fiction Southeast, Word Riot, Identity Theory, Prick of the Spindle, and elsewhere. She is the co-founder of The Escapery, a San Francisco Bay Area Writing Unschool. She has a degree in Anthropology from U.C. Berkeley, and is currently completing an MFA at San Francisco State University where she also teaches creative writing.