"I don't love you as if you were the salt-rose, topaz
or arrow of carnations that propagate fire:
I love you as certain dark things are loved,
secretly, between the shadow and the soul."
- Sonnet 17, Pablo Neruda
It's about bugs and the dark. If it's about anything.
I like orderly things. Crystalline orders, taxonomies, loci, things that can be lined up and counted. Things that know where they belong when I don't. After my dad died, I started paying attention to things with layers. Bone, striae, soil. Anthills. Bugs are brilliant. They all have a job, they all do their job, they all show up at precisely the right time and then leave once they're finished. Humans tend to overstay their welcome.
There are over 60,000 distinct species of blowfly in the world. How can a person not love entomology? Each fly is like a small black equation in the air, lighting upon a blade of grass or a dead body without discrimination. Even if you die in secret, in silence, in the darkest of sealed chambers, a blowfly will find you in minutes. So you're never alone. Not really.
Catherine once called my house a "hermetically sealed box," but I know that it's full of life. Bugs on pushpins and cards, hundreds of individual families with all of their blood feuds and hereditary disputes: Calliphorae, Diptera, horned beetle, blood scarab. I have one butterfly with its wing covers gently scraped away so that you can see the delicate veins underneath, like a hidden city. Even maggots have veins, teeth, a circulatory system, taking in shallow pockets of air through tiny holes in their flesh. I was at a scene once where they had climbed up the trees in search of a safe place to pupate. It was literally raining maggots. Sarah was still a grad student then, and she had to run back to the car to get us umbrellas.
Not bad for a first date, I think.
Once my mother had completely lost her hearing from the Otosclerosis, I had to learn ASL as quickly as I could. At first it was a game—we would finger-speak with each other. She would trace the signs for 'love' and 'son' on my naked back while I lay in bed, recovering from a cold or sad because I'd been teased at school again. It wasn't the teasing that hurt, but rather the confusion. I couldn't understand why everyone else didn't see like me, beneath the layers, deep into the earth. It was like I had X-Ray vision, but I couldn't lend my spectacles to anyone else. Nobody wanted them. My mom would tap out my name in finger-spelling, G-I-L, tap-tap-tap onto my back, and I would feel safe, enclosed by the warmth of her silence.
For years, Sarah has been trying to get ahold of my grad school transcripts, so that she can see how brilliant I really was. She doesn't know that I pulled strings to have them sealed forever, but I enjoy watching her on the hunt. What would she say if she knew that I was actually a mediocre student? I didn't even get a fellowship until the second year of my PhD, and I was turned down three times for an NES grant before I finally got one in the last round. I worked as a research assistant for absent-minded professors who ended up influencing my own research so much, like William Bass, Lee Goff and Vincent DiMaio. Once my work on insect succession and time of death began to attract a following, I was offered teaching positions at Berkley and Stanford. But I never fit with a department.
"And then I met Sarah Sidle."
Startled, I looked up to see Greg peering at me. My eyes narrowed.
"Is there something I can help you with, Greg?"
His hair was in full Greg splendor, its gold tips gleaming weirdly, almost like starlight in the dark confines of my office. I remembered walking by the DNA lab once, when Greg was still the head analyst (the youngest we'd ever had), and seeing him with a fully inflated plastic glove stuck to his head like a rooster cap. This from the kid who graduated at twenty-one with an MSc from Brown, summa cum laude.
Eckley had been against hiring Greg from the start—"he's a little pissant with no life experience"—but I looked harder. I saw shadows. Some people look bruised by the world, like an apple that's rattled around in a closed lunchbox for hours, days, centuries of motion and darkness. Also, Conrad is an asshole. So I hired Greg the next day. I could see those bruises now in full relief. He'd healed on the outside from his attack, but I could see the lines of hard, curled bitterness just below the surface, the mild hesitation, the way his hands shook just a little sometimes in the lunchroom while he was eating a tuna fish sandwich wrapped in brown paper. Made by his mother? I didn't doubt it.
"Is that your journal?" He leaned closer.
I shut the laptop. "Yes. And it's private."
His grin was lopsided. "I've got a journal too. Not on the computer though. Which is weird, because I love computers, and I'm not exactly a fountain-pen type of guy, but I found this sweet little lambskin journal at this store—"
I don't think my face changed. I wasn't aware of frowning, but Greg's face slowly fell, and he trailed off.
"—and—I should probably leave you alone. I just wanted to let you know that we're processing the bite marks from that Henson case."
"And who is 'we?'"
He blinked. "Catherine. She's way better at mixing the dental stone."
"But you have to learn. Tell her to stop doing you favors. Then get into the lab and process the bite marks yourself."
Greg appeared to deflate. "I was hoping to go down to the garage. Nick's fuming that car from the DEA bust last week, and he was going to teach me how to set up the big fuming hood. You know, the really big one—"
"—and you can learn that after you figure out how to pour the dental stone. Every job is important, Greg, no matter how tedious it seems."
He nodded. I could tell he was trying not to roll his eyes. Greg must have been such a passive-aggressive kid, just like me.
"Right. I'll process the bite marks."
"Besides." I raised an eyebrow. "I'm sure you'll see Nick after work."
He was embarrassed enough to blush. "Yeah. Sure. I'll—um—" He headed for the door. "—I'll get on that—processing. Thanks for the chat."
I grinned and opened up my laptop again. Everyone had known for ages that Nick and Greg were breaking protocol by dating, but who was I to argue with workplace decorum, especially in my situation? Their partnership was different than mine, younger. The kind of thing that happens when you're still in your twenties and everything is a bit shaky, experimental, impermanent. After Greg was caught in the lab explosion a few years ago, Nick started paying more attention to him. Nothing too obvious. They went out for drinks a few times, I remember, and once Nick brought him lunch. It was all in the little gestures, the striae again, like the movements of a butterfly's wings that can change the weather on a nearby continent. I walked by the DNA lab once, and Greg was staring into the comparison microscope. Nick put a hand on the small of his back. It wasn't a friendly pat. It was the way you guided a loved one into a room. If I'd been able to put that gesture, frozen in time, underneath a scanning electron microscope, I would have seen thousands of electrons splitting their shells, protons changing their spin and flavor, blazing into new atomic valences.
I thought Greg would fly apart when Nick was trapped underground, but he held up. And the most surprising moment was when he showed up in my office, his face a mask of silent resolve as he asked for a two-week shared vacation.
"I need this," he said simply.
I remembered once, years ago, looking down at a body that seemed so eerily familiar. She was like a butterfly coiled in sleep, her wings bloodied, her hair a sea of dark against the brilliant white shower tiles. How long had I stared at her? She could have been Sarah's doppleganger. Sometimes I even wondered which one had died. Who curled into my side at night while I slept, while the dog snored rhythmically and I listened to the air conditioner humming against the hot Nevada air?
I signed the papers. Neither said anything when they returned to work, but their silence was also a kind of contract, something that Catherine and I noticed immediately.
"Everyone needs a person," she said, thoughtfully chewing an apple. "People think Nicky's a big stud, but he's really a pup. Greg could be good for him."
People follow laws of succession as well. They arrive at scenes, sometimes, when they're told, do their business, and leave. They abandon a dark shape, the empty room where love used to shelter, a hollowed-out comma of delicate space. Like the inside of a warm canal where, even now, bony spurs have begun to blossom and grow, invaders that will eventually claim my hearing, just like mom. I wish love could be a shield, some kind of hard, sclerotic covering, smooth, like a puparium, to keep us out of danger. Shells can be beautiful. But is any protection enough? Will Sarah tap out G-I-L in finger-spelling on my naked back once I've ceased to hear at all? At night, after work, once they've both had a few beers and aren't thinking about the world anymore—at least the hostile world outside their apartment—does Nick allow Greg to lay his head against his chest, to fold into him as a cat forces you to rearrange your body? Does Nick stroke his hair absently, call him 'baby,' rub his bare feet against Greg's in slow, reassuring circles?
Or is it Greg who comforts Nick instead, wrapping those thin arms around him, rocking him a little, chin propped against Nick's dark hair as he pretends to watch TV without the sound off. I imagine the static settling on their bodies, like a sort of love. Eventuallly, static is all that I'll be able to hear.
Sarah leans against the doorframe, one arm in her coat, the other held out. She wants me to dance. Her eyes are young, but amber with strength. I hear them; the shadows they make, the flutter of their gaze, like the many-tongued angels that guarded the ark, a skein of wings and open fingers and grazing mouths.
I ask her to dance. "Almost done. Yes."
She leads me to the dance-floor. "I brought my car today."
A slow saraband. A volta. The parquet floor smooth beneath our feet. "Then you can follow me home."
A turn. A turn. She's leading again.
"I can follow you home."
Summary: Gil ponders his past and his relationship with Sara