My mother likes to talk about her time in New Mexico when she was a kid, drank grape soda out of the bottle every day until it stained her teeth, and amassed bugs like a crazy old lady gathering cats. She was one of the lucky ones – most of her childhood was spent among a forest near the Rio Grande, climbing trees with thick stalks like elephant legs coming up from the ground and leaves like chemically-altered hair picked with a comb. Her summers were passed in idle, gazing at the azure sky as though it were a hunky boyfriend making love to her right there on the verdant grass. Her thighs were strong from bike-riding and her shoulders sculpted from months of yard work, hunting errant weeds and chasing after butterflies that looked like littered candy wrappers in the wind. Her memories are idyllic as memories should be.
She tells me that when she was a teenager, she hadn’t understood people and preferred the outdoors instead, inviting wildlife to be her companions and the changing seasons to serve as backdrops to her eremitic playground. Nature didn’t tease her about her erratic voice or try to grope her in the dark because her breasts were soft like the tenderized meat of a cow.
One Saturday, she befriended an extremely large beetle in repose, resting underneath the shade of a tree. He was a cottonwood borer and colossal, with a coal-colored body and alabaster spots my mother says she could read like tea leaves. When she’d held him steady on one finger and stroked him, he’d murmured the way people often do after a good movie has just ended.
She named him “Cryo” because she’d just watched a documentary on Cryogenics and wanted him and everyone she loved to live forever. Wherever she went, he went too, except when he was overcome drilling a hole into a cottonwood tree.
My mother says she cared for Cryo more than she’d ever cared for any living thing in her entire life. Their friendship lasted for several days.
After he died, she cried and then tried to freeze him. Her parents had an icebox they used to store pop and liquor, and she’d slid him into a glass jar, poked air dents like mini bullet holes into the metal cap, and stuck him there.
After her parents split, she was forced to leave Cryo behind, dumping him into the trash as though he were a trivial sentiment – a relic of a time unworthy of remembrance. His body had taken refuge inside a discarded yogurt container, the rim clingy with milk.
My mother believes in reincarnation and tells me now in her hospital gown that when she comes back from the dead, she’ll be reborn as a cottonwood borer, a female with markings that will only speak of fortuitous things. She says she knows it’s true and feels it in her gut, the way she felt when she knew Daddy was going to leave us and we had to pick up and move all over again.
Don’t crush me when I come to visit you, she says, closing her eyes and positioning her fingertips over the edges as though willing them to remain shut.
But where we live, there are no cottonwood borers. In fact, there are no more anywhere. They are extinct, gone like the millions of other insects that have vanished silently and without lament. She knows that.
Annam Manthiram’s stories appear or are forthcoming in Cream City Review, Pank, Smokelong Quarterly, and Chicago Quarterly Review. She is the author of two novels, The Goju Story and After the Tsunami, and a short story collection (Dysfunction), which was a Finalist in the 2010 Elixir Press Fiction Award and received Honorable Mention in Leapfrog Press’ 2010 fiction contest. Her fiction has also been nominated for the PEN/O’Henry Prize and inclusion in the Best American Short Stories anthology. A graduate of the M.A. Writing program at the University of Southern California, Ms. Manthiram resides in New Mexico with her husband, Alex, and son, Sathya. So far, she is quite enchanted. You can visit her online at AnnamManthiram.com.