Ladybug Apocalypse

by Nancy Au

Ladybugs at the end of the long wooded trail. Thousands of unmoving red and black dots, clustered, deep red corn kernels swarmed on the tips of twigs, splintered crevices in dead logs, flat tops of trail signs. In dead winter, they are searching for sun, warmth. Sharing the tiniest spaces without thought of property lines, borderlines; just sun streaks, glowing patches, sunrise pink mist, and burnt orange sunset.

“Are they all dead?” I ask Mother.

“No,” she responds. “Just resting. Bugs do that, overwintering.”

I’d read that waiting for beauty and light is the same as waiting to be saved. I like tiny statements like these, left hanging in the room. Low clouds threatening rain, some dry and full of air.

The ladybug thousands is nauseating. Fills me with wet dread. Mother taught me the word for this: Trypophobia. She is the same way. She says, Give me blindness, baldness, bankruptcy. Just don’t give me:
          Clustered holes
          Fruits and bubbles
          Woodpecker holes with an acorn stashed center
          Lotus seed heads
          Split pomegranates
          Bunches and bumps

Mother grabs me by the armpits, lifts me—like being caught by the wind, out of rain. First wet-wet. Then, dry. For a few seconds, I am seaworthy, floating in a pocket of quiet high above the squirming lady bugs. I laugh until I’m in tears.

Mother lowers me, I stand with face covered. I tell her that I’m forgetting Father, that I don’t want to forget. That my memories of him are turning to liquid, small blue, see-through like water.

She shakes her head, pats my hair, tells me that Father is greater than memories, that he is fantasy, makes people glow, glow fly. I stare at the faded ink dot on the back of her hand.

I remind her of how I’d found her, like a goldfish, caught, yanked out of water. Out of splashes, bone-bone dry. I remind her of the view from the bath rug floor:
          A white wet towel, rolled beneath the sink.
          All that gray wet hair.
          Green mildew and yellow stains.
          Cracked grout, chipped tile.
          A lost single razor blade, rusted and broken.

Mother becomes a moaning cavern, dank and dark, face dripping with memories. We return to our blue car. Mother sips steaming burnt bean water from a green thermos. I chew on a honey-sweet oatmeal cookie, study a small colorful handbill jammed under the windshield wiper; a photo of a man and woman in red helmets, careening across a canyon.
          “We should zip line,” I say.
          “No way.” Mother shakes her head, smiles sneakily. “I like living too much.”
          I laugh, say to her what Father had said to her many times, “You’re a hoot.”
          “Why are we here?” Mother asks.
          “I don’t want to forget.”
          “Forget what?”

Her hand grips mine at the edge of the seat. The soft fabric is blue. Together we are blue-blue.

At the far end of the parking lot there’s a burnt, hollowed oak tree trunk. I picture four A.M., time of deepest darkness, living inside of that tree. I do not know what will become of the ladybugs. I dream awake. I imagine a life where Mother has never lifted me, never shown me the ladybug apocalypse, never guided me to the tops of ridges, down muddy ravines. I imagine life without Mother’s baking. I imagine life without Father, not having memories of him to forget. I imagine that Mother had never shown me any of the darkest cubbyholes in her life, a fear that we have always shared.

Nancy Au’s stories have been published or are forthcoming in SmokeLong Quarterly, Necessary Fiction, Fiction Southeast, Word Riot, Identity Theory, Prick of the Spindle, and elsewhere. She has a degree in Anthropology from U.C. Berkeley. She lives in Oakland, California, and is completing her MFA at San Francisco State University where she taught creative writing. She teaches scientific creative writing at CSU Stanislaus. She is the co-founder of The Escapery, a San Francisco Bay Area writing unschool

What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “Ladybug Apocalypse”?

“Ladybug Apocalypse” originated from a songwriting (and performance!) exercise provided by the incredible playwright and SFSU professor Michelle Carter. (This was my first time singing in public, and my hands were sweating and trembling so much that I thought I’d dehydrate)! The lyrics for the song came from a mixture of class notes and free-writes composed during my very first MFA seminar, taught by the extraordinary short story writer and SFSU professor Nona Caspers. In listening to my song, Michelle told me she pictured a goldfish in a bag. I was so captivated by the image of the constrained and uncertain world of that goldfish, floating in a bubble of water bound in stretched plastic, that I expanded and re-shaped the song into “Ladybug Apocalypse.”


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