Swarm

Swarm

by Jane Ciabattari

The day she left, he lost time.

She had written him a note in her meticulous handwriting, left it on the kitchen table, taped next to her teeth marks. “I’m filing for divorce. I want the house.”

WTF? Where were the fireworks?

 When he found himself he was walking in the hills near his house, distracted. More than distracted, infuriated.

He saw dots in the air. Was he having a migraine? Dots the size of glowing cigarettes but reversed, black against sunlight, like something she might draw. She had that skill. Like Escher.

Then he heard the hum.

He rotated slowly, head craned, peering up, down, sideways.  Dots were spread across the landscape as far as he could see, spread across all sides of his vision. He was locked in by buzzing dots.

Curl up? Run? Stand still? He walked steadily up the hill, hoping he would find his way through to the other side, find a clearing, move outside the frame, but the hum grew louder and he saw wings and glittering eyes and then the first one landed on the top of his foot, on that fragile bare arch bone, the second on the tender flesh inside his elbow and the next and he couldn’t remember. Shout? Don’t shout? Play dead? Run? Don’t run?

He brushed two away with loose fingers and ran uphill as fast as he could, his heart beating frantically beneath the swarm. 

Home

He lived in a magical wooded village in the bull’s eye of Silicon Valley, an hour from Facebook, two hours from Apple, given traffic, one hour on 280 to the venture capital firm where he consulted. The house had an acre, all told, with a large area where they’d envisioned organic vegetable gardens and a gazebo with firepit where they could entertain on foggy nights.  That half acre behind the house, which filled up with fennel and blackberry bushes while they weren’t looking, was now to be his home. Somehow.

Alone

He woke the first morning outside. The first thing he saw was his arm, the pale freckled skin covered with red patches, tiny bloody kisses from tiny vampire women. He was bleeding all over. Attacked in the night. He picked one off. It was stiff. Vegetable, not animal.  He opened the flap of the tent.  Fog. The earth was dry. Covered with bloody kisses. He picked up a handful. Acacia seeds. He was camping under the acacia tree.

He poked his feet into his trainers, ducked under the tent flap and stood under the tree, staring up.

The parrot flock floated by overhead. Cheap cheap cheap. Calling him out for all his flaws. Her flock, not his anymore. Village gossips mocking him. He’d seen them searching his face for violent tendencies when he stopped by the Madhouse for coffee. He’d show them.

The cat was napping by the barbecue.  He reached out to pet her absently. She woke with a snarl and went for his hand, claws out.

Ouch! Hey kitty.

She pounced on his foot, swiped at his ankle, crouched like he had seen her with mice.

Whoa.

He’d fed her milk from a bottle when she was tiny. He’d taught her how to climb backward down the cherry tree so she wasn’t stranded when she went after a bird.

Another swipe and she drew blood.

 Fucking cat! he yelled.

He was her enemy now.  Her prey?

AA

He went to his postgraduate addiction meeting, still dripping with bloody mouths. He was teetering on the brink of a bottomless desolation.

Oh, they got you! yelled Al, the oldest postgraduate. (Al was so old there were rumors he’d never even been addicted, he got into the program for male company after being hounded for years by his wife and her five older sisters.)

The other men gathered round and examined him with distracted interest. Yeah, looks like the same kind got me a few years back. You can try Neosporin. Or witch hazel. Or is it white vinegar? I consulted a healer who told me one or the other was the gold standard for that.

Ursula Le Guin, said the professor. She wrote a story about acacia seeds. Ants used them as texts. Her story is the translation of a text written by a rebellious worker bee. If nothing else, it will give you food for thought. Acacia Seeds, I believe she called it.

He googled it later. “The Author of the Acacia Seeds and Other Extracts from the Journal of the Association of Therolinguistics.”

He read on his iPhone, chuckled when he came to the key line, written by a worker bee, using as his text dozens of degerminated acacia seeds laid in rows. “Seed 31,” translated as “Eat the eggs! Down with the queen.”

Aftermath

When she moved out she left behind a few strays.  A dirt bike with the back tire flattened into the concrete of the garage floor. And, in her closet, a tin box full of singleton earrings and a Costco sized bulk container of tiny brown bottles. The label said “Bach Original Flower Essences. White Chestnut. For when your mind goes round and round and round.”

He didn’t know her mind was going round and round and round. Why didn’t she tell him? It must have been going round and round and round for some time.

Within hours of leaving she filed for divorce and had him served with documents in which she claimed the house, and dozens of other concrete things she lumped together as “community property.” 

Separated

A few days after she left a sheriff arrived at eight in the morning and handed him a restraining order. Minutes later, she drove up and said she was moving back into the house. In two hours. And he was not to come within fifty yards of her.

She claimed he was violent. It was a lie. That didn’t matter. She wanted him to go away. She had the advantage, having made the first move. But he was not caving.

He went to court and disputed her claim. No complaints, no arrests, his record was pure (except for that ticket for going too slow on the freeway as he navigated home after having all four wisdom teeth pulled, an error of judgment he chalked up to being twenty-six). The judge denied the restraining order.

Hah. He was staying.

He found the engineer’s report from when they bought the house (correction, he bought the house, a cash deal, proceeds from the sale of stock options, that once- in-a-lifetime start-up). She wanted more than half, she wanted the house. Hers.

He walked off one half-acre for him (including the arable land and the forest), one half-acre for her (including the house). He hired a man to install an electric fence, invisible but deadly. He brought out his sleeping bag, his camping lantern, the dishes they kept for road trips, bottled water, protein shakes, seaweed and jerky. The grill would be useful in summer. In fall he would need a roof overhead. For now, the trees.

Blight

During the days after she filed for divorce, his favorite Asian pear tree succumbed to blight, one branch at a time blackening as if blasted by fire. By the end the tree stood stark, withered fruit hanging, blackened leaves shorn from the stark branches. Birds stayed away. Occasionally a miniature embryonic pear, hard as porcelain, dropped to the ground.

He hired a man to cut the tree down. He gathered up what remained, hard chips of wood, black to the core, and burned them in the grill.

Learning to Breathe

He started the morning looking upward at the sky through the tree’s limbs. He practiced the new breathing he’d picked up on a stress app. Breathe in, breathe out. Equal time. Thirty seconds breathing through the nose, thirty seconds breathing out through the mouth. Clear your mind.  He stood, eyes closed, breathed in to a count of twenty and imagined sky pouring light into the crown of his head and spreading through his body. He breathed out, then held his hands toward the earth and imagined he had grown roots deep into the soil, he was planted there and thriving, to a count of twenty. Then each direction, east, north, west, south.

He needed to know where his body was in the world. He needed to notice where he fit into the universe, which space he inhabited. Familiar words entered his awareness like old friends.

She can’t touch thinking. You are free now.

The first morning he finished his breathing feeling refreshed, opened his eyes, stared straight ahead. A spider web was hanging there. Right in front of him. The spider was the size of his thumb, its gnarly pale legs with brown patches like leopard spots curled up in the midst of the web. The creature was so still he could look at it from an inch away and it didn’t move. Dead? Sleeping? Was it poisonous? Or benign. Nothing was benign, in his experience. Everything was potentially toxic. Especially love.

He touched a finger to the web, ready to jump back. The spider ran up a filament into the acacia tree so fast he thought he had imagined it.

He saw the spider most mornings after that. He named her Bertha. She had to spin her own web every day, capture creatures to eat, starting over every day. She became his model of determination and endurance. 

Outgoing

She filed for spousal support at the highest possible level. She’d quit her job, and claimed she’d been a stay at home spouse for all their fourteen years together helping build his career to the detriment of her own. In fact, she’d worked as a senior VP of marketing at a series of companies, her salary increasing with each move. He’d been employee number twelve at a start-up that hit the jackpot, going public with a huge payout, but had never found another steady footing. He consulted for venture capital guys, over sushi and sake or choco-banana-date shakes or paleo plates in Woodside. The fees never measured up to her salary. Together, they had believed they were invincible.

He bought space on a billboard on the freeway, on the stretch between San Francisco and the turnoff to the East Bay. He set up automatic payment of the spousal support check. Every time money left his account, it showed up on the billboard. With her name on it. A big check, with his signature.

Decamping

He found a Cost-Co plastic storage container with a bright yellow lid to hold the discoveries and other documents that began arriving in the first month in the period he learned to call “after separation.” She understood the meaning of that period better than he did. She followed her attorney’s suggestions to the letter. Odd, as she was usually chaotic in her affairs. He had managed her finances for years.

He remembered CostCo had a yurt they had considered buying once as a party place. He and his buddies could smoke cigars out there while she and her friends could linger over cocktails inside, and everyone would be happy. But they never got around to it. Now was the time. He bought and installed the twelve foot by twelve foot version, winterized.

Legacy

She claimed the frozen sperm and frozen eggs they had banked for the future, to be downloaded, so to speak, when they were ready, or when they had selected a surrogate.

A legacy, she said at the time.

Whatever, he said. She was the one with the ticking clock.

But now, these fragments of a child, cells, potential, DNA, could become a future being.

His?

Hers?

Theirs?

Who decides?

Thorns

Hooking over the fence here and there were brambles which, he discovered on closer inspection, were studded with fruit and thorns. His breakfast. He was bloodied, bramble-scratched to his elbows, fingers pricked by the not-quite-ripe ones before he learned how to pull gently on the shiny black ones and see if they came willingly. Otherwise, he tossed them. The abundance made him feel reckless.

Luther Burbank created a white blackberry. Transparent. It didn’t catch on. He tried for thornless, but the stinging strain dominated, became invasive, traveled up and down the coast, bringing sweet temptation with pain.

Another discovery: A zucchini that must have descended from the first organic garden she had hired someone to plant when they first bought the house. It had spread its leaves across a six-foot stretch of dehydrated ground and happily set forth dozens of blossoms. The blossoms opened, yellow as taxis, and dropped off the plant at the end of the day. Something wrong. No fertilization? He wasn’t sure.

He lost track, and one day he saw three baby zucchinis suckling on the stem, their blossoms shrunk to umbilical size. Ah, he thought. This would be his salvation. He would eat off the land.

He also found a plant with giant leaves, bigger than chard, but not chard. Or kale. Something else. He dug and dug. The root went into the ground like in a fairy tale never ending, into the center of the earth. He broke it off and smelled the sharp whiff from the white flesh. It reminded him of roast beef. Hot. He’d never seen the source.

Horseradish, his buddy Chad confirmed. He’d met Chad during the start-up. He was an engineer whose dad ran an organic dairy farm in Sonoma County. His mom had a five-acre organic farm in which she raised anything that would grow there plus a third-acre of weed for a medical marijuana dispensary.

Weeks later, the leaves of the zucchini, now umbrella sized, were dusted with a white powdery film. Perhaps they were dying? Like all plants, at the end of the day. They needed food, water?

He lost track of the plant until a Friday when he’d decided to eat a couple of the baby zucchinis. As he picked he saw a sea of tiny green things moving. He looked closer. Hundreds of weird green critters.  The leaves were mottled.

He Googled. Aphids and powdery mildew. Disgusting infestation.  He was an innocent newbie, blind to all the possibilities.

Pests

Something was eating his kale, his chard, his black mustard. He found holes in the leaves each morning, but he couldn’t see who it was. He started checking three times a day. After a week he was picking fallen acacia leaves from a kale leaf when he noticed something light green on the leaf. A tiny worm.

It’s you, he said.

He was ready. He cut it in half with pinking shears he’d scavenged from the garage. He wondered what it was.

Leaf miner? He’d heard that term. Googled it. Larval stage of moths and other insects. Combat with Neem oil. Neem. He liked the word. But the etched leaves of the leaf miner’s in the illustration weren’t like the holes he had in his.

Bertha

One morning he finished his breathing and stepped close to Bertha’s web to say hello. She was quite still. He looked closely. She was missing her two long back legs. What happened? he asked. Silence. Did someone bit your legs off? No response.

Her web seemed chaotic, disorderly. The best she could do with two missing legs. The nights were growing colder.  He could sense her end approaching. It seemed she was his only steady companion. He could sense tears coming.

Get a grip, he whispered to himself.

Farmer John

He was farming there in the back yard. He had planted seedlings of cold weather vegetables recommended by the organic nursery. Kale, broccoli, Brussels sprouts. He wanted to plant Romanesko cauliflower, so he could harvest creatures that resembled Rubens still lives, but he wasn’t experienced enough. He watched the plants thrive. The worms that had eaten his kale were gone.

At the farmer’s market he saw a baggie with small jewel like greens at one stand, and the sign Brussels sprouts. How could that be? Brussels sprout tops. Sixteen dollars a pound. His self worth went up. He had six plants, he could eat their tops. They weren’t even available in the organic market. And he would be saving, several dollars a meal, times seven, in season.  Substantial.

He hand watered the winter crop, proud of each inch of growth. He ate the kale raw. Raw diets were the best, he’d read online. He’d be vegan and eat raw.

Chad took him to visit his dad’s farm.

Chad’s father used manure from his herd of sloe-eyed Jerseys to fuel his feed truck. His Jerseys lived in the pasture, retreating to the barn for milking and on the occasional rain-soaked days when the earth is too wet. Chad’s father harvested rainwater. He recycled Jersey poop via a methane digesting system–a cement pit and weeping wall–that diminished the harmful methane gas, and created nutrients for growing the cover crops, mostly rye, he used to feed them. Hard core.

Storm

He was awakened early by howling. The beagle next door? He yearned for a musical relief. That one, John someone, New Orleans, piano. James Booker? John something. Dr. John. He checked YouTube. Dr. John had a new album. A freaking kick ass album. He played it during his breathing.

Chad dropped by, bringing him a cup of coffee from the Madhouse. Chad warned him about the weather. An atmospheric river was approaching from the west, bringing three storms in six days. The first would drop six inches on the area. The second, seventy mph winds. By the time the third arrived, with winds gusting to above seventy mph, the ground would be saturated and the water would run off.

“So what?” he asked.

“The acacia tree,” Chad said, bending his head toward the branches that sheltered his yurt.

“So?”

“Shallow roots,” Chad said.

“So?”

“Let me draw you a picture. Big tree, shallow roots, rainwater saturates ground, tree falls over, probably hits you here in the backyard in your sleeping bag, ends up on the roof of your house.”

“That’s not my house anymore.”

“The house.”

“Her house.”

“Her house.”

“Yow! What do I do?”

Discoveries

That fall and winter he followed other narratives in his life.

Like the terrible experience of fulfilling his ex’s lawyer’s 2079 discovery requests, which felt like an endless tax audit of their years of marriage, accompanied by punches of emotional pain.

She claimed thousands for various odd expenses.

Where, he wondered, was credit for the gifts he’d given her parents, the trip to Hawaii for her father’s seventieth, her mother’s retirement party, the westward relocation of her parents from deepest Brooklyn, all funded by his hard work. Not to mention the wedding. Weren’t the bride’s parents supposed to pay for the wedding? He paid for it all, the hotel, the reception, the food, the wedding dress, the multi-tiered cake with the hand-made flowers, hundreds of dollars for the officiant who insisted they each say, “I do.”  He could prove it, through his online bank account.

Over the last two years they were together she requested jewelry for all gifting. Turn out jewelry was her personal possession, not community property. She took every bit with her. All of it, including the $10,000 diamond earrings. What a fool he was.

He sent a few meek discovery requests in turn. Only to be answered by a clarion boilerplate: “Invasion of privacy.”  Why was his financial history an open book, and hers secret as a bank vault?

Seeing the winter vegetables grow gave him the only pleasure he had that dread season of loneliness and heartbreak.

When tiny buds began to form on the Brussels sprouts and broccoli he was in awe. Over the weeks the buds grew into miniatures of Brussels sprouts, of broccoli.

He imagined the moments of the harvest, impossible to time, the Brussels sprouts and broccoli coming into fullness in their own time, he was just a witness, ready for that moment when he could eat the fresh new green he’d grown himself.

He watched the broccoli flare out, not quite as fully rounded as those he’d seen in the market, but they were surely artificially rounded, his would be pure, virgin. He couldn’t resist. He took a paring knife and cut a stalk and ate it raw, standing along the row, the little buds in his mouth, the stalk crunchy.  Another week, and he’d have a dozen to harvest.

Someone else was watching the ripeness approach. One night he plucked a broccoli just on the verge, ate it sliver at a time with lemon juice and olive oil. The next morning when he went to harvest the rest they were gone. Ripped from the stems. Not an insect, a small pest, not blight or fungus or rust or dust. Something big with hands.

How dare she! But wait. The electrified fence would have stopped her, the lights would have alerted him. Someone else.

Critters? He’d seen skunks.

“Raccoons,” Chad suggested.

Peach Leaf Curl

He woke to a blue sky, frost on the grass. The tiny bare tree in front of his yurt had changed. He examined its branches. Blossoms. The most exquisite flowers he’s seen in his life. Better than orchids, or single roses. Red stamens, open white petals. He took photos to post on Instagram. Nothing else was opening up to spring, and here was this peach blossom, herald of a new beginning.

Maybe this limbo would not go on forever. There might be a conclusion, a future. The endless encroachments, the divorce financial analyst with her imperfect understanding of RSUs, the claims upon property he’d inherited ten years before the marriage, the hiding of assets on her part, the attack on him for hiding assets that led to hours and hours of work, proving he was not hiding assets. Already she’d spent $299K on lawyers.

A few weeks later, something was wrong with the peach tree. The beautiful omen of a new life. The leaves were twisted, and red. He googled Peach tree, Red leaf, and discovered a fungus called peach leaf curl. Only prevented by spraying a copper fungicide during the fallow season.

Nothing he could do now.

Pigs

Chad suggested he try Norfolk pigs they were, $300 a piglet. He bought four. He could breed them, eat them, they weren’t nasty and smelly like the Erskine Caldwell swine. They queued up to eat, their shit didn’t stink, they diddled the pig you pointed out. If he didn’t make money from it, so what? In his new universe making money was a negative. Making money meant owing spousal support. Not making money was the new thing.

Witnesses 

He was sitting in the sun behind his electric fence when he saw two square-ish women wearing long beige dresses and bonnets approach. They appeared to have come from another century. They walked toward him. He tried to wave them away from the fence. Was he liable if someone was electrocuted while trying to visit him uninvited?

They stopped before reaching the invisible fence. The front one said. “My name is Gladys. This is my sister Jean. We’re asking our neighbors, with all that’s happening, do you think Doomsday is near?”

He started laughing. Gladys stepped back a pace, as did her sister Jean.

“Near?” he choked out, gasping, hysterical. “Near?!” he repeated, gasping.

Gladys turned her head sideways and looked back at Jean. Together they backed away down the driveway, eyes wide, terrified.

“Near?”  he shouted after them. “Near!? Where have you been?”

A door began to open, then shut again. He had no future. Above him, the parrots repeated Cheap cheap, cheap, screaming from an empty sky.


Jane Ciabattari is the author of the short story collection Stealing the Fire. She has been honored with three Pushcart Prize special mentions, O.Henry and National Magazine Award nominations, and an Editors’ Choice Award, as well as fiction fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the MacDowell Colony, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.  Recent work appears in the anthologies Nothing Short of 100 (selected tales from 100 Word Story), Long Island Noir, edited by Kaylie Jones, and A Book on the Table (a flash fiction anthology commissioned for Independent Bookstore Day 2018; her story, #BrooklynAftertheFall was also published in The Literary Hub). She is a member of the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto, on the advisory board of The Story Prize, and a co-founder of the Flash Fiction Collective, a San Francisco-based reading series.

She serves as Vice President/Online and is a former president of the National Book Critics Circle. Twitter/Instagram @Jane Ciabattari