Letter to Bug by Thea Prieto

Editor Carrie Seitzinger, Letters, May 2nd, 2016

"I don’t want to hurt you with ugliness, but maybe..."

Letter to bug by thea prieto NAILED Magazine
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Dear Bug,

I have no way of knowing if you’ll read this letter after what I said about your husband last Saturday night, but I have to share with you, as your older sister, this thing that’s been on my mind. After our fight, I got to thinking about those big vegetable gardens we used to plant with Mom and Pop in the summertime, back when we were kids, do you remember that? Truth is, the moment my hangover woke me on Sunday I could smell those steaming vegetable gardens like they were yawning on me. I remembered the size of the plants, the squash blossoms bigger than our faces, the corn so tall it was like nighttime underneath, and we could hide under the basil, the plants were that big—or anyway, we were that small.

I have been at a loss as to why the next thing I remembered, just as clearly, was those summer evenings when Mom and Pop would send us out to the garden to turn off the irrigation lines. Why was the water spigot that controlled the drip systems always on the opposite end of the garden, all the way out by the fruit orchard? It’d be after dinner but before bedtime, and it’d be dark out but also daytime-hot, and we’d run through the rows of zucchini so fast those prickly leaves would leave sticky marks on our skin, once on our way to the spigot and again as we raced back to the house. I’ve been wondering for days, I’ve been losing nights thinking about that tilled earth smelling so good and those plants looking so beautiful, why were we running, Bug?

The thing occurred to me though, just yesterday while I was trying again to write this apology, and it came to me like a kick in the stomach. I remembered that big rattlesnake Pop killed. Now I know you’ve seen Pop cross freeways to save snakes and saw him buy the indigenous ones from pet shops just to set them free in the fruit orchard, but I know for a fact he killed one rattlesnake in his life—back when you were just a little girl, probably five years old, and that must have put me at about seven. We were helping Mom weed the vegetable garden, we had our faces low in the carrots, and you stood up. Your head was barely as tall as the bell pepper leaves, and you were laughing and pointing at White Cat a few feet down the row. White Cat’s tail had turned bottlebrush, his back was arched up. He was walking on his toes and yowling and Mom screamed and yanked us back by our shirt collars and the buzzing clicked on. Loud as a cicada cricket, the buzzing. The snake’s brown diamonds wound in the carrot greens as White Cat circled. The underbelly wheeled up, a blink of pale, before it tightened against itself. When Pop came running into the garden, he had two sticks and a bucket to trap the snake alive. Don’t you save this one, Mom yelled at Pop, and Pop took a few steps back to look at us. You and me were crying and scared for White Cat, and Pop turned to the shed and got a shovel. He walked to the snake slowly, but the shovel came down quick. The rattlesnake knotted up like a fist and uncurled, the whole length of its brown and white body thrashing the beet sprouts flat. Pop shoveled up the snake’s head and plopped it into an empty wheelbarrow. I remember the head made a hard clink when it fell in, like a dropped walnut, and Mom’s grip on my collar loosened. White Cat was hiding between the eggplant. The snake’s rattler was still buzzing.

Hard to imagine now, Mom yelling at anyone like that. Mom with her silent quilting groups and her landscape paintings, but that snake, she couldn’t have it so close to the house. Bug, do you understand? Mom doesn’t even like squashing ants in her slippers, but she once killed a trapdoor spider with her bare palm, a spider bigger and fuzzier than a peach, do you understand now, Bug? Pop saw her do it, he told me Mom didn’t even hesitate in that moment—she was freaked for days after but goddamnit, she saw that spider in our bedroom and killed it quicker than you can say I love you, and I know that’s how Pop killed that rattlesnake because I saw it with my own eyes.

I’ve been up all night without one drink to shut up the fact that I have failed to protect you in the way I thought an older sister should, not just recently but that day too. I remember Mom didn’t want Pop to touch the dead rattlesnake afterwards, but Pop thought the poor snake was beautiful and Mom didn’t ask us to look away either. When Pop picked up the rattlesnake’s body and trailed his pocketknife down its stomach, it was like watching a stranger do it, wasn’t it? Do you remember that part at least? When Pop skinned the snake, pulling the pink insides free from the beads in one fluid motion, it was like he had done it before. Like there were things Pop had seen that we hadn’t, and now there are things I’ve seen that you haven’t. This next part you don’t know. I only recently remembered that you weren’t tall enough to see into the wheelbarrow where Pop had dropped the snake’s insides. You wanted to see into the wheelbarrow, you rolled up a wobbly log of firewood to stand on, your toes stretched across the top of it to balance, but I didn’t help you keep the log straight and when your hands touched the sides of the wheelbarrow I said, Back off, in Mom’s voice. I didn’t tell you then, I thought I was sparing you, but I’ll tell you now what I saw inside the wheelbarrow: a pink and red worm with a spine, raw with fish bones sticking out of it, and it was curling red smears around the bottom of the wheelbarrow, without skin, tail, or a head. The snake’s head was there though, in the corner of the wheelbarrow, facing its own naked body, its jaw biting up and down.

Bug, do you see this ugly thing now? I don’t want to hurt you with ugliness, but maybe, back when we were kids, if I had helped you see the dead rattlesnake and all that it was it wouldn’t have occurred to either of us to run in the vegetable garden at night. Yes, we learned that Pop not only could but had before done harm to things he loved, and yes, we learned the vegetable garden wasn’t as safe as we thought when Mom started insisting we carry flashlights to the water spigot. Maybe, though, if you had seen in that wheelbarrow you’d also understand there are ugly, messy things around us always, and if you look right at them, carefully, they can’t surprise you in the dark.

But I didn’t help you see into the wheelbarrow, and instead you spent a pile of summers running from things in the night you couldn’t see in a garden we planted ourselves. I tried to help after. I said we should play Bug and Toad to the water spigot, but the chase game and your laughing always ended once the water was off and it wasn’t a game when you raced silently back to the house. I tried to help you last Saturday night too. I tried to tell you I caught your husband cheating, tried to tell you right away and without hesitation like Mom or Pop would’ve done, but I wasted too many weeks drinking myself into thinking I was protecting your marriage and now I’m one more thing you don’t trust. I’m sorry by protecting you I put you in the dark and made the nasty things nastier. I’m sorry love is such an ugly thing that it means showing you ugliness. Most of all, I’m sorry I did harm in a world already full of it, and I hate thinking that you’re feeling alone through all of this. Bug, I’m free to talk anytime.

Love,

Toad

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Header image courtesy of Mirage. To view their photo essay on NAILED, go here.

Thea Prieto writer NAILED magazineThea Prieto was a finalist for Glimmer Train Press’ Short Story Award for New Writers, and for her novel writing she was invited to the 2015 Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop. She is the Editor in Chief of the Portland Review, and Co-Editor of The Gravity of the Thing. To learn more, please go here.

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Carrie Seitzinger

Carrie Seitzinger is Editor-in-Cheif and Co-Publisher of NAILED. She is the author of the book, Fall Ill Medicine, which was named a 2013 Finalist for the Oregon Book Award. Seitzinger is also Co-Publisher of Small Doggies Press.
Learn more about her at her official site.