A Sterile Place
by Catherine Evleshin
People say that we are in the middle of the twenty-first century. I don’t remember much, but they tell me I’m older than everyone here. A lot of them must be pretty old, because they have transparent knuckles like mine.
One day everyone gathered in the room where we eat, and a caregiver wheeled me up to a table, where a big cake sat covered with candles. They told me I had lived a century, all the way back to the time when the whole world was at war, and lucky to be a small boy who didn’t have to go and get himself killed. I recall the nights my parents sat around a wooden box and listened to a man talk about millions of deaths. There must have been a lot of people who didn’t die, because I don’t remember a time when there weren’t plenty of us around. But then, I get confused sometimes.
The sterile place has a garden where I sit on sunny afternoons. When it hasn’t rained for a while and the river is low, the boy who calls me Great-Grandpa wheels my chair down into the marsh, along the gravel paths that meander through the reeds. He sets the brake so the chair can’t slip off into the mud. In the quiet I turn on those things in my ears and hear air bubbles popping out of the slime and insects rubbing their legs together like miniature violinists. A black bird with a red spot on his wing clings to a reed and cries for a mate.
During storms, the water rises and covers the paths. On those days, the boy doesn’t come, so I can’t visit the marsh. He says the electric sky could burn out what little is left of my brain, and the river might carry me away. When the fog lifts from my mind, I talk to one of the computers. Words appear on the screen, and when I’m finished, a caregiver sends them to the boy.
One day when the boy visited, he said, “Great-Grandpa, you wrote a lotta weird stuff last week. You talked about going to war against an army of worms.” We both laugh, but I’m not laughing inside.
That got me thinking back to the days when I lived with my family in a house at the edge of our fields of alfalfa. I would climb trees near the house and pull plums from the branches. They tasted good. Up high like that, I could see across the fields and think about what I was going to do when I grew up.
When I walked through the field in front of the house, I would see a row of birds sitting along the wire fence. They didn’t scatter unless I got too close. Butterflies ─ white, yellow, and orange ─ flapped and glided through the air and sometimes caught a ride on my shoulder. I heard bugs go silent until I got past them, then they would start up again, all talking at once, like the people in the sterile place.
The trees that grew on the far side of the fields were the best to climb and watch the creatures in the pond. Fish no bigger than my fingernail swam with their brothers and sisters, all turning at the same time. They never bumped into each other. On hot days, insects with transparent blue wings darted back and forth and mated with each other in midair. I think they were called dragons.
I could hear all sorts of things back then ─ small birds that sang until they found a mate, then stopped singing and flitted back and forth to their nests feeding the chicks. Giant birds floated on the surface of the pond that reflected clouds overhead. They honked like the cars passing on the road. The only time the creatures in the pond fell silent ─ when an airplane flew overhead. That didn’t happen very often.
A fat muskrat got so tame, he would swim close and look up at me standing on a limb. I would talk to him. “Hi there, friend. What are you up to today?” I guess we didn’t speak the same language. After staring at me with shiny black eyes, he would dive and swim off into deep water.
Along the shallow edges of the pond, I could make out dozens of frogs half-buried in the silt at the bottom. When they got tired of holding their breath, they would swim up and sit with their eyes bulging out of the water. They had soft bellies and no hair, sort of like me, but when they stretched and doubled their long legs, they swam like they owned the water. Every now and then, one of them would let out a croak, jump with its legs and big feet flapping the air, and land in the water with a splash. It made me laugh.
When the sun disappeared behind the hills to the west, they talked to each other, bullfrogs in deep tones and their little sisters in high-pitched squeaks, a rhythm that started me bouncing up and down. One time the branch broke, and I landed on the ground. They stopped talking long enough to see that I was okay, then took up their chorus again.
When I go down to the marsh, I look hard for those fat little frogs. I want to show them to the boy, but all I see are crawly things that look like overgrown bugs. The boy calls them land crabs. They don’t jump or talk.
Once when the boy visited me, he brought me words written on a stack of square leaves stuck together along one side. He said I wrote those words a long time ago, before he was born, when everyone wrote on square leaves. “Look, Great-Grandpa. Your name, right on the cover.” The words made no sense, but I didn’t want to ask him to read my own name to me.
He wheeled me into a big closet filled with rows of square leaves crammed on dusty shelves. I smelled mold, and the boy sneezed. “They’re called books, Great-Grandpa. Don’t you remember? You wrote a bunch of ’em about the wars.” I can’t even write my name now, if I knew what it was. He says, no problem, the computer hears everything, and nobody reads books anymore, except on the Internet, whatever that is.
The musty stacks of square leaves in that closet got me to thinking again about the year the army worms attacked the alfalfa. My father said they weren’t really worms, because they changed into butterflies. Most years, a few of the little black crawlers hid in the alfalfa plants, and no one paid much attention to them.
But that year they lived up to their name. From out of nowhere, thousands of them inched across the asphalt road that led to town and headed toward us like invading troops. My father looked worried and gripped our heavy black phone in his hand. After talking a long time, he hung the phone on the wall and patted my head. “Everything will be all right.”
After lunch, he told us to stay inside. He stuffed a blue bandanna into his shirt pocket and left the house. It was a hot afternoon, and my sister and I wanted to go outside and run through the sprinklers, but my mother said, “Not today. It’s going to be dangerous out there.” She locked all the windows tight. I knew something important was about to happen, because she let us eat cookies before dinner.
We sat at the kitchen table and dunked cookies in cold milk while she read The Wind in the Willows to us. I heard the roar of an airplane overhead, so loud it drowned out our mother’s voice, and I shouted, “We’re in a war!” My sister and I ran to peek through the lace curtains. The plane just missed the roof of our house. With the bandanna tied over his nose and mouth, my father stood at the edge of the field, waving a red flag. The plane headed straight toward him, and my sister screamed. He ducked just as it reached the edge of the field. I thought the plane would crash, but the pilot must have been good, because he flew straight down the field just a few feet above the alfalfa plants.
Suddenly a white mist shot out of the wings, and I remembered back during the war, when every night the voice in the wooden box told about things dropping from planes to kill people. The pilot flew the length of the field, the white mist stopped, and the plane rose into the air just in time to miss the tops of the trees. I was glad when it disappeared and that awful noise faded in the distance. My sister wrinkled her nose. “What’s that stinky smell?”
My father walked about thirty feet along the edge of the field and looked across to the other side. The airplane appeared over the tops of the trees and dipped down into the field, again the white spray poured from the wings, all the while my father flapping that red flag like crazy. The plane was now headed straight toward our house. The windows rattled as it zoomed over the roof. I saw the frown on my mother’s face, but she said, “It’s okay. We’re not in a war.” Twice, I thought the plane was gone for good, but it returned with more white spray.
This went on until the trees grew long shadows as the sun crept toward the hills to the west. The sound faded and I heard my father’s footsteps on the path to the back door. When he opened it, his clothes hung damp and his hat brim sagged into his face. He cleared his throat and spat into the dirt at the side of the door. My mother brought him a bathrobe so he could leave his clothes outside. He smelled horrible, and my sister gagged. He disappeared into the bathroom, and I heard the shower running for a long time.
The next morning my father started out to the fields, and I asked if I could go with him. He made a face like he didn’t want me along. He usually liked it when we walked out together. It was already getting hot, but he told me to put on my winter pants, thick socks, and canvas shoes. On the way out the door, he tied a clean handkerchief over my nose and mouth. “Is the plane coming back?” I asked.
He smiled without showing his teeth. “Not today.” When we got to the field in front of the house, he held my hand and told me not to touch anything. He looked hard at the alfalfa plants that stood tall as my chin. “Do you see any worms moving?”
I saw lots of them dead and shriveled. My father and I stood still for a long time, listening for sounds. The butterflies were gone, and not a single bird sat on the wire fence. Silence, like I’d never heard before. My father’s face became a map of lines.
We walked down to the pond. The flying dragons were gone, and no fat little frogs poked their eyes out of the water. The muskrat swam up to look around, then dived and disappeared. We headed back to the house.
Years later, I got a call from my mother to say that my father had died. “He’s out of his suffering.” He’d fought cancer for years.
Last week, the boy who calls me Great-Grandpa wheeled us down along the path through the marsh, and once again, I looked hard for the fat frogs, but all I saw were overgrown bugs and the black bird with a red spot on his wing. He still hasn’t found a mate.
In the sterile place, I watch the big screen in the room where we eat dinner. They always turn down the sound, but one night I saw dozens of children who looked like skeletons. I guess they have nothing to eat where they live. An old woman behind me complained, so the caregiver changed the picture to one that showed a whole screen full of trees that stood twenty times taller than a man. Their twigs looked brown and shriveled, like the dead worms in my father’s field.
Today the boy arrived carrying a square gadget. “Great-Grandpa, I told my teacher about the messages you send me, and she said our class could make a collection of stories to put on the Internet.” He held up the device and pointed to its small screen. “If you tell me a story, I’ll put it in the book.”
I rub my transparent knuckles and the fog lifts from my brain. “When I was a boy, I lived near a pond filled with birds and fish and a muskrat and . . .” I glance out the window at the marsh. “Frogs.”
The boy looks confused, and I spell it out to him. “F-R-O-G-S.”
“Were they like little dinosaurs, Great-Grandpa?”
“In a way. They were my friends.”
The boy studies the word on the screen. “Go on, Great-Grandpa.”
“One year millions of worms crossed the road and attacked my father’s alfalfa fields like an invading army . . .”
About Catherine Evleshin