Something to Marvel At

Morgan Thoem

“As the world decays beneath us, the sunsets will get prettier; for while we face our own ruin, we will at least have something to marvel at.” I don’t know exactly how this sentence got stuck in my brain. Maybe some poem I read in a past life or a dream sequence? Or maybe I just came up with it. Honestly, I hope I did because, whenever I think it, it makes me feel like fucking Shakespeare or Nietzsche. Or both. But regardless, here I lie, mostly-naked on my back porch clutching a mug of stale sangria, silently chatting with the night sky about the tragic magnificence of ruin or whatever. The wood is itchy and gives me splinters through my underwear, but I never do feel like fixing it. It’ll rot away in time, plus my home-improvement-apathy will fulfill some colony of termites’ bacchanalian fantasy, so I guess for now I’ll be okay with it.  

Honestly, I kind of enjoy these little pity-party evenings, especially when it’s pitch black and warm enough to sit outside in my underwear unbothered. You’d be afraid the neighbors would see, or maybe even ne’er-do-wells walking through the alley, wouldn’t you? Such is life. Either way, it’s easy enough to convince myself I’ll evaporate the next time another human being lays eyes on me. You know, my therapist Craig tells me I tend to spiral, to just implode into this Kafkaesque-maudlin-disaster side of myself. I guess he could have a point there. But God it’s such a shame to think about how neurotypicals don’t see such pretty stars. Sometimes I can’t help but look up at them and wonder if there are aliens, and what would they think of my bra, and if they’d even have a telescope big enough to notice it’s missing the little blue bow on the left strap. I don’t want to think about aliens thinking about my tits, though, like they’re some sort of peeping toms from lightyears away.  
Something else I’ve been thinking about, besides aliens and termites and the places my underwear cover, is that we all have strange little ways we cope. We all cope because, in the end, the game of life only deals tricky hands. But what’s funny is I could’ve sworn I had a royal flush. For so long it felt like I had this incredible stroke of beginner’s luck, that I doubled down in the right round and my jackpot was beauty: sweet, pure, unadulterated beauty that took the form of a towheaded angel named Emily. She compared me to the sun and I truly believed it; I wish I could still believe I was something life-giving and ethereal and beautiful. You know, I bet she can watch her favorite movie without thinking of me anymore. Or drive to the next town over without having to squeeze her eyes shut the whole time. I bet she doesn’t worry about finding someone else to call her sun. But such is life. The world continues to turn, I continue to gamble with the game of life, and we all continue to cope. 

At first glance, I bet you’d think my coping mechanism is getting wine-drunk in my backyard and lamenting to the stars about being a spurned sapphic. But at second glance you’d   notice my bug collection, staked down in obsessive, uniform rows like crucified soldiers. See, I’ve always heard you can tell that someone is sick- like truly and wholly depraved- by if they killed little animals or had an obsession with death when they were a kid. I don’t think I’m nearly the same though. These framed Gaian masterpieces are a way to turn pain, heartbreak into a pursuit of beauty- not some twisted serial killer starter kit. Bug collecting is such a normal hobby that they even have a word for it: entomology. People even study it. My coping may be unconventional, but I assure you it’s not some secret manifestation of sociopathy- and even if it was, the lives I’m taking are so insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Really it’s exactly like shoplifting, except instead of pocketing $2.99 convenience store lipsticks, I’m stealing from a world that has done nothing but steal good things from me. You know, it’s not even morbid either; you don’t see any last breaths or life drawn out of them or anything. It’s just that one minute they’re scouting the cylindrical glass walls of mason jars, and the next they aren’t.  

My brain is soup circling a sink drain, a whirlpool of coping and bugs and heartbreak and stars. Craig tells me to focus on the stars when I start to spiral but, for some reason, at this moment there is only darkness. There aren’t even any perverse aliens or gluttonous termites to distract me, nothing but the delicate gait of a moth parading my bare thigh. She’s beautiful, a misty seafoam color. Emily’s favorite color. I bet the fruity smell of wine attracted her. In my heart of hearts, I know I should let this fragile creature go, that she isn’t the answer, that she doesn’t deserve this. I know I could sit here and count my breaths until the stars return, until I can drink in her beauty without the selfish compulsion to take it for myself. But she’s rare and lovely and my heart is aching for something- anything- good. And I’m doing her a favor. She doesn’t belong this far north; her life would be snuffed out by the cold otherwise, without any pomp or ritual in her final moments. This will not be wholly pure or noble, but I can convince myself it is. I have to convince myself it is. 

I don’t know when my tears started or how long I’ve been standing here, in the dappled basement light, with a jar in one clammy hand and Emily’s moth caged in the other. I hope I didn’t squeeze her too tight, I always have to remind myself not to, so I don’t crumple their wings. I’ve never thought about it like this before, but all these jars are really just bug coffins, big see-through replacements for burial sites technically. I think about that this time though, watching hands that are barely my own transfer the featherweight green amorphous blob from sweaty palm to glass. In my soup-brain swirls her face, her eyes, her name on my lips as I slip the chloroform-soaked cotton ball into the mason jar. For Emily. For Emily. She’s heaving herself against the glass, denting the lid with some unknowable, peculiar strength; it’s not usually this violent, but I know she’s putting on a show. For me. For Emily. When I hug the jar closer to my chest, I can feel my heartbeat align with the rhythm of her frantic spasms. The basement wall is frigid against my back and I know this is the chill she would’ve felt, that would’ve killed her eventually. I’m doing a favor: for her; for Emily; for me. 

Two jars throw themselves from shelves right above the crown of my head, but this cacophony feels unreal, feels like it’s traveling through a mile-long tunnel before reaching my ears. Six beetles, two eastern swallowtails, and a cloud of glass shards now adorn the concrete near my toes, a stained-glass mosaic of murdered bugs and poor coping skills. It would be easiest to blame it on my back shaking the wall, but more follow in a chilling symphony of shatters. One after another, all of these jars of bugs are obliterating themselves, unprovoked, into a mass grave on my basement floor. I want to scream. Not because of the startling noise, but because this was my beauty: mine to have and preserve and enshrine, to distract me from the beauty, the love that I lost. Or that was never mine. But even this I’m losing, because the world cannot let me have one good thing, one moment of solace or respite. Because I’m not the one that’s sick and twisted, it’s this fucking Earth. There is nothing wrong with this, I am just coping, taking from the world which has taken from me. I just want something else living and breathing to feel the pain I have felt, some other existence, no matter how small, to commiserate with. I’ve never been one for religion or spirituality or higher powers, but if mother nature is truly a living thing, part of me hopes this one hurts her the most.  

Still gripping the jar like a bible, I think about this moth brushing my leg, like an omen from Emily. I think about how ephemeral her beautifully meaningless life is and how monstrous my warm, pulsing being is in comparison. I think about how tonight feels different from most nights, almost like I have angered something ancestral, something deeply woven in the fabric of this dull world. From upstairs, there’s even more chilling shatter; then, a beating, thumping, low humming, like the collective heartbeat of all my insectile victims. The rubble begins to squirm and writhe at my feet, in some nightmarish, truly Frankenstein act of reanimation. This is horrific. Enthralling. My dilapidated heart is bewitched by the life being reborn from this purposeful ruin, and yet some primal impulsion screams at me to move. I have no idea what awaits me upstairs, but my other option is to stay here and figure out what revenge these bugs plan to enact upon me. My feet catch on the groaning staircase, I can’t tell if I’m going up or down. All conventions of reality have been forgotten- rules of gravity included. Somehow I’m lying down, maybe on a bed, maybe on the back patio, maybe I never left the basement. The world is bending and distorting around me, and I can’t remember if I’m clothed or not, if the stars are still out, if the aliens ever did see my bra. But I do know that finally my pain has been inflicted; finally it has been recognized by some elusive, life-giving force. 

Their humming is closer, just outside my door. Cecropia moths, June bugs, and mourning cloaks beat the drywall like some ritual drum circle, a warning call before flooding the crack above the floor. It feels like I’m watching from outside my own body when they force open my mouth and fill my throat, nest in my hair, drown my ears in their low din. Yet I’m still tethered to reality, only barely, only enough to realize the cool glass of the mason jar is missing from my arms: it’s in shards, littering the hardwood beneath my bed frame. And right in the roar of crashing glass and humming bugs, Emily’s moth floats from the ruins of her failed coffin to land on the tip of my nose. Then all is quiet. My chest will barely rise anymore, like I’m trying to breathe through dirt, through loam, through the deepest underbelly of our rocky planet. I could’ve sworn I heard Mother Earth whispering something to me, cackling at this retribution she’s inflicted. The moth still rests on my nose, I cross my eyes to meet hers. It’s impossible to tell what emotion lies behind those pinhead shards of onyx. But I know that she watches as I take my last breath, sucked in through fibers of moth wings and skeletal casings of beetles. Beneath her, my life- my world- is decaying. I am not backlit by any sunsets. In the reflection of her beady eyes, it’s as if I can finally see clearly: this whole time I have been preparing to face this ruin I have created. My own ruin. And with every bit of coping, each coffin-like jar and picture frame prison, I have just been giving myself something to marvel at. I guess it worked.

Fall 2020 Issue