Maggie Gordon stared at Barnett Hill, just beyond the family’s mustard field. Maggie spent much of most days staring at that hill.
The wagon accident three years before had broken her spine, so she couldn’t walk. Her so-called husband?in name only, as they say?had no idea what to do with her. Every day he wheeled her out onto the porch and left her there. For hours and hours sometimes, until he or one of the farmhands happened to remember she existed, and wheeled her in again.
Maggie spent her days staring into the distance at Barnett Hill. Or she watched the miniature life playing out on the porch. The spiders building webs between the railing slats, the ants carrying one grain of dirt at a time, and the beetles. Maggie loved the beetles, iridescent black and green, toddling across the wooden porch floor near her wheelchair. They were pretty and they made her feel less alone. She thought of those beetles as the only blessing left in her life.
As the Stewart sisters led their mule along the road in front of Maggie’s house, they talked about the recent unusual weather.
“Bobby says that no sun is bad for the crops,” said Livia Stewart.
Her sister June shook her head. “But it ain’t raining. All them clouds day after day, and it don’t ever rain.”
“No rain, no sun,” Livia moaned. “How we supposed to grow crops at all?”
The women did not turn and greet Maggie, although her porch was only six yards from the roadway. Like everyone else in the township of Shepherd’s Field, the Stewart sisters were about as likely to greet the butter churn sitting on the Gordon’s lawn as they were to say hello to her. Everyone had stopped saying hello to Maggie.
That’s why she didn’t bother to mention the black spot to anyone. Who would listen? At first she thought it was a crow. What else could be that black against the constant, thick cloud cover? But it couldn’t be a crow, she decided after a few minutes, because it wasn’t flying around. It was fixed in the sky.
Odd, but at least it gave her something new to look at. However, her neck and shoulders grew tired from the awkward angle. Maggie went back to staring at old, familiar Barnett Hill in the distance.
“Always the same,” she said. “Always the same. Always the same.” She chanted herself into a stupor, as she did every day.
“You’re goin’ in, Maggie,” she heard her husband announce. She had no sense of how many hours had passed. Her wheelchair jerked into motion. The man she’d once loved never even walked around the chair to talk to her face to face anymore.
Just before he swung her chair to push it in the door, Maggie took a quick look at the sky. Despite the growing darkness, she could make out what seemed like a slender black monolith poking down from the clouds where the dot had been earlier. It was growing. It was changing. Maggie’s heart grasped onto that with satisfaction. Something that wasn’t always the same.
“I’m goin’ out,” her so-called husband said once he’d parked Maggie’s chair next to the bed and pulled the chamber pot out. She knew he was heading to that blond bitch again. The Swedish slut, two farms away. Maggie said nothing. No point. She dragged herself into bed and eventually fell asleep, dreaming of shimmering black-green beetles in the sky.
Early next morning there was a lot of commotion outside Maggie’s bedroom window. She pulled herself to a sitting position and peeked out. She could just see Bill Richter on the roadway. He worked the turbine over at the Wesselman’s place.
“They’s everywhere,” he said. “Six, all told.”
“Where?” Maggie recognized young Widow Sara’s voice, although the woman was out of view. “I can only see three of ’em. One up there, one yonder by the Wesselman’s, and the one over our okra patch.”
Maggie contorted so she could see the sky. The black monoliths were very long now, stretching from the clouds nearly to the ground. And they seemed to have texture, hairs or feelers of some type, which shimmered in the gray light of overcast dawn.
One of the Jones’s kids piped up. “Look yonder, above the church.”
“And down west, almost over the river,” said another kid.
“And there’s one right over Joe Peterson’s bar,” added Bill Richter. “That makes six, an’ they’re getting’ longer by the minute. They’ll touch down to the Earth in no time. Come crashing through our homes and fields.”
“Where’s the reverend?” Widow Sara whined. “This has got to be a sign. A scourge. We should pray.”
“We should run,” said Bill. “It’s too late to pray.”
A child cried out, “Oh, Mama, look! Look!”
Maggie’s bedroom was doused in shadow. She leaned closer to the window, pulling herself to the sill, and strained to see. Her neighbors were screaming and running amok, but she was calmed by what she saw. A brown and green surface blocked the clouds. It was filigreed with rows of tubes, a gully down the middle. And those six great black monoliths grew out of it.
Maggie recognized that surface. It was the underside of a beetle, like the ones she’d seen on her porch sometimes when the poor things got stuck on their backs. She’d always reach out with the broom to roll them upright, gently, gently, the way she wished somebody would help her.
But this magnificent, town-sized beetle didn’t need anybody’s help.
She could tell by the ruckus outside that everyone was loading up their belongings and getting the hell away from Shepherd’s Field. Cows lowed and pigs squealed. Wagon wheels crunched along the gravel road and parents shouted at their children frantically. “Don’t dawdle! It’s the Judgment Day, by God. You don’t wanna set around to watch the fire an’ brimstone, do ya?”
Maggie waited and waited on her bed for someone to come and get her. At one point she heard her husband and one of the farmhands enter the house, but no one ever came back to the bedroom. There was crashing and slamming for a couple of minutes, then nothing. Absolute silence, inside and outside the house. Maggie knew she’d been left behind.
And for the first time in three years, she was excited and happy. Not afraid. Definitely not afraid. “I felt it in my bones,” she said aloud. “That big black stick in the sky. It was meant to set me free and punish this whole devil-blasted community for their sore mistreatin’ of Maggie Scarabba.” She pronounced her maiden name proudly, and it revivified her. “I am Maggie Scarabba,” she shouted out the window to the bug’s belly, “and I’m comin’ out to greet my fine visitor from the sky, my most welcome guest!”
It was a struggle dragging herself into her chair. Pushing its wheels forward with her own emaciated arms hurt until she thought her bones would shatter. She found it helped to reach forward, grab the nearest table or door jamb, and pull. After several searing, agonizing minutes of hard labor, Maggie hauled herself out onto the porch to see the first new thing in her life in three years.
“Oh, you’re beautiful, ain’t you?” she said to the great beetle covering her township like an aegis of the gods.
Even Barnett Hill looked completely different. A huge black funnel was descending toward it from the sky. It thrilled Maggie when she realized what it was. She’d seen the little beetles on her lawn deposit eggs into dirt hills.
“Babies,” she said, choking with emotion. “You’re having babies in our land. That’s what I wanted, too. Never got to. You go ahead an’ have your babies. You have ’em right here in Shepherd’s Field. Better your babies than babies of all them bastards that done run from you.” She swallowed and added, “They done run from me, too.” Maggie was sure the visitor could hear and understand. It was a kindred spirit.
The creature lowered its abdomen onto the top of Barnett Hill and poked its funnel end in among the rocks and trees. Maggie felt the porch rumble in response, although the hill was half a mile away. And then came the promise of a miracle.
Like a cake over-filled with cream, Barnett Hill expanded under the pressure of its new load. The sides seemed to crack. The angle of the trees shifted. Barnett Hill was pregnant, and Maggie would be godmother, Earth mother, to all these new and blessed baby beetles.
She didn’t even flinch when the massive proboscis came toward her.
AUTHOR BIO: Anne E. Johnson, based in Brooklyn, has published over twenty short stories in Shelter of Daylight, Drunk Monkeys, Spaceports & Spidersilk, and elsewhere. Her first science fiction novel, Green Light Delivery, will be released by Candlemark & Gleam in June, 2012. Learn more on her website, AnneEJohnson.com.