Things We Drowned In the Rain Barrel
by Mary Haidri
Light filters through the tablecloth. My cousin and I contemplate our mothers’ feet while listening to the gossip above. Aunt Julie’s toenails are painted the bright green of a praying mantis. I lick my thumb and rub out a scuff on my mother’s brown oxford. Nathan mouths, Stop it, but too late—we’re caught.
My mother and Aunt Julie yank us out from under the kitchen table.
“Holly, what did you hear?” my mother demands.
“What’s a prenup?” Nathan wants to know.
“Why are you getting married at the courthouse this time, Aunt Julie?” I ask. “Can I still be your flower girl?”
Nathan and I are banished outside. The garden is wet from last night’s rain and unruly with tall grass. The wooden fence and old playhouse are covered in kudzu vines, giving them the appearance of wearing shaggy green coats.
“I’m never getting married,” says Nathan. There’s a morose note in his voice that arrived around the time Uncle Greg first moved out and Aunt Julie started going on dates.
“I’m definitely getting married,” I say and consider how to distract Nathan from thinking about his parents. “Just one wedding, though. No courthouses or do-overs. But how do I make sure I get it right the first time?”
My cousin knows how to find out things. It’s his gift. Nathan likes to spend rainy afternoons in the attic reading crumbling books. He collects old chants and superstitions about things nobody cares about anymore—charms for churning butter and curing warts. I keep him company in the attic, digging through the cedar chest in the corner for gowns to dress up in. I parade my finery in front of Nathan and sing operettas. He always tells me to shut up and let him read, but in the end he can’t help laughing. That’s my gift. No one can stay mad at me forever.
Nathan thinks for a while about all the things he’s read about telling the future. I take a stick and draw an outline in the dirt of a bride with a long, flowing veil hiding her face. She looks like a ghost. I kick dirt over the drawing.
Finally, Nathan points to the sea of white dandelion globes growing all over the yard. “Pick a dandelion. If you can blow all the seeds away with one breath, you’ll be happily married when you grow up.”
I pick a dandelion globe and blow as hard as I can. Only half of it dissolves in a silvery burst. I pick another dandelion, and then another—a whole bouquet. No matter how many times I try, I can only blow away half the seeds. The possibility of true love hovers in the air above me, shimmering.
I turn to my cousin. “Next prediction, please.”
“We need a snail,” Nathan says, and we begin searching the garden. “It will spell out the initials of the person you should marry.” We find one, and my cousin sets the snail carefully down on a stone step. I place a bowl borrowed from the kitchen over it and run around in a circle, chanting: I sing of the living, I sing of the dead. I sing of the one I am to wed!
I lift the bowl—no initials in slime on the flat stone. No snail, either.
Shaking his head, Nathan takes the bowl from my hands and turns it over. The snail has crawled up the inside, its periscope eyes swivelling in our direction. The snail’s expression is full of reproach. We put it back on the wet leaves of the branch where we first found it.
“Now what?” I ask Nathan.
“So far we’ve only tried small magic. From what I’ve read, the fastest way to get answers about the future is to ask someone for help.”
Nathan runs up to the attic and returns carrying one of his old books. “I found a spell for summoning fairies,” he tells me. He opens the tattered covers of The Hawthorn Bough to show me where instructions are scrawled in brown ink filling the margins of several pages. They’re written in an almost unreadable childish cursive—I make out the words “little folk,” “wisdom,” and “hungry.”
Nathan points at an ink sketch accompanying the instructions: a pair of long, segmented wings, dainty and gossamer. “The spell says that the little folk can help you, if you ask properly,” he tells me. “But the instructions are weird…they keep repeating that we must be cordial and couth. Help me find the plant it talks about.” Nathan and I hunt around the garden for a particular weed. He finds what he’s looking for in a patch of stinging nettles growing along the wooden fence in the backyard.
My cousin picks two spiky leaves and hesitates, staring down at the pages of the old book.
“According to the spell, you have to rub a nettle over your lips and say a rhyme.”
“Hand it over,” I say and take a nettle leaf out of his hand. Immediately, my fingers begin to sting.
“I’m going to do it with you,” Nathan says. “Maybe your mom won’t blame me if she sees that I’m hurting too.”
We rub the nettle leaves over our lips. They swell painfully until it becomes difficult to speak. Nathan points to the rhyme we have to say in order to call upon the fairies for aid. With some effort we chant together:
Bright wings and deadly flight
Run the quarry with a bite
Blood, bone, and bile settle
Cease, sinners—kiss a nettle
Through the burning of our lips, the rhyme comes out in a murmur of buzzing that doesn’t sound like human language.
A bright humming fills the garden. Winged figures fill the air. Tiny and iridescent, they gather themselves into a small cloud above the house. My heart pounds with triumph, and I begin waving to show the fairies where we’re standing. Then I notice their long, dangling legs, the sharp mandibles and twitching antennae.
A swarm of wasps descends in a shaft of sunlight.
“We made a mistake,” I hiss to Nathan through the blisters on my lips.
“Get in the house,” he mumbles back. Before we can run, the wasps speak.
Nathan and Holly, we’ve been watching you both for years, they tell us in a chorus of high, thin voices. Our hearts go out to you, poor neglected larvae. Pushed outdoors day after day, in winter rain and summer heat! If you belonged to our colonies, you’d be allowed to remain in your brood cells for as long as you like.
A wasp with bright green eyes breaks away from the swarm to brush her antenna affectionately against my cheek. I hold my breath.
If you would have us, we could be your new mothers, the swarm says.
Nathan and I glance at each other. The welts on his mouth look red and angry. The wasps have hourglass waists, large eyes, and shiny exoskeletons that remind me of Aunt Julie’s sequined party dresses. They also have stingers.
“How about our aunts?” I ask.
We invite the new aunts into the vine-covered playhouse, with its peeling wallpaper and broken child-sized chairs. The wasps sit inside my old pink dollhouse, holding little cups of rainwater. Nathan and I sit on the musty carpet and listen while they argue about the merits of feeding offspring a diet of live crickets versus dead beetles.
The new aunts don’t kick us out when the conversation turns to scandal: Did you see that
queen’s empty carapace? She died while mating!
I try to catch Nathan’s eye, but he’s watching the wasps, looking wary. I spot some dusty moths fallen belly-up on the floor. I gather them into a pile and begin folding construction paper into tiny bowler hats for them to wear. “Poor lonely uncles,” I say loudly. “They all died bachelors.”
Everyone turns to look at me. Nathan gets the hint.
“Are you ladies married?” Nathan asks the wasps politely.
The aunts laugh. Some of us have been made widows many times over. Males tend to die during the nuptial flight.
Seeing the expression on Nathan’s face, the aunts reassure him: It won’t be like that for you, sweetheart. A pause. Probably.
Nathan clears his throat. “My cousin has a question for you about her future.”
Every wasp swivels her head to look at me.
I put down a dead moth and take a deep breath. “How do I find true love and keep it, Aunts?”
Love requires meat, says a wasp with a metallic blue coat. Love must go hunting.
“Hunting?” I repeat, baffled. “What does hunting have to do with love?”
Everything! comes the buzz of response. You must be willing to sting and bite. You must carry a living victim down into the lair and make a sacrifice to love. This and many other things we could teach you, if we became your mothers.
“No, thank you!” Nathan interjects. “We prefer having aunts. They’re more fun than mothers.”
Yes, children usually think so, the wasps say, rather coldly.
“How will I recognize the person I should marry when they come along?” I ask.
We will show you and your cousin the faces of your true loves. But this is all we can do, as your aunts.
I jump up from the floor, cheering. “I’m not getting married,” Nathan tells the wasps, but he stands up too. The aunts float out of the playhouse and lead us to the shaded back corner of the garden, where the weeds grow tall and unchecked. When we were younger, Nathan and I were instructed not to play here on account of the woodpile (filled with rats) and the uncovered rain barrel (easy to drown in). These days, my cousin and I make a game of sinking unwanted toys and dinner vegetables into the fathomless depths of the old rain barrel. Its open mouth eats everything we give it with a satisfying ripple, the offerings sinking out of sight and into darkness. Now Nathan and I stand on tiptoe and lean over the wooden edge, peering at the dark water below.
Holly first, the wasps say, and the water shivers into life. An image appears on the surface: A boy my age with curly black hair kicks his feet through a pile of fallen leaves. Gold flying everywhere. I reach down to touch the water. His face ripples under my fingertips.
Next to me, Nathan says, “My turn.” His voice sounds strange, as if he’s speaking from a distance.
“You said you’re not getting married.”
Nathan’s turn, the wasps nudge me, and reluctantly I move over to give Nathan room.
He stares into the rain barrel, transfixed.
The liquid mirror dissolves and settles into an image of the same black-haired boy reading a comic book on his bed. He turns a page. On the cover a name is written in marker: Ben.
Something has gone terribly wrong. We have both seen the same person.
“It’s a boy,” Nathan says, in that faraway voice.
“It’s a mistake,” I say loudly. “We can’t have the same person. Aunts, show Nathan his true love!”
The wasps say nothing. They hover in midair, watching the two of us. Nathan is still staring into the water. I grab his shoulder to get his attention. He’s blushing all the way up to his forehead.
“Oh come on!” I kick the rain barrel. “You,” I say, pointing to the aunts. “You tricked me!”
“Be polite,” Nathan says quietly behind me. I hardly hear him.
Even the closest brood-mates fight over prey.
“Not us!” says Nathan. “And Ben isn’t prey. He’s our true love. Right, Holly?”
“I’m not good at sharing,” I tell him flatly. “You know that.”
Nathan’s face falls. Small, sharp laughs from the aunts.
I take a stick leaning against the rain barrel and throw it at the cloud of their metallic bodies. The aunts launch themselves directly at me.
Nathan yells. I take a huge gulp of breath and close my eyes—the swarm covers every inch of my face. Wasps crawl and buzz against my eyelids, nostrils, and lips, searching for a way inside.
Nathan is trying to brush them off with his hands, screaming, Cease sinners, cease— possibly in hopes of using the spell to banish the aunts back where they came from. A single wasp wiggles its way between my tightly pressed lips. The face of the boy in the rain barrel rises before my eyes. The wasp pushes through and lands with a small thud onto my tongue. There’s a buzzing down my throat. I shake my head, and the swarm begins to dislodge itself from my face.
The aunts scatter in all directions, flying away without another word to us or a backward glance. Nathan examines me for stings and bites. The aunts have not left a mark on either of us.
“I think they just wanted to scare me,” I tell my cousin.
Nathan disappears into the house and returns carrying a stack of books—the old tomes from the attic, full of charms and divinations. The Hawthorn Bough is on top of the pile. One by one, Nathan drops the books into the rain barrel while I watch. On the surface of the water, the black-haired boy is still reading a comic book on his bed.
Side by side, Nathan and I drown the nettle leaves in the rain barrel, crumpled from our pockets. We drown the pink dollhouse and the dead bachelor moths from the playhouse for good measure. The moths float on our true love’s face for a moment before sinking, wings outstretched and tiny bowler hats askew.
Since we both can’t marry the black-haired boy, my cousin and I vow that neither of us will. We spit on it. We slice palms.
Years pass. Countless things are drowned in the rain barrel. My flower girl basket drowns. Aunt Julie’s hair extensions drown. Camp friendship bracelets drown. Letters from our new friend Ben drown. My diary is drowned as incriminating evidence. Love poems are penned and drowned before anyone can read them. College essays drown. Virginia Woolf drowns a second time. Vodka bottles drown. Ben’s trousers drown. My engagement ring almost drowns. A wedding invitation addressed to my cousin drowns. Childhood photos of me drown. Tuxedos and gowns from the attic are carried downstairs and drowned. The garden drowns in kudzu vines. I say more vows. Anything I say drowns in the drone of a thousand wings filling my chest, my throat, my mouth.
Published March 10th, 2019
Mary Haidri is the author of the play Every Path (La Jolla Playhouse). Her work has appeared in Winter Tangerine, Portland Review, Fairy Tale Review, and others. She was the recipient of the 2017 Fairy Tale Review Poetry Award and the 2018 Shadow Award. She a collaborator of Nettleworks, a creative theater collective. Find her and her work at maryhaidri.com.
Tony Fitzpatrick is a contemporary American printmaker and collage artist. Influenced life in urban Chicago, religious imagery, and comic books, Fitzpatrick’s work is aligned with earlier Chicago-based artist like Ed Paschke. Integrating cartoon-like figures and birds with poetic text and vintage ephemera, Fitzpatrick calls attention to objects which are often considered disposable. “These are all kind of blighted objects that most people throw away and I see a certain historical value in them,” the artist’s said. “I see them as part of how I tell a story or tell a history.” Born on November 24, 1958 in Chicago, IL, Fitzpatrick began his artistic career as a tattoo artist, making drawings in his spare time. He later taught himself painting and printmaking techniques. Fitzpatrick currently lives and works in Chicago, IL. The artist’s works are in the collections of The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Miami.