Rosemary Molloy holds a memory of an American Burying Beetle, a two-inch long black, hard-shelled creature with an orange badge on its pronotum—the scallop–shell shaped area just behind its head. She thinks of the Nicrophorus americanus when she sees houseflies, as she does now, and then reaches over and remembers that her addict, once-husband Bradley, the previous evening, had wandered in from his nighttime escapades and insisted on passing out in bed beside her. His hand feels cold. Orange facial markings and orange tips on the antennae, though depending on your sources, scientists might tell you that Rosemary’s girlhood memory of holding an American Burying Beetle is impossible because the beetle was already endangered when she was young and, certainly, there is also the chance—quite possible—that the beetle never even lived in the suburbs of Baltimore. She knows all of this. She also knows that cigarettes will kill her.
From down the hall, she hears their daughter, Sadie, flush the toilet.
Still, she remembers cradling that tiger of a beetle in their sunny, grassy backyard as the sounds of her parents arguing drove through the kitchen windows. She never saw such an insect again. She searched for it in books, on videos. She began to draw its shape; she grew into a printmaker, specializing in botanical renderings of insects. Her father moved to Colorado. Her mother continued to serve on boards. She married Bradley because she loved his hands and the dimple in his chin and his desire. Eventually, he began to steal money from her.
She thinks of the American Burying Beetle often, but especially around flies because the beetles bury the newly dead carcasses of birds or chipmunks—or other creatures about the size of a hand. The beetles (a couple by now, as the male has wooed the female with the security of a found carcass!) excavate the dirt under the carcass and pull it down into the earth where they preserve it with anal and oral excretions so that the brood they are expecting can eat and grow into adult beetles. Otherwise, the carcass, left above ground, would rot and attract flies, which spread disease to humans and livestock, whereas the burying beetles add nutrients to the soil when they’ve had their fill and the mummified carcass decomposes into nitrogen and potassium and phosphorus for plants to nourish themselves. The first time she met Bradley, she was wearing horn-rimmed glasses and red canvas sneakers and was very insecure.
She thinks she hears him sigh, but his hand is so cold. A scholarly article that Rosemary once read about the Nicrophorus americanus and its historical population in Virginia states the following: Like all Nicrophorus, this species, the largest North American member of the genus, exhibits extended biparental care of its young, and both adults and larvae feed on carrion. Unable to retain the word for word, she has always understood the beetle family burrowed together as an inseparable unit.
She wills the insect from her memory to appear.
Their daughter jumps on the bed before Rosemary can say, No.
Rosemary continues to touch the cold hand. The remaining American Burying Beetles closest to Baltimore reside in Rhode Island. Sadie kisses their dog’s head over and over. Yes, American Burying Beetles, Rosemary thinks, are strong fliers.
But they only pull themselves aloft in the night.
And it is very early morning.
Bridget Muller-Sampson earned her MFA in fiction at the Bennington Writing Seminars. She lives on Martha’s Vineyard with her husband and her rescue border collie, Pearl. Her stories have appeared in Consequence, The Northern New England Review, and Dappled Things. She is the winner of the J.F. Powers Short Story Award.
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Heather E. Goodman
November 17, 2022
What tremendous, aching work, richly woven and fiercely given. Thank you for such a gorgeous read.