by Nina Adel
We couldn’t afford both a mortgage and a new septic system for the two small houses by the stream in the town where we intended to live, so we rented, instead, a big, cold house, its hundred-year-old boards creaking at every sweep of wind.
The two houses had been, together, an affordable deal; in reasonably good shape, and if we’d bought them, we would have had one to rent out and one to live in. All the would-be advisors of my life were saying it was a practical move, as if they didn’t know me at all. Me, a city person who loves the countryside, not an actual country person—that was my husband. The isolated life I was in for would have been more pronounced in that remote little town in upstate New York. I wasn’t as upset as I should have been about losing the chance to buy the twin houses, and when my husband questioned the rental of the creaky house in his nearby hometown, its more populous location took over my judgment. He knew the owners, had grown up with their son who was now helping them manage their properties; he correctly anticipated endless and irritating problems with them. They‘re screamers, he said. They get all up in arms over every little thing. I didn’t care.
The house looked appealing at first glance, a classic old wooden house with two stories, surrounded by woods past the large field in back. The floors were a honey-colored pine. There were four small bedrooms upstairs. The kitchen was acceptable, the dining room large. Its charm obscured the lousy quality of the building materials and construction.
There was a smaller house on the property, and I’d met Plum Flower, the artist of sorts who was the tenant there, across the small, circular driveway. She came over to welcome us, and our brief conversation revealed that we shared a talkative manner, an ironic bent, a chronological age and a similar aesthetic sense. She seemed to be a good candidate for cups of tea, for lively conversation on the back deck.
Plum Flower made herself a friend to my children, inviting them often for snacks and art play. She lent them colored pens and unusual, fuzzy yarn, bought them silly presents and played with them. Her moods were inconsistent and sometimes incomprehensible, but the children found her interesting enough to ignore her quirky instability. It’s not like I was the picture of conformity myself, and they were accustomed to the odd assortment of characters that floated in and out of our family’s social circle.
There were plenty of other things about that house that drew me in. Besides, it was just down the road from my friend Annemarie, who had been a spectator, when I first met my husband, to our romance. She had egged us on, called me for daily updates, laughingly reported sightings of him around town. Coming back to the town now, I looked forward to renewing the good times with Annemarie. Her home always had a cheerful, cozy atmosphere, and living just minutes away was very appealing.
To be honest, with all that I’ve said about the condition of that old rental house, it was in no worse shape than the house I’d just left down south. We’d done a lot of work on the southern house before we’d sold it, but it had started out as an empty shell, with no heat, no air, no plumbing, no kitchen, and camelback crickets everywhere, until the wolf spiders came along to decimate their population. We’d added all the necessities, and the new kitchen was pretty nice, with blue tile countertops and dark-stained cherry cabinets, but as all the other rooms were cramped and unfinished, renting the house up north was, in terms of living conditions, probably just a lateral move.
It was autumn when we arrived, and, with Annemarie, I took walks in the woods, around a nearby lake and through the perfect, rural northeastern town. It took over an hour to get my children home from school each weekday, a long drive on three different country roads past mountain views, cornfields and farm stands where we stopped for treats. As soon as we were home, there was the whole field in back where we could run around and play in the leaves.
It should have been a happy time, and it seems so now, glancing back, but I remember the constant feeling of worry and unease; the endless wondering what I was really supposed to be doing. I worried over my aimless life, the abandonment of my big pursuits, the lack of relevant employment and my failure to even remember any of the plans I’d made for this new moment. I had made my first record in this town, performed in all the bars and cafes around the area, created carved clay pots and 3-D tapestries, designed art programs for the local schools, and while I’d thought I could recapture that dormant part of myself by returning, I wasn’t taking any concrete steps to do so, nor to discern how I might begin.
I thought I missed my southern-based friends, but in truth I was closer to the more lasting friends back in the north, to where I’d returned. I sent calendars to the southerners showing the admirable scenery of the mountains. I sent maple sugar candies, pinecone ornaments. They sent me custom CDs of music they thought I’d like. They called often to check on how I was adjusting up there in that town, away from them.
I wasn’t busy.
This seemed to me to be a breach of everything I believed in and everything I was raised for. Sitting on a deck chair and looking at the autumn woods around me was not creative regeneration, it was time away from active living. Taking walks while the kids were at school was a waste of fleeting professional development time. Being aimless, though my main activity, was completely unacceptable.
I decided to be more productive and adopted one of the front upper rooms as my office and writing space, separate from the piano, from the art supplies. I sent out letters, paid a hefty sum for an update of my nebulous resume. The resume writer seemed to me a genius. Who else could make from my disconnected multitude of jobs, unrelated experiences and employable skills such a commendable and impressive document? I sent out the resume, went to job interviews, called everyone I met who was in any way connected to work that I could do or jobs that I could tolerate. I’d been promised work before the move, but nobody really had the money to pay once I arrived on their actual doorsteps.
Plum Flower was comforting. She only sold a painting or drawing about once every 5 years, and she was almost always at home. Over multiple cups of herbal tea, she hinted at some mysterious benefactor who so believed in her right to exist as an artistic person in the world that he gave her a monthly stipend, no strings attached, no proof of productivity expected. Several easels in the little house she lived in held the same few paintings and charcoal drawings of nudes the entire year of our acquaintance. If she was under no pressure to produce, she reasoned, why should I be? Was I not, in her interpretation, a kindred creative spirit of a different medium, and no less free, therefore, to explore as whimsically as the world inside my head? I always came away from her porch comforted, but just as restless as before.
Halloween came, and Thanksgiving with my husband’s family, and then the winter was upon us. The creakiness of the floorboards grew with the cold. We were expecting my own family for the holidays and didn’t mind the winter much. The classic frosted trees and white-topped mountains were exhilarating and the holiday decorations exaggerated the quaintness of the village, but most of all, I was well aware that the winter holidays were off limits to job searches and professional development. I was absolutely off the hook for at least three weeks.
We lived the cold months stuck at the bottom of our icy driveway. Plum Flower didn’t attempt the uphill effort in her small car, but my husband could get his big truck up the incline and pulled me up sometimes. We did a lot of sledding on the old town sledding hill the kids been hearing about their entire lives. Perhaps they enjoyed knowing that their icy bodies were sliding down the same hills their father had descended on his own red toboggan when he was a boy of this town.
Driving to and from school, when I could actually manage the roads, was very slow. Ice management took up a lot of my time. Yet the post-winter melt eventually came and the streams and creeks started flowing. To my despair, a local school district called me in for a second interview.
The interview didn’t turn out badly but left unchallenged my ambivalence towards a real job. They offered a consultant position translating documents and school handbooks into Spanish, which I could do from my home. I was able to distract myself from the actual work by watching the rest of the great spring melt from the upstairs office window, framed in pine branches.
The leaky sinks, warping floors and moldy bathroom were a sort of distraction, too. I argued weekly with the landlords about what minimal basic living conditions our lease granted us. The mitigating factor to my disgruntled feelings was the news that, with the recent melting of the snow and ice, the two houses we’d foregone purchasing in the streamside town had flooded completely, and, had we bought them, we’d be dealing with a much greater quantity of mold and water damage on our own meager dime.
While I watched and wondered and waited, my husband pondered the questions of his own life. When the late spring sun had dried the flooded ground below the mountains, he found steady, acceptable work for himself. Fulfilling the job involved driving from one place to another. These were his towns, his childhood county, and every rural road contained a memory that connected him to the friends who still lived there. That was what he had come back for, but, though reluctant to admit it, he had changed in ways that they, having never lived elsewhere, had not. He discovered that he could count on their permanence but couldn’t reconcile it with the spaces between their shared past and their present attempt at reconnection that had been filled so differently.
By the time the school year was near its end, we had decided that a return to the south would be the more sensible, most lucrative thing to do, and resolved to give up the house in a few months to re-relocate. There remained the summer in the mountains to look forward to. A larger group of relatives would be joining us for summer vacation. We were expecting them in clusters and bursts from the flat Midwest; from the southernmost reaches of South America. Plum Flower was not excited at the prospect of the arrival of so many. She seemed to feel possessive of our affections.
We hadn’t used most of the upstairs space since the last visit, and things had gotten dusty there. Gleeful for any chance to abandon the translation work on my computer, I collected a number of rags and several kinds of cleaners and climbed the small, noisy stairs. The windowsills in every room were full of dead bugs that had been there since before our arrival. The first task at hand was their removal and interment. I arranged a water burial and flushed them all—the flies, beetles, mosquitoes and regional unrecognizables—down the toilet.
I was about to wash the glass windowpanes in one of the bedrooms when I noticed a few wasps bustling around the mullion of the upper and lower sash of the windows. Looking more closely, I saw that they had begun to make a nest on the outer glass. While I would have wanted to remove it under other conditions, I didn’t relish the thought of further contact with the sour landlords over a bit of insignificant nest on the second floor of the back of the house where the wasps didn’t pose any danger to us.
Over the next few weeks, between swimming at the water hole and farmer’s market visits with the relatives, I watched the wasps at their work. I wasn’t knowledgeable about stinging insects, but wasn’t entirely unfamiliar with the grey, papery look of the ever-growing structure they were building. The wood of the mullion had given them the opportunity to affix their nest to something stable, while the glass of the window had given me the opportunity to observe their efforts and their architecture. The nest had begun to protrude downward, flattened against the glass, and instead of an inflated paper balloon, as it might have resembled unrestricted, it was more of a balloon cut in half.
Soon the nest was large enough to cover about a quarter of the window, and we could see the individual cells of the inner nest clearly. Each small cell housed one individual future wasp, one slowly-moving, sticky whiteness after another in level after level of pliable rooms inside the harder outer layer.
On the grey-brown oval exterior of the nest, I could see, as if from inside the nest itself, several wasps at a time patting the pulp they’d made from nearby wood into yet another layer of nest, until at last they seemed to be forming the durable, rainproof outer shell on one side while continuing to expand the other. All the while the newly-hatched larvae were squirming and growing, fed by worker wasps, only barely visible from my side of the nest.
Seeing the complex process from this perspective, my face nearly pressed against the inside glass of the window, held me there. It seemed safe to get close without being stung or having contact with the milky slime of the larvae cells. I didn’t know if the wasps could see me looking in or perceive my presence in any way, but the nest was their home, after all, not mine.
For the children, a quick daily check on the progress of the wasps was enough. Though they found the changes to the nest interesting at a glance, they didn’t find lengthy observations of the repetitive construction and larvae development particularly compelling. Plum Flower was unwilling to even take a peek, recoiling at the idea of the squirming larvae.
I, however, in my restless despair, became fascinated with the number of jobs I could identify in the wasp community. I was driven by curiosity to research their way of life at the old town library. I learned that there were, just amongst the paper-makers, the wasps who were the wood fetchers and those who were the pulp pulverizers; there were the putty patters and, within all those professions, there were those who worked on the interior cell chambers and those who built the sturdy, waterproof exterior paper walls. While the architects and the carpenters went about their tasks, other endeavors were taking place within. Deep inside moved the larvae, whose job was to glue themselves to their individual cells in defiance of their tilted relationship to gravity. The cells weren’t perfectly horizontal, and the wasp babies had to eat up and stay put, accepting sustenance from the nursery staff, the interior worker wasps. I knew that in the secret internal realm there would be a queen, and surely some of the worker wasps cared for her and all her needs as well. I did not like the unseen queen, but I understood. I understood. They knew their jobs because she lived.
I admired their industry, and though I would have hated to be confined to a single, repetitious occupation, resisting it with all I could muster, I envied them the clarity of their individual obligations to the community in which they lived.
The family vacationers went back to their respective homes. It was time for us to go. What remained for us was the packing and the farewells. Plum Flower was pouty with the news of our abandonment but was not unkind. The landlords got busy looking for ways to cheat us out of our deposit money. I hated saying goodbye yet again to my husband’s family and my northern friends. Annemarie doubted the permanence of this retreat. She had seen us come and go before.
While our friends assumed that the spin we put on our departure—the greater availability of employment in the south—was the whole truth, I was aware in the pit of my stomach of the hollowness the wasps had laid bare. I could not, at that moment, face the task of deciphering the route that lay ahead of me, of summoning from somewhere within, from some invisible, untapped reserves, enough industry to start the construction of my next world.
Copyright Adel 2024