Monarch Blue

Table of Contents

 

Monarch Blue

By Barbara Litkowski

She would kill for a Bartlett pear or, better yet, a ripe plum. Like the rest of the world, she’d been hungry for years, but now her cravings were insatiable, the despotic embryo in her womb demanding all manner of foods she couldn’t afford. Even her name, Brie, a childhood derivative of Bridget, made her mouth water, evoking an aroma of better days. Her most recent meal, if one considered a pack of stale Day-Glo crackers nourishment, had come from a vending machine in the San Diego bus station at two o’clock on Sunday morning.

Now, hours later, Brie hoisted herself onto her knees and peered over the vinyl seat to the back of the bus where nighttime running lights illuminated her friend Carmen swaying and praying with the churchgoing crowd. When she held up Carmen’s canvas carryall and pointed to her own mouth, her friend nodded.

They had met in the waiting room at the women’s free clinic on Mesa Verde, the only ones there without the tumescent bulge of impending motherhood, exchanging shy smiles, first names, and brief histories as others came and went. Although Carmen was only five years older than Brie, she had already suffered three miscarriages. Despite, or perhaps because of those losses, she and her husband were desperate to conceive another child. At the sound of her name, Carmen stood up and crossed herself, and Brie gave her a thumbs-up. A moment later, she too was summoned. When Brie returned from the warren of examining rooms, Carmen was just emerging, pale and unsmiling. By unspoken agreement they left together. Coffee, while scarce, was still possible. They splurged, pooling their money.

“They won’t give me fertility drugs.” Carmen’s lilting voice faltered. “They say it’s too risky given my history.” Her face brightened when she heard Brie’s news. “Pregnant. That’s wonderful. You must be ecstatic.” Brie shrugged.

Sensing her mistake, Carmen reached across the table and squeezed Brie’s hand. She withdrew it a second later, but not before Brie had observed the telltale blue knuckles of a pollinator. The skin around the joints expanded and contracted in ocean waves as the bones shifted.

When their eyes met again, it was Carmen’s turn to shrug. “My husband hates them,” she confessed, rotating her hands to show the inky blue rivers—heart line, life line, fate line—that wound between lighter aqua callouses. “He says they make him look a poor provider. I tell him, ‘We have to eat; besides, it’s just a job.’ He says, ‘An insect. What kind of a job is that?’”

Pollinators. After the die-off a new underclass had sprung up to fill the role previously played by flies, beetles, wasps, butterflies, and other winged creatures. Culled from the ranks of the disadvantaged, a small cohort of females now earned their wages reaching, squatting, bending, dusting, turning their hands blue with electrostatic chemicals—all to ensure that the 1 percent of the population with money to burn on brandy and figs had access to cross-pollinated fruits and vegetables.

Brie’s stomach growled an involuntary complaint. Carmen cocked her head, concern clouding her brown eyes. The next instant, she was on her way to the counter, returning with a child’s carton of milk in one blue hand.

Gratefully, Brie accepted it. “Some mom, huh? Homeless. No money, no job, no skills.”

“Skills?” Carmen snorted. “Skills make you too expensive. Here,” she took out a pen, scribbled on the rough brown napkin. “You don’t have to show any papers,” she said, draining the last of her coffee. She wiped the paper cup clean and stowed it in her purse. “Although I suppose papers aren’t a problem for you.” 

The reflection that stared back at Brie from the darkened windows of the bus was thin and tired. In another life she had been pretty. Now, except for the growing seed in her pelvis, she was gaunt and ugly.

The corn tortillas in Carmen’s backpack had left a rancid taste in her mouth, and she wished she had a breath mint. She hated corn the way she hated fish. Corn cereal, corn chips, corn on the cob, hominy, hush puppies, creamed corn, corn soufflé, corn bread, corn dogs (sans dog). In other parts of the world, it was rice. Wasn’t it hard enough being pregnant without craving foods that existed only in memory? Artichoke boats dipped in butter, Chenin Blanc paired with pork roast and prunes, blueberries. When she closed her eyes, her limbic brain flooded her senses with Proustian memories of smoky almonds. She’d eaten her last tree nut in middle school when they could still be purchased by ordinary people, albeit at exorbitant prices.

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She’d fallen for one of the oldest tricks in the book—food.

She had met him at a free open-air art show in Balboa Park she’d seen advertised on a flyer in the shelter’s community room. It was early enough in the evening that the grass still felt warm under her feet as she strolled the grounds trying to act swanky, pretending she wasn’t lonely. She could smell pine and eucalyptus, and when he came up beside her, she smelled licorice on his breath.

“What do you think?” He gestured toward an abstract sculpture on a pedestal a few feet in front of them.

Squinting, she saw an opaque pool of white glass topped by a floating yellow island. She closed her eyes, opened them, looked again. There was a gigantic fried egg, its white skirt curling and browning around the edges, its yolk a perfect sunny-side up. In her mind she added sizzling strips of bacon. She had skipped breakfast—and lunch. She sighed. “It makes me hungry.”

“Me too.” He grinned. “Say, I have eggs in my fridge. Brown sugar, a small stash of pecans from the fat years. How about it? I make a mean pecan pie. We can wash it down with some Chianti I’ve been hoarding.”

She had fond memories of family Thanksgivings as a child. After the first set of dishes had been cleared, her dad and assorted aunts and uncles and nebulous cousins who swept through at holidays like Kuiper Belt comets would sigh with contentment and pat their stomachs to the whir of cream whipping in the kitchen. And then her mother would carry out the pies in ceremonial fashion: pumpkin and pecan—one each—the pumpkin pie’s rich, sweaty face freckled with spices, the pecan’s surface studded with sugar and nuts.

His apartment was near the ocean, once prime glass-and-stucco beachfront, now a dilapidated walkup in peril of being washed away by the next catastrophic storm. They waited until the pie was baked and eaten, then took what remained of the bottle to bed. Afterward, her tongue loosened by wine and pecans, she revealed her darkest secret. “I’m a killer,” she said, grabbing the bottle and licking the last drops from its glassy lip.

The summer she turned six years old had seemed endless. In South Haven, Michigan, where she grew up, kids were still playing outside in shorts in September while their back-to-school sweaters languished in closets. Boats typically dry-docked at the end of the summer continued to float in their usual berths through October. Life was good—until November 22, when meteorologists predicted a killing freeze. Suddenly everybody in South Haven remembered a presence they had taken for granted. Within hours of the dire prediction, an army of amateur entomologists could be seen combing roadsides, rustling through milkweed pods and dying goldenrod, trying to spot elusive orange wings. At her mother’s urging, they had joined the crusade armed with one ancient, green collecting net between them. The holes didn’t matter; the butterfly clinging to a muddy puddle, opening and closing its tattered wings, was too feeble to escape. Much of the lustrous orange power was gone from its wings. Brie lifted it gently, cupping the fragile creature in the palm of her hand for the journey home, transferring it to a plastic mayonnaise jar at the kitchen table. “I’ll keep you safe,” she promised, kissing the jar goodnight and setting it on her bedside table, where it was the last thing she saw before falling asleep. The next morning the butterfly was dead, one of thousands of Lepidoptera asphyxiated in a variety of Ragu, pickle, peanut-butter, and other wide-mouthed coffins. The delicate black legs that had gripped her palm so trustingly were curled in death.

Malnutrition was notorious for shutting down one’s reproductive organs, and she had counted on her body rejecting the pie-man’s sperm. “Not starved enough,” she speculated one month later, bending over the toilet, retching. 

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The bus slowed as the driver navigated a sleeping town’s main street and turned into the parking lot of what appeared to be a municipal ballpark and playground. Brie could just make out a Rotary Club sign. Denair, California: “Oasis of the San Joaquin Valley.” Oasis was a misnomer, she decided, judging from a broken swing set silhouetted against a tangerine-and-aqua sky. The lot was empty except for a motor coach the size of two tractor-trailers parked in the northeast corner and a few scattered pickup trucks.

On the bus, the singing stopped. Frowsy women roused themselves: straightening, smoothing, patting, brushing sleep from their eyes and lips, gathering shopping bags and purses. Earlier, when they boarded the bus in San Diego, Brie had asked Carmen about the motley collection of pollinators. Some were nomads, Carmen said, following crop cycles like surfers searching for the perfect wave before the oceans turned brutal. But most were just down-on-their-luck gals who needed extra cash to get over a hump. “Tumbleweed women like us.”

Brie climbed down from the bus yawning and stretching, tonguing the plaque on her teeth. She could just make out bodies moving around what looked like charcoal braziers beside some of the pickups. She sniffed, hoping for bacon, only to be disappointed by charcoal fumes and smoke. Watching Harvest of Shame in high school as part of a social justice class, she had pitied the impoverished mother who couldn’t afford milk for her children. She half expected Edward R. Murrow to descend from the huge coach, cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, smoke spiraling into the dry air, eager to question this new breed of migrants. “What did you eat for breakfast today?” he would ask, thrusting a microphone into her face.

The air felt dry enough to combust spontaneously, although after the stinky bus even parched air was refreshing. A rogue sagebrush struggled through a crack in the asphalt near her feet. Pale grit, sand or salt or possibly broken glass, crunched under her feet as she shifted. Behind her she could feel the bus cooling, its hot metal hardening like taffy.

When a second bus turned into the lot, she felt an insistent tug on her wrist. Carmen.

“Hurry,” Carmen whispered. “We have to be first in line.”

By common accord the pollinators coalesced into a queue that snaked across the lot toward the palatial coach. Meanwhile, a dozen well-fed prisoners in baggy orange shirts and trousers began disembarking from the newest arrival, followed by a handful of holstered guards. In contrast to the eager, hungry women, the prisoners’ steps were unhurried, their labor free, and therefore, presumably, guaranteed. Their faces were shuttered.

A man with a clipboard emerged from the motor coach.

“Go.” Carmen pushed.

The paperwork, as her friend had promised, was nearly nonexistent. In return for her signature, a curt woman wearing a California Almond Growers Association name badge handed her a five-gallon bucket, a pair of thin latex gloves, and a bag of what looked like blue flour. “You’ll get paid at the end of each day. In cash. If you run out of powder before tomorrow, it’ll come out your wages. Use the gloves for protection.” Without looking up, she motioned to the next person in line.

Killing the monarch had been an innocent mistake, although Brie still blamed herself for its death. It had been one of the first victims of the devastating die-off. Summer after summer, the number and variety of pollinators plummeted. Flowers bloomed ahead of schedule and their anthers, thick with fertile pollen, dried and withered untasted. Insects arriving too late for the connubial feast starved. Geneticists asserted that natural selection would soon reestablish the proper rhythm, given time and sufficient generations of offspring, but the world was still waiting. Spring continued to arrive earlier and earlier, and angiosperms continued to bud and flower before the dwindling supply of pollinators were primed and ready. Only insects that fed on human blood and skin, refuse and decay—of which there was a limitless supply—thrived. Blattodea, Culicidae, Cimicidae, Psocoptera. Cockroaches, mosquitoes, bedbugs, booklice.

She had committed a less innocent mistake her junior year in college. After a night of hard partying, she had awakened in bed with one of her boyfriend’s fraternity brothers. The subsequent messy breakup had triggered an emotional meltdown. She stayed up nights, sometimes crying, mostly drinking cheap vodka in an off-campus apartment she shared with a roommate she rarely saw. Days she slept in, missing lectures, forgetting to hand in papers, blowing off exams, withdrawing at the end of the semester. She went home to South Haven to a tepid welcome and a lecture about “maturity.” Adults, her parents informed her, were resilient. Adults didn’t lock themselves in their rooms, crying. Adults didn’t lose scholarships, and if they did, they went out and found a job. A week later, a little after dusk, a deer leaped across the road as she was driving home from the mall. Her parents’ car was totaled.

Mexico sounded like a good place to do some growing up. The bus was almost to the Tijuana border when she ran out of money. 

The shelter in San Diego where she found refuge was clean. On Sundays a succession of local churches delivered an evening meal, although eating with strangers only increased her loneliness. Calling her folks was out of the question. They’d tell her to come home.

The second bus, this one chartered by the California Almond Growers, had padded seats and an onboard toilet. The women perched on the edge of their seats, clutching their buckets. Glancing down, Brie read the label on the plastic bag: Warning: This product contains chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer, or birth defects or reproductive harm. She lifted her chin and stared out the window.

The staging area for the almond offensive was an encampment covering several acres of parched grass. A cinderblock bathhouse stood in the center of the clearing, surrounded by several large canvas tents which gave the scene a circus-like feel. To one side, a fleet of bucket trucks waited, cranes collapsed over their backs like prehistoric scorpions. 

The assignment was to work in pairs: the person on the ground maneuvering the bucket truck and the person aloft “dusting” the flowers with a flexible wand dipped in pollen harvested the previous week and stained blue. Through line-hopping and luck, Brie snagged Carmen as a partner.  

“Let’s get out of here,” her friend urged as soon as the pairings were made, eyeing the other pollinators with suspicion.

Brie hesitated. The metal boom made her uneasy. “But I don’t know how to work that thing.”

“I’ll teach you everything you need to know.”

Carmen drove fast, a map resting on the dash in front of her. Stretching ahead, as far as the eye could see, were rounded trees in regimented rows, each with its own halo of pearly blooms. Their assigned location was at the far end of the grove. Brie rode shotgun, fingering the wand like a child with a new toy, watching its filaments jiggle as the truck bumped over the rough ground. At first the flowering rows seemed lovely—almost magical—dark trunks and airy crowns stretching as far at the eye could see, but as they rode on and on, monoculture became tedious and then frightening, and she began to yearn for a coarse, sprawling pinyon pine.

True to her word, Carmen gave her a crash course in booms. Two sets of controls, upper and lower. Rotation. Elevation. Tilt. Emergency stop. The person on the ground maneuvered the metal arm, while the other played Tinkerbell with the electrostatic wand. Almond trees, Brie learned during Carmen’s brief tutorial, were picky about their prospective mates, so they required cross-pollination. That meant that after picking up pollen on the electrostatic wand, the boom must swing across the aisle to a different tree. Back and forth, back and forth, in a swooping aerial ballet. Even with Carmen weaving the bucket above and around the various branches, reaching the farthest blooms demanded an athleticism dormant since Brie’s high-school volleyball years.

Five exquisite, creamy petals comprised a single almond flower that deepened to a magenta heart. Sharp green sepals stood in contrast to the delicate petals. One touch from her wand changed all that. “I’m painting the roses blue,” she hummed, swiping with abandon. The novelty soon wore off.

They traded places every 30 minutes, sometimes sooner, whenever the strain became unbearable. After the first few rotations, Brie’s shoulders felt hyperextended and her neck ached from craning to see the tallest branches. They broke at noon for lunch, prepackaged corn toasties delivered by a food truck, although for once Brie wasn’t hungry, thanks to the cloying smell of flowers. Occasionally they heard other pollinators shout or a truck backfire. Once when an unidentified jeep cruised by their station, Carmen called, “Get down!” and she obeyed, crouching behind the veil of branches until the vehicle passed. Ten feet below, she sensed Carmen cowering in the cab. When she asked about it during the next break, Carmen scowled, and Brie didn’t press.

By the end of the day, her arms were so sore she couldn’t lift a spoon to the bowl of corn chowder served in one of the larger tents. After a few painful attempts, she returned to her assigned sleeping tent and collapsed onto the nearest cot. As the minutes passed, she recognized the soft shuffle of tired feet and heard the beds around her shift. There were no giggles—no gossip. Midnight confidences—like avocados—were a luxury for the non-weary elite. Later—she wasn’t sure when—she detected the random sounds of sleep: throat clearings, sighs, an occasional snort.  

Sleep would not come. Her shoulders ached. A sour, yeasty smell emanated from her armpits and crotch. Filthy and tired, she got out of bed and groped her way to the exit, where she opened the flap and stepped into the night. In San Diego, she’d grown used to perpetual light and noise. Here it was different—silent, dark, remote. As her eyes adjusted, she noticed a blue glow radiating from the almond grove—not a flat matte blue, but a shimmering phosphorescence like the ocean at night, only bluer, thickest where treated branches overlapped. Even the ground glittered with pinpricks of blue light where grains of powder had spilled or sifted. The hair prickled on her arms. When she looked down she saw that they, too, shone blue. Only her hands, protected by the disposable gloves, were free of stain.

The bathhouse was deserted. Grabbing a towel, she headed for a row of shower stalls, groaning as she eased out of her jeans. It hurt to raise her arms to lift the sliver of soap from a wire shower caddy. Clouds of steam billowed around her feet. She stood under the spray, allowing its liquid warmth to ease her back to happier times—football games and sledding, hot dogs with mustard and cocoa.

The plastic shower curtain rippled, and cold air coiled over the rod. Her chest tightened, and she crossed her hands instinctively over her belly to protect her unborn child. Why had she come here alone? She shut off the shower and listened, imagining an escapee from the prison tent creeping across the tile on silent, rubber-soled shoes. The showerhead was screwed into the cement. Lacking a better weapon, she removed the soap caddy from the showerhead, and then, armed with nothing more lethal than a flimsy metal basket, ripped open the curtain.

Carmen sat on the changing bench, hugging her knees. She looked up at the flap of plastic sheeting. “You shouldn’t come here alone.”

Brie’s knees buckled with relief. The metal caddy slipped from her fingers and clattered to the tile. “Do you have any idea,” she began, grabbing her towel and sinking down on the bench, “what you just put me through? I thought you were a slasher.”

“It’s not safe here for you—or your baby.”

Safe? Was Carmen crazy? Brie held out an arm, still faintly turquoise, despite the desperate lathering. “This is what’s not safe. Look at my arm. It’s blue.”

“So? That’s just dye. They add it to keep us honest. It marks the trees we’ve treated.”

Just dye? Didn’t you read the label? It’s toxic.”

Carmen shrugged.  “So is starvation.”

In the morning Brie’s muscles, still saturated with lactic acid, screamed in pain when she tried to move. Only hunger forced her to roll out of bed and follow the others to the breakfast tent. Cornflakes, a packet of sweetener, two ounces of synthetic milk. With Carmen behind the wheel, they reached their post before eight o’clock. As she climbed out of the truck, Brie remembered her gloves, lying beside her cot where she’d dropped them the night before.

Brie took the first shift in the bucket. A slight breeze from the east ruffled the floral sea around her. The sun warmed her skin and her muscles loosened with each stretch of the wand, until something like hope began to swell. The wad of bills in her pocket, yesterday’s pay, came with the promise of more to come. In some deep, unseen cavity of her body, cells were dividing and specializing of their own accord, creating a new person. When she got back to San Diego she would call her folks and tell them about the baby. Just out of reach, a branch of still-white flowers beckoned. Below, she could hear Carmen talking angrily on her cell phone, to her husband no doubt. Reluctant to interrupt an argument by asking her friend to shift the bucket, Brie leaned over the rail and extended her arms. She was almost there when the first contraction struck.

Instinctively, she dropped to a fetal curl. The pain was so intense she could barely breathe. Somewhere in the distance she heard Carmen shouting up to her, and then, miraculously, the boom began to descend in a series of jerks. If Carmen had driven fast before when there was little at stake, she was a maniac now. Brie held her aching belly and tried not to pass out. Somehow they reached the camp without breaking an axle. As Carmen helped her from the truck, neither mentioned the plum stain spreading across the upholstery.

She awoke, groggy and disoriented, in what seemed to be an infirmary tent, a thin pillow wedged under her head. On the other side of a flimsy curtain people were arguing about a broken wrist—was it accidental or intentional? “Escape” was the last word she heard as she fell back asleep, one hand on her pain-free belly. When she opened her eyes again, Carmen was sitting in a folding chair beside her cot.

Perhaps it was her friend’s wet, dark eyelashes, or maybe it was the prisoner, his orange arm bound in a sling, hobbling past the foot of her bed, that conjured the monarch butterfly. It appeared from nowhere and drifted toward her bed, wafted by an invisible current. Spellbound, she held her breath until it alighted on the sheet. The orange powder on its wings had been restored to its original velvety smoothness. The black veins were bold and clear, and the white checkerboard markings sparkled. She half expected to see its delicate tongue unfurl to sample the sheet’s rough grain; instead it sat opening and closing, opening and closing its wings like a door to the future. She eased one hand toward it, index finger extended like Michelangelo’s Adam. It was so close. Then, remembering the other butterfly, she stopped. Enjoying its untrammeled freedom, the butterfly spiraled into the air. A moment later, it was gone, as if it had never been.

Next Story: The Last Grand Tour of Albertine’s Watch, by Sandra K. Barnidge

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