Bourbon Penn 6


by Beth Hull

"You get to choose," Dad says. "Not everyone gets to choose. You're lucky." He gestures at the hut around us, my spider hut. Outside the frayed screen window, darkness is rapidly overtaking twilight. The hooting and howling calls of birds and monkeys fade to the hum of insects. It's a full sound, not a neither-nor, but an either-or.

Mom squeezes Dad's shoulder, like she's adding the finishing touch to his speech.

Then they stand up to walk out of the hut and leave me alone with my spiders.

I poke a curled grub worm through the cage slats to a sleek, long-legged spider. The spider freezes, except for its pincers, which undulate softly as if swaying to music.

"You're almost thirteen, Child," Mom says from the doorway. "Act like it."

I don't say anything; instead, I watch the spider jump forward onto the grub worm.

Dad calls behind him, "Dr. Van Der Grunden will be here in two weeks, Child. You'll need to decide by then."

• • •

Mom helps me, she thinks. She printed out celebrities and models onto paper that quickly curls in the humidity of the jungle. "Are there any you like, sweetheart?" She flips through the images one by one, watching my eyes, my face, for a reaction. The men and women flutter forward like grotesque butterflies.

"Is there one you especially like? Any you might want to see without clothes?"

An image of a male model looks interesting. He's wearing denim pants, but nothing else. "That one," I say.

Mom exhales. "That is a nice one," she agrees. She flips quickly past some photographs of females until she finds another male. "What about him?"

I shrug. It's too hot at this hour, just after lunch, and the walls of the common room hut feel as if they're closing in. The huts, connected by veins of mud in the rainy season, make up the different rooms of our home.

Mom doesn't read the signs — my sweaty forehead, my bouncing knee. "Well, what is it you liked about that other man? You said you'd want to see more of him?"

Maybe I shouldn't tell her. She'll only be disappointed. But she prods, antagonizing me like I'm a spider she's pushing into a cage with a stick.

Finally I can't take anymore. "His tattoos!" I say. "I wanted to know if they covered his legs, too."

She pulls back, as if I've slapped her. "Tattoos," she whispers.

I jump up from my chair and sling myself out into the steamy rain.

• • •

"Doctor Van Der Grunden will be here next week," Mom says to Dad. I gaze down at them from the branch of my purple peering tree. A bromeliad flower sprouts from the branch next to me, and I stroke its smooth, vivid orange petals.

They think I'm in my spider hut. I was, for a few minutes, but the furry spider, Kelly, prefers moths. I've found two so far, and now they're fluttering frantic in a glass jar I've tied rope around and draped across my shoulders.

"Give Child time. There's still time," Dad says. He picks a starfruit off the ground, wipes away a couple of ants, and drops it into his shirt pocket. I like starfruit. With its pronounced ridges, it is all at once empty and full, the outside a complement to the sweet perfection on the inside.

"I think Child's scared," Mom says. "Scared of choosing wrong."

Scared? I'm not scared. My rage wants to pound down on them like strong hands on sacrificial drums.

• • •

My spiders don't care about my body. You'd think I'd have picked worms to love, something sexless to bond with. But the spiders make excellent friends. There are no decisions for them, only impulse and action, the second following so closely upon the first that they blur together, appearing as one: instinct.

• • •

Twilight in the jungle — birds and monkeys whoop and shriek. Some calls are to pull each other closer. Others, to warn away. Beneath my mosquito netting, I listen to them, sucking in the thick air, my fingers exploring my flat, twelve-year-old plank of a body. But what I feel is…nothing.

• • •

As a fetus, I had two names: Margot, if I'd been a girl. Jonathan, if I'd been a boy. But once I made my screaming escape through the birth canal, I was "Baby." Now I am "Child." If Dr. Van Der Grunden fails to show up, I wonder what they'll call me after my thirteenth birthday. Teen? Youth? Young Adult?

• • •

A line of leaf-cutter ants parades through the deep green grasses, their purpose clear…at least to them. I hear my parents talking, arguing, so I duck behind the webbed roots of a strangler fig tree, wiping away the warm water droplets that fall on me when I disturb the nearby ferns.

"Just because Child's showing interest in men, doesn't make Child a female," Dad is saying. "What if Child's gay?"

"Oh George, if Child has a choice, why not choose to be heterosexual?"

My toes disturb a pale gray grub worm curled against the trunk of the tree. I pick it up and gently roll it between my thumb and forefinger, wondering at its smooth body. Intact, full, indeterminate, and perfect in every way.

"This is what happened at the hospital, Amy," Dad says, his voice growing louder. Then he raises the pitch to mimic Mom's voice. "Have you seen the wage discrepancies between men and women? Do we want our baby to grow up to be undervalued? Please."

Mom gives a sarcastic bark of laughter. "Oh, and you were so much better: Men are forced into the workplace, not allowed to spend time with their kids. What was the other one? Oh, it was classic. Men are brought up to be emotionally distant and out of touch with their feelings. Please, George. I've never seen any person more in touch with his feelings."

I wonder exactly what their move to the Amazon cost them, beyond the plane tickets and storage unit.

• • •

The storage bills arrive every three months. Dad, in an effort to keep me involved in and teach me about "the World," asked me to help with our financial responsibilities.

The Amazon jungle doesn't come with high living expenses, and Mom and Dad are afraid to take me with them to the market down the river Madre de Dios. It flooded so badly one year I started calling it the Madre de Rios, but nobody thought it was funny.

Flooding, dangerous waters aren't what they're protecting me from; they're worried about the people at the market. Mom and Dad are either afraid I'll be ridiculed, or they're afraid I'll actually make a friend. Maybe it's both.

So I am in charge of writing one check every three months, five hundred ninety dollars exactly, to cover the storage rentals. Then I seal the envelope, balance the checkbook, and give the envelope to Dad to post next time he goes to the village.

• • •

Four years ago I added a personal note. "Anyone out there? I'm eight years old," I wrote in tiny print at the bottom of the bill's statement.

The next time a bill arrived, addressed to Mr. and Mrs. George Polopkis, Dad tossed the envelope my way without even opening it.

I held onto the envelope for a full month, let it rest on the crude wooden table next to my cot. It was the possibility in the thing. Did someone write back? Would I have a pen pal? If no one wrote back, I'd be so disappointed I would curl up in my spider hut and never come out, maybe build a fine wooden cage for myself and beg Mom to feed me grubbies. I'd snatch them up, using my cupped hands as pincers.

Maybe I would grow extra sets of eyes.

• • •

When my dad's weekly reminders to pay the bill became hourly, I finally tore open the envelope.

My stomach dropped. There was no card, no note — but wait. There, on the back of the new statement, was a short line: "I'm 10. My dad says I have to write you back. Bye."

I let out a whoop that rocked the walls of my bedroom hut.

• • •

The girl who wrote back, Kelly, and I are friends now, through our quarterly notes. I like to imagine I'm her only friend, as she is mine, but that isn't likely, so I indulge in comforting imaginings where I am her best friend.

I named my favorite spider after her.

• • •

Dr. Van Der Grunden is furry and fat, just like my Kelly-spider. He peers down at me through purple tinted glasses. "This is the Child?" His fingers twitch at his sides, pincers longing to latch onto prey.

I'm sitting on the floor of my spider hut, knotting a strand of embroidery thread to lash down the lid of one of my more fearsome spiders' cages. But maybe I should leave the cage door insecure, leave a little more up to chance in this room. What's in that old poetry reader Dad gave me? There will be time for decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse?

I decide to securely latch the cage.

For now.

• • •

"So what will it be, Child? Girl or boy?"

One thing I've decided: I like Dr. Van Der Grunden. He's nothing like Mom and Dad, with their pleading and positive spins.

But I still haven't answered.

"You haven't decided."

The problem is, I've decided a lot. Too much. I've chosen boy, and spent days doing what I think boys do: pee standing up, hack at lush jungle leaves with a machete, smile as I watch my spiders devour their prey. Then I get bored with those things. And I get bored with my mom's feverish excitement: "Child's a boy!" and my dad offering me yet another unicorn coloring book.

So then I'll decide to be a girl: I pee sitting down, decorate my spiders' cages with rainbows, fashion awkward crowns with the conic flowers of the beetleface bush. After a week of that, I would miss doing those other, "boy" things. Besides, my dad would get all revved up about my new femininity: "Child's a girl!" he'd crow, and my mom would sulk and beg me to cut a new path for her to reach our river dock. So I'd give up on being a girl.

But because I like Dr. Van Der G, as I call him in my head, I talk to him. "I keep deciding," I say. "But I keep changing my mind."

Dr. Van Der G scribbles a note on his clipboard, caps his Crayola marker, and frowns. "You must decide by tomorrow morning, or I cannot help you."

He's been honest with me, Dr. Van Der G has, so I spin a couple of times in my swivel chair. "I'll tell you a secret." My spinning chair comes to a halt. "Patient-doctor privilege?"

Dr. Van Der G raises his eyebrows and gives me a small smile. "This discussion is just between us," he says.

I lean forward in my seat. "I'm not going to decide."

• • •

The sex of most people is decided at fertilization. XX or XY. It's a fifty-fifty chance. But I didn't get that chance, I write to Kelly — the girl, not the spider. You used to ask me if I was a boy or a girl, but when I didn't answer, you stopped asking. Is it because it doesn't matter? Would it matter if I'm neither? I love you, Kelly. You're my best friend. –C

• • •

For my eighth birthday, Dad came back from a market upriver, carrying a giant woven basket filled to the top with embroidery thread. Mom scolded him afterward; I could hear them in the kitchen hut that night, her voice harsh and clicking like the tropical chicken-bird's beak when it reaches for my bare toes, hoping they're grubs. Mom didn't think Dad should get me something so feminine. "We promised not to encourage Child either way," she said.

Dad's muttered response shifted and blended into the other night sounds — the sound of a viper curling up in a tree, the sound of a bat biting into a piece of fruit, the sound of a cockroach burrowing into the soil.

By the light of the lantern in my hut, I was already braiding the threads together. I still wear those bracelets up to my elbows, and streamers of bright braids dangle from the rafters of my hut.

Someday I will link them together and form my very own web.

• • •

As revenge for the embroidery thread, Mom gave me a Junior Carpentry Kit for my ninth birthday. That night, Dad's voice carried over the nighttime sounds, a low thunder of accusation, warning of imminent acid precipitation. A steel umbrella wouldn't be strong enough.

By the next morning, I had made my first spider cage.

• • •

Dr. Van Der G's in the guest hut, the one closest to the water. I tuck an envelope addressed to Kelly into his medical bag. He'll mail it for me, probably, and even if he doesn't, I'll find my way to her eventually. I'm so confused, what I'm feeling for her. Best friend? Crush? I want to be hers, exclusively, but I don't know how. I could present myself and ask her what she wants, let her decide. But then I'd be just as bad as my parents, shrugging the responsibility off onto someone else who never asked for it.

• • •

I slowly back out of Dr. Van Der G's hut and bump into something big. The spider cages looped over my shoulders clank against one another, and I drop my suitcase.

"We saw you leave your hut," Dad says.

"Why do you have all your spiders with you?" Mom says. "And your suitcase?"

"You shouldn't need to ask," I say. I stand in the middle of the path, draped in spider crates that I've looped over my shoulders with bright embroidery thread. Some of the occupants hiss or click, but most are silent. Some jump in their crates, others skitter; most are still. Waiting.

Mom frowns. "To your room. Now. Enough of this nonsense."

I reach for one of the spider cages, unfasten the latch. I don't want to scare Mom and Dad, but there's no other way.

"What is that?" Dad says. "What are you doing?"

"This is the mamba spider," I say, watching my parents watch the first furry legs ease over the lip of the cage. "I named it after the poisonous African snake. Back away, please, I'm going to set him free."

Mom and Dad don't move, but I take the lid completely off the cage and thrust the cage toward them. They part, clearing the path for me to walk.

"Why would you do this to us, make us worry like this?" Dad says.

"Because, for once, this isn't about you." I scream it in my head, but say it calmly. "Don't follow me. I'm letting my spiders free as I go. It'll be safe enough to walk around tomorrow morning."

"Where will you go, Child?" Dad says. "How will you live?"

Mom says, "If you leave now, you lose your chance with Dr. Van Der Grunden. He'll never come back."

"Do you believe nobody will love me like this?" I say. "Am I that much of a freak?"

"Child, no!" Dad says. "Of course not. But why not do the surgery. Dr. Van Der Grunden is here, and ready to help."

"Please, Child," Mom says.

I step through them, holding out another spider's cage. Once I'm past them I set the cage on the ground, leaving the lid open. I stifle a pang; it's been months since my Kelly spider hunted for herself — will she remember how?

With a whispered goodbye, I follow the path into the jungle, the heart of the world, the sexual yet sexless great unknown.

Beth Hull lives in northern California with her husband and two children. She writes novels and the occasional short story. To learn more about Beth, her work, and the things that annoy her, you can visit her website