On a Knoll above Sleepy Shrewsbury, An Embattled Financial Secretary to the Treasury, His wife, and an Earwig
Nate Liederbach

An earwig in this purple hole between his wife’s ribs and Wellington wants it out. He’s sweating, champing, investigating the intruder with one wobbly eye, but she is quite disinterested. Under the noon-shade of an Elizabethan oak, the couple reclines. Or, rather, she reclines. Ribboned and frilled, the woman pretends the salted breeze on her cheeks is the ghost of an ocean and it’s seeking some new peace. Face dreamy, she fancies herself the most indolent gull—swooping, soaring, and all this imagining due to Harold. How, of late, she’s heard much talk from her dear brother Harold. Recently returned from India, his countenance is a touch gaunt, but he’s distinctly wiser in the eyes, distinctly liltier in the tongue. And he’s brought back such renewed views, ideas far beyond the Anglican Communion: rivers of renewal, places and lives tucked between dimensions of un-death and half-death….

Of course, the boy, Harold, in Wellington’s snuffed-up opinion, is only so much bungler milk. Because Old Wellington deems himself a true architect of pragmatism. This is why, right now, he’s on his knees wholly occupied with hypothetical consequences verging on corporeal: possibilities of spousal infection, of widowerdom, of myriad and distinct ramifications on and to his already-tumulted vocation. And the foul bug inches deeper. And it’s no hard harbinger but, shortly, they will all be dead. If Wellington knew this would the magnifying glass remain cased in its velvet slip? Would even more crinoline be folded away from his wife’s pale and confidential flesh? Would he skip the tweezers all together, endeavoring instead for more aggressive tactics? Tweezers trembling. Tweezers twinkling. Tweezers dancing in the margins of the woman’s sight. A flit of silver weaving, lifting, seeking aim. A flit, she thinks, and isn’t it so like the lofty voice of dear Harold. Listen, her brother’s cooing, Simple, we return. Simple. Moksha. Moksha, moksha, moksha… And absorbed in these gentle resonances, the woman yawns, stretches a calf, an ankle, and her high-laced boot accidently overturns the lunching basket.

The basket is immediately righted. Does it matter by whom? No. Though what does matter is that a paring knife remains glinting in the grass. What does matter is that Wellington notices the pointy blade. Of course, then there’s what’s not noticed: the escape of one, unsliced and so-perfectly ripe apple. Bumbling downhill, the pink-bellied fruit picks up steam. It launches over a mole-hole, leaps a pile of twigs. Faster, faster, until, in the apex of its animation, it ravages a single, hoary-headed dandelion. White fibers spray into the wind. A mute puff of demise. But also a scattered regeneration. And on some scale, this paradoxical act is glorious, but on another scale the glory’s squandered by the apple’s saddest splash into a meager creek. Upon impact, leagues of gnats twitch from the molted banks. The slight waters, which at one moment were placid, grow rough with the frantics of so many diamond-headed minnows.

Ten seconds, maybe fifteen. Then things, as they always do, calm. These young fish, amnesiacs en masse, take to nibbling at the bobbing fruit. Nibble, nibble, and neither Wellington nor his wife witness this. Neither are given the chance to think, Golly, lesser beings, how do they so easily adjust to mortal pressures? No, Wellington is rapt on his task. Wellington is, at present, averring: “But, Darling, should the insect remain in your body-self, and perish, and similarly disease thee!” He switches eyes. He closes the one, peers sternly with the other. Peeking in, tweezers prodding the raised and dimpled skin, but his wife only sighs and sits up. With gloved hands, she lifts the man’s dark muttonchops, directs his gaze to her pursed face. Whispering something distracting, she smiles softly, and blue and bloodshot as they are, Wellington’s eyes rake her powdered visage. There’s a stronger breeze suddenly. Almost a gust. It twist the couples’ hair, but stiff as the wind is it has no say in the arrangement of the woman’s ample eyebrows. They are stoic, high, emotionless. They bother Wellington, but not half as much as her oddly large throat. Now he’s considering how, especially during conjugal huffings, he cannot bear the throat’s spectacle. Gullet of a mule! his mind bellows. Oh gullet of some voracious swallower of hay!

Thus, in distraction and remedy, amidst intercourse he’s learned to train all scrutiny on her hairline. Like this, Wellington can imagine his red Nebuchadnezzar tucked not inside her person but rather in a warm nest of warbler chicks. Recently fed, their small hearts feather-pulse, and it is this thought alone which allows the blind billy to give itself over for a fast and determined gag.

“Harold, I brought you something special in the basket—”

His wife declares this, and Wellington blinks, Wellington frowns. “Harold?” The woman reddens, says, “Yes! Ha! Just seeing if you’re listening! Ha ha!” So Wellington flares a single nostril. He puppy-cuffs her and she tumbles backward, bosom jostling. He waggles his tongue, calls her a rambunctious filly, an incestuous wench. Carefully, then, he removes his wig, slips-loose his steamy codpiece and pops all his knuckles. But, alas, there will be no screwery above Shrewsbury, no screwery on this knoll, under this great and matriarchal oak. It will be attempted, to be sure, because Wellington has decided it’s the best way to render his insect-infused patient distracted. In his logic, in his commitment, believes he might immerse her in pleasure while simultaneously mining the wound and verily attacking her yet-burrowing infection with this paring knife appeared here in his paw—

“Oh I wish not to stall our lust, but wait only one, brief moment!”

His wife cries this, her eyes are shut, throat abundant. For she’s arching her back in a motion of expectant bliss. She entreats, “In the basket! Oh, Husband! Oh, you must eat first! Gather your strength to carry me Heavenward! Please, pause your passion and look and see what I brought you for snacking!”

And Wellington does. He drops the knife to turn and see. But the earwig—does it know? Glossy pliers barely perceptible, though raised and alert, the bug claps a silent ovation. Could it be it has lived another life before this one? Was it once not so different than its hostess, once so blind as she? This woman who can’t possible know that, currently, through the center of Shrewsbury, under quaint stone bridges, her apple drifts? Yes, there it goes, in and out of shadows, spinning languidly, belly rung in silvery hallo. The cluster of lifeless minnows, draped sideways, escorting their toxic affair.

Nate Liederbach is a PhD candidate at the University of Utah, where he is managing editor of Western Humanities Review.