It Begins In The Gardenby Maria Haskins (Volume 4)
“I don’t think it’s a ladybug,” Belle says, poking at one of the small creatures milling around inside the dirt and stick enclosure she and Norah have built next to the garden shed.
Norah peers down at the small beetle crawling on her own finger. It is red and black with six legs, and it is the approximate size and shape of a ladybug, but she knows Belle is right: it really isn’t a ladybug at all. For one thing, its black spots are too small and numerous, like miniature pin-pricks rather than spots. The red colour isn’t quite right either: it’s an intense shade of red, like fire and strawberries and gummy bears all at once, so shiny and glossy that it seems to glow from within. Each ladybug also has three barely visible indentations, like seams, running across its back. The seams are evenly spaced, and divide the carapace into sections, almost as if it could be snapped apart like Lego pieces, or extended like a tiny, flexible garden hose.
After studying the beetle for a while, Norah decides that it’s easier not to see or think about those seams; it’s easier to just see a ladybug.
Belle found them, scattered in the grass beneath the pale pink rhododendron at the back of the garden, near the compost. Norah helped her move all twenty-two of them into the sunlight, and now the girls sit next to each other, leaning forward, arms and elbows touching. There’s a barely audible hum in the air around the low-walled enclosure they’ve built for the bugs, a sound on the edge of hearing, more vibration and tactile sensation than noise. Norah likes listening to it, likes the way it quivers deep inside her body. It makes her feel happy and safe. Like listening to a lullaby when you’re falling asleep, or being enveloped by the drone of the car engine and the murmur of mom’s and dad’s voices on a long road trip.
She can almost make out hidden words underneath the hum, within the vibration; can almost decipher them, too, their meaning grazing the tip of her tongue.
Until the baby starts crying.
“Does it cry all the time?” Belle asks.
Norah shifts uncomfortably in the grass.
“No. Mostly at night. And you kind of get used to it.”
Which isn’t really true, but Norah doesn’t want to talk about it. Everyone has been talking about the baby and little else for the last month. That, and grandmother, but she doesn’t want to talk about grandmother either. Norah peers over her shoulder. Grandma is sleeping in the garden-chair on the deck: a plaid blanket laid across her lap, hands clasped as if in prayer, a wide-brimmed hat shading her face in the afternoon sun.
Only a few months ago Norah would have shown these bugs to grandma, would have asked her what they are, if they are good or bad bugs. But grandmother doesn’t answer any questions anymore. Most days she doesn’t even know who Norah is. The pain of seeing grandmother’s vacant and slightly anxious look whenever she can’t remember something, is lodged like a cold, dead weight in Norah’s gut. Whether most of that weight is grief or anger, she’s not quite sure.
“It’s kind of weird that they don’t fly away,” Belle muses, looking at the bugs again.
Norah turns back to Belle, relaxing into the ease and comfort of her presence. They’ve been best friends since Belle moved next door in kindergarten, and it’s a relief that someone in her life doesn’t say stupid things like “isn’t it fun being a big sister?”, or “are you all right?” or “it’s ok to be sad”. And unlike some of the kids at school, Belle would never suggest that playing in the backyard like this is too babyish for twelve year olds.
Belle is right, as usual. It is strange that the ladybugs haven’t tried to fly away. They definitely have wings, because every now and then the top layer of each bug’s carapace splits into two delicate, fluttering parts that move with a quiet burr and whir. These wings move so fast that they blur the beetle altogether, turning it into a vibrating point of red-black almost-there.
“Or why don’t they just crawl out?”
“Maybe they like us,” Norah answers, hoping it’s true.
“Or maybe they’re hungry.”
“We need aphids,” Norah says, half-remembering something grandmother once said. “Ladybugs like aphids.”
“What do they do with them?”
“Milk them or something, I think.”
They fall silent as the hum and buzz draws them in closer again. The sunlight makes the ladybugs glow like tiny embers in the grass, and they are the most beautiful and perfect things Norah has ever seen.
“They’re perfect,” Belle breathes.
Norah nods. She tries to tune out the sound of the baby crying, and the thoughts of grandma’s crooked, sagging face; tries to catch hold of the words beneath the vibration again - their hidden meaning lurking somewhere between the gauzy layers separating conscious thought and daydream.
Both girls wince when Norah’s mom calls from the backdoor:
“Belle! Your mom’s here. And Norah, you have to check on the baby so I can make dinner.”
Belle gets up, brushing the grass and dirt from her knees. There’s a dejected droop in her shoulders.
“Do you want to bring some of them home with you?” Norah asks. “We can share.”
Belle smiles: braces, freckles, dimples, and all.
Norah retrieves two shoeboxes from the basement. She carefully places a handful of dandelions and grass in each box while Belle pokes holes in the lids with a pencil. Once moved, the ladybugs sit absolutely still in the boxes. Only their heads seem to turn slightly, as if to gaze up at the girls. Norah feels a twinge of panic when she pushes down the first lid.
The bugs won’t like it, she thinks.
“The bugs won’t like it,” Belle says.
“But we can’t leave them outside.” Norah covers the second box, trying to sound sure and decisive. “They need somewhere to live. We’ll figure out something else tomorrow.”
Norah leaves her box in her room before she checks on the baby.
The baby is still screaming. Norah looks down at the distorted, pink, wailing face, at the waving fists, and bald, smooth skull. Mom and dad claim that she looked like this when she was a baby, but it’s difficult to imagine. Of course, mom and dad also claim that she is “good with the baby”. Norah understands from the way it’s said and so frequently repeated, that it’s meant as praise and approval, but she doesn’t want to be “good with the baby”. Most of the time she’d rather not be a big sister at all. Right now, she would rather go back to the ladybugs. She already misses the buzz and hum and quiver of their voices.
“Stop crying, you big whiner,” she tells the baby, but the baby doesn’t listen: it never does.
She carries it to grandmother who is still sleeping in the chair outside. Grandma reminds Norah of a crooked origami bird – bent and shrunken, and so fragile that she might crumple if you touch her.
Norah holds the baby so it’s facing grandmother. It stops screaming, and Norah wiggles its tiny baby hands in grandma’s face, but the old woman doesn’t stir.
There are moments when Norah hates this grandmother. This grandmother who doesn’t bake cookies, doesn’t hug her, doesn’t smell of cinnamon and sugar and flowery perfume, who doesn’t make sure there is ice cream in the freezer and lemonade in the fridge. This grandmother who no longer keeps the garden impeccable, making sure every plant flourishes: digging, planting, weeding, watering, fertilizing, raking. With every day that passes without grandma’s care, the garden looks a bit more ragged: grass growing into the flowerbeds, weeds encroaching around the rhododendrons and clematis, the peonies bowing down to the earth without support.
Grandmother has been like this since right after the baby was born, since the day Norah traded ice cream, lemonade, and hugs, for a bald, screaming baby.
“Grandma, I found some bugs. Underneath that rhododendron you like. They’re really pretty. And I don’t think they did anything bad to your plants.”
What’s left of grandmother does not wake.
Norah can’t stop thinking about the ladybugs. She thinks about them while she changes the baby’s diaper, while she sets the table, while she does her homework. What if they starve? What if they die in the box? What if they escape? She thinks about them while she eats dinner. She is still thinking about them when she goes to bed.
Mom comes in to turn off the light, and Norah is relieved when she doesn’t notice the box on the desk. The ladybugs aren’t a secret, exactly, but they belong to her and Belle, no one else.
“What do ladybugs eat?”
“Aphids. And nectar, maybe.”
“Do they eat the aphids or milk them?”
“Eat them. Some ants milk aphids, but ladybugs eat them. That’s why people like to have them in their gardens, to get rid of pests.”
Mom closes the door. Through it, Norah can hear her parents talking, and the TV in the background. But there is another, more insistent noise inside her room: low and quiet and beckoning. She pads over to the desk and opens the box.
The ladybugs have gathered in a circle in the middle of the box, each one immovable and radiant in the darkness: glowing, humming, perfect. Their voices are soothing, and here, in the silence and darkness of Norah’s room, the words beneath the hum are easier to hear.
Pretty, pretty…touch, touch.
Norah touches one with her finger. Its voice resonates within, inside her own thoughts, in her own mouth and throat. She knows what they are saying now. She understands.
She touches the carapace (exoskeleton) gingerly. Feels the tickle of the legs (articulated extremities). Sees the eyes and antennae (tactile and exteroceptive sensors).
They need somewhere to live.
Yes. We do. We do so very much need somewhere to live.
The voices slip inside her. They are one voice, her own voice, only softer.
One ladybug, then another, and another, crawl onto her hand. It tickles when they steal up her arm, up her neck, onto her cheek and lips.
They creep inside.
When Norah sees Belle outside in the cul-de-sac next morning, the whispers inside them both rise and fall in harmony. Norah doesn’t have to ask: she knows that Belle opened her box, too.
“They needed a place to live,” Norah says when they walk to school.
Belle’s hands flutter like they always do when she’s nervous.
“I wish we could find more.”
A tickle runs up and down Norah’s spine, through the winding routes of her brain, through the narrow passages of veins and capillaries.
At recess, Elizabeth and Noor come over to play with them beneath the tall pines, and one single ladybug crawls down Norah’s arm and into her hand. It shimmers red and black in the dappled sunlight.
“Is it a ladybug?” Noor asks.
Belle and Norah exchange a glance. There’s a prickle inside Norah’s ribcage, a flutter and a whir.
“It’s so cute. Can I hold it?”
Another glance, another whir.
“Sure. You can keep it. I have lots of them.”
Norah’s ladybug crawls off her finger and onto Noor’s hand. Noor giggles.
“It likes you.” It feels good to say that, to know that it’s true.
“What do they eat?”
“Aphids,” Belle answers before Norah can say anything. “Or dandelions.”
“Can I have one too?” Elizabeth asks, brown eyes bright behind her glasses.
The legs skitter and scuttle inside Norah, the whispers trickle through her flesh, and…
…what happens next, happens too fast to fully grasp at first.
A boy runs up and smacks Noor’s hand. Her ladybug falls to the ground. It lands upside down, legs moving frantically as it tries to right itself.
“What is that stupid thing? Let me see!”
Norah and Belle, Noor and Elizabeth look at the boy. It’s Benjamin. He’s the boy who laughs at them in gym, the boy who snickers at them when they read aloud in class. The boy who makes fun of Belle’s clothes and shoes. The boy who told Norah her hair looks ridiculous when she wears it in a ponytail.
“It doesn’t want you.” Norah’s body trembles with a sudden shivering rage. “Leave it alone.”
Benjamin isn’t listening. He bends down to look at the bug. The girls see him lift his foot, and they all know what is going to happen next. Norah feels it as a rising buzz and hum both inside and outside as she grasps hold of Belle’s hand, and in that instant, Benjamin crumples and falls as if someone punched him in the stomach. He doesn’t scream or call out, just twitches on the ground. Nobody else moves or speaks. The buzz subsides after a minute, but Norah holds on to Belle’s hand, just in case.
Benjamin is crying. The girls watch in silence as he gets up and staggers back toward the school. He doesn’t turn around once, almost as if he has already forgotten them. Once he’s gone, Noor picks up her ladybug. It scurries in underneath her hair - a whir and buzz, a flash of red on her earlobe before it moves again.
Safe. Joined. Within.
“Can you bring me one, tomorrow?” Elizabeth asks when the bell rings.
“Of course,” Belle and Norah answer in unison, hands still touching.
There are more ladybugs in the garden. They’re waiting for Norah and Belle after school, beneath the dark green leaves and translucent pink petals of the rhododendron. There is a dead starling nearby in the grass, its gold-flecked feathers untouched, beak open for one last cry.
"It’s good that it’s dead," Belle says, though her voice trembles. "It was going to eat them."
The new ladybugs scuttle up Belle’s and Norah’s arms, skittering inside, prickling along ribs and spine.
That night, Norah goes into grandmother’s room and stands by her bed. The hum inside is inquisitive, tentative.
Dad was in here earlier while mom helped grandma in the shower, but he didn't see Norah. Norah heard him through the door, talking about physiotherapists and medication, strokes and long-term care facilities.
“I know you can’t take her in, but what are we supposed to do? With the baby and…it’s just too much.”
Norah could hear from the tone of his voice that he was speaking to Aunt Kathy.
“If you want to chip in for once and… No, I don't know whether it’s Alzheimer’s or just the stroke or some kind of dementia. Does it matter?”
Dad pacing the room, every word barbed with grief and anger and fear.
"She never wanted to be like this. I mean, what the hell? She spends her whole life living like a fucking saint, and this is what she gets. It would have been better if she…”
Norah didn’t want to hear the rest of it, but she did. Dad cried after he hung up the phone.
This is what she gets.
Grandmother is awake in the bed, but she isn’t looking at Norah. She is looking at the wall, or maybe at something else, something beyond the room, something Norah can’t see.
Norah remembers sitting with grandmother in the garden last summer: a plate of cookies and homemade cinnamon buns in front of them on the glass-topped table. Grandma had her special coffee cup: thin porcelain with intricate rosebuds traced in gold and pink. Norah had her glass of lemonade. Buzz of bees and smell of lilacs. It’s all there, perfectly preserved in Norah’s mind: the world, flawless and happy, for a single, fleeting, eternal moment.
She picks up grandmother’s right hand and holds it. Grandma’s skin is like paper, pale and thin, veins and bruises traced across it. The bruises are from the hospital, black and purple smudged over the snaking veins. She remembers grandma’s hospital room, stripped of all colour and comfort, a plastic bag hanging from a stand, a needle pushed into grandma’s flesh, a coiling tube taped down securely.
Was grandma in that room? Is she inside this paper-skinned husk right now, peering out, listening, unable to make her presence known?
Norah sits down on the bed, still holding on to grandma's hand. The buzz and murmur is inside her head, creeping through her gut, through her windpipe – the ever-present whir and whisper of the ladybugs. They speak to her with gentle voices, skittering along her bones, around her skull, behind her eyes. But they don’t come out. They don’t want grandmother.
Please, Norah whispers. Please.
She waits. The hum inside shifts again. One bug tickles out of her mouth, down her arm, crawls off her finger and scuttles up grandma’s wrist into the folds of her nightgown. Norah feels a piece of herself go, burrowing into the darkness inside grandmother - the emptiness, the void, the glowing center that remains.
"Norah, go to bed. Grandmother needs to sleep."
It’s dad. His face is hollow in the darkness.
Norah is still awake when the baby starts screaming. She listens to the scream, the way the sound of that small, penetrating voice cracks and quivers. The ladybugs are listening, too. Norah falls asleep with their reassuring voices scurrying through her mind. She knows what they are saying. She understands.
Noor and Elizabeth both have ladybugs now. So do their friends Yvette and Gagan and Aina. Every day after school Norah and Belle find more ladybugs in the garden, waiting beneath the rhododendron. Every girl at school wants a ladybug, and at the end of the month, every girl has one. When another month has passed, all the boys have one, too, except Benjamin, but he doesn’t come to school anymore.
The hum inside Norah is growing stronger, clearer, more insistent every day. She knows it’s calling to the other ladybugs, the ones who still haven’t found a place to live. Norah can feel them, like a nebulous presence all around her. There are so many. Some are still far away, scattered and alone, but they are coming.
By the time school is out for summer, grandmother can walk unassisted again, even up and down the stairs, and she remembers Norah’s name.
"It’s a miracle," dad says and cries.
Grandma doesn’t bake anymore, but there is usually ice cream in the freezer and lemonade in the fridge. She gardens more than ever: tearing out weeds, clipping shrubs, snipping errant branches, often lost so deep within her task that she forgets her usual coffee breaks and even lunch.
Every now and then, Norah sees grandmother’s wrinkled face sag as though something inside is slipping, failing. Norah knows the ladybug won’t stay inside grandma forever, but for now, it’s enough to have hugs and ice cream, cold lemonade, and a well-kept garden.
The baby grows bigger and louder, and every day Norah wonders what she could do to shut it up.
Norah doesn’t sleep anymore, isn’t even tired. Most nights she pops the screen out of her window, hops down into the grass, and walks around the neighbourhood, gathering ladybugs wherever she finds them. They like the shelter of the bushes and the trees, but their glow is easy to see in the dark. Belle comes too. They usually don't speak because they don't have to. Hands touching, the buzz and hum and whispers is all they need.
The patience and eagerness of the ladybugs whirrs within Norah. So much knowledge. So much longing. So much to do.
"Norah," grandmother says one morning when Norah is heading out to meet Belle.
Norah stops, halfway out the door, because it's the first time in a long while that grandma says her name. Grandma smiles, a smile that almost looks the way it should, the way it used to.
"What will they do?" Grandma asks and hugs Norah close, her voice a tremble and a tremor. “What will they do to us?”
Norah hugs her back, holding tight, listening for an answer in the hum and buzz and whispers, but there is none. Instead, the skittering and whispering stops, and all is quiet within Norah. That silence, that stillness is so deep and terrifying that Norah almost falters, almost screams, almost cries out in pain. It’s only a fleeting moment. Then, the ladybugs whisper and scuttle once again through the paths and tunnels they’ve burrowed through her bones and flesh.
Better. Safer. Happy.
She smiles, still holding on to grandmother.
“I don’t know, grandma. I don’t know, not yet.”
When the baby begins to cry that night, Norah walks into the nursery and stares down into the crib, her pulse buzzing, humming, throbbing red and hot and loud behind her eyes. The baby stops crying when it sees her. It looks at her. Norah has looked at the baby countless times, but never until now has the baby looked back at her this way: recognizing her, knowing her.
The mattress creaks in the next room, heavy bodies shift and sigh, but mom and dad do not wake. Norah listens to the baby's breaths, to the hum of the ladybugs inside. The baby listens, too. It hears the hum, the gentle whir within, the voices of the ladybugs.
For the first time since it was born, Norah says the baby’s name:
The baby smiles. Norah has never seen her smile before, either, and there’s a pleased buzz inside, the scampering of many eager feet.
We do so need somewhere to live. There are so many of us now.
A glowing red trail of five ladybugs stream out of Norah’s mouth, quick legs tickling her tongue and skin as they go. Evelyn sneezes when they crawl up her nose. For a moment Norah can see them moving beneath the skin below Evelyn’s eyes, then they’re gone.
They creep inside.
Grandma and Belle are waiting in the garden when she comes out with Evelyn. They stand there together: arms touching, whispers harmonized within, faces turned towards the sky. It is dark and quiet between the well-groomed flowerbeds and neatly trimmed hydrangeas. At the back of the garden the rhododendron looms: most of its pale pink petals have been shed, and Norah knows there will be no more ladybugs beneath it. Everyone is here.
She looks up at the sky with the others. The only sound is the hum and whisper of the ladybugs within, and Norah’s happiness is their happiness as they crawl around inside her veins and flesh, over the surface of her liver, scuttling upside down inside her skull.
Norah hears and feels all the ladybugs. Not just the ones inside her, or the ones inside Belle and Evelyn and grandma, or inside all the children from school. She feels and hears the vast horde of them, the myriads and legions, the innumerable red sparks of energy and will and purpose that have found shelter all around the world inside other girls and other boys.
Evelyn smiles. Norah smiles back. She turns to smile at Belle and grandma, too. Right then, right there, they all feel it: the buzz, the hum, reaching out across the world, around the globe, a vibration so low and deep it’s a feeling rather than a sound, yet so intense that no one can resist its call.
Strong. Together. Joined. Ready.
"When will they come," Belle whispers, squeezing Norah’s hand and staring up at the stars; stars that vibrate with their own buzz and hum and whispers. "When will the gardeners come?"
"Soon," Norah whispers, Belle whispers, the baby whispers, the ladybugs whisper, the sky whispers inside of them.
For more stories like this, consider supporting us.