Tuesday, July 10, 2012

"Jeremy Greene"

"Jeremy Greene" by Caitlyn Waltermire

Jeremy Greene looked much like the insects he studied. His eyes, with their wet black irises, protruded from his face enough to be unfortunate. He had a small head that twitched at the slightest disturbance and his legs were stilts. Even his sadly outdated blazer had tails that flapped like long-backed wings. (In his favor, his hands were not mantis-like at all. They were delicately white with tapered fingernails, steady enough to pick the wings from a Musca domestica without damaging them). His mind was never bored and his eyes tended to fixate without wavering, beneficial when Morpho butterfly catching but not when he saw an attractive woman in a blue dress.

He sang a popular song in a pleasing tenor voice. The morning was chilly, typical to Maidstone. Filtered sunlight gauzed him in mist as he walked through the trees.
He was searching for a beetle. This beetle had consumed him; this beetle was his life. A Tabula coccinellidae- he called it a Van Gogh because of its cobalt shell swirled and flecked with gold (“Do you get it, though?” he’d asked his mother, who smiled with longsuffering and assured him she did). A whole specimen had never been caught, its rarity blamed on Fames araneus, the starving spider. Only fragments of its shell were found in the spider’s web. And what a horrible web it was- frothy mounds of paralyzing agents toughening into ropes when touched.

Jeremy imagined that when his glossy photograph fronted every science publication, entomologists and laypersons alike would refer to it as a Van Gogh. The thought pumped his thin chest with helium. He pressed his nose against the bark of a tree and dragged it down to the base, scraping the tip raw, inhaling loudly. Van Goghs had a distinctive scent- some likened it to cloves. Lewis Mabray, his friend and colleague, wrote Jeremy a year ago from camp in this very forest. He had come upon a mound of broken shells at the base of a giant tree.

I picked them up and rubbed them between my fingers, rubbed them against my cheek, and do you know, Jeremy, they smelled like my grandmother. Just like her. Suddenly my brain was all old houses and a weeping woman going mad… I’m anxious to collect the specimen and pack up. This whole affair has me in an emotional tremble and Vermont is so damn cold this time of year. 

Lewis promptly disappeared, his camp and canned food along with him. Jeremy mourned with everyone else and kept the letters of Lewis’ intent hidden in his nightstand. The best way to honor his legacy would be to find the beetles and give Dr. Mabray a subscript citation thanking him for his research. A dwarf on the shoulders of a giant truly did see the further of the two, which would only be unfortunate if Lewis were not, surely, dead.


Jeremy whirled, clattering the magnifying glass with the tweezers in his hand. “Oh!” he cried. It knocked around the tree trunks like a pinball.

It was a little girl. A lavender ribbon drooped atop her hair, which was dirty enough to be called grey and reached her waist. This was belted by a man’s pocketwatch chain. The watch’s face, etched with the initials L.M., bounced against her thigh. A filthy camisole, once white, hung on her body like she was too small of a mannequin for it.

“Oh!” he repeated. Her exposed skin was covered in gooseflesh. “You look freezing.” He took off his jacket and draped it around her shoulders.

“I’m usually freezing,” she said. Her eyes scraped up his length. “You’re awfully skinny.”

Jeremy felt a rush of dislike. “Yes.” He chewed his lip. “Where are your parents?”

“Back there.”

“Ah.” He was curious as to why they allowed her to wander the forest alone in her condition, but it was none of his business.

“You’re so skinny,” she said mournfully.

“Yes, I am,” he snapped. He hated the inherent bluntness that every child seemed to possess. That and their persistent crustiness. “If you’ll excuse me please, I have business.” He reached for his jacket. “Important, job-related business.”

She stepped away. “What’s your name?”

“Jeremy. Mr. Greene to you. I’ll take my coat.” He worried her sour smell had soaked permanently into the material.

“What are you looking for, Jeremy?”

“Mr. Greene.” He threw his supplies into his satchel with a snap. “You are an irritating child.”
“I’ll bet I can help you find it. I’m here all the time.”

“You’re lucky I’m myself and not somebody else. It isn’t wise for little girls to talk so freely with strangers.”

“I’ll be alright.” She looked at the spongy ground. Jeremy noticed she was wearing party shoes, once shiny patent leather. The strap was missing on the left one. “No one comes through here anymore. It’s boring.”

He cleared his throat. “Try to make some friends at school. That’s what I did at your age.” She would likely have trouble, with her prickliness and dirty face. He felt sorry for her.

She rubbed her palms on his expensive jacket. When she leaned forward, her camisole dipped away and he could see her chest, flat and white as a dinner plate. His pulse warmed up just enough to be improper. “Didn’t the other children make fun of you?” she asked, looking up at him through her eyelashes. “Of your pocked skin? Your bulgy eyes? Didn’t they?”

Of course they did, of course they did, of course they did. That wasn’t something he thought about anymore. Jeremy smiled tightly with both rows of teeth. “What sort of stuff am I looking for?” He reached into his satchel and opened a box. “Catch!”

Her hands opened in front of her face and closed around a Verga insectum, a stickbug. Now she would shriek.

She looked at it. The arches of her eyebrows almost met above her nose, he noticed. “Just this kind?” Her voice was cool.

His lips were drying to his teeth. “Insects. Namely, beetles. Namely, Tabula coccinellidae.”
She ran her finger along its abdomen. “Is that your job? Insect collecting?”

“Studying. It’s called entomology.”

“Antomog-“ the word bested her and she frowned deeply. “That’s why you want then. That’s why you came.” She was running her hands through the nine pockets of his jacket. “Can you describe them to me?” She found a pencil stub and something very embarrassing.

“Describe… the beetles?”

“Please.” She took out a stick of gum, studied it, and put it back.

“Do you mean it?”

Her eyes found his. “Please.”

His stomach seized just enough to be improper. “They’re black, elliptical beetles with shells that look spot-on Starry Night. They nest in the hearts of trees and will return to it their whole lives, producing up to thirty separate sets of larvae. They mate for life, which I find charming. Their primary food source is wet or rotting wood grain, but they’ll eat greenery as well, which produces offspring that are diminutive and less brilliant in color. A full-grown Tabula coccinellidae won’t be longer than two inches.

Their pincers in front are not used aggressively, as is generally assumed, but are actually utilized in the mating process.” His hands had been fluttering around. He clasped them together. “All of this is speculation, of course.”

Her expression was flat. He felt like he’d failed. “I remember now,” she said. A bird trilled eighty feet above their heads. “Is this beetle everything you’d like to have?”

Jeremy considered that, and what he felt resulted in a faint, melancholy, and lop-sided smile. “That’s very close to everything,” he said quietly.

“What about spiders? Do you study spiders?”

“No,” he said. Spiders horrified him; they always had. “Not ever.”

She smiled. Under the dirty hair, there was quite a pretty face; womanly in its own right. And that exact expression- he was so familiar with it, from beautiful women who found him unsettling, repulsive even. No one cared to give him a dance, something which had confused him his entire life. He’d never known any other man who couldn’t attract three minutes of attention from the homely girl with sausage curls. And not one of them had cared to demystify The Act for him, so he could stop going crazy over it, wondering, wondering. Women made him feel pinned to a corkboard or soaking in formaldehyde. Or perhaps just like he was being dried out; with the moisture went his youth, and with that went anything he had to offer.

“Insects are little presents, see. All these colors! All these colors.” She was all of the women now. He wanted her, and wasn’t it shameful? He wanted her to affirm him in a deep, tremulous place; he wanted her to touch him there. “They want simple things, move in simple ways. There’s no darkness to them. Just funny little creatures with wings and spiracles.” Her expression did not change. “But there is malice to a spider,” he said softly. “Insects that kill others for food- it’s quick, it’s base. But a spider plays with a screaming fly. They don’t just eat, you can tell, they torture. Once you’ve seen their faces under a microscope, good God. Good heavens. I used to imagine- I used to imagine spiders were bits of hell, the walls and fire lake. Pieces of sin that never should have been here.”

She held back her validation, probably because she did not know she owned it. She simply did not care, and he had tried very hard. The lust to impress her faded into embarrassment. Jeremy swallowed several times. “Give me back my things, please.”

She crushed the stickbug’s body with its consistency of dried straw until it dangled on both ends. Jeremy shouted a letterless word made out of emotion. He dove at her.

She went white with surprise, dropping the insect, and he may have been about to kill her, to squeeze her tiny throat until she quit saying all the worst things. Her forehead was beaded with sweat like a circlet of pearls and he crushed her shoulders in his hands. Then he stopped.

“What?” His lips shook so violently the word was a breath. She tripped backwards as he reached out and gently parted her hair. It was badly mangled and crushed, but there was some of a Van Gogh in her hair. Jeremy rolled it in his fingers like velvet. “Where have you been? Do you remember this?”

“I found a whole nest where I was playing.”

“Nest?” A sustainable beetle habitat buzzed behind his eyelids.

“At the base of a tree.” She straightened her hair bow. “I’m sorry about that thing.” Her cheeks were flushed like poppies and she looked confused.

“Never mind that. Never mind that, dear.” He fumbled with his satchel. “Take me to the nest.” He would wear his black suit for the magazine, with velvet scrolls on the collar. The name Caroline sweetened his brain and he knew why.

She took his hand. Cold jolted up to his elbow. She took a few steadying breaths then laughed and laughed and tugged his fingers. “Let’s find your Van Goghs.”

“How did you know I called them that?”

Her face took on the expression of someone who just spoiled a surprise. “You said so.” Her other hand pressed the beetle into his palm. They walked.

“Yesterday was my birthday,” she said after awhile.

“Hm?” Jeremy was tasting the lobe of Caroline’s ear, a nip of flesh with fine white hairs like a peach.
“It was.” She tightened her grip on his hand. “It was my birthday the year before, too.”


“My parents threw a party last year. I wore a purple dress. It was old but they said I was so pretty and now I really don’t remember where I put it.”

“Hm.” Caroline laughed at his jokes and finally asked to see his insects. His heart exploded with joy. He took her to his very special ones.

“This is funny and I barely remember it but I think I got lost and I screamed for them- but in my brain’s ears, I hear them screaming. How about that?” He murmured politely. “Jeremy?” She squeezed his hand as hard as she could. In that same second, Jeremy took Caroline’s hand, fragile and dusted with freckles, to show her the gorgeous elephant beetle he kept in a glass box beside his bed. “I’d like to show you my treasures first. I have a knot in a tree of things all my own.” They sat on his bed together and she exclaimed over it, in fright and rush of feeling. “There’s a woman’s compact with a broken mirror but a still few good pieces… someone’s portrait of a little boy, and ‘Andrew, 1929’ is written on the back… I have so many shoes…” He brushed the tiny golden curls from her neck and she looked at him with eyes as blue as butterfly wings and for the first time in twenty-seven years he kissed a woman on the mouth and what a worthy fuss-

Cloves knocked him from fantasy. A tree as wide as his armspan stood before him. Two of its above-ground roots split the earth like a mouth. He could almost see the smell rolling out of it. “You didn’t listen to me very well,” she said, but it was faint.

“I think I was seeing next month,” he said. He sent Lewis a smile, wherever that poor devil was. He lightly pinched her cheek. “Yes, oh my dear, oh my darling, it was kind to me.” He stepped forward and touched the entrance. “It was kind!” She kept hold of his hand as he stepped inside.

The blackness was absolute. “No flashbulb, no matches,” he grumbled. “How did I expect to find something that lives in holes?” A sudden decline in the ground sent him quick-stepping forward and he found he could stand comfortably, without the tingling sensation of a ceiling inches above his scalp. The Van Goghs’ scent was nauseating.

“They’re here,” she said. “Can you hear them shifting around?”

Jeremy heard something shifting. “Yes,” he said. “Ah, there are so many!” There were, too; the walls were glossily alive with them. He fished in his satchel for a container. The scraping, sweeping sounds grew. He laughed. “There aren’t enough jars in the world! I’ll be a-” He stepped forward, or tried. His feet came an inch off the ground. “What’s this?” he wondered aloud. “A rubbery secretion- unobserved, of course. This is where the science part comes in, dear. Take samples of everything.” He bent and dragged the lip of the jar along the ground. Something flowed over his hand like a whisper. Then his arm was burning. The flesh seized and he croaked, “What is this stuff?”

She laid a cold hand on the back of his neck. “I don’t know what to say.”

His eyes, particularly good in any case, were adjusting rapidly. What he saw resembled cotton candy so much that he felt absurd. But in one second, it no longer did. “Are they everywhere?” he asked through a throat the size of a pin. His feet were glued to the floor. “Get me out of here, please, you don’t understand. I can’t have them crawling on me, all over me.”

“Close your eyes, dear,” she said. The shifting became cohesive, like steps. She was laughing again.
“My legs-” Eight large beads floated at his eye level, prettily colored green like forest treetops. What did trees look like? He was so far removed. “I’m begging you, please oh-“ A puff of foam hit his chest and tightened to his neck in fiery cords.

“Jeremy!” she squealed. “Jeremy! Jeremy!”

It took form before him like a large easel on which someone slowly turned up the lights. Legs thick as saplings. A head with black exoskeletal shine. It spat again, the web coating his right arm.

Nobody had photographed the twenty-seven year old beetle fanatic. He wondered if there was any skin left on his feet. He thought of the blue-and-white striped pillow on his bed that would never be warm from Caroline’s back. He reached for her but his hands went through her like sunlight because she had not even given his dinner invitations the courtesy of a decline. Imagination was only as good as your head and his was hardening, frying.

“Please please it’s so tight ah please!” Something prodded his side and his brain could no longer manufacture words. His ears were stopped up and whether he was still crying or not, he didn’t know. He may have been past it.

“How’s that for sin, Jeremy?” she screamed into his remaining cognizant bit. “How’s that for sin?”

He was aware of being flipped over and the burning reached his spine, but by the time Fames araneus began to feed, Jeremy Greene was no longer there.


Caitlyn Waltermire writes short stories and songs as well as acts onstage and film. In her spare time, she plays with flowers.


  1. Even though this came into my inbox late at night when the last thing I wanted to do was read...I couldn't stop reading! What a spooky, sexy, scary story. Send it to Tim Burton!

  2. Definitely captivated me! What a dark, disconcerting, yet cathartic little tale.

  3. Definitely send it to Tim Burton! Great idea Debra. I hope you weren't writing yourself a future role Caitlyn! Eeeewww creepy!

  4. Wow, I couldn't devour the words on the page fast enough! Compelling writing Miss Caitlyn! My full support on sending to Tim Burton!

  5. A splendid and suspenseful tale, Caitlyn. Really enjoy your descriptiveness and detail of the characters and setting. Paints an involving picture. Would make a good entry into one of the Hitchcock short story collections.

  6. Fantastic story! Scary, satisfying, and spectacular! More, please.

  7. To everyone who's read this story and to those who cared to comment:
    Your words mean the world to me. They gave me the oomph to send these stories to places where hopefully they'll be read by more people just like you. Thank you so, so much.