A Catalyst of Small Things
Below earth, the metro whirs through dark spaces. The lights, two unyielding eyes sunken into its forehead, precede it into the station and make Afia squint. A different light above her, the fluorescent one of the station flickers, and Afia wonders how long the dimness will remain before the maintenance men with swollen hands and huffy breath arrive to replace the bulbs. She glances at her small-faced watch that is several minutes late to no avail, and then at her brother, whose head is rolled back at the base of his neck—light reflecting and dying and resurrecting in his eye as he searches for something unknown in the shadows overhead.
“You should stand up. The metro’s here.” She yawns, and he yawns in reply. This has been routine for as long as Jacob has been in grade school and the summertime prior, back when they took the morning ride from Helen Street where they lived close to the station and near the park. She misses that park—the community garden sectioned into neat rows of marigolds and tomatoes, the gentle hum of cars passing by, the way that sunshine and warm temperatures brought mothers to the benches and pathways—bouncing small children on their weathered hips and filling their surroundings with an orchestra of feminine voices.
Jacob scratches his head, which is neatly buzzed and feels fuzzy like an unripe peach under her fingers. “D’ya know what’s for dinner?”
“Uh, how about pizza?” Afia pokes him in the back with her forefinger, and he steps forward as the metro speeds into view then slams to a stop, businessmen and tourists spilling out of its open mouth. “Mom’s not coming home, so I’ll just order us one. You want pepperoni?”
“Yeah,” he replies, “and can we spring for extra cheese too?”
Afia watches the people around them shuffle through the small doors, and though she continues to poke Jacob in the back he is like a tortoise in the fables that her teacher reads aloud to her class; at seven years old, he walks like an old, sad man. If they do not get home soon, their dog will pee in her crate and Afia will have to clean it up with paper towels from the kitchen. If she uses too many of the paper towels, her mother will yell at her when she gets home for being wasteful. She knows that Jacob doesn’t think of all this when he walks slowly, but she does, so she grabs his kid-wrist and yanks him forward through the crowd.
When her mother was dating Mack, they lived on Helen Street in the top floor of an apartment complex where Afia could sneak out onto the fire escape and climb up onto the roof to see the stars. Mack smelled like beer and marijuana, but she preferred him to most of her mom’s other men. He owned the building, so they never paid rent which made everyone happier for the nine months they were together. Afia’s mother even made a homemade cake for her birthday in the spring and didn’t yell much and once let her stay up with Jacob watching cartoons until three in the morning.
Jacob prefers insects to television shows. When they find a seat, he puts his backpack on his lap and retrieves a plastic jar with holes carelessly punched in the lid, raising it so that he can watch a spider desperately search for an exit. He shakes it gently, and the spider drops to the bottom of the jar. The apartment on Helen Street was full of spiders, which didn’t necessarily concern Afia but thrilled Jacob. Now, he finds his treasures during recess, on a gated plot of grass beside the school. One day: a dozen ants from beside the swingset. Another day: a Monarch butterfly caught sunbathing on a bush. Today: Agelenopsis.
“That’s its scientific name, y’know.” He says, tapping the plastic to provoke it. “Most people call them Grass Spiders. They’re pretty common, but this one’s larger than they usually are. I’ve never seen one this big—look at its legs.”
Afia glances at the insect’s legs, which are a dull brown and, as Jacob noted, surprisingly long and thick. She reaches into her backpack to find a pencil and a piece of paper to draw the spider, but the picture doesn’t turn out the way that she imagined it in her head. Above them, two men mumble to each other about the state of the current stock market. A woman speaks a foreign language into her phone. Afia doesn’t know what it is, but it sounds pretty—the way that the words blur together like horizon and sky, turning into something like song.
“Are you going to set it free?” Afia abandons the spider drawing, and turns to sketch the woman. Her hair is dark and thickly curled, which Afia likes because it means that she will be able to practice shading with pencil. Jacob rests the jar in his lap and cracks his knuckles.
“I dunno. Like I said, they’re super common. And I wanna cut one open and see what they look like on the inside.”
“That’s creepy.” Afia retorts. “You’re really weird, you know that right?”
“It’s ‘cause I’ve only got one eye.” He grins—a sort of ugly, half-toothless grin that makes Afia laugh. “Did I tell you that I got in trouble yesterday for popping my eye out in front of this girl in my class? She didn’t even know an eye can be fake, and it really scared sick her when I pulled it out to show it to her.”
“People don’t look at your face for long enough to notice that it’s fake unless you make a point of telling them.” Afia taps the little ball of glass fixed in his socket. His fingers reach up to touch her’s, and he pulls the eye out of it’s socket, lowering his left eyebrow and blinking a few times. The men, previously raptured in discussing the Dow Jones, stop to stare at the small boy tossing his eye up and catching it every time with unexpected agility. Afia smiles at them and waves. “I’m sorry. It’s fake, and he really shouldn’t be messing with it on the dirty metro, but he always insists that he can do whatever he wants with his organs, which I can’t argue with.”
“Oh,” the taller of the two men frowns, “I’m sorry, actually. It’s a shame for such a young boy to already be missing an eye.”
“Nah, I’m fine.” Jacob interjects, catching his eye for a final time before wiping it on his shirt and fixing it back in the empty socket. “It was just an accident at school. This kid went crazy when we were in kindergarten ‘cause I took his toy truck and wouldn’t give it back—came at me with a pencil, flailing his arms and all this stuff. It hurt a lot for a few minutes, but then I blacked out. The school system where I live just sucks, y’know?”
The men, scandalized, obviously didn’t know. “What happened to the other kid?” The shorter man inquires, shifting uncomfortably.
“Dunno.” Jacob shrugs. “Mom sued and got some cash, but she’s not good with money so I’m not sure where that went. I think he’s too young for real prison—maybe he’s in prison school? I know they have that for kids who do bad things.”
At this, he stops talking, and Afia is grateful. Whenever Jacob opens his little kid mouth, people become simultaneously enthralled and horrified. Once, after a similar conversation, a woman produced her wallet and gave Afia a crisp twenty dollar bill. Jacob suggested giving it to their mother, but Afia didn’t trust her with it, so she stuffed it under her mattress, where it remains. She’s hoping to be able to afford this blue scarf that she saw in the window of a department store on Main. It’s adult-sized, but if she cut it in half it would make two perfect scarves for her and Jacob. Blue is her least favorite color, but Jacob likes blue a whole lot, and the scarf would match perfectly with his little red jacket and hat with a white tassel. He would look like a baby american flag, she thinks, and wouldn’t complain about being cold anymore. The scarf costs $21.99, and Afia doesn’t know how to calculate tax, but she’ll figure something out to get the extra money.
On Helen, their apartment wasn’t a pretty place, but it wasn’t terrible. Spiders spilled out of the bathtub drain—a whirlpool of tiny dark legs and fat bodies—and the floors were cold, but somewhere between the rooftop stars and spider gore, there was a sense of home that Afia hasn’t felt since. They live in a house on King Street now, where a heavy smog of ghosts and cigarette smoke seems an impenetrable barrier between the children and the stars. The metro screeches to a stop and opens its metal mouth to set its collection of small prisoners free. Afia frowns as the woman abruptly finishes her conversation and stands up, hurrying out of the open doors into the artificial light. Her drawing is half-finished—decent hair, uneven eyes, shabby work. She crumples it and shoves it into her backpack, nudging Jacob, who reluctantly looks up from his precious Agelenopsis.
The proud daylight at dusk glows its unmatched beauty, and Afia tugs at Jacob’s jacket so that he’ll keep her pace. For a boy with half his eyesight, he lives caught up in every movement around him—every boy and bug and store catches his eye. Afia wonders if by the time they get home, there will be a long wait for the pizza delivery. She wishes that she would’ve called the pizza place on the metro. She wishes that she would stop explaining things to people that she didn’t know. She is so tired in a way that children shouldn’t be. She wishes for sleep. She wishes for a pencil that isn’t dull.
On King Street, the houses are pieced together like folded-up paper—fitting perfectly one after another after another, and Afia often forgets which is hers. The carpet smells like Mack did, and the only spiders are dead in little piles on the kitchen floor. Today, Afia is lucky, and the dog has not peed on the floor. As she waits for the pizza place to answer, Afia watches Jacob fumble through a drawer—squinting his one good eye and reaching out with his babyish hands to touch a little bit of everything. He leaves the kitchen for the porch, swinging his jar in one hand and an old razor from Mom’s new boyfriend, Brian, in the other. Afia knows that her mother would scream, call her a terrible sister, and throw her doll house out of the window if she knew she let Jacob play surgeon, but she shrugs and orders the pizza. The man on the line asks if she would like extra cheese, and he sounds as though he has not seen the stars for a very long time.
Afia hangs up the phone and retrieves the crumpled paper from her backpack and an ever-dull pencil. She will sharpen it at school tomorrow, but until then she makes due. The giddy yellow light, brave and unyielding, is losing its eternal fight. Even through the smog, Afia can see the brilliant orange and rose of the sky. Somewhere, this is a very beautiful sunset.
Jacob’s spider has mysteriously died—perhaps during the ride home or perhaps of his own magical boy will, and yet it is somehow perfect. With his makeshift scalpel and one good eye, he goes to work. Afia admires his precision on such a small thing—the way that he somehow keeps it from curling in on itself with his careful hands.
Above, on the balcony of an apartment just across the street, Afia catches the glint of golden skin. A young woman slouches over the railing, a cigarette pressed between her lips. Even from so far away, Afia can see the embers at the end of the cigarette gleaming like a tiny sunset, caught up in its own smog. Her hair, slick black pin curls, reminds Afia of the woman on the metro, and Afia finds her new muse. She imagines if she had orange paint to mix with her grayscal —how she could replicate the smoggy sunset and become a famous artist. Jacob could be a surgeon and she could be a painter; they could burn the world up, if they weren’t so small.