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.”