The Unwritten Rules

by Sarah Wagner

Ever since she could communicate, even before she could first walk and talk, the whole extended family had known that Anne was terrified of bugs. And just as every insect was attracted to her, she was just as equally repelled by them. She was also much attuned to the mystical power of language. She had such a literal grasp of expressions, she missed the most obvious plays on words. Jokes and mere folklore phrases brought her instantly to tears. One minute she was playing happily with her stuffed animals and the next she overheard her grandmother mutter that she was “coming apart at the seams.” This scared the child as her vivid imagination took off and she visualized her grandmother fragmenting into chunks, an arm, a leg, a breast, right before her eyes. She would then examine her stuffed toys warily, searching for rips or any other signs of weakness. Even though she had a healthy respect for Patsy Cline, she dreaded hearing “I Fall to Pieces” on the radio. She just didn’t get the irony. She hadn’t yet learned to read between the lines. Still, Anne understood the sanctity of words.

Once, her mother had sent her into a panic that had taken her weeks to recover from. She’d been playing in her mother’s room as her mother was readying herself for the evening. Anne loved these moments. She loved watching her mother applying her makeup or fixing her luxurious mane of auburn hair. Her mother often sang Billie Holiday or Etta James as she busied herself in front of her mirror. That night she was preparing to attend a play. As she pulled on her pantyhose, Anne’s mother noticed a tiny run that ended in a small hole on the back of her left thigh. Flesh was bulging through it neatly in an almost perfectly round lump.

“Look, Anne!” her mother exclaimed in mock horror. “A tumor!”

And then her mother laughed and smiled.

Anne didn’t know exactly what a tumor was, but she knew it was something bad, almost certainly lethal. Hadn’t Uncle Ray died of a tumor only three months ago? Anne was frantic and refused to be mollified. She sobbed for hours. Her mother apologized profusely, but the child’s sense of trust was injured. She loved her mother more than anything, but this one act had left her mistrustful. She had an extremely sensitive nature.

It wasn’t that Anne was a “girly-girl” or a baby, although she was known to be somewhat squeamish. Blood didn’t overly frighten her, for instance. Neither did mud and dirt. She didn’t like wearing dresses and on more than one occasion she’d come home late from school, her dress torn and wet, her shoes abandoned behind on the banks of her favorite creek. She loathed having her aunts braid her long hair. In fact, once she had cut off one of her braids in protest. She’d done it at nursery school with those impossibly dull, round-ended scissors. She had suffered the humility of going through the rest of the morning with only one braid. Her mother had never gotten to the truth of how a four-year-old had managed to get hold of such a dangerous weapon. And although the details weren’t clear to her, Anne realized that on some level, she had won. After that incident, she’d been allowed to have short hair. In most instances, she was the personification of a tomboy.

She spent the summer days at her grandparents’ home and often ran wild with a pack of cousins. Every spare moment was spent outside the big ramshackle house. The whole gang was tanned brown by mid-June. Their bare feet were toughened from prowling the streets of Lawton and the soles of those feet were stained purple from the plump droppings of the mulberry bushes that lined their grandmother’s alley. The throng of children also roamed the neighborhood’s drainage ditches and vacant buildings. Anne was as keen as anyone during these escapades. She loved adventures. Rats didn’t scare her and neither did Old Rand, the grumpy, elderly widower, who lived at the end of her grandparents’ street. But mention any sort of bug and Anne was likely to run home screaming in a fit of hysteria.

Her cousins teased her without mercy and dared her into the most outlandish situations. They were older, of course, and had the wisdom.

“Anne, ring Mr. Rand’s doorbell!”

“Anne, come into the crawl space. There’s a ghost down here!”

Out of a sense of decency she ignored Mr. Rand and merely watched from the safety of the front porch. She hid in the shadows and spied as her cousin Henry, who was eleven and the bravest yet most rakish of the bunch, placed a paper sack on Old Rand’s front stoop and then lit it. Henry rang the bell before proceeding to run like a prairie fire. Mr. Rand hadn’t been home that afternoon. No one got the switch. The crawl space however, was another matter; it was a double-dare. Actually, she’d liked the crawl space, at first. There was something secret about it. It was quiet and warm there, the earth smelled fresh and clean and she’d felt safe, until a cousin had pointed out all of the spiders and worms. That revelation had sent her caterwauling into the house like a cat in heat.

Her grandparents owned a shiny, new Chevrolet Impala four door, light blue with a white roof. Her grandmother had won it in a lottery the previous year and kept it parked out behind the shed, in the alley. It was often left unlocked and the children would play in it, although they’d been warned not to with the threat of the switch.

“Hey, Anne. Push in that knob. See the red glow? Dare you to touch it with your finger!”

She had fallen for that twice. She just couldn’t resist it. It burned her finger both times, leaving a nasty blister. One would think she’d remember. Where was the justice in this world? Still, despite her fears of bugs and words, she would usually rise to a dare. When she finally broke down and cried and the adults found out the cause, someone else almost always received the punishment. Maybe that was justice.

Southern lore was a part of the family tradition. She’d grown up hearing her relatives proclaim that the “Devil was beating his wife” every time the sun was shining while it rained. A few of these myths dealt with insects. Her grandfather often warned her not to let a dragonfly land on her hand. When she asked him why, she was informed that it would sew one’s fingers together. She was told that if she lied, the dragonfly would sew her mouth shut. The mental picture this tale evoked caused horrific nightmares in which she saw her face, wrapped in shadows. Only her lips stood out in these dreams, stitched crudely closed with a thick yarn-like web. No dragonflies were visible, but she knew they were there on the periphery of her vision. She could hear the frenetic buzzing drone of their wings. On more than one occasion, when she tried to wake up, she found herself frozen, unable to move, and had promptly wet the bed. Still, despite these prudish streaks, she was a tough little Okie girl. Red dirt ran in her veins. And with her summer tan, she was brown as a berry.

Some days she was the only child at the house. No cousins were around to chide her or dare her or even to look after her. These times she stayed in the yard. The promise of the ever-present switch kept her in line. Still, there were plenty of things to pique her imagination within the perimeters of the yard. There was the garden, with its lush rows of okra, beans, tomatoes and peppers. There was the Chevy. She often sat behind the steering wheel and pretended she was driving to all sorts of distant destinations. She could barely see over the dash. When she was alone, she never touched anything but the steering wheel itself. That was magic enough. And then there was the ancient cedar tree. The massive tree loomed up over the house. It was in the front yard and was considered a landmark of refuge. Anne had climbed this tree often enough, usually on a dare, but it was an old tree and when alone, she kept to the lower branches because even she could recognize the potential dangers of climbing up too high. Besides, the lower branches were worn smooth as a highly polished saddle. They held the safety and history of dozens of children’s experiences.

On this particular day, Anne was alone. She’d already made a tour of the garden. She was too anxious and suspicious to go into the crawl space. The car was locked up. She’d decided on the tree, though she made sure to stay within the boundaries of the lower boughs. She surveyed her surroundings from her perch in the tree. She looked out over the yard and could see a ways down the street. Mr. Rand’s doorway was just visible. There were no cars in his driveway. Nothing much seemed to be happening on the street. Everyone was indoors, seeking shelter from the oppressive midday humidity. She decided to concentrate on objects closer at hand. Grandmother had always advised her that one could see a lot more up close if one just took the time to look. Take time to enjoy the journey, she counseled, not just the destination.

Right as she pondered this thought she saw a praying mantis. It was maybe seven inches from her nose, less than a foot away at least. Its triangular head was cocked slightly sideways; its spiny front legs were bent in the typical pose that gave it its name. Its eyes immediately locked into hers as she assumed a position of genuflection. Of all the earth’s creatures, this one insect terrified her the most. The mantis was a predator, known for eating not just other insects, but small birds and animals as well as reptiles. What the hell did he have to pray for, she wondered? She froze for a moment in trepidation. She then attempted to back up, but discovered that her dress was caught on a twig from the tree branch beneath her. There were no cousins at hand to help her out of her predicament. She was overcome with blind fear as the praying mantis advanced. She felt herself slipping; her vision was blurry. It seemed just like the dream she’d had about the dragonfly. She was trapped and couldn’t move.

Please don’t let me wet myself, she thought as she looked around desperately for a second. What would happen? Would the mantis attack? Grandmother had always told her about the unwritten rules; make sure you have on clean underwear, just in case you’re in an accident. Was this one of those cases? Silently, she held tight to the branch as she watched the praying mantis’s march towards her. Maybe it would be better to just fall out of the tree. She felt a scream rising in her throat.

Suddenly a strange man approached her. He was coming up into the yard.

“Hey, little one,” he said. “What’s up? You stuck in that tree?”

Anne glanced quickly at the man before turning her attention back to the mantis; it had momentarily ceased its advance. Her bottom lip was starting to tremble. She felt the tears welling up in her big green eyes.

“What’s the matter, girl? Cat got your tongue? Here, I’ll help you down.” The stranger raised his arms up to Anne in a gesture of welcome.

Anne wasn’t sure what to do. She had been told time and again not to speak to strangers, especially men. She must never accept anything from an unfamiliar person and never get into a strange car. Every summer there was a tale or two about how some child had been discovered dead in a ditch. These children were typically girls, though not always. Usually unspeakable things had been done to their bodies; the news people speculated about mutilation and rape. Anne didn’t know what these things were but she could detect the shock and outrage in the newscasters’ voices.

For seconds she remained as still as a statue and then she began to shake in earnest as one fat tear slid down her right cheek. The praying mantis regarded her coldly as it resumed its approach. That settled things. She reached for the stranger and clung to his neck. He held her with one arm while he gently disentangled her dress with his free hand. Anne promptly burst into tears and turned her face into his shoulder. She held tightly to the man as she breathed in his scent. He smelled like sweat and smoke, mingled with fresh mown grass. He held her for a moment, stroking her hair, attempting to soothe her.

“There, there,” he murmured calmly as he knelt to set her down. “It’s okay now.”

Anne cried harder. She didn’t want to let go. Just as her feet hit the ground, she heard the sound of a screen door slam shut. She ceased crying abruptly.

“Lord, child! What’s going on here?” It was her grandmother.

“Just helping the little girl here, ma’am,” the stranger replied as he let go of Anne’s hand.

“Well, thank you kindly, then,” her grandmother answered, a little uncertainly. “Anne, come here,” she ordered sternly as she beckoned the child to the front steps.

Anne gazed up at the stranger’s face. Her own face looked back at her, reflecting out of his aviator sunglasses. He smiled and gave her a gentle encouraging push towards the porch. He turned away and started back to the street. Anne’s flood of tears suddenly returned as she ran to her grandmother.

She was questioned at length. What, exactly had occurred? Why was the man in the yard? Didn’t she know better than to talk to strangers? Had he done anything, touched her inappropriately? Why was there a tear in her dress? Why had she been up in that tree? Didn’t she know she could fall and break her neck? What did she have to say for herself? Anne continued to alternately sob and sniffle, but offered no clear explanation for the events that had unfolded in the yard.

“Oh, child,” the old woman scolded. “Sometimes I worry you kids will be the death of me. Sure you’ve got nothing to say? I’ll give you a good reason to cry. Now you go on and pick a switch and make it a good one!”

Anne wiped her tears and her snot away with the hem of her torn dress and began the descent into the yard. She had seen Henry dance to the tune of a switch many times. But her grandmother had only switched her twice, both times for leaving the yard without permission, and those times she had howled like a banshee, right in front of the neighbors and God and all. This time she wasn’t sure what her real transgression was. She hadn’t spoken to the man; she hadn’t even thanked him. And could she really cause her grandmother’s death? The burden of this idea was too much to fathom and she almost began to cry again as she bent to pick the switch from the Forsythia bush at the side of the house. She felt an overwhelming sense of injustice. She resolved not to cry through the remainder of this ordeal.

After selecting her switch, she returned slowly to where her grandmother waited at the top of the stairs. She moved with a dignified, stately grace as she mounted the steps and presented her trophy in silence. Seeing the stoicism in the girl’s eyes, the old woman was somewhat shaken. She administered the whipping in a half-hearted and resigned manner.

Anne stayed close to her grandmother all afternoon. That evening, when the cousins came over and her mother returned from work, Anne still remained on the porch. She listened as her grandmother relayed the afternoon incident to her mother, but again offered no comments.

“But who was the young man?” her mother asked.

“Likely just another soldier boy, waiting to get shipped off to die in Vietnam.” That was her grandmother’s reply.

The long summer day was coming to an end. The cicadas sang their frenzied paean of desire. The cousins raced about the yard. They were catching fireflies. Henry ran up, brandishing a jar that was already a third full.

“Look Anne, a lantern!” He set the jar next to her and ran off into the gathering darkness.

Anne leaned forward and examined Henry’s catch. The tiny insects crawled restlessly over one another, blinking and glowing, blinking and glowing. They were magical. Fireflies were the one kind of bug that didn’t frighten Anne. Her mother had told her they were fairies. Her grandmother said they were lost souls. Anne only knew they were alive. She again had that sense of injustice. She took the jar into the yard, opened it and began to empty the tiny fireflies out into the grass.

“Anne!” her mother called. “What are you doing? Those are Henry’s!”

“They ain’t Henry’s,” she announced in a tone of solemn finality. “They belong to the world.”

“You’re free,” she whispered, as she finished releasing the insects. At first they glowed in a mass, seething on the ground. Gradually, they dispersed out into the night.

Anne returned to the porch. As she approached her grandmother, her face broke into a radiant smile. It was the first time she’d smiled since she’d climbed the tree. Silently, her grandmother reached out her arms and took the girl onto her lap. Anne hugged her with the fierce force of joy. All was forgiven. She was loved. It was an unwritten rule.