Through the hole beneath the bed, something insectile creeps into the house at night. Samuel knows it does, even if Becky disagrees, even if the nature of their disagreement in this matter is fundamental: Becky has yet to admit even the existence of the hole. She does this despite losing things to the hole—the wrapping paper tub, one green sandal, her dead father’s coin collection. None of this has come up. This is the hole: clean and dark, with a door’s dimensions, a sharp and patient yawn beneath them. This is the creature that comes from the hole: black and exoskeletal, man-sized and gleaming, bristling with many-jointed limbs. Samuel has never seen it, but he can picture it squeezing its way from beneath the bed, clawing at the hardwood, its segments flattening. Maybe there are many such creatures. Maybe they come one at a time. Maybe they loom and glower glassily over the bed while he and Becky sleep through the nights. These possibilities have not been discussed.
Around the bed, the house rises and groans. The house is rooted on the lonely edge of town, so that the September lawn is fenced on two sides by a crisp amber wall of corn. One day in the coming weeks, the fields will be harvested bare, the house made naked, the long landscape out the back window returning like a tide. Samuel dreads that day, comes down into the kitchen each morning and looks out warily, suspecting the advance will have been made. Becky has never been a believer in suspicion. She does not seem to notice, each year, the return of the land. To Samuel the cornstalks look like gunslingers, the way they are packed at the waist, the way each limber sentinel stands its ground. He has been admiring the dog day patience of the corn, the way it’s always on the draw. Other manifestations of patience are less welcome: the drawl of the land, the yawn of the hole. He harbors an irrational dislike for the man who takes the corn down each year, a man he has never met.
Under the dish of the sun in a wash-worn blue sky, Samuel and Becky remove the two slumping haybales from the lawn. In the approach to summer Becky imagined the kids would take up archery. Moving the wasted haybales now is like moving bricks of ragged flesh, blocks so frail and heavy it takes the two of them to heft each one. Silent little crickets pop and swarm around their feet, pattering. Lifting the bottom bale reveals a black-brown patch of grass so ruined it looks scorched. Neither of them ask the other how they are going to fix that. Instead they watch the uncovered creatures wriggling in the light, trying to get under again. They watch the crickets springing mutely everywhere. Their frenzy makes Samuel think of matter, of atoms—the orbitals of electrons, clouds of probability, in which each airborne sighting is a spark of chance. But these few spring from a seething black mass, from amongst the endless shadows in the scribbled lawn underfoot, an unpartable sea.
At night Samuel thinks he will be unable to sleep, but this is never the case. His sleep is profound. In the morning, far back in Becky’s wake, he swings his feet over the empty bed’s edge and stands. He tries not to hurry away, but cannot stop the shivering prickle in his lower spine, in the exposed throats of his anklebacks. He takes three mincing steps away from the bed, across the hardwood toward the door, through which kitchen sounds and the scent of coffee come. He pulls on pajama pants. He can’t recall where he last had his slippers. If Becky has noticed the slim draft that drags now in these mornings across this floor, pouring into the space beneath the bed, she hasn’t said anything. But her mornings aren’t his. He sleeps through the beginning of her day. His sleep, he realizes, is an aspect of the manner in which her every day begins—his sleep and whatever else she sees or hears. Whatever else transpires in the bedroom after she wakes. Whatever else wakes her.
The house sits square with the world. Its foundation has been built along the compass lines, its walls parallel and perpendicular to every other squared line, the gridlines along which every road has been laid. This uniformity, meant to combat the sameness of the land, instead only contributes to its indivisibility. Nonetheless the house adheres, its walls easy conduits of orientation to every most obvious avenue of arrival and escape. From the bedroom, the conformation of the corn rows can be seen—east-west, north-south. No corn rows open onto the yard. Elsewhere, there are many places where the corn’s avenues do lie exposed, and to Samuel this simple regimen is like the stretched baring of perfectly-spaced teeth. This—like an isolated bugsong’s steady footsteps in the afternoon air, or the right-angle fold of the land into sky—turns time into a ladder. Sometimes, happily, the corn, wind, and sky pull each other to pieces. Or sometimes immeasurable insect voices rise.
At morning, the kids eat frozen waffles at the table near the kitchen window. Becky drinks her coffee, already online. On school days, the older child must be driven, the younger walked. This is what happens when Samuel and Becky return from those tasks: Becky works from her computer until she is ready to go in to the office, and Samuel eats a kind of breakfast. The dishwasher is complexly loaded. Sometimes Becky uses the elliptical. Sometimes they have sex. Sometimes the television is turned on and sometimes it is not. Sometimes one or the other or both of them shower. On days he doesn’t work, Samuel sits in the kitchen and imagines Becky in the shower, smells the gardened cloud that emerges from the bathroom with her, listens to her small upstairs feet on the hardwood around the bed. She pads back and forth to the closet, sampling outfits, scouring her hair dry, hunching her shoulders forward to finish her bra. She circles the bed, again and again, barefoot and soft.
After Becky leaves, Samuel returns to the bedroom where the thick night curtains have been pulled back. He stops in the doorway. Rumpled midmorning sun pours over the hardwood, the bed’s sheetscape, the bare opposite wall. Becky’s towel—rose-colored and darkly damp—lies stretched across the floor, a runway carpet. Its far edge is deep beneath the bed. It could not have fallen into this position. It’s plainly been dragged there, drawn flat by whatever pulls at the other end—that’s how Samuel sees it. He watches the towel. He watches so long the sun moves. Noises begin to gnaw at him, soft scuttlings, chirrups. He measures the black beneath the bed against the round white peaks of the thrownback sheets, against the crease between his clenched hands. He measures the sounds leaking from under the bed against the shush and squeak of the dishwasher downstairs. He measures the towel’s movement against the calendrical drift of the sun, and the uncharted tides of his own chest.
A field cricket gets into the house late one evening. They hear it, shrill chirps that won’t stop. Becky pulls them both from bed. Finding it takes a long time—a hesitant, curse-laced game of warmer-colder. At last Becky finds it trapped in a vent. The vents are in the old style, a foot across and deep beneath a heavy square-mesh grate. The cricket has fallen in and can’t jump out. Becky pins it in the beam of the flashlight. The prison shadows of the grate jitter around it, across the dust-fluffed debris down there. The cricket stops chirping, stops moving, ceases to be anything animal. It becomes a part of the innards of the house, the same sooty black as the duct itself. It is trapped out of reach beneath the bolted-down grate, and for long moments no one suggests anything. Samuel begins to believe that Becky will begin to speak natively to the cricket, to crackle and click. He becomes so sure it will happen that when she finally does speak, he can’t understand her.
* * *
Samuel learns what he can about crickets: a cricket chirps by dragging one toothy forewing across the rigid stem of the other—as it turns out, something only males are equipped to do. Bloated veins are involved. The males chirp to find mates, naturally, but also to warn off other males. Some species also sing post-coitally, a behavior whose purpose is unclear. No images adequately illustrate the mechanism involved in chirping, but while searching Samuel tumbles onto a family of crickets whose name—he thinks—translates to needle bearers. Transfixed, he rappels an endless white page of squat thumbnails: bundles of rounded carapace, chaotic spine, drooping frond. Grotesquely oversized legs bend backward high over lurch-backed bodies. Lank antennae—segmented alien wands many body lengths long—are rooted over staring oval eyes. Few of the pictures sufficiently indicate scale, a task left to his imagination. Samuel stays awake for hours, staring, while upstairs Becky sleeps.
Late in the month, Becky undertakes the repair of an angled crack that has opened in the wall above the back door. It has been repaired many times, opening again every few years along the same line, the way a bolt of lightning repeats itself. She scrapes it all down. She forces spackle into the throat of the crack. When she sands it, white dust drifts like pollen, pushed by drafts Samuel would never otherwise have been able to discern. Later, they paint the whole wall. They tape the edges of everything. Samuel says nothing about Becky’s devotion this neatness. Becky talks about other projects, most of which involve the promotion of simplicity. She disparages the old windows, laments the many broken sash cords. What she means is that each window has two upright coffins in its frame, left and right, where the window counterweights hang from withered old ropes, and some of these have broken. Such weights lie now like corpses in sealed wells. She does not mean this is sad.
Sometimes, when the creature crawls out from under the bed, this is what happens: Samuel dreams that it reaches into his open mouth. It pushes a glistening tendril into him, thick as fence wire, some lean stalk—a proboscis, an ovipositor. It goes deep, wending its way between organs. It makes a sound like one tongue against another. Samuel can feel the loose course it plows down his throat, but can’t stop it from happening. He can’t close his mouth. He can’t lift his arms. Other times, this is what happens when the creature comes: Becky speaks to it. She sits Indian style at the foot of the bed, head bent over hands, her voice a sine wave of chirps and chatter, clicks and gulps. Sometimes many such creatures come to hear her. The bed heaves from their passage. They scrabble hungrily at the floor, the colorless gleam of their smooth shells glinting. They circle around Becky, such good listeners. They lean over Samuel. They leave when it’s over. They never utter a sound.
At the back end of the gravel drive one afternoon, Samuel encounters a smell so dreadful he declines to investigate it. Days later, when the smell has refused to fade—a death stink, queasy and vile—he discovers a long-ignored plastic bucket beside the back porch. Two bricks weigh down the lid. He leans over it, dowsing for the source of the stench, his cheeks pulling a tight cable of disgust across his face. He discovers that a hole has been chewed through the top of the bucket. Water has gotten inside and turned blue-brown. He glimpses something afloat, curving and dark and motionless. He toes the bricks aside, the reek blooming around his head. He finds the handle and hauls the bucket—sloshing and heavy—around to the backside of the shed, where he loosens the lid and upends everything into the canopy of the hostas, bucket and all, gagging. The day is windless and unfriendly. As he returns to the house, the buried carpet of lawn crickets parts for him like a bow wave.
When Becky hears about the bucket, she theorizes aloud the gruesome death of a curious mammal, trapped and drowned. She uses the word: mammal. At Samuel’s insistence, she visits the dump site behind the garage, returning with a disappointingly tepid account of a foul smell. She’s left the bucket where it was, though, afloat atop the hostas. She confesses to having put the bricks on the bucket, claims to not remember why, claims not to recall the most recent contents of the bucket. She claims too, in bed that night above the door-shaped hole in the floor, not to be able to smell the bucket’s stench on Samuel, even though it’s plain and inescapable, even after a stinging shower, even after hours. Samuel lies there and breathes in through his mouth and out through his nose, tries to parse the stink of something dead from other smells: his own scrubbed and soaped flesh, Becky’s mysterious bedtime cleansers and creams, the antiseptic squeal of both their nightready breaths.
Crickets are cannibals. Samuel reads about gargantuan roving bands of crickets—super swarms, numbering in the millions—with densities so high that landscapes are wiped clean of the protein the crickets crave. Crickets in the back of the swarm, starving in the new-made wasteland, sometimes devour their companions instead. Fear of being consumed, in fact, is one of the engines of propulsion for the swarm as a whole—each individual is reluctant to stop moving, lest he be eaten. Samuel pictures these acts. He searches for images of cricket mouths and finds a greatly magnified photo in which the delicate covering snout of a cricket has been retracted, revealing the mandibles beneath—two glistening jagged blades like notched and sharpened mahogany claws, like dinosaur parts, savage petals. He reads of crickets taken apart by these jaws, their partial husks left to dry in the sun. He learns, too, that discovering the contents of a cricket’s stomach involves removing the head.
Overnight, there is this: a far-horizon chorus of chitinous rattling that keeps Samuel either barely awake or scarcely asleep. It comes from beneath. As it approaches, the bed seems to lift, and this reminds him of his own bed as a child, how he would lie spread eagle there on his back, caught on sleep’s cusp, letting the bed lift and yaw dreamily in the dark. His hand finds Becky’s hair. He clings to it. The clamor rises, sabers beneath the bed, and there is the question—of course—of what sustains the creatures that come from there, what they sweep clean, what they take when there’s nothing left. Becky rolls, her hair twisting around Samuel’s fingers. A sound scuttles out of her open mouth, a slow croak, the glottal clack of a drawn breath fighting through a slack wet throat, and this thick sound slides on and on into the song spilling from under the eaves of the bed still rolling beneath him, and in the morning when Samuel wakes into silence, he cannot place himself.
The sun shines. The kids eat frozen waffles. Afterward Samuel drives the older, Becky walks the younger. Returning alone, Samuel can still smell the bucket’s putrescence, or maybe the days-old bad perfume of the poison that killed the cricket in the vent. Or the stink of the cricket’s moldering corpse, or the rustle of the corn’s noble decay, or the echoes of some passing swarm’s hungry rage. Becky returns and complains of uneasy sleep. She dreamt of a prairie fire that burnt the very air overhead, and of a frantic escape whose end isn’t reached before she wakes. Samuel can’t quite ascertain whether he, or at least some oneiric version of himself, was involved. Becky describes burning debris falling from a red sky, the stampeding roar of the flames, the bounding flights of various animals—none of them sensible. She says her hair was on fire, and she reaches for the place. She says the burning plains were dotted with steaming black statues of ash, crackling and hissing.
After Becky leaves for work, Samuel returns to the bedroom. The curtains are still drawn. Cautiously he hooks an ankle around the leg of the bed and heaves back hard. The effort shoots a twinge down his inner thigh. The bed skates across the floor, angling, and the far corner drops over the edge of the hole beneath. The bed cants crazily, rocking on its catty-corners. The bed’s near foot hangs in the air. A pillow rolls over and tumbles noiselessly into the darkness. The sheets—still tucked in on Becky’s side—dangle limply through the opening. Samuel catches his breath. He skirts leerily around the bed. He examines what he sees. The edges of the hole are square with the walls. The lip of the hole is rounded smooth. The insides are flat fertile black. He listens, but there is nothing to hear. He wonders if his eyes will ever adjust to the darkness. He flees when it occurs to him to imagine what a trained eye down a straight endless shaft might manage to finally witness.
Samuel makes waffles for himself, and also a single door-shaped press of frozen hash brown. It all has to go through the toaster oven twice. The timer unspools noisily, like an angry clockwork bee. Samuel feels the cagework of his windpipe, fingers a brief foreign crackle in his ear. He eats his breakfast beside the kitchen window, sitting in a seat that isn’t usually his. Quiet comes from upstairs. Outside, something drones. His teeth crush the food he puts between them. What contains him, he thinks, is this: the lid on the well, the flat divider of the ground under foot and sky, the foundation upon which everything steadfast lies like a brick. And of course the implacable turn of the matter of the earth. After all, this fork in his hands is of the earth. This bread, this root, this skin. He leaves his food unfinished, rinses his plate in the sink’s warm water. He finds a spot of syrup on his shirt, a thickening bead, and dabs it with a finger thrust into a wet towel.
He goes outside, where the cloudless morning is exercising its only option. He has already decided he will leave the bedroom for Becky to see, to explain—to admit what she knows, to confess the visitors that creep from there. He has been unable to think why he shouldn’t. But as he contemplates the corn’s bite of the sky—as a cloud of gnats enters his vision and he briefly entertains the idea that they are swift prehistoric things, massive and remote—confession loses its appeal. After all, the land itself already feigns confession. The ground casts no shadows. There are no distant shapes in the earth to which one could not claim to candidly walk. He rubs the wet spot on his shirt, tiring the fabric the way running water tires soil. He remembers there are places where the flatness and aimlessness of the earth makes the rivers so indecisive they wander arcs of themselves out of existence. He enters the house, returns to the bedroom. He pulls back a curtain. Sun breaks in.
Samuel rights the bed, straining chancily over the hole. He hauls up the hanging sheets, so cold they feel damp. He shoulders the bed flush against the wall. From the hall closet, he replaces the fallen pillow, an act that won’t escape Becky completely—the pillow took with it one of the good burgundy slips. He then begins to rearrange the lie of the linens across the bed, attempting to replicate the round and furrowed contours left by his own act of rising, hours before. This effort—arcane and unappraisable, an attempt to imitate a condition to which he has never once in decades turned his attention—so engrosses him that when a cold bristling limb does not fold around his ankle, does not tug his shin against the bedframe, cutting into his skin, he keeps working. He forgets the straight-line distance to everything he can see. He smooths the fitted sheet atop the quilted mattress, through the spread sunlight, sunlight spreading over the vast and indivisible squared land.