Let’s lighten it up somewhat today. A simple fable…a fantasy…a dream…or maybe…a wish.
This story was inspired by a show I watched about E. O. Wilson a couple of years ago. The things Zoe thinks about what he said mirror my own thoughts almost exactly.
Ethan raced in the door and clicked on the television. He was out of breath from running and from excitement. “It’s about to start!” He flopped on the sofa and started to sort the beetles he’d been collecting all morning.
Zoe pulled the diaper over Lucas’s bottom and reached for the closest pin. She snapped it into place without saying anything to Ethan. She was tired of him, and she wanted him to go away, but she knew that was too much to expect. She slapped Lucas gently on the bottom and put him in his crib. Ethan was eating peanuts and dropping the shells on the floor. She snapped and threw the dirty diaper at him.
“Eww! What’d you do that for?”
“I gotta clean up those shells if you drop ‘em.” Zoe went for the broom and dustpan, but when she returned she handed them to him. “Here. I ain’t cleaning up after you today. You do it yourself.”
“I can’t. The show is starting.”
“Stupid old show. So what?” Zoe slouched in the bean bag chair and fiddled with her phone. She wasn’t interested in a show about how some man got to be a scientist. She had better things to think about. She had fourteen texts that came while she was changing Lucas, and some of them might be important.
“Shh.” Ethan was still dropping peanut shells.
Zoe stood in front of the television. Maybe that would make him pay enough attention that he would actually stop doing the stupid things he was always doing. He reached over and shoved her aside just as some man was explaining how his love of science came from roaming around the lakes and woods when he was a kid, just the normal childhood, just like everyone.
“Yeah, right. Who gets to do that?” Zoe paid attention to the program for the first time. This was like, maybe, sci fi or something. No one she knew got to do that stuff…except Ethan. He got to do that stuff, like collecting beetles.
Zoe grabbed the beetles where Ethan had abandoned them on the couch. She was going to throw them away. He had no reason to be out collecting beetles; he needed to do chores. She had to do chores, and he should have to, too. Just because she was a girl? No, that was stupid. He was stupid. Mom was stupid to let him just do nothing.
“Stop that! Give those back!”
Zoe raced for the trash can, but bumped into Mom, standing in the kitchen with a grocery sack. “What’s going on here?”
Ethan told Mom that Zoe had stolen his beetles, and Mom made her give them back. She wasn’t punished…yet, Mom said with an ominous tone…but she had to help unload the car and unpack the groceries. Mom couldn’t do it on her own.
“Why can’t Ethan do it this time? I’ve been watching Lucas all morning, I want to read or play games with Keira.”
“Because I said, that’s why. Ethan has his own things to do, you have yours. Now come on, don’t pout. March, young lady, before I snatch you bald.”
Zoe put her hand to her head as if to hold her hair in place and followed Mom to the car. She thrust her tongue out at Ethan before she left, but he didn’t see. He was already back in the living room watching that stupid show.
When the groceries were put away, Zoe flopped on her bed. She was grounded because of the beetles, and Mom had taken her phone away. Stupid beetles. Stupid Ethan. Stupid Mom. It was a recurring refrain, one she couldn’t stop thinking anymore. All Mom did was sit in her chair and wiggle her glass, and Zoe was expected to get her some ice tea. Or she would look at Lucas, and Zoe had to change him…or play with him…or something. Ethan never paid any attention to Mom, unless he was telling on Zoe for something, because he didn’t have to notice. He wouldn’t get snatched bald. He was the boy, and he got to go outside and hunt beetles while she had to do dishes.
She put her hand in her pocket and drew out the beetle she had kept back. She stared at it. Why was Ethan so fascinated with beetles? This was a very pretty beetle, bright green, that almost looked like the metal brooch Mom used to have. She turned it over and examined the bottom. She counted the legs…six. Why did a beetle have six legs? She laid it on her pillow and stared at it, trying to figure out the secrets of the universe…well, her universe anyway…in the patterns on this insect. She dabbed her finger at it, and it wasn’t slimy or spiky. It was just sort of hard.
Ethan poked his head in when his show was over so he could stick out his tongue at her. He thought it was funny that she was grounded. She thought it didn’t make much difference. She’d just have to do chores, and she did those every day anyway. The only thing was her phone. She missed her phone, her connection to the outside world during the summer. She wished it were time for school, ‘cause Mom would have to let her go to school. Then she could talk to her friends even without a phone.
“So’d the old man grow up to be a scientist?” Zoe put her hand over the beetle on her pillow, not wanting Ethan to see she’d kept one and get her in trouble again.
“Yeah. But I knew that. He’s really famous.”
“How come I never heard of him, then?”
Ethan frowned, trying to figure that out. He brightened as the answer occurred to him. “’Cause you’re a girl.”
Zoe threw her shoe at him, but he was already gone, the door behind him swaying as he swung it so hard it bounced back off, the lock not catching. She flopped onto her pillow, forgetting about the beetle until her cheek touched the dead insect. She stifled the scream that instinctively rose in her throat and moved the beetle to one side. She fell asleep.
When Zoe woke, it was dark. There was no one in the house but her. She went from room to room, trying to find Mom, Dad, Lucas…she would even have been willing to talk to Ethan. Where was everyone? Had they gone someplace without her? Had Dad taken them all to a movie, and left her here alone? She’d kill them!
A voice behind her made her jump and swirl. It was an unfamiliar voice, thin and reedy. She couldn’t tell if it was a female or a male voice; it was one of those that wasn’t clear just listening to it. She backed away, in case it was a kidnapper, but she knew she was trapped. There was no place for her to go.
“Are you afraid of me, Zoe?”
The intruder knew her name! This would not be good. It wasn’t someone in the family. None of her family sounded like this, and most of them called her something much ruder than Zoe…only Mom and Dad called her Zoe. Everyone else called her Zo-burger. She hated it.
The voice repeated the question, wanting to know if she was afraid. She nodded, but realized they couldn’t see her in the darkness. She fumbled for the lamp; light flooded the room and she screamed.
The intruder was a beetle, a large, shiny green beetle about her height. Four of the six legs flapped helplessly, the creature perched on two. Its bug eyes stared at her as if trying to bring her into focus. A pair of antennae extended from the head and trembled as if trying to sense something in the environment.
“Don’t be scared. I’m not going to hurt you. I just…want to have a talk.”
Zoe nodded, not able to speak. The beetle took her hand in one of its…claws?...and told her she wasn’t in any danger. It repeated that three times until Zoe stopped shaking.
“What you wanta talk about?”
“Why’d you hold me out, Zoe? When you gave the other insects back to Ethan? Why’d you stick me in your pocket with the package of gum, the earring, and the lint ball?” The beetle describe the contents of her pocket perfectly.
“I…don’t know. I…was…curious.”
“No. About…Ethan. Why he wants beetles. I…wanted to know…what was so interesting about stupid old bugs.”
“You use that word a lot, don’t you, Zoe? Stupid? Is everything so stupid?”
“Yes…well, I don’t know. It just…seems stupid. Why do I have to do chores, and Ethan doesn’t? Why does he get to play outside, and I’ve got to stay inside? Why do I have to change stinky diapers and he doesn’t even have to clear the table? That scientist…the one on TV…he said his childhood was normal…like everybody. It wasn’t like mine.”
The beetle was silent, taking in what the girl said. Zoe waited, but the beetle didn’t speak. So she asked the first question that came to her mind. “What’s your name?”
“My name is June.”
“You’re making that up. You’re not June. June is a girl’s name.”
“Can’t I be a girl?”
“But…you’re a beetle.”
The beetle laughed, a soft tinkling sound that was the first genuine laugh Zoe had heard since school let out. The beetle had a laugh a lot like Keira’s, the kind that made you want to laugh with her. So Zoe laughed, too.
“Beetles are girls…well, some of us. How do you think we get more beetles?”
Zoe flushed. Clearly she had blurted out something stupid, like she was always doing. Why did teachers always tell you there was no such thing as a stupid question, than mock you whenever you asked a question? “I…guess I forgot.”
“Why are you sad?”
“I don’t want to be a girl. I want to be…I don’t know, maybe a beetle. Beetles get to go outside; I never have time to go outside. Beetles don’t have to wash dishes.”
June settled beside Zoe on the sofa. She put her foreleg around Zoe’s shoulder. “That scientist…he doesn’t get it. He thinks everyone gets the same chance he got. He thinks most people get the same opportunities, but only a few people are smart enough or strong enough or hard working enough to make use of them. But you don’t get those opportunities, do you Zoe?” Zoe shook her head. “If I could show you your future, would you want to look?”
Zoe thought about that. What would her future look like? She figured it would be a lot like her present, doing dishes, clearing the table, and changing diapers. Only she would cook for a husband. She didn’t want a husband. Husbands weren’t worth all the work, she figured. Dad mostly sat in his chair with his paper at night; she never saw him and Mom talk to each other or play games. She remembered that they used to play cards when she was little, but they didn’t even do that anymore.
The beetle spoke again. “You can be more than that. You can be…so much more. All you have to do is…make your own opportunities.”
“How do I do that?”
“I’m sorry, I was…being…you know, all self-help guru and so on. I hated seeing you look so sad. It isn’t as easy as I made it sound. I was…being stupid.”
“Stupid. Maybe you are Zoe, not June.” Zoe and June shared a laugh. “But I can’t make opportunities. What can I do?”
“I…don’t know. I’m not very good at humans. I only studied beetle in my school. I think maybe you just have to…maybe…be yourself?”
Zoe almost cried. That was what everyone said. Just be yourself. But how could she be herself when no one would let her? And when she didn’t even know who herself was?
“What would you like most, Zoe? I’m entitled to grant you one wish…but only one, so you have to pick carefully.”
“Beetles don’t grant wishes. Fairy godmothers grant wishes. And fairy godmothers aren’t real.”
“But I can grant you a wish. I’m a…magic June beetle. I would have granted the wish to Ethan, but…you selected me. So now it’s your wish.”
“I’m getting Ethan’s wish?”
“I’m glad. I’d rather grant you a wish. Ethan made a stupid wish last time he caught a June beetle.”
Zoe thought about that. Ethan had wishes before? “What did he wish?”
“Never mind. That’s confidential. I shouldn’t have said anything. Just…tell me what you wish, and it’s yours…but I can’t do world peace. There isn’t enough magic in any beetle…in all the June beetles in the world…for that.” Zoe suspected June was laughing at her.
They sat in silence while Zoe thought. She wanted to make sure she got this right. Only one wish…it was a huge task. She started to speak, but stopped again. No, she didn’t want to be a boy, she wanted to be Zoe. But still…she thought again, and again, having great ideas, then rejecting them when she realized they were stupid. The idea came just when June was starting to fidget and Zoe was afraid she was going to leave.
“I want to have all the opportunities the guy in that TV show had. I want to be able to do whatever I am capable of.”
June hugged her. “That’s the best wish I’ve ever heard. You will receive your wish. I hope it works out well for you.” June disappeared, and Zoe was alone on her bed, staring at a dead June beetle on her pillow. She heard Ethan rustle in the next room, and realized everyone had gone to bed. So she’d been left in bed without her supper. Well, she’d show them. She’d…she thought about June, and her wish. She would show them. She would be everything it was possible for her to be.
Zoe never forgot June. Years later, as she gave the valedictory address to her college graduating class, she mentioned casually a friend named June that had helped her on her path. As she battled against bosses who disrespected her, slapped at hands that grabbed her, turned down offers of marriage or sex, she thought about June. She moved cautiously through life, dodging the groping hands and winning respect against all the odds, and she thought, “June was wrong. She didn’t grant my wish. I didn’t have all the opportunities Dr. Wilson had. June didn’t do anything for me.”
It wasn’t until her own daughter was walking that she realized what June had done. Miranda came in crying because the boys were telling her she couldn’t play their games because she was just a girl. Zoe comforted the child, and repeated the words of encouragement that had become second nature, since she was now advising her own students, many of them women struggling to become entomologists in spite of the men who jeered. She decided to tell her daughter about the day she spoke to a beetle named June. When the story was finished, Miranda just looked at her and said, “That’s stupid, Mommy. Beetles can’t talk.”
Zoe sent Miranda out and told her she could too play what the boys were playing. “Don’t let them hit you!” she called as the little girl disappeared. She finally realized what June had given her. The beetle had not been able to grant her the opportunities she wanted…that would have been even harder than world peace. Instead, she had given her confidence and strength. She needed that every day, but it had won for her. She had realized her dreams.