He wants me to join him tonight, when he goes out to kill the slugs. It’s my first hint that such grim duties are part of the landscape of our new marriage.
It’s 10 p.m. – prime slug-hunting time, says our book for beginning and inept gardeners. We have to get them before they get us. He straps on a head lamp, puts on his shoes, hands me a flashlight and says, “Come on.” His voice is bright and full of promise, as if we’re going for a walk on the beach at sunset, for a hike up the butte at sunrise. But we’re going to kill slugs.
It’s warm in the house — almost 80 degrees — and as Alex opens the back door, cool evening air seeps in, tantalizing. Sitting outside after dark is one of our favorite pastimes. In the graying Adirondack chairs that tilt far back, we’d watch the sky for comets and meteors. We’d point out Orion and the Dippers — the only constellations we could identify. Sometimes the moon would make an appearance. Once we saw a lunar eclipse. As the minutes passed, I knew the earth was spinning wildly beneath us, knew crazy things were happening beyond the fence of our back yard, knew the world was wide and broad and full of motion.
Sometimes we talked about nothing, singing songs we didn’t know the words to or playing the What If game: What if you won a million dollars? What would you buy first? Sometimes we talked about chores that needed our attention in the coming weeks — the lilac needed pruning, the compost needed turning, the lawn mowing, the buddleia mulching. An ever-growing list that gave us momentum, that soothed us in its simplicity and made us feel able.
We began planning our wedding on one of those nights. It began with words said in the cool of the moment, with all the ease a perfect summer’s night can make you feel: “It would be fun to get married.” “Yes, it would.” In quiet, hushed voices, we talked about running away to the coast, to the mountains, to the desert, just the two of us. After five years of living under the same roof, a formal ceremony in front of a mass of people seemed unthinkable, laughable even. We planned for something small and unassuming. I laughed about wearing jeans and my favorite Polartec vest. He said he wouldn’t shave. But when the day came, it was a clear, cold Saturday in March, and I wore a long wine-colored dress, and Alex, clean-shaven, wore a black jacket and tie, and a small group of family and friends watched us exchange our vows in the house where we live. Just outside, the yard was coming to life again.
Plans made under stars don’t always stick. But that’s beside the point. It’s in the making and the doing, conspiring as if we have a say in any of it at all. As if plans are ours to make. Those times in the forgiving cool of a late summer evening, when the stars held their formation just for us so we could find among them something familiar, we planned and schemed about everything and nothing, and I thought to myself: How small we are. How small and lucky.
But this night under the stars promises something unpleasant. We will be large doers, not small dreamers. Alex ushers me out onto the deck and across through the garden like a real estate agent, pointing out a few interesting features, as if he were trying to convince me that I should shell out a load of money to buy a dumpy shack. “Boy, it’s nice out,” he begins, “not hot at all.” This is an important selling point because I hate temperatures over 68 degrees. “Look at that moon. Wow.” I barely look up. Seen one crescent moon, seen a thousand. “If we’re lucky,” he says, more promise, more optimism, as if this is an added bonus, “the worms might be out. Last night, they were having sex or something all over the place. It was pretty cool.”
I am generally fearless when confronted by most creepy crawlies — save for frogs and toads, amphibians of whom I have a deep, latent fear. Other critters smaller than a bread box barely phase me — in the house, I catch spiders and flies with my bare hands and escort them outside to more hospitable climes, while Alex squirms in the corner saying, “How can you touch that thing?” But smashing slugs — not my scene. I want to say, “Can’t we sit in the yard, look at the stars and talk about nothing more than, ‘If a genie could grant you three wishes, what would they be?’” But of course the answer would be no. If we don’t go out there tonight and face them, they will eat a path through our new garden, beginning with the coral bells as an appetizer, the lupine as an intermezzo, lilies with a side of hostas as an entree, and hollyhocks as a finale. It will be a vast wasteland in the morning — tender stalks chewed through at their bases, fleshy green leaves dangling forlornly, plant viscera strewn across the soil like a poorly armed battalion of felled foot soldiers. The slugs will have won.
We resolutely hunch over the shade garden, the zone hardest hit and most needing of our assistance. With my flashlight and his headlamp, we find them easily. Their slick skin reflects light and gives them away. Yogurt cups, filled with beer and sunk into the soil, serve as traps: The sweet, slightly fermented aroma lures a few of them closer, until they fall and drown in the viscous brown liquid. The ones that won’t be fooled have begun feasting. We seize them between our fingers, struggling to get a firm hold of their slippery bodies. I can only bring myself to handle the smaller ones that feel premature and undercooked; the larger ones have more texture and personality, which unnerves me. They cling to the tips of my fingers desperately, but I flick them into the pools of beer, refusing to watch them slowly, agonizingly sink into the murky depths. Alex is collecting the larger ones in a plastic bag. He plans a mass death-by-stomping later, after I’ve gone inside.
The killing goes on for half an hour. We scoot from plant to plant, not saying much. Occasionally, Alex will say, “Geez, that’s a big one,”or “Seen any worms yet?” All I say is, “Ugh,” or “Gross.” In my mind, there is companionable work — like folding laundry fresh from the dryer or harvesting tomatoes in August — and there is solitary work — like wrenching stubborn dandelions from the ground and flicking slugs to their deaths. I just want to be left alone, to not think about where I am and what I’m doing.
It occurs to me then, as I stoop in the dark with a flashlight in one hand and sticky slug debris in the other, that I’m a part of this team now and my official title in this regard is wife. There are myriad other titles I am learning to recognize as mine — Finder of Lost Keys, Unconditional Sympathizer, Cheerleader, Nurturer, Devil’s Advocate. But for all the planning and scheming done under the stars on summer nights long past, I had never expected it to come to this: I am also a member of a tag-team assassination squad. We operate under the cloak of night to secure the perimeter of our compound and keep as many enemies out as we can. It begins with slugs and maybe a potato bug or two, but who knows what else might try to scale our fortress walls? Who knows if we will be able to stop them?
There are still days and nights of feeling small and lucky, still moments when plans are merely pencil sketches that can be drawn and erased and drawn again, where I can dawdle on that fine line between hope and action. But in this little world we’ve created — a few thousand square feet of creatures (both guests and party crashers), foliage and fauna — I am obliged to do some dirty work now and again.
Every once in a while, I indulge myself, thinking: My life — all of it — can fit inside the shell of my body, like this. Just so. Perfect. I can place my palm against my chest and think: All I am committed to is here. The universe is vast above me, life teems and burgeons around me, but here, I am a compact, finite thing. But then I remember that the stakes are higher now, that the realm of what I must protect and defend stretches a little farther than before. Maybe it’s an illusion that I can fill the new roles laid out for me — a flashlight and sneakers, a wine-colored dress. But look: There’s a man with a headlamp and a wide grin, and his hand reaches for mine. He wants to draw me out into the darkness, and I follow.
Kathleen Holt is assistant editor of Oregon Quarterly.