What is (not) made up is the cocktail party in a city where the host tells the woman that she will never go to a tropical rainforest because of the spiders. But she gets a thrill hearing about them because they are so far away. When the woman describes them, the host laughs and scrunches up her nose. But when the woman mentions the spiders in this city, the host stops laughing. “Right here are spiders that rival those in the rainforest,” the woman tells her. “There’s the white-tail spider and the black-house spider which have very painful bites. The only lethal spider is the red-back spider. But it hasn’t killed anyone since 1955. I saw one spinning a web on the grape vines in the garden of my friend’s house. He refuses to kill any creature, no matter how dangerous.”
The host suggests they talk about something else.
The woman can’t think of anything except the news she heard this morning about the mosquitoes plaguing the city. She’s not sure which of several viruses these particular mosquitoes cause, but she doesn’t think it’s the potentially deadly Murray Valley virus. All the viruses cause serious illness, the announcer said. There are no cures or vaccines.
What is (not) made up is the fact that the woman is not an expert on grasshoppers. She is not even sure this is a grasshopper. It is huge, bigger than any grasshopper she’s ever seen. But everything in the rainforest is huge. The grasshopper has made itself at home on the soiled white hat of the squeamish woman’s husband. The squeamish woman is making faces at the grasshopper, or maybe she is making faces at her husband, or maybe she is making faces at them both. The grasshopper is perfectly still while the others in the group take pictures. It doesn’t seem to mind the squeamish woman’s revulsion, but her husband does.
A member of the group says he knows a lot about grasshoppers. That is what he says. But what he knows is not much more than what the group already knows. “They’re great jumpers, plant eaters,” he says. The woman repeats, “Plant eaters?” She has never thought about what grasshoppers eat—despite the “grass” in their name. The “expert” says they’ve been around for about 250 million years. But even the “expert” isn’t sure about this one. The grasshopper—if it is a grasshopper—is still on the hat of the squeamish woman’s husband and she is still making faces when the group spot a beautiful lizard with a blue iridescent tail.
What is (not) made up is the tour guide who says. “When the first settlers arrived in the desert, they continued to dress for winter. In summer, women wore layers of petticoats and high-necked dresses despite the heat.” The woman wonders how they survived until she is distracted by a lizard on the footpath. This lizard is without a tail. Was it born this way? Is it native to this country? She is curious. The woman thinks she remembers seeing a picture of it somewhere. She doesn’t ask the guide about the lizard because she doesn’t like him. It’s a chemical thing, she tells herself.
Later, she tries to find a ‘tailless lizard’ online. But all she finds is a ‘legless lizard.’ This lizard is not legless. Perhaps a predator lopped off its tail and the creature is lucky to be alive. After that she loses interest in the lizard but that doesn’t mean her thoughts return to the arrival of settlers in the desert. She decides what she already knows is enough.
Roberta Allen is a Tennessee Williams Fellow in Fiction and a Yaddo Fellow, and has published nine books. Her third story collection is The Princess of Herself. Her stories have been published in many magazines, including Conjunctions, Epoch, and forthcoming in the Evergreen Review. Also a conceptual artist, her work explores how language informs our perception of images.