Chrysalis and Clan
Episode One: Illuminating Beth
The road buzzed beneath the sedan, creating a hypnotic hum that lulled us into a peaceful calm. A calm before the storm. We both were surprisingly cool and collected en route to the impending shit show. Hopefully it would be something interesting this time. Perhaps something more substantial than a split tea bag or a vomiting cat. Maybe something more realistic than the invasion of communists, aliens, or ghosts from the past. Geriatric woes were exhausting in their insignificance, mostly for those on the outside beckoned to tend to the ailing.
So far Alec and I hadn’t said anything to each other on the tedious journey, knowing full well that there would be ample need for small talk once we arrived at our destination. No need to waste breath and brain power before it was absolutely necessary. As much as we loved our mother, it was difficult being an audience to her declining mental state. A woman, once spry and sharp, was now sullen and dim at best. She always seemed to be waiting for something elusive, something that would never arrive. And angry. So angry. Who wouldn’t be, I suppose, with the end in sight and their wits absconding. When I finally pulled onto the dusty farm road, Alec turned to me.
“You are a good person, you know,” he said, breaching the stagnant silence that had been hanging like a stink in the car for the duration of the drive. “And I love you, sis.”
I could almost see his chest swell with adoration and pride. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not an egotistical diva by any means, but I sure have my shit together. At half a decade his junior, I rival him in accomplishment. After a highly successful academic career, and a short but furiously paced climb up the corporate ladder, I boast the role of senior advisor to the senator of our state, a man who would more than likely be elected to run the country in a few years time. I have no interest in being in the political spotlight as a headliner, but revel in dominating the puppet strings that make the monkey dance.
Alec hasn’t done too badly for himself either. He always had a penchant for numbers, and answered his calling as an accountant for a large petroleum firm. It isn’t a prestigious or powerful position, but it pays richly. Alec basks the boom of the oil and gas industry, and the immense paycheck that goes along with it. Working in crude while keeping his hands clean is how he likes to fly. It affords him a luxurious abode, a showy ride, and all the toys that wealth can buy. Most of all he takes pride in the fact that his family reaps the benefits of his financial prosperity. He set me up in a nice condo of my own, leaving me free to play the game of politics without finances influencing my actions.
As for our mother, Ava, she wasn’t in want of anything, despite the fact she wouldn’t accept much from either of us. Ava had grown up with three siblings in a quaint bungalow set on sprawling farmland. The family had been there for generations, growing crops and raising animals. Their parents died young, leaving Ava to tend to her younger siblings. The three of them managed to keep the farm going, and lived and bred there until the younger generations had all moved on and joined the modern human race in more urbanized centers. Ava outlived her siblings and her spouse, and was determined to live out the remainder of her days at the old homestead, regardless of how isolated she was. Alec’s income made it possible for her to stay put and enjoy the comfort of her familiar lifestyle. He hired workers to take care of the farm. They got to enjoy a generous paycheck, more than industry standard, and sold the crops and animals for a meager profit, less goods for Ava to live on. It gave her great joy to consume what had come from her land.
Unfortunately Ava’s mental acuity had been waning the last few years. Alec and I were quite often getting calls from the farm staff reporting troubling behavior that was impeding their work, inhibiting the functionality of the farm, or endangering Ava’s health. One of us would have to drive out and speak with Ava, who consistently got defensive and angry, denying that she had engaged in the reported behaviors. Perhaps she realized the accusations were true, and was privately mortified by her actions. Whatever the case, she would never take ownership of the problem. We often considered that Ava’s time at the farm may be fast approaching conclusion, and that she would eventually need a more intensive level of care to accommodate her deteriorating mental health. The thought of broaching this subject with her was enough to make me want to gouge out my own eyes. But one step at a time. Deal with the concern at hand.
“What do you suppose caused it this time?” I said. “Tom said she wouldn’t let them near the barn to get their equipment. Big standoff with a pitchfork or some bullshit like that.”
“You know we can’t keep this up, Beth.”
“You want to put her in a home? She has lived her whole life as an independent and strong woman. It breaks my heart to think of her relinquishing full control to strangers.” I feel myself start to well up, so I shake my head to gain composure. “Ain’t happening, bro. Not yet. I’d rather wait until her last marble is gone. At least she wouldn’t remember the life she was leaving behind.”
Silence enveloped the car again. I knew that Alec was right, I just wished he wasn’t. I wasn’t sure which was the lesser of two evils. Having things change and be worse, or having them stay the same and become disastrous. The wait-and-see attitude had the potential to result in an irreversible catastrophe that would make me wish we had acted sooner. There really was no correct or easy answer. Damn the human condition. Damn aging.
I slowed the car and turned up the driveway to Ava’s farm. Everything looked neat and tidy despite the staff being blocked from their weekly maintenance. The fields were lush and full of tall crops, and a small herd of cattle were loitering off in the distance. The crunching of our tires on the loose gravel signaled our approach, triggering a frenzied clucking chorale from the chicken coop to the side of the house. All seemed right on the farm. All, that is, except the raving woman pacing to and fro in front of the barn doors, brandishing a pitchfork, clad in nothing more than a white sheet wrapped up like a toga.
I rolled the sedan to a halt, and turned off the ignition. Alec and I stared out the windshield for a moment, hoping that the image of our mother prancing around like a Greek warrior would disperse into the wind and simply blow away. It did not. She continued pacing back and forth, yelling towards the scattered workers who were milling about, trying to work without the use of their tools. Alec sighed, and stepped out of the car. I closed my eyes for a moment, then followed suit. Here we go.
“Mom, what are you doing?” Alec asked, walking towards Ava. The sound of his voice startled her, and her head snapped in his direction. She looked angry and terrified, hands shaking and chest heaving as she stood festering in a boisterous rage. I put a hand on Alec’s shoulder as a reminder to be gentle and understanding. As much as this was frustrating for us, it must be devastating for her. At the mercy of a mind that had turned into a foreign enemy. I stepped forward.
“Mom, it’s Beth. We just came for a visit. How about we go sit and have some tea out back?”
“Who will watch my things?” she cried, motioning towards the barn.
“No one is interested in messing with your stuff, ma,” Alec said. “They only want to use it to do the work we hired them to do.”
“Bullshit,” she snapped. “Lies upon devilish lies. They have no interest in honest-to-goodness work. Their interests are seeded in corruption, destruction, murder. They are here to destroy and feed, to bask in the glow of our defeat.”
“Okay mom,” I said, reeling from another onslaught of her colorful delusions. “How about Alec takes a look around to make sure everything’s in its place, and then we’ll have a chat.”
Ava looked from me to Alec, and back to me. Reluctantly, she lowered the pitchfork and poked it into the ground, leaning into it like a crutch.
“Of course, dear. Alec can throw some money at it. That should take care of it.”
I fired Alec a look to tell him to keep any retorts to himself. Ava walked past us, grasping the pitchfork like a scepter, toga flowing behind her like regal garb.
“Let me freshen up first. I am afraid my attire is unsuitable for afternoon tea on the porch, especially with all these offensive men lurking about.”
Once Ava had disappeared inside the farmhouse, Alec began the task of diffusing the mob of angry workers who were, once again, refusing to work in such hostile conditions. I gave Ava a chance to disappear deep into the house before making my way to the front door. I wanted to put off any discussion until Alec was there to back me up, or at least act as a buffer. I walked up the cobblestone, looking back at Alec who was attempting to placate a quartet of maintenance workers voicing their grievances.
A fifth worker, a long and lanky man, hovered nearby, apparently disinterested in the unrest. He looked out at the fields, rocking awkwardly on his feet as if he had indulged in a few nips too many before reporting to work. His hair was long and straggly; a mangled black mullet frayed into haphazard strands. He wore clothing that was too short for him, his jeans a good inch or two above his ankles and his shirt barely grazing his tightly cinched waistband. His limbs were long, almost abnormally so, and his skin was a pallid shade of olive that made him look sickly, even from behind. I walked slower, examining this misfit, when he turned and caught me gawping at him.
He was hideous. I mean, he was just a man, but something about him sat heavy on my chest. His face was a little gaunt, but otherwise normal. But his eyes. Eyes that were so light blue they almost looked white, yet dark at the same time. I looked into those eyes, they looked into me, and I felt fear bubble in my belly. He smiled at me with a wide grin full of gaps and rot, and lifted a hand that had been robbed of all of its digits. He waved the stump at me in an innocent gesture of greeting. I waved back, then scolded myself for judging this man, a manual laborer who simply reflected the rugged life he lived. The stress of mom was fucking with my head.
I entered the old farmhouse, and decided to snoop around a bit. I was usually so focused on mom that I didn’t have the time to check out how she was really living out here. Alec and I had discussed setting up cameras to see what she did when we weren’t around, mostly in the interest of her safety, but decided that she deserved her privacy as any of us do. She hadn’t reared us to be underhanded and invasive. I went into the living room, and found a tidy, open space, fully furnished with dated but pristine furniture, including a chesterfield, coffee tables, end tables, and Victorian floor lamps. One complete wall was a ceiling-to-floor bookshelf, built at Ava’s request, and crammed completely full of books from a lifetime of collection and consumption. Ava hadn’t been much of a reader until dad’s passing when she took up the hobby voraciously, reading at every opportunity. She had stored away a nest of books in the basement that made their appearance as soon as the shelves were built. She eventually asked Alec to get rid of her television because it was the recipient of zero use and attention, and had only been collecting a generous layer of dust. She felt it was an eyesore, anyways; an idiot box used only by the unimaginative and mentally stunned. I marveled as I ran my hand over the plethora of spines, none of which had been given the opportunity to collect much dust.
I wanted to see her bedroom, but could hear her rustling around in there, mumbling to herself while she changed out of her toga, so I settled for a quick peruse of the bathroom instead. Nothing too exciting. The facilities were lightly used, not surprising as she had an ensuite she likely used to groom herself. The only reason this bathroom even had hand soap or toilet paper was because Alec and I kept it stocked for our visits. Nothing like having to drip dry. There was nothing in the mirror or the cupboards below the sink. The woman had no visitors that would be in need of toiletries. Sad.
I decided that it was time to prepare a tea for the three of us to sip on while we were discussing aging and lunacy. I was impressed with the kitchen, which was as clean as a whistle. Hey, at least the woman could keep the place clean. She was obviously eating, and cleaning up after herself. Not so bad, right? I began searching through the cupboards for the tea. Not only was there no tea, there wasn’t much else either. A collection of condiment packages that were left over from take away that we had brought for dinner last week, food that Ava wouldn’t touch. There were a few scattered canned goods, which I recognized as ones I had bought months ago. I opened the fridge and found a sealed gallon of spoiled milk, some moldy cheese, and a shriveled clamshell of berries, also of my purchasing. Not so bad turned to moderately troubling in a flash. I searched through cupboards full of dusty, barely used dishes, and dug out an old pitcher and filled it with water. There was no ice in the trays, so cool tap water would have to suffice. Placing the pitcher and three glasses on a tray, I shook my head at the empty kitchen and headed outdoors to the patio.
I placed the tray down on the table, then wandered over to the edge of the patio to stare out at the expansive fields. Tall, wispy crops blanketed the land, blowing rhythmically in the wind. The sun gently warmed my face, and I felt myself begin to sway in time with the crops. So peaceful. Despite what was happening, I always felt so serene on the farm. It was removed from the manic bustle of the city, it smelled fresh and sounded soft, and reminded me of my childhood, a place where cares were centered entirely around play and snacks. As I watched the golden flora dance with the breeze, a dark splotch caught my eye. I stared for a moment, sure I was mistaken, but it was there, clear as day, exposing itself each time the wind sporadically parted the crops. Mullet man was there, just sitting cross-legged, facing the patio.
“Hey,” I yelled. “What are you doing out there?”
He didn’t answer. It was breezy, and he was a good hundred meters away, so my mind told me that he likely couldn't hear me. But something dark and suspicious lurking in the folds of my brain said he did hear me, did see me, and was, in fact, watching me. I studied the dark bruise of a man within the wisps of gold, and contemplated going out to confront him and find out who he was and why he was acting so shady. Perhaps my mother was on to something, and these workers did have dark intentions. You hear of senior abuse all the time now. My stomach flipped, and anger flared as I considered the possibility. The workers were angry, though, and I didn’t feel comfortable barging out there without Alec at least looking on from the background. Still, I wanted to know what this guy’s deal was.
The patio door slid open, jarring me from my contemplation. It was Alec, rubbing his head and furrowing his brow, a look that signaled he was at his wit’s end. I looked back out at the field, and saw that the man had taken off, probably spooked by the appearance of the alpha male. Dick. My pulse was racing, but I quickly convinced myself that his menace was over-amplified through an imagination fueled by the need for distraction. I turned my attention back to Alec.
“How bad?” I asked.
“Not good. They’re threatening to quit. Again.”
“But they never do.”
“Okay, Beth, but when they do, we’re fucked. Small community like this? No one will ever take us on as customers again. The farm will go to shit. Then what? You wanna do all the maintenance around here?”
I was about to launch my rebuttal when Ava floated out the door and took her place in the old rocker at the edge of the patio. After settling into her spot, she gazed out over the swaying fields and rocked in tempo just as I had swayed.
“You kids fighting again? Ungrateful bastards.”
Alec and I looked at each other, then pulled chairs up on either side of the rocker. The three of us sat facing the fields. Might make confrontation easier, only having to look the crops in the eye.
“Mom, we’re a little tense,” I began.
“Not with each other,” Alec said. “Well, with each other, yes. But not because of each other. We’re worried about you, ma.”
Ava kept rocking, staring out into the fields. A stray hair blew out of her loose bun, tickling her nose and lips, but she didn’t move a muscle. I could feel the tension radiating from her withered body.
“I remember when you two were small. Very small, and very naïve. You were both so sweet when you were young ones, stumbling through life with innocent smiles on your sticky faces. You are still naive, in every way, but it’s not so sweet and innocent now. You, Beth, and your false sense of importance. And you, Alec, and your money. A waste. A complete and utter waste.”
“Mom, don’t turn this around-”Alec began.
“Do you know why we’re worried?” I interrupted, before Alec could launch into a tirade. “I saw your kitchen. Are you even eating? And the yard people. Mom, we will lose them if you keep fighting them. Everyone is just here to help you.”
“To help me?” Ava scoffed, looking at me with fire in her eyes. “Here to help me to my grave, you are. Trying to expose me.”
“No one is doing anything to you, ma,” Alec said. “The farm needs maintenance. Those men come to do that. If you keep being combative with them, they will quit coming. Is that what you want? Who will keep the farm going?”
“I will,” Ava shot back. “My family and I. This is our land, our creation, and we will grow it forever. And it will span the world one day, no thanks to you assholes!”
Alec looked over Ava, then straight at me. He didn’t need to speak to get his message across. It was time. I put my head in my hands, and released a wavering sigh.
“Mom,” I breathed into my hands. “What in God’s name are you talking about?”
“You, sir, are a pompous prick,” Ava growled, pointing a boney finger towards Alec. “Oil will be the ruin of this planet, and you are feeding the beast. Suckling at it’s teat to satiate all of your superficial, materialistic pleasures. That’s not how I raised you. That isn’t what our Chrysalis is about. I never had much hope for you, anyways. You were always the weaker one. That’s why I coddled Beth; spent more energy grooming her.”
Our Chrysalis. It was a story Ava had weaved for us when we were small, a story about a beautiful family of caterpillars who looked to the sky and decided there was more to life, that there was a way to reach the stars. Through magical transformation and sheer will, they sprouted wings that carried them through life to the heavens above. It was a beautiful story, and it stuck in our little minds. We called our family, all the aunts and uncles and children, our own little Chrysalis, our cocoon that would change and grow and fly with the stars.
Ava reached over and lifted my face in her hands. I looked into my mother’s deep green eyes, and saw a lifetime of experience glowing back at me. More than that, somehow. Ava held my face tenderly in one hand, and stroked my hair with the other.
“You, my child. My sweet, strong girl. I saw amazing things in you. Strides and milestones for our kind, all seeded in the fruit of your labor and your loins. You’d make it to the top, and take a man between your legs who could hoist you above that ceiling. Bear a child born of our blood and man’s power.” Ava pushed my face away, and sat back in her rocker. “But no, you wouldn’t do that. Liked the taste of carpet too much. Carpet and failure. You’re a total fuck-up.”
I glowered at her. “I know it’s difficult for you to accept, mom, but I love my wife. We have a child, your granddaughter. A beautiful little girl that should have a grandmother who cherishes and accepts her.” Angry tears started flowing down my cheeks. One can only accept so much rejection and hate before brewing their own brand.
“Not my blood,” Ava sneered. “An abomination of a pointless union, one that retards our progress.”
“Our progress, mom?” I asked. “As a race? As a society? Rather, I think it’s a step forward in social evolution.”
“Their semen is gold, Beth.”
“Whose semen, ma?” Alec jumped in. “C’mon, this is old baggage. We aren’t here to fight about Beth’s marriage or my career. We’re here to talk about your inability to live on your own anymore.”
Ava looked like she had been slapped in the face. She stared at Alec, then looked pleadingly at me. As if I was going to come to her aid after I had been attacked for the umpteenth time.
“Now ma, hear me out,” Alec said. “You can stay here, but you need to be receptive to some live-in help. And medication. We need to take you to a doctor, ma. You have dementia. It happens. We will always love you, and we will always take care of you, but like it or not, you need help. For your own well-being.”
Ava stopped rocking, and looked at me. “I had such high hopes for you. The president. The president, child! Imagine the power we would have then. His seed spurted into your womb. The beginnings of our new race, fertilized by the most powerful of theirs.”
“Mom? What are you talking about?” I asked, even though I didn’t care anymore.
Ava leaned in closer. “We are not them, Elizabeth. We assimilate, but we are not them. This is our base, the creation of our Chrysalis. There are so many Chrysalides. Our progress is slow, but persistent. I am all that’s left here, left to try and mix our family’s blood with human blood, get a foothold strong enough for us to reach all corners, then stamp out the natives and stake our flag. You two were supposed to branch out and spread our kind like a virus, breed out the filth. Don’t you see? The world could be ours. We could claim this system like many others systems have been claimed.”
My hands started shaking, and Alec shook his head. He didn’t direct any more of the conversation towards Ava. He stood from his chair and stepped in front of Ava and I, and reached out and held my hand. “This is so much worse than we imagined, Beth. It’s time to let go. I’ll send someone out for her things. The home has a bed they could give her right away. I checked.”
I looked into Ava’s eyes. Ava was squeezing my hand so hard that my fingers were turning blue. Tears had welled in her eyes, and her bottom lip began to tremble. I looked at this woman, the mentally frail matriarch in front of me, and saw my childhood play across my mind like a movie. All the picnics at the farm, running through the fields with the wheat groping at my legs. Playing in the small pool, blowing bubbles in the warm sun. My mother rocking me in that very chair, singing lullabies and caressing my hair. I felt loved, always had. This woman, the frightened woman in front of me now, was not that mother. Not anymore.
“Mom, I will stay with you. But it’s time to go,” I said.
Instantly, Ava’s tears ceased and dried as if they had never been there in the first place. Her lower lip stopped trembling, and curved into a wicked smile. A creepy, smug expression that sent shivers through my bones.
“Yes, my child. It’s time to go.”
Ava stood, and in one staccato motion, drove the pitchfork up through Alec’s throat and jaw. She did it quickly and with ease, like piercing softened butter with a hot knife. Alec’s expression remained the same as his body crumpled, unaware of his sudden expiration. Blood pooled under my feet, warm and gritty like wet sand from the Florida beaches we vacationed at as children. I sat frozen, staring at Alec, unable to draw a breath.
“Now, child,” Ava cooed. “It’s up to you. Let our Chrysalis die out, or help us live on; solidify our place in inevitable history. Think about what I’ve told you. You know it to be true. It’s your move now.”
Ava leaned forward and kissed me on the lips, then pulled the pitchfork from Alec’s face. She drove the handle into the ground just off the patio, then plunged forward, feeding the prongs through her chest and leaving herself suspended like a skewered scarecrow. Dead and motionless, my entire kin were suddenly splayed out before me.
I looked at my brother’s face again. His mangled, vacant face. I caused this. My lack of action, my lack of acceptance of Ava’s decline, had caused this. Now Alec’s blood wet my feet, curdling through my toes. Bright blood, hot and shiny, blood that gleamed like gold in the sun. Even his blood was rich, I jested in my own head.
In the midst of this moment, a lingering moment of seemingly halted time, I noticed how this gruesome scene was remarkably clean. Clean like the kitchen. Clean like a kitchen where no one ate. Ever. Blood from Alec, yes. Crunchy, grainy, gold-tinged blood. Blood that was wrong, unnatural. But no blood from my mother. The tines of the pitchfork were driven clear though Ava’s ribs and out her back, but not a single drop of blood had spilled. I stood slowly and lifted my mother off the prongs, then carefully placed her on the ground. I slid my fingers into the slits in the fabric of her dress, pulling it apart to get a better look at her wounds.
Under the sheer and billowy fabric of the joyful sundress were gaping wounds, but no blood. I looked deep into her green eyes. Ava’s last expression was a combination of pleading and hopeful. Pleading for me to follow through, and hopeful that I would. I visually and mentally absorbed the scene for a full minute before I heard the screaming. I suppose I had heard it all along, but the sound finally registered in my brain. My own screaming, distant and removed from my body, a body that had collapsed on the ground between my brother and mother. Screaming that pierced the air until the maintenance men came running. Then everything went black.