Julia Fierro reads from her novel, The Gypsy Moth Summer, published in June by St. Martin’s Press.
Before that summer of ’92, when the gypsy moths swarmed Avalon Island and Leslie Day Marshall, golden-headed prodigal daughter, returned with her black husband and brown children to claim her seat as First Lady, the island’s crimes were minor. Teenagers breaking into a newly constructed mansion to throw a kegger. A maid stealing from her mistress. East High’s quarterback wrapping his shiny Mustang—a graduation present from his grandfather—around the ancient oak tree on Snake Hill. And occasionally a neighbor, the investment banker, disappearing for six months, only to return lean and fit after a stay at a low-security prison.
Plenty of islanders died, of course. In peaceful slumber; a heart attack midswing on the Oyster Cove Country Club golf green; drowned out at sea and right there on shore. A few had leapt, or fallen, no one knew for sure, from the pink clay cliffs of Singing Beach. But not one, the eldest islanders claimed, had ever fallen at the hands of another.
Before that summer of ’92, people left their front doors unlocked when they turned in for the night, and children, even those who still believed in the witches and wolves of fairy tales, fled to the woods each evening. Be careful, their mothers called as the children threw open screen doors and ran barelegged into the birch turned blue by the otherworldly light that blanketed the island each night. Their mothers were reminding them of the rare car on the island’s snaking roads. Dusk can fool the eyes, more so on nights the island wears a crown of oyster-gray mist—those who’ve visited Avalon will agree. But as children do, they believed themselves unbreakable, and deaf to Mother’s caution, they hurdled spicebush and witch hazel, ignoring the bite of bramble thorns. Laughing when a dewy spiderweb tore against their faces. No stories of little children lost to the woods told by well-meaning mothers could keep them from their games. Manhunt. Thieves’ Den. Indians versus Settlers.
The island’s teenagers, too, felt safest in the woods. Camouflaged by thickets of black cherry and pitch pine, red chokeberry and sweet pepperbush, the cool night air a balm to their sunburned shoulders. The darkness a relief after hours spent tanning on the island’s beaches, their bikinied bodies slick with Johnson’s Baby Oil. The trill of a wood thrush cracking the silence, they told ghost stories while a joint was passed. Stories where a single event—a full moon, an evil spell, true love’s kiss—turns man into beast. Beast into man.
Not yet men and women and no longer boys and girls, they may have believed in fairy tales still but wouldn’t dare confess. They played their own games in the woodland pocked with fireflies. Girls shrieked when caught by a boy. Hungry mouths found each other in the dark. Tongues twined. Hands slipped under sweatshirts. The boldest couples retreated deep into the trees to roll on a sheet someone had swiped from his or her mother’s linen closet.
That summer, after the black-bristled gypsy moth caterpillars hatched and the forest throbbed with their gnashing, Avalon’s youth surrendered the woods reluctantly. What more was there to fear (or was it that they feared nothing more?) than the disapproval of their parents and teachers and coaches? Worse, their grandparents’ disappointment. In Grandson’s too-long hair, Granddaughter’s too-short skirt, the kids’ whassups and what evers and the noise they called music, and what the old men and women insisted on calling hippie attitudes—never mind that it was two decades since their own children had lived through the counterculture. These were the founding fathers and mothers of the island’s livelihood, Grudder Aviation. The factory’s four concrete stacks loomed six hundred feet tall, visible from any point on the island, and the children felt the towers following them, as constant as the moon, until the only place to hide from their elders’ watch was the deep woods.
East Avalon was the upper crust—military engineers who had exchanged their navy whites and blues for suits and offices on the upper floor of Grudder Aviation, the factory all Avalonians called Old Ironsides. West Avalon, the treeless section of the island where row houses stood shoulder-to-shoulder with gas stations and the town dump, was the meat—generations of factory workers manning the assembly floor, their fingernails ringed with the grease that kept the machines running, the fighting aircraft multiplying. The “Cats”—Hellcat, Wildcat, Tigercat, Bearcat, Panther—whose roars had shot down America’s enemies and inspired the naming of every corner of the island. From East Avalon High (the Wildcats) to West High (the Panthers); to most of the shops in town—Bearcat Café, Cougar Cleaners, Hellcat Pub. Grudder was the islanders’ fraternity, tribe, and church—every Avalonian had heard tales of F6F Wildcat airmen swearing they had more faith in Grudder than in God.
On an island, time can freeze, but that summer the islanders felt a change coming. East and West agreed: There was a yawning divide between old and young. Yesterday and tomorrow. The new generation of Avalonians worshipped at the altar of MTV; didn’t fear the Bomb; heard the slogan “Be All You Can Be” and thought not of defending his or her country but, instead, imagined their future selves waiting to hatch like the moth eggs tucked in the crooks and bends of every tree on the island.
The new threat was impossible to ignore. Cancer, cancer, whispered worried mothers, as if lamenting out loud would infect their families. They commiserated in hushed voices at school bake sales; in the bleachers during a Saturday lacrosse match; and on line at the supermarket deli, paper tickets clutched in freshly manicured fingers.
East Avalonians began driving to the wholesale store on the mainland and carted cases of bottled water across the causeway. Those born factory class mocked their wealthy neighbors: Here they come with their holy water! But even they wrung their hands when the graffiti appeared that spring, just as the crocus broke earth. grudder is cancer. grudder kills.
But for now, it is June and the roses are in bloom. The tough and thorny Rugosa’s apple-shaped hips thrive on the island’s dunes, the bright-pink Swamp Rose in the marsh. Inland, in the leafy woods, there’s the Carolina Rose, Sweetbriar, Scotch Briar, and Dog Rose. High in the east hills, the air is heady from the ladies’ gardens—rows of hybrids whose names conjure Victorian women in high-collared and bustled dresses, strolling arm in arm under a parasol. La Reine, Leda, Bourbon, Starlight, Ballerina, and the aromatic American Beauty. Each bloom impeccable—a perfection that confirms the east islanders’ belief that all can be cultivated. Controlled. Their children and spouses and lovers and servants; their workers and factory; their island and country. Despite that liberal governor from Arkansas slithering his way toward the White House. Like the yellowbellied draft dodger he is, the Grudder executives, some navy men, grumble on the golf green. Despite the death of the Cold War, the factory’s bread and butter; and the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union; and the defense budget cuts sparking rumors of layoffs at Old Ironsides.
By summer’s end, all of Avalon will have seen too much to play make believe at love and war again. So let them believe for now. Let them play. Those girls with dimpled smiles and scraped knees; those young men, lean and long but still capable of blushing; those unformed, and perhaps better, versions of the men and women they will become.
For now, they are young and beautiful, pure muscle and unblemished skin. They are in love—a faith that makes them tease death. They swing out over the sea cliffs clutching a tire tied to a tree; drop two tabs of acid and swim to the end of the ferry landing and back; drag race down the wrong side of the causeway at two in the morning; fly headfirst toward danger, deaf to their mothers’ warnings—Be careful—all to win a bet. To prove they are what they feel. Immortal.
From The Gypsy Moth Summer by Julia Fierro. Copyright © 2017 Julia Fierro. Reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press.