A Heartbroken Girl’s Guide to the Wildlife of Maine

A Heartbroken Girl’s Guide to the Wildlife of Maine

A Heartbroken Girl’s Guide to the Wildlife of Maine 1920 1080 Taylor Jones

These are the castoffs: a Smirnoff bottle, an old glove with the fingers inside out and filled with mud, an unidentified mass of cloth, a soda can, a plastic bucket. She collects the ones she can carry, stuffing them into the pockets of her dirty cargo pants almost absently; it was not her intention to remove the human traces from the rack line, but faced with the intense beauty of the place she feels in an abstract way that it is the least she can do. These are the castoffs: a dried crab, dead stalks of eelgrass, broken mussel shells. But nature doesn’t make the same kind of mistakes that humans do, the kind that need cleaning up.

She walks aimlessly through the eelgrass on the muddy bank of the inlet, slowly circumnavigating the tip of this small finger of ocean pointed at the land. The air smells of sulphur and salt. This is a temporary port in a storm, a summer job as a research assistant just out of college, an escape from the large dramas of human interaction into the minutia of insect life. An entomologist at a marine lab; she smiles at the cold Maine ocean, not at all jealous of her wet-suited compatriots.

Up ahead she can see where a stream has carved a deep channel towards the ocean, wearing a little canyon into the mud. As she gets closer she sees shapes moving in the murky water. They are rounded, smooth, shiny when they break the surface. They resolve into the neolithic-looking backs of horseshoe crabs. She slides down the bank and crouches in the mud, within arm’s reach of the creatures. The horseshoe crabs are mating, forming an almost comical dance line; the large female leading, a male grasping her carapace with his first set of appendages, hooks especially designed for the purpose. Attached to him, another male, then another, all vying for affection. The waves drive water in and out of the small rivulet; sometimes the crustaceans disappear into the gloom of the murky water and reemerge in a different configuration, breaking apart, coming back together. They look entirely ancient, their flat heads resembling those of trilobites, their ponderous movements almost frightening in their gracelessness. In the shallows another pair is mating; they come together with alien clicking sounds.

Feeling a bit the voyeur, she is about to leave when she sees, farther up the stream, another pair wedged between a log and the mud bank. The female’s huge carapace won’t fit through the narrow channel; the small male is too stubborn to let go. She slides towards them over the mud, slipping on the precarious footing. Gingerly she tries to lift the male, afraid she is touching something dead. His legs kick out. Alive! She tries the female. She is alive too. On impulse, the girl decides to save them, not knowing whether they need saving or not. Can they survive until the tide comes back in? She doesn’t know. She grasps the outer edges of the female’s carapace and lifts her free.

The male comes with her, clinging harder than ever. The female, shocked at being lifted, flexes her strong middle joint, thrusting her body back and forth, the flexion of the hard surface powerful and frightening. This was unexpected, and the girl doesn’t take the opportunity to examine the connection of hooked claws and carapace; she is suddenly aware of how utterly alien these animals are, the foreignness of this grasping, clicking mating rite. The only body she’s ever loved was soft and warm, and bent against her, and wasn’t designed to sink away into the dark mud. The sudden thought of it, and its loss, hits her like a punch and makes her gasp. It keeps surprising her. She wants these struggling creatures out of her hands. She almost runs toward the mouth of the stream, her feet sinking in the mud, falling, catching herself on her knee. She struggles to her feet, still grasping the crustaceans. The female is old; huge barnacles adorn her back. A few more steps. Calmer, she walks to the water, carefully lowers them in, still attached tenaciously together. The female lumbers off in her ponderous way, dragging the male with her. The girl reaches down to wash the mud off her hands, but stops; seeing the white flux floating in the water she thinks of all the alien gametes and wipes her hands on her already muddy pants instead. She laughs at herself for her fear, her clumsy stumbling run, her squeamishness, but it is an uneasy laugh, and she walks quickly in the direction of the marine lab and home, however temporary, and she doesn’t look back.


“Laurie,” she asks the next day, absently stuffing fern into a small vial to feed the voracious rasping jaws of a rapidly growing caterpillar, “what do you know about horseshoe crabs?”

“Not much, dear,” replies Laurie. “I’m an entomologist.” She smiles over the microscope, her brief morning’s work in the lab almost done, her net and collection vials waiting for her by the door.

“I saw them mating yesterday.”

Laurie’s face lights up with enthusiasm. “Did you really? You know that only happens once a year? It’s tied to the lunar cycle. They mate during the highest tide of the year, and a month later the babies are washed out to sea.”


Laurie is picking up her field gear, hefting her long net.

“Well, I have to go, dear, duty calls. I’ve left you a list; when you’ve finished feeding the caterpillars you could do those experiments we talked about yesterday, and if you finish all that we could use another fifty caterpillars or so. I want to see if the rate of parasitism is different on a group collected later in the season. Cheers!” And she whirls out.

As always, the girl is left a little stunned by the huge energy of her employer. It’s exhausting to keep up with the woman. She is also a bit stunned by the rarity of what she had seen yesterday; she hadn’t attached that much importance to it, had been merely curious, but now it seems to take on a larger, almost portentous meaning. She resists making the connection, distrustful of metaphor, but she can’t help thinking of the phone call she made early this morning, earlier than she’d really wanted to be up, the hour necessitated by the time difference between here the place she was calling, a place across the international date line, a place she had only, she reassures herself, been visiting. There had never been any confusion about that; in fact it had been practically the first thing she said to him when they met. So why, when she heard his voice coming from late afternoon, did she feel like such a betrayer? Are his hooks still clutched to her back as she sinks away? It’s been nearly a year… nearly a year ago today. She thinks of his hands and shivers. She keeps sending letters and waiting for some answer that never comes. Maybe she is the one with hooks, who will not let go.


The times they spoke over the phone, after she left his country, they finished each other’s sentences, let long, sad silences stretch out afterwards. They talked about the news, fought about politics. He annoyed her as much as ever. And she never stopped wanting to kiss him. “We’re friends,” she said cheerfully, the hope in it ringing a little desperate, and chose not to listen to the dubious silence on the other end of the line, half a world away. She held onto them being friends, because how could he leave her life? How could she leave him so completely? How could such fierce love become nothing simply because of an accident of distance? Being friends would have to be enough, because nothing was unthinkable. But he never, never answered her letters.

Maybe I place too much weight on pen and ink, she thought. After all, what do I want from him? A declaration of love? Words we were careful never to say during the little time we had together. Most people have a feeling it’s going to end, but few know the exact date in advance. What a curse—to have to try to dig in your heels and stop yourself as you careen out of control, falling down into love. And what do I want from him now? An answer. But what is the question I am trying to ask?

Love and sadness each come in waves and tides, and both are deep and strange as the ocean and as inconstant as the moon. She will always know the taste of salt on her skin.


That night is spider-feeding night. Crouched in their vials, the crab spiders looked replete and waiting. The girl and Laurie, their human servants, set up a halogen lamp on the porch; it cast cold shadows on everything with its grey, hard-edged light. Then they go inside and wait.

Moths navigate by the moon. In the presence of another bright light, their navigation system becomes confused; when they batter into an open bulb, it is not because they are attracted to the light. Their desperate beating has no amorous overtones. They are simply trying to find their way in a world which has suddenly gone wrong. When Laurie and the girl come back outside, there are clouds of the confused creatures, some flying around the lamp, some resignedly stuck to the wall, waiting for the natural order of things to return. Some are the size of pennies; some would span the girl’s palm. The smallest ones go to the spiders.

The two of them are still engaged in the grim but interesting business of trapping moths in the vials, only to watch them be captured lightening-fast by the spiders, when a huge sphinx moth, disoriented by the light, flies wildly across the boards of the porch, battering and buffeting its wings, so confused it is trying to fly upside down. Laurie puts aside the captive food chain for a moment and catches the great moth gently and holds it in her hand, seeming to quiet it; still the powerful wings tremble and beat, leaving her fingers coated in dust. The moth is bigger then her hand. In the light the tiny sparks of its eyes glow orange. When she lets it go it beats around the floor, at last coming to rest at the girl’s feet. The girl crouches down and looks at it, anguished at its directionlessness, wanting to give it shelter. It trembles like a heart. She stays there, kneeling and still, staring at it, as Laurie finishes catching the last of the small moths. It is impossible to go anywhere when you are navigating by the wrong moon, she thinks. Maybe she has already been given her answer. The silence is the answer. Time to stop waiting, she thinks clearly. Surprised, she wants to follow the thought further, but abruptly, the spiders fed, Laurie reaches over and switches off the light.

To the girl’s eyes, it is complete darkness. There’s a silence. And then, a sound, not even as loud as a flutter or as strong as a breeze. The susurrus of hundreds of soft wings righting themselves, casting themselves back into the night. Crouched on the porch, she feels more than hears the rustle between her feet. There is the subtlest movement of air. The sphinx moth is gone. She smiles in the darkness, and waits for her eyes to adjust.

Header photograph © Lexy.

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