Such a Lovely shade of green
by samantha henderson
Illustration by Danelle Malan
Comfort Zone by Danelle Malan

Redlands, then Banning, and U-Pick cherries, and the Riverside Freeway sign. Dirty pink, shabby green houses. The Morongo Reservation and the casino, orange and garish, a fake waterfall out front. The gray concrete dinosaurs. The windmill farm.

A tiny spider crawled up the passenger-side window, trailing a silk flicker behind.

"April would like the dinosaurs," said Tamara, staring out the window, past the spider. She wondered if she should ask if she could turn the AC down. The minivan was comfortable, plush and new-smelling, but the cold air made her teeth ache, and her jaw where it got broken before.

The driver, dumpy, brunette, with varicose veins sprouting from beneath her pleated tennis skirt, tilted her head sideways like she had a crick in her neck.

"April's my daughter. She likes dinosaurs." Tamara felt a little spark of rage. She was going to make the woman say something. Two hours now, from the L.A. Greyhound depot, and three bare, grudging sentences.

The woman pushed her sunglasses up her nose. "I don't need to know about your daughter," she said.

Tamara looked straight ahead, trying not to cry. She was so cold. Outside hundreds of windmills whipped round and round.

"I'm sorry. I'm sure she's wonderful. But it's better if I don't know anything. Names, anything like that. It's for your own protection."

Tamara nodded, tears pooling hot, about to spill. Her lip trembled. The woman glanced at her, once.

She hated herself when she did this, when she cried like this. Sven hated it too. Can't hardly blame the man, she sang in her head, buzzing, singy-songy. Can't hardly blame him.

One fat tear painted a cold line down her cheek.

"It's going to be OK," said the woman. "You're safe now."

Tamara wanted to hit something.

The spider reached the top of the window, then slipped and fell halfway down. It swung on its thread and started crawling up again.

You don't know. You think I'm scared for myself.

She could smash the spider, easy, and leave a smear the woman would have to Windex tonight.

One day Sven would kill her. That's what she told herself. That's what she told Sylvia, whose name wasn't really Sylvia, who got women like her out of situations like these.

She told herself she sent April away to protect her, that April was safe as long as she didn't stand between Sven and Tamara.

But the real reason was that when April got lippy with Tamara last month, Tamara raised her hand and stopped just short of smashing her daughter's mouth.

Barely stopped, because she wanted to so bad. So enjoyed the thought.

Then she understood Sven. Can't hardly blame the man.

April's eyes widened, and they looked at each other long, mother and daughter, over Tamara's still uplifted arm. And Tamara lowered it, and backed away. And they both looked at the ground.

The next day, Tamara called the number the girl at the women's shelter gave her. Tamara knew that when she called that number a whole series of events would begin, like falling dominoes, and it took her a while to do it. Not when Sven broke her jaw. Not when she had to switch to a new brand of foundation that was thicker and better at covering up the bruises.

It was when she almost hit April, and realized she was still high on the idea of doing it.

She wondered if the others knew, if Sylvia-Not-Her-Real-Name knew, for she always had a look of vague, dispassionate distaste on her broad, strong, unlovely face. But perhaps that's all the expression Sylvia-Not could spare for a world of violence. In her world, women, desperate women, came to her and, given sufficient evidence of the danger, she would hide them, at the risk of her own freedom. Simple as that. Simple as an insect's world, to eat and be eaten. Sylvia-Not watched her with black eyes shiny as a spider's while she stammered out her tale. Sylvia-Not quizzed her clinically, without a shred of sentiment. Sylvia-Not agreed that April was best off with her grandparents in Utah. Sylvia-Not arranged for a midnight pick-up and a drive to the edge of town. Another car, battered and dusty. The Greyhound bus, smelling like dried urine. Then the mini-van.

The spider reached the top of the window again. Stupid thing. What's it trying to do? She would kill it (but the caterpillar writhing in the fire, and April's wide eyes, and Tamara felt carsick) and she looked away from the spider.

They were passing a dry riverbed with a big, blue and white sign. WHITEWATER.

"That's funny," said Tamara.

"What?" said the woman, startled.

"Whitewater. What is it out there, hundred? Hundred one? Dry as a bone."

The woman chuckled. "Yeah. It is weird."

It's cold in your damn car, bitch, thought Tamara, leaning her cheek against the window, feeling goosepimples pop out of her arms.


Palm Desert ahead, but before that an off-ramp, and a truck stop with a Dairy Queen. The van bumped over potholes, turned into the parking lot. The woman kept the engine running, the AC on.

She pulled her cell phone out of its little dashboard pocket and looked at it, frowning.

Late for tennis? But Tamara didn't say it. Wasn't fair. Woman was only trying to help.

Can't hardly blame the man.

Stop it.

A dusty pickup pulled up alongside. The woman dropped the cell phone back in its pocket with a soft clunk.

"Here we go," she said, more to herself than Tamara. Then, "Stay here a minute." Tamara froze, her backpack between her knees, while the woman got out and circled in front of the van and the pick-up.

Tamara looked at the dusty truck. There was a man in the driver's seat. Her heart thudded in her throat.

No, it wasn't Sven. But he'd found out. He'd sent one of his buddies, one of his fellow deputies, to get her.

The driver's side window rolled down and the woman, her legs orange-tan beneath the tennis skirt, leaned on the door and spoke to him. Tamara didn't know him. He had mirrored glasses, short-cropped, thinning hair and a moustache bleached pale by the sun. He looked past the woman's head, straight at her, and smiled, as one smiles at a shy child. He wasn't one of Sven's.

She could breathe.

The woman turned and gestured at her, and she opened the door. The desert heat sank into her chilled bones like a sauna bath.


"Got your stuff?" he said. He knew she had only the backpack she pulled from the minivan. Just a way of telling her they were here.

"Is this just a stop?" she ventured.

He waited until they were both out of the truck. "No," he said.

She followed him to the door of the little stone cottage, past a dry garden of sage. He scrabbled in his jeans pocket for the key.

When the door was open he moved aside.

"You'll find some supplies in the cupboard and the 'fridge," he said. "Once a week someone'll come with groceries, and you can tell her what you need."

It was dark inside, and despite the blazing day, a cool tendril of air touched her cheek.

"How long?" she said, not knowing what else to say.

The man shrugged. "Don't know," he said. "Until they find you a permanent place, an identity. Shouldn't be too long."

He gestured at the door. "Do you want me to check inside? Sometimes they want me to walk around, make sure nothing's there. Some don't want a man inside."

Tamara wondered if he got sick of being careful of wounded, delicate things.

"Thanks," she said. "I'm sure it's safe."

Safe enough, until they found her a local habitation and a name. Until then, she was in storage.


She liked to sit on the large, flat stone by the front door and close her eyes, feeling the sun beat like a great soft drum on her face. Even the sky was yellow: sand and dust kicked up in the air by the passing trucks caught the afternoon light and smoothed it out, featureless. And then, as she moved about, the acrid smell of her own sweat, rhyming with the sage. Cicadas chirped, chipping tiny holes in the night. Warm water from the pump told of the minerals beneath the surface, like she was drinking quartz, mica, gold.

She didn't mind the dirt or the sand or the crumbling drywall inside. Nobody tried to hurt her here. Not the tiny desert birds or the coyotes or the rabbits that browsed the dead, brown garden at dawn. Flies: there were a lot of flies. The man said it was because of the watermelon fields, watermelon season. They split open, pink in the fields, and the flies feasted.

The fire ants would kill her if she stepped in a nest, but you couldn't take that personally. That's just what fire ants did. They didn't do it to make themselves feel better, or you so scared you couldn't move.

But when little black ants started marching across the rim of the bathtub, congregated in the chipped grout of the sink and explored her toothbrush, she felt enough was enough, and she dug a rusted can of Raid from the back of the closet.

A scattering of dead black specks stuck to the faded pink enamel of the tub, until she wiped them off with a paper towel. She knew she shouldn't waste paper like that, use the rags instead, that could be laundered. But she didn't like the smell of Raid, wanted to mop it up and throw it away.

Made little difference to the ants, who found different paths around the zone of death. Then she remembered you have to hit the nest — grubbing on her back in the linen closet backing the bathroom she found it, or its entrance: a pipe imperfectly sealed passed through the wall to the Court of the Ant Queen. She didn't want to open the wall, so she sprayed inside the closet, coughing at the fake-flower fumes.

Ants dispose of their kin's dead bodies, being like humans in that respect. Her ants deposited theirs in the damp corners where the tub met the wall: prickly black puddles. They were hard to clean up; the tiny body parts tended to smear, and as fast as she did it more appeared.

She'd give it another try. She'd get the whole nest this time.

Tamara crouched at the open door of the linen closet, can in hand. She could see the slit that led to the nest. She gave it a good, hard squirt.

Ants poured from the slit, carrying tiny white things. Eggs. They raced down the wall, slowing as the insecticide took effect, slowing and dropping and dying (and the caterpillar stuck to the orange coal, coiling and uncoiling and coiling and the feeling she almost had of April's jaw against her hand) and Tamara backed away, still holding the can. Something hot and acid rose in her throat.

All the ants that had left the nest were dead. No more came. But there had to be more, a lot more. Ant nests were huge.

Tamara spoke to the slit under the pipe. "Just stay out of the bathroom, OK?"

Her voice sounded strange. She realized she hadn't spoken aloud for days.

She must be crazy, talking to ants.

"I won't do it again, but just...stay out. OK?"

No movement.

"All right, then."

She shut the door and looked at the garish, red-and-yellow can.

Stupid. She snorted, once, and put the Raid back in the closet.

For the most part the ants did stay out of the bathroom. Sometimes she'd see a little coil of them, marching in and out of the cracks in the wall. They never dumped bodies in the bathtub anymore.



She didn't know the name of the little flying insects with the lacy wings. Their bodies were the color of the newest grass or the crocus leaves poking out of the snow, in the places where it still snowed.

Such a refreshing color in a place where the sun baked every ounce of moisture out of the soil, your skin, your lips. Such a lovely shade of green.

Some of the lace-wing flies clustered on the tiny space of ceiling above the kitchen sink, and she noticed tiny green specks. Upon examination, they proved to be tiny, oblong eggs glued expertly onto the peeling paint. She was about to rub them off.

They were so tiny and delicate, the same color as the bodies of their parents.

She let the eggs be. Like the ants.


A fly, slow and filled with rotten watermelon. Just meant to flick it aside, off the counter, but she hit harder than she knew and it lay, half-crushed, twitching on the stained linoleum.

Something thick and yellow was oozing from the split in its abdomen.

(she was nine years old at a camp in Tillamook Park in Oregon and the embers were glowing red and she sat on the ground to look at them and when she moved her hand close to it she could feel the relentless heat and her skin tightened until she felt it could burst she glanced down and saw a furry black and yellow caterpillar inching on the ashy stones at the edge of the grass)

"I didn't mean to," said Tamara, startling herself. The fly, big from its watermelon feasts, buzzed loudly with an angry desperation.

(she picked up the caterpillar and it twisted in her hand trying to gain a foothold it's so small she marveled so weak compared to this creature I am a god and she threw the caterpillar in the fire)

"I didn't mean to," she said again, stepping over it and tearing a paper towel from the counter top dispenser. She knelt and gathered the insect in the towel, feeling it buzz strongly inside the paper shroud. Closing her eyes, she crushed it between her fingers. It seemed to fight against her. Of course it did. It wanted to live.

(she expected it to flare up immediately be ash in a second not even aware of what was happening but it stuck on a coal stuck and it didn't burn wouldn't burn instead it writhed she looked at it frozen and horror-struck it writhed and twisted and would not die, sluggishly a part of her mind growled at her grab a stick and smash it but she couldn't thinking this must end soon nothing could live so long that small, stuck to a coal but it did it did it did)

"I didn't mean to," she said one last time, as she opened the dusty lid of the greasy aluminum trashcan and dropped the paper towel in.

"I'm sorry," she said.

(on the way home she had to ask her Dad to stop the car so she could throw up potato chips and charred hot dogs at the side of the freeway they thought she was carsick she didn't tell them why)


The groceries came the day before, and she was unwary in the heat, the stone house with the sage and the mountains, and she let her guard down. So when a knock came at the door she opened it without thinking.

God. Sven.

He looked down at her and smiled, charming as always.

She backed away, as if he couldn't cross the threshold, as if the house had magic that would save her.

But it didn't, and he walked in, big and arrogant and handsome.

"Didn't you miss me, Tamara?" He cocked his head at her.

She shook her head, speechless.

He walked, not towards her but skirting her, like an animal stalking its prey. He glanced at the dusty carpet, the spider webs drifting on the ceiling.

"Charming dump they found you," he said, conversationally. He fake-lunged at her, like you would at a dog to scare it, and she flinched backwards, raising her arms to cover her face.

"Hon-ey," he said in that melting-sugar voice, sorry and reproachful at the same time. "I'm not going to hurt you. And you know what? You were right to leave. You did a brave, good thing."

She lowered her arms a bit and stared at him. He didn't come any closer, so she started to breathe again.

"I didn't know," he said. "I truly didn't know it got so bad. This has been a real wake-up call, Tamara. I swear it'll be different.

"But honey, it's time to come home. It's time for us to be a family." He didn't move, keeping his hands low, below the waist.

"April, honey. Is April here with you?"

Tamara shook her head fractionally.

He smiled, his child-coaxing smile.

"That's OK. Now, tell me where she is and we'll go home together."

He folded his arms and waited. Again, that little cock of the head that seemed so boyish, so mischievous.

"I'm waiting, Tamara," he said, allowing his voice to get a little deeper.

Tamara held her breath.

"That's alright," he said, fake-cheerfully. "I know she's with your parents."

She shook her head, but her eyes gave her away. She was a lousy liar.

Sven spoke slowly, methodically. "I'm going to go get April now. Your folks'll understand that a child needs to be with her mother and father. And then I'm coming back for you."

Tamara found her voice. "Don't hurt her, Sven. I'll come back, I'll do anything you want. Just leave April alone."

He sounded indignant. "I've never touched April, and you know it. She's Daddy's little angel."

And as he turned to go, she saw that spark in his eye, that spark that meant she was in trouble but that had never, never before been directed at April.

And she knew that now everything had changed.

"No," she said, and grabbed his arm. He jerked it out of her grasp, sending her sprawling gracelessly against the wall.


Sven stared at his wife. Clumsy bitch. His irritation flared into anger, warm and familiar and good.

He backhanded her, and she spun into the cobwebs in the corner. Couldn't even keep the place clean.

"Look what you started now," he said, his voice low. He moved in and planted a fist in her ribs, feeling the cartilage give. She bent double and he started to slap her.

It went on a long time.

Can't hardly blame the man.


Tamara lay smashed in the living room. The air was heavy with the heat and there was a sharp copper smell, which as the afternoon dragged on became dull and penetrating.

Her chest rose, once in a while, very slowly.

Flies came, attracted by the smell of blood, and crawled in the clotted forest of her hair. They found the blood seeping from the torn scalp, and laid their tiny white pearl eggs.

The ants came next, looping the floor with black marching coils until they found her. They crawled over her calf and up her body, examining the drying flakes of blood. Soon twin strands of ants marched from her to the nest. One strand ran along the length of her body, cleaning off the blood. The other marched directly to her mouth, each worker carrying a tiny, precious diamond of water. Each moved between her cracked lips to deposit it on her tongue.

The next morning the maggots hatched and nosed out the clotted blood. Bacteria was beginning to cluster in the raw flesh and this they found too, and ate.

The ants began to bring jade droplets of nectar, which they'd coaxed from their aphids. Sometimes Tamara's mouth would move reflexively and an ant would be crushed. The others marched on.

The spiders gathered. They wiggled over her body, avoiding the ants. By now the maggots had cleaned the gashes in her head and the spiders crawled over these, ducking inside to explore. They wove thick white threads, smaller than surgeon's silk, weaving the torn flesh together. Sometimes a spider, hungry from her efforts, would seize a maggot and suck its sweet juice.

Tamara was thirsty, terribly thirsty. She tried to rise and balanced on one hand, her body still sprawled every which way. Her eyes were crusted shut.

The ants hurried to her face and worked at the dried mucous. Presently she was able to blink each lid free of its twin.

The pain sifted like sand throughout her body: no part was free of it, but it was diffuse, bearable.

Everything is bearable, given time.

Sweet dew from the ants, and the tickle of insects rooting in her, that was one day, and then she could move to the sink and drink, and she found a Coke in the fridge, and the ants liked the sweet sugar syrup too, and that was the second day.


The second day. Sven pulled over in a cloud of red dust, just past the California border. The freeway was ahead, and the occasional pickup or big rig rumbled by at intervals. He let the car bump to a stop on the dried-mud washboard by the side of the road and stared through the dusty windshield.

Everything would be all right if she'd only listen to reason.

He stared at his fist. It was still swollen and sore, and there was a small cut on the first knuckle where Tamara's tooth caught the skin. It was itchy.


Listen to reason.

Utah was a wash. Tamara's parents took April and moved almost two weeks ago. Someone else was in their old apartment. He asked the landlord for their forwarding address, but the old bastard, big guy, vet-type, just folded his arms and looked at him. No getting info out of him, and Utah was out of his network.

Never mind. He'd get it from Tamara. She'd have to know.




The run-down cabin smelled like sage, and hot dried clay, and something else. Blood, thick and coppery, and over that a taint of something bright, metallic.

He saw the stains on the floor, and that frightened him, more than her bruises had before. He might have killed her this time.

But she couldn't be dead. Unless someone found her, moved her. But then there would be police, crime scene tape.

I knew you'd come back.

He thought the voice came from inside his head, or behind him; automatically he turned to the door. But in turning he saw her, in the doorway that lead to the rag-tag kitchen, a dark shadow: Tamara.

And then it registered: the voice was a buzz, a low-bass buzz that vibrated between his ears although it came from her...


She moved closer and the light from the open door illuminated her, he felt the hairs on his head rise and his breath deepen as his reflexes prepared to run or fight.

It looked like she was covered by an immense, metallic veil, like an iridescent burka — but the veil was moving. Beetles, thousands of them, and fat blue flies clung to her body, molded to it, crawled under and over each other but never showed a scrap of skin. They clustered on her face as well, and through them marched vines of ants in black streams. Maggots and spiders were woven into her hair, and they streamed behind her. Chains of tiny green flies wound around her wrists, about her neck, fluttering peridot.

As she stood, she hummed: her entire body vibrating with the incessant movement of insects.

She spoke again, and it was as if a giant June bug was lodged in her throat, buzzing at him.

They took April away before you got to her, didn't they? So you came back, to find out where. She's too clever for you, that Sylvia-Not. She'd never tell me. She knew I'd break and tell you. I only just figured that out myself.

The flies and beetles lifted off her face, and he saw the intricate stitching of the spiders and the tiny white worms that peeped between the threads.

A tickle at his ankle and he looked down. A red line of ants threaded its way beneath the cuff of his pants. They were rising through the cracks in the concrete like a stream at flood.

Annoyed, he kicked them away. Something stabbed his foot, just at the ankle joint, like a red-hot ice pick. He yelped, startled.

Don't fight them, Sven, she buzzed. Let them take you. Let them change you.

The insects didn't let her lips move with the words.

They'll become your blood and your skin and your flesh. Red, like your anger. Let them change you, Sven. I learned that here. Change or die.

And for a few seconds, staring into Tamara's great, jeweled eyes, he was able to hold still while the urgent tickle of the fire ants crept up, up his legs, up his thighs, toward his testicles. He felt their heat, their bodies full of poison, but as long as he held still they did not bite.

But when the tickle brushed his scrotum he clawed at it, frantically slapping at the tiny predators between his legs, crushing them beneath his feet. A thousand ice picks, all poisoned, struck at once: he swam, waist deep, in fire. He kept on striking, spasmodically, and the ants kept biting, and at one point he was sure they must be laying his very bones bare. He fell to one knee amongst them, and they swarmed across him, cloaking him in a sheet of liquid red, striking everywhere with strong jaws, again. Again. Again.

(burning) How did she (burning) April with her, little bitch, should've (burning) reasonbitch.

In the corner of his eye, as Tamara bent close, a flash of spring green around her head. Color you could drink, could bathe in.

Death like cool water in a burning house.


Sylvia-Not stared at the smear on the floor. No sign of the woman.

She knew Tamara's name, once, but she'd become an expert at forgetting. It protected her, it protected the others, the women under her care.

She rubbed absently at her left forearm, the one with the metal plate still stitched into the bones.

It was too late, then. The husband found the safe house. Sylvia-Not allowed herself to wonder if the woman had gone willingly, or been dragged off.

Probably, as usual, a little of both.

Long ago she learned not to regret. Sometimes, mostly even, it worked. Sometimes it did not. She could not force people to save themselves.

At least the girl was safe.

What burned her was that the safe house was known now, useless for a few years at least. And it was going to be a bitch to find another one in Coachella.

Maybe on the Morongo Rez.

She'd find one. She always did.

She walked through, automatically. Least she could do was straighten up a bit.

There, in the kitchen, on the peeling linoleum floor. A bundle of newspaper, unfolding in the heat.

Another mess to clean up.

But when she knelt to look at it, it wasn't paper at all. Papery, like a wasps' nest. The thin grey stuff crumpled between her fingers.

Large, curved pieces of it. Like the empty husk of a chrysalis. Like something huge had nested here, then hatched out.


Sylvia-Not straightened, and saw the little green flies, everywhere, on the walls, the counters, the greasy ceiling. Have to clean those out, too.

Pity, really. Such delicate creatures. Such a lovely shade of green.

Such a Lovely Shade of Green © 2006 Samantha Henderson
Originally Appeared in Fantasy Magazine
Comfort Zone © Danelle Malan