In the before: a spider dangling from a bare branch, the sun. In the after: a luminous web, the moon. The latter is pale yellow and has a solitary dimple like the spot where an orange is ripped from its pedicel.
These illustrations are from a wordless book of paired images that the girl’s father sent for the girl’s ninth birthday, not grasping that the girl is too old for picture books.
Before, a quill pen and a bottle of ink. After, a typewriter. Before, a cave painting of a cow. After, an oil painting of a cow.
Before sleep—that’s when the girl and the mother look at the book. The mother turns the pages. The girl tells the story of the before and after.
The girl understands what story the spider pictures are intended to tell, but she thinks too of what the mother said recently about how people may one day have to live on the moon. Because people may destroy Earth. Because people are stupid and greedy.
“I’d rather die than go to the moon,” the girl said.
The mother said, “Surely that’s not true.” Then she said she hadn’t meant to worry the girl. She was just thinking out loud.
The mother often spoke to the girl of subjects that then worried the girl: formaldehyde in furniture, elephant poaching, what happens to the body during menopause.
Later in the book, there is a series of houses—a house of straw, a house of wood, a house of brick. In the before, the first two houses lack doors and window panes. In the after, these houses have fallen apart. In the after for the house made of brick, the house’s previously open doors and windows are shut tight. The house stands.
When the girl does not offer up a story, the mother says, “Progress, see? This house is stronger. The wolf can’t destroy it. He can’t get inside, either.”
“But everything can be destroyed,” the girl says.
“That’s not how the story goes,” the mother says.
“What if the wolf becomes stronger, too?” The girl thinks of how she has smote webs with only a flick of her hand.
“Nonsense. The wolf would give up and go after a pig that is easier to capture.”
“What if this is the last pig on Earth? The wolf has eaten all the other pigs.”
The girl’s mother opens her mouth, but the girl continues. “So the wolf huffs with the force of a tornado. Or the wolf tears down the house with a wrecking ball. Or the wolf puts on a gas mask, poisons the air. Or the wolf nukes the house.”
The mother says, “Fine. The wolf destroys the pig’s house. Are you happy?”
The girl says, “The pig is happy it doesn’t have to go to the moon.”
Michelle Ross is the author of There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You (2017), which won the 2016 Moon City Press Short Fiction Award. Her fiction has recently appeared in Hobart, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, Threadcount, TriQuarterly, and other venues. She is fiction editor of Atticus Review. She lives in Tucson, Arizona. www.michellenross.com