KAGE BAKER admired the constructions of caddis fly pupae. Not the bugs themselves, mind you, though they are fairly inoffensive insects with long gauzy wings. Not the actual larvae, either, which are fairly offensive little wormies that live their entire juvenile life underwater.
What makes the caddis pupae interesting is that they are architects. Like the more famous bees and wasps, they create little homes for themselves: not for the entire caddis community, but highly individual tubes of tiny, mortised stones. Inside these unpleasantly crunchy shells resides the gooey, helpless goodness of the pupae, which hope to survive until winged adulthood in their tiny little sarcophagi.
And here is where caddis flies get really interesting, you see. Because left to its own arthropodic devices, it will spin about itself a gummed-up envelope of sand grains, tough pollen, bits of shale and granite and crystal. Whatever aesthetic informs the pupa’s choices is alien to humans, other than the presumed disinclination to be nibbled upon by trout. But we can see what they do, even if we don’t understand it.
However, any one caddis pupa can be presented with carefully curated building supplies by scientists with slightly more time on their hands than common sense – supplies that include gold and silver beads and wire, tiny glass beads and cabochons, slivers of mirror, polished fragments of jade, sapphire, topaz, ruby, amethyst and lapis lazuli. Fish scales like burnished silver, seed pearls, slices of millefiori glass. and the occasionally nicely polished fragment of amber beer bottle or blue hand cream jar.
The results are magical elfin jewels, tidily flensed of their wormy masters – who have flown away on dragonfly wings – and left to adorn the fingers and ears of such pale ladies as do not fall into the river and float down drowned from Shallot.
Kage was enchanted with this insect-level craftsmanship. She always searched creek beds for caddis shells (though she never found any, alas) and often compared the process of her own writing to the blind energy of the caddis. Collect anything! Collect everything! Beauty will come to dwell in the interstices of shiny rocks and glass chips, and what you leave behind when you fly will be beautiful beyond the dreams of love …
This is a method which, I think, works for all writers. It certainly works for me, after years of watching Kage accumulate shiny bits for her story shells. I do the same thing, try to remember every unique and peculiar happening that chances by me, measuring each shiny bit to see if will fit into the growing mosaic in my head.
My recent 7-month long stay in hospital has provided me with all sorts of material. Most of the sparklies I encountered were fairly scary – part of their charm was the shadow-limning of terror and despair that outlined them against the sterile boredom of my days in bed. I became a connoisseuse of ceilings: I saw a lot of them, from various beds and gurneys. I now detest acoustic tile with the heat of a thousand suns.
There were always weird cries and howls – especially when the Lakers and the Dodgers were winning their respective tournaments; the staff was darting in and out of any room with a television all day, trying to catch glimpses of the games. But I remember best one gentleman protesting at length that he simply had to be released so he could go vote: I admired his tenacity, but he was about 6 months early when he started in on it. There was also a lady who kept wailing that a monster was eating her cat … I felt very sorry for her, since if one must endure a lasting hallucination it would be nicer if it were not of a cherished friend’s being endlessly devoured.
There were nicer ephemera, though. Every early morning, the first sunlight would paint shadows of tree limbs across the wall at the foot of my bed. Sometimes, the silhouette of some little bird would appear as well, hopping from branch to branch. I watched for it anxiously every day.
Some of the staff had voices I enjoyed, and listened to as if they were a distant radio broadcast. One gentleman had shoes with such aggressively rubber soles that his footstep literally tweeted as he walked. The sound of small birds accompanied him everywhere; he was an especially dour fellow, so it always made me giggle.
I did resolve, though, that I would never, ever becomes what I heard so late at night: a thin voice weeping unremarked in the distance, remembering what no one else was left to understand. I’ve made sure my family knows I most emphatically do not want heroic measures should my health take that last, fatal curve into nothingness: let me go, don’t leave me to cry out endlessly for succor from people who don’t care … when I’ve used up the gold beads and silver wires, for gods’ sakes don’t leave me to make my caddis shell out of dull grey pebbles.
I’ve made such a good start with glass and pearls and tinfoil already. Let me finish my caddis shell in glory.
Lovely. Just lovely. A caddis case of jewels, this is.