The first thing she saw when she landed was the sun filtering through tall, still blades of grass. Eerily still, as if the wind had just stopped.
Already this made her think she was in a dream. So it didn’t surprise her that the second thing she saw was his face. It had skittered through her dreams before. Roland, one antenna leaning roguishly askance, just as it had long, long ago before the two of them had even shed their last juvenile exoskeletons. She blinked her small, black eyes and drank in the warm, damp air. Roland’s mouthparts curled open into a smile that scrunched his eyes into two blooming half-moons. So this was going to be one of the good dreams.
And then she heard his voice. Not the way she remembered it—not exactly. And it wasn’t coming to her as if through a cloud. It was immediate. Tangible. “Isobel? Is that really you?”
Isobel curled up into a ball, closing herself in an impenetrable gray armor. For a moment the world disappeared.
Isobel and Roland. Once the other woodlice had said their names in the same breath. For a while, they sought shelter under the same rocks and logs, then came out at night to forage. Not always alone, but always together, often talking and laughing as if they were the only creatures in the glen. They had all learned as children that roly-polies were fish out of water; Isobel and Roland believed themselves to be the only ones who really knew what that meant.
There was a night, once. It had rained during the day, and droplets still clung to the leaves. The bright half-moon above turned them into shimmering beads that quivered in the breeze to the rhythm of cricket songs. A ring of mushrooms had sprouted, and Isobel and Roland had settled in for a feast. Isobel remembered their antennae intertwined so thoroughly it was as if she could read his thoughts.
By the time that half-moon waxed full, Roland spent most of his time foraging with Pillipa. She rolled in one day as quickly as a rain cloud, loud as a magpie, and claimed him. And two full moons after that, Roland was gone. Pillipa mourned as loudly as she’d seduced. “It was awful,” she reported to the oohs and sighs and knowing nods of the other bugs. “Something just came to the ground and plucked him up! It would have gotten me next if I hadn’t burrowed beneath the leaves. Roland saved my life.”
That’s when Isobel began to dream in moons. In her good dreams, there was always a half-moon—a smile, open and inviting. The moon was always full in her bad dreams. A hard, round ball, its secrets locked to her.
Those dreams were rare now. Isobel had made a good life. She had many companions—bugs who made her laugh, made her think. Dillo even made her feel like she belonged. She tended a thriving mushroom garden. The soil in the glen had only become softer, darker, the leaves more delicious. She’d carried a brood of babies. It had been thrilling to imagine them swimming inside of her, tiny plankton growing into miniature white copies of herself. For just a few weeks, nestled in her marsupium, they were at home in the water.
Isobel thought of all of this now, in the face of her current dream or not-dream. In the darkness of her own body, she thought of Dillo, curled up under the log where she’d left him, and longed to go back to the safety of that darkness. What would happen if she opened her eyes now?
Isobel opened slowly, uncurling segment by segment. It was still bright. Roland still hovered above her.
“Omigod. It’s so good to see you. How have you been? You look…” he paused and his smile faded. “This is a shock. I’m sorry. I remember.”
Do you really, she wondered. But aloud she said, “Yes. Can you tell me what’s happening?”
Roland wiggled his antennae and nibbled on a piece of leaf. He shrugged one front leg. “Yes and no,” he said. Isobel could feel his eyes on her face as she continued, watching her reaction. “We’re in the little world. Walk long enough in any direction and there’s a wall.”
Roland gestured with several legs to a wide expanse of soil, covered in damp leaves and dotted with stones. Clumps of tall grass and broad leafy plants cast shadows over soft patches of moss. But if Isobel looked far enough, she could see the horizon blur into a hard reflection. Sunlight bounced off the far wall as if it were a puddle.
They were silent as Isobel took in her surroundings. She appreciated his silence, even though his eyes were still focused on her. She felt exposed in this sunlight. Isobel kept her face and her voice steady as she ventured, “So, you live here. I mean, you’ve lived here all this time?”
Roland nodded. “It’s not so bad. There are more bugs here—all kinds—and no predators. Lots of food. What more could a bug want?” He nudged a leaf in her direction.
Isobel could think of so many more things she wanted. “I’m not hungry,” she deflected. She wanted to stop there, but as long as he was looking at her, she felt compelled to fill the space between them. “I thought you were eaten by a bird,” she said softly. “Pillipa said—”
Roland cut her off. “No bird ever stood a chance against my hiding skills,” he said. conjuring a bravado that had once made Isobel laugh. “But a hand will find you. That’s what happened to you, right?”
“Is that what you call it? My log moved and something closed around me. Now here I am.” Isobel’s armor deflated. In spite of her effort, her voice shook and her eyes became two raindrops.
Roland moved toward her slowly and placed one front leg over hers. “Here we are,” he echoed.
Isobel was not ready to express the incredulity she felt, and, among her swirling emotions, the joy at seeing him alive. But her words continued to come. “It’s good to see you, too.”
Roland remembered. He remembered the loss he felt when he entered the little world. He’d wandered from one corner to the other and stopped to let his antennae probe the cold, solid walls. He had always imagined himself traveling, exploring new corners of the glen. It grieved him to think he would never visit a garden.
It grieved him even more to think of Pillipa. He remembered the way she’d rolled into his life, captivating him with her polished black shell and the way she moved as though she owned the earth. Thenhe remembered the way she’d wriggled out of the hand and disappeared without looking back, willowy legs digging into a pile of leaves. He didn’t question it. He might have done the same if it were in his power. But he did blame her. Maybe it would have been better if they were here together. Then again, maybe they would have gotten tired of each other, their minds drifting apart even as their bodies were trapped in perpetual proximity. Maybe Pillipa knew it in the moment of her leap.
Oh, well. Life was what it was. He hated the circular logic of that statement, but still found it true: life was what it was and all he could do was live it--to eat the leaves on his plate, so to speak. There were a lot of leaves in the little world. Roland digested them diligently and turned them into something different and useful. He dug tunnels and forged paths.
But seeing Isobel was like finding water on a hot day. She still smelled like wind and sage. The little world changed the day she entered it and he realized how much he had missed her. For the first time, he felt like a journey was possible, even in this little world.
Roland stayed close to Isobel, ready for those moments she uncurled her shell and needed someone to talk to. As the nights melted into each other, he found out about the world she’d been snatched from. He left the wettest leaves outside the piece of cardboard under which she made her bed. And when she was ready, he showed her his favorite spot in the whole little world—that corner where, early in the evening, when the moon was low in the sky, you could catch a glimpse of it through the crack in the curtains. That night, the moon reflected in her eyes was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.
Isobel questioned her joy every night as the little world began to feel like home. All of its inhabitants were bound by what they’d lost—homes, family, freedom. Sometimes it washed over Isobel and almost drowned her. But eventually she realized they were also bound by what they created. She would gather fallen seeds and nestle them into the wet soil, and actually found herself looking forward to seeing them sprout.
She was surprised by the way it happened, how adaptable she found herself. She got used to the strange lights that interrupted the night. She no longer trembled when the hand reached into the world to deposit new leaves, new friends, or squirt a cool sheet of misty droplets. Instead she would crawl out into them, take a moment to marvel at the little jewels, so perfectly still in a breezeless world. Then she would be the wind, scattering droplets as she danced through, soaking them into her uropods.
And there was Roland, dancing along beside her. He was beside her at every opportunity. That began to feel normal, too. Not just like it was in the glen; it was something else they were creating as they got to know the selves one another had become.
Isobel enjoyed Roland’s observations and seeing the little world through his eyes. Like that time he led her over the twig that bridged a ravine to see the moon for the first time. A perfect half-moon.
“I missed this so much,” she said.
As they sat and watched the moon rise past the top of the window, Isobel wondered how much he remembered. “Would you go back if you could?” she asked. She watched a shadow drift over Roland’s face.
“That’s irrelevant,” he said. “I can’t. And even if I could, I’m a different bug than the one the hand carried away. What do I have to go back to?” He paused, rolling a pebble back and forth with one back leg. “What about you?”
“I wonder that every day, and it’s a question I can’t answer anymore,” Isobel admitted. The stillness became unbearable. She moved toward a leaf and started to nibble, talking between mouthfuls. “Anywhere I go now, I’m divided. There are things I love about both worlds.”
She pictured those twelve baby pill bugs, their soft white shells turned gray, foraging in their own leaf piles—pieces of her on the outside, maybe even tending her own mushrooms, drawn to them without knowing because of who they were. But they seemed distant now. And there was the world in front of her, so real she could taste it. There was Roland, coming over to share her leaf. She said none of this out loud, but nudged the crisp brown leaf toward him, an invitation.
“I’m glad,” he said.
The two of them stayed, silently chewing leaves. They were isopods. They recycled decaying things because that’s what they knew how to do. When the sky turned light gray and yellow like an old bruise, and they crawled in to finish off the last bites of leaf for the night, their antennae met and lingered. Yes, they were different bugs, but they could still read each other’s thoughts, and Isobel and Roland each knew what the other would do if the walls turned out to be just waterfalls. That was reason enough to stay.