When the terrible virus was unleashed and our lives screeched to a halt, I planted a garden. My first. I tended it zealously, with the darting eyes of a suicide bomber. This was March, April, May, the world hijacked by hysteria. I could have watered my garden with tears after returning from the store rumored to have toilet paper, after scrubbing my hands and changing my clothes and scrubbing my hands and disinfecting every sack of off-brand rice, every dented can of beans.

So, the garden. I would grow our groceries. I would knit a chlorophyll blanket around my family: my industry, their immunity.

At first, it worked. Everything grows in Mississippi, even for a “gardener” Googling “how to plant a seed.” In a Mississippi minute, things were sprouting, burgeoning, prospering: #winning.

Until the day my frothy cilantro fronds went missing; only their naked flagpoles remained, resembling chives. The next day, no poles. And, for that matter, no chives. My fennel (yes, I’d grown it solely for the name) was depilated. My dill, dead-headed. What invisible blight was this? My garden was syruped in sunshine, watered daily, and mulched to keep my sproutlings moist.

Slugs, said Google. Slugs shimmy from under the mulch at night. They munch until dawn, then slime back under the mulch, engage in some hermaphroditic kink, then squirt out thirty eggs. And you know what happens to the eggs: everything grows in Mississippi.

Beer, said Google, a plate of beer is the answer. I poured a can into a Frisbee, placed the shallow grave in the garden, set my alarm for 4:30 am. With my phone flashlight I returned. Six or seven gray bloated bodies lolled in their Bud Light Jacuzzi. But angling my phone I could see other slugs still chomping. Not thirty, but thirty times thirty times thirty, the flagstones glistening with their calligraphy, the screen door snotty with secretions. I donned my gardening gloves like a knight would his gauntlets, plucked a fat slug from a leaf of butter crunch, and chucked it into the grass. But it was probably already U-turning to resume its salad course. I plucked another, gritted my molars, and squished. Enough: I didn’t have the stomach for it.

Two-thirds of my children accepted the bribe, a dime a slug, thrilled to be out past bedtime and armed with flashlights. The nine-year-old earned $2.60, the fourteen-year-old $4.10. But the next night they quit after only a buck a piece. “There aren’t any more,” they claimed the third night. But, oh, the slugs were there. I could feel them crawling in the tender hollow at the back of my neck.

I foraged deeper into Google, which now said beer was not the answer; instead, wait for midnight, make a pail of suds, drop the slugs in. They’d die beneath the bubbles, and I wouldn’t have to watch or assist.

Google was right about the soapy water, but beer was still the answer. I drank it steadily, girding for battle. Then I rampaged through my garden until every last slug had been dunked. The next day, I made my husband empty the sluggish pail. Game over.

Months later, when things were still bad, but better, when we understood how the virus spread, and learned to wear masks, and thought we might survive, my fourteen-year-old mentioned the night of my slug fest, mentioned hearing me in the garden.

“Oh, really?” I asked uneasily.

“Yeah,” he said. “I woke up, and I could hear you cursing.”



It remains to be seen how historians will contextualize this long dark pall of pandemic, the fraying of global mental health, the toll on our children’s futures. And that official reckoning will overlap with our private reckonings, the large suffering as well as the smaller stories, the cringe-worthy, told for a laugh. Perhaps at a dinner party, say, people offering up their personal pandemic low. I won’t have to scramble for mine. That night, which should have rightfully slipped into oblivion, is now freshly imagined from the point of view of my son, lying in his bed, in the dark, listening to his drunkish mother marauding in the Mississippi night.

“You kept calling them”—he broke off—“Can I say the word? Without getting in trouble?”

I nodded.

“—Assholes. You’d shout at each slug, before dropping it in the pail, ‘You’re a little asshole.’”

I closed my eyes in a slow blink.

“And—” he continued.


“Sometimes you’d laugh.”


Beth Ann Fennelly, the poet laureate of Mississippi, has won grants from the N.E.A., United States Artists, and a Fulbright to Brazil. Her sixth book, Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs (W. W. Norton) was an Atlanta Journal Constitution Best Book and a Goodreaders Favorite. 

Photo by Dinah Lenney