When Ciara bites into a fig she does not expect a wasp. Usually dried, a fig is a graveyard. When Ciara coughs these days she does not expect to urinate. When Ciara stands in line at this coffee shop she does not expect a river of breastmilk to soak her. When Ciara reaches for the change in her pocket she does not expect to feel this dampness on the skin of her wrist and then notice the relief on one side, the softness. She does not expect to feel the pressure of the right at the same time the left has leaked itself dry.
But when it is her turn to order, the eyes of the barista are fixed not on the milk stain darkening the left but on the other, on the flesh of the overripe breast, the flesh that’s straining the cloth of her t-shirt. Men squeeze through the door, bells jangling, men loom sweaty and sandaled in the lineup, men deposit their coins and receive their paper cups and leave. His eyes hover between the flesh and the cash register and her mouth, never landing on her eyes or the thing beside her foot.
She realizes with a start that the thought of a thing is not the same as a thing, that the thought of a fig is not the same as a fig, that the thought of shame is not the same as shame. Maybe it’s sleep deprivation that does it, that lifts part of her consciousness up and away from the grease in her hair, the growing ache of the right, her eyelids fluttering shut, her exhaustion. She floats up and up and up and into the southwest corner of this coffee shop where her non-body clings to the ceiling like an insect. She watches this man hand her what she ordered, she watches herself take it, she watches herself select a discreet table at the back on which to place the baby’s carseat. She watches the thing curl up to the heat of the breast, gulping. The vice squeeze of letdown nearly drowns her.
Be quiet! Dad will get mad. I’m serious. He’ll make you go back to your own room. Do you want to hear it or not? Fine, I won’t. Well it’s a good story. Fine. Give me the flashlight.
On a path in the woods there’s a traveller. He’s riding his stallion – no, I don’t know what the horse’s name is. Because I don’t. Because – fine. The horse’s name is Pegasus. No, he doesn’t have wings.
The horse – Pegasus – is exhausted. He can barely keep up a trot. The man is tired too, and covered with burrs and scratches. He stinks. It’s a long way to the next village and he’s starving. The sun is up high in the sky but the canopy of leaves overhead is so thick the light can barely trickle through.
They come to a clearing and he sees a little cottage, an onion-shaped house, with a round puff of smoke above the chimney. He gets off the horse and he knocks.
There’s no answer. He knocks again, harder, and he leans against the wall. It’s warm, damp, strangely soft. He pulls his shoulder away and it leaves an indent. Finally he knocks a third time, he slams his knuckles against the splintered door. His stomach tightens, it gurgles and twists.
Can you not eat Cheetos right now? This is supposed to be scary. Well, it is. Shut up. It is.
He’s angry now, he feels awful, he needs some food and a place to sleep. So he reaches for the knob but just as he’s about to let himself in, a little slat slides open and a pair of deep green eyes appear. There’s a woman’s voice. What do you want, she asks him.
And he answers her. I’m a traveller, he says. I need a bed for the night and a meal.
The slat slams shut and the door opens. The woman is hunched and her arms are long and gnarled as branches. She grins and her teeth are nearly black. She says I have no extra rooms, but I have twelve daughters. You’re welcome to share a bed with them.
He scoffs at that. He says is that a joke? He says I left my sense of humour on the road.
It’s not that kind of joke. You’ll get it when you’re older.
Anyway, she says fine. She says if you prefer to sleep under the stars, I’ll save my loaves of bread for the next man.
So he sighs, he presses his hand against the doorway. He says yes, thank you. Thank you for your hospitality. Because he’s a polite traveller, very polite.
He leads his horse – yes, Pegasus – around the back of the house. He ties Pegasus to a post and pats his neck then he undoes his pants and takes a piss – stop laughing, it’s part of the story! – he takes a piss on a flowering fruit tree.
When he walks back to the front of the house, the old woman is gone. He goes inside, he leaves his boots on. The floor is dirt, the walls are damp somehow, there’s a hint of decay in the air. Still, he can hear a wood stove crackling in the kitchen. His mouth starts to water.
He hears footsteps. He hears the old woman’s voice, softer than before. He walks forward a few paces, peers in a doorway.
It takes his eyes a moment to adjust to the dim light. There’s only one window and it’s small, oblong, draped in burlap. Gradually his vision clears and he sees the old woman perched on the edge of a round bed. And there are twelve girls there, all naked, curled up. They’re all curled up asleep in a spiral. Each girl’s hair is long and loose, pooled around their heads in the darkness.
Yes, they’re naked. Shut up. They just are.
The old woman is singing a song to one of her daughters, a lullaby the man doesn’t know. Her voice is low and sweet. In her left hand she’s got a small brass spoon and in her right hand there’s a jar of something dark and sticky.
He stands there frozen. The woman lifts the gauze off her daughter’s face, she floats the spoon to the girl’s mouth. Her jaw drops open like a puppet’s but she doesn’t wake up. And the woman strokes the girl’s throat downwards to help her swallow, just like this. Come here I’ll show you. Like this. Yes. And she does, the lump goes down even though she’s still asleep.
The old woman turns and looks at the man. She says oh there you are. She says you must be hungry. And he stands there frozen, he stands there frozen, he stands there frozen and says yes.
Aristotle recorded in History of Animals that the fruits of the wild fig tree contained fig wasps. These were believed to be spontaneously generated. Crucial to this doctrine is the idea that life can emerge from non-life, that no parent is needed, that all that is needed is vital heat and matter and time (minutes, weeks, years). An example is maggots emerging from a corpse. An example is the mud of the Nile. Sometimes Ciara wishes this could be true. Sometimes Ciara wonders if this could be true. Sometimes Ciara feels a part of herself splitting off, grasping at music. The baby growing inside her likes music. The baby growing inside her kicks when she stands near the bassinet she got free from a friend of her mother, kicks when she moves her textbooks aside and flops the full weight of her body down on the bed. The baby inside of her body has nothing to do with the blank space inside of an elevator. Ciara prefers to imagine this baby rising from nothing, stitched together by air and earth. Aristotle said living things emerge from putrefaction but putrefaction wasn’t the source of life, not the root of it. That part’s just a byproduct of sweetness, the elemental course of water.
The traveller doesn’t know why these girls are all sleeping, why they’re sleeping naked covered in gauze. He doesn’t know why or what this woman is feeding them. But one thing I forgot to mention before is that this traveller is very brave. He’s travelled all over, this way and that way, so he’s not afraid of this little old woman in this little round house with her daughters all asleep in a spiral. And he’s hungry, that part I did mention. He’s starving, he needs something to eat.
So he follows the old woman who’s walking in bare feet along the dirt floor. He follows her to the kitchen where she tells him to sit. The table is overflowing with food, there are bowls of apples and pears and a wheel of cheese, there are jars of purple jam, lidless and dripping. There’s a loaf of fresh bread, still steaming, the crust coated in nuts. He tears off a thick piece and smears it with butter.
No, I’m not getting you a snack. You should have asked Mom before bed. Fine, just eat the stupid Cheetos.
Anyway, the old woman doesn’t eat anything, just smiles at him with her rancid teeth. The man stuffs chunk after chunk of bread in his mouth, he can feel his stomach stretching and filling. He takes a breath, he loosens his breeches. And he looks up and the old woman is sliding a bowl toward him, a little red bowl that’s overflowing with figs. They’re dark purple and nearly bursting with ripeness, tiny droplets of water coating their skins.
He reaches out to take one, he cups it in both hands. The smell is sweet. He takes a bite, just a little one. And he’s sitting there peering into the small opening he’s made when suddenly a wasp flies out, a full-grown wasp, it flies out of the fig and stings him on the tongue.
Yes, his tongue.
His lips are tingling, his mouth feels like fire. He yells and slams his fist down at the table, shouts at the old woman who’s still sitting there, still. She gets up and walks casually over to the wood stove where she pours some liquid from a cauldron into a mug. She hands it to him and says drink. He looks down into the mug and there are leaves floating in a strange tea, and grasses and roots and pine needles. He takes a gulp and retches at the bitterness but he can feel the stinger start to shift.
But then he coughs. Before he can grab the stinger he coughs and he chokes and he swallows the tiny thing down, down deep into his belly. His face turns bright red, his heart is thundering away in his chest, sweat is stinging his eyes.
The walls are melting, he’s melting. He’s lost his sense of direction, his balance. And before he knows it the old woman is holding him up, she’s leading him down the hall to the bedroom.
Now he can barely move. The old woman’s undressing him, she’s pulling off his dirty sweaty clothes and she’s laying him down on the bed. She places him beside one of the daughters, the one closest to the door. Her hair is black and shimmering. Her skin is glowing beneath the gauze.
In the case of the library’s elevator Ciara would prefer to be outside it. In most cases Ciara prefers the stairs. But it’s almost midnight and she’s been studying for hours. She has an exam tomorrow and she needs to get home.
The doors have already begun to close when a man appears, when he thrusts his arm into the elevator to stop them. He’s balding, bespectacled, pale, dank, a set of keys jangling on a lanyard.
Seven, six, five. The numbers alight and then darken. Then the man looms over the control panel, then the careful sound of metal. The elevator’s gears screech and halt. A polished stone inside Ciara jumps and there are glasses on her face, on his face, there are buttons on the wall, sweat on their noses. She reaches over and pushes OPEN she pushes ALARM but nothing. Nothing happens in the box in the shaft.
Guess we wait he says and Ciara smiles a non-smile and freezes, holds the weight of her body up with her bones.
The man slides down the wall of the elevator. He slides down the wall of the elevator and spreads out his legs, exhales. His cologne smells like a pear left out in the sun.
Ciara would like to open her book. Ciara would like to open the doors of this elevator. Ciara would like to race across campus and open the door of her dorm room and lock it behind her, lock the windows, close the blinds, carry her body to her bed and slip inside it. Ciara sees herself and this man from above, she witnesses his assessment.
I’m Sid by the way he says and she nods she says nice to meet you. Well I haven’t met you yet have I he says. She says her name quickly and her left hand reaches into her bag and lifts out her textbook. It tells her the wasp enters the fig as the spermatozoa enters the egg. It tells her this symbiosis began 70 million years ago. What are you reading he says and she doesn’t answer and he says hey he says hey what are you reading. Ecology and Evolution she answers. He’s quiet just long enough for her to eye him sideways. He’s quiet just long enough for her to inhale. He’s quiet just long enough to slip his fingers into his pocket and he’s moving his hand, he’s moving his hand. What does it say he says. Read it to me he says. Ciara. She holds the book closer to her face. Read it.
The female is a normal insect she says and his hand moves faster. While the males are mostly wingless. She squeezes her eyes shut and opens them again halfway. The words are treading water. Read it. The short female flowers grow wasps and the long flowers only grow seeds contrary to popular belief ripe figs are not full of dead wasps she says. Only seeds. Only seeds he repeats after her, she’s not looking but she hears the rustling fabric of his cargo shorts. Her hands are numb the words are swimming she loses balance. The male wasp’s second and final act is to dig a tunnel for the female to escape. What’s his first act, he says. She closes her eyes. Hey. What’s the first. She burrows out of her body she climbs inside the book and hides inside the letter e, spirals herself into its tiny attic.
To mate with a female, she whispers, before she’s even hatched. Then there’s a break in space and time, then someone else’s voice is reading out loud, then someone else is lying supine as the man struggles to his feet, adjusts his zipper, slips a key into the elevator’s service lock. Then someone else is feeling the gears start to chug and turn, someone else’s sneakers are stepping through the open door and running fast through the library, through the foyer, out and into the darkness, her footfalls only a murmer.
The old woman’s gone. He wants to sleep, he wants to make this feeling stop but he can’t, all he can feel are his hands trembling, he’s got tunnel vision, he’s sick to his stomach, he’s sick. He wants to scream and ask for help but instead he lifts the gauze off of the girl’s body. He was wrong, she’s not a child, she’s got hair down there and breasts and hips. His heart is galloping and he’s sweating and before he realizes what he’s doing he’s pulling out his Thing and pushing it inside her. And she doesn’t move, doesn’t speak, doesn’t wake up, doesn’t say yes or no. He listens to the clack clack clack of her teeth crashing together as her head dangles off the edge of the bed.
The traveller’s lost, he’s in a fever dream. One by one he lifts the gauze from the daughters. He crawls from girl to girl, head pounding, ears ringing, vision blurring, stomach churning. He can’t remember anything before, can’t imagine anything after. Wake up he says, over and over. He peels back their eyelids but they flutter closed again.
The room smells like dying flowers. He’s crying, he thinks. His skin is liquid. Suddenly he hears a scream, he thinks it’s coming from the girl beneath him but he’s wrong, it’s coming from outside. He can barely walk so he crawls to the window, he pulls himself up, yanks the burlap aside. The old woman is standing beside his horse, covered in bloodspray. She pulls a butcher knife from the creature’s side and it falls forward, screaming.
The man pounds on the window but can’t break the glass. He slides down, the skin of his face squeaking. He starts clawing at the wall and realizes it’s not made of brick or wood or clay but something softer, sweeter, fruitflesh. He digs at it with his hands until his fingertips are bleeding, he digs and digs until he breaks through, he crawls through the tunnel on his elbows. The last light of sunset blinds him. The last thing he hears is the tearing of gauze and twelve gasps in succession behind him.
Ciara, stop crying. Don’t be such a baby. It’s just a story, it’s just a story, it’s not real.