My friend Winter’s fingers are cold like you’d expect, and I notice it because she doesn’t take my hand often. We’re on our way down the mountain path into town to buy more flour because she’s already baked the rest into cookies and cakes, and if the kitchen goes too long without flour in it, the fine snow-like dust will eventually be swept off the counters and it won’t feel the same, like a place she can live in.
We haven’t been talking. Silence from Winter because she’s upset, and silence from me because I know the two sides of Winter’s situation and both are bad sides, hers and Solomon’s. She married him a month ago and has hardly come out of the kitchen since, because in reality she’s using him. She wants to be a housewife, she thinks it will make her happy, and in order to realize this dream she’s relying on Solomon’s love. But I’ve heard Solomon’s side, too, and the love isn’t there. The sex brought them together but now the kitchen has divided them, and because she’s my friend I can’t be the one to tell her it isn’t working and so I am going with her to buy flour, even though the sun hasn’t come up yet. She’s been baking through the night, and I’ve been eating what I can, although there’s always more.
With Winter’s fingers grasping mine, I look where she’s looking, off where the hills roll low in the distance, soft and dark, and then I see what made her pause:
An orange swell is rising against the denim sky. It lifts like a slow oil bubble coming to the surface, round and luminous. For a moment it appears to cling to the curve of the hill, but then it detaches and is able to float free. Its texture is finely dimpled all over, just like the fruit, and then I understand that this is the fruit. The sky remains dim but the orange is bright and it begins to move steadily through the air toward us—like a moth drawn to light only it is an orange and we are just two girls on our way to buy flour.
As it approaches, it grows in size so that by the time it is before us it is huge and looming—ten feet tall? twelve?—but the moment that it touches the ground it collapses into itself like a witch deflating.
From the far side there is movement and something makes its way out and stands facing us. It is a very tall man with long angular limbs and the head of a giant ant, his face pointed, the eyes black and small, the feelers waving like he can smell or sense everything inside of us. It’s possible that he is violent, or evil, but then he says to Winter I love you and it’s clear that that’s why he has come.
“What?” Winter says. She lets go of my hand, standing there, looking at him. The light is still dim, still prior to sunrise. She seems like a very small girl. I watch the ant man to see what will happen.
We have a past together. From another life. I was your child. Now I’ve come to love you.
On his hip he wears a long, curved knife. He unsheathes it and waves it in the air in wide, dramatic swoops. A mating ritual? A nervous habit? It does not seem like he intends to frighten us. Its silvery edge is gleaming, sharp. It’s true: he is nothing but a child.
“We don’t play with those.” I have to say it firmly, multiple times, before he puts it away.
Together, we walk down the hill. The ant man is not very talkative, but after all, we are comfortable in silence. Since the arrival of the orange, time seems to have stopped here at the pre-sunrise moment. Maybe the sun is still out there, hovering just beyond the horizon, waiting for this story to end before time can resume, or maybe the orange really was the sun and now that the ant man has come out of it it will never be able to rise fully into the sky. He walks in-between me and Winter, and I don’t really like it, the separation, but I understand that it must be necessary. He has a claim on her past that I can never share.
The market is dark and quiet, the employees are all sleeping somewhere upstairs, but we leave the money for the flour on the counter; a pile of quarters and dimes. Winter clutches the white bag in her hands and I can see how tightly she holds it. She purses her lips together and for a moment I think she is going to cry at last—after having held it in for so long—but then she asks the ant man what kind of cookies he would like. At this, his feelers go into action. He says that he wants the jam filled kind. So I go find the blackberry jam and carry it as we make our slow way back up the mountain. The ant man sometimes touches his knife at his hip but I know he sees me watching him and he does not take it out.
Why did he come for Winter? Why doesn’t anyone come for me? Because she is the baker and all I do is eat? But these questions are pointless. It is the nature of the world and some day I will become used to it.
The light in the kitchen is on while the rest of the house is dark. We enter through the back door and as we pass the living room I can hear the fitful sound of Solomon snoring. We do not have to tell the ant man to be quiet. He understands intuitively, as ants do. Animals are beyond words, which is how Winter and I would like to be.
The counters are full: a strawberry cake, plates of butter cookies and flaky misshapen croissants, ginger snaps and miniature peach tarts and snicker doodles to fill our mouths with something like laughter. Too much, but she can’t stop baking. Winter places plates onto other plates to make room. We will need more plates soon. I hope the ant man will eat until nothing is left, because maybe that will solve everything and I won’t have to feel like I am the one who has failed. As Winter mixes the butter and the sugar and sifts in the flour the muscles in her arms strain, the effort apparent in her whole body. I remind her of the vanilla. I open the jam, and take one secret spoonful that I put into my mouth even though I have come to hate the taste of sweetness. There’s too much inside of me now and nowhere for it to go.
Winter is shaping the cookies and filling them with jam when Solomon appears in the doorway. We all stop and look at him like he has caught us, which he has. He looks first at the ant man and then he looks at Winter, and just seeing that look, even from my place of safety, is enough to turn something in my belly into stone. In this moment, I hate Solomon. Why can’t he keep sleeping and just let us bake? What does he know about the ant man?
“He’s come to love her,” I want to say, but instead I hold my tongue very still in my mouth while Solomon continues to think whatever dark and tired thoughts he has in his head.
“You need to go,” Solomon says. He looks at Winter as he says it, but I think he means all of us. On the table, half of the cookies have been filled with jam and the other half are still waiting. I look at the globs of jam that have fallen on the table, at the empty cookies, the white of the soft dough. I press my finger into one of the indentations until it makes a hole in the bottom through which I can see the floured surface of the table. I imagine milk pouring through that hole and flooding the world.
Winter doesn’t move.
Outside, the sun or the orange has not risen.
Everything feels as frozen and still as Winter’s fingers, which are grasping the jar of jam, a spoon sticking out through the opening. I want to grab that spoon and do something with it, but instead I create another hole in another cookie, and it is the ant man who steps forward, between Solomon and Winter.
She stays, says the ant man. She bakes. You go.
On Solomon’s face: surprise. Then anger. Fury. The hidden man inside Solomon comes out of his hibernation and whatever spell the cookies may have cast on him is broken. He is free and wild. He steps toward the ant man; his hands are pulsing.
“Do you think she wants to be with someone like you?” Solomon says. I can hear the laughter in his voice. He is the kind of animal who will always speak.
I look at the ant man’s black eyes, try to see what emotion it is that rises up in them, but they seem totally blank. Even his feelers are still. I wait for Winter to say something, to reassure him, even if she doesn’t mean it. Sometimes you have to speak up, because of what will happen. But she is silent.
The ant man unsheathes his curved knife and holds it in front of him, but he hesitates, not swinging it this time. He looks at Winter with his ant eyes, and his feelers tremble like leaves in the wind.
I was your child, the ant man says, as if saying it for a second time will seal Winter more firmly to him. Winter does not look at him, and turns instead to the cookies. She begins to dollop jam into the remaining cookies with uncommon sloppiness. The jam heaps over the edges, dripping onto the table, making everything sticky.
I’ve come so far, the ant man says. His knife arm is limp, drooping, and the sharp lines of his body are those of a naked tree. I can’t bear to look at Solomon’s face and see the triumph there. Where will Winter go if we leave? Where will I?
But then, with the surprise and surety of a gust of wind, the ant man snaps back to attention. His joints lock into place. He is tall again; a soldier; a straight line pointing to the sky and his knife the curve of the world, a sharp silver arc in the white space of the kitchen.
We do not understand what is happening until a moment before the ant man’s head is on the floor—a self-decapitation, achieved by a single swift stroke of his arm and as the pointed head rolls in a lumpy circle, the hand releases the wet knife, the body—as if gasping—falls and there is a growing pool of something dark purple and sticky, so similar in color to the jam. The rock that I felt in my stomach expands until it is the full size of me and then it vanishes and I am nothing. Solomon backs away and still I don’t look at his face. I don’t need to. We can all feel what has happened to the room—the burst of the ant man’s life escaping has filled the air with sudden vertigo, exhilaration, the pain of ecstasy. We all inhale something of the ant man. The particles of his blood and body. The release of everything he came here for, for Winter, for what he was and was not. I wonder if Winter will be able to cry now, and if it will make a difference. Inside, the tears run through me.
Solomon leaves and I know he will not come back. The spirit of the ant man will stay here now, which means Winter and I can stay, too, in safety. It is not how we wanted to win, and the victory is hollow, and the sun still does not rise. We don’t get to finish baking the cookies because now there is the body and what to do with it.
The ant head seems different than it did before; it’s the part of him that we could never know, and Winter and I drag the human part out by his two hands after we have taken the knife and the head away. This is why children should not have knives. We will bury the head outside, because maybe it will grow.
“I know this hand,” Winter says, holding it in both of her own.
We thought maybe to put the body in the compost pile, but then I said we should take it back to the orange, and Winter agreed even though it will take us a long time to drag him so far. For the second time tonight we go down the mountain path, this time weighted down.
When we find the skin on the ground, it has lost the glow that it had when we first saw it. On the far side, we find the opening through which the ant man came and maneuver the headless body into it. Winter is reluctant to let go of the hand. She looks at it for a long time before hiding it away inside the orange. If you saw the skin of the orange on the path as you walked past you would have no idea that anything was inside.
And because we don’t know what else to do, we go back to the kitchen, and clean the rest of the ant man’s traces away and eventually we are back to the cookies, which by now it seems pointless to bake but we get to work anyway. I wonder whether some of the jam on the table and in the cookies is not his blood and if we will eat it and not know the difference and if it will change us even if we don’t know how.
“Help me,” Winter says. I help her clean up the messy cookies and fill the rest. I wipe the extra jam away from the edges of the dough and lick it from my finger and the taste of it hurts so that I want more. We are on the top of the mountain. We are in the kitchen. But where are we really?
If the flour dust is like the galaxy and the jam globs are the stars and planets, I think that we are somewhere in between where the orange was when it rose up from the hill in the distance, and the orange when it sat big on the mountain and collapsed into itself. We are currently in the air, in the process of making that journey, coming from a long way away and going toward somewhere we have been looking for a very long time, growing until we shed the thick orange skin that contains us and crawl out, saying, “I love you,” to the first person we see because it is our deepest and hardest truth, our seed, and the only thing that will be planted after we rot. In the pre-dawn I hold my breath and can feel that my heart still beats.