Ashley massaged the loose skin free from the flesh of a boiled peach, the last one of one of the day's last batches, each batch a batch of a dozen, at least, and braced the paring knife's blunt edge against his blistered thumb, mercifully numbed by the ice bath from which he'd fished out each of the peaches, and his thoughts pooled in the familiar hollow the familiar work hollowed out. These concerned his wife.
She’d been burning for a while, now, getting on three years. He gave the knife a little twist and split the peach in two. Three seemed long, it’s true, but some things are hard to get used to. He scooped up the gleaming slices of fruit and watched them slip in the jar, a gaping pair of landed koi gasping for the syrup.
His thoughts turned around the fire they could neither escape nor embrace. They revolved around his wife. Their occasional eclipse by Javier was in this sense a mild relief. Javier, the nurse, who looked after her now, and for whom Ashley gathered the peach pits up in a sun-beaten two-litre ice-cream pail as a minor, seasonal favour.
His flip-flops puckered as he walked to the stove to lower the flame and stir the syrup. The varnish beading the pine wood walls warmed the light in the kitchen, into which the peaches and carmelized sugar had been steadily luring wasps. A lapse in attention might be repayed by a dozen or more of the insects invading the honeycombed jars on the counter. When this occurred he’d dump them into a colander in the sink. He’d turn on the tap, press his thumb to the spout, and hose their twitching, brittle bodies through the slits. (He’d shudder immediately afterwards but replay the memory often, and listen, as he did, for the unwholesome crackle.)
The window sill above the sink held Sheila's collection of beach glass, translucent little livers coloured white, green and brown. The afternoon light was grey. A glider turned in patient arcs, so close to the clouds in colour that only movement gave it away. Something twitched up close in the corner of the screen. Brassy, frantic legs and antennae sprung from an enormous oily black carapace, that dwindled off at the end into a wispy ovipositor, urgently and intimately coiling and uncoiling. “Stumpfucker!” he wheezed before he felt his lips moving, everything out of sync now and scrambling for a weapon. He clutched a bottle of dish soap and bludgeoned the thing with its butt. Lemony ropes of Joy detergent spewed in his direction. He smashed it again and again. He’d pulled it apart from its abdomen and it blithely persisted in twitching. He dropped the soap in the sink. He yanked the big tomato juice can out from under the sash. The window slammed so hard and so fast for a second he thought it’d cracked.
The peaches in the colander were, like him, soaked in detergent. He could taste it. Sheila’s collection of beach glass was scattered across the floor. He heard a voice behind him as he crouched to gather it up.
He unclenched the fist of his face and stood. Javier was in the archway, dressed in his sneakers and scrubs.
“Ash, are you hurt?”
“No, no, sorry, no, it was just a stu – just a wasp. It was just a really, really big wasp. In the, uh, fuck –” He felt his face getting hotter.
“I need you to answer me, Ash,” he said. “Ash, are you allergic to bees?”
“No. Sorry,” he said. “No, sorry, it’s… I’m… it’s fine, I’m okay. Wasp.”
“Are you allergic?”
Ashley shook his head.
“You’ll be okay, Ash. Here,” he said, unzipping a burgundy fanny pack and rooting around inside it, “we’ll put some calamine lotion on it.”
“No, sorry, I’m, really, I’m okay, I didn’t get stung. I’m okay. I got it.”
At this Javier appeared to relax and his broad smile returned. He cupped his hand on the side of Ashley’s neck and leaned in, winking. “I’d hate to see the other guy!”
“Oh, huh, yeah, haha, yeah, yeah, haha, yeah, oh yeah,” said Ashley as Javier patted him on the back, “haha, yeah, he, uh, I mean she, uh, yeah, he won’t be bothering us anymore! Haha!” He crouched back down to pick up the glass. “So, h-how,” he said, and swallowed, as he picked up the glass with one hand and piled it in the other, “how is she doing?”
“Oh, she’s doing very well,” Javier said. “She’s a tremendous woman, you know, very wise,” and Ashley could hear the smile in his voice. “Of course, clearly, you know this.”
“The, uh…” Ashley trailed off.
“No, yes, of course,” he said, “the fire is the same. Do you mind?” he asked, and stepped around Ashley to rinse his hands in the sink. “It smells divine in here, Ash,” he said and stepped aside. Ashley, with his hands full, turned on the tap with his elbow. He rinsed each piece in sequence and arrayed them on the sill. “Sheila and I can’t wait to taste them, Ash. I hope you know how much this means to her.” Javier paused and listened as he raised and lowered his foot. He took a wet-nap from his fanny pack and wiped the soles of his sneakers, and left. The hall briefly glowed as the bedroom door opened and darkened again as it shut.
The fire never produced any smoke. It consumed nothing it touched. But there was something wrong with the air around it, of this Ashley was certain. It was several weeks after it all had begun that he started to notice the threads. They’d hang in the air a foot from the flames and had a strange way of sliding slowly about that distinguished them from mere dust motes. “They had a purposeful way of moving,” is how he might have chosen to describe them if he were still at home in language.
Unlike the fire, which no one had ever found occasion to doubt, these ephemeral, glassy filaments tormented him alone. They were difficult to see and his symptoms were idiopathic. Every doctor was a sceptic. But scepticism was something that he found he could not afford. Even a brief exposure would have him coughing through the night. When he spotted the fine red specks on his sleeve after a night of tossing and coughing on the living-room hide-a-bed, he decided the matter was serious enough to warrant hiring a nurse.
As Javier took over Sheila’s care, her husband’s health improved. And so, as far as Ashley could tell, did her spririts. Javier approached his work with utmost conscientiousness. He was capable in his duties and gregarious, warm in his bearing. He would often volunteer, unasked, to assist Ashley in the orchard, at one point hauling a stump from the ground that had troubled Ashley for weeks.
On every Catholic solemnity, he would bring the couple gifts. He gave Ashley a flask of Lepanto brandy to mark the Assumption of Mary, and to Sheila on that day he gave a pair of modest pearl earrings. On All Saints’ Day, Ashley got Resolí, and Sheila, a rustic silver brooch from whose intricate hammered foliage bloomed seven baroque pearls. On the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, he presented Ashley with an unlabelled green liqueur in an undulating glass bottle, and to Sheila he gave a pearl necklace. And so it went, consistently and without ado. Ashley had at first demured. He called him into the sun porch while Rigoletto played on the speakers. Mumbling, he said that Sheila, these days, had no real use for jewellery. He said that the fire would damage it, though he knew, in fact, it would not. The fire clung to her jealously and had not even scorched the sheets. He said that they couldn’t accept these gifts, it’s enough that they pay him so little. Javier only shrugged and said it was no trouble at all. Jewelling was a hobby of his and the pearls had come to him cheaply. The liquor he had inherited. Javier didn’t drink.
Once the last of the peaches was sliced and jarred, Ashley washed his hands. He dried them off on his khaki pants and slipped on a pair of oven mitts. He carefully lifted the pot of syrup and poured it into a watering can that waited in the sink. He then filled each jar in turn, leaving half an inch of space. Here and there some star anise would slowly bob to the surface. After shooing a couple small wasps away, he placed the lids on top of the jars and screwed on the mason rings. The canning pot took ten at a time. He wrapped each in a cotton rag, torn from threadbare sheet. This would keep them from cracking when the water boiled and they jostled against one another.
He drew a Red Bird match from a flower pot they kept on the fridge. He struck it on the terra cotta and lit the hissing burner. The ignition switch had been broken for years, despite his vows to fix it. There was a time, in the first six months, when he’d blame the stove for what happened, or at least make an effort to do so, as a means of blaming himself. He’d occasionally find himself saying things like, “I should never have let you use that stove, not in your condition,” but his voice would lilt at “condition?” as if the apology were a petition. It wasn’t for lack of feeling that the words lacked all conviction. They weren’t so much hollow as sievelike. What condition, after all, could he possibly have meant? What dull-witted meaning would crawl from the woods and tangled up in that net? Whether he’d hoped to draw out an avowal of guilt, or of the Hand of God in this world, his words wriggled on the hook unbit. What bothered him most, as he heard himself speak, was the peculiar tone of his voice, which he judged irredeemably mewling. He tried to correct it. He tried to speak with his chest, like an actor. He was, the theatre critic he once was would’ve written, “delivering his lines histrionically,” or in a crueller temper, “hamfistedly, failing to elicit the slightest conviction and leaving the audience cold.”
His critic days were behind him. This was due to the withering of the fourth estate, in truth, only in part. His way with language had left him. The diaries he still kept and scribbled in daily he could no longer bear to read. His worries clattered out of him in clunky blocks of cliché. He wasn’t at home with his words anymore.
There was a pulse of flickering light in the hall and unmuffling of bright conversation.
“You know, Ash,” Javier said as he returned to the kitchen, “she cares for you a great deal. She has such appreciation for you. Do you know that?” Ashley bobbled his head and smiled as the mason jars in the canning pot clattered. Javier removed his tennis shoes and placed them next to the door. He stepped into his tall rubber boots and hoisted a raincoat from a peg by the door. Gripping the cuffs of his sleeves so they wouldn’t ride up, he slowly pulled it on, without taking his eyes off Ashley. “I do hope you know that.” Fiddling with a peach pit he’d just finished scrubbing, Ashley fumbled for words. “Oh, Javier, the, uh… they’re ready for you,” he said, in a voice that felt flustered and stilted. “The peach pits, I mean.” He nodded at the bucket on the edge of the table. The label read “Neapolitan”, still, but the picture was bleached by the sun, leaving the strawberry white and the chocolate dull green. “Ah yes, I almost forgot!” Javier said and started to pull off his boots.
“It’s fine,” Ashley said, “I have to do the, uh,” he made a gesture that looked like tugging a rope, “the mopping, still, it’s, it’s fine.”
Javier shrugged, checked the seal on the bucket, and then pressed it tight til it clicked on one side. He shook it gently and said, “thank you, Ash!”
“I’ve… I’ve been… sorry, I’ve been meaning to ask,” said Ashley, “what do you, uh… I mean, do you plant them?”
“Truly, Ash, thank you!” Javier gripped the bucket with a single hand as if it were a cup of coffee. “I appreciate this.”
Something out the window seemed to beckon Ashley’s eye.
Javier hoisted his backpack from the peg where his raincoat was hanging and heaved it over his shoulder. He swung back around to the front and unfastened the flap. “Ash, I almost forgot, I have something for you.” He withdrew a bottle of Gusano Rojo and stood it on the table.
“Thank you, you didn’t have... no, I mean, thank you,” said Ashley. Javier nodded and left.
Behind the muted clatter of jars the cottage had gone quiet. Ashley cleared the sink and ran the tap, and waited for the water to warm. His eyes impatiently scanned the sky. It was a while before he could see it, its colour already so close to the clouds’, but there it was, tracing another generous arc over the family orchard. It vanished, for a while, behind the house, and then circled the orchard again. Ashley was still holding the peach pit he’d been holding when Javier left. He unclenched his fist and caressed the pit, sliding the blistered pad of his thumb in tiny, circular motions. He thought of the mezcal, and of pouring himself a glass. He thought of how Sheila’s flames might receive Javier’s gift, forming blue areolae around the pearls as if bruising under the weight of them. He leaned against the sink and soapy water creased his waist.
He tugged on the knob of a drawer, and jiggled it to jostle loose the ladle that seemed to be jamming it shut. He rummaged around till he found it: an oyster knife with a two-inch blade and a green, textured handle. He looked back at the window screen and the chitinous mess in the corner. He strained to focus his eyes on the pit. He cupped it in his hand and squinted, then set it back on the counter. The threads of pulp that clung to it moved like algae underwater. Like the air above a barbeque. He withdrew his reading glasses from the breast pocket of his shirt. They were covered in detergent. He wiped them with a shirt tail and put them on. He cupped the pit in his hand and gripped it. He held it steady with his thumb. He trained his eyes on the seam.
Yes, yes of course. Of course. Yes, of course.
He pressed the tip of the knife to the crease and cautiously -- cautiously -- twisted. The knife skidded loose. A pulse pounded at the base of his ear and follicles itched on his scalp. Damp with sweat and syrup and soap, his clothing felt knotted and twisted. The running hot water was fogging his glasses. He wiped them off with his right hand while he inspected his left for cuts. There were none. He drew a breath. He clenched the pit in his left hand. He pressed the knife to the seam. A little bit firmer this time. An opalescent droplet beaded on the crease. He levered the knife a little, tilting it up and down, and waited to feel it find purchase. A shard chipped away. A sharp hiss of brine. A startled frill of greyish flesh withdrew into the pit. He wedged the blade deeper and twisted.