The Pollinator

In a field, the pollinator dips her instrument into flowers. She is under a white tent almost as large as the field itself—she and the others, all in white from head to toe, with goggles and gloves. The flowers are yellow, black-spotted, and the size of a man’s hand; rows and rows of them unroll into the distance. Eventually, they’ll die, and fruit will come. The fruit isn’t sweet, but bland and filled with seeds and nutrition. She hates it but eats it, like everyone else. No one speaks, though once in a while a throat clears or something electronic beeps or vibrates. Hours go by when she doesn’t think about home, the apartment, her girlfriend. It shouldn’t bother her so much to allow herself to be blank for a while, but she’s bothered.

The pollinator rises, picks up her stool and moves to the next plant in her row. The flowers smell like something she can’t place, but it reminds her of a specific time during her childhood, the first day she can remember stepping out of the house and understanding that it was summer. The smell in the air told her. The smell of bees, if there was ever such a thing. Was there? Or is it honey, she’s thinking of? Or the sun frying the grass and her mother’s snapdragons.

These plants didn’t exist then, and the flowers don’t smell like anything else in the world; so why do they remind her of that time? Better not to go back there, to the house she can’t fully reconstruct in her mind. And her mother. No, we’re not doing that today. There’s only the flower, the wide-open mouth.

Heat tumbles around under the tent, and inside her suit her body cools itself with sweat. Every few minutes, she reaches for her water and sips, screws the cap back on the bottle and drops it into the dirt.

When the sun begins to sink, she kicks her stool into its folded position, snaps her instruments into their case and slips them in her satchel. It’s not until she’s on her bicycle that she remembers to remove her goggles, which she keeps around her neck. At her side the fields blur by for three miles, but eventually the town appears, small and blocky, and filled with others like her, getting home, pulling their bikes up to their apartment complexes. Outside of them, it’s too depressing. This is where she lives. Not even a patch of grass to sit on. Once inside, it’s better. Her books are there. Her real life.

The pollinator’s girlfriend is lying in bed waiting for her; she has probably expended all her strength to close the windows the pollinator opened to let in fresh air in the morning before she left. Her girlfriend wants the world kept out, because the world makes her sad. It makes her pine for so much that she can’t have, and the pining aggravates the pollinator, even though she understands. Her partner is very sick and therefore trapped. It’s poisonous outside for her, as her immune system’s attention has turned to the thing that’s killing her. She has the strength to miss things, to watch the sun turn pink as it billows through the curtains. It does look beautiful when you’re lying in bed, gazing through the curtains. The sun is beautiful no matter what.

“I miss all my lovers,” her girlfriend says.

“You do, huh?” the pollinator says. She snorts at the word lovers. Such a drama queen. She leaves her satchel in the middle of the floor. Inside of her, something rattles, like the tools in their case, because she knows what’s coming, and despite herself it makes her feel shitty every time, though now none of it matters. All of these people are gone, all in the past.

“I miss Sara, I miss James, I miss the woman I met at that conference, the one with the mustache.”

“You said you didn’t like her,” the pollinator says. “You said you didn’t enjoy your time with her at all.”

“I still miss her.”

The pollinator undresses by the closet door, the mirror in front of her so she can see her girlfriend on the bed in the reflection and herself at the same time, exposing her gleaming, splotchy body. The dark hair on her arms and in her armpits pasted down with sweat. She smells like the most concentrated version of herself, her sweat and the things she likes: sandalwood, cedar, and citrus.

I’m here, she wants to say, but she’s never been enough for her girlfriend. She’s been her life and her home, but those are not as exciting as strangers. The pollinator sits on the edge of the bed and places her hand on her girlfriend’s bare stomach which is almost as hot as a summer sidewalk.

Her girlfriend has been sick for three years. In the beginning, her body was filled with tumors. Some were removed, and others were unreachable, so she was given treatments that would find them in their hiding places and whittle them down, but now the terrible cells have taken over, winning. The treatments made her vulnerable, easily sickened. They made her into the woman on the bed. She doesn’t leave the apartment, but has grown accustomed to it, though now and then she misses her old life so badly she’s inconsolable. The pollinator has to hold her down, otherwise, with uncommon energy, she’d wreck the apartment.

The pollinator flows onto the bed and presses herself against her girlfriend. Her arm slides over.

“You stink!” her girlfriend says. “You’re dirty. You’ll get me sick.”

“I’ve been in my suit all day. I’m fine.”

“Please take a shower.”

“I will,” the pollinator says, “eventually.”

She rolls off the bed and puts on a t-shirt and shorts and moves to the kitchenette.

“How can you put clean clothes on your dirty body?” her girlfriend says.

“My body isn’t dirty; it’s sweaty and tired.”

Her girlfriend had once been an executive at the company that owns the fields, owns fields all over the country, fields of new plants bearing nutrient rich fruit. They met at a conference thrown to introduce the local executives to the pollinators and other field workers. The pollinator’s girlfriend weighed thirty pounds more then. She’d been strong, commanding in a suit and gleaming boots, and the pollinator had gone wet when they shook hands.

The pollinator opens the refrigerator and removes two fat, yellow bulbs both the size of small coconuts. She has perhaps touched the plants this fruit has come from, so it feels like hers, like she’s brought it to life. Or, it’s her own head. And thunk, she’ll whack it open with a knife and scoop out her thoughts and together they’ll eat, and her girlfriend will know her perfectly, in a way that is impossible.

She slices the fruit open on the counter and digs the slippery seeds out with her fingers and they splatter into the sink like marbles covered in mucus. The seeds contain most of the nutritional value, but her girlfriend doesn’t like how they feel in her mouth, and even if she did, she doesn’t want to be nourished. The pollinator empties the remaining flesh into a bowl and mashes it with a spoon. The fruit smells like the flowers, but enriched by age, as if she’s plucked the flowers off a plant and left them in the sun for a few days. It’s a round, gamey smell.

The pollinator sits on the bed again and her girlfriend stares at her and at the bowl. She tries to turn over onto her side but can’t. Closing the windows took it all out of her. The pollinator places the bowl on the side table, lifts her girlfriend’s shoulders and head and gently rests them on her lap so that her girlfriend is sitting up enough to eat comfortably. Let it be easy this time, let’s get it done and move on.

“Please no,” the pollinator’s girlfriend says. “I don’t want it.”

The pollinator has heard it before. She plunges the spoon into the yellow flesh and brings it to her girlfriend’s mouth where it slimes her lips.

“Open.”

It’s been years since the pollinator has seen her cry. Even when she’s grieving her old life, her anger keeps her dry-eyed. She sweats rather than cries. Tonight, tears fall into her hair. The pollinator uses her thumb to wipe one from her cheek.

“Open,” the pollinator says again.

“Aren’t you eating?”

“Later. You first.”

The pollinator’s girlfriend opens her mouth and lets the yellow globs inside. She chews for a long time. The pollinator understands this. Chewing and chewing until the fruit becomes muck that slides easily down the throat.

“No more.”

“Yes more,” the pollinator says.

The pollinator has forgotten to turn on a light. The sun has gone down. Little by little she empties the bowl. It takes a long time because her girlfriend talks after each swallow.

“I miss James,” she says. “Did I say him? I loved kissing his neck and driving him crazy. I miss Clara, she was the sweetest person I ever knew and bored me to tears. No one should be only sweet.”

The pollinator removes herself from underneath her girlfriend’s head and takes the bowl to the sink. The seeds are still there, gathered at the drain. She switches on the fluorescent light and it blinks five or six times before glowing. Behind her, the woman on the bed is talking about a man named Khalil, whom she obsessed over for one summer when she lived in another city. “We did so much talking when we were apart, but spent small, intense amounts of time together. We never sat with anything between us.”

The pollinator plucks a seed from the sink and it almost leaps from her hand it’s so slimy. She hurries it into her mouth. This is Khalil. She takes another and cracks it with her teeth. This is James. When you break the seed open, there’s something else inside it, like the seed’s own seed. It’s the only real flavor the fruit offers, strong and bitter; it feeds the body. She slips another onto her tongue and it rolls between her cheek and teeth, another tries to flee down her throat without her chewing it first. This one is Sara, and this the mustache woman, and this one is you. This is me.

Image by Stephen Bedase via Unsplash

About the author

Richard Mirabella is a writer and civil servant living in Upstate New York. His work has appeared in American Short Fiction, One Teen Story, Passages North, and elsewhere. He tweets @RPMirabella.

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