The Jackals and the Flea

Flooding House - Book IV, Ch 5 - The Jackals and the Flea

     My attention bounced from Gina to Phyllis, from the golden speckled apple in Gina’s hand to my great-grandmother’s cat-eye pendant settled in the hollow of Phyllis’s throat.  It was as if I had to make a choice which of my in-laws to throttle first.  Did I take Gina down for a bite of the fruit in her hand?  Or, did I claw Phyllis’s hair out for wearing my jewelry? 
      Gina pinched the stem of the apple between her nails.  With her other hand she turned the body of the fruit.  In the sunlight, and with the hunger gnawing at my belly, the ruby fruit with the spray of golden speckles on it’s flesh became a temptation worthy of murder.  Four days!  Three days without sight of another and it was Gina who arrived.  When had I last ate?  My stomach hurt so bad that my toes cramped.  Whatever Gina was saying was interrupted, again, by the growling of my stomach.
      Gina gave a laugh.  “Oh, that’s how I felt this morning.  Of course I had the largest of meals last night.”
      Phyllis nodded.  “Gina’s husband was promoted to second onboard his ship.  We celebrated.”
      “Well, not we.”  Gina said.  She held the apple up for a moment, looked at the stem.  “How many times have I twisted this thing already?”
      “Give it to me.”  I said.
      Gina laughed again, this time with true amusement.  “This, my friend, is too good for the likes of you.”
  “It’s just an apple.”  I hated the pleading I heard in my voice.  My stomach was talking now, having its own dialogue with the fruit. 
     “Just an apple?”  Gina shook her head.  I noted her short hair was growing quite well, better than mine.  My own head was shaggy and ill handled, my attentions being elsewhere these last few days.  Gina’s head looked . . . well, she looked glossy.  But then, wasn’t that the nature of someone like Gina?  To show up at the poor camps with done up hair, makeup perfectly on, and food?  Oh, not food for the starving.
     She bit into the apple.  Juice.  Clear, sweetly scented apple juice smeared across her top lip.  A trickle of it slid down her cheek.  She smeared it off with the back of her free hand.  Then, holding the apple from her mouth, she licked at each finger.  Each smack and suckle thundered in my head.
     Phyllis fingered the pendant.  “Do you like it?”
     I jerked my attention from Gina.  Phyllis moved the pendant and, at once, I was blinded by the sunlight that caught on the silvered edges of the enamel and bounced to me.  It added to the thundering in my head.  “It’s mine.”
     Phyllis shook her head.  “No.  I bought it from Burton.”
     “Burton stole it from me.” 
     She shared a look with Gina.  Both women rolled their eyes.  Phyllis said, “Cole gave it to Burton while they were selling your home.  Cole said Burton could have it for all the things Burton did for you.  You and Cole.  Burton sold it to me.”  She ended with a ‘so there’ tone in her voice.
     Gina took another bite of the apple.  “So, why are you all the way out here?”
     I must have looked dumb.  I couldn’t put two and two together at this moment.  Not with the demon in my stomach making its demands.  Howling.  But more, I didn’t want to admit that what drove me to the wide dusty road was a hunger so deep, so depraved that I . . . I had to look down at my hands to make sure I’d left the shovel back at the shack.  For as little sleep that I’d had last night the idea of a source of food just yards from the shack had left me with enough energy to dig up one of the bodies laid to rest.  Not that I had actually done so.  No, what I’d done was dragged the shovel to the mound.  It took everything – every small and insignificant cell in my body screaming a warning – for me to drop the shovel and walk away.  And yet, I couldn’t go back inside.  I was convinced doing so meant I was going to die in that shack. 
     Gina said, “I thought you’d be at the shack.  He’s worried about you, you know.”
     “That’s right.”  Phyllis said.  “Burton sent us to check on you.”
     I shook my head.  This conversation made no sense.  Burton didn’t care for me.  I was in the way.  He wouldn’t offer me one lick of food were I starving.  And then it hit me: I was starving.  And he wasn’t offering me food.  Burton was waving it in my face, under my nose.  This was a game.
     I was being tested. 
     I asked, “What would I have to give you to get just a bite?”
     “Of this thing?”  Gina shrugged.  “It’s just an apple.  In fact,” She turned where she’d bitten to look at it.  “It’s rather sour.  What do you think?”  She handed the fruit to Phyllis.  Gina licked her fingers while Phyllis took a dainty bite.
     “Ugh!”  Phyllis made a face.  “It is sour!”
     “Sour apples.  Isn’t that a saying somewhere?”
     My mouth watered.  I cleared my throat.  “Grapes.  Sour grapes.”  I said.
     The two rolled their eyes.  It was not clear whether they’d planned the details of their game, or whether the two women were so similar that the synchronized ‘oh bother’ of the motion was natural to them.
     I went for broke.  I held my hand out for the apple.  “I want some.”
   Phyllis swallowed her tiny bite.  “Some of this?  I don’t like to share.”
     “Me neither.”  Gina said.  Then, “I’ve had enough.  Toss it when you’re through, Phyllis.”
     “Of course.”  Phyllis’s lob of the fruit was as true as any rookie baseball pitcher.  The red skin didn’t even twirl to reveal the pale flesh.  It just seemed to hang in the air, a perfect illusion of unspoiled food.  I tracked it, not feeling the whimper rising in my throat.  I was animal in that moment, no longer human.  It splattered against a tree.
     I sprinted to the fruit.  I was moving before the pieces hit the ground.  Gina and Phyllis laughed at this, now truly pleased at how base I’d become.  To grovel for food was one thing.  To pluck it from the dirt another.  And oh, how they loved it.  Loved seeing me skid to a stop at the tree, and drop to my knees in the roots.  The mash of apple and dirt and crumbles of last season’s leaves mattered not to my shaking hands, or the cavern of my mouth. 
     They laughed all the way to their car.  Gina made ‘oink, oink’ noises.
     In that moment I hated them.  I hated them with my heart, with my mind and even my soul.  My stomach did not hate them.  My stomach churned around the bits of apple I’d fed it.  It was greedy, my stomach was.  It wanted more faster than I could chew.  For a moment a piece lodged in my throat.  But my stomach was more insistent and the food worked free to be pulled down in the pit.  
     I dared pause long enough to look up.  They were linked with their arms around each other’s waists.  They were walking to their car.  Gina reached inside, pulled out another apple, and bit into it.  Gina froze.  Her carefully contrived laughter ended.  She lowered the fruit, looked at it again, and spit it out.  A shudder rippled from the top of her head down her slim body, to her toes.  This was not fakery for my sake.  Something was truly wrong.

     Phyllis climbed into the car.  They were arguing, in agreement, but arguing.  Phyllis’s voice was the louder of the two, with Gina still staggering from her experience.  Phyllis tossed an apple.  It didn’t go far, only to the edge of the road and still more than a hundred yards from me.  But her intent wasn’t on showing her arm.  Her intent was to clear the car of the fruit.  Piece after piece hit the dirt, the sound hollow and squicky wet at the same time.
     “Let’s go.  Now!”  Gina snapped the words out.  “This cursed land is –“  The car engine cranked.  It did not turn over.  Gina tried again.  She’d not closed her car door.  Even from this distance I could see her hands shook.  When at last the car started her fingers bit into the steering wheel.  So clear was the bone-white of her knuckles. 
     I remembered the apple then, the scent luring me in for another bite.  For a moment I refocused on it.  When I looked up the car was gone.  There was at last, and quite suddenly, only one bite left.  I wanted it.  Oh, how I wanted it!  But I had the sense that to take it was to short the tree, to deny the ground, and to rob the grub hanging onto that one last bite of its chance for the sweet juices.  I set the apple down among the tree’s roots, settled a small pile of dried leaves over it, and went to inspect the remains of Gina and Phyllis’s feast. 
     Hungry as I was, I could not bring myself to touch the molding fester of rotted fruits.  Nor did I try to wrap my head around that it was Gina who brought the rotten things to me.  Maybe she’d picked them at market from the piles not even the beggar thieves would pluck from.  Maybe in her glee to rub my face in it, simply forgot the fruit was bad.  I only knew that the food could not be eaten. 
     And that I, if I did not hurry, was not going to make it to the women’s hotel before next meal.  I would beg them if need be.  I would crawl on my hands and knees.  I would not, ever, admit that Burton’s derogatory play had been a small gift.  Nor would I ever dwell on the possibility that he’d most likely saved my life.  Those thoughts led to madness.  I’d been there already this morning.  I did not need to go back to that dark hunger again.      

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