by Douglas W. Milliken
It had to have been spring when their eyes and lives and hands first met—not all at once but in a sequence, like bone dominoes clapping in collapse or the tips of brown branches unfurling into greens—because there wasn’t yet fruit in the trees, only the foamy lather of pale pink cherry blooms and apple blooms, white and rancid pear blossoms, deep red splashes of quince flowering among thorns beneath igniting skies. It would only later be in summer that they would swim in the tumultuous mosh of the ocean and eat with salted lips first strawberries then blueberries then raspberries then blackberries who in their cooling last harvest tasted like wine within the warm promise of each other’s kiss, tiny seeds fetched on teeth and tongue, though it was the raspberries that lasted longest, almost until autumn and its signal of change as sun-warm peaches melted away to the crisp white bite of apples that by October’s end would be too soft to eat raw, had to be cored and sliced and turned into pie or cider or sauce, anything to hide what they’d ceased to be, what they’d reluctantly discovered they’d become. And winter at last again meant alone, when there were no flowers and there was no fruit, just pulled-apart rinds mummified on a table, bright orange already faded to ochre and cupping dried-up pips like tiny eyeteeth spit out from the flesh of mandarini that, anyway, did not grow here and never had, having been shipped from someplace far away.
A part of me is deeply concerned with race and gender and sexuality, how these distinctions that we have little control over dictate so much of how we experience the world. An equal part of me is also concerned with the inverse, how some experiences can be universal (or anyway, can exist without direct reference to anyone’s skin or what they might have down their pants). With this in mind, I often attempt to write first-person narratives stripped of all racial or gendered self-signifiers. I guess the idea is to let the reader make their own assumptions and—if they choose to—maybe even come to understand how the story might be interpreted differently depending on those assumptions (e.g. if you assume the narrator is a white male instead of, say, a Latinx, how does the weight of the circumstance change? how is it the same?). With Mandarini, I wanted to take things a step further to see if I could possibly tell a story stripped of people altogether. With just a “they” and “their” now and then, everything about the characters is left completely to deduction or supposition without any explicit indication as to who these people might be (or even how many characters are involved). I’m still not certain if the experiment was a success or not.
Douglas W. Milliken is the author of the novel To Sleep as Animals and several chapbooks, most recently the collection Cream River and the forthcoming pocket-sized edition One Thousand Owls Behind Your Chest. His stories have been honored by the Maine Literary Awards, the Pushcart Prize anthology, and Glimmer Train Stories, and have been published in Slice, the Collagist, and the Believer, among others. www.douglaswmilliken.com