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Like a Bird Swallows a Beetle

by Rachel Ranie Taube

     Sweet, sweet the peach, with a tangy sensation like tiny bubbles as juice overflows your lips and dribbles down your chin. Your stomach is still upset, which makes you feel untethered. You fill your lungs as if the air could anchor you. Bea, always your older sister, nudges your arm.

           “Samantha, come on,” she says. “Tell me what’s going on or let me go inside.”

           The orchard at dusk is full of chirping, squeaking, singing bugs and light the color of peaches. And Bea and you. And J, you guess. A grackle, small and black, lands on a branch a few feet away. His back is iridescent in the low light. He caws once, twice, then takes off again in a small flutter of feathers.

           The upset in your stomach deepens as the sun sets. You feel inside like the champagne your mom let you taste when she and dad were toasting Bea's graduation, full of too much tingling. You drop the half-eaten peach and reach for Bea’s hand with still-sticky fingers. She makes as if to pull away but you hold tight.

           The thing that Bea doesn’t realize is that at dusk in the orchard people can start to run together, almost like shadows. Their edges bleed into each other and it isn’t clear where one ends and the next begins. You watch your hand intertwined in Bea’s and your fingers start to melt into hers. It feels warm and good to pour yourself into her like that.

           The first time, you really did think it was a trick of the light. That first time, you squint your eyes at Bea and her boyfriend, J, who are sitting together in the orchard. Bea told you to leave them alone but your mom sent you to bring them in for dinner. They are both facing the sunset, leaning back on their hands, and Bea places her left hand over J’s right. Her movement disturbs a beetle, which scuttles away and into the grass.

           As the sun drops below the tips of the trees, you watch astonished as Bea and J’s hands run together. He turns and feeds her a bite of the peach he has been holding. She laughs because it is messy and wipes her mouth. Their cheeks and lips reach for each other like two puddles of water.

           “Bea!” you call, to stop it.

           “Samantha! Not now,” Bea says.

           “It’s okay,” J says.

           “Mom says dinner.”

           They turn to you but it doesn’t stop, even as they stand and walk toward you and even as you walk inside together.

           All through dinner, you are fixated on their edges. It is much slower inside but the wet shadowiness of Bea keeps reaching toward the shadowiness of J. Neither of them notice. Mom doesn’t notice as she spoons Brussels sprouts onto everyone’s plates. Dad doesn’t notice as he explains to J again the unusual shape of a building he once saw in a big city.

           “Dad, can your shadow melt?”

           “Shush, Samantha,” Mom says.

           “J is going to be an architect,” Dad says to you. “What do you think of that, Sammie?” You shrug.

           “Do you know what architects do, Sam?” J asks you.

           “Just ignore her,” Bea says.

           Bea used to answer your questions. She would let you comb her hair and then comb yours and pull it into a tight tight braid while she told you about who liked who. She would let you walk next to her on the way to school with the older kids. You have always felt like Bea’s twin, her late other half. Bea used to call you, affectionately, her shadow.

           The next day, you ask Bea to come outside with you at dusk. Please, please, please, you beg until she lets you drag her to the same spot at the same time. You hold her hand and wait and watch your fingertips. The sun is setting. The light is almost peachy. As the sun touches the tops of the trees, your tummy is doing flips. You make her stand still with you even as the sun goes down down and sets completely. But there’s nothing between you. You stay separate, your outlines firmly in place.

           It is three days before J comes again. Bea has been talking about it all day. For the second time, she goes into her room to put on a different dress. You follow her in. You watch her pull off the first one to reveal a beige bra with a tiny lace scallop around the bottom. She looks through her closet, shuffling dresses left and right.

           “How old do you have to be to wear a bra?” you ask.

           “Why don’t you go be the lookout?”

           “But why? He’ll be here soon anyway.”

           “Do you want me to be in my underwear when he gets here? Go sit outside and when he comes you run inside and warn me. Got it?”

           You leave, dragging your feet outside. You wait at the edge of the orchard, the way you know he’ll come, the way he always walks. It’s getting closer to nighttime—you can hear how the crickets say so—but it’s still light. You pick a low-hanging peach and bite into it. It’s not ripe yet and almost sour so you drop the rest into the dirt. Ants race toward the wet pulp. You sit a little ways away and write your name in the dirt. S. A. M. Then you wipe it out. You don’t see him until he’s right next to you.

           “Hi, Sam,” J says. You look up and see his hips, which are small, actually, not unlike yours. He reaches out to help you up and you take his hand.

           In the pink light, your hands flow together aggressively, your arms a single dark stream as he pulls you to your feet. When he lets go of your hand, gray bits are still sparking between you like the spray of a river hitting up against a rock.

           He turns to go but you grab his arm to stop him. You move very very close to him so your whole body feels full up, like you could sip his whole self into you, like you’re the same body. You breathe river spray into and out of him.

           Then you take a big deep breath and drink him whole, just like a grackle swallows a beetle. He slides down your throat, squirming but easy. With the second breath, he is inside you completely. He is a weight in your belly that rumbles like champagne.

           It’s dark now. The rest of the peach you dropped is covered in ants.

           “Where’s J?” Bea asks from behind you.

           You keep your mouth closed, afraid she will hear him if you open it.

           “Samantha! Have. You. Seen. Him.”

           “Mm-mm,” you shake your head, lips sealed.

           “God, you're useless.”

           “Am not!” you reply, and he takes the opportunity and yells her name out of your mouth—Bea!—you feel it vibrating in your throat. But she doesn't turn around. She didn't hear him.

           “Maybe he changed his mind,” you say quietly. She ignores you and runs inside.

           This was a whole week ago now and the bubbling has mostly subsided. Most days, your stomach feels like you ate too much for dinner the night before and went to bed still full. It’s not so bad.

           As you stand in the orchard, side by side with Bea, the sun starts to set. The trees grow dark and tall. You can see your hand drowning into Bea’s, getting darker. You lean into her shoulder and your lines waver. She lets you be there, sighs, pats your hair.

           “Okay, Sam?”

           You fall further into her, until you are puddles pooling into each other’s souls, until you share one deep shadow.

Author's Note

The first image I wrote of this piece was that of peach juice dribbling down a chin. Next, that of a child swallowing a man whole. I knew these two images were connected, and I wrote the rest of the story to find out how.

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