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They Were Ripening to Red by Maggie Mae Nicholson

On the morning walks in May, we were already talking about apples.

     “They need to cut these,” said Idaho. Marissa pawed one.

     “Hands in the wagon,” said Idaho. She made her eyes into a bulldog. Her hair was pulled tight.

     The air was soupy with blooms. Earlier we had craft time with favored plants. Marissa chose a chalky stick of lavender. Lily a lamb tail. Michael an orange blossom. Catherine, mute with babyhood, a maple leaf. She ate it. Her coal eyes simpered.

     Each morning, our walk adhered to one route.

     At the first road, two hounds awaited us. One showed blind tuba interest in the children. Blue matted fur, an old dog with a bad leg that limped as he ran, howling the way.

     The other, young, lean-muscled, all black, bowed from his stoop. The limping one followed us from one end of the fence to the other, returning to his post after the wagon disappeared past a hedge.

     Then the hill. The puller of the wagon took small backward steps, bracing its weight, conscious of pending traffic that met the hill at its bottom. This road offered little to occupy attention. On the right, a green hedge with itchy patches of cobweb. Absent were insects. It was dangerous to draw attention to the left side of the road. It would, at worst, encourage children to cross it. This was the best time for a song.

     The preschool was Catholic. We sang about it. Praise Abraham. The children clapped when they were supposed to. I kept my mind closed. I did not think what I thought about God.

     At the intersection below the hill, we turned right onto a road bordered by gardens. We had much to give thanks for: flesh-like dahlias, lunar blackberries, tomatoes, sunflowers.

     Halfway down stood a wild patch of greenery, ten feet in height. Tall grass swept like neatly combed hair underfoot, wrapped around the wheels of the wagon, impressed by feet at the back of the cart, fell flat and burped back up.

     At the end of the path, a large white house sat crooked, with boarded plywood windows. A hulking apple tree stretched its limbs in yellow light. The children screamed as we approached. Every morning, we stopped to examine the tree, classifying future apples and discussing what could be made of them: pie, cider, donuts. Michael, troublemaker of the group, released his grip on the wagon, waddled over, looped fat fingers through gaps in the fence.

     When I started teaching, he tormented. During story-time, he looked me straight in the eyes, then eased from his seat to storm the room, immensely deliberate. At calendar time, he lounged before the window yelling about rain.

     The principle held him in his chair. He squirmed like a glow-worm. Upon release, he sprung up and chugged around the room, turning doorknobs, opening cabinets, pulling toys from their wooden caves.

     The principle said it was me.

     After two months, I dreaded Michael. It was naptime. Others were sleeping. Michael writhed on a blue plastic cot. He grabbed at shoes, jammed his stubby feet in. I snatched them, smoothed his head, cocooned him in a blanket.

     “Try to sleep,” I said.

     He watched me, then rolled, motioned for me to rub his back. His eyes blinked slower, slower. They were moon-like crevices, barely dark, flashing open with pulled force. Finally he let sleep wash him with its warm tongue.

     Tears were in me. I thought I should not be around children. Nothing worked. I made a decision to try something new, drastic. I would not only abandon reprimand, I would react only with love.

     He pooped in his sleep. He sat up, groggy, looked around the room, found me, grinned wide. He found socks and pulled them to his ankles. His shoes were too small. We buckled them loose.

     I walked him to the changing table, picked him up, lay him there. He kicked at glass walls, watched me. I brought his legs down, held the feet, smiled, thought I loved him, rubbed his stomach. He stopped kicking. His face was a lantern of joy.

     He didn’t misbehave again. Not once. He became my helper, directing other toddlers.

     Every morning were the apple trees: our constant. The white house, abandoned, and the apples, green and hard, swollen with bug bites. Our walks were etched with their potential. We walked to reveal them. We walked to reach them.

     In June, I started biting my cheeks. My teeth searched for grooves in the pink flesh. During nightly prayer group, we sat in folding chairs with plaid fabric seats. We bowed our heads. We prayed for tax relief.

     At the end of the month, I tasted saltwater in a mouth sore. The cut was bright, white as a computer screen.

     In class, I was unsettled. Michael touched my cheek. He said it was cold.

     By July, it was big enough to see inside of.

     I didn’t talk about it. It became masturbatory. I inspected the hole, alone in the bathroom the way teenagers look at privates, standing above looking glasses.

     I drank only milk.

     Soon I saw the coast. The sore, big as a half-dollar, opened to reveal an ocean. The longer I looked, the more I saw: coral, saltine fish, birds.

     It took ten minutes to reduce the light in the sore and reveal the creamed water crashing there. My boyfriend called from bed, eager to fuck. I closed my mouth. My ass had fallen asleep. I stood and shook it.

     When he orgasmed, my mouth filled with saltwater.

     At work the next morning, Michael was an hour early, very unusual. He yelled my name and ran to clench my legs.

     I petted his head. My co-teachers stared; their eyes did loops around my cheek. I touched it.

     “What is it?” I said.

     “It looks like a bruise,” said one.

     From the outside, a purple ring encircled the sore.

     Parents looked at me suspiciously.

     At naptime, Michael was last to sleep. I lay my head on his stomach, putting a cold cheek against him. He laughed and ran fingers through the curtain of my hair.

     The heeled shoes of my principal jawed down the hallway. She took Michael and glared at me. I learned his mother had killed herself that morning.

     I thought of Michael: still not quite a whole person.

     I stayed for another month after he left. His father moved them to the East Coast, where more of the family lived. They needed people to eat dinners with, to accompany them on lake trips. It was weird to see the apple trees without him. They were ripening to red.

     I spent hours staring at my mouth. I made myself puke, purging the saltwater. The bruise got bigger, turned yellow as yolk. I wondered if it was cancer, but refused to see a doctor. I watched seabirds in the sore above the water, tried to feed them bread, ended up eating it myself.

     Then it was autumn. I bit into an apple and wanted to die. It was so sweet, when it didn’t deserve to be. I quit teaching at the preschool. I gave notice, but was let go immediately.

     The wound subsided, with nonchalance.

     I lost a few teeth when the sore was at its worst. They froze and fell right out. All I could consume were soft things, like banana pudding and leek soup.

     When I tongue the salty furrows of my gums, I think it happened as a protective measure. That it assisted me, in resistance, in life, which I was so unready to consume.
Maggie Mae Nicholson studied literary theory in Albany, New York, philosophy in Russia, film in Wales, archaeology and organic farming in Costa Rica, and German and piano in Switzerland. She has worked as a journalist for WTEN ABC News, the West Seattle Herald, has had writing published on air at WAMC, NPR, and is currently writing a screenplay for a short film called Sanguinaria. She likes lavender whipped cream, the public bus system, and Jean-Paul Sartre. Send an email about your work, or collaborative ideas, to Maggie.M.Nicholson@Gmail.Com.