Fig Season by Melissa Wiley

A Hole in a Bowl
          Water runs through a copper bowl grown green with time and oxidation. A girl with legs stretched long but chest still flattened holds it as she offers her fountain’s water to someone. Only she has waited too patiently for a person who never arrives to notice the hole at bowl’s bottom, perhaps because her eyes are part of the problem. Someone has blacked them with pewter after carving them into almonds.

          She blindly offers her water to no one, this girl in a fountain bordering a park I often visit. Yet as I stand there, sometimes shiver, and listen, of this I’m convinced: When the bowl runs dry, wasps will gather in its uterus as if returning home from a far distance. They’ll bat their wings against its rim for the sake of being held by someone. By then, the girl will be a woman.

          In the meantime, I like the sound of water falling through the lacuna as well as other places. I like the sound for its own sake in addition to knowing no other bowls could do the same without becoming garbage. I cannot offer my guests bowls containing nothing without being considered a rude hostess. Without giving any parties, I somehow know this.

          I serve no one any refreshments while inviting few people to my apartment, while having only two bowls in my kitchen, one for myself and one for my husband, from which we eat mostly cereal and salad. The truth is I’m just as blind to practical considerations as the girl in the fountain. Though long a woman with no wasps’ nests muddying my oven, I bear her too strong a resemblance, offering nothing to no one while still expecting something to happen.
A Hole in an Island
          Last summer, my husband and I spent a large portion of our savings sunbathing on Sicilian beaches. We practiced our Italian on an island where I learned Mount Etna is both a man and a woman. A volcano, it seems, is a hermaphrodite of a person. Wholeness dwells at the bottom of a hole within an island. Whether island holes are the rule or the exception, I remain uncertain.

          Its eruptions manifest its male aspect regardless, while its feminine fertilizes the soil in the wake of damage. The woman lavishes land just ravaged with those nutrients contained within her ashes, and you are unlikely to taste better figs than those grown within her lava’s effusion. Of this our guide, Paolo, assured us without offering us evidence. He would have gladly given us more figs than we could have ever eaten. Only it wasn’t the season.

          On our hike up the volcano’s sternum, I stumbled and nearly fell while walking as close to its mouth as the Sicilian government allows the public. Seeing me lose my balance, Paolo gripped my arm so tightly he bruised my arm where he pinched it. That evening, the bruise shaped itself into the lung of a small insect.

          For a time, the lung tried to fly away before realizing it couldn’t, before reconciling itself to being held captive by my epidermis. The little bruise breathed so softly I could hardly hear its rhythm as I slipped my nightgown over top of it. Synchronously, we suspired until we fell unconscious.

          Fruit flies flew through the shutters when I awakened, likely thinking I was rotting when I wasn’t. They stuck to skin uncovered by the blanket and refused to blink when I swatted, perhaps because they mistook the lung for a freshly fallen fig, one somehow also shrunken. I understood their confusion, as figs bruise more easily than any other fruit once ripened, something they do solely while attached to their trees and drinking through their root systems.

          Driving us back to our village after our hike was finished, Paolo told us that in the past ten years he’d lived on five continents. Figs grew everywhere he resided, because he likes warm climates. Never live anywhere without figs, he added. They grew in the Garden of Eden for a reason, when I laughed as if we were driving its direction.

          Fig leaves concealed Adam and Eve’s sex organs, I thought but didn’t mention. Leaves concealed while drawing them yet more attention. In Paolo’s eyes, I thought I read a joyful recognition. Purple light danced inside their darkness as if we were once the same person. In another life, I’d sown trees in the wake of his destruction.

          From the airplane window on our flight back to Chicago, I watched an ocean’s blue obscure thousands of verdurous islands. Volcanic eruptions deep within the ocean had once formed all of them, meaning the ocean floor too has holes in it, making more solid landmasses feel dishonest.
A Hole in a Flower
          Each fig is not a fruit but a flower according to botanists, an edible inflorescence with its petals hidden beneath its skin. Their full floral splendor becomes visible only once you slice them open. Yet before this, they hang like purple testes from cultivars transplanted from Sicily and other islands in the Mediterranean—the only place on earth where wild figs flourish freely as cats in back alleys or wherever you happen to find them.

          Figs are flowers but flowers with holes known as ostioles key to pollination. As is the case with humans, something must probe the hole for reproduction. Only for figs, the probing looks unpleasant, resembling an enemy invasion more than a prelude to orgasm. The enemy is a pregnant wasp by way of complication.

          A gravid wasp carries pollen from the anther of a male fig flower to another’s stigma. The female fig wasp alone dares to enter the ostiole for reasons known only to evolution. Yet once she wriggles inside what must seem her own inflorescent secret, she lays her eggs then perishes of exhaustion. Through this process, she ensures another fig will flower after this one falls to the ground crooked as the lung of an insect with no ribcage to hold it.

          Prior to this, however, there is mutilation. The wasp loses wings and legs while worming through an ostiole too small for her liking. Still squeezing through too tight an orifice is its own genius. Doing so forces pollen from a male fig to settle in this female’s stigma, which is sticky with hairs and tiny flaps helping to trap pollen. The stigma is also synonymous with disgrace, with something better left unspoken. It’s all too easily likened to the inside of a woman. The inside of every female human except the girl in the fountain.

          Once the wasps have died inside their flowers, fruit flies assemble from behind a vaporous curtain, because a fig has hardly ripened before it begins decaying. Flies materializing from fruit busy decomposing offer themselves to me too on occasion. I tell them I’m not dying but cannot convince them.

          What looks so incomplete a specimen she wastes all her money sunbathing on Sicilian beaches, all her time listening to water draining from fountains, is only me reconciling myself to being held captive by my skin, susceptible to bruising as it is. What looks a fruitless existence is what comes of living solely for sensation, of expecting more than ever does to happen.
A Hole in a Pocket
          A couple weeks ago, a man standing beside me on a bus stole my wallet. He reached his hand inside my purse then flew off so quickly that chasing him seemed pointless. I yelped when his arm grazed my hip before moving higher toward my shoulder socket, yet no one seemed to notice. To the others on the bus, I appeared to be overreacting but wasn’t.

          Leaving the bus several stops before reaching my apartment, I grew quiet without my thoughts sounding shrill and incessant, my normal kind of silent. Instead, I grew quiet as a result of a new emptiness that had its own presence. Passing a group of girls swinging their hair while older men smoking cigarettes studied their bottoms, I felt the strangeness of walking with no money in a city where little comes freely, where everything requires it.

          Feeling for change that might have fallen from my wallet, I stuck my finger through a hole in my pocket. I stroked my upper thigh as if to remind myself that, however impoverished, there still was my own softness. Walking on, orange leaves beneath my footsteps crumbled into ashes. I slowed my pace, savored the sweetness only something decaying releases. Grocery stores had stopped selling figs because it was late October and the season’s end. Even if it wasn’t, I could not buy them.

          In Sicily, Paolo told us most fig trees have two seasons, and we had visited in between. The breba crop develops during early spring, ripening on the tree’s growth from the year before. Breba figs are virginal and seedless, meaning no wasps enter them for pollination. Their emerald skin gleams the same as a copper bowl’s patina, yet most growers prune and discard them. They’re tasteless, Paolo said, compared to those appearing in August.

          But to the sere breba collapsed onto a bed of twigs uneaten, the better crop to come can hardly matter, I thought as sadly as if I were one of them. To dead things generally, those living can make little difference. All fruit too is dead once you pluck it. To the fallen fig, its bruises are as irrelevant as scratches to a mummy lain in a sarcophagus.

          Turning the corner to my apartment and walking past the 7-Eleven, I waved to two homeless men who spend their lives leaning against its entrance afternoons and early evenings before the shelters open. As I approach them from a distance, they eye me as if I were fruit from the Garden of Eden with only one short season. Generally, I try to ignore them.

          Only because I work from a home office, because I often see no one I recognize all day except for these men and my husband, sometimes I dress for them alone, I realize only once I walk past them. I step outside looking as expectant as the girl in the fountain. Wriggling my finger through the hole in my pocket, this once I stopped and chatted. They remarked on the warm weather for the season while their eyes lingered on a new sweater no one else besides them had noticed. I stood and let them look a moment at a hole in a bowl of a woman.

          Someone resembling them both had just taken all my money and driver’s license. Yet this world has too many holes not to slip through one on occasion, and there were still things I could give them. With nothing in my pocket, that once I was generous. I have since avoided the 7-Eleven, bought milk in other places.
A Hole in a Head
          The Buddha became enlightened beneath the Bodhi tree, or Ficus religiosa, a sacred fig and species common throughout India. The tree was hardly sacred, though, before the Buddha sat beneath it, folding his legs into the lotus position and becoming a flower of a human.

          A few days after losing my wallet, I sat drawing a nude woman for a class I’d taken. The model stood holding a hand over a shaven pubis. Her pale hair hung limp down her coccyx, while her fingers looked ready to part her labia’s curtain. And though they resisted, a shadow there reminded me of the chasm that lay behind them, one more than likely explaining Paolo’s crossing of continents. I suspect he looks for Eve in all of them. He finds hundreds.

          The Buddha, though, was a living stillness. Rather than searching the world for women, he attempted denying all his body’s urges, becoming an ascetic in order to spiritually awaken. He tried ignoring his stomach, tried pretending he was no longer a body and only spirit, but the divine eluded him as he came closer to dying of starvation. Only once he ate did the emptiness inside him yield fullness.

          People traditionally close their eyes for meditation, meaning the Buddha likely never noticed any lung-shaped bruises on those figs hanging above his head. Figs are also silent, so he could not have heard them. And if they have an odor, it’s one I haven’t noticed. Of all his head’s orifices, only one allowed him to relish the fruit with too short a season. Only one leads to the esophagus and from there to the stomach. Without the anatomy of a woman, this one hole proved sufficient.

          Under May’s full moon, the Buddha at last awakened, during breba season. Beneath the Bodhi tree, he survived on figs considered tasteless and whose holes serve no purpose. There remains no way of knowing whether the Buddha noticed the difference, whether he thought them insipid or preferred their lesser sweetness. All we know is that the breba sustained him.

          For everything they say there is a season, and the Buddha may have as easily awakened during September as the main crop ripened. He may have, but he didn’t. My guess too is he couldn’t. My guess is the figs’ ostioles had to remain open, with no wasps squeezing through for pollination. The figs had to withhold their sweetness for the Buddha to transcend illusion, for him to seek something beyond the fruits of Eden’s garden.

          Emptiness fills all the pores in the skin, and I suspect emptiness leads to the divine if you let it. I suspect the divine can squeeze like a wasp through each orifice. Holiness is not possible with no holes punched through something solid. I think this but cannot say from experience. I’m only hoping there is truth in it once I run out of ways to fill what feels bottomless.
A Hole in a Woman
          However close I’ve come to wholeness—however near I was to falling inside Mt. Etna’s fire pit when Paolo saved me from it—I have often lived in what feels like breba season become permanent. I’ve lived hoping for a sweeter life to follow this knowing this is enlightenment’s opposite. This, I tell myself, is what comes of being born with a hole no wasps squeeze through to rationalize its existence.

          The normal remedy for a hole in a woman is children. Make the hole productive rather than just a pleasure organ. Make something crying, something needing your attention, come out of it. Only I have wanted children no more than I’ve wanted fruit flies to nibble on me before my body decomposes. A breba fruit of a woman, I have wanted nothing more than to be sweet enough to sustain the Buddha as he awakens.

          Instead of clearing my mind through meditation, instead of communing with the divine thronging my vast chasm, I’ve been planning a party as a distraction. I’ve made a list of all the men I’ve hardly known yet loved nonetheless to come to my apartment. I’m inviting them to see how well I’ve decorated, to let them take turns typing on my dad’s old college typewriter, which I’ve wedged deep inside the fireplace with no fire lit inside it.

          While eating all I’ve baked for them, they can see how artfully I’ve arranged my chairs and lamps and vases. They can sip Sicilian wine and enjoy the empty birdhouse whose roof is made of a guide to Appalachian hiking from whose trail I keep my distance. They can beat their hands on my Chinese drum then play a game of chess on top of it. Seeing the inside of this small house I live in, they can savor all the beauty its outside disguises. They can sit and drink within a stigma without anything sticky inside it. They can wriggle themselves inside of me then die of exhaustion.

          I don’t know whether awakening as the Buddha did during breba season is tantamount to happiness, of feeling as I do while planning a party I could never host even if my husband allowed it, because I have none of my guests’ addresses. Although I’m not strictly Buddhist, I’ve come to like the man who inspired the religion. I’ve come to like him if for no other reason than all he asks of me is to empty my head of all its thoughts through its many orifices. Yet this I always refuse him. I shake my head the same as I do when the homeless men ask me for money again. I refuse to lose everything, even though I know this will eventually happen.
A Hole in a Wall
          Yesterday I bought myself the head of an antelope for no good reason. I bought it with money extended on credit kept in a new wallet. The head is made of paper and clay, so no animal was killed for what amounts to decoration. Inside it dwells a hollowness that allows me to put my hand through its neck and pretend it’s a stiff puppet, making it talk for my husband, speak in different voices. Before hanging it, I tilted the head so it looked as if it were asking a question, though even if an answer came, the antelope never heard it.

          Although it cannot talk or breathe, still it is as real to me as it needs to be. In its matte brown eyes, I occasionally discern some sympathy for no real suffering. Hung above my terrarium, its horns gleam with golden paint. Its cheeks are almost blushing. Its head bends slightly toward me on the couch where in the evening I sit and read.

          All too often while looking out the window as the antelope faces the other direction, I see a copper station wagon circling the block and parking illegally, a station wagon looking manufactured during the 1970s. Someone likely lives inside it, someone not exactly homeless but still without a toilet. Yet the station wagon also strikes me as placid, doing little thinking, breathing as quietly as I did without any money in my pocket.

          The car lives a short distance from the park in all four seasons, meaning its owner too probably often passes the girl in the fountain, probably takes his time too to stop and listen. I recently read about a Parisian bordello for homeless men once subsidized by the French government. The author, though, made no mention of the city’s homeless women. There was no reference either to those women who serviced the men or those who were merely forced to walk past them as the men ogled their chests, their bottoms.

          The copper station wagon is not really copper. There are no signs of a green that came before it. It has no patina, no signs of aging that a car from the 1970s should have from decades of oxidation. It has nevertheless become as much of a companion as the head of an antelope hanging from a nail that makes the wall less solid. And I like to imagine the man who sleeps there eating a feast on its dashboard on occasion. I like to imagine him full from food as well as women. Where, though, would he put his dishes? How would he wash them? A copper station wagon has more limitations than finding parking in a neighborhood with so many signs that forbid it.
A Hole in a Cat
          The day after Paolo led us up Mount Etna and then back down it, I went walking through the village we were staying in while my husband napped. I left the main street, avoiding the shop owners’ cries to buy more scarves and ceramics, for the back alleys instead. Fruit flies swarmed around cairns of garbage then landed on my cheek. An ancient woman with scrofula wreathing her face farted and sidled past me.

          And there, as soon as humans had stopped selling and buying, were two feral cats humping. Only one, though, was humping while the other sat stationary. The female had closed her eyes and looked to have fallen asleep. Yet in the picture I couldn’t resist taking, her eyes look partly open, watching me.

          At first, I was afraid I disturbed them. Only there is no humping halfway, which makes their coitus sound less physical than it was and is always. I also don’t mean to cool the heat of what happens when man and woman briefly become one body. Though this sounds like aggrandizing, like making into something holy what happens in every back alley, usually all too quickly.

          After photographing the wild cats acting the same as all domesticated things, I walked toward the sea. Keeping clear of the shops still and sticking to the alleys, I saw wild snapdragons growing. White with yellow tongues when I pinched their mandibles, they refused to bite me. I made the mistake of trying to speak with one that was clearly wilting, nearly faded from the daylight. I moved on to another looking more loquacious. Its jaws stayed closed despite appearances, because snap dragons are pollinated by bees and wind rather than wasps that must crawl through and lose their wings in the process. A hole so large you can see through it and the void becomes transparent is a hole too easy.
Melissa Wiley is the author of “Antlers in Space and Other Common Phenomena,” an essay collection published by Split Lip Press. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in places like DIAGRAM, The Offing, Noble / Gas Qtrly, Juked, Drunken Boat, PANK, and Queen Mob’s Tea House. She serves as assistant editor for Sundog Lit, and her travels in Lapland are anthologized in “Whereabouts: Stepping out of Place.”