The Remaining Hosts
by Danielle Holmes
We’d been hungering for things we could not name for so long the pangs had become a dull throb we pushed aside for the more immediate concerns of living. Some people adopt a puppy in their reaching, but we decided on a garden. Rather, I wanted a puppy—its wet nose, backside twitching from a perma-wag tail— an excuse to go on walks where we might be reminded. He said a garden was easier to ignore, would test our dedication through its daily upkeep. I suspected he liked a garden’s shorter lifespan. He knew my poor track record with houseplants.
Our palms were torn open in the pulling: wheelbarrows full of tough, fibrous prairie grass from the baked dirt that we tilled and turned and mixed with compost cut with bat guano and organic soil. The cost of bat shit was twice that of the chemical-laden Miracle pellets that dyed the skin turquoise and poisoned the neighborhood fauna. We couldn’t afford any more bad karma. We bet everything on the blank, black promise of the soil.
When the first sprouts emerged, they brought something like hope. He poured wine into jelly jars, laid me out on a faded quilt and made it easy to ignore the sun beating down on my naked thighs. Afterward, we awoke to the drone of locusts, his hand on my white breast silhouetted with sunburn.
The day he didn’t come home, the grasshoppers arrived. Tomato plants still sheltered the tight, meaty balls of green beneath their leaves, the golden zucchini blossoms were beginning to wilt. It seemed enough, in those initial sightings, to simply relocate the hoppers over the fence. When one day became three, I began battle against the weeds and pests, delighted in the brittle crunch of exoskeletons beneath my sandal, reveled in the sound of roots ripped from the earth.
He appeared at the back gate on day four, unshaven and sweat-stained. His left cheek was peppered with small cuts freshly scabbed. I stabbed my garden spade into the dirt and rose, wiping my hands together in a slow dare for him to say the things that wouldn’t matter. When anger bloomed to a red-purple passion in the dark of the shed, he yanked fists of hair at my scalp and made my back arc like a bow. My teeth sunk into the flesh of his shoulder, more hurt than pleasure, but as hard as I’d meant to.
The next morning he disappeared once more, slipped from the shared warmth of our bed and tiptoed the minefield of creaking floorboards out the door. But he returned with breakfast and a box of Nosema Locustae bait for the grasshoppers. The clerk, he explained, said it wouldn’t contaminate any of the surrounding organisms. We ate our greasy breakfast sandwiches, drank coffee, more coffee, talked about our plans for the tomatoes when they ripened.
I set out some old citronella candles I found in the garage, their wax dirty and cracked, the odor slightly rancid. We sat in the middle of their triangulated mosquito protection and passed a bottle of Jim Beam between us, playing the juvenile game of making statements and drinking if they applied: stolen something, had a threesome, hit a parked car without leaving a note. We knew each other well enough that the questions became an excuse to catalogue the other’s bad behavior, specific names and occasions surfaced—did you with her, that time in February, the motel with the shooting star. He threw the empty Beam bottle into the air and the shatter left us more intoxicated than the booze. I threw a terra cotta pot onto the patio, he kicked a ceramic rabbit into pieces across the yard. The collective breaking sent my blood thrashing through my veins and I slapped him. The chaos came to an abrupt, silent stop. Noise from the street several blocks away carried like ghosts. Then he laughed a large and cackling laugh and hit me back.
Neither of us swept up the broken shards in the days that followed, but I put on sturdier shoes and threw handfuls of the bran-like bait at the base of the plants. We’d argued about the logic of pruning back buds so the remaining blossoms would produce larger fruit: I said let’s let them all grow in case some of them don’t make it, he said the plants need to concentrate their efforts to thrive. We hadn’t agreed on a method, but the buds were now half of what they were days before.
A few early cucumbers and a tomato more pink than red produced a small salad that I split between two plates and sprinkled with a handful of ripped basil. When he still hadn’t come home hours after I expected him, the basil gone soggy in the leaky tomato slices, I started in on the wine. A grasshopper landed on the table with a soft thump. It had the carcass of another small grasshopper in its mandible. In the garage, I pulled the empty bait box from the garbage and read the side panel explaining how it worked. The spores attack their fat stores causing most of them to starve to death.
The back gate clicked open, and I listened as the broken glass near the table cracked beneath his boots, heard the wine bottle scrape across the metal top, the slosh and glug of his drinking. I picked up where my finger marked my place on the box: “the remaining hosts,” it continued, “will eat each other alive.”
About Danielle Holmes
Danielle Holmes holds an MFA from Bennington College. Her short fiction has appeared in The New Flash Fiction Review, Cleaver Magazine, deCunha, and Pilgrimage. She lives in Colorado.