When Lilith and Gerald were married, it was because they should be.
Gerald had once thought that a colony of ants lived in his shoes. Took shelter in the spaces between his toes. They would climb his legs, starting at the feet, when he traveled with his father for deliveries. They wanted to suck the sweetness of the sugar cane and water coconut that his father had cut down, nestled with him in the buggy. He always remained still and let them roam, remembering again and again and again what his father had told him: “Just likkle ants, mighty mon. Just likkle ants.”
He often said this to himself now, when things were happening that felt out of his control, that scared him, to remind himself to remain calm, patient, mighty.
Lilith remembered one day long ago, when her mother had let her go down to the beach to play with Gerald. They were standing face-to-face. He was holding a baby blue crab. The crab flared its limbs as if it were reaching out to her.
“We should name it! And love it! And be its Mumma and Papa,” Lilith said.
“Yuk. Me not play dat game.” He dropped the crab at their feet. Into the sand. Lilith had whimpered as she fell to her knees, hoping to catch it. She had not feared this one as she had the ones Gerald usually tormented her with. Instead, she felt sorry for it, left alone to grow and to be. She hoped it would follow her home, but she had walked too fast, and it had moved too slow, and so it never found its way.
Now, Gerald is saying, “Tell me someting. Anyting. And I’ll tell you.”
Lilith began to tell him about her mother, which made her think to tell him about her aunt, a person God had planned for laziness and had to mark as such with an eyeball that never sat right in its seat. Which made her think to tell him about the closet. And since she had told him all of that, she felt she could tell him her thoughts of the dress. She waited for him to disapprove of her vainness. As she spoke, she realized she had said it in a way that had made her seem selfish, ungrateful. But he listened. Really listened. In a way that she had not experienced before.
“What do you tink bout it?”
“Tink bout what?”
“Just likkle ants.”
Gerald answered as sleep found its way to him. He had undressed and climbed into the bed comfortably. She stood over him, listening to his breathing, trying to memorize it. The dark was too dark for him and so she lost him. But she knew he was there, somewhere around her, from his breaths, the gargles in the back of his throat, and that was enough for her.
Just likkle ants, she mouthed to herself, repeating him.
In the night, Lilith became mush. Something not of herself. She had melted through her dress into the sheets, into the floorboards, into the earth. She was going because she had to be someplace. Going and going and.
Lilith woke to Gerald watching her. Watching her expectantly. As if he had asked her a question and was waiting for her answer. But it was as if he had already known what she would say—he was just waiting for her to realize it for herself. That’s what his eyes told her. His bead eyes, deeply black, like the crabs. Which then reminded her of her dream. Of being a mound of soft flesh, uncovered: no hardness to her, no protection, finding her way to somewhere that would be the somewhere she would know safety. Lilith accepted the hand that Gerald placed on her cheek, the lips that kissed her forehead. Knowing that her dream had not left her, because when it had floated in the space above them, he had caught it.
Stephanie Mullings is a fiction writer from Chicago. She is a graduate of Boston University's Creative Writing MFA program, where she received the Leslie Epstein Global Fellowship. Additionally, Stephanie is a recipient of the Roy Cowden Memorial Fellowship, awarded for short fiction at the University of Michigan. Stephanie is a winner of the 2021 First Pages Prize and a finalist of the 2021 Arkansas International Emerging Writer's Prize in Fiction. Presently, she is a doctoral student in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Southern California. Her writing has appeared in Open Ceilings Literary Magazine, Bat City Review, and the Los Angeles Review.