I unbutton my nightshirt and discover them: tiny fire ants tracing the rosary around my nipple, each goosebumped pore and coarse dark hair a prayer bead.
I don’t have any offerings to give. No crumbs, no crust of sugar for their squirming, hungering children. Mandibles pinch and release, testing ripeness. I brush them off and stomp the ones I can reach. The rest of the colony melts into hiding places: the cracks in the headboard, the chasm between wall and baseboard, the open-mouthed sockets. Do ants notice when fewer of them return? I touch my breast with one finger. Round and hard as a bowling ball, skin stretched tight. Your father is asleep in bed and there are no bites on his face, no dark pixels crisscrossing his skin.
In the hallway, my hand misses the light switch a few times. The pump waits in the closet, top shelf. I grab all the parts and force them together. There is dried milk on the plastic shield, air bubbles in the tubing. There is mold growing in the first bottle I grab, and I can’t find another one. No time. I am moments from bursting, like the parable I was supposed to teach for Sunday school. New wine, old wineskins. If you mix them, both the wine and the skins will be lost. Isn’t that how the story goes? Your father, still snoring, would know. I’m not sure. I skipped church and took the stale communion bread down to the river and tore off pieces for the ducks, and even they knew better than to eat it.
My skin prickles beneath the plastic shield. I pump the handle as though I’m spraying Windex on grimy windows. Nothing comes out and my breast is on fire and the rhythmic mechanical gasps make me think of heroic measures in intensive care units, though I’ve never been inside one. No time. The paramedics thought you were probably gone within half an hour of when I laid you down. I didn’t kiss you before I tiptoed out—you were in a deep, warm sleep and it seemed too risky. When we found you in the morning, your father did chest compressions: two fingers pressing straight down, dead center between your nipples. I sealed my mouth over your face and sent small puffs of air inside, inflating you like a balloon. If I could’ve blown my own life into you, I would have.
One drop falls in the plastic bottle. Two. Then the milk gushes. Everloving fuck. Soon I am past the one-ounce line. Soon I’m past two and three and four and I need to switch to a new bottle, except there isn’t one. I fill two cereal bowls and a confetti-glazed mug and the glass pitcher my mom filled with lemonade when she stayed over, doing laundry and cooking dinner and sitting next to my bed, rubbing my back until I fell asleep. She did the same thing the week you were born, except it was your back she was rubbing. Her visits like bookends.
I break the seal with my pinky and set the pump aside. I am empty. Deflated. Fire ants emerge from the darkness, probing the sides of my mismatched vessels for something to grip.
I should donate my milk to someone who needs it. Next time I will. But for now, I carry the mug and bowls and pitcher outside, milk sloshing over. There are ant mounds sprawling along the back step, bathed in moonlight. I empty the pitcher into their tiny, gaping mouths. Maybe they’ll be satisfied and stop biting me awake. Maybe they’ll drown. Either way, an improvement. There are poppies growing along the fence, buds closed like small fists, and I pour the rest of the milk over them. Maybe when they open they’ll smell like your skin, that yeasty maple syrup sweetness, maybe I’ll hold the blooms close to my face and whisper your name to the soft, milky petals.
Lindy Biller is a writer who hails from Metro Detroit and now lives in Wisconsin. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming at SmokeLong Quarterly, Heavy Feather Review, Pithead Chapel, and Apparition Lit. She works at a small game design studio, crafting stories and concepts for online learning games.