What winds blow in the valley below the big town on the first day of June always smell of oranges. Sharp, sweet, with the bitter tang of pith. And with it came the undeniable hunger. Every year. Lettie always stood for a moment, waiting to throw open the shutters in her bright, airy kitchen to let in the rush of summer citrus and the unflinching desire to eat.
“You don’t even like them oranges,” her husband would say, and then she’d nod. You can’t argue with the truth. Yet out Lettie would go, into the bright sunshine or the stinging rain, to seek the source.
This year was no different. She flung up the sash above the sink, and the fruit-drenched air invaded the house, soaked under her skin. She rested her palms on the edge of the counter and drank it in. Time was of the essence. It always was.
A few steps away in their pin-neat bedroom, Elmer still sprawled beneath the comforter. Strands of brown hair peeked out, blown wild with each push of his sleepy breath. Lettie fished for her shoes, just under the edge of the bed, and slipped them on, quiet as can be. Her husband flung out a hand to pet the round hardness of her belly, and the baby under his fingers kicked. Once, twice, and then the rumbling settled.
Elmer mumbled, “Don’t even like them oranges.”
“When you’re right, you’re right, dear,” she said. Her hunger was louder than the wind. The aroma was everywhere. On everything. Maybe it was more intense this year. Her mother — God rest her soul — had explained about pregnancy, the way she’d sniffed out the strangest things, the smells a thick-walled cloud fogging her brain until Lettie had been born. That year the oranges had been strangling in their depth of scent, her mother had said.
Getting outside, that’s what was needed. Lettie’d clear her head, her nose, let the wind take her where it might. She slipped a knife into her back pocket. A lady never knew when she might need a good knife on the first day of June.
Outside the house, right there on the flagstone walk, she sniffed, deep and wide. She wet the tip of her finger and held it high into the air. The gusty wind caressing her skin made her more ravenous. The sun heated the crown of her head, magnifying the heavy aroma. Another gale led Lettie to the road, and some intuition — a prick of recognition — turned her to the west, to the oak-heavy forest and the barely discernible paths within. She walked, following her nose, the nudges from within her belly.
She would eat. She and the baby, they’d both eat.
With each step, she imagined how it would be. The year prior she’d come upon a juicy morsel in the dappled shade beneath a tree in the main square. The year before that, she’d found herself behind a dilapidated building on the outskirts of the city, snuffling warm skin. And oh! The taste. Hot and wet, sweet and succulent.
From the year of her own birth to the day she was married, it was her mother that raced her into the hills and forests to get to the source. She could still remember the feel of their clasped hands, the way she’d taken to the hunt without much of her mother’s urging. Some vestigial memory must have hooked its heritage into her DNA because Lettie — like her mother, like her mother’s mother, and all the women in the family who came before — had the instinct. Mother gently offered up suggestions: how to make less of a mess with the eating, why burying the skins was such a necessary process. The glory of the family lineage and service to the big town above the valley.
The townspeople never talked much about the family gift. Perhaps behind closed doors there were whispers, a warning about the first day of June and those Hanahan women. That family could out-hunt a bloodhound, that was what her neighbors said within her hearing. Noses like sharks, people said.
She’d once hid in the bushes to eavesdrop on an old man from the big town, his stories about her family. Pretty as all get out, but there was something ungainly in that way the little one, Lettie, could sniff out a wounded animal from a mile away. Something off about the way old Edith Hanahan could pick out the spot to look for a lost child. It was in the blood, far back as anyone could remember. And the way the older ones just withered away when the daughters married — it wasn’t right. Lettie had known already her mother would die, and she alone would carry on the traditions, but hearing it from a stranger . . . that had stung like a bee.
None of it ever mattered to Elmer. No, he’d never cared who she was . . . or for the whispers about her family history. He’d only shake his head every June and let her go about her business. “You don’t even like them oranges.” It was his only comment.
The wind changed direction, bringing a yawning whiff of orange from the north. She swiveled, set to sprint across the meadowed expanse. The forest just beyond shook its leaves, and the breeze altered course again. Seconds later, the scent of citrus drifted from the south, and Lettie hadn’t a strong notion about the direction to try. Such strangeness to the hunt this year; perhaps it was the strong winds at fault, or perhaps the baby made it harder to get a read on the source. So hard to pinpoint anything. She plopped down on a patch of clover and held her belly between two unsure hands.
For an hour the tempest whipped, mixing the smell of ripe oranges with raw earth, damp moss, rotting leaves, and rutting animals, and Lettie waited, whispering secrets to the baby. A girl, just like her. She could tell by the way her craving solidified into a solid punch of want. Her mother always said you could figure it out, if you just paid attention. Unlike the baby, Lettie was patient. She waited for the calm air to descend and the scents to settle. Meanwhile, her belly heaved and cried.
“This way,” the wind whispered. “Come this way.”
Well, that was different. Never had encouragement come from anyone but a Hanahan. She remembered her mother once hiding in the trees, guiding her, teaching her the secrets, to find the place from which the orange fragrance came. Passing along the legends. Pointing to the green, green valley and the bustling town, the family role in its fortune.
Lettie rose and let the voice take her. First back across the tall wild flowers and grasses, a half circle through the wood, where the oranges were muted. She emerged into blazing light and a fragrance so encompassing she thought she might never sense another. The baby kicked again.
“Across,” the voice urged. “Beyond.”
She followed, a hollow space growing inside her chest, even as the spice of orange in the air filled her with anticipation. The ground was firm beneath her feet, fever trapped under her skin.
Yes, it was just ahead of those trees. She could feel it. Her incisors ached with the need to tear into flesh, swallow the juice. See the ritual clear for another year.
She didn’t enjoy it, not really, not knowing what she must do. Well, not after, anyway. When she had time to think about it. But the valley below the big town on the first day of June demanded her service. And it demanded sacrifice. Her mother told her once of what would happen if she ignored her calling. She wouldn’t even think of shirking her duty.
When through a thick brush Lettie tunneled, it was her own backyard in which she stood.
“Inside.” It was a hiss in her head, a cyclone in her skull. Maybe not the wind, as she’d thought, but a voice speaking around the thing she didn’t want to admit.
Her feet walked the path by memory, so intent was she on following the perfume, so sure she had made an error. Now she caught the smell, the thick of it in her throat. How she’d mistaken it, Lettie couldn’t tell. She stumbled once at the backdoor, fumbled with the key. Deep down she knew service and sacrifice would twine together this year, more than ever, and it filled her with a sensation she’d never known before: dread. Something drew her up the stairs, down the hall, and through the doorway into her bedroom. Her husband still slept, face mashed into the pillow.
She crept closer, then closer still, held back only by the bloom of oranges permeating the room. The wind brought her the scent of fruit, took her to the source.
She would eat. She and the baby, they’d both eat.
Elmer stirred, his skin suggestive of an entire grove of tangerines . . . and maybe clementines. She leaned closer and ran her nose along the nude, aromatic spine, the firm and fragrant shoulders. Even his fan of hair smelled sweet. Her mouth filled, and her jaw went slack, fingers crooking with the urge to feast. The baby kicked.
Lettie slipped the knife from her back pocket, so crazed with appetite she didn’t even bother to wake him to say goodbye. Elmer would understand. The baby would understand. It was for the town.
She didn’t even like them oranges.
NICOLE WOLVERTON writes adult and young adult horror and thrillers. She is the author of The Trajectory of Dreams (Bitingduck Press, 2013), an adult psychological thriller. Her short fiction has appeared in Black Heart Magazine, [Five] Quarterly, and Penduline, among others. She lives in Philadelphia. Visit her online at nicolewolverton.com.