By MV Kartoz
“How much?” she giggles. The answer can’t possibly bother her. It’s the punchline to a joke where it’s impossible to fumble the delivery.
For a coconut in a bush town in Alaska in January? It’s practically the deal of a lifetime. They toss it back and forth jovially as they lug groceries up the gangway to the house. Eggs, apples, beer, coconut. When the rest of the mid-winter restock is put away in the pantry, it’s left alone on the table. They eat dinner that night with it there between them, gazing at the caretakers over bowls of venison-barley stew. Dishes are practically scraped clean by the time either of them can manage to address the alien fruit with words instead of bewildered glances.
“What on earth should we do with it?” she asks.
“I don’t know. I was thinking about the surprise factor, not utility,” he admits.
“I don’t even know how to get it open.”
Both agree that it’s too special to waste. Whatever they use it for, it must be correct. A few moments on their spotty internet reveal answers to their two big questions. How: a screwdriver and a mallet. What: piña coladas, coconut pudding, chutney, yogurt, and a thousand other things food bloggers claim are made better by the addition of fresh coconut. No proposals are settled on by the couple, so they agree instead to kick the can down the road.
After sleeping on it, both also agree that it should mark some special occasion. But they both have summer birthdays. Their anniversary was back in October, and the holidays just ended.
She suggests Valentine’s Day. “But the deer heart,” he points out. For a decade now, they’ve made it a tradition to vacuum seal and freeze the heart from the first successful hunt of the season to share for Valentine’s Day dinner. There was one waiting for them in the chest freezer right now, from the doe she brought home early in the fall. They racked their brains over dinner and tried every Google search configuration they could think of, but not even the most intrepid food blogger could tell them how to serve venison and coconut in the same dish.
Even two people deeply in love can sometimes run out of things to say to each other. Such is often the case for the caretakers in winter, when excitement is in short supply and the days blur together. Now, whenever they come to the end of natural conversation, they turn to the coconut. He has begun to think that it was worth a full fifteen dollars for this alone, and wonders if he could find something even more exotic at the tiny general store for next winter.
Gradually, simple reality becomes clear to both of them. The nearest special occasion is spring. “And isn’t coconut kind of a spring flavor, anyway?” they muse. They resolve to break the thing open when it feels right, and not by any other metric. She thinks to herself that it may be time when the birds start to come back.
The day after they come to this sort-of agreement, he brings home a buck and needs the whole table to butcher it on. The coconut is relegated to the pantry, where it is deemed worthy of prime real estate: right-hand side, eye level.
It becomes much more than a joke to the caretakers. Somewhere on the planet, it is warm enough to grow coconuts and wear tank tops. Why not here? From its perch, the coconut witnesses each consecutive collection of snowfall and watches winter stretch into March, and then April. The birds come back. The moment isn’t right. Winter seeds an itch in the caretakers too deep to scratch, and only hope keeps it at bay. Around the bend of any day could be warmth, after any squall could be the break. The coconut holds them together; snowfall sets them back again. On clear nights, they look to the sky for a glimpse of the northern lights. If it’s foggy, they look to their pantry for the North Star of the future. When dust gathers on the shell, they gently wipe it away.
Any day now, she whispers to herself, washing dishes in ice-cold water straight from the creek. Any day now, he mutters to the wind and himself and the marine forecast, searching for a break in the weather that will let them take the skiff into town and check for mail. Any day now.
One day in early May, the sky breaks open. Light filters through the trees and sends rippling patterns across their living room walls. He cracks a window in the kitchen, and a tiny chickadee whizzes by. Where the gutters drip onto the snow and melt it, a fiddlehead is primed to uncurl. The sight sends him into a tizzy. Speechless and gesticulating, he pulls her out the door to see it for herself. She nearly sheds a tear.
Without a need for discussion, she fetches a screwdriver, and he the mallet. Together, they bring the coconut down onto the counter. They have no recipe in mind, only trust that it will come to them the same as the right moment has.
All it takes is the instant between the strike of the mallet and the two halves clattering onto the counter for their nostrils to fill with the perfume of rot.