Earl and Ed
By Megan Milks
with images by Marian Runk
There once was an orchid named Ed. He fell in total love with a wasp named Earl, who loved Ed back, totally. Together they became something else, not Earl and not Ed but Earl&Ed, wherein there ceased entirely to be Earl or Ed separately, although Earl&Ed retained the specificities of both its components.
Earl + Ed → Earl&Ed.
Earl&Ed ≠ Earl + Ed.
i.e., Earl&Ed > Earl + Ed.
i.e., Earl&Ed = (Earl→Ed) + (Ed→Earl).*
*where → is a form of becoming.
Earl&Ed started off as any other insect-flower pair, each being one of many partners for the other. Earl&Ed met in the full bloom of Ed’s second spring and Earl’s first and only. Ed was opening himself up for any number of interested insects who relied on nectar to survive, while Earl was slurping the nectar of any number of flowers, meanwhile collecting and depositing pollen to contribute to her partners’ reproductive cycles. Though this kind of partner-sharing was performed with both duty and respect, neither of them had any special feelings for their partners.
Earl was a wasp. She inhabited a nest made of wood pulp that bulged obscenely from the end of a hollowed-out log. Earl was a worker wasp. Cordial and friendly to her fellow workers, she bzzzzed as she worked, chewing wood into pulp and dutifully facilitating the expansion of the nest. Earl’s bzzz expressed the appropriate contentment towards and resignation to her role in the wasp community, which required also that she defend the nest and provide nourishment to its larvae by paralyzing insects and tearing them apart to transport back to her wards.
While Earl had spent many days and nights certain that her life and role were decent and worthwhile, increasingly she had been beginning to doubt this. Having again and again watched the male drones around her leave the nest forever to mate with ceremony and adventure, Earl was beginning to recognize the limits of her own life and role. Earl, a worker, could only ever be leaving to feed and find nourishment for the larvae. She was always having to be returning to chew more wood into pulp. She would be leaving and returning and leaving and returning always and always until her death.
One day Earl was off on a fly, venturing farther from her nest than usual. She flew and she flew, absorbedly contemplating her fixed place in the wasp community and in the ecosystem at large. When she looked into the future, all she could see was work, and small talk, and sameness, until she died when the weather turned. Pah, Earl was spitting in helplessness and disgust, her mouth still gummy with wood pulp, when a great and impossible yearning came upon her. She had caught the whiff of nectar rushing towards her in the wind.
Past the anthills and past their ants and past the sewers and their mosquitoes and past the azaleas and dandelions, Earl feverishly followed this scent to its origin in a decadent orchid whose showy petals and pert sepals fluttered invitingly in the breeze.
Earl stopped short. Earl being intimidated and Earl feeling suddenly and uncharacteristically shy but Earl fervently desiring this nectar, Earl hid on a bush leaf to think.
Ed was an orchid. His roots kept him close to the earth. Uncommonly isolated by a fence of stony shrubs, Ed had only grass, and dirt, and earthworms to keep him regular company; the occasional lost ant. With the exception of Anyx the Butterfly, Ed’s one long-term partner who would check in on him now and again, most of Ed’s winged visitors came upon him by accident, attracted by a whiff of his scent or simply taking the long route back to their homes. Ed’s visitors, infrequent though they were, brought him any important news of his community, so that if Ed may have been lonely, Ed may not have understood that he was lonely. Ed was content with his meager and easy slice of perennial life, and in an effort to occupy himself kept up a pronounced interest in understanding weather patterns.
Ed having heard Earl’s bzzzz from the east had turned to face the incoming insect. He hadn’t had a visitor all day; his nectar felt swollen in his spur. He rushed to straighten his stalk and fluff up his petals, thereby releasing another whiff into the air.
Earl on his leaf breathing this new scent swiftly sprang forward with lust. Ed regarded his guest curiously. At the sight of Earl’s firm body and large and penetrating multiple eyes, Ed’s stamen trembled. And when Earl landed on Ed’s sticky labellum she found herself so overwhelmed by Ed’s scent and shape she immediately began thrusting into it. Although Ed might typically have felt violated by such an act without introductions, this wasp felt good and right on his labellum.
Earl finally controlling and restraining herself crept over to the edge of Ed’s right petal. I Like You, she whispered, peering intently into Ed’s center.
Ed blushed and hid his face. I Like You Too! he squeaked boldly.
Earl drew out her proboscis and slowly, tenderly sucked up Ed’s nectar. Ed shivered with pleasure.
Earl returned to her nest with vigor.
Over time as Earl swooped in more and more on Ed and Ed opened up more and more for Earl, between them grew a certain interdependence. Earl being practical and affectionate, and Ed being sensitive and affection-starved, they quickly found that each was the other’s complement.
Ed with his impeccable style and elegant posture would arrange his petals strikingly, and Earl would admire his attention to detail. Earl might give Ed an important weather report, and Ed might pass on any gossip brought in from other insects, for instance There Will Be A Fire Drill In The Nest Today, or The Honeybees Lacking Resources Are Plotting To Take Over Your Nest. They would then grow bashful and silent as they conducted the intimate transaction that was Earl’s feeding, lingering longer than necessary each time.
Because of their conversational and physical exchanges and their growing ease and delight with one another, Earl and Ed began to look forward to seeing each other more than they looked forward to seeing any of their other partners. Each found this curious and startling, with each avoiding addressing it for fear that in the talking the feeling might fall away.
Then one day Earl swooped in on Ed and found Ed shriveled up and miserable.
Ed, What’s Wrong? Earl asked with concern.
Ed shuddered, and Earl understood that something terrible had happened. She hovered anxiously by Ed’s side and waited for him to speak.
Ed broke down and sobbed.
Earl not knowing what to do, for this was a new kind of emotional reaction from Ed that Earl had not yet seen, attempted to soothe Ed by telling him calmly about her day. When eventually Ed relaxed, Earl hovered closer.
Ed, I’m Sorry You Feel Bad. Can I Give You A Hug?
Ed nodded, sniffing. Earl vibrated Ed’s petals with her body.
There, There, said Earl. Is There Anything You Want To Tell Me?
Ed nodding again breathed deep until he was capable of relating the following information:
Violet the Furry Moth had come in the night and forced her way onto Ed’s labellum.
Ed sagged against Earl as he said this. Earl frowned. Stroking his petals gently she murmured Shh Shh.
Earl stayed with Ed that day, and the next and the next. When Ed was feeling better and more secure in his body and world Earl went off on a fly to find and paralyze Violet the Furry Moth with her stinger. She chewed Violet into pieces and then she carried the pieces to the nest, where she fed them one by one to her larvae wards who were jiggling in hungry anticipation.
The problem was that both Earl and Ed wanted desperately to be exclusive but didn’t know how, because the insect-flower community did not support such relationships. Neither wasps nor orchids were considered exclusive by nature, and those couples who did choose such a path were treated as selfish and abnormal freaks who would orchestrate the downfall of their community by preventing orchids from reproducing and wasps from sustaining their nests. But Earl and Ed didn’t care.
And so they chose to be in an exclusive and monogamous relationship, regardless of the certainty of their shunning.
Naturally the problem was that Earl&Ed was, as expected, shunned. Dromedus the Drone showed up one day to inform them that Earl had been excommunicated from the nest. He did his best to shame her, claiming that her larvae had starved and that the queen her mother would never forgive her, not in a million days.
Earl giddy with love registered little of this, bzzzing over Dromedus in her continued and overwhelming joy. Dromedus leaving in disgust yelled finally, What You Are Doing Is Unnatural. Earl&Ed cuddling with contentment did not even deign to respond.
Word spreading, so began several hours of winged insects swooping by and spitting on them. Earl’s co-workers flung wood pulp on Ed’s petals and hurled insults and anger at Earl. Traitor. Flowerfucker. Pervert. Protected within Ed’s strong petals, Earl&Ed quivered with anxiety, whimpering at every lash of pulp against Ed’s body. Earl&Ed pulled themself through the assault with assertions of shared fortitude.
Then the sky broke open and lightning struck. The wasps retreated, grumbling with annoyance. The rain though hard cleared the pulp from Ed’s body and cooled his stinging petals.
Earl&Ed had survived.
Meanwhile in the whorl of a nearby tree trunk Anyx the Butterfly had been watching Earl&Ed cuddle in the warm summer rain. Ed’s only long-term partner, Anyx had been saddened to learn that Ed’s nectar was no longer available to him. But Anyx though disappointed supported Ed’s choices, and watching from afar was beginning to understand why Ed had done what he’d done, and even felt a twinge of longing himself. He shoved it aside and, when the rain passed, left to find another flower.
The problem was that sometimes Earl&Ed would need to split open or apart and return to being Earl and Ed separately. Although this was uncomfortable for all three of the involved entities, it was necessary for continuing to live.
The problem was that Earl was mobile, and Ed was immobile. It was always only Earl who could initiate a splitting of their entity and take off, a lone wasp in the night.
Naturally what the problem was, was that whenever Earl left, Ed couldn’t also leave. Earl always came back, but how could Ed be sure of Earl? All he could do was wait, wavering dejectedly in the wind.
Ed had anxiety problems, Earl would say when she returned. Ed needed to trust her and stop being such a worrywart. Ed needed to know that Earl loved him more than anything in this bright big ecosystem and oh, Ed, Earl needed him so much.
But Earl, Ed would reply, What Might Happen To You In The Bad Rain And Thunder? Your Wings Might Get Torn Off. You Might Get Blown Into A Windshield. All Sorts Of Bad Things Might Happen, And I Wouldn’t Ever Have Any Way of Knowing!
Earl could say nothing to comfort Ed.
And then Ed, always already fearing Earl’s immanent departure, always already convinced that Earl would begin feeding from other flowers if she wasn’t already, would be compelled to produce more and more nectar for Earl to take. And Earl would keep taking and taking it.
Ed became the giver. He gave and gave, producing unparalleled amounts of nectar to keep Earl from leaving.
Earl became the taker. She took and took, feeding on Ed’s nectar and unable to help Ed cross-pollinate.
Ed gave and gave, and gave and gave, and he gave and he gave until he forgot who he was. He wasn’t anybody. He was some small part of Earl&Ed. Who was Ed when there was no Ed, but only Earl&Ed? The Ed who no longer existed apart from Earl&Ed felt bad, and selfless, and used.
On the other side of things was Earl. Earl took and took, and took and took, and she took and she took until she was fat with Ed’s giving, and bloated and uncomfortable, like she needed to go for a fly. And so Earl would have to leave. She could only take so much. Earl would feel misused, as though Ed was manipulating her with nourishment into love.
This cycle continued for some time.
Until Earl one day returning from an unusually long fly looked at Ed, took a long and hard and loving look and noticed that Ed’s leaves were all in a twist.
Ed, What Happened? Why Are Your Leaves In A Twist?
Ed unable to make eye contact could only droop and moan.
Ed, Please. Look At Me. Give Me Your True Feelings.
Ed sniffed, and wailed. It’s Just. I Am Sick Of Being Stuck Here, Earl. Why Am I Always Stuck Here?
Earl paused before answering. Because, Ed, That’s The Way You’re Made.
But I Don’t Want To Be Made Like This. I Want To Go With You!
Ed, You Can’t Go With Me. You Have to Stay in the Ground.
But It’s Not Fair! You Leave Whenever You Want and I Have to Stay Here And Feel Bad!
But I Thought—Earl retreated, hurt. Ed, Where Is This Coming From?
Ed’s face was pained and contorted. I Just, I Hate That I’m Stuck Here While You Do Whatever You Want. Why Do I Have To Be The Orchid All The Time?
Earl knowing the answer brightened. You’re Not The Orchid, Ed. There’s No Orchid Here. There Are No Longer Binary Machines. Earl nuzzled Ed’s center with her head and paused, thinking. The Problem, Ed, Is That We Have No Models. Insect-Flower Monogamy Is In The Minority, And Grossly Misunderstood By The General Public. How Can We Know How To Act?
I Don’t Know, Earl. It Sure Is Hard Sometimes To Know How To Act. I Feel Like I’m Just Being Myself But Then Sometimes I’m Some Exaggerated And Flowerier Version of Myself Because I Think That’s What You Want. But Do I Want To Be That? I Don’t Know. Ed started crying.
Oh, Ed, You Think Too Hard. Earl softened her voice. Just Be You And I’ll Be Me And We Won’t Worry About Who We Want To Be Or Should Be. There Is No ‘Should’ Here. Only Us. No Object No Subject Just Us. Each Of Us Becoming The Other But Also Remaining Ourselves. Earl&Ed. She paused. But If It Makes You Feel Better, I’ll Promise Not To Go On A Fly Unless You Agree To It. How Is That, Ed? How Does That Sound to You?
Ed breathed a perfumed sigh of relief and perked his petals up prettily. That Sounds Okay, I Guess. I Guess That Sounds Okay.
Earl bzzzed and bzzzed, and the two were one again.
The couple was again on solid ground. Ed felt more in control than ever, a new and good feeling for him, and Earl felt happy that Ed was happy.
Until Earl asked to go on a fly, and Ed said no.
Earl You Can’t Leave, said Ed, wrapping Earl up in his leaves.
Please Don’t Try To Control Me, Ed. I Need To Go On A Fly.
You Said You Wouldn’t Unless I Agreed, said Ed. Earl You Hafta Stay.
I’m Not Leaving You, Ed. I’m Just Leaving To Stretch My Wings.
No, Ed pouted.
Ed, It’s My Nature! We’re Different! Put Yourself In My Wings. I Can’t Take You Anywhere. How Do You Think That Makes Me Feel?
That’s Not Fair, Earl. You Have Advantages That I Don’t Have!
Exactly! And You Resent Them When You Should Be Admiring Them!
Ed scoffed. You Don’t Admire My Advantages!
You Don’t Have Any Advantages! Earl bzzzed furiously, battering Ed’s leaves with her wings. She stopped, took a breath. I Think We Need a Break from Each Other. You’re Too Dependent. She wiggled out of Ed’s grip and flexed her wings. I’m Leaving, Ed.
Earl, No! You Can’t! Ed clutched at Earl’s wings desperately.
I Can, Ed, and I Have To. You Can’t Go Anywhere and I Can and I’m Going To. Goodbye.
And Earl went for a fly and didn’t come back, not for a long time.
Ed not knowing what to do grew lonely. There was no way he could know where Earl had gone, or how long it would be before she returned, or if she would even return at all. He communicated with vibrations in the air directed at his neighboring plants in an effort to find out if Earl had been around. Having been shunned for choosing monogamy, he could gather no useful information.
Serves You Right, communicated Melpomene the distant azalea, For Screwing Up the Reproductive Food Chain. Wasphole.
Ed grew lonelier and lonelier and lonelier.
Earl How Could You Do This To Me. Earl I Wish I Would Die.
These were the thoughts running through Ed’s head always and forever during this time.
Meanwhile Earl was on a fly, a very very long fly that allowed her to do some long and hard and needed thinking. She knew that things had gone sour but she also knew that nuptials could go sour and then turn ripe again. But sometimes nuptials went sour and stayed sour and never could turn back to ripe.
If Only We Could Be Ripe Again. But How Can We Know How To Do That? I Don’t Know.
These were the thoughts running through Earl’s head always and forever during this time.
The problem was that Ed was now long past due for pollination. Other insects stopped by hoping to join with him, but Ed unable to stomach the thought of another insect in his labellum closed himself off altogether from sex. Anyx the Butterfly would check in on him from time to time and inform him of any Earl sightings. Such sightings were infrequent and speculative at best.
Ed continued to miss Earl deeply and hard. But Ed was becoming sick of missing Earl, and so Ed decided to do something about it.
What might happen, Ed thought, if he stopped waiting around for Earl who might never return, and did something just for himself?
And so Ed decided to self-pollinate. His own babies would come from himself and he wouldn’t need Earl ever again because he would have his own babies around him, his own babies keeping him company in the long cold nights. Anyx would make sure Ed’s seeds stayed close and didn’t get carried away by the wind, and Ed would have a family and become happy again.
Time passed, and passed.
Until one day while Ed was bending down lovingly to observe his children’s growth, he heard a buzzing familiar and close.
Ed! Ed! I Have Returned, My Love, To Find You So Pretty!
Ed being astonished and thrilled that Earl had returned but also angry and hurt that she had left, did not know quite what to do.
The anger and hurt won over. Earl Fuck You. I Have My Own Family Now Who Stays With Me And Never Leaves.
Earl gasped. Only then did she notice all the slender new infant orchids peeking up from around Ed lovingly.
But Ed Ed I Love You! I Needed to Think And I Thought! I Want To Be Together! I Want To Start Over, Get Back To How Things Were!
It’s Not That Easy Earl. It’s Never That Easy And It Won’t Be That Easy For Us. Ed swerved his body around with finality, refusing to meet Earl’s gaze.
Earl went sadly away. She returned daily to try and try again and again. She made friends with Ed’s babies, playing games by dipping and diving in circles around them until they were twisted together and shrieking with delight, with Ed looking on in amusement.
And Earl would say as she had been saying every day since her return, I’m Sorry Ed. Please Can You Forgive Me?
Finally Ed Junior and Isabelle and Yahweh and Iffie who were old enough now to understand the situation nudged and nudged at Ed, yipping and yipping until finally he could only laugh and spread his leaves wide for Earl to embrace them.
And so they were Earl&Ed again, and happy.
Slowly or quickly things became strained. Earl loathed parenthood, all these new threats to Earl&Ed. Worse, Ed could not seem to stop jabbing at her as punishment for her long leaving. Over and over Earl rolled around the question of how she could fix the situation.
Ed Let’s Exchange Symbols of Love, Earl said one evening as the children were dozing off. Ed Will You Commit To Me For Life?
Ed’s petals perked up. Then wilted. He knew what Earl was up to. He sighed. We Can’t Use Symbols As A Band-Aid Earl. They Won’t Heal Our Wounds. They’ll Only Hide Them. Besides—
Ed was interrupted by Iffie, who screeched, Yahweh Pinched My Buds! Instantly Ed turned from Earl and bent down to take care of his offspring.
Earl’s wings slumped. Watching Ed scold his children with devotion, Earl at last understood. Ed didn’t love her; Ed just wanted to never be left. Earl had been wasting all this time for nothing, nothing. Now all she wanted was an escape and to be alone. Earl launched forward, desperate to go for a fly.
Ed popped back up, indignant. Earl You Get Your Wings Back Here! You Can’t Leave Unless I Tell You You Can!
Earl was sick of this argument as she had never been sick of it before. Earl had wings and could fly, and all Ed wanted was to clip them. So she left.
Ed watched sadly, saying nothing, as Earl’s body faded into a dot and then disappeared entirely. He had no idea where she went or when she would come back, or if she would ever come back at all. Maybe they had never really loved one another, he thought, if things could end this way.
Ed moved on with his life and reached a certain level of contentment by opening himself up to a number of trusted insects. But Earl lurked in his memory, his actions, in the way he formed his sentences, and when the weather was beginning to turn Ed felt the shadow of Earl’s impending death intruding upon his happiness. Ed could not ever shake Earl off.
Nor could Earl shake the Ed out of her. She heard his voice in her head, and began taking on his characteristics: the way he shivered in the wind, the way he stuck out two petals when he talked. Had Ed ever truly loved her? Or had he only wanted company and affection? Though she wished to, Earl could not get over the demise of their relationship. In a faraway oak tree during the first frost she ended up freezing to death.
Megan Milks is the author of Kill Marguerite and Other Stories, winner of the 2015 Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award in Fiction and a Lambda Literary Award finalist; as well as three chapbooks, including The Feels, forthcoming from Black Warrior Review. Milks edited The &NOW Awards 3: The Best Innovative Writing, 2011-2013 and co-edited Asexualities: Feminist and Queer Perspectives. They currently teach literature and creative writing at Beloit College.
Marian Runk is a Texas-born, Chicago-based, Ignatz-nominated cartoonist, illustrator, and musician. She is a graduate of Oberlin College, and holds an MFA in Interdisciplinary Book and Paper Arts from Columbia College Chicago. Her pastimes include singing the blues, writing country songs, and watching birds along the shore of Lake Michigan. You can find her at marianrunk.com.
“Earl and Ed” was originally published in Monsters & Dust in Winter of 2012/13, then in Kill Marguerite and Other Stories by author Megan Milks.