By: Emma Sachs
Agnes Scott College, GA, USA
It began, I think, with the fruit trees. The ones planted by my father, holes dug by hand, in a last attempt to woo my mother into marrying him. At least, that’s the way he always told the story. She had flirted the edges of his world for years. A flower child turned arborist, whose family came from the same Steel Belt that had treated my father so kindly, his money held no interest to her. But my father planted her a dowry that she could not refuse. It was grown just off the back of the house in long and tilting rows. At the front there are plum trees, five of them, the European kind that grow into dark, palm-sized ovals – puncture the skin with your thumb, though, and you’ll find the flesh is yellow and sweet, sticking to your lips like sap. Next to them, finishing the first row, are the July Peaches: two trees that still have a slight lean to them, bending away from each other. My mother called them the “bickering brothers” competing to see who could ripen first. On some especially competitive years, the July Peaches were really June peaches, weighing heavy branches with golden circles just as the cicadas began shedding their skins.
The second row, my mother’s favorite, is entirely made up of figs. They are Brown Turkey Figs, the kind that give not one, but two crops a season. The trees produced so many of the dark, seeded, fruits we could not keep them all. After hauling several baskets to the local grocery eager to take her donations, my mother usually resorted to drying them. Filling the oven with trays of sliced figs, sprinkled with salt and basil. She dropped the shiny, hardened slivers into glass jars, lining the back wall of the pantry to be eaten all winter. Just as the fig trees were my mother’s favorite, I think she was their favorite as well.
The year she left us, there were no figs. I still tended the trees, then, hoping that she would realize her mistake and be all the more grateful we had kept up her orchard upon returning. When the first and second fig harvest times past with not a single fruit, I remember searching under the leaves and along the ground testing the temperature of the soil. As dramatic as it sounds, I believe they were mourning her departure. As if they knew the hands that pruned their branches belonged to someone else. As if, like me, they were just as angry she did not pull them up from the root to take with her.
Behind the figs, my father had planted three pear trees, Sunrise Pears, the kind that bloom red along the bottom when ripe. My mother dubbed these her “blushing ladies,” saying they were flattered by the sun’s affection. They are the sweet kind, sweeter than the hard, woody pears you’ll find in a produce aisle. Perfect for jam, or compote, or to be eaten on the walk between the tree and the house leaving sticky fingerprints over the screen door. Next to them were the persimmons. Wanting the thick, almost apricot-like flavor that my mother once mentioned, my father borrowed his brother’s truck and drove nine hours to Indiana to buy the two seedlings, just sprouting out of the plastic buckets. They grow taller than the pears now – though the fruits are small. The secret to persimmons that no one bothers to tell you is that you have to wait until they are overripe. So soft to the touch that your fingers bite easily into the orange flesh. That’s when they’re at their sweetest.
Behind the third row stretching out one tree extra in each direction were the mulberry trees. Protector trees, they’re called. Not fit for eating, my mother told me, just good enough to keep the squirrels and birds satisfied: a peace offering. Although, I found the tart bite of a still green mulberry devilishly delicious. Especially as a child, it was almost like stealing, like taking something that belonged to the beasts and not to the house. A fruit that was not my mother’s. I would shake the low branches, dropping the berries down into my gathered shirt, keeping my pilfered harvest in a plastic tupperware box under the sink.
There would be other plants later; like strawberries that grow beside the front porch, a bed of zinnias and dahlias and forget-me-nots along the driveway, a knot of blackberries out against the property line, wildflowers (dandelions and buttercups specifically), all across the front lawn that I never bother to weed. But at the beginning, it was just the trees. Back then they were wispy and leaning against the rake poles, tied together with shoelaces. It would be almost half a decade before the little limbs grew heavy with fruit, but it was enough for my mother. The promise of an orchard to tend and of life to grow at her fingertips. I don’t know if she even thought about whether or not she loved my father. I don’t know if she would have cared even if she did think of it. She loved the trees, the freedom from her family, the way the front hedges hid the white farmhouse (and all that grew behind it) from view. It was her own secret Eden – my father just came as part of the deal.
I often think that she had me as a way of returning the favor of the trees, like payment, an evening of the scales. Or, on the days in which my anger (if you can really call it anger) is especially biting, I wonder if I was simply a way to entertain my father so she could live her life as separately as the four acres would allow. My father wanted a family, and my mother wanted to be left alone. I was planted in winter, grown in the spring, at the same time as the rest of fruit, but pulled from my mother’s womb a whole week late, overripe, already having missed the last of the persimmon harvest. From the beginning, I interrupted her schedule. I’m not sure she ever forgave me for that.
Her plan, if keeping my father occupied with an infant really had been her plan, worked better than expected. I was colicky and underweight and in need of constant attention. In those first months, my father rarely left the house. He rocked me so frequently that both his wrists swelled with carpal tunnel. He took a leave of absence from managing the finances of the mill, disconnected the phone – back then it was as easy as pulling a wire from the wall–so that the ringing wouldn’t dare wake me. He locked us away in the top of the house, singing hymns and pacing through the halls all night so I would sleep, and slowly forgot about all that existed past our hedges. Some days, I am sure, he even forgot about my mother. You see, that’s the key to all of this. Even now, after all these years, I know that no party is blameless. But, it would be easier if I could pin it all on her. I could label her as flighty, as lacking maternal instinct, as possibly even sociopathic and be done with it all. I could pity my father and validate my anger, and get to work forgetting I ever had a mother. However, the strings of our lives are never so easily untangled. No, I see the fault knotted in all of us. In my mother’s inability to see beyond herself, in my father’s capacity to ignore everything that did not fit within his plan, and even my own unwavering need to be seen. We were all ruining each other, cutting off circulation. Can I truly blame her for leaving?
Now, the memories of her are sporadic flashes. All washed in that bright color and fuzzy edge of childhood sight. The sharp ache of the sting from the bees that hung around the blossoms like waiting suitors, the knock of my father’s boots across the wooden floor, and the smell of my mother’s hands all earthy and wet with the slightest hint of sweet. The way my mother’s hands smelled is what I remember most. Some days, when the longing is heavy inside me, overripe and oozing, I will go to the garden store. They know me there and let me wander through the mulch and planting soil aisles. Some days I cry, but most days not.
Still, I don’t know why it was the trees that got her, why she was so enwrapped by them. I have spent three decades trying to understand. She told me once that growing something made her feel a bit like God. There was a selfishness there, a desire to be the only one responsible for the production and upkeep of the trees. That should have been the first sign that my mother would eventually leave. The day she started feeling more like a gardener than a deity, she would have to move on. I just assumed that when she did, she would take us with her.
It took my father too many years to realize my mother didn’t really want to be a mother. Her trees were children enough, requiring her watchful, present eye and ready hands. They were ministered and tended to while I was left to just be. Sometimes I wonder why she didn’t have another baby. A brother, perhaps, someone to occupy my time and my father’s time, pulling the eyes away from her once I was old enough to no longer be an ever present distraction. I think he would have liked to have a son, my father. Maybe it was the thought of being pulled away from the garden that stopped her, of having to hold another suckling infant to her breast as she walked the rows, tugging out dandelions with her spare hand. Maybe it was the those weeks and months when a mother was necessary, when my father’s well-meaning but often unknowing demeanor wouldn’t be enough for a little human new to this earth. Whatever the reason, it was just me. Sprawled on the entry hall floor coloring sheets of computer paper as my father smoked his pipe on the front steps, watching the mail truck drive slow past the house. Just me and him, walking carefully behind my mother as she dropped a worm infested plum or a dead branch into one of our waiting buckets. Clicking her tongue against the roof of her mouth as if dissapointed by the tree’s inability to ward off all predators.
During the summer months, the entire back half of the house was off limits, the kitchen overtaken by canning and drying, the dining room a holding place for the baskets of harvest yet to be sorted for quality, and the back porch home to all the different things she needed for pruning, and plucking, and weeding, and watering. Sometimes, when she started baking, the front room became off limits as well. The top of the piano covered in tin foil bread trays and pie tins, things we would never eat and, just as they began to go stale, would eventually be delivered to neighbors and churches. My father and I wandered the top floor of the house, unsure of where to settle. We both learned to exist in the spaces she didn’t take up, silent in our efforts to disrupt her as little as possible. Perhaps, even then, we knew that was the key to keeping her happy. On the days my mother would load up the back of the minivan with crates of whatever she deemed ready for the farmer’s market, my father would occasionally sneak out into the yard. I never followed him for his quiet determination was alarming. But I would watch, face pressed to dormer window in the upstairs bathroom. He would walk in and out between the trees, sometimes pausing to run his hand along the rough-edged bark. Back then I thought he was admiring them, getting a closer look at the jewels my mother so closely guarded. Now though, I see the bitterness, the way it was rotting him from the inside. He hated the trees, the things that had brought my mother to him in the first place. How terrible it must have been, to know the only thing tethering his wife to her family, her home were a few rows of fruit trees. And how frightening to love her still. Because love her he did, I am sure of that. Even though some days I cannot even bring myself to love her, my father was as faithful as a dog, desperate to be fed from the hand that hit him. Skin and bones, showing up at her feet every evening, even when he knew there were no scraps to be had. I think he always expected her to come around. That she would walk through the door, handprints of dirt along her linen pants, look up at him, and realize that after nearly twenty years she was in love with him. Up until the end, when his mind slipped in and out between that hazy place of understanding, he loved her. Once, when I stopped by the home to visit, he thought I was her. He began crying so hard, I had to call one of the nurses in. It wasn’t until I made it back to my car, my throat wrapped in some invisible vice, that I realized I was crying too. I don’t think from sadness, but from the sheer weight of his own desire, and the way the words he shouted stuck to my skin. You’re home. You came home. I knew you would.
When she left, he broke wide. I saw the moment it happened, the way he fractured along all these fault lines.
On the day she left, her car and all the clothes from the guest room she had overtaken were gone, everything else left exactly as it had looked that morning. Well, there was a note written on the back of a shopping list and tacked to the fridge with a “Great Job!” sticker. I imagine her searching through the kitchen drawers to find tape, in a hurry to leave before my father and I returned home. She didn’t even know we kept the tape in the hall closet, she had never needed it before. I don’t know what that note said, he never let me read it. I’ve looked for it a few times since then, but never found it, not even when I was boxing up his bedroom. But there was a note, and her house key on the hall table, and that was it. He pulled the note free, hard enough to rip the sticker, leaving the left and top points of the star still clinging to the fridge. I followed him as he walked towards the backdoor, looking for her through the trees. She was not in the orchard, a stack of the mesh bags she used for harvesting lay piled at the base of one of the pear trees, fruit still hanging from the branches, ready to be picked. He left me there, feet slapping quick through the yard around the the driveway as if she might pull back in, a paper bag of groceries tucked under one arm, smiling. I waited, halfway between the trees and my father, suspended. The back door hung ajar. There was a slight breeze, not enough to shut it, just enough to push it ever so slowly, squeaking on its hinges. It sounded almost as if it was crying.
I turned ten in August, and the beehive had been knocked loose off the oak tree growing along the driveway in a particularly bad storm that ripped through the windgap our house was built in. With the hive destroyed, the bees swarmed. Covering an entire column of the back porch, the sound of them a constant low hum. They were there for three days, waiting, like me for my mother to return. But she did not, and on the fourth morning I woke to find them gone, all but one. The queen had gotten trapped in the kitchen window between the screen and the glass. I watched her struggle for a moment, the distant sound of my father’s footsteps hollow overhead, as she knocked herself again and again trying to escape. Eventually I opened the window, letting her out into the kitchen. She flew quick and anxious in a few circles around the room. “They’re gone”, I told her. She didn’t seem to understand. “They left you”, I repeated. Eventually she calmed, and I considered opening the backdoor to let her out. But the sound of the squeak would have brought my father downstairs. And I could barely stand to be around the new, half-empty version of him. The way his eyes were always searching, looking for clues she did not leave. So I let the bee stay, watching as she settled onto the white of the counter.
She moved along the slick surface until stopping at a small spot of something yellow. A drop of whatever preserve my mother had been working on the morning she finally decided the trees were not enough for her, that her life of growing and tending had become tedious. I couldn’t tell what it was from the color, so I carefully reached out my pinkie and swept up half the drop, leaving the rest for the bee. Touching it to my tongue, I immediately recognized the bright tang, the sweet of persimmon mixed with the tiniest bit of peach, and a few sprigs of rosemary: my father’s favorite. I opened up the cabinet just over head and found four of them that were no longer warm to the touch. I pulled out one, feeling the beveled edge of the jar with my fingers as I turned it, watching the thick liquid glint in the sun, like precious topaz or amber. The bee rubbed a foot through the drop on the counter; it was the last ounce of my mother. I heard a slam from upstairs. I imagined my father, still calling my mother on repeat with no answer, throwing the phone, the cord pulling it back like a tether after it hit the wall. From where I stood I could hear the heavy breaths of a sob. That sound had become familiar, yet something about it was still terrifying.
And in that moment, hearing the echoing sound of the grief that now sat in our house become a tangible fog that could be grasped and molded in my palm, the preserves were no longer beautiful. Instead, they were sickening and reminded me of pus, a symptom of a festering wound. I slammed the glass down hard against the counter, the shattering sound startling me. I watched, though, mesmerized, as the sweet liquid dripped down onto the floor, pooling on the counter, glistening amongst the shards of broken jar. It took me nearly a full minute to see the body. I eventually did, spotting the unnatural twist of a tiny leg. The bee had been there still when I threw the jar, and she lay, crushed, under one of the largest pieces of glass. A tiny body, the fuzz on her thorax slicked back with the preserve. Whenever I think about the bee – and she still creeps into my mind now – I am thankful that before my anger killed her, she got to taste the fruit.