by Alana P. Nur
The lemons in the courtyard glistened with droplets of dew that had alighted with silent steps that night. The rising sun bounced off each particle, some rays sliding to the ground to warm the earth and some ricocheting around the garden. The lemons’ color was almost painful, yellower than the sun and sticking out against the thick, green leaves. The fruits were softening, almost ready to be squeezed into juice and baked into luscious meringues and pies, cookies and cakes. Almost, but not quite. Still the lemons held onto their tree with the stubbornness that children have before departing for preschool, the unwillingness to venture past the immediate known. The trees were good parents, squat, with medium-thickness trunks and sturdy branches. Each branch held dozens upon dozens of leaves, each unfurled and pointing at intruders. The leaves’ spines were holding each dark, thick green leaf straight to protect their children from being picked. Even the roots were defensive, searching, stretching, reaching as far as they could into the rich soil. The soil was life to the tree, supporting and feeding the nutrients up through the roots, branches, leaves to produce lemons. And the roots siphoned water from the soil, up, up into the tree so that each lemon would have enough. Each lemon was not the same, each had its own unique qualities, but almost all were scrumptious, delicious, unimaginable tart and stinging. Once the tart sting on the tongue stopped, though, a sweet flavor spread over the tongue and this is what people remembered about these famed lemons. Anyone who tasted the lemons would remember the taste anytime they saw the sun shining, rich rivers flowing, or heard the word lemon.
Sweet music floated from the living room. Papa was playing the pianoforte, his favorite pastime. He always told me that it allowed him to express how he was feeling. He never played songs that other people wrote, just the song of his thoughts. That day the music was quiet, but with an intensity I wouldn’t have expected. Curious to see what Papa’s face was like, or to find a clue to why he was so solemn, I crept out from behind the curtain and sat in our armchair facing the piano, tucking my new yellow dress that matched my hair beneath me. Papa was pretty good at sensing people, especially since his eyesight wasn’t very good and he had to increasingly rely on his hearing to get a sense of his surroundings. He knew I was there, but fortunately when he gets in these moods he has to keep playing to get the full picture out, like finishing a sentence. Carla, my former schoolteacher, used to tell me that I never finished my sentences. It was probably true; I was such a vibrant, excited kid that I couldn’t be bothered with finishing one thought if another was ready to emerge. I missed Carla. In May, she’d left for Aram, the neighboring village ten miles away. With a husband and two newborn twins, she didn’t have time to visit. Papa was slowing down, humming along to his music. I could tell that he was finishing. With a final chord, melancholy and bittersweet with a slight dissonant tan, he concluded his composition.
“Did you want something, m’darlin’?”
“That doesn’t look like a ‘no’ to me. That looked like a ‘no, but...’”
“Well,” I began, getting up and sitting next to Papa on his bench. “I wondered if you had a reason for playing so darkly. Why are you so....so...sad?”
“Was I playing sadly? I wasn’t aware of it. I guess I have one of those feelings that it’s going to rain, but more like a raining of bad fortune for our town of Stromka than a physical rain. Do you get what I mean?”
I was quiet for a moment.
“You mean like, even though Stromka’s prospering now, there’s something bad waiting for us?”
“Yes, well, I’m sorry, Shaina. I did not mean to trouble you.” Papa has these premonition things. Some people might call it magic, but it’s more of an intuition. It could have been just that there was so much going for all of us in the village that a bad thing couldn’t help happening. Or it could have been message carried by the divine winds.
To stop the silence, Papa Asked, “Would you like to cook something marvelous for dessert?”
Nodding, I hugged Papa for an extra second, feeling his strong arms around me, squeezing me like he’d never let go. As I got up, the two grey streaks of hair at his temples winked back at me.
As I baked, I poured out my confusion in each fold, each turn of the stubborn pie crust. Butter, sugar, flour, eggs---this was a treat to eat. Fresh strawberries from our garden filled out the inside and when cooked oozed out the sides in a gooey, flavorful mass. Bundling up in many layers was worth watching the sun set, so we took our dessert outside.
Papa pulled out two wooden, handcarved chairs for us to sit on. The sun was just above the horizon, smiling down on a this sliver of land on the distant low hills. The rest of the land that we could see was in varying shades of darkness. The streets were shadowed by the houses facing us, which also blocked our view. Luckily our house was near the end of the street, so off to the left we could see more pretty, undisturbed land. As the last morsels of pie stained my tongue crimson, the sun was just beginning to slip beneath the hills and stain the sky a light rose color. I was just turning to Papa to see how he liked the pie, when I began to feel uneasy. I looked into Papa’s face, but he was turning away. His fork was speared in the center of his pie slice and where the filling had seemed like such a delicious addition before, I now could only concentrate on how much it looked like blood oozing out onto the wooden plate and staining it scarlet.
“Papa?” He remained silent. “Papa, is something wrong?”
There was a long pause where the only sound was the whistling of the wind as it ushered in the night sky.
“I leave for the army tomorrow. They have called me up again?”
“What do you mean they have called you up again? You are too old to go! Your knee has never been right and you are always complaining about your lungs, how they whistle the national anthem to you every night! How can they send you? Why not all the younger boys and men? You’ve already served your time---”
“Shaina! It wasn’t my choice. The village needs to meet a quota, otherwise the king won’t defend us. They tell us stories about how Kazam and his army are nearby and will come pillaging through our town and hurt everyone. You don’t want that do you?”
“Why would Kazam and his army want to hurt a small town like Stromka?”
“I don’t know. They say that Kazam and our king cannot agree on how to divide the lemon orchards that lie between the two kingdoms. Maybe we are in their way. I cannot understand why they cannot simply share them. Fruit is fruit, if you let it grow and pick only in small amounts, it will keep growing for a long, long time, enough for everyone. Everyone deserves a bite of those delicacies. But they both are impatient and want to sell the orchards off to other countries.”
“But why do you have to fight a war that they want?”
“That, Shaina, is the question that all of us in Stromka would like to ask them. But none of us can because they are the ones who could help us if Kazam comes near. And so I must go to protect us. And you. I’m leaving tomorrow, but I don’t want you to be sad. I could not bear it if you were. I hope that I will be home before it feels like I have left.”
The few remaining lemons in the courtyard glistened in the setting sun, twinkling in autumn colors. No longer were the yellow fruit nestled in the warm comfort of luscious green leaves, but sat stale and rotting in a bed of dead brown leaves. Turning, trying to warm themselves, the lemons struggled. Above them tall brown branches were bare, barer than a white canvas, but as bare as an artist’s canvas before he is born; no living thing could touch the deadness of the branches without being sucked into death itself. They were dull brown, with a coat of dusty particles obscuring the bark. Through one of the trees a great gash had torn, the uppermost branches were bent impossibly back and the inner light grey flesh lay exposed to the rain that had begun to drizzle. Small drops began to alight with sluggish footsteps, pattering into the fountain and washing the mud and soot from the face of the statue in the fountain, a nymph. He had only suffered a broken nose, and this was fixed, but as he gazed up he saw not water spurting from his mouth, only a cloudy sky embroiled in anger. At his feet a pool of fresh water was forming, gaining an inch only ever so slowly. The remaining lemon trees drank in the drops; they were the only trees so damaged; the other fruits had clung to their stems and vines and had not been trampled over.
As the sky began to stain a deep blood red, the gate to the courtyard creaked open. Broken and missing planks, it screamed in agony as a figure passed through its posts. Clad in a yellow dress clearly sizes too small, she clutched a small paper in her hand and a yellow rose in the other. Her light blond hair hung long, almost to her bony knees. Her hands were cut, her face was dark, and her body was bruised purple, but so were many bodies during harsh war. She stepped in large shoes as carefully as she could through the overgrowing vines to a stone beneath the largest lemon tree, the one missing its top. On the grey, mottled stone was clumsily engrave “Papa.” Bending painfully, she placed the flower on the stone and dropped the paper be side it, turning to head out of the graveyard. On the paper was printed:
Like this Lemon tree,
You held on to me,
Like this lemon tree,
For the thousand years I will love you,
May a thousand lemon trees be grown.
* * * *
Alana P. Nur is a tenth grade student at Tamalpais High School in Mill Valley, California.