Short Fiction | Beneath the Lemon Tree

I am a child, alone in the world. All that there is to remember of my mother is the sway of her black hair, braided. When she carried me, I would take the frayed strands of the end of her braid and suckle them. She never complained. Nor did she say a word when she left me beneath the lemon tree, to sit amongst the swelter of summer heat and the delight of bright yellow citrus begging to be plucked. She never returns, she never promised she would. 

Instead, an old woman who both loves and despises me is the one to ensure I will grow older, rounder, and befitting of a wife. She does not speak my language. So she shows me love through firm slaps with her belt and hard work. As the years darken my skin and pull me closer to womanhood, I am grateful for it. 

Our house and farm with its rows of crops and dangerous, delightful lemon trees at its border demand our backs. It demands we bear dirt underneath our fingernails and that sweat must soak every piece of clothing we own. When winter comes we tear apart the hand-carved chairs and set them amongst the rubbish pile so that we might not freeze in the night. My Grandmother as I believe her to be, cries and mutters a prayer as she throws the last wooden leg into the flames. I look at the splinters as they begin to blacken and think, that is her language. Harsh and jagged. My language is precious to me, it is all I have left of my mother. 

A memory, coupled with the useless words that tumble out of my mouth when I grow desperate for answers to my many questions. Sometimes Grandmother looks at me with a sudden pity in her eyes.

It is that look that snuffs my curiosity. So when the pain begins and it feels as though I have swallowed a thousand needles and blood soaks my dress, I do not ask why. When Grandmother finds out I’ve ruined the linen of of my bed, she does not scream and beat me as I expect. Instead, she strips the bed and burns the sheets, tells me to bathe and upon my return, there is a cloth she tells me I must wash with care. And every month after that, she always leaves me a new cloth. 

The years stretch my skin and make me soft at the edges. My mother I remember was like a scarecrow. You could point out all the edges of her. But I am round and comfortable, and I believe this is why the trader’s son stops by the old farmhouse so often. He speaks the language of crackling tinder, but when he does it is smooth and enticing as coffee slipping down your throat. I suspect that Grandmother knows what kind of company he offers me, but if she has something to say about it then I cannot understand it. 

His company is a honey-sweet comfort. The farm commands my body, exhausting me day after day. My Grandmother demands much of me without a single word, day after day. But this soft-natured trader’s son asks for nothing. Instead, he gives. With gentle sounds, warmth, and sweets brought from far-away countries. He shows me of these places when the darkness of night cloaks us both. In that darkness amongst dust and moths, I tap on the map and point to myself, but he pretends he does not understand me. 

It is only when he leaves and does not return that I know distant lands are not for me. Not yet. 

My back bends, the muscles crying out as the days spent in the fields lengthen. 

My soft body is becoming stretched. It is only when my belly swells and my monthly bleeding does not come that my grandmother grabs a fistful of my hair and screams one of the only words I know of. 

Child. 

Is that what swells within me, my chance to never be lonely again? 

And oh, how my womanhood ripens . Pickled mango makes rivers run,sweat laces over my skin and I know it’ll all never be the same again. None of it. The pain becomes me, and I fear my fingernails will fall from their beds. It threatens to simply tear me in two. 

And it does. 

My grandmother comes to me with warm towels, hot water, and her soft foreign words. She cannot assure me I won’t die, because I do not know  if she was telling me that this moment will be my last. There is blood between my legs, my skin burns like fire to touch and all I can think of is suckling a mango seed and the slippery flesh that sticks between your fingers when you try to hold it still. 

I push and I push because that is all I know, and my grandmother speaks that word again. Child, child, child. My skin catches alight, the mango flesh slips and she takes away that only word I know, wrapped in a blanket. It cries and cries, as she carries my only word out into the field and leaves it beneath the lemon tree. 

And I hope, with all of the small self that I am, that it will not carry the curse that my mother left me.

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