The Tree Planted By Water
My mother never eats cherries, she is afraid of the pits. She isn’t afraid of swallowing them, but she thinks that worse, they have something inside of them. She says that her grandmother had a line of cherry trees on her property, and that they were all in perfect symmetry.
“That’s one thing about nature. If it’s too neat you can’t go trusting it.”
Her grandmother sang I Shall Not Be Moved, picked cherries from limbs, eating the red-blacks without washing them. My mother says her grandmother never rinsed fruit before she ate, not even before she made her pies. She says some other stuff about how bad that was, says it’s what killed her grandfather.
“He choked on her pie once. Five minutes later he was dead.” She waits in the silence and looks at me, she mouths it wider DEAD. The words fall on us thicker than her coral chunked lips. We all nod in the old red car and I let mom bump me to untangle the fake purple-white flower necklace that hangs from the center mirror.
“Didn’t even try saving him. She put something in that cherry pie, meant him to eat it.” The fake flowers have oily smudges of orange on their backsides, maybe from some other time.
“She was — no — she is wicked.” Mom’s lip has one red bump on it with a white head. She’s got thick lotion ladled skin, and you can smell it stronger than those red-black fruit trees below the cloudbank.
We live on the mountain still; we scale a cloudbank like a bog floor against the rest of the world. It’s cold, but mom says the bank keeps us safe when we’re above it. The cherries, her cherries, don’t smell like smoke here. They’re rainiers and they smell like sweet-sap. The colors aren’t even red-black. They’re yellow-red. More yellow than anything else though.
We had more cherry trees on our lawn before, but mom made dad cut them back at different lengths, her rule about lines. He makes an outside fire in a gravel pit and throws wood in. It’s usually too filled with sticky sap to burn. He looks at me and says, “You’ve got to start with dry pine and brush.” It smells good when they catch, mom sets up black pots over the fire and the boys butter meat inside. I pick up more brush.
When mom isn’t home, or sleeping, Dad gives the cherries to our neighbor Dorris. She isn’t too much older than Dad, they’re real good friends. They sit in the kitchen and she presses sugar-juice out of some cherries and then strains them into tea.
“Better than sugar girl.” She taps my forehead with her free hand and smiles. Her mouth is soft with lines on the outsides, and her eyes aren’t soft, but the lines echo. Dad leaves me in the kitchen sometimes when him and Dorris go talk. I finger through the books in her living room and they’re mostly blue-silver paperbacks with dents in the sides. Some feel like fish scales, and some only have smooth gold words. Dorris told me once she worked on the rivers in the area, taking surveys and stuff. I flip through some books about those very rivers and sip more tea. I run out and I go to the kitchen to get more and look at the bucket full of cherries. I can’t get the sugar out of them the way she does, so I just bite into them. The blood from the flesh stains where my mouth meets the other half; it peels some dry skin off when I spread my lips. I’m done with my handful and I put the pits under her couch. I usually do this, but she hasn’t noticed yet.
Dorris comes out this time and she comes without Dad. She’s in the softest red pants I’ve ever seen, they shimmer when she stands right. She comes over with a refill on my tea glass, mashed cherry flesh sitting heavy on the bottom, some even floats up in little lights.
“Your Daddy tells me you love climbing them trees.”
“Mhm.” Dorris’ got some of her front tooth missing.
“Make you mad that they lose all their cherries?”
“Huh.” She stopped and looked like she wanted to say more. She started talking after we could both smell the gray of the room. “You ever get the feeling that your hearts pounding up there?”
“I think. Maybe.”
“Up in those trees? They got teeth in you.”
“That’s real good.” She put her free hand on my shoulder; it smelled like sweat and pumice soap.
Daddy comes down the steps and looks at me with full eyes. We stay for one more glass of cherry tea. They talk about books with good skin, wells, how ours in contaminated, and then the cherries. They talk about me, too, even though I’m sitting right there.
This is how he does once a week when the trees ripe, he walks over with orange buckets of fresh rainiers, and lets me stay and eat, as long as I’m not where mom can see. When he doesn’t get to pick them first, mom throws them in with the wood. She takes the pits out first. She says to him “watch” and puts all them pits in a five-gallon jug she keeps under her bed. Dad still gives the cherries away, mostly to Dorris. He whispers, “You don’t just get to waste good food like that.”
This summer the flourish comes too quick; daddy isn’t ready to cut down trees. Fruit comes in too many numbers; mom can’t pit fast enough. She sits outside for hours, even when night turns to sunrise and fog sweeps her knees wet. She wails or sings depending on how much fruit she has in front of her. Sometimes she gets up and her skin is stained bright red in places, darker juices dripping from her clothes. I swear some of her crying was hymns but I don’t say nothing. During the day we go outside and help her until she finally fills up her second jug that month. Inside we sit and watch TV or throw dice on carpet.
Tonight is the first night mom makes a pie; I watch her, spun by the way flour and water turn into yellow. I don’t really know what else is in it but I remember white and clear from the beginning, and that made yellow.
Her hands work with the dough, slippery and still gritty. She says, “the key is to leave it kind of unmixed.” She creases the pie with her hands and then a fork, folding it in and then down. The forks seal the open ends, but leave ugly marks all over the edges. Mom doesn’t bother to fix them really. She just asks me to get her some sodas from the laundry. I get downstairs and the door is jammed. I give it a kick to the bottom right corner a few times and it opens after what feels like pitting sixty-three yellow-reds. This kind of door makes even soda feel special. When I come back she is done and already filled the pie.
We eat the chicken, and even that smells like the pie. Now the space in between my back and the kitchen starts to smell just like cinder-catch but not in the good way that pine-catch smells; a little too singed. Dad looks less excited than he did before, must’ve smelt that catch. He loves pie and never gets any at home. Dorris might make him some; the diner does make some pies. I’ve never been there before, never had Dorris’ neither.
Her hands take a silver cutter and lay into the pie and Lord it smells so good. Sweet like cherries and then buttery like sweet bread and butter toast, but still there is the cinder-catch underneath all the sweet-sap smell of crust and filling.
She cuts into that pie and puts a slice on the plate next to dad. Pits spill out; there’s only some filling, and I think that’s just on accident. We all lean in and look over to dad’s gun-gray plate, only charred pieces of pit with some sticky fruits clinging together both in and outside the crust. Dad looks at her like a shot buck and pushes the plate away. At first mom is mad that he doesn’t eat it, and then I think she’s mad at herself. Her face gets swollen when Dad takes us upstairs and tucks us in to bed. He promises us that tomorrow we can all go to the diner and get some pie. I almost don’t want to go because I know that beneath the cloudbank, they don’t know red-yellow from a fresh bruise.
“They have blueberry, strawberry, peach, apricot, rhubarb…” I could’ve gone to sleep hearing those words all night, but mom cries and keeps herself eating the pie. When her sobbing wakes me up I peek out the door and look down at her in the kitchen. No hymns tonight.