The lemon tree showed up on a Sunday. There was a knock on the door and, at first, I thought it was one of the neighborhood boys, come to ask if he could shovel our driveway for some extra money that we didn’t have. But no. Instead, standing on my parents’ front stoop, snow collecting on his hat and in the creases where his shoulders didn’t quite reach his ears, was a disgruntled looking postman, holding a box as tall as he was.
“You Marie H. O’Lear?” he asked, and I had to have him say it again, because at that moment, there was a gust of wind and snow, and it stole his voice.
“My mother is,” I said.
“Good enough for me,” he said. “Package for you.”
“I thought mail didn’t come on Sundays,” I said, warily. My parents always told me not to trust things that didn’t follow the natural order of things, and this, I thought, certainly fell within that category.
He pushed the box towards the opening of the door, and I had to move out of the way as it careened across the snow-slick tile floor, tracking mud onto my mother’s red oriental rug.
“It doesn’t,” the mailman said, voice faint and fading, because the wind was stealing it again, and because he’d already turned from the front door, and was hurrying across the snow-covered ground towards his mail truck.
“Hey,” I protested, but I knew it was no use. There was no way he’d hear me over this wind, and now that the box was inside the house, there was no way he’d be coming in to get it again. My parents warned me about letting strangers inside.
I turned to look at the box. It loomed down at me, cardboard soggy from the weather. I pulled a handkerchief from my pocket and brushed off some snow on the label. This box contains a Lemon Tree, it said.
I knew the right thing to do would be to call my parents and ask them if they’d been expecting a tree in the mail, especially a tree that generally didn’t do well in colder climes. But the phones had been down for an hour and, with the storm, I doubted they’d be back on again tonight.
So, I did the only other thing I could think to do. I tested the box to see if it was a bomb. This wasn’t terribly complicated, as I’d seen my parents do it often enough. I whispered a few words to the box, made the hand gestures my parents made. And when that didn’t bring anything up, I pulled the x-ray glass from the table in the foyer. I couldn’t be too careful.
Only once did we miss a bomb-package. Luckily, we’d already put it in the garden shed, because the label had said “Pick-axe,” so our loss wasn’t too great. But we’d learned our lesson.
This box, though, wasn’t looking like a bomb. Even with the words and the x-ray glass, it was still just looking like a tree.
I knew I should leave it where it was so that my parents could deal with it when they got home. But a lemon tree would die in a box, especially a cold one, without proper care. And if my parents really had ordered this tree for themselves, I didn’t want them coming home to find it dead just because I’d been too afraid to deal with it. I could just imagine their disappointment if I left it alone and it died and they’d been looking forward to it.
No, I’d have to at least take it out of the box. Water it, too, probably. Perhaps there were even care instructions in the box that I could follow. I always liked things that came with instructions.
Picking up the box as best I could, I half-carried, half-dragged it into the sunroom where my parents kept all of their other plants. I was careful not to set it too close to the venus fly trap, which had been looking surly lately, now that it was winter and there weren’t enough flies for it to eat. I made a mental note to ask my parents if we could feed it some meat or something, so that it would stop looking like it wanted to eat me all the time.
Getting the tree out of the box turned out to be a bigger challenge than I expected – the lemon tree was not as pleased with its new home as one may expected – and by the time I was done, I was sweaty and red, and my discarded sweater was fraternizing with a pile of discarded soil from one of the other plants.
But once I had pulled all of the damp cardboard away and arranged the lemon tree under one of the heat lamps, I noticed that there was fruit hanging from its branches. It wasn’t that I’d never seen a tree with fruit before – we had an avocado tree, a fig tree, even an apple tree, living in this greenhouse – it was just that the fruit on this tree was so yellow, so round, so perfect, that it was as if I’d never seen real fruit before, just imitations of what fruit was supposed to be.
That was the moment when I should have left the room. When I should have realized that this tree was safer in a box, even if it was too cold and soggy for it to survive the weekend. When I should have understood that the venus fly trap was no longer the most dangerous plant in our house anymore. Perhaps if my parents had been there, I would have. There’s something about older, authority figures walking around that makes someone more cautious, more prone to make sure no one was watching before they did something that wasn’t recommended.
If my parents had been home, maybe I would have noticed that the fly trap had opened his maw as far as I’d ever seen it.
But they were not home, and it was snowing and silent in the house, except for the howling wind, and yesterday’s lunch had been a long time ago. I knew there were leftovers, possibly cereal bars, in the old servant’s kitchen, but I hadn’t been down there since Chaney had left, ever since I’d imagined her ghost dusting furniture in the living room. I knew, too, that a lemon wasn’t a meal, it wasn’t even a snack, it was something you put in water glasses at restaurants and over fish to make it taste better.
I knew all of that yes, but I also knew that if I didn’t have a lemon from that lemon tree, something terrible would happen. To me, to my stomach, to the house, to the other plants. I put my hand to my stomach as it growled, and I could have sworn it was moving. What harm could one lemon do? My parents wouldn’t even notice it was missing. Maybe they’d even be happy that I’d tried a lemon for them.
The first lemon I chose was small, hidden behind some leaves, so if someone was looking, they wouldn’t notice I’d taken it, at least not without a careful examination. I used a paring knife that I wiped off as best as I could on a corner of my shirt to cut it open.
Oh, that sweet smell. I brought the lemon close to my nose and inhaled again. Images danced across my mind –
my grandmother peering at me over her eyeglasses, as I read to her from a children’s book
my grandmother laughing and wiping a smear of flour off my cheek
– I licked just the top edge of the fruit and –
my grandmother, with tears in her eyes, the night I asked why grandfather wasn’t coming home from the hospital where they’d taken him the day before
– another lick and –
my grandmother, leaning down to kiss my forehead, as she tucked me into bed, her hair tickling my cheeks and throat
Each lick, each inhale, each bite, a burst of memory, a life relived, my grandmother smiling, talking, laughing with me in that cool, plant-filled room, keeping me company, as I devoured the lemon, face scrunched against the sour, and melted into her embrace, escaping the loneliness of the snow and hail falling onto the skylights.
When I finished, sucking the lemon from my skin, there was a knot in my chest where there hadn’t been one before. I touched it with lemon-stained fingers, and recalled the memories of my grandmother, remembered her funeral, the year before, dark clothes and dry eyes, because I didn’t know then what it meant to cry.
My eyes were damp, water sliding down my cheeks, like droplets on a leaf.
I reached for another lemon. Pipe-smoke and potatoes. My grandfather, a blur of memory, because I was young when he’d passed. Always passed, never died, because my mother said “died” was a dirty word. And maybe here, in this room, surrounded by plants in dirt, it was.
Another knot in my chest, and my skin drippeddrippedripped with tears and lemon juice.
Another lemon plucked from a branch, and this time it was a boy with blonde hair like mine, whose picture sat on the mantle over the fireplace, and whose name was never mentioned, but whose face and hair I knew, because it was my face and hair too. And he was giggling, and I was chasing him in the backyard, my legs unsteady and new beneath me, near the pond that I didn’t remember because it was no longer there, replaced with dirt and a bed of flowers that smelled like this boy in this memory did.
“Brother,” I whispered, the word hard and uncertain on my lips.
My arms felt stiff, but still I pulled another lemon from the tree, and this time, it smelled and tasted like my mother, like her perfume, and her side smiles, and the glow in her eyes, when I brought her a bouquet of flowers from the backyard.
Tears and juice pooled beneath my feet, rooted into the soil of this room. I knew then. The storm raged around me, loud and ferocious and vicious, and I knew. Underneath these white-covered skylights, in a room that was too warm for winter, with plants that smelled like heaven and memories around me, I knew.
But still, I had to be sure, as I reached for another lemon, the last lemon, and found my father. Corner eye-crinkles as he smiled at something I said, booming laughs in the living room, piggy-back rides through the house, bedtime stories with him sitting on the landing outside my room, because my mother wanted to hear the story too, and she was downstairs.
The lemon juice no longer tasted solely sour on my tongue. Sweetness had joined it in my mouth, swirling with the flavor of my tears and my memories. And I stood there, reveling in them, tears slipping down my knotted skin, towards my rooted feet, until the snow cleared from the skylights, until the sun came out, and shone down on me, and I raised my arms to greet it.
When the doorbell rang, I knew it was the police, and I knew what they were going to say.
I’d tasted the truth in the tree, but also the hope. A life of memories, a web of the past, rooting me to this family.
On the other side of the room, the fly trap grinned at me, a mouth full of teeth, and then snapped shut, a spider in its mouth.