Seven Lemon Trees
by Jane Sanders
Daddy died when I was a baby. Mama says that when I was born, and daddy still had steady hands, he could hold me in just one palm and rock me to sleep. She says he would smile while I tried to keep my eyes open just to stare at his.
“She’s more beautiful than the stars,” he would say to mama.
Daddy would go out in the sun every day and talk to the magic lemon babies to help them grow. He brought mama and the babies back from India when he was 19, told her he was gonna make a lemon farm for her right here in Florida, and that way she’d feel right at home. He called them babies because he wanted to raise the lemons together with mama, but before he knew it, I was on the way. I was a real baby, not a lemon.
Right before I was born the lemons started growing. Mama said everyone in the south knew about our lemons because they were so sweet that it was like someone had put a magic spell on ‘em. So mama named me Sweet because she wasn’t gonna have any lemons outshining her baby girl. I was the sweetest baby on the farm.
Daddy caught the sickness not long after I was born. He hired a bunch of women to work on the farm and taught them how to sweet talk the lemons just right while he would go away for treatments. I’ve heard Nebraska, the boss of the farm, talking to all the other farm women about how daddy had to go all the way into town just to get that medicine he always needed. Once, Nebraska said that daddy was the thirstiest man alive. I guess he was just so tired of drinking lemonade that he had to go see the doctor, but no one could make him unthirsty. That’s what I think.
Nebraska talks to the lemons every single day. She works with five other women out in the field. She always tells me that before daddy died, he said he didn’t want no men workin’ on this farm and seeing my mama with their eyes. He said her beauty was only for him, dammit, and no other man could have or handle it, that’s why he’d got all women to work here. When mama lies in the dirt on the farm and rubs the earth with her fingers, I think daddy was right. Sometimes I wonder if the first time he ever saw her she was rubbin’ the earth like that, like she was tellin’ the whole planet a story with her fingertips. I think I’ll look like mama, but I’m not as beautiful yet.
When I was seven a girl at school told me I didn’t look right because my hair was so dark. I told her my mama was the most beautiful woman in India before daddy took her here to Florida, but she just laughed at me. She said she’d never seen an Indian girl with green eyes and that I didn’t match. I’ve put lemon juice in my hair trying to lighten it every summer since then, but the only thing that happens is Nebraska lookin’ at me like I’ve lost my marbles. Nebraska has black hair like mine, but her eyes are as dark as the soaked marsh mud and as shiny as the stars.
Nebraska has a sister named Mississippi and their mama worked for my daddy’s mama. Mississippi, who I call “Missie,” said they’d all grown up together and daddy always wanted to marry Nebraska, but somethin’ about different kinds of skin. Anyway, daddy and Nebraska didn’t get married because of her skin, so he went to India and found someone else with different skin: my mama. She had some funny river’s name that no one could pronounce when she came to Florida, but daddy told Nebraska and Missie to get her a normal name that she could pronounce and teach her some American words. So, they called her Salt because for some reason that was the only word she could remember for a long time. After she learned some more English, everyone just started calling her India. It seemed to make sense.
I remember the first time I ever saw Marshall Dawson. He looked like a fool sifting through the lemons in my basket acting like he knew what he was doing. He wore a sweat stained white button-down and a pair of ripped khakis with mud covering everything below the knee. He looked like he’d just gotten through something between a monsoon and a sandstorm.
“These look real nice,” he said, fumbling around with the yellow fruit. “Bet I could grow these back in Florida.”
I would not look at him the first few times he came to my stand. Another farmer soaked our soil with salt and my father died with our plants, so I was going to sell the last of our fruit and move somewhere far away. When I finally looked at Marshall as he stood at my stand and saw his green eyes, I never looked away until we had gathered the last of the lemons, collected my few belongings, and hopped on a boat heading to America.
Marshall planted the old seeds on a piece of naked land that his father had left to him. He spoke to them like they were people and begged them to grow. He always wanted me to be happy. He wanted the lemons grow so that I would feel at home. I told him stories of India so that he could tell the lemons. He said that something in that soil must have liked the stories, because the lemons started growing very soon after. When the first fruits began to appear, small and emerald green like Marshall’s eyes, Sweet was born. She had his eyes, but she was cursed with my dark skin and black hair. Marshall hardly ever looked at her. He said she reminded him of mistakes.
He held her once. Cradled her in his large, soil-soaked hand and looked into her eyes with a passion that I couldn’t call love or hatred. He half-smiled and placed her back in the large, round crib that had once been his. That night, he went out and erased his thoughts with swallows of warm whiskey and didn’t return home until early the next morning.
After a few years of Marshall’s drinking I had lost most of my eyesight. The back of his hand would put me to sleep anywhere from minutes to days. He would tell me that I was the reason he had no friends. My skin made him an outcast and our daughter would be the same. He wished he’d never come to that fucking lemon stand at the marketplace or laid eyes on me. One night, when I told him I was pregnant with our second baby, he hit me so hard that I woke up a week later in the hospital. I never had another baby, and I never saw Marshall again.
When I returned to the farm, Nebraska patted my stitches with a damp cloth and told me that after that night Marshall left.
“We found you lyin’ on the front porch, Miss India. You were bleedin’ all through the boards and we thought you fell,” Nebraska said. With my blurred eyesight, Nebraska almost looked like me, tall and dark, but with a little more meat on her bones.
“You never saw him?” I asked.
“No ma’am. Took you to the hospital in town and came back but there wasn’t no one here. It’s like he just disappeared, Miss India.”
While I was recovering, Nebraska took care of Sweet. Mississippi and the other women kept up the farm. The more my body healed, the more I lost my eyesight. When I could barely see more than lights and shadows, Mississippi began to walk me around the farm so that I could learn where things were.
“Some things have moved around,” Mississippi told me. “We planted some more lemon trees over here and started workin’ on a new shed for the supplies.” Under my feet I could feel the rearranged earth. When I was young, I would run on the newly planted mounds and let the cool soil squish between my toes. I sat on the baby seeds and massaged the dirt with my hands, telling them stories about India, about our home.
I did my best to scrub the blood off the porch but most of it dried so fast that it already stained the wood like paint. My mama always told me don’t think bad of no one ‘til they give you reason. I don’t think I had time enough for reason when I saw Miss India flying to the ground with another of Mr. Marshall’s blows.
I knew Mr. Marshall since I been a little girl. When we were growing up together, he tried to tell me that we were gonna get married and run away, but I never loved him. Around the time he was seventeen, Marshall left Florida, said he was gonna go make it big up north where people weren’t livin’ in another time. I wouldn’t go, so he ran away by himself.
Before we knew it, Mr. Marshall was back askin’ me and my sister Missie to bring our girls and work for him on the farm with his beautiful new wife. He never did want anyone else on the farm because he knew what people would be sayin’ if they saw what he brought home from India. She was the most beautiful woman I had ever, ever seen, but I never thought she belonged in this world.
Not long after little miss Sweet was born, Mr. Marshall began hating Miss India. He would just leave her and Sweet to go get some kind of drunk. I’d never seen him hit Miss India, but I’d seen her with some pretty bad marks. His eyes weren’t that green like grass in a lightnin’ storm anymore. Instead, they were all red and tired, like life was just too heavy so it kept his eyelids halfway shut.
One night, I took my shovel in from the field and was lyin’ on the cot on the front porch counting the lady bugs in the corner by moonlight. Around midnight, Mr. Marshall come home stinkin’ like that ungodly poison and started screaming at Miss India. Usually they kept it inside, but that night they came onto the porch. I’m not sure if he didn’t see me or if he just didn’t care, but when he hit her she floated as slow as a raven’s feather right to his feet. Her black hair was covering her face so I couldn’t tell if she was out, but she wasn’t moving. I wasn’t gonna let anyone know what I’d seen, but then I saw him kick her in the stomach.
We had to pull up seven lemon trees on the last row to make enough space for his tall, lanky frame. I remember thinkin’ it was a blessing he’d lost so much weight drinking, otherwise we might have had to dig up the whole damn farm. Miss India would only be in the hospital a few days, so we had to make sure to get it all done before she came back. Mississippi buried the body with the old, bloody shovel and me and the other girls replanted some new trees and relocated the old ones. The soil always seemed new after it had been dug up and replaced for some reason, but it was planting season and lumpy, freshly mounded soil was normal.
When Miss India came home, I helped get her stitches right, but I knew she was going blind. She asked about Mr. Marshall all the time and I didn’t feel like I was lying when I said it was like he’d just disappeared. He had. He just disappeared.
I never felt bad even one day about what I done. I hit Mr. Marshall with that shovel so hard that he came down like an old marble statue. Me and the girls buried him just right and raised Sweet up thinking her dad died the hero that he could have been.
Miss India can’t see much these days if she can see at all, but I think she can feel more than she thinks. Every evening for the last seven years, when the soil is cool and the sun is setting, Sweet and I have watched her stroll through the rows of lemon trees, strokin’ each one with her gentle hands like they’re old lovers. At the end of the last row, she lies with her back flat on the ground. Her long hair surrounds her head like a black, silk halo and her eyes stare with unseein’ adoration at the sky above her. Her fingertips massage the soil in gentle, tiny circles as they tell stories to the earth. Six feet under, entangled in the greedy roots of lemon trees, Mr. Marshall listens.
Jane Sanders is currently a student at Georgia State University pursuing a degree in Sociology. She was born in Savannah and moved to Atlanta for school. This story takes place in rural, southern Florida.