As a family, we have never had much luck with fruit trees. When we moved here as newlyweds 12 years ago, we were in love with apple trees as well as each other, and we planted four out back right away. Two died almost immediately, so we replanted the next year, and the next. When our daughter was born, we planted a couple of pears (I heard that was a tradition somewhere); we also tried peaches and Asian pears. There were voles, and hard frosts, and overeager bears, and in the end, only 3 trees out of well over a dozen survived. Dormant oil, conscientious pruning, organic kaolin powder -nothing seemed to help. Once in a while we get some small pears or some wizened apples. We try not to expect too much.
But the tree in the front yard is another matter. Some 5 or 6 years ago, I noticed the young sapling, looking out of place among the daylilies and echinacea in our neglected bit of dooryard. I had no idea what it was or how it got there, and in one of my periodic efforts in the direction of order, I took the lop cutters to it and tried to get rid of it. It was a bit too stout, though – the trunk almost as wide as my thumb – and I gave up.
But the amputated stump put forth leaves again the following spring, and the next, and sprang another trunk or two, and grew in height. I decided that, whatever else it was, it was now an “ornamental,” and we put away the loppers. After another couple years, pink blossoms followed by green fruit began to appear. The elegant, tapered leaves and the shape of the fruit roused our suspicions. Wouldn’t it be funny, we mused, if it turned out to be a peach! Not that it would be edible even if it were. Anyway, the green fruit dropped to the ground by July, and we thought no more of it.
It took a couple more years for the tree to build up enough steam to carry its load all the way through the summer, and we watched as the fruit fattened and turned yellow. I tasted it mid-August – sour and puckery. Oh well, I thought, at least it looks nice. By mid-fall, though, the remaining fruit had developed a deep rosy blush. Wasps and worms swiftly overtook them, but I picked one anyway and cut away the bad parts. We shared a bite and goggled. It was, in fact, a peach – despite everything- and a good one. Not that we were ever likely to get much of a crop.
This year, a mild spring sun shone on the tree, followed by steady rains and then weeks of June drought. There were what seemed like endless humid days, and wave upon wave of mosquitoes. The tree took it upon itself to fruit abundantly. While the kids went to camp, the fruit grew heavy. When they went back to school, the laden branches bent clear to the ground. Again I tried one while it was still yellow, and that first fruit was as hard and sour as the one the year before.
A month passed without change – and then, just as the days began to shorten, something shifted. A troop of inspector wasps arrived, and when I lifted one of the poor burdened branches, I found flattened, aromatic fruit littering the ground beneath. The chickens had a carnival that night, and so did we.
So began a decadent fortnight: every day, I picked ripe peaches and cleaned up the drops for the chickens. We ate what we could and baked the rest into cobblers, but still, there were so many and they were so perishable, I couldn’t keep up. There was at least a bushel, but I doubt we ended up eating half.
Bit by bit, the branches began to unbend, rising gracefully – and, I thought, gratefully – off the ground, until one day in the second week of October there was but one peach left. It glowed with sunset colors, it was already a little overripe, and everything that crawled or flew circled nearby, waiting for it to drop. But it was mine.
I brought it inside the house, and its fragrance filled the quiet kitchen. I ran my thumb over its slightly wrinkled skin one last time, and halved it with my paring knife. The skin slid off like a silk chemise; the flesh was yellower than a mango, and just as juicy. It was the last peach, and it was as full of life and sweetness as the first peach had been of bitterness, or futility.
I still don’t know how that peach tree arrived in our yard 6 years ago. I suppose one of us was sitting on the porch steps on a summer afternoon, juice dribbling down our chin. I suppose that one of us carelessly tossed a pit away, too lazy to go inside and put it in the compost, or too sticky-fingered to turn the doorknob.
I sometimes feel like apologizing to the tree – for not knowing how it came about, for trying to chop it down, for feeding it with nothing but doubt and surprise all these years.
But the tree doesn’t seem to care whether it’s a mystery, a fluke, or a symbol of forgiveness. It’s nothing more than life itself – unasked for, unremarked upon, yet in the end, more than one might ever think to ask.