It is common knowledge that apples grow on apple trees. We get grapes from vineyards, and coconuts are, of course, collected from the ground beneath palm trees. These are things we know. Few people, however, are absolutely sure where peaches come from. The truth is that these fruits come from elegantly twisting branches, vibrant and brimming with beautiful pink blossoms; they come from an environment where their velvety skin and soft yellow flesh is sustained by a delicate network of thin green leaves and fed by an ample supply of natural water. They come from peach trees. And while peach trees may not be native to this nation, they are not, in the least bit, fictive.
The Peach Tree
Once upon a time, there was a very special little boy. It was not that this boy was bigger or tougher than other children– in fact, he was very tiny and generally kept to himself. And it was not that the boy was especially strong or even especially clever. What made this little boy so special was that, although his body was indeed very small, he always carried an extra big smile and he had an extraordinarily big heart.
The boy lived in a quiet, quaint little town, at the easy end of the suburbs, where he had a mostly happy life. During the sleepy summer afternoons, he would often go up the big hill to pick the wild flowers, which grew fragrant and free on the high summit. The hill, like the boy, was also very unique. There existed no flower in all the world that was half as bright or aromatic as the flowers that grew there. They sprang forth in every color: red flowers, as effervescent as morning’s dawn; yellow flowers, as joyous as the high sun. White flowers blossomed against the shadowy, blue dusk; and purple flowers rose, their violet silhouettes stark against the clear, bright day. Of all the flora blanketing the vibrant hill, there were no flowers quite as fabulous as those that bloomed on its summit. The boy spent many carefree days there, happy amongst his breathing bed of multihued companions, high above the troubles of the world.
On days when the boy was not in clouds, he was often planted very plainly on the earth. It was there that the boy would visit the busy ants. Small and spirited, just like him– he fancied the way they marched in neat single-file, traveling smart and lively underneath the summer sun. He marveled at the little workers’ singular focus, their unwavering commitment to a goal, even as the task before them seemed so endless, and the world above them loomed so large. The boy would sit for hours on end and watch the ants toil. And he loved to investigate the tiny ant hill on which they labored so vigorously and so tirelessly, as it grew ever-so-slowly in the far back corner of his yard.
During the still nights, the boy would lie on his back in the cool grass, quietly listening to the soothing songs of the night birds. The birds and the insects would hum and drone, creating an inimitable atmosphere of sounds, impossible for even the greatest human composer to recreate. Of all the animals in the nocturnal choir, the little boy felt closest to the Hermit Thrush.
The little bird could often be found perched atop a protruding branch, his tiny frame a motionless prop to the backdrop of a red moon or a hazy blue-black sky. His faded coat and grey flank would be in graceful harmony with the shadowy shades of the night, and the stark contrast of his blood colored tail was a subtle sign there was more fire to this tiny creature than first met the eye. When they sang, most of the creatures would chorus together, creating a natural nighttime symphony, in which each owned a distinctive part. But the Hermit Thrush would sing only when all of the other animals were silent. He would sing solitary, with the humble strength assumed by one who survives alone. His phrases were long, and his voice was clear and flutelike. The boy thought that he was trying to tell a sad story. And though he could not fully understand it, the little boy liked the Hermit Thrush’s tale the best.
On nights when the grass was fresh and the sky was clear, the child would have liked to lay until morning, listening to the Thrush. And he would have, if it was not for the loud and lofty summon that always boomed forth from the direction of his house, sending the boy spiraling into a panic.
His mother’s voice rolled upon him like the sound of approaching thunder. He was, at once, alert and scared. And though his mother’s irate call wracked his nerves every time, the boy was usually lucky enough to escape the brunt of the storm. This was a storm that raged inside his home, and usually boy was fortunate to be safely outdoors when it erupted.
The mother’s hurt could be heard in the rawness of her voice, it could be seen in the red of her eyes. But long before she would shout for her son, the boy’s mother would reach for her bottle. From the curved contours of her wine glass, the mother would suck her crimson poison. Every swig and every swallow, bringing her one step closer to impunity. The dark liquid would drown the biting regrets of her past in a thick, fog-like haze. But through this alcohol induced numbness, there emerged a sort of contempt. The mother came to resent the little girl from her past who used to dream so big, the girl who gave up dreaming to meet the shackling obligations of day-to-day struggle. The mother came to resent the voices that would not let her forget the regrets that the little girl left for her. She resented both the voices in her head, and the voice of a certain enduring night bird who still sang every night, reminding her with his sad story of everything she longed to forget.
So she drank even more. She guzzled from her glass until her whole body rocked and sloshed with the burning liquid in her belly. Her resentment and contempt would bubble until they became an irrational rage– a storm, directed at anyone or anything that was near. When no one was around, the mother raged by herself. She Slammed doors, broke vases, and stumbled about, often dropping her glass in a shattering of shards, spilling whatever was left of her crimson cocktail all over the floor and furniture. It was in low moments like these, that the mother would stare cloudy-eyed at the wreckage about her. Sometimes she would stare at the crimson stains on the carpet until one of them changed, in her mind, into the scarlet tail of a bird— a Hermit Thrush melodically chirping over and over and over, eternally singing his sad story to a world who could not bear to listen. The mother could not bear to listen. Instead she would rage and roar until she drowned out the voices in her mind and she was utterly spent. It was in the aftermath of such anguished outbursts that the mother would call to her boy, her pained voice jarring him from the serenity of nature’s tranquil recital.
Every night the boy would be torn away from the warm grass and the creatures of the nighttime choir by this sudden vocal storm. “Must be mommy,” the boy would usually say, after regaining his senses. “Mommy must be back from her angry time.”
At this time every night, around 10 o’clock, the little boy would gather his faculties and head toward his house for dinner, a shower, and a bedtime story. His mother would shower him with love, and also with apologies that the little boy could never understand.
Sometimes the little boy would get very angry or very sad for reasons that were beyond his comprehension. But the boy would never lash out in his distress. He kept all feelings of grief and sorrow deep inside, close to his heart. And because of this, sometimes the boy would sit and cry for hours, unable to stop or control the torrent of tears that streamed down his cheeks unchecked, in wet, winding columns. When the boy needed release, and did not want to be around other people, he would sit on a big rock in the center of the yard. It was there, sitting on the big rock, that he would bury his soggy face in his trembling arms, and he would sob. But this was not any ordinary rock on which he sat– it rested in the shade of an enormous peach tree. The tree was tall and majestic, with vigorous twisting branches, brimming with lively green leaves. Each regal limb reached towards the sky and exploded in soft petals of pink brilliance. Whenever the boy wept under the tree, the tree would drop a ripe peach from its branches. The boy loved peaches. It was as if the tree knew that the he was sad, and it wanted to show its understanding. Every time the boy would weep, another peach would fall; the tree never questioned, and it never ran out of peaches. The boy never questioned the peach tree either. He thought it was the only one who understood his hurt, and so, the shelter of its branches and its shade became his favorite place to cry.
There were times, when the boy was not crying, that the sky would shed tears of its own. Storms would blow in from beyond the hill. They came with the wind, down from the high summit where the beautiful flowers blossomed. They would loom with the sound of approaching thunder, just before the sky opened up and beat upon the ground in waves of crashing crystal. During great storms like these, nothing and no one was spared the weather’s wrath- not the flora, not the peach tree, and certainly not the tiny ants who toiled tirelessly, unmindful of the fact that they were perpetually outsized and outmatched by everything in the huge, harsh world above them. Sometimes a storm would test the ants. It would rage for days, whipping the ground into a confused batter of mud and debris. It would lash at their home, the hill in back corner behind the boy’s house. The storm would flood the yard, wash away weeks of work, and ruin months of hard labor. Winds would gust, water would pour, and the mighty fury of nature would do its best to beat down the spirits of these tiniest of creatures.
When it was all over, and the boy stepped out into the steamy glow of the drying earth, the first thing he would look for was the ants. At first he would see a few, struggling to walk in the mush of the drying dirt. Then the boy would smile as he began to see more, emerging from deep under the ground, or drying themselves from the tips of protruding grass blades. Soon the ground would once again be crawling with ants working to rebuild their hill, and if the damage was too great for their miniature monument to sustain, then they would simply start again. It seemed to the boy that nothing could deter the ants from their mission, and nothing could break their spirits. But not all storms come from the sky, and it is not always easy to be as resilient as the ants.
One day, when the boy was in the 5th grade, his mother found him sitting on the lawn, eating a juicy peach. It was a hot afternoon, and the air was still heavy with the mid-day heat. Beyond the peach, it was not a good day, because the boy’s mother was in one of her angry fits.
“Why arn you‘n school?” she slurred.
“School is out,” the boy said hesitantly. “It’s four-thirty.”
“Don’ gimme any lip, boy,” the mother stammered. Her empty gaze fell to his hand. “Where’d ya get that peach? I didn’ pack you any peaches in your lunch today.”
“I got it from the peach tree,” replied the boy.
“Yurra liar! Who gave you the peach!?”
The boy looked at the ground. “Got it from the tree,” he said again.
At this, the mother became more angry. She stumbled toward the boy. There was an irrational madness in her eyes as she approached. “Yurra a lil liar! Dare’s no peach trees around here.” She snatched the peach from the boy’s hand, swinging him to the ground in the tussle. He began to cry, but she did not relent. “Yurra lying wretch!”
Sobbing, the boy sputtered out his defense. “I– I got it from our peach tree.”
The more he cried, the crueler the mother became. “There’s no such thing, you stupid little wretch! Stop making things up! Go to yur room.” In her impaired state, the mother tripped over the crying and confused boy. She snapped at him again, to save face. “I said, jus’ go to yur room!” She wobbled back to her feet, sloppily wiped the dirt from her shirt, and called after the boy.
“Dare snot any peach chree!” She said. “I’m not stupid. Dare’s never been any peach chrees round here at all!”
There were many times after that day when the little boy wanted to cry on his rock underneath the peach tree– but he never did. As the boy grew up, he thought less and less about the peach tree. When he became a young man, and moved away from home, he forgot all about it. The boy forgot about the flowers on the great big hill, he forgot about the busy ants in back corner of his yard, and he forgot about the warm, silent nights listening to the night birds and watching the stars. As time went on, the boy even forgot about the Hermit Thrush, and the heartfelt story that the he used to tell every night, when all of the other creatures were quiet.
The mostly-happy boy slowly became a cold and dispirited man. He no longer cried, and no longer remembered the taste of peaches. He no longer recalled any of the things that mattered in life.
The hours churned. Day turned to night, and night back to day, with no distinction apart from the natural cycle of the skies. There was a job. And a car. And several women each in their turn. But nothing stuck. Everything moved past in a dreamlike blur. The man subsisted, but he no longer remembered what it felt like to live. His only bonds to existence were that he breathed and blinked.
In what seemed the blink of an eye, the man was forty years old. His hair had begun to turn gray, and his mind was tattered and troubled from the many hard years of his life.One warm summer morning, though worn and tired he was, the man returned home to visit his mother.
When he arrived, his mother greeted him with a nervous hug and a quick invitation into the house. The man wondered at his mother’s constant uneasiness. It had become part of her character now, as if she carried with her a nagging sense of guilt– something from the distant past.
After some customary frivolous small-talk about work and women, the man’s mother said something that surprised him. Her words came abruptly and took the man unawares.
“I… have something to show you,” she said.
It was not the content of her words that took the man aback; rather, it was the way in which she said them. Her tone was grave and serious. Her statement carried a sort of solemn strength, which seemed to come from years of self reliance.
“What is it, Ma?”
The woman led him over to the back door. She opened it to reveal a large, unsightly mound of scattered dirt and soil. The grass was barely visible.
“I had to do it,” she said. “I had to spray them.”
“What are you talking about mom?”
The mother’s eyes were averted towards the floor, the lines of her face and jaw carried a visible grief. “I’m sorry.”
The man was confused. He shook his head to show that he didn’t understand.
“The ants. Please understand, I had to spray them. I know how much you used to love to watch them. I’m so sorry, Sweetie. Oh God I’m so sorry.”
Looking out over what were the remnants of a massive ant hill that must have, at one time, spanned the entire yard, the man began to understand. He saw a mass of dirt swells and patches of overturned soil where green grass used to grow. He saw little mountains of clay and sand jutting towards the sky, made from thousands and thousands of piled dirt granules, carried here– crumb by crumb– in the mouths of the tiniest ants.
The man felt a deep sadness dwell inside of him. It wrenched his gut, but it also served to remind him that he was still alive. “This was their monument,” he whispered. “Their miniature monument.”
The man turned to look at his mother.
“It’s okay, Mom,” he said. “It’s okay, I forgive you.”
The mother’s lips were quivering. It was obvious to the man that the whole ordeal had pained her tremendously. Perhaps, he thought, it reminded her of losing her own childhood, her own loss of innocence. The man embraced his mother with a warmth that she had not felt since he was a child.
“I forgive you for everything.”
Later that day, the man did not go back to his grown-up house, or his grown-up job. Instead, he went to the big hill where he used to pick the flowers. As he climbed the hill, a flood of memories came back to him. Even as he was just beginning his ascent, memories of the colorful blossoms at the hill’s summit seemed to sooth his heart and mind. Remembering the sweet smell of the flowers took him back to the harmony of his youth. The man recollected the many warm summer days from his childhood, and he recollected the warm, still nights as well. He wondered about what might have become of the Hermit Thrush, with no one to listen to his sad story, no one trying to understand his sad song. The sharp sting of regret sent shivers through the man’s body, and they left, in their wake, deep feelings of forgotten sorrow. The man was jolted yet again when he finally reached the hill’s summit. Peering out over the slope, the man saw that the vast acres of grass and flower that once populated the hill were forever gone to all existence, save the rickety refuge offered by his fading memories. Replaced by concrete, brick, and the industrious noises of an eternally busy public, the wild flowers of old apparently had no place in today’s practical society. The man felt cold inside. For the first time, he realized that he felt empty and completely alone. The trip back down the hill was infinitely tougher than had been the journey to the summit.
When the man returned to his mother’s house, she greeted him with open arms. When he announced that he would be staying the night, and would leave in the morning, she said that was good because she had prepared an afternoon dessert. The man sat down to eat. He was famished. As his mother served him a hot plate of apple-pie, a thought came into his head.
“I was wondering, Ma,” said the man. “What ever happened to that peach tree that we used to have in the yard? I didn’t notice it on the way in.”
Halfway between the table and the sink, the mother jerked to a halt when she heard this. She slowly turned around to speak, her voice quaky with emotion.
“Oh darling,” she said. “We never had a peach tree. They don’t grow in these parts.”
The man saw a tear was in his mother’s eye, and he did not understand why. He felt sad inside. And for reasons beyond his comprehension, for the first time in over 25 years, the man too began to cry.
Unable to control his tears, the man excused himself and stepped outside for some air. He sat on the big rock in his front yard, and continued to bawl. There was no shade to shelter him, and no magical tree to understand his feelings. After about five minutes of noisy lament, a boy appeared in the yard. The boy walked, very slowly, toward the man. He looked vaguely familiar, with the markings of someone from the man’s past. The boy’s clothing was nondescript, save for an old, crimson bandana that hung discreetly from his back-pocket. His arm was outstretched and his palm was open, as if he were holding something.
“Have a peach,” said the boy. “They always make me feel better.”
The man looked up, tears still flowing from his eyes. He smiled at the irony. “Where did you get that?”
“I got it from the peach tree,” said the boy.
At this, the man could not hold back a desperate and satirical laugh. “There are no peach trees around here,” he sneered.
The boy just stood silently for a moment, staring inquisitively at the man. Then he began to hum, very quietly.
In the space between the man’s sobs, he heard the tune, and thought it sounded familiar. “Those notes… Who are you?” he sniffled. “And why are you still here? I already told you, there is no such thing as a stupid peach tree.”
The boy stopped humming. “Well, sure there is,” he said calmly. “There’s one right over there on my lawn.” He was pointing to an empty clearing of grass in front of a house just down the street.
“There is no tree there.”
“You of all people,” said the boy, “should know about peach trees. You have one right there in your lawn– although it does appear to have grown sick and distorted in its loneliness.”
The wet-cheeked man was taken aback by the child’s comment. “How did you know that I had a peach tree here?” he said.
The boy ignored him. “Maybe the only reason you don’t believe in peach trees is because you stopped believing in yourself. I see a tree, it’s real. And I see a rock, because it’s real. The only thing I’m not sure about is whether or not I see you.”
The man thought about this and, as he thought, he thought he caught the gentle hint of fresh golden peaches on the breeze. As he thought more, he knew it to be true, and he remembered what it meant to be alive.
The man turned around, and found himself staring into the trunk of a humongous peach tree. It was a little bit scraggily, and a little bit sick, but it seemed happy to see him as well. He gazed at the tree for many minutes, and when at last he thought to say ‘thank you,’ the boy had already gone. The man sat there, on his big rock in the center of the yard, and buried his soggy face in his trembling arms. Now he wept even harder than before. But these were not tears of despair or of desperation. These were tears of liberation and of joy.
That day, the man savored the sweet juices of a plump peach for the first time in over 25 years. That night, he understood the Hermit Thrush’s story for the first time in his entire life.
The Peach Tree
By Garrett Ashe
Thanks for reading guys. Remember to share via Twitter or Facebook if you liked it Check out my previous short-fiction Sweet Surrender (If you’re in the mood for something more intense/mature,) and The Little Glass Lie (If you’re in the mood for real-life fairy tales.)
Those of you that are interested in nature, check out this link for my friend Brian Balik’s personal wildlife blog. This guy is good. He has found a way to get some pretty sweet pictures of wild animals in Northern Viriginia. No Hermit Thrush, but worth checking out 😉. http://www.acaseofwildlifefever.blogspot.com/
Copyright 2013 Garrett Ashe