I'd like to share another excerpt from a larger creative nonfiction essay
I've been working on. In this essay, I'm attempting to capture what
"Southerness" means to me. The following post contains a page
from the larger work. I hope you enjoy!
The trees grew in tangled, regimented rows, at once so precise and so unruly. If I closed one eye and tilted my head to the side, the corridor of brown trunks seemed to stretch indefinitely, one after the other, row after row, trunk by trunk. Mise en abyme. Above these soldierly bases, the trees’ branches spread into a chaotic canopy. In winter, the trees were squat and barren, the secret twinings and twistings of the branches revealed in their nakedness. In spring, pink-white buds festooned and softened their bark hides, sprinkling on the ground like a confectionery snow. But now, in summertime, was when the peach orchard really blossomed. The branches drooped, heavy with fruit that grew in clumps. Sometimes, so many peaches grew on one branch that their haphazard bunching reminded me of someone trying to carry to many things at once. Eventually, the weight of the items would become overbearing and, one by one, thing would begin to fall. So it is with peach trees: the hard, green balls begin to blush, kissed by the sun, and as they soften and fill with juice, the tree loses its strength. Branches begin to sag under their burden, lowering toward the orchard workers’ hands, as if begging to be picked
My grandparents did not own the peach orchard, although I, in my childhood naivete, assumed that they did, just as I assumed all the world was open, mine to play and skip and run through. On three sides, the orchard enveloped his land: left, right, rear. Only the front of the house was open and that bordered by a one-lane country road and, beyond, the railroad track.
When the hottest August days arrived, my grandfather would select one of grandmother’s largest plastic bowls and, taking my hand, lead me into the orchard.
Under the orchard’s canopy, I stepped into another world, one muffled from the outside world by drooping branches and whose humid air thickened with the sticky scent of fructose. So late in the season, several peaches had already fallen to the ground. Bruised and ruptured at the base of their trees, the fruits began to decay, mixing their spilt juice with the red earth. I placed my feet deliberately, taking care to avoid the ruined peaches. I cringed at the yield and squish if I happened to step upon one, the sudden squirting of rotten juice. The sugary substance coated the toes of my shoes and made the Georgia clay cling to their fabric. Maw-maw won’t like that, I thought.
“Here,” my grandfather’s voice said. “Some ripe ones.”
At his direction, I passed between the branches and emerged into an open spot of sunlight. The air here was fresher, not so pungent with the scent of sweet flesh and decay. My grandfather smiled and lifted a low branch, pointing to its burden. Three fist-sized peaches, their flesh unbruised, unblemished, pale yellow and blushing red. With two hands, I held grandmother’s bowl as he picked them.
Grinning and emboldened by our find, I scurried onward. I was smaller and more agile, able to duck between and beneath the squatting trees. Soon, I outpaced my grandfather whose presence faded to a voice behind me. I paused, searching for fruit, and there, dangling alone on a branch, was a great, round find. Baseball-sized and fat with sugar. With one hand, I pulled down the branch, the leaves jostling, and with the other I plucked the peach.
Just as soon as it broke away from the branch and I felt its rounded weigh in my palm, my eyes widened. Behind this seemingly perfect fruit grew another, just as large and fat. Yet this one teemed and moved. Beetles, black and scuttling, roiled across its flesh, so many that the yellow fruit seemed to have grown its own glistening carapace. Disgusted, I recoiled and lost my grip on the fruit I had just picked. I grabbed for it, but it fell with a thud muffled by grass and leaves. I plucked it from the ground, turned it over. Its smooth body had darkened, already bruised.
My grandfather’s tread neared.“Grandpa,” I called. “Look.” I pointed to the bug-infested peach.
He squinted in the sunlight, then frowned. “Yep. That happens. They’re drawn to the sugar. Just like us, I reckon.” He took the bowl from me. “Let’s head home.”
Her thumb guiding the small knife, my grandmother carved the peaches into perfect wedges. She offered me a slice, balanced on the blade’s edge. I shook my head. Even though I could imagine how fresh and sweet it would taste, I couldn't sink my teeth into the peach’s skin. My mind still crawled with the memory of that rotten peach, still clinging to its branch, its skin roiling and squirming with beetles.
For a previous installment, click here.