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Peach by Thomas Gresham (Fiction Winner)

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Formerly a native Texan, Thomas Gresham lives in California and works toward an MFA at San Diego State University. He is an associate editor for Fiction International. His work has appeared in Permafrost, Gravel, Le Scat Noir, and Crab Fat. His internet presence exists as @squeakypig on Instagram.

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Go back, way back, to when you were small and unhardened. Tiny hands playing with a doll you’ve made in secret. Mama doesn’t let you play with dolls. She’d be mad if she saw it’s made of her leg hose, stuffed with wood-shavings Mama uses to light the oven. You don’t dare take it far from the loose floorboard in your room. This is where you hide it. It’s a room that shows no evidence of the child that lives within. And you’re hiding it in this loose floorboard because Mama just called for you. Even though she’s outside in the garden, her voice is clear and strong, as if she’s standing just outside your door. Each time you remember her, this is the voice you hear.

So you hide the doll and you move your soft little feet across hardwood floors, down hardwood stairs that creak even though you’re almost as light as that doll you keep hiding, and you follow Mama’s voice out onto the screened-in porch that looks out over the back acres. It’s an empty field with a five o’clock shadow of crabgrass and some ragwort and lambsquarter that Mama’s made you identify and pull on many occasions. Two small peach trees sit alone at the edge of this barren field like soldiers that watch over the house. You picture them with their full branches knocking away all the dark things that come from the woods on the other side of the field. Just two, though. And you wonder why just two. Both cast a cool shade over Mama, who’s standing with her back to you.

“This land breeds nothing for us but space,” she says, words drifting with the heat. She stands almost as strong as the two trees. Even though you can’t grasp it, you know she’s something great. Hard hands that carry softly the burdens of your dwindling family. Not a bead of sweat or tear in her eye. Someday you hope to have as much bravery and be as true as she. You love her like most daughters love their mothers.

What you don’t think about is how you will hate her cruelty. You don’t think about how if she knew you were upstairs playing with the doll, she would’ve slapped you across the mouth until you could taste the sourness of your blood. You don’t think about how you are not a child in her eyes. Work to be done. You don’t think about how when you are a teenager, thoughts of killing her will put you to sleep most nights. Nor will you think about how you will run, hurting her worse than she ever did you.

You will not think of these things.

A breeze cuts a soft swath of calm over the currents of the world as your soft little feet crunch the grass near Mama. The sky is unmasked, an ocean above. You should be in primary school, but Mama has taken you out.

As you look up at her, shade a shroud of cool over you both, your mouth hangs open. Before Mama took you away, children on the schoolyard would call you mouthbreather and retard. The breeze dries the spit on your tongue. Mama reaches over and pushes your chin up gently, closing your mouth. Her fingers do magic through your curly hair. Then she does a thing she’s told you never to do. From the trees pregnant with little fuzzy fruit, she plucks a peach from each. You’ve been forbidden to take the fruit from the trees, and as Mama does it, you feel uneasy, a sense of eternal wrongdoing.

Mama slides the fuzzy, fleshy ball into your palm and closes your fingers around it. There’s dirt under her nails and in the folds of her knuckles. She keeps the other peach. Mama counts steps away from the trees and stops at fifteen. She sits next to a cluster of dandelions. You stand there holding the peach, a newborn life, delicate. Or maybe an old life on the verge of death. Life now separated, alone, and fading. You hold it, trace its crease with your tiny fingers.

“Sit with me,” Mama says, patting the grass. And when she pats you notice the two spots on the ground where the grass is gone and the dirt’s been moved. Mama ignores them, so you do too. You sit and look at her, sunlight touching her in ways it never will you.

Her teeth sink into the peach. Juices escape and bleed down her face, drip off her chin. She doesn’t notice. The way her body swells with every bite, you think it is passing a power into her. So you take a bite. It is sweet and full, but a little too tart. Not yet ripe. But it tastes like any peach you’ve ever had.

And then the two of you have nothing but peach pits in your hands and pulp on your faces. Juice stains Mama’s face in sticky makeup. She smiles and uses the bottom of her red apron to wipe her face. You notice she’s wearing the pearl blue sundress she only wears to town or church. Mama reaches over and uses that red apron to wipe your face. Never has she been this delicate. Never have you seen Mama being so much like a mother.

“Watch, now. Do as I do,” Mama says.

And you watch.

Her hands grab and lift dirt from one of the two spots where the grass is gone. The hole she crafts in the dirt is small and shallow. The earth and her skin look so natural together. Once her hole is as she wants it, Mama looks at you and motions for you to do the same. Your tiny hands don’t look as natural, but you make the hole. Mama drops her peach seed in hers, and you do the same.

As Mama pushes the soil over her seed, she says, “This is me.” She points to yours. “And that is you.” She presses the earth gently, giving the seed a nice resting place. Mama motions to the two trees. “And those are my mother and me. Understand?”

You nod, but you do not understand. It is not until later that you realize what it all means.

“This is our land, and so we plant roots here. When this grows and blossoms, we will be each piece of fruit this tree bears. No matter who eats it, they will know of us. In these trees, we will live.”

You say, Yes Mama, but you are scared. Mama’s never spoken to you this way and it feels different. Not a sour feeling, like when she yells at you for tracking in mud or not brushing your teeth. You’re feeling this realness your mind can’t grasp yet. Fuzzy, like the peach. Your mind will eventually think of nothing but these mysteries, of life and death, of legacy, of Mama and who she really was. But what Mama says near these two newly planted seeds is the first taste you’ve had of that realness.

Mama allows you two to sit in silence for a while, then the Saturday continues as most do. Mama finishes tending to the garden, cleans the porch, rights a felled fence, and patches up some holes in your dresses, all before dinner. You hang the clothes on the line, feed the chickens, shave wood for the stove, and wash up for dinner. Mama spends most weekends tending to this kind of housework as she works the presses at Miller’s Laundry during the week. It’s been this way since not long after you were born, not long after your daddy tried to drown you in the bath and was put in what Mama calls “the head house.”

You can’t stop thinking about how Mama will one day be a tree, and it makes you sad. You don’t want to visit Mama as a tree. Trees don’t talk. But trees also don’t hit and shout.

You know you will never forget this day. It feels like what Mama calls fate.

And it’s that same fate that will take her away from you. You will be thirty-two. You will not have spent as much time with her as you’d like. You came for the end, but the end came too quick. Not enough time. But isn’t that how children feel when faced with the end of their parents’ lives? All those years you will spend resenting her for your childhood, hating her cruelty, you will neglect Mama’s hard work and determination to raise you the only way she knew. So you will take out your premature frustrations on her, severing your bond. You will visit her with always awkward results. You will love her; you just won’t like her.

.  .  .

You stand now before those four peach trees, your eight-year-old daughter gripping your hand. The pulse in her tiny fingers taps out wonder in Morse code.

A new family lives in the homestead where you grew up. A man now tends to the garden your mother built. You tell him you once lived here with the woman who owned the house before they auctioned it off. The owner is surprised in a pleasant way. He shakes your hand and you introduce your daughter, who shields herself with your legs. You wish for a moment that she would stop with that, to not be such a scared child. But you know it is up to her to come out of it. All you can do is point her in the direction. You don’t want her to have a moment’s hate in her heart. You don’t want her to regret.

The peach trees still stand strong and the field is still void of any crop. Just crabgrass and ragwort and lambsquarter and dandelion that someone’s neglecting to pull. The new homeowner says that nothing will grow in that field but those damn peach trees. He wanted to tear them down, but his wife had an idea about selling the peaches. She jars them up with some syrup and sells them at the farmer’s market. Everyone loves them, he says. You nod and ask if you might grab two. He tells you to go for it, says he’ll be in the house if you need him. You thank him and a cough racks your insides. It is here that the man’s face glazes with sadness, as if he can see your entire story. He leaves you two.

You say nothing as you reach up and pluck a peach from your mother’s tree and one from your own. Your daughter watches you just as you had watched your mother. Her mouth is open, breeze drying the spit on her tongue. And you can hear the kids calling her retard or mouthbreather. You hurt, hating the cruelty of it all. You close her mouth and ease a peach into her soft little hand. She rubs its flesh. Time lays a heavy hand on your shoulder, pushing you down hard. You hate it.

Come sit with me, you say. She never hesitates. You count fifteen steps from your tree and sit. She sits. You take a bite out of your peach and all your breath escapes. Sensations leave your body. All you’re left with is Taste. You are shocked by how sweet the peach is. All of creation is in this peach. All the joy you’ve never felt is here. Nothing in the world could ever make it wrong. Your daughter eats hers. When you’re both done, you look at the mess made on your faces and you both laugh.

She rears her arm back to throw the peach pit into the barren field and you grab her arm harder than you should. She yelps and gives you a reproachful look you’ll have a hard time forgetting. You say, Watch, now. Do as I do. You speak carefully, softly, keeping the hardness out of your voice and mind. You don’t want her to hate.

You use your hands to tear up the grass and toil the dirt underneath. You loosen enough so that you can form a shallow, small hole. As your daughter does the same, you rub the grit through your fingers and wonder how much life has gone into every blade of grass. Even though you’ve been there, you can’t imagine what’s going through her head. Similar, but never the same. You two sit in front of two small holes. You drop your seed in and she does the same.

You point to your daughter’s earthen pit and say, That is you. Then to yours, And this is me. Then to the two smaller trees, That one’s me and the other is my mother. Then to the two adult trees filled with plump, fleshy peaches, The last two are my mother and her mother. Understand?

“Yes, Mama.”

She nods, understanding nothing. You know she will someday, but by then you will only be a memory running through the veins of the peach tree.  •