My father’s life belonged to the orchard. So, too, in her day, had his mother’s life belonged to the orchard, and his mother’s mother, and his mother’s mother’s father, and so on. My grandmother loved it like a curse, grinding her sweat and her body into the dirt until her arms were thin like saplings. She died in its arms, asleep in a chair carved out of the bones of a mulberry tree as old as she was, and then the orchard was my father’s, as it would one day be mine.
In this way, the orchard was my entire world, though it was not my life. All I ever knew in my life was trees; trees, and my father tall and proud guiding them with gentle hands, determined to be kinder than my grandmother ever was. This was my childhood, raised as much by the trees as by my father, who kept a distracted eye on the trees at all times. As he told it, I was half-daughter, half-tree, plucked from a limb when I was ripe enough to be born, sprouted from the dirt an unexpected gift. Perhaps there was some truth in his story, for I did run wild and free through the orchard. My knees plowed the soil while I learned to crawl. My nimble little hands plucked pears and peaches and cherries and countless other fruits as soon as I was strong enough to climb. The trees were my kin, in this way, and more familiar to me than my father, who often spent nights half buried in the soil beneath the trees.
There was a time, before I knew any better, that I was jealous of the trees. How can you be jealous of a thing that you love? And yet it gnawed at me like a woodpecker, the envy, the longing, the empty space where his attention might belong. I dogged his heels for weeks, waiting for him to notice me, dragging my feet in the soil and disrupting the planting season. I planted blackberries out by the fig trees, but he only fought the brambles back. He never lost his temper. He would wait patiently for me to be out of the way and then fit his big hand over the crown of my head, squeeze a little as if he could impart some of his placid calm on me, and then set to fixing things.
One night I snuck out of bed and found him sleeping out beneath the moon, crying in his sleep. His tears were watering the trees. After that, somehow, I found I could not muster up my same old jealousy. Wouldn’t any creature have preferred his gentle touch over his weeping?
He had always seemed sturdy. It was staggering to learn that he could cry. In all the ways that my grandmother had been stooped and cracking open, he was smooth and steadfast, the kind of person you could trust to hold you. In his lifetime he had mastered the art of cutting short the limbs of the trees, cutting off the dead leaves for the tree’s own good. Keeping them healthy. Even as he grew old, he stood up straight and tall and performed this task without flinching. He cupped my head with his palm, still. He took care of things.
When my father knew that it was his time, he dug himself a grave in the very center of the orchard. He dug it deep and true, measured with his precise eye, under the waning light of the day. The trees rustled around him, singing him a mourning song, which he acknowledged with a nod. When the grave was dug, he set the shovel aside, lay down inside the hole, and swept the dirt back over himself in a neat little pile, and I think that somewhere in the ground he must have started crying.
The next day when I opened my eyes there was a knowledge at the heart of me that I must till the ground by the lemon trees, so powerful an urge that it surely was the thing that woke me. I went out to look at the orchard which I supposed was my life now. My father’s touch lingered in ways that I had never noticed before, such as the shape of the branches of the apple trees and the defeated slump of the ambitious blackberry brambles. With my new knowing eyes, I could see the orchard through to the ground and the roots. This was how my father had seen the orchard.
In the fresh new dirt at the very center of the orchard stood a tree, big and sturdy and towering, and on the tree grew a fruit I had never seen before, more luscious and true in color than any other. I walked on. All around me, the orchard was blooming. The little nubs of the branches my father had trimmed were healing over. The trees were still growing.
And this is the story of your birth: one day, a tree grew you.
Unlike my father, and my father’s mother, and my father’s mother’s mother, my life belongs to you. I am raising you in spite of the orchard, my daughter. My eyes are on you, sweet thing.
When you are ready, I will teach you to plant your feet and grow roots and open your face up to the sun and the rain. I will hold you close when we sleep. I will teach you to climb trees and we will let the orchard grow a little wild, like me. I can feel it starting to get ambitions, thinking itself a forest. Is that what it will be for you? Is that what you are going to teach it to be?
Those blackberry brambles have crept ever inwards, but the fig trees are learning to hold their own. A river is growing in the empty footprints that my father left behind. Every morning, I wake up to the sound of what the trees are saying, with a pressure in my head that is shaped like an orchard. But you need me too. The trees are learning self-sufficiency.
I understand, now, the things my father could not tell me. I am watering you with his love for me. I am trying to do better. I am pruning the father-tree.