Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

Forty Acres and a Mule

My parents’ farm has shrunk, as old things tend to do. The shed, the workshop, the paddock with its doubled wire fences and chicken coop—all squat and rain-blackened, coming into focus as I step from the car as if I have put on glasses or wiped rain from a window. The house itself stands straight-spined beyond the pear tree, gray in the drizzle, more withdrawn than the last time I visited. The tree has not changed: it towers above the house, branches spread wide, trunk split near the root. A child could wedge her foot into the crevice and pull herself up onto the nearest bough, could climb to the very top and survey all forty acres of this property from the crown.

“It’s like a crow’s nest up there,” I say to Caleb, pointing at the highest branches. Even that high, they have heft enough to hold a small girl. “I’d find the best pears, even before the wasps or birds did.” My girl’s hands, small and brown, tugging until the pears dropped into them, crisp and swollen, insides white and sweet. The leaves shiver with the drizzle, beckoning.

Caleb grunts. He shoulders our overnight bags; I offer to take one and he waves me off. “Get the trunk, would you?” He shies away from the outermost branches and makes an odd, triangular movement with his head: looks up at the tree, then down across his body, up at the tree again. The first time I brought him to visit my parents—nine months ago, for Thanksgiving—he’d stood smoking beneath the tree and had come back inside complaining of ants.

“It’s too cold for ants,” I said, but when he lifted his shirt for my inspection I obliged. His back looked no different: his pale skin a little speckled, doughy. “You’re fine,” I told him. He’d still fidgeted all through dinner, brushing his shoulders and slapping his neck in sharp, convulsive movements. I could only ask are you okay so many times before both of us tensed with frustration.

He makes it halfway up the porch before he notices I have wandered over to the tree. He drops the bags and comes back down, bow-legged and ginger-footed, grimacing when the steps groan beneath his weight. He reaches for the rail. It pitches sideways, the wood giving with a wet crack.

“Christ,” he says. He tries to straighten it and continue down the stairs all at once, to put distance between himself and the house. Animal instinct returned to him the moment our car crested the hill below which my parents’ farm lay. Even now he shrinks from its silent outbuildings, its dead-eyed windows, its nooks, its shadows. I want to tell him, you’re safe while I’m here.

But he wouldn’t want to hear it and anyway, I’m not quite sure it’s true.

“Look.” I wedge my foot into the crevice of the tree and hop up, as if into a stirrup. Bark, soft with rain, crumbles between my toes. I had not anticipated rain. The Weather Channel had promised me a dry, overcast day with temperatures in the mid-eighties. It had been warm and bright when we’d left home five hours ago and I wore thin-soled sandals and a maxi dress whose hem was now heavy with water sponged from the grass. Pretty clothes for gated sidewalks and redbrick streets. I always forgot how to dress for home.

Caleb glances at me. He has given up on the railing and stands just beyond the reach of the tree. He crosses his arms, and his foot jogs up and down. “You’re not climbing that thing, are you?” he says. “You’ll fall.”

He’d said the same thing the last time we’d visited, and pulled me out of the tree’s crevice with his arms around my waist like I was a little girl. A part of me had liked the way he’d handled me, liked how he’d pulled my backside flush with his waist, warmed my neck with his breath. But my limbs ached to climb. They always did when I came home, and I always climbed in response, my own animal instinct drawing me high. And it got old, after a while, Caleb handling my body better than I could.

“You’ll break something,” he says.

“Please stop saying that.” I haul myself higher, aiming for a branch that is crooked like an elbow, thick enough to hold my weight. He looks at me, then at the house. His eyes scan the windows, the murk beyond the broken latticework of the porch. His face is a rictus of displeasure. I can’t tell if it’s me or the house at which he’s grimacing. My arms tremble, my feet cannot find purchase. I slip. My toenail catches in the bark. My knee bangs the trunk. I slide to the ground with a gasp.

Caleb starts, alarmed. “Jesus, Erin.”

“I’m fine.” My toenail is folded up like an origami sculpture; I bend it back as far as it will go and rip it off. My hands are trembling. I ignore them. I’d rarely worn shoes to climb when I was younger and there’s no sense in doing so now. I kick off my sandals, tie a knot in the damp hem of my skirt, and step back up into the crevice. Climbing is easier this time. I scoot onto the crooked branch.

“What did I just tell you?” Caleb takes a step toward me. Again, he makes that triangular movement, up, across, up. “Erin. Erin. It’s on you if you get hurt. I’m not sticking around so your parents can hate me even more.”

“They don’t hate you,” I say. They don’t think enough of him for that.

He looks over his shoulder at the house, the yard, the acres that stretch out toward the woods. Beyond the circle where my father has mowed, the grass grows like wheat, hip-height and buckling; farther out, there are pines with skinny trunks, their needles tipped in yellow. Caleb asked me, once, why my parents did not hire someone to mow the field. Asked me, later, why they did not get a smaller place.

“We’ll help them,” he’d said. “I’ll get my brother to put the place on the market, and we can find them somewhere near us. Or even a place over in Prince George’s County if they want.”

“No,” I said. “This place has always been in the family, and it’s theirs, now. Their forty acres and a mule.”

He just looked at me sideways, face still, as if he did not think I had understood him at all.

“Are they even home?” Caleb asks, now.

“They’re home.” I point to the cars at the side of the house. “Why, you want to go say hello?” I look down at him, the crescent of hair he fights to preserve, ringing his baldness. He follows my pointing finger.

“They’ll have seen us pull up.” Chiding, always chiding me.

“So? They won’t mind if we don’t come in right away. They know I like to climb.” I root among the branches, looking for pears. Sawflies have made skeletons of the leaves, and the only pear I find has been hollowed out by wasps. It drops when my fingers brush it, light as a wasps’ nest. I startle back, scraping my elbow against the trunk, catching myself when I nearly tip backward. Bark patters down the trunk. Caleb hisses at me; he steps further into the shadow of the tree.

“You are welcome to go into the house and say hello to my parents without me, Caleb.” I toss him a pockmarked leaf. He bats it away. “You don’t need my permission. My mom asked about you this morning, before we left the house. They’re looking forward to seeing you.”

He snorts. He knows my mother well enough to know she would not ask after him. Only once did my mother ask Will you get married? when I’d moved with Caleb five hours away. I’d said I don’t know.

What is he to you?

I didn’t know that either.

I brace one foot against the trunk in front of me, my other foot against the trunk supporting my back. The bark scratches at my bare soles, which are soft from city living. There are climbing trees in the community where Caleb and I live. I’d climbed one, once, until Caleb joked that I looked like George of the Jungle.

I stretch for handholds among the branches, looking for pears. Surely there are some left. It is not so late in the summer. This tree has never been without them in all the years I have known it. It is always shedding little gifts. My mother and I would fill baskets while the mornings were still cool, picking pears slick with dew out of the grass. I’d once found a long length of rope, weathered and frayed, half sunk into the mud as if it had been there for decades. I tugged on it and it surfaced from the grass like a fishing line, up and up until it began to drag, as if something trapped beneath the porch weighted it down on the other end. I tugged. The rope went taut. Something thumped, colliding with the latticework under the porch. My mother took the rope from me and laid it back down. “Don’t,” she said, and steered me toward the house. I never found the rope again after that.

I wrap my arms around the trunk and peer up. Rain speckles my face, a drizzle catching on the leaves, drops rolling into each other until they drip into my hair. The rain has made my twist out fluffy and big; I feel what is left of my curls snagging in the branches. I’d made the mistake of unbraiding my hair and wearing it in a twist out last night to a dinner party with Caleb’s friends. Someone had asked me if all that hair was mine, how I kept it clean. They’d all stared, interested. Caleb had looked with them, head cocked, half smiling, as if he too did not know, could not imagine. And through it all he’d played with the hem of my skirt beneath the dinner table, ran his hands between my legs. He’d thrilled me once, handling me so. But it gets old. So old.

There. A yard or two above me, a single, full-figured pear dangles, so ripe its green skin is yellowing. I crane my neck to examine it. It does not look wasp-eaten.

“We should go in.” Caleb has given in, and stands against the tree, hands splayed against the trunk, looking up at me. My feet knock water onto him; spots of it darken his blue plaid shirt at the shoulders. My mother will remember that shirt from the last time he visited. She will ask me if it is his only good one.

“Wait,” I say. “I see a pear.”

He looks up, squinting. “That’s too high.”

“I’ve climbed higher.”

“Erin—”

I dig my feet against the tree and stretch higher, reaching for the slender branches where that single plump pear hides, coy and sly.

“Erin,” he says again, exasperated. And then. His breath hitches. He makes a little truncated sound. “Erin.” His voice rises. “Erin, what’s—fuck, that’s not a—wait, Erin—”

Only once have I fallen. I was ten years old, climbing higher than I had ever done before when a branch gave way as I reached for another handhold. I dropped, as the pears did, with lurching suddenness. Around me, a froth of thrashing branches, leaves shuddering, my belly in my mouth. I had not hit the ground. The foliage had thickened beneath me. It looped beneath my feet, like a length of rope.

I found myself curled among branches that had caught me, shaking and crying. The loop of the branches cradled me, waited until I had found my feet, and unlaced, gently, as I found footholds and slowly, slowly climbed the rest of the way down. My father saw me that day, stood watching from his shed as the tree caught me. We looked at each other, as I limped by. Neither of us said anything.

No matter how many times I say that I was fine, when I tell Caleb this story, he focuses on my fall, and not on the thing that matters: that the tree caught me.

I grasp the branch from which the pear hangs with my fingertips, inch along it until I can wrap my entire hand around the pear. It bobs, still too far away. I uncurl the arm that anchors me and reach up.

Erin.” Caleb’s voice rises from below, sharp. A thump, his foot scraping at the roots. He grunts, as he hauls himself into the crevice between the trunks. “Don’t touch that, it’s not a pear.”

I wrap my hand around the pear. Its flesh gives beneath the press of my fingers. I soften my hold. My body strains. My muscles shake. They have forgotten how to hold me up without the help of the ground. My foot slips.

I twist the hand holding the pear, yank. The fruit comes away in a shower of wet leaves. The branch snaps back, leaves shivering.

For a single moment, there is only this: the pear in my hand, nothing between me and the ground but my bare feet, braced in the Y of the trunk.

My feet give. I overbalance. I fall.

Caleb’s panicked shout reaches out for me, but his voice is caught up among the rush and crashing of my descent. His shout turns to branches, to leaves, to the knots of old buds long fruited. I’m falling, my stomach in my mouth, the bark scraping the skin from my elbows, my calves.

I have forgotten how it feels to fall, to abandon myself so completely. Help, I think, and then, please.

The leaves coalesce. A loose, looped noose, catching me. I do not hit the ground.

I land hard in the elbow of the trunk from which I first spotted the pear. The landing jars my spine, hard enough my teeth clatter. The noise around me dissolves into Caleb’s uplifted voice. He grabs my ankle.

“Are you okay?” His words are shrill; I’ve never heard him so afraid.

I grin at him. He has not yet climbed as high as I have, he stretches up, as if in a yoga pose. The idea makes me laugh. “Pear?” I grin, holding it out.

He stares at it for a long moment. He makes his triangular motion: up, across, up. He looks straight at me.

“There was a man hanging in that tree,” he says. “Don’t tell me you didn’t see him.”

I did not see a man. But once, as a little girl, I saw his rope.

“This place has always been ours,” I say. “Whether we lived on it willingly or not. Always been ours. Through every. Single. Thing.” I offer him the pear. My hand is steady. “Nothing will make the terrible things that happened here go away. But we claim it, and the land—this tree—it takes care of us. Always. Can you understand?”

He looks at the pear, then looks at me. He steps down from the tree. He does not take the pear.

Behind him, the front door opens, a squeal of hinges that echoes through the yard. We look around. My parents step onto the porch.

“Lunch is on the table,” my mother calls. And then, “Did you get to climb?”

“I did.” I step down from the tree, walk past Caleb. He watches me, jaw tight. “I found a pear,” I say, and hold it aloft.

My father nods. “And how is it?”

I bite deep. The pear is crisp, a little cold, the insides white and sweet.

Stephanie Malia Morris

Stephanie Malia Morris is a graduate of the 2017 Clarion West Writers Workshop, recipient of the Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship Award, and a 2019 Kimbilio Fellow. Her short fiction has appeared in FIYAHApex MagazineNightmare, and Pseudopod. She has narrated short fiction for the Escape Artists podcasts, Uncanny, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. You can find her online at stephaniemaliamorris.com or on Twitter at @smaliamorris.