art by Tihomir Tikulin-Tico
Sweet as Peaches
by Shane D. Rhinewald
On Mondays, they ate chicken--dark meat in the morning, breast meat at night. On Tuesdays, they started the day with steak and ended it with roast. On Wednesdays, they supped on pork loin, ribs, and chops. And then on Thursdays the rotation started over again. When Sunday rolled around, there might be duck or turkey, but only if they were lucky. Claire never counted on it.
Once, Claire had crunched on a wedge of apple in school, and it had been sour and sweet and all things delicious. Another time, a friend had slipped her a stalk of celery, which had been stringy and chewy, yet surprisingly satisfying. But for the most part, Claire knew neither fruits nor vegetables for more than eleven years.
One Wednesday during breakfast, she asked, "Why do we only eat meat? Kyle showed me a peach yesterday, and I wanted to taste it so badly."
Her mother looked at her, fork frozen midway between her plate and mouth. "Kyle's parents are both lawyers; your father and I are not. When you're grown and have a job that allows you to afford twenty-five bucks for a single apple and four times as much for a peach, then you can eat all the fruit you want. Until then, drink your vitamin supplement and eat your pork."
"But I'm tired of it."
"You don't like it?" her father asked. "When I was a kid, things were different. Meat was more of a luxury."
"It's not that I don't like meat," Claire said, poking at her plate. "But..."
Her mother scowled. "If you stop complaining then maybe you can have an apple or something under fifty dollars on your birthday."
"How come meat is so much cheaper?"
"Fruits and vegetables require land--which there is precious little of these days--and lots of time to grow," her father said. "Meat can be cultivated with stem cells in a dish in a matter of weeks, whereas a peach needs soil, sun, water, and constant care. Most farmers turned to meat long ago."
"Do you miss fruits and vegetables, though?"
Her father shrugged. "No. In fact, I've forgotten how they taste. Now are you going to finish that pork on your plate or should I?"
Claire saved all her money from her chores for three months, and late in the spring, bought a small peach tree from a nursery on the upper side of the city, where only the wealthiest lived. She struggled back to her apartment with it and smuggled it into the backyard. It was only a three-by-three meter area surrounded by walls of brick but provided plenty of space for the tree. Plus, her parents seemed to always be at work and never ventured there.
Claire dug with her hands, clawing at the hard-packed earth until she had a satisfactory hole. Then she stuffed the roots down in and filled around them with dirt, just like the woman at the nursery had said. When she finished, she poured water on top and stamped everything down with her feet. In time, the tree would produce dozens of peaches.
That summer, the tree died. Claire came outside one day to find it brown and droopy. Her parents had been right; fruit needed space, time, and constant care, and a lack of attention to detail had been her undoing. When Claire took the tree back to the nursery, the woman there told her she hadn't provided it enough water--especially during such a hot summer. Claire trudged home with the only thing she could afford now, a single peach pit.
Claire planted the pit and made sure to water it the recommended amount, but it took a full year before it finally sprouted. After it did, she feared the autumn frost would kill it, though it proved resilient. The winter remained mild, as it usually did this far south, and when the following spring came, Claire had a tiny tree.
Every day Claire ate her usual meals of chicken, beef, and pork, all the while dreaming of the fleshy, fragrant peaches that the tree would produce. It took another year for the tree to grow big enough to start flowering, though.
When three little buds finally appeared, Claire tiptoed around while she worked, hoping not to disturb her fruit. Still, one peach stopped growing and shriveled, turning to a brown corpse. Another fell prey to a beetle in the yard. Claire was forced to protect the last one day and night, holding constant vigil while it grew.
Claire didn't know how to tell when it was ready, but one day she decided it had been long enough. The peach was small--just a few centimeters in diameter--but she could wait no more. When Claire plucked it from the tree, she wanted to stuff it immediately into her mouth, but instead, she hid it in her room for two days until it felt soft, almost mushy, because the lady at the nursery had said that she should.