The Arbor tells us stories of a time before, when all the dead were kept in orchards that rolled endlessly, and had always been there, and people tended to them constantly in gratitude and respect for their ancestors. All the children in the Arboretum are packed into the seed bank, then filed along to the press room where a circle of granite the size of five of me is lowered down on bushels of apples. The sticky tang of fresh cider stings my nose.
I am ten years old and I ask him how it could be possible for orchards to be endless. He is annoyed but clearly does not expect someone so young to understand infinity and eternity, much less gratitude or respect. But I know how many hours go into tending fruit trees, because I have so many ancestors with their pears and apples coming in that autumn, and I’ve pruned and harvested as much as my calloused little hands could manage. Nothing simply appears, I insist, it must be cultivated. I picked a lot of those apples right there, I add. The Arbor sends me home early, tells me if I’m old enough to make cider and know so much about it, well then I’m old enough to drink it and learn for myself.
My Pah is in his last week of life and jokes that he might become something unobtrusive like a potted fern. My Dah is not having it. Dah would like Pah to decide for himself, but also in a way that Dah is comfortable with.
I am sixteen years old and I tell my Pah that I’ll do the opposite, become an enormous maple tree who can only be reached with laborious care, tapped at just the right time in just the right conditions, gallons and gallons of my sap boiled down by my descendants who’ll get only a small bottle of my smoky blessings. My Pah and I laugh together.
Dah is cross at both of us, the only one in the room taking our customs seriously. He says, don’t you remember what our people have been through? Our struggle, our persecution, how few our numbers?
I say it’s just a joke, because I’m not going to have any descendants, anyway. Dah slaps me and sends me out of the room.
From the hall I hear Pah and Dah’s muffled scolding and pleading. Pah relents, kisses Dah, says he chooses red plum. He dies a few days later. Dah never apologizes for slapping me, never mentions it again. We visit the Arbor and receive the juvenile plum tree and I mouth every word of the ceremony as the Arbor drones through it, and we plant the delicate roots in Pah’s ashes in a cramped plot of our overburdened orchards.
I’m hiding and sulking in the root cellar. I’m twenty-eight years old and have stormed out of a screaming match with Dah. I have failed to make children. Be like the seed of the fruit, says the Arbor; go forth and multiply. Be like the stone of the press; meld the fruit of each to the benefit of all. No one is the least concerned for my happiness. I must do this for the community.
It’s not enough that I’ve kept to the rest of our practices, that I faithfully attend to the ancestors when so many of my peers have left, more each year, assimilating into that other society where they make children with their bodies like animals. Their animal children know nothing of our secrets.
I simply ask other questions of my ancestors. I press other kinds of ciders, wines, pickles, preserves.
In the cellar, I pry open a plum wine and drink about half the bottle. The drink makes me peckish so I open two or three jars of syruped pear, dried apples, jellied melon, and fermented radish. The fruit of the prophets and teachers and neighbors and witnesses and gossips that I devour disintegrates in my mouth, my stomach, my guts. My dilemma digests and I want to vomit, but I lay down and keep still with a tight throat. I need to understand, no matter how repulsive the ingredients.
I learn that my parents tried for another child before me, but Dah over-fermented the brew and spoiled the whole batch.
I learn that Pah and Dah became strangers for some time after, and Pah brewed me on his own.
I learn that they reconciled when I was small, and Dah’s seriousness was his commitment never to get distracted from the practices again, never to let our family spoil.
I gorge myself on the secrets of the dead late into the night and wake up in the cellar with a stomach distended and aching, but resolved. I have something special in mind for the stone, something I have pieced together from so many sweet and sour voices at once. I go back upstairs and approach my Dah, greet him gently, take his old hands, and propose another way.
I will arrange him his favorite dinner with a nectar that will turn him back into a child himself. A brew of my own recipe which fulfills the word of the custom, so that I might have made a child, and he might achieve a time before his sorrows, find his expectations for himself, and we could stay together always.
Everyone has what he wants. I am forty-one years old and keep the orchard grounds full-time. I live in the two room cabin by the edge of the pears. My specialty is fermentation. Dah lives with me, but we keep a certain privacy from one another, and it feels the most like trust that we’ve ever had. Dah is the Arbor’s favorite acolyte, a dutiful scholar of the seed and the stone. He’s small and agile now, too, so I send him up Pah’s towering plum tree to pluck the fruit from the very top and down into our baskets. This year we have such an abundance that I can imagine an infinite yield in an eternal harvest. Each ripe little orb looks like a sunset hurling down to the ground, a tiny mystical vision I can hold in my palm.