Dinner, on an evening during Initsa Jubilee’s fourth year, began no differently from any other, except that Father Jubilee glared at his daughter over the thick, black frame of his glasses a chew or two longer than usual, and, when she blew bubbles through a straw in her glass of milk, he cleared his throat with a rumble so great that the delicate wine goblets in the next-door neighbor’s china closet rattled and shook, when normally, he would have simply reached across the yellow table, gripped the glass in his mammoth hand, and flung it against the wall.
But Initsa, thinking only about the fort she and Cousin Lyla would build within the ring of forsythia bushes at the end of the yard when Lyla finally arrived from the place Mother Jubilee called the airport, and wondering what in fact an airport was, heard Father Jubilee’s rumble as if it were a handful of pebbles being tossed in a distant land. And with the straw still drawn between puckered lips, she raised her hand from the glass, stretched her eyes open until the white part showed all the way around her green irises (a trick she’d practiced at the mirror during Cousin Lyla’s last visit), and stared into the swirling sky of Vincent Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night,” which hung on the wall opposite her. Incensed, Father Jubilee pushed his shaggy black eyebrows all the way down until they rested on his upper lip and bellowed, “Eat! Now!”
Startled out of her reverie, a cloudlike stream of thoughts which included a spray of honeysuckle, three pennies tucked in the sole of her shoe, and the memory of a grape popsicle savored the day before, Initsa spat the straw from her mouth and plunged her spoon into the generous pile of rice and corn set before her, but as she did, the curved edge of the utensil struck something with a hollow plunk-plunk sound. She repeated the action, this time with an ear tucked to the plate. The sound came again. Plunk-plunk. And after a flicker of a glance in her father’s direction, she dug a small hole in the pile of rice and corn, bowed her head close to the plate, and spied a rigid, woody cherry stone at the bottom. When she pressed the spoon against it, it did not split in two like a well-simmered grain of rice; nor did it mash like a kernel of corn. She paused, the spoon poised over the plate, thinking that in some way, perhaps shape or texture, the stone reminded her of the gray, segmented potato bugs she often toyed with in the sandbox, poking them with twigs until they curled into steely balls, but upon reconsideration, decided it was nothing like that at all.
Some children might have been surprised, even distressed, upon making such a discovery during what had seemed to be a rudimentary meal, but Mother Jubilee had often warned young Initsa of the imminence of this particular moment. “Your father,” she had whispered many times while brushing knots from her daughter’s hair, “has twice tried to plant a cherry stone in your belly. The first time, as you were slipping from my womb, he butted the doctor out of the way, cupped a hand under your fragile skull, and slipped the stone between your still-blue lips with the tip of his index finger.” (And yes, dear reader, there are moments, often in the night when Initsa was quiet, prone in her bed, that she could taste the saltiness of that finger and feel its rounded tip and hard crust of nail against her tongue.) “But as soon as the doctor came to his senses and crawled up off his knees,” Mother Jubilee always continued, “he grabbed you to him, flipped you upside down, and smacked your bottom. The pit shot out with a sharp ping as it struck the cold tile floor and rolled to a stop in the corner as you cried your first tears.”
The only fact Mother Jubilee would admit about her husband’s second attempt at planting the cherry stone was that Initsa had cracked a baby tooth on it, a fact always accompanied by a single tear on Mother Jubilee’s cheek.
With her spoon, Initsa shuffled the cherry stone around and around the plate, burying it in small piles of rice and corn, saving it for last, glancing now and again at her mother, who sat in her usual spot at the yellow table, tall and erect—so slim she could be easily threaded through the eye of a stitching needle. Unbearably frightened, she prayed, without moving her lips, that Mother Jubilee would reach a hand between the salt shaker and the pepper shaker, crook her slender, blue-veined wrist just so (so as not to tip the glass vials of oil and vinegar!), pluck the stone from Initsa’s plate, and toss it out the open window behind her. There, on the steep grassy hillside below, the stone would split after a hardy rain and take root. Over the years, it would grow from seedling to sapling to tree; its trunk solid, its bark gray and scabbed. Its branches and glossy green leaves (and in springtime, its pink silken blossoms) would spread over the west side of the Jubilee’s square, red-brick house like a parasol, protecting the family from the late afternoon sun.
But despite any desire to alter the direction of this moment, Mother Jubilee felt as helpless as Initsa and was perhaps even more keenly aware of her husband’s biceps tightening into hard apples beneath his worn shirt-sleeves. Instead of taking charge of the stone, she chattered numbly. “I pulled thistles from the rock garden today,” she said, gripping her fork horizontally in both hands just above her plate and struggling to bend it in half. “But the trowel snapped in two when I struck a rock!” Her already thin lips pressed together until they disappeared, and the pale spaces around her toasted freckles reddened with the effort. For a few minutes, she muttered on about the rock garden, the dog house at the base of the hill out back, and the bed sheets that had dried as crisp as crackers in the hot afternoon sun. But as always, her words hovered briefly over her plate, drifted to the middle of the table (where Initsa silently willed them flight), and then collapsed—long before they reached Father Jubilee’s ears at the opposite end of the table. Frightened for her daughter, Mother Jubilee’s purplish-black eyes lifted from the fork to Initsa, and she shook her head like a rain-drenched dog.
Finally, when her plate was nearly clean, Initsa tried to scoop what little remained on her plate—seven grains of white rice, three kernels of yellow corn, and the cherry stone (damp now, the brownish-red hue of dried blood)—up into the belly of the spoon. But she had no leverage; the plate was flat and smooth, without even a rib to aid her. So even with Father Jubilee’s gray, speckled eyes glaring at her over the edge of his glasses and the threat of his reddened fist resting on the corner of the table closest to her, she used the fatty part of her left thumb to shovel the last bite into place. Then with her eyes falling into Van Gogh’s blue-black sky, she lifted the spoon to her mouth, anxious now to have her father’s business done with, and closed her lips over it.
Immediately the stone began its slide down the back of Initsa’s tongue into her throat, but just as it reached the place where she had to swallow in order to complete the action demanded of her, Mother Jubilee opened her mouth as wide as she could, sucked all of the air from the room into her lungs with a great sssspppphhhhtttt! and held it there, hostage. Her prune-colored eyes bulged up at the ceiling, her cheeks puffed out like lettuce heads, and her slender middle swelled like a great rubber balloon. At once, Father Jubilee’s black scraggly eyebrows shot up from his lip to his hairline. His mouth opened so wide that Initsa could see the engorged, straining uvula at the back of his throat, but without sufficient breath, Father Jubilee could not roar.
For a moment—the cherry stone pausing in its path—Initsa feared she would not have breath to swallow, feared that she would die with the stone lodged at the peak of her windpipe. But then a moist gust of wind rushed in through the open window, and the lemony curtains billowed up so high that Mother Jubilee disappeared behind them. In that split-second, Initsa swallowed, and the seven grains of white rice, the three kernels of yellow corn, and the hardy cherry stone slipped smoothly down, landing with a muffled thud in her belly. With a slight whimper, Mother Jubilee released the air into the room, once again becoming slender. The curtains fluttered back into place. Father Jubilee snapped his mouth shut and swallowed, both satisfied and smug. And with her plate now empty, Initsa watched as her mother pressed a sweating glass of iced tea to her forehead.
That night, as she lay in bed, Initsa fingered the cherry stone where it rested just north of her navel. By midnight, the rigid hull had split, and small rootlets poked out and wound around her innards. With a weak moon hanging low just outside her window, she wondered at the speed with which the cherry tree began to grow within her, recalling that earlier in the spring when she had planted pumpkin seeds in her mother’s garden, weeks had passed before tiny green stems had sprouted from the dark, moist soil.
By morning, roots—gnarled and tough, like the stone that had broken Mother Jubilee’s trowel—coiled around Initsa’s bladder and kidneys, stretching deep into her short, chubby legs, all the way down into her toes. For a bit of time, she lay in bed counting the shadow-leaves created by the sun on the ceiling, but when Mother Jubilee’s rainbow song floated up the stairs, Initsa shuffled to the bathroom to splash cool water on her face. As she did, the roots clamped down on her little-girl womb, and she doubled over in pain with a sharp yelp.
After breakfast, when she pranced out the door to play, Initsa’s long, yellow hair still tossed up behind her like the tail of an airborne kite, and although there was no measurable difference in how she looked before and after the planting of the cherry stone, when she arrived at the nest of blooming forsythia bushes, her friends squinted their eyes quizzically at her, as if instead, the cherry tree sprouted from the top of her head.
By the time Cousin Lyla arrived from the airport later that week, toting one red straw suitcase and a bagful of homemade lemon-drop cookies, a trunk (spindly, at first) had grown straight up through the inside of Initsa’s torso. Branches stretched from it, wrapping around the tendons and muscles in her shoulders, arms, and fingers. Pea-sized buds opened into thick, glossy leaves, which tickled her heart whenever she coughed. Lyla, a tiny girl with legs and arms like wisps of chimney smoke, loved sleeping in Initsa’s queen-size bed beneath the scalloped pink canopy and taking bubble baths in the Jubilee’s claw-footed tub. And although her minikin size might have indicated something fearful and shy in her demeanor, in fact, just the opposite was true. Lyla possessed the courage of a girl three times her might, so that when Initsa whispered in her ear all that had transpired in the week prior to her visit, Lyla did not vacillate. She simply reached a hand across the bed and rested it on her cousin’s belly.
For many days after, the girls spent each morning in the yellow dining room on opposite sides of the table, equidistant from Father Jubilee and Mother Jubilee so that when Father Jubilee complained that his scrambled eggs were cold or his toast too dry, they could wait until his concentration returned to his plate, then wrinkle their noses in his direction. One morning, Initsa and Lyla watched Mother Jubilee circle the table, brushing stray strands of Initsa’s pale hair from it as if she were brushing crumbs—short, swift strokes with the flat of her fingers that sounded like a bird’s feet scratching at a dead branch. With Lyla witnessing a routine to which she herself was comfortably accustomed, Initsa was struck by the odd obsessiveness of her mother’s life. When Father Jubilee took notice of the stray strands and his wife’s desperate attempt to remove them from the dining table before his noticing, he leaned back, gripped the arms of his chair tighter and tighter until the curly black hair on his knuckles stood straight, and roared, “I’ll gather them up, Initsa, braid a long, golden rope, and string you up by the ankles from the nearest tree!” Initsa, imagining that soon she would be the nearest tree, cowered in her chair, but Lyla sat erect with her rounded nub of a chin high in the air and gently nudged her cousin’s knee under the table with her bare foot. This camaraderie filled Initsa with a feeling of lightness she’d never before experienced, the feeling that she could momentarily glance away from her mother and have something with which to replace the image.
A few days later, while the girls waded in the stream that cut the back yard in half, kneeling to turn rocks while searching for crayfish, Initsa spied her father through the trees. He was crouched low behind a squat, thick-trunked pine, staring at her over the rim of his spectacles, his fat red lips reminding her of a clown she’d seen last summer under the Big Top at the circus. She sensed he was waiting for something, and when she tried to shift her eyes from his, a breeze ruffled through her, and the leaves of the cherry tree fluttered. The trunk swayed, nearly knocking her to her knees.
“Lyla,” she whispered, and then she leapt, startling Lyla from her close inspection of a horse-shaped stone, and ran, shoes dangling by the laces in her clenched fist, into the protective ring of forsythia bushes, where she threw herself onto the soft grassy earth. At this moment, Father Jubilee stood, craned his neck, swallowed so hard that Initsa could see his Adam’s apple bounce up and down in his throat like a rubber ball, then disappeared into the trees.
Each morning, before they left the house to play, Mother Jubilee advised the girls of Father Jubilee’s whereabouts. After he excused himself from the breakfast table with a resounding belch, she would lean close to the girls and whisper, “He’s mowing the back lawn,” or “He’ll be puttering in the garage,” and although Mother Jubilee never outright said, “Play someplace else,” Initsa knew this is what she meant. If he were in the attic, they escaped to the basement; if he were in the driveway, they hid in the forsythia bushes. Once, when Mother Jubilee was distracted from this task by a plum-sized bruise over her right eye (a gift from Father Jubilee), she mistakenly told the girls that Father Jubilee would be digging stones from the rock garden, when in fact he was on the opposite side of the house transplanting purple pansies from window boxes to the trim-line of Mother Jubilee’s flower garden. When the girls skipped full-speed in that direction, looking up at the sky or the tops of trees, anywhere but where they were going, their small feet trampled the plastic trays of pansies scattered on the ground.
They heard Father Jubilee before they saw him.
“Donkey shits!” he hollered, and he raised his shovel over his head and lumbered towards them. But the girls were light and swift, and they quickly escaped his hulking hand, and before the sun rose to its highest point in the sky, Initsa had forgotten all about the incident, until the following morning when Mother Jubilee arrived for breakfast with a second bruise, this one a brilliant bloom on her right cheek.
Time passed in this way, and soon, cherry blossoms bloomed on Initsa’s tree. When she stood on tiptoe at the bathroom mirror with her mouth wide open, she could see the layered petals at the back of her throat—gentle shades of pink and white. The blossoms tasted lovely, like red licorice, and their sweet fragrance filled her from head to toe. It seeped from her pores, enveloping her in a cloud of candied perfume. To feed the blossoms, she drank great pitchers of cold water, and to nourish them with sunshine, she would sprawl on her back on the steep hillside under the kitchen window with her mouth wide open—legs and arms sunk into the cool grass. Lyla would lie next to her, whispering stories about fairies and trolls and the idea that if she and Initsa practiced every day, by the end of that summer, they would be able to fly. It was a silly sentiment, most especially because Initsa knew quite well she was only becoming more and more connected to Earth, which would always keep her from the sky. But Lyla’s voice was lulling, and her conviction strong.
After some weeks, the blossoms dropped away, and in their place grew cherries, green at first…small and hard. But they ripened quickly into luscious crimson drupes that filled Initsa with a nectar so powerful that all living things, human and animal—with the exception, of course, of Father Jubilee—fell madly in love with her, and for the first few weeks, she with them. Bees followed her in a neat trail. Squirrels crawled into her lap and nuzzled their soft tails against her. Even deer ventured from the thicket beyond the creek to nudge her with damp noses.
“Don’t lie on that hillside with your mouth open anymore!” Mother Jubilee warned again and again, leaning out the kitchen window on her sharp elbows. But Initsa did just that, with her eyes closed against the fat summer sun.
“Here comes one!” Lyla would whisper, playing scout a few yards away, and Initsa would hear the caw-caw or tthhwwtt-tthhwwtt of an approaching jay, giggle when its tiny claws skittered along her chest, and lie perfectly still as the bird—perched delicately on her chin—would dip its feathered head into her open mouth and pluck a succulent cherry from the tree with the sharp tip of its beak.
But as the days passed, and with no means by which to harvest the crop of summer fruit, the cherry nectar thickened and clogged around Initsa’s heart. Often, when she couldn’t pull a breath, she would raise her arms overhead and dance wildly in a tight circle. She silently raged at Father Jubilee, and when a bird would bow its small, roundish head into her mouth, craving a juicy cherry, instead of giggling, Initsa would clamp her teeth onto its neck and snap its head clean off. She would loll it from cheek to cheek, letting its blood swirl to the back of her throat, its sourness blending with the numbing sweetness of the fruit. On propped elbows, she would watch its winged, headless form flap madly across the lawn, teeter, and finally drop to the ground. Only then would she swivel her head to one side, and over her shoulder, spit the bird’s head to the grass like a tremendous hocker, sometimes with a cherry clamped tightly in its beak.
Finally, the cherries that remained on her branches loosened and fell into her belly where they rotted into a sour mash. The branches of the trees became bare and brittle, and in turn, Initsa became sullen and churlish (snarling if Mother Jubilee offered a second helping of rice, and once even striking the dining table so hard, Father Jubilee had to clamp a hand over his eyebrows to keep them from flying away). When Mother Jubilee said, “I love you,” before bed each evening, Initsa bared her teeth, and when she said, “You have my heart,” she scratched at her eyes. The devoted Mother Jubilee, frenzied and sad, began a frantic search for the glowing, succulent Initsa she had birthed and raised, a search she would continue throughout the remainder of her own existence—kneeling on raw knees to peer under tables, opening closets to see if Initsa was perhaps tucked away like a forgotten umbrella, and unearthing boxes from the basement and attic that would fit a girl just the size of her beloved daughter—but that Initsa had already vanished. Even Lyla, who seemed to be the only one who truly understood Initsa’s agony, moved from the pink canopy bed to a makeshift pallet on the hard wood floor.
Everyone, especially Father Jubilee, expected the end to come soon, but strangely, it was Lyla who left first. She slipped through a spot of rotten boards in the middle of a long-neglected train trestle just east of the Jubilee’s house while attempting to fly. She and Initsa climbed it early one afternoon, rolling their shoulders around and around to stimulate the growth of wings. Although forbidden such enterprise, they agreed to cross to the middle of the trestle, make three attempts at flight, and then—success or failure—forever keep their adventure secret. Lyla, as always wearing her brave countenance like a glittering cape, crossed first. Once safely to the middle of the trestle, she stood for a moment looking at a gathering of clouds to the east, and then turned to wave Initsa to her, but as she did, the boards beneath her feet gave way, as the girls had been warned they might, and Initsa watched as Cousin Lyla slipped away—feet, then knees, belly, chest, slim neck, and head—leaving no trace, as if she had never existed at all.
If the circus hadn’t come to town the week after Lyla’s death, Initsa might have given in to sorrow. But instead, when the parade of brightly colored camel-drawn carriages and trolley cars slowly pranced past the Jubilee home—music falling out of boxes, clowns rolling from secret doorways, elephants trumpeting, monkeys leaping, the great-maned lion roaring so loudly even Father Jubilee shook—Initsa felt suddenly hopeful.
Each morning after breakfast she no longer waited for Mother Jubilee’s warning about Father Jubilee’s whereabouts as she had with Lyla; now she simply wandered out alone, scratching at the petals in the back of her throat, stopping now and again to investigate a mound of ants or a cat in a tree, and made her way down the street and around the corner to the giant field where the circus had pitched a giant yellow tent. When she finally stood on the outskirts of things, she wondered at so many curious people who had come to be in one place. Though she didn’t mean to stare, there was the fat man whose buttocks dragged behind him on the ground, the tall woman whose head and shoulders stuck out of a hole in the roof of the tent, the elegant lady in a burgundy gown with a gray, fuzzy beard, a man with no legs or arms who rolled about on his torso and who was always the color of dirt, and even a small bald boy whose eyes and nose and ears seemed to have been erased.
Two weeks later when the circus folded and packed for its next destination, Initsa packed, too. She set a few items of clothing, a hairbrush, a toothbrush, and a faraway picture of Mother Jubilee into Lyla’s red straw suitcase, and then quietly, but firmly insisted that Father Jubilee drop her off at the yellow tent. As Father Jubilee drove away smiling, Mother Jubilee gave a weak-wristed wave through the car window and looked past her daughter at a tumbling clown. Initsa was sad about this, but she knew her mother was long past running away and that eventually she would emaciate to such a degree that she, too, would simply disappear.
Though she’d seen the circus master many times during the past three weeks, Initsa had never spoken to him. So when she opened her mouth and showed him the cherry tree, pink petals at the back of her throat gleaming with saliva, he leapt back so fast and so far that he nearly toppled the skinny man on stilts. Though he had seen many things in his travels, this was novel, even to him.
“You’re an amazing girl,” he said, “but we’ll need an x-ray to verify the validity of this tree. We don’t believe in tricking our audience, you know.”
As Initsa expected, the x-ray showed that the cherry tree was indeed healthy and in full bloom once again, and immediately, the circus master invited Initsa to join his troupe. Within a few days, pink and white petals poked out from Initsa’s ears and nostrils, and she pulled her hair into a ponytail so that circus-goers had a good view from all angles.
As she’d hoped, the circus traveled the world. Initsa visited Rome and Venice, Zagreb and Stockholm. Everywhere she went, she searched for other girls whose fathers had planted cherry stones in their innards. Within six months, she found seven, and at Initsa’s urging, each girl left home to join the circus. Soon there was an entire tent devoted to them. During the proper season, the blossoms dropped away and in their place grew cherries, green at first…small and hard. And when they ripened into luscious crimson drupes that filled them with a sweet, powerful nectar, Initsa added a special show to their tent in which they would lie on their backs and allow various birds to skitter across their chests, perch on their chins, dip their feathered heads into their mouths, and pluck succulent cherries from the trees with the sharp tips of their beaks. This was a rather dangerous stunt, and the circus master always stood nearby in case one of the birds went mad with ardor and pecked a girl to death. This happened only once.
Men, especially fathers, flocked to the tent and gawked, eyes wide, mouths open. Initsa was never sure if they were weighing their options for their own daughters or trying to prevent themselves from planting the seeds they’d already chosen. Initsa didn’t think much about her father during this time—at least she tried not to—but any object that was slender and frail, the stem of a tulip or a trail of passing clouds, made her think of her mother.
The years passed, and Initsa grew like other girls: breasts, hips, a slim waist. She was pretty, and in the normal course of events, began to lust for boys she saw in the audience. The first one who lusted back was a few years older with blond hair and callused hands. He was a farm boy and he came to the show three nights in a row to show his devotion. On the fourth night, Initsa invited him to join her behind the tent. He felt her up right away. Like a gentleman, he started at the top and worked his way down, but when he attempted to slide his fingers into her, he couldn’t. Something blocked the way, and it felt to him like a rock or a hardened piece of cement.
“What’s that?” he asked, spreading her legs with one hand and stabbing at the obstruction with the other. “What kind of girl are you?” He pulled his hands away.
Initsa sat up in the dirt and lowered her skirt. She’d had no idea the tree would block all pleasure and possibility. “Never mind,” she answered. “It’s time for me to go. I have an early show tomorrow.”
Later that night, in the privacy of her own tent, Initsa used a flashlight and a handheld mirror to examine herself. She folded over awkwardly at the waist to get as close as she could, and when she shined the flashlight on the spot where the boy had placed his fingers, she saw the roots of the cherry tree, gnarled and tough. She touched them gingerly, then with more vehemence, as if she might be able to will them out of the way. “Oh Mother,” she said out loud, remembering first the moment when Father Jubilee drove away from the circus, then the moment when the roots clamped down on her womb, and finally the moment when she swallowed the cherry stone.
A few weeks later, while performing in a town not far from where she was born, Initsa spotted her father in the audience. He was just as she remembered: big, bony, with thick black-framed glasses and shaggy eyebrows. Like the other men watching the show, he leaned forward as far as he could without tapping the man in front of him with the tip of his chin. She caught his eye as she was lying down to allow the birds to perform their fanciful tricks, and he grinned. When he did, a tremor cut through her, the tree shuddered, and Initsa had to fight the urge to run, but she finished her show, took a bow, and then left the tent without looking back.
A few years later when she met the man she would marry, Initsa found a doctor willing to drill a hole in the roots so that her husband-to-be would have access to her most private parts. In the more sensitive areas, the doctor used the smallest drill bit available, but in order to clear the space around her womb, a 1/2-inch bit was necessary. As Initsa lay on the bed with her feet in the stirrups, she imagined the torture her mother must have suffered in her lifetime, and though she wished it could have been different, she realized that Mother Jubilee had long ago recognized the fact that it was far better for Initsa to have a tree growing inside of her and to be far away with the circus than to live each day in her tragic shadow. She hoped her mother had disappeared by now.
“All done,” the doctor said, smiling at his handiwork and setting aside the tools. “Everything should be fine now, but keep in mind that since the roots will continue to grow, we may have to repeat this process every few years.” He patted Initsa’s naked knee and left her alone in the office to dress.
Before disengaging from the stirrups, Initsa took a deep breath and slid her right hand over her breasts, down her belly, and through the tangle of hair at her crotch. Tentatively, she slid her fingers to the mouth of her vagina. She paused there, frightened of what she might find, but discovering no obstruction, she pressed them further and further into herself, feeling her way along the smooth trunk of the cherry tree, her hand and wrist and elbow slipping inside, higher and higher into the branches, until her upper arm disappeared, higher and higher, until with a great release of breath, she touched her heart.
About the author…
Kristin Bair O’Keeffe is a writer, speaker, blogger, cultural spelunker, and writing instructor with seventeen years of workshop experience. In 2009, her debut novel Thirsty was published by Swallow Press, and her essays and articles about bears, off-the-plot expats, old women in Shanghai, how to nudge forth a global identity, and whatnot have appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, The Gettysburg Review, Bluestem, The Baltimore Review, Poets & Writers Magazine, San Diego Family Magazine, and other publications. After nearly five years in China, she recently repatriated to the U.S. and is now hunkered down in Massachusetts where she’s simultaneously writing and longing for some delicious xiao long bao. Check out her blog atwww.writerhead.com.