My father loved pears. He craved them the way that anemics ache for ice to chew, the way that Rapunzel’s mother risked her own husband’s doom in order to have a plate of sweet, crispy lettuce. We always kept a wooden bowl in the kitchen filled with the fruit. When I turned seven, my mother asked what I wanted for my birthday, and I begged to be in charge of papa’s pears. I wanted to choose from the piles of dark red, rusty brown, and soft gold varieties at the market twice a week. I wanted to arrange them so that he would always choose the ripest, most perfect one when his long cellist’s fingers reached toward the bowl.
He ate them in the morning, chopped, in his yogurt or his oatmeal. During lunch, he sliced them into long, thin strips, pale and delicate as lady’s fingers. At dusk, when he awoke from his nap to the beginning of the dinner smells in the kitchen, he ate them whole, juice dripping from his lips and glistening in his beard until my mother made him wash up.
The ones I liked best were the ones we ate together. He returned late many nights from symphony parties and came to my room, bundling me up in mittens and coat and hat, and we climbed to the roof, where he would produce a steaming bowl of the soft baked fruit. We ate the white flesh with spoons as he pointed out the dim stars of the city sky, or, if it snowed, we watched the flakes that landed on our sleeves and chose our favorite shapes. I memorized those shapes, and made them out of paper during the daylight so mama would hang them around the apartment and so papa would remember.
In the summers, when the symphony went on break, he and I and Leda, his favorite cello, all took the train upstate, where he taught at a summer program for music students. All spring, he complained about the coming months of heat and etudes and hormonal teenagers, but I knew how much he loved it there. He loved searching into the tangled knots of his students’ technical perfection and finding the artists that were bound there. They couldn’t help but follow him, as though he were the pied piper himself. The girls thought he was terribly attractive, and the boys wanted to have the effect on the girls that he did. They were all high school students, brimming with lust and art and ambition. I remember watching them when I was a little girl, marveling even then at how sensuous they were, the girls with their hair curling in the damp heat, the boys who stripped off their t-shirts and walked with lean, bare torsos through the orchards, their skin glowing in the evening sun.
They came to our cabin at night to talk to my father, and they feasted on tuna sandwiches and watered-down wine, discussing topics ranging from the lofty merits of some Austrian composer all the way down to the best places in the camp to take a girl without fear of being found.
They teased me and tickled me. The girls loved to play with my hair, long waving locks my parents agreed were not to be cut, and the boys carried me on their backs through the trees, showing me the frogs and beetles they found, buying me candy from town.
I was still in charge of papa’s fruit, but instead of walking down city streets to the damp indoor market, great boxes of them would be shipped up to us during the early part of the summer and then, as the July neared its end, the fruit on the trees would begin to ripen. The trees grew wilder each year that they went untended, but plenty of good fruit still grew in their branches, and I loved to climb the twisting trunks, to hide in the faded green loves. The odor of ripening fruit caught in the boughs, and I dozed there, dreaming, watching the students walk below. Sometimes I felt like a pair of eyes was on me, watching me, taking care of me. Maybe, I imagined, it was the tree itself, trying to figure out this strange creature that was neither squirrel nor bird, but scampered in its branches nonetheless.
I liked it best when I heard voices approaching and looked down to see a boy with his arm around a girl, her hand around his waist, their faces close. All of the boldness and swagger disappeared, and they looked like children again, shy, curious. Once, two of them sat down right below me. The boy was one of my father’s cello students, but the girl played something else. Clarinet, maybe. She had long, smooth strawberry blonde hair, and he couldn’t stop pressing his face to it. He had sad look in his green eyes that made me need to hold his hand and tell him it would be okay.
I watched him bring his face close to hers, breathing her in, and her perfect mouth formed a drowsy smile. She kissed him, and he kissed her back, but then he turned his face away and tears were on his cheeks and I thought the girl would give him a hug, take care of him, the way people did when I cried, but instead she just asked, “Is it her?” and her voice was sharp, like dead grass. He didn’t say anything.
“I can’t do this any more,” she told him. “She’s dead. She’s not coming back. I know it hurts, but you have to move on.”
Then the girl looked like she was going to cry, too, but she stood up and ran away, almost falling when her foot slipped on the slimy rot of a wormy fallen pear.
I climbed down and sat beside him, wrapping my arms around his hunched body, so thin beneath the new boy-muscle, and I kissed his hair, and I told him that it was okay to cry because everyone was sad sometimes, because I knew that someone had died.
I spent most of my time up in those trees, or down by the pond, catching frogs and crickets. There were so many outside places there, not like in the city. I could run around without shoes and get muddy and dirty and my skin turned dark with sun.
Sometimes I woke up, late at night, at the sound of my father leaving. I followed him once, out to the orchard, where he muttered to himself and ran his hand along the tree trunks, a sad smile on his face. He sounded like he was telling stories to someone, but I couldn’t make out the words. When I asked him about it afterward, he said he’d been sleepwalking, and that I shouldn’t wake up a sleepwalker. He told me not to worry.
Mama never came. She didn’t teach classes in the summer, but she said she needed the time to do her research and to have some peace without her “big baby” and her “little baby” running around the apartment. Sometimes she came for a weekend, and she spent the week before the fourth of July with us, but mostly she called and I wrote letters to her with pictures and stories I made up. She could always tell what was true and what wasn’t.
On the last day of every summer, I found some secret treasure in my favorite tree. The tree was the oldest, prettiest one in the whole orchard; it always made me think of a woman who had just woken up, who was stretching out of sleep. It grew in the middle of a big circle of trees, and it always gave me the best pears.
There was a little hollow in the roots, and, in that hollow, I’d found wooden combs for my hair, a silver bracelet that jingled when I moved my hand, a ring made of ivory, which one of the older girls told me came from the tusk of an elephant, a book of fairy tales full of wood nymphs and gnomes and fairies. When I was twelve, there was a little wooden box with a pear tree painted onto its lid. Inside, the soft lining was the color of whole milk, and it smelled like pear blossoms. And there was a note,
A treasure chest, for all of your treasures. Look forward to an adventure next summer.
I didn’t say anything to my father that night, though I feared I might burst. I didn’t say anything when we took the train home and I told my mother about the wonderful farewell party after the final concert. I kept the box with the treasures and the note under my bed.
At school, the girls were all giggly about the boys, and the boys, in turn, teased them and laughed about them, but I didn’t understand what everyone was so worked-up over. In my dance class, the other girls all tricked one another and muttered mean things about Miss Leslie under their breaths. Before they left, they would put on make-up and fill their bras with tissue and talk about the boys in the older grades. Mostly, they ignored me, and I didn’t care to talk to them, either.
By May, I couldn’t stand to be silent any longer.
“I can’t wait to go to camp,” I told my father.
“Mm-hmm.” He wasn’t paying attention.
“I feel like something special might happen this year, you know?”
“Oh, you know, maybe an adventure?”
He, in response, gave me that worried look he got sometimes. “What are you talking about?”
I crumbled. “The note! The note with the treasure box?”
“What treasure box? What note?”
I went to my room and brought them back for him.
“Where did you get these?”
“Papa. You put them under the pear tree last year, just like there’s something there every year.”
“I did what?”
“In the orchard! At the camp! I’m not stupid. I know it was you.”
“Sweetie, I’ve never seen these before. I-” And he stopped. It was just like when he hears music start playing; his voice stopped and he stared at the air. Then the worried look came back, as though he was trying to figure something out, and he said “Oh, now I remember. It’s a surprise, so I can’t tell you, now can I?” He looked at his watch and swore. “I have to go. I’m late.”
He kissed my forehead and disappeared. But I knew that he wasn’t late for anything.
The next day, my dance class was canceled, and I came home to hear them yelling in the kitchen.
“-I don’t care, Joseph. She’s not going back with you this summer. This is ridiculous, and we agreed that she didn’t have to know about it.”
“But it’s her mother.”
They’re talking about me, I know, but a mother? My mother? What’s going on?
“I’m her mother, Joseph. Me. I may not have given birth to her, but I’ve raised her since she was three months old. She is my child.”
“She won’t stand for it. You know that. She’ll insist on going.”
“I think I can handle a thirteen year-old.”
I was already trying to think of something. I needed to know what was going on, and if my parents weren’t going to tell me, then I needed to find someone who would.
“The discussion is closed, Joseph.”
I went back into the street and walked around for a while so they wouldn’t know I’d been home. Everything was blooming and kids were playing in the park. Their mothers watched from benches, talking about schools and diapers and ways to stop toddlers from sucking their thumbs.
But my mother wasn’t really a mother, not the way these were.
When I’d looked through old photo albums, I’d always wondered why I didn’t look anything like her. Her hair was black, and papa’s was brown like mine. She had dark skin like she had a tan all of the time, but papa had freckles, like me. My mother was round, but I was thin, thin. My nose was round, not like either of theirs. And there were no pictures of her pregnant, or in the hospital, though she had always said that she refused to let anyone see her when she was as big as a brownstone.
Papa hadn’t left me those things under the trees. My mother did. But who was she? Why didn’t anyone tell me? Why didn’t she come find me?
Was she the one who watched me when I sat in the tree?
That night, at dinner, my mother asked if I wanted to spend the summer in the city, maybe go to dance camp. She bribed me with promises of trips to the ballet, to museums, saying it wasn’t fair that my father had me all to himself.
I told her it might be fun to stay with her, the lie sticking to my tongue like glue. I didn’t want her to be suspicious. Papa looked at me, and I knew that I’d hurt him a little. I said that I wanted to see him on the weekends, and that we had to go visit him on the fourth of July like always. And my mother agreed.
For a few days, I tried to ask my father about the pear tree and my mother and my not-mother, but any time I mentioned summer, he closed his eyes and told me he was tired. He looked crumbly, like the old brick buildings across from the park. So I stopped.
He was supposed to leave on a Sunday morning. The day before that, I skipped dance class and took the train upstate. My dance bag had a change of clothes, my toothbrush, my treasures. I’d left a note in my room for my parents, telling them that I was going to spend the night at Mandy’s house, hoping that it would take them a while to figure out where I was, long enough for me to walk all the way from the station to the camp.
The birds were all chattering, and the sun began to fall just as I got out of sight of the railroad. On the road, the cars drove by fast, and, at each one, I ran into the woods to hide. I didn’t want to be caught, not when I was so close. I stopped to rest sometimes, and I wondered what would happen. If my mother didn’t think I was coming until the next day, would she be there? Did she even remember what she had promised?
My school bag was heavy, and it banged against my back when I walked, and I kept switching my dance bag from hand to hand. The sun fell, and I thought that I probably should have left my things somewhere along the way and come back for them later. But then there was a pink moon rising just above the trees, and I knew that she would be there.
I snuck past the main buildings of the camp, where there were already a few lights on, and I walked toward the orchard. Old blossoms had fallen to the grass, not quite rotten, and the smell was so strong that the air was heavy on my tongue, a thick, sweet syrup. I set down my bags and took out the treasure box, filled with her gifts.
And then, she was there, standing under her tree, just like I knew she would be. Her hair was like mine, brown and curvy and falling down her back, tangled with flowers and leaves. Her dress looked like a piece of moonlit cloud she’d snatched from the sky to wrap around her. She couldn’t be my mother, I though; she was too young, too pretty.
She smiled at me, and her brown eyes were warm and happy.
“How did you know when I would be here?” I wanted to ask, but I knew that there was no way she wouldn’t have known, almost as though she’d planned it.
She held out her arms, her long fingers, and she pressed me against her. She smelled like night time and moths and dancing and old cellos and, of course, pears. And then she laughed, a sound like on the leaves on the trees shivering together.
“What’s funny?” I asked.
“Nothing, love. Nothing at all.”
I wanted to ask all of my questions at once, but I didn’t know which one to start with. I heard a giggle, then another, and other women began to tiptoe toward us, all of them slim and smiling and moonlit, like my mother. I heard a flute and a drum, and the trees began to sway in the breeze. Then my shoes and socks were gone and my hands were taken, and we were all dancing. They sang, their voices low and whispery, and the sound made me think of sunshine and ripe fruit and the muggy scent of a pond and warm grass. They were welcoming summer. I couldn’t keep from watching them, their hair flying and their small, white teeth flashing in the dimness, their feet pounding the grass. This was the feeling I always wanted for when I danced in class, but I could never do anything but touch it before it was gone.
The stars spun and I felt like we had been dancing for days when they all slipped back to their trees and fell asleep against the curving roots. My mother and I were the only ones left when the stars faded and the birds woke up, one by one. We sat facing each other in the grass.
“What happened?” I asked.
“We dance under June’s full moon to greet the summer.”
“One year, a mortal man with lovely hands came upon us, and we couldn’t turn him away. He danced with us and whispered pretty words in my ear, and then he and I danced alone under this tree when all of the others had fallen asleep. And then you came with the following spring.” She sighed. “I was never meant to be a mother. I gave you to the man, and I made him promise to bring you back to me so that I could watch you grow, and he did.”
“But mama doesn’t want me to see you.”
“You’re old enough to choose now.” She pointed to a tree, still small, at the edge of the grove. “If you wish, that tree waits for you until the end of the summer. It is yours. If you return before the full moon comes in September, and you wish to be one of us, to forsake the world of death and sadness, to dance through the nights with your sisters, then you may. If not, then you will never know me again. You will live a mortal life, you will age as they do, and you will die.”
She brushed the hair from my eyes, leaving a trail of blossoms there, and I thought about the choice. I thought about my father, and the woman I’d called my not-mother. I thought about the lights of the city when we were out in midnight snow, and I thought about bicycles and the peacocks at the zoo. I thought about skinned knees and the mean girls in my class and the people who slept in the alleys and subway stations. I thought about all the times I’d cried.
“Oh, I can see your little mind working, darling. You have all summer to decide. When the moon is full, you’ll find us here, dancing.” She yawned, delicate and drowsy, stretching her long limbs. The sky was pink. “I need to sleep now.”
She kissed my cheek, leaving drops of dew, and curled up under her tree.
I didn’t feel like myself. My body was tired from dancing. My thoughts were all foggy, too thick to see clearly, light enough to float. I picked up my bags and walked back toward the road. When I was close to the main buildings, I could see the shuttle bus that carried campers from the train station. Out stepped the boy with the sad green eyes. When he saw me, he looked surprised.
“What are you doing here so early? I thought this was the first shuttle.”
“I came up last night. I – my father will be here later today.”
“You look different. There are flowers in your hair,” he laughed, “and where are your shoes? You look like you slept outside.”
“Not exactly,” I said. Not a lie. I didn’t sleep at all.
“Well, want to help me unpack?”
When my father arrived, he carried a little suitcase with my things. He wrapped his arms around me, lifted me up.
“Did you meet her?”
I spent one last summer at the camp. My parents never asked about my mother again, but they seemed relieved when I told them that I would stay in the city for dance camp the next year.
On the last night, the recently full moon had a dark sliver cut from its side. The green-eyed boy and I sat out beneath the pear tree to say goodbye, and, when it was very late, he pulled out of his pocket a silver chain with a moonstone for a pendant.
“I almost forgot this. A woman asked me this morning to return this to you. She said she knew you wouldn’t be back, and she wanted to make sure you got it.”
I thanked him and rested my head on his shoulder. The leaves around us rustled in the wind, and I thought I heard a woman’s laughter.