“This is your new baby brother,” said Shala’s mother as she pressed the small girl’s hands to the warm, teardrop shaped fruit. “See how heavy the pod is? He will open soon.”
Shala nodded and traced her fingers along the tightly sealed ridges that ran the length of her brother’s birth fruit. The golden, rough skinned pod stirred and wiggled under her palms. She was still young, but she understood just how important this was to her mother. When her sister Ulli was born, her mother had not brought her to Ulli’s birthing tree. Her father and her mother had just come home one day with a greenish, white haired child and told Shala to call her Ulli. Now Shala was five–old enough to know where babies came from. She beamed with pride.
On Shala’s twelfth birthday, her mother came home with a box of brightly colored scarves.
Shala had been sitting in the window, watching her brother Vardash and her sister Ulli play in the warm, brown earth of their terrace garden. Everything that grew in the garden was squat and trailing–ornamental oregano, dragon’s-breath, knuckled and warty old-man’s-bones–no trees or bushes. That would have been obscene.
“Come away from the window,” Shala’s mother commanded with little warmth in her voice. “What if one of the neighbor boys sees you?”
Shala slipped from the window seat obediently and padded over to her mother. Her hair–once white like Ulli and Vardash’s–was turning apple-red. It had lost its corn-silk fineness, growing thick and rough and swelling at the ends. Her skin was also no longer fully green, but beginning to take on the golden hue of adulthood.
Her mother pulled a scarf from the box and bound up her hair so that it was all covered by the bright fabric. Shala’s mother wore a similar scarf.
“That’s better.” Shala’s mother adjusted the scarf slightly and smiled with satisfaction. “It isn’t good for a growing young lady to run around advertising herself for all the world to see. You are almost a woman, you should act like one.”
Shala wore her scarves dutifully.
When Shala turned fifteen, Ulli was made to wear a scarf as well. Shala was not as dutiful in wearing hers.
All of the boys in Shala’s class wore turbans and all the girls wore scarves, but Shala had noticed that the girls who wore their scarves loosely gained more attention.
Shala stopped tying her scarves so tightly and shook her head so that the occasional strand of apple-red hair–but never the ends–would peek out from beneath the cloth.
Taman, a young man whose gold hue was darker and more vibrant than the other boys, winked at her one day in the hall. “Hello pretty girl.”
Shala blushed. Taman was more mature than any of the others in her class, while she was simply mediocre. A greenish hue still tinted her gold.
Ana, one of Shala’s female classmates grabbed her arm and pulled her past Taman. “He’s trouble, Shala,” whispered the girl whose hair was always tightly bound. “I’ve heard he has been seen in public without his turban.”
“You lie!” hissed Shala. It was one thing to be lax with one’s head-wear. It was unthinkable to go without it. No one even knew what color Ana’s hair had become.
Ana faced Shala and frowned. She reached out and jerked Shala’s head scarf so that all her hair was covered. “Shala, do you want people to call you a whore? Cover your head!”
When Shala was sixteen, she showed Taman her hair. Not in public, of course, but in the confines of his family’s terrace while his parents were away. She giggled and blushed. She had not uncovered her head out of doors since she had been a child with corn-silk hair.
Taman had undone his turban, revealing waves of spider-fine black. It was delicate and softer than an infant’s. Touching it made Shala feel giddy.
They had sat on the terrace rocks and let the wind flow through their hair, hand in hand-sitting far enough apart that their hair did not touch. But a sudden gust of wind had raced through the courtyard and blown their hair every which way. The red and the black tangled together. Taman had backed away from her quickly as Shala caught her hair and twisted it together to keep it still. She examined the bulging, ruby-red swells on the ends. Three were empty-clear and gaping where once they had been as lustrous as the others. Cold fear coiled within her.
“You should go.” Taman quickly did up his hair and bound it with his turban.
“But what if–” Shala tried to force the fear out of her voice.
“Go.” Taman grabbed her hand roughly and led her to the garden gate, scarcely giving her time to sloppily tie her scarf.
“What were you thinking?!” cried Shala’s mother.
Shala was sitting across the table from her parents. Taman and his mother and father stood apart near a corner of the kitchen.
“She wasn’t,” her father sounded disappointed and old.
“What are we going to do?” Shala’s mother massaged her forehead.
Shala looked at the table. Her head scarf was bound so tightly it tugged painfully.
“Uproot them,” said Taman.
Taman’s father struck him across the back of his head.
“Don’t treat our grandchildren like some sort of common plant!” growled Taman’s mother.
“How many are there?” Shala’s father looked from Shala to Taman’s parents.
“Three,” said Taman’s father.
“Three? Three!?” Shala’s mother looked as if she might be ill. “Are you really so senseless, child?”
“Whatever the number, they will have to be moved,” said Shala’s father quietly. “They can’t just be allowed to grow recklessly in someone’s courtyard.”
“Perhaps we could send them to a small farm in the country?” asked Taman’s mother. “Save the children some shame.”
“When they drop fruit the infants can be adopted to barren couples. There is a need,” suggested Taman’s father.
“They are mine! Do I not have a say?!” Shala broke her silence angrily.
All four parents regarded her sternly. Taman curled his lips in disgust.
Outside a small cottage in the country Shala surveyed the swiftly growing trees. Their gold pods were getting heavy and beginning to droop toward the ground. Before long, the fruit would open and the children-her children-would arrive. She ran her fingers across the rough, ridged skin.
She remembered how proud she had been when her mother had taken her to see Vardash’s tree. She sighed.
I know you will do what is right, her mother had said before Shala had boarded the train that would take her into the country–the discreetly bagged saplings nestled carefully in a handbag. Shala’s father had gone with her, but she had come alone in the months ever since.
They don’t want to get attached, Shala thought sadly. The gold fruit wiggled under her fingers and she smiled.
“Not yet, baby,” she whispered and the fruit stilled.
Taman had never come to see the trees. He had been with his father when the older man had handed the bag with their saplings to Shala, but he had not even met her eyes. What would her children’s life have been like without a father? Could she even have hoped to raise the little ones alone?
We will help you Shala, no matter what, her father had said when she had boarded the train alone the following weekend, determined to see her saplings. She smiled and wiped her eyes.
Shala gestured to the couple that stood uncomfortably at the edge of the orchard. The woman’s scarf hung loosely over her head without any hair to fill it out. Shala remembered how the woman had undone the scarf when the two of them were alone and shown Shala her bald scalp–proving beyond doubt that she and her husband could never have saplings of their own.
The man and the woman approached her hand in hand. The woman smiled nervously.
“This one is yours,” said Shala as she took the woman’s hand and pressed it against the pod.
The fruit wriggled under the stranger’s touch. The woman smiled.
“Is it a boy or a girl?” asked the man.
“Does it matter?” Shala asked more harshly than she had intended.
The man blanched. “No.”
“I’m sorry…I’ve never had the courage to read the genders in the ridge-lines of the fruit.” Shala looked at the ground, her eyes stung.
“It will be a boy, our boy,” sighed the woman happily–her fingers tracing the ridges more familiarly than Shala’s ever had.
Shala choked back tears. “Then I’ll leave you with him. Give you some time to get to know him.” She turned and walked quickly in the direction of the train station.
“We will call him Shalan,” the woman called after her. “In thanks. It is a gift we could never pay for.”
Shala turned and forced a smile. “I know you’ll take good care of him. Goodbye.”
Shala boarded the train and stared in the direction of the orchard long after it had receded from view. The next week she would give away one of the other saplings, and the week later–the last one. It seemed most fitting to give them one by one. Let the families have some solo time with their child–her child.
She hoped she was doing the right thing.