The girl feels the sun pierce her eyelids. There is no avoiding it. Drops of dew break loose from leaves and strike the ground—a patter too slow for rain. A drop splatters on her cheek. The girl opens her eyes and waits for a brilliant drop to strike them. It does not come. Just the sun.
Wet leaves unfold like waking bats. The girl, stiff with sleep, lies on a wooden flat lashed to the branches. She rolls onto her side, grips a branch like a lover’s wrist, and watches the sunlight warm the dew into a steam that hisses as it lifts away.
A thousand yellow fruit trees glimmer in the sunlight. They blur into a yellow haze. The dew-slumped branches admit so much sun the girl clenches her eyes closed again. She tries to force a dream, but she can’t picture anything but this yellow orchard, this bright sky.
Today she will pick a hundred fruit. She will sing ten songs. The fruit company will leave ten pieces of scrip in a tin cup she hangs from a nail on the trunk of a tree. She will fold one piece into a bird and release it from the edge of her palm, whispering the name of a boy whose skin smells like nutmeg. Tonight she will fall asleep on her flat, curled like a tired dog, and she will not dream.
Branches creak, scaffolds bend and torque, boards wobble underfoot. The girl climbs through the trees. She wears a white cap, beneath which she has tucked her long black hair. Her cotton dress is gathered and knotted around her thighs. Arms outstretched, she shuffles to the end of a branch, then jumps to an aching limb that bends almost to snapping. She shimmies farther, the limb slender as her wrists. Riding this sway and strain, the girl slides her feet a centimeter farther, reaches for a fruit, plucks it loose, a golden swollen orb in her hand. Her fingerprints stain its dusty skin. She kisses the fruit, drops it through the branches, and it clatters down, tearing loose a swirl of yellow petals. Plunk! Lighter by some kilos, the limb rises. The girl swings to a higher one. Another errand, another fruit, awaits her in the yellow tree.
The girl sings a worksong, not because the work is hard, or lonely, or slow. She has picked fruit a thousand days, and singing is part of it. She knows ten songs, rhythmic songs, simple-as-breathing songs, sunny never mournful songs. Ten. Can she imagine anything else, this orchard, these songs, this light through yellow leaves?
When she is too tired to sing, she sighs the boy’s name. It is only a word anymore. It is breath across her tongue, the roof of her mouth, lips together, then apart. It has no flavor she can recall. His skin had smelled like nutmeg, but nutmeg is only a word anymore.
Far off, more girls sing in the branches, picking fruit to drop. The same white square cap, the same songs, the same small size. They could be sisters. The fruit company picks girls—small, agile, fearless—to climb in the trees. The work pays in yellow scrip printed in red words they cannot read. A commissary wagon comes around, and the prices seem fair. Cloth, sewing tools, bandages, tinware, beans and rice. What more does a girl need? Voices tossed in the breeze, tethered bits of song reassure the girl, everything in place.
Each day, the girl saves one piece of scrip and folds it into a bird.
Hummingbirds dart blossom to blossom, coppery streaks.
Dusty fingerprints, a kiss, a long drop, a sweet, tender bruise.
She was climbing in a tree for fun. She dangled from one hand, hooked her knees around the branch, swung upside-down. A hundred waxwinged birds chirped and chattered around her. She wore a ramie smock she had sewn herself, and her brown skin glowed with yellow dust, and her hair was tied with red packing string. She tipped her head and saw the boy sleeping, his back against a tree, a wooden flat beside him, partly filled with fruit. She wanted to wake up the boy and run her fingers across his back where the bark had left its lacy print. His skin smelled like nutmeg. Today, she willed herself, she would kiss him.
She reached up, palms finding the branch, and kicked her legs out. Her body swung down, and she let go of the branch, landing softly. She raised her arms in a flourish.
“Show-off.” The boy sat up.
“I thought you were asleep.”
“What were you thinking about?” She kneeled beside him. Close.
“But you like it here.”
The girl found the soreness in his shoulders, neck, and arms. Tightness, bruises, tender spots. Her small hands were not enough to loosen the knots, but she found pleasure touching his skin, pressing her hands into his muscles. She leaned forward, and her lips pressed his dusty cheek, his mouth. Nutmeg.
The boy lifted the girl by her waist and hoisted her over his head. His strong hands cupped her hipbones. When he let go, she dropped, she flopped on him, a tangle of arms and legs. She let the boy lift her again, and she laughed and yelped and squirmed like a dog.
It is mid-morning, and the leafy canopy strains the sunlight to the color of tea water. Dust swirls through pools of light. The oldest trees rest their branches on wobbly posts. Some trees lay their branches on the earth. Some have split apart from the weight of swollen fruit. Branches from one tree snag with those of another. The breeze makes the branches sway and tug and yank. A million leaves flutter while a million others hold still. The orchard creaks and groans.
The girl pauses on a branch and studies the tea water light on her arms. Dust sticks to her skin. Sparkling dust sticks in her lungs. She saddles the branch, lies on her belly, dangles arms and legs in the dusty air.
Unpicked fruit, impatient for the tug of her fingers, drops on its own. A clatter in the branches, a smack on the earth, a bruise.
The boy set a wooden flat on the ground and turned it over. A tumble of fruit spilled in the dust. He brushed off the flat with his palm. The girl sat on the springy boards. She pulled her knees together, fitting that square space. The boy tried to sit next to her, but the girl pushed his hip away.
“You’ll break it.”
He sat on the ground next to the flat.
A paper hummingbird took shape in the boy’s hands. He pressed it flat on the boards next to the girl’s legs. He described fifty-seven folds, and he made them by creasing the paper with his thumb, leaving yellow smudges on the wings. The girl leaned against his arm and watched. She felt his breathing. She liked this closeness. She touched his hands as he worked. Knuckles, veins, ridges riding over bones, valleys of softness between the ridges. Her fingers drew swirls that repeated themselves again and again against his skin.
The boy hummed a song she had not heard before.
The bird was ready to fly. The boy let the bird go, and it flopped in the dirt.
This flop was okay, the boy explained. He could make a better paper hummingbird. Easy. Watch. Fifty-nine folds. The girl tried to memorize what he was doing, but his hands moved too fast. She frowned when he admitted he was making it up.
The sun climbs to the top of the sky. The sharp-edged shadows that had played upon the ground have scattered. Copper hummingbirds retreat to their hiding places, their cool pockets of shade, but the girl still works the highest limbs in the tallest trees. She sways on branches bowed with the best fruit, the largest, sweetest, sunniest prizes. She clings to a shaft, knots herself around it, and rides out a breeze that would shake a novice loose. The fruit in her hand, she kisses it and lets go. Both hands need to grip. The longest silence, the farthest fall, the loudest smack on the ground, the deepest golden bruise.
Across the treetops, from slender swaying limbs, the other girls toss bits of song.
She tastes dust on her lips. She would descend the tree for a sweet cool sip of water, leave behind the scuff of bark, the bob and sway of limbs riding breeze. A dry song catches in her throat.
The girl picks her way down the trunk, finding holds for toes and fingertips. She jumps to a lump of root bulging from the soil. The earth pitches and rolls. She keeps one hand on the trunk for balance. Brittle flakes of bark snag her dry palm. She unhooks a tin cup from its nail. She follows the winding root away from the tree, her eyes down, her arms outstretched. She leaps to another root. A clatter of dry leaves swirls after her, settles quickly.
The well is in the middle of the orchard. It’s not much: a red pump, an iron faucet knee-high, a drip of rusty water. The water draws a snarl of wasps, and sharp sunlight hard to gaze upon. The pump’s stiff crank takes both the girl’s hands. A cool gush splatters on the pebbles beneath the spigot. A few splashes find her cup. Bits of leaf swirl in her cup, loose tea.
She walks back to her tree, balancing on the roots, wet cup raised to dry mouth. Suddenly the girl slips, stumbles, spills the water, sprawls. She wads into a ball of pain. She grips her left knee. The girl—who scales trees skillfully as a monkey—slips on just a root. After ten minutes, she stands, unfolds her limbs. On her knee, a stinging scrape blooms red. The girl grumbles. She brushes petals and leaves from her dress and straightens her cap. She sloshes a noisy, angry path through the dry leaves, then jumps for a low branch, grapples it on the first try, muscles herself up. Creaking branch, sway in the tree, rustle in the leaves, and she is gone.
“Try it again,” he said.
“You have to get back to work,” she said. “They’ll fire you if they find us here.”
“I don’t care. I hate this place.”
“Don’t say that.”
“Just try it one more time.”
The girl sat on the upturned flat, folding paper birds in the small flat space before her folded knees. Her head was bent forward, touching the boy’s. The sound of their breathing. The boy urged her to invent as she went along, but she could not grasp it. She could not fold the scrip into anything but meaningless angular wads. The boy described owls and cranes and ducks and kingfishers she had never seen. He fluttered his hands to mimic wings. She watched his hands and listened to his unusual words, but she felt a boxiness taking shape in her imagination.
“I like hummingbirds,” she said. “I like things I know.”
The boy sighed, unfolded a wad of paper, and gave her a set of steps. Every bird the same. The girl could tell from the tightness in his jaw this saddened him.
She wanted to paint his beautiful hands. She wanted to set them in her lap and paint swirls around his knuckles. Blue inky lines that came back to where they started, painted with a needle so they would last forever.
The girl closes her eyes, tries to daub colors onto a memory gone grey. She feels the afternoon sun baking her arms and the wind tugging the tree, and she knows without looking that a fluttery golden design is playing on her skin. It angers her: she cannot remember the boy’s nutmeg smell, but she can find her way through these trees by rote with her eyes closed. A tear swells under her eyelids, squirming for a way out. She knows every route through the trees, every scaffold, every branch. Inching up a limb, she is always sure about her work. The limb might narrow, bend, and groan from her weight, but it never snaps. Tension in the limb, golden leaves snagging her dress, the bulbous fruit she finds near the end. Pluck, kiss, drop. She knows the plunk of a fallen fruit. She knows the dust on her arms at the end of a day. She knows ten songs, ten. They are only words. Nutmeg is only a word. She tastes a salty tear on her lips.
She opens her eyes. She is surprised when she spots a brown bat dangling from a slender limb. And another bat, and another. From her perch in the tree she counts twenty bats working over the fruit, making small chewing noises, smacking their lips. She rattles the branch to shake them loose. She fails. They have come to stay.
The girl and the boy were sloshing through the leaves. Holding hands. The boy found a stick and let go of the girl’s hand. He stirred the leaves.
“Why do you trust them? The trees.” The boy broke the stick by prying it against his thumbs. He tossed the broken stick away.
The girl walked with her arms out for balance. The leaves were up to her shins. “I trust the trees as I trust the ground always to be there. Like now.”
“But you do not walk like someone who trusts the ground.” The boy took the girl’s arms and turned her body toward him. She felt small in his hands. “You’re afraid to slip.”
“But I do trust the trees! They are very familiar. I know every step.”
“Because you’re careful. If you have never fallen, you have risked nothing.”
“I do too take risks.” The girl leaned back, tugged his hands, testing the boy’s grip. The boy swung the girl in a circle, like dancing, around and around. The girl was thinking, If he lets go, I will crash in the brittle leaves…
No more songs fill the orchard, just creeping shadows and yellow light. The girl bends over the well, splashes water, washes dust from her skin. She is worried about the bats. She hears their snapping wings above her. She looks up. Their wobbly flight, the way the bats stumble among the branches, makes her dizzy and sick, and she cups water, buries her mouth in her hands.
She hears a low, grinding motor, crunching gravel, a truck’s horn. Louder. A dust cloud rises above the orchard. Nearer. The girl runs from the well, scampers up the nearest tree. She leaves the spigot on, and a puddle of dark iron water spreads across the ground. The fruit-company truck with the shiny chrome mouth splashes and hisses and roars through the puddle. A dragon.
The boy clasped the girl’s waist and hoisted her into the tree. She could have done it herself, but she liked the feel of this. Dangling from the branch, she watched the boy drag himself back to his flats of fruit. The sunlight, long-shadowed, almost gone, cut sharp golden shafts. Lingering on her skin: the sensation of his hands on her waist. Her hands rubbing his shoulders. Her mouth on his.
She lay in her tree and listened as the boy loaded his flats into a truck. He was singing a song she did not know, words she couldn't form in her mouth. The truck moved down the row of trees. More flats thudded into the back. The boy’s song grew fainter.
The girl dreamed she was lying next to the boy on a flat. He was strong as a tree. She gripped his wrist. The boy and girl were old, yellow dust on their skin, swirled designs on the boy’s hands. They shared a fruit. The fruit juice stuck to their fingers. The boy and the girl shared another. They studied the girl’s fingerprints on the skin of the fruit, and the soft bruise from the fall. They bit into it, and it tasted like nutmeg.
The fruit-company truck lumbers away, weighted with flats of golden fruit. The hum of tires and motor fades, and the dust drifts over the trees. Long-angled rays of sun. In the girl’s cup, just five notes of scrip for just fifty pounds. Tonight she will have to work late. She will sleep fitfully as the hard wood rubs her spine.
She climbs high in her tree, and she cranes to see where the truck has gone, but the edges of the orchard fade into orange and purple sky. She straddles the branch, dangles her legs. Five crisp notes. Dry leaves. She folds one of the flightless paper birds she knows by rote. Scrip stamped with the company seal, folded into a hummingbird, which she blows from the edge of her palm into the darkening sky.
The girl climbs through the trees quickly, quietly, limbs bending from her weight, then springing back, snapping bats loose from their dangling perches. A dozen times, she shimmies to the end of a branch to discover a fruit half-eaten by a bat and turning brown. Now the orchard is so dark that the girl climbs by touch, and it is only by the ache in her muscles that she knows when she’s picked a hundred kilos. She stretches her body on a long limb. The press of bark on her skin.
The canopy of leaves is her calm sea. Dust settles, mist on water. Gaps between the branches offer broken views of the sky. It has been so long since she has seen the moon, the stars, the night sky not stained with dust. She decides to climb higher into the darkness for a better view. She reaches up, swings to a limb she has trusted a thousand times. The limb snaps, and the girl plunges sudden, like a stone.
She will remember everything: her cry of betrayal, a clatter of branches, small twigs snapping, the silence of a freefall, and a dull thump in the dry leaves. The girl smacks the hardness awaiting her. She has never fallen, never felt that sort of pain. She yelps like a little dog, she crumples in a ball. Bits of crushed leaves stick to her back. Tears draw yellow streaks down her dusty face. A mist that smells like flowers drifts through the trees. The girl watches the branches above her, twisting into the mist, losing themselves.
She ran through the orchard, tripping and stumbling. She called the boy’ name fifty times, listened for a reply, heard none. She touched her hands to her waist where he'd held her. She touched her fingers to her lips where he'd kissed her. It was only her own skin.
She trudged flat-footed through the leaves. In the tin cup hanging from her tree, she found a letter she could not read, and a hundred notes of scrip. The notes used to be birds, but now they were smooth and flat. Creases, furls, hints of wings and beaks and breasts, had all been neatly smoothed away.
The day dawns soggy, weighted with dew. The girl awakens wet and alone, crumpled on the sticks and leaves that her body dragged down during the fall. Cotton dress sticks to wet skin. Branches shake loose their dew, shower the girl all over again. The girl’s eyes are sticky with tears. She clenches them closed.
The girl lies beneath the swaying trees, feels adrift. Her leg is swollen and hot, and she is afraid to move. She watches the bats devouring sweet golden fruit in the branches. They grip the fruit with their legs, wrap the fruit in their bony wings, and chew. She hears the far-away songs of the other girls, panicked and shrill as they try to shake away the bats. The girl calls to them, but they do not respond. She closes her eyes. Sunlight on her skin. She feels dizzy and she dreams of something to hold.
Slow, grinding motor, crushed gravel, dust cloud. Red truck squeaking to a stop. The girl sees a boy kneeling beside her, feels him lifting her arms and shoulders, and she leans into his chest. He smells like tobacco. This is not her boy. The girl squirms and writhes when the boy slides his arm under her legs. She is a jumble of sticks that yelps and cries. But she fits his arms easily, and he carries her to the truck and lays her on the bed, her limbs folded in pain. He jumps onto the tailgate beside her and signals the driver by smacking the side of the truck with his brown smooth palm.
The truck moves through the orchard, and the boy loads up the bed, roughly shoving the heavy flats of bruised fruit past the girl. She lies on the boards, squeezed between flats that clatter and squeak and press her into a boxy space. The truck whirs and whines, stirs dust, bounces and bumps painfully. The girl tries to catch sleep in the noisy truck, but it's like trying to drink water from a cup with holes.
A sudden smoothness rivets her awake. Above the wooden flats, a gap of golden sky. Branches slap at the truck as it gains speed, and then the branches are gone. Rays of dying sunlight seep among the flats. She sees the first stars that risk shining in an evening sky.
The girl, whose habit has been to hold something safe in her sleep, grips the boy’s wrist. She feels the boy’s free hand untying her cap and letting down her hair. Her hair is long and black and silky, and it wants to flow away. She rests her head on her arm, and she watches sideways as the boy touches her face. His fingers smell like tobacco. Behind him, a wake of dust and swirling leaves as they leave the orchards behind. A breeze across the side of her face. The canopy of yellow leaves gives way to dark and solid blue.
The boy takes out a cigarette. He extends the pack to the girl, but she frowns and burrows her face under her arm.
“Where does this truck go?”
“To the city. The markets. Where do you think, silly girl?”
“Take me back.”
“There is a clinic for you.”
The city? All she can picture are yellow trees. She begins to cry. Blue swirls on beautiful hands. Hummingbirds. Tin cup. Yellow trees. Yellow trees. Yellow trees.
The boy sucks on his cigarette and laughs. A blue cloud spews from his mouth. “I don’t know why you’re so sad. You’re getting out of here. Everybody wants out of here.”
No! She lets go of the boy’s wrist, makes a little fist, and slams it weakly against the bed of the truck. She will forever pick fruit, forever stay young, sing songs, dream about boys, climb trees, she will forever forever.