It was the eighties, and everything was neon and ugly. Baba won the peach tree at the World Fair in Knoxville, the same day he met Mama. She came from the North, all the way from New York City. She smoked and drank, but Baba said she had the Walk of Life, which meant a stride that swayed with rhythm—hips smooth, arms loose. Three years later, I was born. Meimei followed in a year and a half. We lived in an old trailer by the woods. A field sprawled across the horizon, and if I looked out the living room window, I could see the peach tree.
Baba loved the peach tree, but not more than God. He was a preacher. He carried himself as if the righteous judgement of God balanced on his shoulders. Every day, he woke at dawn to pray. He spent his time studying the Bible and preparing his sermons. On Sundays, people gathered to hear him in an abandoned supermarket in town.
Mama cared for the elderly at a senior center. All the ladies in town envied her eyes. Her hair, the darkest hour of night, was short when she married my father. When she left, it was long, like the wings of a hawk.
The times Baba and Mama were still happy, they often led me and Meimei into the woods. The first time, it was May. We were young, only eleven and nine. I wanted to remember everything. The roots braiding across the ground. The mushrooms gleaming in the underbrush. And the trees, their branches smoothing into arms. With their thick trunks, they stood like guardians.
“Where are we going?” I asked Baba. He held my hand in a cave of calluses. “To a lake,” he said. Baba could never hide anything from me. I had Mama’s face. I swatted the hum near my ear. “Are we there yet?”
“Almost,” he said.
The lake gathered at the bottom of a small waterfall. Sunlight splintered the water into glittering beads. With Meimei next to me, we peered into the lake, and it seemed to swallow us whole. She gasped.
Hundreds of pink and purple lilies unfolded tiny, bright suns. Rocks lining the edge bloomed green with algae. Shoals of small fish curved and straightened. In the shallows, trout and bass lingered. In the depths, catfish lay, flicking their whiskers. Breathless, I reached out, and the fish scattered in a burst of color.
When we looked up, Mama had made a fish trap. Baba cleared a space in the grass for a fire, and he disappeared to find wood. While we waited for the fish to gather, the three of us played a game. It was a hiding and chasing game. No matter where I hid or how much I ran, Mama always caught me in her arms, laughing, bringing me to her chest.
At night, fireflies flickered in and out. An owl perched on a nearby branch, its yellow eyes glinting in the dark. As we cooked the fish, I watched the fire strip the shine off of their scales lick by lick, the way they struggled to the very end, their gills pink and tinged with blood. They tasted fatty and silver. Mama said that was how you knew they weren’t the same captive fish at the supermarket.
Our bellies warm, Baba told us stories. I sat in Mama’s lap, listening, Meimei’s head in the crook of my shoulder. Some were from the Bible that I heard over and over again: Noah’s ark. David’s rule. Samson’s downfall. But Baba also told stories of ghosts and demons and witches because before Baba wanted to be a preacher, he wanted to be a writer, and I thanked God for giving Baba a mind full of light.
August came in a storm of heat. The sermon was over, and I was alone, sitting in a chair in the corner, kicking my legs up and down. This corner was my secret weapon. I could see everyone and everything going on. The boys wrestling behind the piano. Baba talking to Ms. Kempton, a recently-widowed lady. Meimei playing a board game with another girl.
Sister Jenna, our neighbor down the street, sat next to Mama. A string of pearls hung from the woman’s neck, an heirloom she often bragged about. Newlywed Sister Patricia followed, smoothing the underside of her new dress with her dove-white gloves. Mama would scoff at them in private. She only had two dresses for church, though her clothes used to be more expensive than theirs back in the city.
The women spoke in hushed voices. Sister . . . The Lord sayeth . . . . Mama nodded, but she wouldn’t look at them. She kept her eyes fixed on Meimei, her smile growing thinner and thinner. The acts of the flesh . . . Know ye not that ye are the temple of God . . . Therefore glorify God in your body . . . . The boys had stopped wrestling. Baba waved goodbye to Mrs. Kempton, heading towards Meimei. Sister Patricia giggled at something Sister Jenna said.
Suddenly, Mama was striding toward me, her face tight and pale. I had never seen her like this. I couldn’t move. Her nails dug into my shoulder.
“Get up,” she said, and by some miracle, I did. She pushed me out the door. On the ride back home, Baba tried talking to Mama, but she wouldn’t look at him. She wouldn’t answer him. She just stared out the window to a blurring green, her jaw tight. Eventually, Baba gave up. The air hung over our heads, thick and hot. The car hummed, and I squirmed in my seat. I counted the red-bellied robins. Three. Four. Five. No. I wished the radio was on.
Baba finally veered onto the grass and under the shade of the ripe peach tree, but the silence followed us out the car and up the steps, into the trailer. Baba hurried the two of us into our room. Mama took off her bruised shoes and threw them onto the floor. Pins pulled, her hair fell past her shoulders like a breath of darkness. Meimei and I peeked from behind the doorway. “I hate those women,” she said.
Baba reached for her.
“Don’t touch me,” she hissed, twisting out of his grasp. His arm dropped to his side.
“I will speak to Sister Jenna and Sister Patricia again,” Baba finally said. “You know I pray for them.”
Mama looked away. “They haven’t changed. They’ll never change.”
“They care about you,” he said. “They worry about your health.”
“They don’t,” she said, fumbling through her purse. “They judge me. They whisper behind me. They tell me all the things I’m doing wrong.”
“Don’t you think their words have some truth?” he asked.
Mama turned to him, her eyes blazing. “You don’t know how it feels,” she said, “interrogated, peeled apart, dissected like an insect under a microscope!” I flinched at her voice.
“You must forgive them,” he said. He was a sad man, and the folds of skin on his forehead knit together.
Mama took out a lighter from her purse and stuck a cigarette between her lips. Baba watched her. She lit the tip, her gaze never breaking. A thin line of smoke rose. Baba sighed. She turned, and he went after her in half-plea, half-prayer. Her name echoed through the hallways. Diana, Diana, please, Diana.
At dinner, she drank from the bottles she loved and became calm. This happened the next night, and the night after that. The more she drank, the more she missed communion and the sermons. A Sunday here, a Sunday there. Then every other Sunday. But Baba never said anything because he loved her too much.
During this time, Mama’s bottles began appearing everywhere: under the couch cushions, in the dark corner of the closet, tucked away behind the glass-green olive oil. Some nights, I’d tiptoe into the kitchen for a cup of water, and I’d find her slumped on the table, a bottle in her hand. I never told anyone, not even Baba. I feared the answer more than the unknown.
One October, I woke up and realized that Mama had stopped going to church completely. It was time to go to the peach tree and make a wish.
The peach tree curled over a bit, like a hunchback. Bluebirds and goldfinches found rest on its branches. I tried hugging it once, but I could not wrap my arms around its truck. To make a wish, I had to pick a bug off its trunk. One bug for each wish. I flicked away a fat blue beetle and a few ants because I clumped all my wishes over the months together. I closed my eyes and folded my hands, the way everyone at church did.
“Please bring Mama back to church,” I said. “Please take her bottles away. Please make her happy again.”
I wished for Baba’s hair to stop balding and a good friend at school. And, because the easiest way for someone to like you was to give lots of compliments, I said, “You’re a handsome, young tree. Your bark is smooth, and your peaches are sweet!”
“Do you think they’ll come true?” Meimei’s voice came from behind. She stared me, her eyes wide.
“I don’t know,” I said. I looked at the tree, looming over me. “But it’s listening.”
“I don’t want Mama to leave,” Meimei suddenly said, her lip trembling. I thought she was talking about church.
“She won’t,” I said, and pointed to the edge of the field. “Look. I’ll race you.” She broke into a smile, worries forgotten like a thread pulling loose.
We ran, and a wildness tore through us. We scared sparrows and trampled grass. We laughed at the earth, unafraid. We ran and claimed every inch of it.
Winter passed. In April, pink buds on the peach tree swelled and unfurled. As leaves grew in, flowers scattered to the ground. We waited for peaches the color of sunsets. When I caught a few leaves turning brown, I didn’t think of anything.
Weeks passed. More leaves browned and yellowed and speckled, shriveling up like dead butterfly cocoons.
Baba circled the tree. He knew every root burrowing into the ground, every ring in its trunk. He picked up leaves, turning them over. He examined the bark for holes and traced the long indents with his finger. He peeled back the top layer, revealing a lighter-colored inside.
“Spider mites,” he said. “Tiny, red insects infested the tree.” He showed us a leaf with a web-like structure, the result of their doing.
“Can you save it?” I asked.
Baba rubbed his face, as if trying to smooth out the wrinkles. “I don’t know,” he said. “It’s very weak.”
“Please,” Meimei said, her voice small.
Baba patted her head. “I’ll try.”
Meimei didn’t believe him.
“I promise,” he added.
He glanced at Mama, leaning against the wall, her arms crossed. She didn’t drink as much, but she still smoked. They no longer fought. Their relationship seemed to dissolve into something quieter. Sometimes, I couldn’t catch if there was anything there at all.
“Give your father some time to think,” she said, and led us away from him.
A week later, Baba took the ax from the shed. Meimei screamed and flew towards him. “No, no, no!” She beat her fists at his stomach. “You can’t cut it down! You can’t!”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t want—”
“You said you’d try,” she said, her face streaked with tears. “You promised!” She grabbed the ax.
“Sweetheart, I need that,” Baba said, but she wouldn’t let it go.
Mama kneeled on the grass and placed her hands on Meimei’s shoulders. “Baby, look at me.”
“I don’t want to see the tree die,” Meimei cried. “I don’t want it to die.”
“The tree is dying already,” Mama said. “It’s dying because it’s hurting. Do you want the tree to keep on hurting?”
Meimei shook her head. “No.”
“That’s why your father wants to cut down the tree. So it won’t hurt anymore,” Mama said. “You need to be a big girl for the tree.”
“We’ll get a new peach tree,” Baba said.
“Everything will be okay,” I told her. Meimei sniffled and looked at me. I nodded. This time, when Baba moved to get the ax, she let him pry open her fingers and take it. From the window, Baba seemed small against the tree. He raised his arms, and Meimei buried her face into my shoulder. The first time, the force made a flock of starlings fly away. Eventually, the sound dulled into an ache. It endured like a pulse beneath our feet. At the final strike, a noise ripped through the air. Bark stretched, crackling, Baba’s face tight with grief as the tree fell to the ground.
That night, when the coyotes howled, I did not fall asleep. A glow slipped under the door, and I followed it into the kitchen. There, I found Mama holding a suitcase in one hand and a candle in the other.
“Where are you going?” I asked. She turned around. The light caught her face, and the skin below her eyes glistened. She set the candle down on the table.
“Sit,” she said. I climbed into the chair next to her. She lit a cigarette. The tip glowed amber, a firefly’s belly. She raised it to her lips. Breathed in, breathed out. The candle trembled. “Love,” she said, “is conditional. I loved your father. Now I no longer do.” She looked at me. “Baby, I love you. But I love you because I have to. And one day, you’ll have to love someone like I do.”
She took me into her arms, and I clung to her. She smelled like smoke and salt, the sea. Her lips brushed my forehead. I closed my eyes. When I opened them, she was gone. In bed, I listened to my Meimei’s heartbeat, thrumming inches away from mine. Mama’s words branded my throat and my belly and my hands like a secret, a promise. I pulled the covers over myself and turned away from my sister.