I envied the pomegranate tree that shaded the damp hammock rope, envied it because it stole the attention of my mother. My father would often remark that she treated that tree as if it were her firstborn, and I would, through a gritted smile, mutter that if that were the case I surely would have received better treatment.
For the most part, the summer of 1957 passed unremarkably. Although I had many chances to sneak out of Hatten Manor, our three-story Nantucket summer home only three miles from the gray sand of Dionis beach, I despondently spent hours tucked away in my room, gazing at the stretch of sand and listening to the whisper of lapping waves, occasionally interrupted by my mother’s humming as she sprinkled water onto the roots of the pomegranate tree. When I would yell from above that I could hear her, she’d shout back, “Oh, Maureen, mind your business! Read a book!” This advice was useless given that I had already reread the Chronicles of Narnia and Nancy Drew novels twice and wasn’t riveted enough to give it another go. The view eventually soured after two monotonous weeks of silence, and it seemed my summer would become just as dreary as life at home.
That is, until I spotted the brown boy in the woods.
His name was Tobias Stuart Brown. He was from the Bronx, a borough from which I only knew from the papers wailing HOMELESS RATES SKYROCKET and FACTORY RIOT ENDS IN BLOODSHED. Tobias would scold me for my ignorance when I would mention this, saying “They say anything to make people buy. I know newsies—they live worse than me.” He sheepishly rubbed the back of his neck, his coarse coils drenched in rainwater. We had been walking across the beach when it began to pour, and we ran hand-in-hand to the nearest gas station and waited for the pounding patter to cease. “But nothing’s been the same since that Moses guy kicked us out and bulldozed the place.” His parents were planning to move to Canada and were staying with a wealthy aunt for the summer to prepare for the move. “Hopefully we’re not given the bottom-of-the-barrel like we do here,” he sighed. I didn’t know what to say. As a sheltered, naive, scrawny fifteen-year-old, I could hardly relate to his predicament, but I knew how hopeless it felt to be up against something seemingly indomitable.
I had no friends in Nantucket, and wasn’t sure if I would ever make any until I met Tobias. Nantucket was scarcely populated at the time, the nearest police station several miles from the stretching shoreline Hatten Manor oversaw. Tobias lived the third house over, in a slightly smaller yet far more grandiose villa with a swimming pool and outdoor barbeque. Once, I was trekking through the woods behind the Manor, not aware that I had trespassed the border of the house adjacent, when I noticed him patiently waiting for a white rabbit to pause and nibble on clover before pressing the trigger on his .44 caliber shotgun. The rustle of my foot crunching dried leaves alerted the rabbit to our presence, and it scurried off. Tobias looked at me. “I could’ve got ‘im, if it weren’t for you.”
I was surprised at his heedful behavior towards me; I was used to unwarranted and often excessive amounts of respect from strangers due to my upbringing, so much so that it was difficult for me to have a real conversation without “Pardon’s” or “my lady’s”.
“Oh,” was all I could reply, smitten by his off-the-cuff behavior. As we continued our hunt for “tonight’s dinner”, I asked him of his heritage, bemused that he could be staying in one of the wealthiest summer estates on the Pacific Coast. Tobias explained that his great-granduncle was Lewis Latimer, “the guy who made the lightbulb actually work!” After he died, he allotted Tobias’ aunt his savings and future earnings off of his contributions. “It’ll set her for life,” he grinned, pleased as he plucked a pebble and threw it across the forest, listening for the echoing thud to cascade through the placid wind.
Tobias took me to a creek through which saltwater trickled through jagged rocks, ultimately pooling in a bank before being dispensed into the gray tides. He lay his palm into the water and scanned the murky stream, searching for wriggling tadpoles. “If you’re quiet enough,” he whispered, “something’ll wiggle into your hand and not suspect a thing.”
“What’s the use, though?” I asked. “Catching something if you’re going to let it go in the end? There’s no point.”
Tobias chuckled under his breath. “It’s the fun of it all, I guess.” He decided not to speak further on the issue and continued his task, inviting me with his glance to join him. We did this for an hour before breaking for lunch. Tobias brought me back to his aunt’s house for sandwiches. I remember his aunt having a welcoming smile with harsh wrinkles curving around her eyes and along her temples. “Hello, baby,” she greeted me as if I were her own kin, and offered me a glass of water. We all sat down on the patio that faced the beach and shared stories as we cracked open fresh oysters, and I was hearing things completely unfamiliar to me, stunned that I had never witnessed brawls over a seat in a crowded bus or chased rats out of my apartment. I followed the conversation uselessly, opening and shutting my mouth like a fish gasping for water, feeling as though I had nothing to contribute due to my limited experience.
Before I knew it, night had fallen and Tobias offered to walk me home. We took the long route through the woods, and with flushed cheeks and lowered gaze, I muttered, “This has got to be one of the best days of my life.”
Tobias gazed at me as if he were in a trance.“You’re very pretty, ya-know.”
My heart pulsed heavily as I met his gaze. And before I could brace myself, he gingerly took my hand and kissed it softly without hesitation.
Baffled delight cascaded through my chest and cheeks, and I shared a brief smile with Tobias, and as we walked back to my house his hand was clasped around mine. We stopped at the pomegranate tree to say our goodbyes. “See you tomorrow,” I said. He grinned and walked away, looking over his shoulder every-so-often.
I sighed and rocked myself in the hammock, gazing at the ripe mauve fruit dangling from green stems. I heard commotion from inside the house but chose to ignore it, too engrossed in thoughts of Tobias to pay it any mind.
“Maureen!” I heard my mother call. Before I had a chance to reply, she stormed onto the lawn and grabbed my arm.
“Who was the boy? I trust you to go off by yourself because I believe you’re grown…you’re fifteen, for God’s sake! And you go off with some boy! I told you explicitly to not talk to strangers, and of course you disobey me! Who was the negro boy?! I want names! For Christ’s sake, I’m calling the police I swear to God—you insolent little—I knew those neighbors were bound to start trouble…why, if I knew I would’ve…you’re lucky I’m not telling your father!”
Stunned from her outburst, I mutely followed her lead as she dragged me to my room. “Mom, stop!” I wailed as she threw me onto the bed. “I…I just met him, okay! I just want to have fun on vacation, that’s all! It wasn’t anything, I promise!”
“If I see you out of this house again,” she hissed, glaring at my blotchy red cheeks lathered in tears, “I will take everything dear from you. And you know me…you know I always live up to my word.”
My mother was high-strung and shrill and gravely serious when it came to promises. She was engaged to my father for four years before they got married because she didn’t believe in his fidelity. So it was only a matter of time before she took my chess board, my diary, my silver-haired doll Ophelia, my paints and canvases, and anything else I held dear. I was left with nothing to entertain myself but the echo of blue waves brushing against the shoreline.
That is why I despised that pomegranate tree: the one source of pleasure my mother secured from Hatten Manor aside from torturing me. The tree was in pristine condition, constantly being trimmed or watered or fertilized, its fruit perfectly ripe—heaven was tasted at the first bite as juice dripped down your chin, and the pink flesh softened, its cerise skin digging into the crevices of your teeth. How fair was it that my mother was allowed to enjoy life’s indulgences, yet I was imprisoned for wanting the same? The more I saw her delight in her yardwork, the more I loathed her, and this loathing drove me to madness as each day slipped by.
On one summer night in late June, my father announced that he would take my mother out on the town for their wedding anniversary. “Oh, Charles, that’s wonderful!” gushed my mother as my father escorted her to the car. They went to to the fanciest restaurant in Nantucket and afterwards sipped champagne on the beach.
It was only seven when they left, and I suspected that Tobias would still be awake either having supper or foraging around the neighboring grounds. I scampered into the forest and followed the creek until I found the spot where we sat the day before but not a trace of him could be found. I ventured towards his aunt’s estate and boldly knocked on the door.
“Tobias!” I hollered, rapping on the door a second time. The mahogany door swung open, and Tobias, confounded at my sudden appearance, asked what I was going on about so late in the evening.
“I need you to help me,” I said, clasping his hand and leading him through the woods.
“Why didn’t you come ever back to the creek like you promised?” he asked.
“Because of my stupid, arrogant, idiot mother,” I groused in reply. “Listen, I don’t have time to explain everything. I just need you to help me.”
I could see doubt in the furrow of Tobias’ brow, but he nevertheless aided me in hacking away at my mother’s precious pomegranate tree. He winced every time a branch fell off, the rustling of the leaves and the squished fruit ached our hearts as if we were in mourning.
“Leave it as it is,” I said, brushing Tobias’s clenched fist that wielded the axe I had gotten from the shed with my fingertips. He dropped the weapon and held my gaze until I whispered “Go!” in a hurried fashion, as if they were going to be back any minute (when in fact they weren’t due to return for nearly two hours), and he turned and walked away hunched over and disconcerted.
That left me with enough time to ponder my grave error laying in the backyard. The sun set slower than usual, shadows dripping over shards of trunk like syrup. I even mustered enough courage to take a second look at the tree and inspect its fruit; nothing was salvageable, most of the pomegranates were punctured with its flesh spilling out or deeply purpled.
My mother was predictably distraught at the sight of what she most held dear destroyed. What truly broke me was how she tried to lie to my father about how her passion project was demolished. “These winds can be horrendous around the shore,” she said with a tight jaw. “And the tree…he was too young.” She ascended from the patio to the house and went into the kitchen and brought out the wine, and in a languorous trod returned to the windowsill to listen to the June crickets play for the funeral procession.
Our vacation was cut short in the end, my mother feigning ill and refusing to see anyone else but her doctor at home. Of course I missed Tobias, but what truly alarmed me was lack of luster in my mother’s eyes. Perhaps her bliss varied with the seasons, but her and I both knew that the roots of that tree burrowed into her lungs, were watered by her tears, and shone on by her heart. She would never be the same, nor would I: our first loves remained in Nantucket, forever a memory baked in sizzling June’s rays.
Post written by Abigail Abraham