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"Cherry Tree Carol" by Paul Luikart

The man and woman hiked a yellow trace, barely a road, through the countryside, bound for another town. He walked in front of her. She was pregnant and whenever some passerby in a rattle-trap pickup truck—for they were not entirely unavoidable—stopped and offered a ride, he would answer for them both. “Mind your business, friend,” or “If we wanted to ride, ain’t you think we’d be riding by now?”

They climbed a long hill and the dust from the road coated their mouths and mixed with their saliva and made a paste in their throats and every several steps, they spat globs into the tall grass on the road’s shoulder.

At the top of the hill, they came to a cherry orchard. The boughs of the trees hung laden with ripe fruit and spearheads of leaves guarded the cherries and the shade fell through the leaves and onto the ground so that each tree seemed to wear a skirt of shadow.

“I’m tired,” she said.

“It ain’t been but an hour since we last stopped,” he said.

“Still,” she said, “Just for a couple minutes?”

He looked up the road and looked back at the woman. He sat his hands on his boney hips and, finally, jerked his head toward the cherry trees.

“Not long. We got a ways to go.”

“I know it,” she said.

He followed her through the grass shoulder and down into the ditch but she could hardly climb the bank on the other side, up and into the orchard, and he had to shove her up the last few steps. In the orchard, she put her back to the nearest trunk and slid slowly down until she was seated. Her clothes were all tight and sweat dripped from her hairline.

“What if it comes now?” she said.

“Then it comes.” He stood over her and scanned the orchard. There was a farmhouse far away, where the fields changed abruptly and uniformly into sparse, hardwood forest.

“See anything?” she said.

“Acres of nothing,” he said, “Same as what all we seen everyday since we started this goddamn little journey.”

“Cherries look good,” she said.

He looked away.

“Get me some cherries?”

He didn’t say anything, but stood there, staring at the distant farmhouse.

“Would you bring me some cherries?”

He turned on his heel and his eyes burned. “Whyn’t your baby’s pa pick you some cherries? I don’t see him. Maybe he’s coming with some gunny sacks and got held up. What do you figure?”

She folded her hands on her swollen stomach and stared at a place on the ground where the shade ceded to a patch of sunlight. But a second later, she jumped like she’d been stung by a wasp. She scrambled halfway to her feet and lost her balance and plopped down again against the tree.

“What? What?” he said.

“A kick. I felt it all the way up my neck.”

“A kick.”

“The baby.”

“That hard?”

“Sometimes. It’s so big now.”

The sky was blue, and uniformly so, and the day had been hot and utterly still. But a wind—a wind and not a breeze—blew through the cherry orchard, bending all the branches and flipping all the leaves at once so their sea green underbellies flickered and the patter of cherries raining on the hard ground was like the sudden roll of tom-toms. And then it stopped. The day was still and quiet again. She gathered a handful of cherries from where she sat and ate them one at a time and while she ate, she looked at him. His eyes were wide, but they no longer flashed. Was he gasping for air?

“What’s wrong?” she said.

“You done that, someways.”

“Done what?”

“The wind.”

“The wind don’t obey me,” she said from her spot on the ground.

The baby came later that week, in a rooming house run by an old man. The old man brought hot towels and water and made coffee, and after she’d labored and given birth, he scissored apart a set of sheets from another room in which nobody was staying and warmed the strips by the stove and gave them to her so that the baby, a boy, would be warm.

When she and the baby were asleep, the man crept out to the porch and rolled a cigarette, put it to his lips and eyed the road that wound past the rooming house like a black vein. He had no matches. But the old man, watching, followed him out. He produced a match and struck it against one of the bowed wooden columns that held up the porch roof. He held it out to the man and the man drew on the cigarette and the smoke drifted away.

“What’ll you call him?” the old man asked.

“Got any ideas?” the man said, “I’m fresh out.”

“I haven’t named a baby in years and years.”

They stood side by side, looking out.

“You were fixing to run just now, weren’t you?” the old man said.

The man flicked the butt end of the cigarette into the yard. “That boy ain’t mine and I ain’t no kind of father anyway.” Water sprang into his eyes and he flashed it away with the back of his wrist.

“Come inside. There’s coffee. We’ll sit up and talk awhile,” the old man said, and his face shone like moonlight.

Paul Luikart is the author of the short story collections Animal Heart (Hyperborea Publishing, 2016), Brief Instructions (Ghostbird Press, 2017), Metropolia (Ghostbird Press, 2021) and The Museum of Heartache (Pski’s Porch Publishing, 2021.) He serves as an adjunct professor of fiction writing at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Georgia. He and his family live in Chattanooga, Tennessee.


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