The Forgetting Tree
Excerpt ~ Prologue
He was a respectable and loyal man, Octavio Mejia, the father of six children, and he had been late to leave that day, treating an infestation of whitefly on the newly planted Valencia trees. It was a Friday evening, his daughter’s quinceañera, and he hurried the stick shift into reverse and stepped hard on the gas with his heavy, rubber-soled workboot even as the car bounced over a small mound under the lemon tree where he had parked for shade.
Forster and Claire had insisted he go on with the family celebration even though they would not attend. But he also was in mourning for the missing boy. Did they not see? Octavio had worked hard his whole life and mainly had a mountain of bills to show for it. The quinceañera had cost his whole paycheck for two months, Forster chipping in a hefty bonus, and even then, his wife, Sofia, and his teenaged girls were not quite satisfied that it would out-shine the neighbors’ recent parties.
It was late, the week so merciless it was one only the devil could be responsible for it. He, Octavio, the only one cleared to do basic maintenance on the ranch to keep things alive. The police had finally allowed the irrigation stations to be turned on again, the rusting wheels screeching in protest, the hollow thunder of water tumbling down dusty tunnels after two weeks lying dry during record heat. Lizards, believing they had found homes in new cool caves, now dropped and rolled through the deluge of water like judgment, either saved out the end of a pipe or drowned against the wall of a sprinkler head, stunned by the sudden, unfathomable change to their world. As slowly as the police covered the land, it would take them a year to pore over all 580 acres. The immediate perimeter of fifty acres around the house and sheds yielded nothing. The ranch turned a parched, closed face to them. Water meant that the fruit would be saved, the harvest sold, and the bills paid, but it also meant that whatever marks might be left from that night would now be washed away forever.
No, he did not notice the mound, the freshly turned earth, thinking only of gophers, eternal bane of farmers, as he prepared to drive home. But he stopped the pickup truck a few yards away, the engine idling, and tried to recall something that buzzed, teased, at the edge of his memory. He snatched an orange on the dashboard, wedged against the windshield to keep it from rolling back and forth or dropping to the floor to be crushed beneath his boots. It was impossible to tell if the lack of water during the hot weather had done damage. Orange trees died from the inside out, the hurt not visible until long after the crime.
Absentmindedly, not hungry in the least, he peeled the orange, gnawing at the spongy pith beneath the rind before dropping the peel outside his window. The taste was bitter. He had worked the ranch his whole life, eaten its fruit, breathed its air, sheltered under its shade, worn its dirt like a second skin. He was as much a product of the land as the fruit, and yet it had turned strange against him. The roundness of an orange. He remembered what was nagging him. The night of Claire’s birthday an odd thing had happened—a small silver globe went missing. But what did that have to do with anything later? The sorry sight of Claire, found when she did not want to be found, weighed heavily on his tongue. That it had been his pickup driving up the driveway. Easier if it had been a stranger. Try as he might, he did not think that they could pretend, go backward in time to the friendship they had had these many years. The bond they had formed over the land. It was as if the boy had vanished into thin air. As if the land were cooperating in letting him hide.
The sun was in Octavio’s eyes, and he had to shield his face to look up at the towering tree as he ate the wedges of succulent fruit. He was in the oldest section of the ranch, where the ancient lake grew smaller each year because of drought. He seldom came as far, the unmaintained roads making the passage slow and rough, but one of his newly enforced duties each night would be to padlock the back gate leading to the lake. He had forgotten the night before, rushing home for a final dance instruction.
During fires, the lake was used to fill fire trucks, or, more recently, water-bomber planes. Before that week, kids from the high school would sneak down there to talk or drink, and the Baumsargs had turned a blind eye to their goings-on. In his time, even Octavio had made the pilgrimage with Sofia when they were courting. The Baumsargs’ lake had been a rite of passage for the young people who grew up in the area. Another thing that would now end.
The neglected lemon tree had grown to a monstrous height, almost even to the pitch of a barn roof, and the unpicked fruit had grown obscene—globular, swollen lemons the shape of footballs, hydrocephalic tennis balls or further deformed into bizarre shapes resembling gourds or small, ghoulish animals. Unlike the prim, tended rows of Valencias, Washington navels, and newly planted Eurekas, this was original rootstock left to its own devices. His grandfather had brought the original seeds to the ranch, named the tree Agua Tibia. Octavio thought of it as the patriarch of the orchard, its vigor too crude for the more delicate, cultivated, grafted generations. A section of fruit caught in his throat, and he coughed till it went down.
Much past its prime, the tree was woody, its fruit inedible. Its only purpose now shade. No one tended it. The fruit fell to the ground, rotting and enriching the soil till a fecund, gentle hill rolled away from the trunk. Around it formed a scrabbled, lush gar- den straight out of the Bible, composed of overgrown coyote bush, Russian thistle, goldenbush, sagebrush and curly dock, needlegrass and wild morning glory and Indian paintbrush. Stray seed of California poppy and nasturtiums. Horseweed grew so wild and untamed that the cottontail rabbits ran in and out unafraid of human contact, while quail worried their way back and forth across the seed-strewn path. One glimpsed near-sightings of roadrunners, coyotes, red-tailed hawks, all lusting after such abundance.
The tree reminded Octavio of the Mexico of his father’s time, reminded him even of the California of his own youth, the way it would never be again. Cutting it down would be like cutting off an arm, sundering oneself from one’s history. A way of life disappearing, and now this. A stray trail of juice trickled down his chin, and he roughly wiped all evidence away. He was late. The gate could wait one more night. He was heartbroken. He must pull himself together.
The boy’s disappearance made him sick. Everyone had always commented that he was wild over Joshua, spoiled him, defended his misdeeds, and the boy loved him back like an uncle. He had taught the boy to drive in that very pickup, its floor usually littered with his chocolate-bar wrappers and comics. But did that necessarily make him above suspicion? The ground itself had turned poisonous, had swallowed him up, and wouldn’t show Octavio where he had gone.
The low sun poured bands of dusty gold down the dirt alleyways of trees. The farm had been worked by his grandfather, his father, and now Octavio, and in the important ways that mattered, the ways that had nothing to do with money or paper titles, he felt it belonged to him, or he to it. Something devastating had been done to them all, but he could only probe the extent of the damage like a toothache.