The Lemon Tree

On my father’s grounds, the gardens are lush and fragrant, vibrant with a green that rivals the clear green of bottle-glass. The rose beds go on for acres, with the vineyards rolling beyond. The finest piece of horticulture, however, is the lemon tree. It sits on a little hill beside the house, close to the road, and when the tree blooms, the air smells powerful and sweet for miles.

When the archduke rode by with his hunting party one spring and admired it, my father was pleased. But when the archduke requested that tree be given to him as a token of allegiance, my father turned him away. I was very young. Of that first meeting, I remember the shocking grandness of the archduke’s hat, and little else.

He rode off and left us there, and in my mind, that was the entire story; the man asks for the tree, and is told he cannot have it.

The archduke, however, was not so easily got rid of. He returned in a week’s time, proposing to dig the tree up from its roots and to cart it back to his villa to be planted in his own garden.

My father balked at this, informing him that no man would remove the tree from the property without a good deal of difficulty from him, and what’s more, if the tree were dug up and carried away, roots exposed to the salt air, there would be no dispute at all anymore, for the tree would die. And the archduke went away displeased, but not daunted. He believed my father would come round in the end. He believed my father to a be a reasonable man.

We spent four years in peace, ignorant of the dire strokes that would befall us. The archduke attempted to remove lemon trees from other acreages although no tree was as fine as ours, and cultivate them on his property as a way of testing my father’s assertion, but always, trees as old and large as ours would sicken and fail when they were dug from the earth and carted away up the coast, and the archduke was forced to adopt a new strategy.

He proposed that the tree should stay on my father’s vineyard, but belong to him in branch and leaf and name. When my father refused, perhaps the only person very much surprised was the archduke.

In a fit of rage, he began to seize our land, bit by bit, chipping away at the allotment from the edges. He took the raised beds of roses, with their red and white blossoms. He took the vineyards. He would not take the lone plot with the tree and the house, though. He only wanted the satisfaction of having it given to him, offered as a token of esteem. He had found a hard adversary in my father, though, and my father had no intention of faltering.

When the archduke demanded the life of my oldest sister as penalty for refusing to part with the tree, none of us believed that my father would continue to pursue a course of such madness. Some things in life are meaner and more cruel than a charitable mind can fathom. They may only be learned one way.

When the archduke demanded the head of my eldest sister, my father stood stoic in the dooryard. My second sister and I clung together weeping.

It was over quickly, a moment that will live in my mind when all other moments have become lost to age or sickness.

We buried my sister at the foot of the lemon tree, and the following spring, the tree bloomed lovelier and more fragrant even than in past springs.

This time, the archduke rode through demanded the hand of my second sister. My father refused. As wife, my sister’s inheritance would become her husband’s rightful property when my father died, and he would not suffer the tree to fall into the archduke’s possession by any means, however honorable. His pride cost my second sister her head.

Now, my two sisters lie at a slant to one another, here at the foot of the lemon tree. It is April, and the night is dark and still. I sit between the mounds. Tomorrow, the archduke will ride up to the gate and see that the lemon tree is fuller and greener and more beautiful than it has ever been, and my father will relinquish me to the blade. After that, I do not know what will become of the tree, for I am the youngest. There is nothing left to give.

I have one form of recourse and that is the ax. The tree is old, as is my father, and this grave insanity has lasted quite long enough.

There is no sterling purpose for a lemon tree, however beautiful, and I will make short work of this business before morning.

12 thoughts on “The Lemon Tree

  1. I saw the graves as being two sides of a triangle around the tree, very powerful images spring from your words.

    There is an old song about a lemon tree that is now stuck in my head…:)


  2. I love that last line there…. especially the “short work of this buisness before morning.” So brisk and honest.
    Great example of a fairy-tale girl getting to decide her own fate for once, instead of sitting arond waiting. Very nice.

  3. GAH.

    This ended way too soon!

    And it made me sick to my stomach. That doesn’t happen often. (in a good way, as in, the story really hitting home.)

  4. There is an old song about a lemon tree that is now stuck in my head…:)

    Ooh, interesting . . . I’ll have to go look that up (I’m such a sucker for folk and traditional songs)

  5. Thanks–I started thinking about the classic fairytale pattern after we were working with Snow White last week.

    You’re right, all the girls are so prone to sitting around. Well, except some of the Russian ones–they often wind up killing something–but in general, there’s just no drive to go out and find an ax, and I’m in full support of more stories with axes.

    Will Holt- Boulder Music Corp.-BMI

    When I was just a lad of ten, my father said to me,
    “Come here and take a lesson from the lovely lemon tree.”
    “Don’t put your faith in love, my boy”, my father said to me,
    “I fear you’ll find that love is like the lovely lemon tree.”

    Lemon tree very pretty and the lemon flower is sweet
    but the fruit of the poor lemon is impossible to eat.
    Lemon tree very pretty and the lemon flower is sweet
    but the fruit of the poor lemon is impossible to eat.

    One day beneath the lemon tree, my love and I did lie
    A girl so sweet that when she smiled the stars rose in the sky.
    We passed that summer lost in love beneath the lemon tree
    the music of her laughter hid my father’s words from me:

    Lemon tree very pretty and the lemon flower is sweet
    but the fruit of the poor lemon is impossible to eat.
    Lemon tree very pretty and the lemon flower is sweet
    but the fruit of the poor lemon is impossible to eat.

    One day she left without a word. She took away the sun.
    And in the dark she left behind, I knew what she had done.
    She’d left me for another, it’s a common tale but true.
    A sadder man but wiser now I sing these words to you:

    Lemon tree very pretty and the lemon flower is sweet
    but the fruit of the poor lemon is impossible to eat.
    Lemon tree very pretty and the lemon flower is sweet
    but the fruit of the poor lemon is impossible to eat.

  7. This ended way too soon!

    Were I to do it over, I’d be inclined to spend some time on a magical element–maybe with the bodies or something, just to add to sickness of it all (?). After all, fathers in fairytales totally suck.

  8. It was one of the favorites of our family when I was a kid. I never understood the story until my first love 🙂


  9. Ooh, ooh, once again… very nice! And by nice, I mean chilling. I love the mc’s attitude at the last.

    Kind of makes me think of “Girl Without Hands,” which is uber-uber-disturbing. And dying for a re-telling.

  10. My father makes a lot of money and we have everything we need, except our father. My mother is beautiful, but she is treated no better than my father’s ferrari. A powerful man is trying to take over my father’s company. My sister graduated with honours, my father wasn’t there, she’s now a drug addict. My other sister fell pregnant, my father was overseas, but he paid for the abortion. My sister’s cry all the time. My father makes a lot of money. I will not be like my sisters. I don’t need my father. I don’t need his money.


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