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.