Vasant 2019, Short Stories -Michael Boyd


The Lemon Tree
By Michael Boyd


The lemon tree at the back of the garden never produced any fruit. Maya heard from her aunt’s friend’s sister that Epson salts always did the trick, even making the lemons grow bigger. So she tried. Three times. The final time, she dug a moat around the base of the tree, sprinkled the salts evenly throughout and filled the earth on top of it. She looked up at the tree. Bright green leaves stirring in the easterly wind, speckles of the blue sky peeking through the branches. She thought about her father, Ben-Piet.


Ben-Piet had planted this tree in the year he had bought the house, which was the year before he had adopted Maya. He had also installed the bench beneath it, when the tree grew tall enough to give shade. It was the only tree in the tiny back garden, which mainly consisted of concrete slabs, dead pot plants and an old fountain that no longer functioned. The heat of the country didn’t allow for flourishing, tropical gardens and most residents grew aloes in pot plants which they placed in sparse displays around the small city yards. Evening was the only time that the area could be used, when the people would sit in burnt, uncomfortable wire furniture that was rusty and often broken from the relentless sun and thick pollution. Ben-Piet would do the same every evening after work.


With a gin and tonic in hand, he would lead the baby Maya outside to sit beside the lemon tree – over which he had constructed a rough cardboard canopy to protect it from the sun – and tell her stories of growing up in the country. As Maya grew, so did the lemon tree. When she was eight years old, Ben-Piet constructed a slightly lop-sided bench which he placed under the tree and where their evening sessions now took place. At that time, the tree was abundant with shining yellow lemons, bright against the dirty sky, and Maya loved every moment spent under it.


Ben-Piet always loved a tree with a purpose, he would say. Not only would it give him shade when he grew older, but it would supply him with boundless lemons to put into his gin and tonics.


Together the three – Ben-Piet, Maya and the lemon tree – grew old. Ben-Piet started to get grey hairs around his temples, Maya’s slim figure filled out and the lemon tree grew bushy and tall, stretching far beyond the walls and into the neighbours’ gardens. Its shade, in the dusty evening light, would seem to hug the old man, as if protecting him, as he had once protected the tree, from the sun. When Maya went out into the world, leaving Ben-Piet alone, he would spend his evenings talking to the lemon tree. The cheeky neighbourhood children who would climb on each other’s shoulders to pull the beautiful lemons from the over-hanging branches could hear the gentle rattle of his old voice, describing to the lemon tree his journey to the city and of his love for Maya, because he had not been lucky enough to find a wife during the tired and occupied pathways of his life. They sniggered in a strange way in the quiet approaching night, loud enough to hear each other, but so that he could not hear. Somewhere deep inside, they loved his love for a lemon tree in a lonely world.


It was under the lemon tree that Ben-Piet was found one morning. He was lying sideways on the bench, his gin and tonic smashed on the ground. The woman who saw him from an apartment block which over-looked the yard was struck by the immense yellow surrounding his frail body. The lemon tree had shed its fruit overnight. Not one lemon remained in the tree, as if it had cried for the death for a friend as old as life itself. And from that moment, not another lemon grew. Not when Maya returned with a husband to live in her childhood home. Not even when she had children who sat inside on hot evenings, watching TV and playing games on their phones. Not even when Maya applied Epson salts to its base three times.


One particular evening, the city seemed to tilt and shift in its seat. No-one knows what happened, but some say that it was the movement of the plates of the earth’s crust. Men screamed and women clung delicately to their children as the electricity was cut and darkness fell across the great expanse. A silence filled the space they used to know. Maya thought it was the end of the world. Her husband was not at home, so she led her children into the garden, which still seemed to be simmering after the long, hot day. She was worried the building would collapse. The stars gradually appeared from the great hole in which they had been hiding for so many years and dramatically threw themselves like a glittering queen across her recliner of the night sky. It was such a spectacle that the little family was for a moment held bound by the sight. The stars twinkled in stunning awe, smiling down at all the people who congregated in their gardens and finally looked up.


Maya sat under the lemon tree with her children, whose phones had no internet with which to connect, and told them stories of Ben-Piet. She dug into her memory and reminded herself of the vastness of a life. The love one receives and attains. The endurance and resilience one learns from being alone. The loss one has to suffer. The strength one has to cultivate. All so fleeting, all so lost in each day she lived now. And in every story, her voice broke and rattled because she missed him and because she was growing old.


The lemon tree sung a soft lullaby in the gentle breeze.


Suddenly light filled the world once more. Someone had pushed a button somewhere. The end of the world was no longer nigh and all tomorrows flowed back into the city’s hearts. Before Maya could say another word, her children were gone into the bright haze of the house. Maya sat for a moment and then looked up one last time. The stars, without a goodbye, were gone. Lost in the murky swirl of light bouncing off dark. The lemon tree stood in its own stony silence within the gathering noise.


The following night Maya wandered outside alone. She sat on the lop-sided bench and felt the stillness of the empty garden. A breathing space in the world. She listened to the leaves rustle above her. She looked up and quietly spoke to her father. Maya found herself telling him all about her life. Something about it soothed her busy mind. The next night she did the same. It became an evening routine. Her family always knew they could find her outside; the quiet hum of her voice weaving melodiously within the whisper of the leaves of the tree.


Not long after, as Maya sat beneath the tree, she noticed a spot against the dark sky. A bright, shining star that had remained, smiling down at her. She stood and walked closer. She stretched onto tip-toes, reaching up into the sky. She felt a coarse, waxy skin against her finger tips. She pulled lightly, and the fruit slipped easily into her hand as it had when she was a child. She smiled and held it to her nose; the bitter-sweet smell of the past filled her entire body. She stood for a moment and then she walked inside to make a gin and tonic with the lemon. It must have been the Epson salts, she told herself.



Michael Boyd from UK grew up in various countries around Southern Africa, and now stays in South Africa. He graduated with a BA in Film Studies from Kent, in the UK, before settling in Cambridge. However, he did not envision himself becoming the next Steven Spielberg, but rather in the review and writing of films, working at various film festivals, including Telluride, Sundance and Film Africa. He was a founding member of Take One, the official review publication for the Cambridge Film Festival, at which he worked for seven years. Michael returned to Africa in 2013 – earning his PGCE at the University of the Witwatersrand, and working as an English teacher in Johannesburg.


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