Cherry Picking

Quarts 1 & 2

The kids rush out with me to help, the three-year-old mumble-chanting, “Just dark red ones, just dark red ones,” as she plucks all fruits within her reach—red, pink, yellow.  I get the high ones, but the dwarf tree’s highs hover scarcely a foot above my head, like crown jewels.

“Pull gently,” I say. “Stop if they resist; they’ll be readier next time.”  The blue enameled colander fills quickly, the five-year-old carrying it inside—steady, steady.  

I wash, hand-pit.  “We don’t spray the tree with bug-killer,” I say, showing the kids what a cherry looks like with a tiny worm inside, browning himself a burrow around the pit.  

I gradually fill a freezer bowl and a bright layer in an 8″ square baking pan.  My face, apron, sink all splattered fuchsia.  I add a cup of sugar to the baking pan, two sliced peaches, dashes of cardamom and ginger, top it all with brown-sugar-butter-oatmeal streusel, bake, neon–red bubbles burbling the edges.  The heat filling the summer-warm kitchen smells sweet, like luscious palms blanketing my eyes “guess who?”

Quarts 3-8

The three-year old comes out for a few minutes.  I hold the bigger, stainless steel colander, and the stepladder.  There are more fully-ripe cherries on the highest branches than I had thought—easier to see from the ladder than when straining, reaching upward, sunblinded by June sky.  I have to find them all.  Harvest them all into my home, our bellies.  It is my responsibility, as steward of the tree, to fulfill the fruits’ innate aspirations of pie and cobbler.

I wash and pit, my nailbeds stained maroon, fingertips pruned and tender.  Two freezer bowls.  A wide, ceramic mixing bowl with sugar, a packet of pectin, a heap of cherries, stir, stir, into jars for jam that refuses to set.  Everything emptied into a saucepan with more sugar for a quick, thick, gooey boil which does the trick.

Quarts 9-12

Small tree, why are you so productive?  Is it because I trimmed your low-hanging branches last fall?  I had simply wanted sunlight for the lilies and salvia below you.  The kids beg to go to the pool.  “Tomorrow,” I say.  “This morning is cherries.  It’ll all be over soon.”  Then the green-only tree will rest itself from its mothering, satisfied my freezer is stocked enough with red-stained Tupperware.

I pick, feeling a miniscule inchworm tickling his humpings across my wrist, watching a small grey spider curve around an unripe fruit, trying not to imagine what might be in my hair.  Sun flashes my eyes between rustled, leafy branches, and I think how lucky I am, in my concrete-and-Chemlawn suburb, to have something juicy between my fingertips.

Sighing, I pit and pit, the kitchen sink and counter like a crime scene, thinking what more can I create?  I scoop a half-cup each of cherries and sugar into a small glass bowl, stir.  I pit some more. Stir the bowl again, until the red juices have dissolved the sugar.  Then a half-cup of bourbon, stir, stash in the back of the fridge.  Some July evening the drunken cherries might enliven a lemonade. Or maybe I’ll muddle some in a rocks glass with an orange slice, top with whiskey, ice, a splash of ginger ale.  Or, I’ve been meaning to make crepes—maybe filled with freshly-whipped cream and the cherries tucked brightly boozy inside.  Cherry jam inside for kids.  

I drift to sleep at night with dreams of sour red, of barmaids’ tongues tying knots in stems, of valentine chocolate cordials, a cherry-scented doll from my childhood—red bonnet, flushed cheeks.  The tree, in the morning, still polka-dotted with red booty.

Quarts 13-?

My Craigslist advertisement (“Free Sour Cherries! You Pick!”) garners three quick responses.   A stranger and her son reach arms into my tree, smiling, filling a plastic tub. A man with two children arrives the next day. A woman in a kerchief fills a small basket.  They will splatter their own sinks with fruits which I miss already.  They will fill jars and pie plates, their salivary glands puckering with June sun and thunderstorms.  My tree and I breathe easily now, lightened.