Under the Lekumi Tree
Volume XXIII | 2023 Lacroute Prize Finalist
C. F. Bellairs
The tree grew on a hill of its own, a crown of red-gold leaves draped across its clutching boughs. Lia didn't know it would destroy everything before long, so she loved it anyway.
She and Cole treated the lekumi tree as a safe haven. Under its canopy, rain might slip through, but tears would find no purchase. The pair of siblings would spend their mornings grasping at the rock-hard skin of hanging lekumis and their evenings kicking the fallen, rotten fruits down the hill. Sometimes they sat with their backs to the barbed bark, talking about what their mother might make – pie or tarts, muffins or donuts... not a possibility was forgotten. Then when the topic of sugar-laden lekumis was explored to the fullest, they'd find one or two more fruity prizes to add to the heap in their basket, and make the short trip home.
That was most days.
The morning sky was still bleeding from pink to white. Lia and Cole arrived, lugging an empty wicker basket between them. The whispered song of the forest rustled around them, the lekumi hill lone on all sides save murmuring grass. The tree's red leaves were wounds on the skin of the heavens, scarlet blotches and scabs trembling in the wind.
"The tree!" Cole said in awe.
"What?" Lia sighed.
"It's talking," Cole explained, too confidently.
"That's the wind."
Cole shook his head as if she just couldn't understand. Lia rolled her eyes before adjusting their basket, eyeing the largest cluster of lekumis she'd try to knock free. "Will you whisper with the tree all day, or are you going to help?"
Still looking about as if enchanted, Cole stumbled a few steps to retrieve a fallen lekumi. Its unyielding skin was brighter than a lime, the sweet-scented flesh hidden away underneath. Lia looked at the clean green skin of the one he'd picked up, lost altogether for a moment. She'd so often seen her mother take a knife to them, seen the grinning blade bite through stone skin, the grain of her Ma's cutting board drinking up the sweet pinkish-yellow juices. She could remember how the flesh would split with but one keen gash, recall the unrepentant slam of the exposed lekumi pit against the kitchen counter. The fruit smelled all the sweeter when freshly flayed.
Lia shook her head to clear the intrusive memories. Reality was no less a distraction; the creeping odor of lekumi rot had found her nostrils during her reverie. Still sweet, but sickly so, the smell was cloying, thick, and everywhere. It was a foul, unwelcome mirror to the sweet taste of her Ma's morning flapjacks still clinging to her tongue.
"Don't pick that up," Lia said after he already had.
"The dead ones are bad luck," she fibbed. She had no other way to explain the sudden pit in her stomach at the sight of the defiled fruit.
"You pick up the dead ones all the time."
"Put it down!"
Cole squeezed the lekumi as his lip trembled, sickly-sweet rot dribbling free of his grip. "Fine." It fell from his hand with a half-hearted thud.
Lia wasted no time grappling the familiar handholds hidden among the folds and barbs of the bark. "You're a baby," she informed him.
If Cole had a retort, it was forgotten in the face of his undying awe at Lia's climbing. The sturdy trunk hardly trembled at her clambering; it was four hugs around and its roots wound meanderingly and deeply, their grasp on the rocky undersoil firm... humorless. Feeling its eternal immobility as she climbed was part a challenge and part intoxicating. Sometimes Lia found herself trying to shake the trunk as she climbed it, every miniscule rustle and creak a small victory against mighty odds.
But this was no such day; the morning was too crisp, the air too biting. Lia knew their mother was waiting, patient and warm, so she yielded to the tree for once, climbing as quickly and uneventfully as she could manage. Her limbs were a blur. The dullness of her chore found a semblance of luster.
"Lia!" Cole looked even smaller from her perch, his eyes somehow wider.
"What?" She failed to blunt the edge of impatience in her tone.
Cole trembled a moment, as if he hadn't thought so far ahead. "You'll fall." His voice quavered.
She rolled her eyes again. "Have you ever seen me fall?"
"But you think I will now." She wasn't looking at him, instead prying at the nearest, roundest lekumi.
"Just be careful!" He whined up at her.
Lia didn't answer, letting her newest prize fall to the large basket below before browsing around for another. She could tell the season was waning; the clusters of fruit were growing few and far between, rather than the obscene, unusable horde that invariably arrived with the spring. The skins were also tougher than usual, made rigid by chilld despite how overripe many were. It lent her confidence enough to claw at them, but it also meant her hand grew colder and more numb with each lekumi she pried from a branch.
As if privy to her most mundane thoughts, Cole shouted, "These are cold!"
"So don't touch them." Lia sighed.
"I didn't mean it was bad," he grumbled.
Her grip on the bark tightened. "What are you telling me for?"
"Ma says we have to look out for each other."
Lia frowned, holding her tongue.
But Cole wasn't finished. "She says I have to be your shadow and you have to be mine, because family-,"
"She's really talking to me, Cole." Lia snapped, remembering the second part of that speech reserved all for her. "I have to look out for you – because you're a baby."
"You're a baby, so you need me shadowing you." Lia shrugged; she was just being honest. "So don't worry about me. I know the lekumis are cold."
She was treated to a moment of silence in the boughs of red-gold leaves surrounding her. It was almost peaceful. Then it was ruined.
"Well you're mean." Cole said, hurt.
Lia scoffed, tugging at a particularly stubborn lekumi. "Mean, huh?"
"Yes!" Cole yelled; she could hear how red his face was. "You're mean!"
"Go tell mom then." Lia pretended to examine a lekumi closely.
"I don't want to!" His big sister knew the unspoken end of the sentence: or you'll get in trouble. Her heart fluttered appreciatively, but why did he have to be so annoying? Cole sniffed. "But you're always so mean!"
"I'm not always mean," Lia sighed.
"Stop it. Now you really sound like a baby." Lia said, distracted by a lekumi barely out of reach.
Cole grumbled angrily – Lia could've sworn she heard, "...you fall."
She rolled her eyes and carefullycrawled along the trunk, inching closer to the shiny lekumi. "What was that?"
"Nothing." Cole pouted, sitting next to the lekumi basket with a soft thud.
Lia shook her head. "You can wish for me to fall, but you'll regret it when it happens."
"Maybe if you fell you'd be nicer!"
"Or maybe I'd fall on you. Give us all reason to rejoice..." She was practically speaking through her lips by the end.
"What is rejoice?" Cole grumbled as if he already knew.
"Nothing. Just drop it, okay?" Lia groaned, tired from her climb and the bickering alike. "If you be quiet, I'll be nice."
Cole was mercifully silent for a few moments. "If you be nice, I'll be quiet!"
"It's a deal, so shut up!" Lia had finally reached the lekumi she'd inched around the trunk for, and he was still talking. How?
"That's not nice," Cole snapped.
"And that's not quiet," she muttered, hand already around the cold, hard skin of the lekumi. It was gripping the branch much tighter than the others had been. She tested a harder grip on this one – it held. It was the firmest lekumi yet... and she could guess Ma might use it for something special. The whole cluster must've been underripe.
"You first!" She heard the tears in his voice, and she knew she should stop, but so should he.
"Cole! Shut up!" Her cheeks were burning, but she wasn't sure whether it was from anger or embarrassment at stooping to his level. The lekumi was still hanging on tight; the tree's leaves rustled as she tugged on the firm fruit over and over.
"You always tell me to shut up!" Cole yelled up from below her perch. He got to his feet, movements sluggish from anger. "I hate it when you do that! I hate when you're mean!"
Lia could've hung from the lekumi, it was holding on so stubbornly. She ignored Cole, face red from exertion as she wiggled the fruit around violently. "Just... come on..." she muttered.
When Cole spoke again, it was in a soft, defeated voice. His anger had evaporated. "I hate it when you're like this."
Lia barely heard him; she heard wooden clicking and cracking as the branch holding her prize hostage whined at her tugging. It was nearly free. The hand gripping her to the side of the trunk trembled, finally losing its strength. With a quiet crack, the lekumi came freely into her grasp. The crown of the tree shook and groaned as it settled into place, red-and-yellow leaves raining onto the hilltop below. Lia chuckled, lekumi cradled in her hand, almost breathless from the effort. Then she saw the lekumi next to hers slip loose of the tree.
She moved to catch it, too quickly – her foot slipped. Her hand shot out to grab a sturdy limb. The tree shook, limb snapped, child fell. Her hand was still gripping the freed branch – a cruel joke pressed into her fingers as empty air caught her descent. She landed on her side after piroetting frantically on the wind.
Curled tight with agony constricting her arm, Lia started groaning, coughing her pain onto the verdant grass. Then she heard Cole's groaning – and it was as if she'd never fallen. All the discomfort fled her wracked form and she lifted her neck to look at her brother. She only saw blood trickling down his temple, a reddened lekumi in his loose grip, the boy blinking at the fruit as if in confusion. She wanted to rip it away from him, out of sight, as if it'd change anything.
"Cole!" She forced herself onto her belly and crawled closer.
"Lia..." he said, sounding so far away.
"It's okay," she grabbed at him, took the lekumi, placed her hand on his cheek... every move as much an attempt to help as it was impotent. "You're okay."
"Ow..." Cole's mouth twisted with a sudden sob, as faded and confused as the rest of him. He watched Lia drop the bloodied lekumi into the grass, prodding at the slight dent seeping red atop his head.
"I'll get mom." Lia panicked.
"I'm tired, Lia..." Cole grumbled, hand falling limp at his side, his eyes fluttering.
"No you're not," she ordered. "Come on. We're taking you to mom."
She clambered to her feet, swearing under her breath from her own aches – but that didn't matter. Cole whined half-heartedly when she hooked her hands under his arms and hefted him to an unsteady stance. Her own grip was a trembling mess, but she had to move. For him, she had to try. She didn't remove her hand from his shoulder, using herself as a ballast as the pair of siblings abandoned their basket of lekumis to take the hill two bounds at a time. Cole slipped, and she caught him. Lia slipped, and she caught herself. If she wanted him to stay safe, that was how it had to be... and she'd never felt more guilty for resenting as much.
"I'm sorry, Lia." Cole sniffed, leaning into her harder. She felt warmth from his head soaking through her shirt onto her belly. "I ruined it."
"Shut up, you didn't ruin anything. Okay?" She blinked back tears; she couldn't let him see. She had to see. "You're fine, Cole. We're fine."
She felt him going limp, saw his feet dragging more and more. "Hey!"
He seemed to snap to attention momentarily. "Lia?"
Lia swore again. She looked down into his nest of hair, saw the blood oozing where her prize lekumi had landed. Without a thought to the flaring protest from her bruised body, she bent down and scooped Cole into her arms. Then she was bounding down the hill, screaming for her mother, crying for help as her forced calm finally shattered. Her mother called back, confused. Cole twitched in her arms, eyes working and failing to stay open.
Atop the hill, the tree swayed in the wind's caress. A score of unharvested lekumis hid in the sea of leaves red as blood. A basket half-full of the sweet fruits lay abandoned, intricate wicker splattered with sticky messes of old, sugary juices lurking in its seams. A lekumi wet with innocent blood lurked among unspoilt green grass. The tree's shadow tilted and danced with the wind, waving off the pair of children and their hasty retreat. It was what it was: innocent, uncaring. In a way, that made Lia hate it more.