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Leave the Stone
by Robert Lowell Russell

Momma always told us our father died a hero in a place called Goliad. When I was older, Momma told me the rest, sending Jess and Sam out to play before she spoke. My sisters pestered me after, wanting me to share the secret.

I told them — trying my best to smile — "When you're older."

I was five when Daddy died, about the same age he was when he planted the peach tree on his family's land. The tree had lived for thirty years now, me fourteen, Jessica and Samantha nine. The tree's bark was worn, some of its branches torn and twisted by the wind, others with green leaves sprinkled here and there, like wisps of hair on an old man's head.

The tree bore fruit each year — barely. Hadn't been more than a couple dozen peaches last year. Still, Momma wouldn't begrudge a peach to those who'd come for a taste. But she'd ask, "Leave the stone, please." Momma said it was important to extend the proper courtesies — whether folks deserved it or not.

Every sapling Momma sprouted from the stones of the old tree stayed sickly and small before dying altogether. Undeterred, Momma would plant trees on a different part of the farm, looking for the right sort of soil, sometimes moving saplings two or three times.

While peach trees wouldn't grow — except the one — everything else did just fine, and we had plenty of coin for what we couldn't farm ourselves — Momma coming from a moneyed family. We could have lived extravagantly, but Momma said it was more important to live well.

Still, she bought us books and baubles from town, and said she'd hire hands for the farm when my sisters and I were grown.

The Panaderos owned the farm next to ours and sold pies and cakes in town. They kept to themselves for the most part, but I knew Mr.Panadero from sight.

I was surprised to see him and his family crossing our fields one day. They took care where they stepped, making sure we could see them coming. When they came near the house, I could see they were dressed well. The father might have been a bit older than Momma, the mother a bit younger. A young boy toddled behind them, holding hands with an older girl in a green dress.

Momma said, "Francis . . . were you intending to greet our guests?"

I snapped my mouth shut and shook my head, trying clear my thoughts of long, dark hair, big, black eyes, and the sweetest smile I'd ever seen.

I extended my hand to the father. "Hola. Mi nombre es Francis Reynolds."

Mr. Panadero took my hand with a firm grip. "I'm Eduardo Panadero. This is my wife Katrina, my daughter, Rosario, and my son, Tomás." His English was accented, but he spoke well. "We've brought your family a gift."

Mrs. Panadero took a cloth off a pie she held in her hands. My mouth watered at the sight of cherries peeking from the golden crust.

I said, "It smells wonderful. These are my sisters, Samantha and Jessica." They attempted to curtsy, like they'd read. "And this is my mother, Elizabeth Reynolds."

"Mrs. Robert Reynolds," Momma corrected from the porch.

The boy pulled away from Rosario and jumped, trying to reach a peach in the tree. I fidgeted my hands, looking from Mr. Panadero, then to his wife. I blushed when I glanced at Rosario. She blushed right back.

Momma said, "Francis . . . ?"

"Oh . . . of course! Help yourselves to a peach."

The girls scrambled from the porch to help Tomás reach the fruit. The boy put the huge peach to his face, trying to take a bite, but couldn't manage more than a nibble.

Mr. Panadero laughed, took a knife from his waist, and started to cut slices for his son.

I expected Momma to ask that they leave the pit, but she went inside the house instead. She returned to the porch, and I froze when she clicked the hammers back on my father's pistols.

Momma said, "You will drop that peach." Her voice was cold, like when she told me to cut a switch.

Mr. Panadero went pale. "We thought . . . . Our son did not understand. I'll pay for the fruit." He held the peach before him.

My ears screamed from the blast, and the peach flew from his hand. The pie fell, smashing to the ground, smearing the soil red.

Momma stalked forward, aiming the second pistol. Tomás and my sisters started to cry, Rosario huddled with her mother.

Momma said, in the same cold voice, "Let me see that knife."

Mr. Panadero's hand shook as he extended the blade.

Momma took the knife and nodded. "Mexican Army. Hard to part with good steel. Get on your knees."

Mr. Panadero wobbled to the ground. "Please . . . I was a cook."

Momma put the pistol to his head. "Do you know what your people did to the men at Goliad?"

Mr. Panadero crossed himself. "I was not there. I swear it."

Momma stood very still. At last, she reached to take a peach from the tree, then handed it to Mr. Panadero. She said, "I'm keeping the knife, but a blade should only be bought or bartered, never gifted. Now get off my land."

As we watched the Panaderos disappear from our fields, Sam said, "Momma, I didn't know you could shoot."

"No point in keeping tools you don't know how to use."

Momma forbade us to see the Panaderos — which of course meant we'd try to see them as often as possible.

* * *

Rosario and I leaned on a cottonwood tree that bridged our farms, watching as Sam and Jess stuffed wild flowers into Tomás's shirt until he looked like a scarecrow. My sisters giggled as the boy spun in place, trying to smell the flowers.

Rosario said, "I'm sorry about your father."

"Nah, I'm sorry about my mother."

Rosario smiled, glancing at me, then looking away again. I walked my fingers across the bark of the cottonwood until I brushed her hand. I took a breath, then took her hand. I stood there, heart thudding away, palms sweating, thinking this was the best day of my entire life.

* * *

Rosa and I saw each other as often as we dared, but Momma caught on pretty quick. One windy day, Tomás and the twins were off flying his new kite. Tomás had gotten the kite stuck in the cottonwood, but even before he could start bawling, Rosa had scrambled up the tree to get it. I'd brushed the leaves and twigs from her hair, then Rosa and I sat on the grass holding hands, looking for faces in the clouds.

When a darkness came over us, I heard Momma say — in the voice — "You will stay away from my son, you Mexican whore."

I leapt to my feet, as angry as I'd ever been. "Goddamn it, Momma! You know that's not right!"

Momma slapped my face as Rosa ran home in tears.

"You will not use that language with me, Francis Jackson Reynolds!"

I stood my ground, refusing to touch my reddening cheek. "And, Momma, you will write that girl a letter of apology for what you said, because you know that wasn't right."

Momma made me cut a switch, but she wrote that letter.

* * *

The girls and I worked out how we could see the Panaderos when Momma was in town, making sure one of us kept watch for her return. Momma kept her relations with the Panaderos polite, if not friendly.

At least once a month, we'd receive an invitation from the Panaderos to come to a Sunday dinner, and the twins received a birthday invitation from Tomás that was stuffed with wildflowers.

Each time, Momma would get out her ink, smooth out some paper and write in a careful hand:

_We regret that we will be unable to attend. Sincerely,_

_Mrs. Robert Reynolds._

I wanted to invite Rosa to my fifteenth, but had to settle for a gaggle of my sisters' friends. They held a tea party in my honor.

The girls in attendance spent most of their time giggling, whispering, and making eyes. I drank tea, sitting next to a doll, while I glumly chewed the soggy cake Momma had made.

I snuck out that night, meeting Rosa under the cottonwood in the light of the moon. She gave me a package wrapped with a bit of yellow cloth, then stretched up and gave me a peck on the cheek before running home. I stood in the moonlight grinning, sure the glow from my face could be seen for miles.

Rosa's gift was an old pamphlet on grafting trees. Momma stared at it when I showed it to her, then just said we'd give it a try, saving me the lie of how I'd come by the pamphlet.

* * *

There'd always been talk of annexation, so we didn't pay much mind to all the chatter, but a couple of weeks after Christmas, Momma returned from town to tell us that we were Americans.

Jess asked, "What does that mean?"

Momma looked at me. Something crossed her face. She said, "It means that there will be a war, most likely."

There were six saplings that spring — grown from the old tree's stones. As usual, they didn't thrive. Momma's one attempt at grafting had ended with a deep cut on her hand and a string of words I hadn't realized she'd known.

Rosa's Quinceañera was coming up, and I pleaded with Momma to let me go, just this once. She took out the ink and paper. We regret . . . .

Still, I wanted to tell Rosa in person that I wasn't coming. Jess and Sam sent word through Tomás, and the twins said they'd tend the hogs and chickens while I met Rosa at the tree. As I headed across the fields, cottonwood puffs floated in the air, dancing in the breeze. I didn't see Rosa waiting for me, but we had some time before Momma returned.

A puff flew into my face, and I blinked, wiping it from my eyes, then Rosa stepped from behind the tree. She wore a light pink dress and had a white ribbon around her throat. Her hair was up.

She said, "I wanted to show you . . .  since you won't be able to come. How do I look?"

A thousand words ran through my head, but I couldn't string enough together to say anything — "beautiful" wouldn't do. Rosa stood waiting, smiling, the anticipation clear on her face. As I stood, speechless, her expression changed: first to confusion, then to worry.

"Francis, what's wrong? Say something."

"You . . . you don't look like a girl."

Hurt washed across her face. "You don't like it?" Her hurt changed to anger. She repeated, "You don't like it."

I went to her and held her. I said, "No . . . that's not what I meant at all."

* * *

There was frost on the grass the day of Rosa's celebration. Momma had got me up before dawn to help put blankets around the roots of the saplings. My breath clouded before me when I asked Momma if I could go into town.

The threat of a spring freeze and rumors of war had filled the town with more faces than I'd ever seen. Young, hard-looking men carried guns and knives, farmers carried supplies and worry.

Momma bought bales of burlap and lengths of rope. I bought a silver locket. Momma had given us money for our work on the farm — not much, but enough so we'd learn to plan and save. She'd told us we could spend it how we wished. She wanted to say something when she saw the locket, but she held her tongue.

Back home, I cut poles for Momma to tie together while the twins gathered pine needles and green branches. We used the burlap to make something like an Indian teepee, placing one over each sapling. As dusk fell, we lit small, smoky fires under each teepee and lit more fires around the old tree, hoping to protect its growing fruit from the cold.

We took turns minding the flames. I could hear music coming from the direction of Rosa's home. I had the locket in my pocket, and I'd told Rosa I'd try to meet her by the tree that night.

When Momma and the twins were abed, I saw to the fires — making sure they didn't burn too hot or too fast — before setting off across the fields. Clouds moved swiftly across the moon's face, forcing me to slow at times to find my way through the dark. I held the locket in my hand, careful not to drop it, admiring the way the moon glinted on the metal.

I heard a muffled noise as I approached the tree.

"Rosa?"

A shadow loomed, and I was slammed to the ground. Dazed, it took me a moment to realize the cold on my neck was a blade. A man hissed into my ear, "Sorry, boy. You weren't invited."

I heard fabric rip. The moon came from behind the clouds. Another man was on top of Rosa, pushing her legs apart with his knees. He held his hand over her mouth.

Her eyes were wide with fear. The locket I'd brought lay in the grass near my hand, its chain twisted. I struggled until I felt the knife cut into my neck.

The man holding me said, "Get on with it, Mason!"

More fabric ripped, and Rosa thrashed as the moon went behind the clouds, then Momma said from the darkness, "Let my boy up."

She'd followed me!

The knife at my neck pulled away.

The man holding me asked, "Who's there?"

Momma said again — in her cold voice — "Let my son up. Now."

I scrambled to my feet. I could hear the men moving and Rosa sobbing.

Hammers clicked back on pistols.

The man who'd held me said, "We weren't going to hurt your boy, ma'am. Y'all are free to go."

The other man said, "We're just going to spend a little more time with the señorita . . . . You know how they are."

Tears sparkled on Momma's cheek as a shaft of light came from the clouds. The pistols gleamed in her hands.

* * *

Momma was always digging up her saplings, moving them around, trying to find a place where they'd grow. We moved two that night, shoveling in the darkness. Later, those two would thrive. Likely it was the moonlight.

My sisters and I must have made a strange sight, wearing our Sunday best, holding the peach pie Momma had baked, as we crossed the Panadero's fields — Momma had sent her regrets.

It was the most god-awful looking pie I'd ever seen. It tasted worse.

We'd eat every bite.

The End


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