The Cutting of Lemons

This is a story spelled out in the tendrils of vines across narrow passages, and in the cracks across ancient plaster…

The night the Pilgrim Woman told this tale, the salted dark boomed with foghorns. Folk came to listen, their thick coats felted grey with dew. The landlord’s fur collar sagged with the weight of it.

He shook his hat clear of wet in front of the fire.

‘Come,  let us have a tale from a warmer place than this. I need cheering.’

The Pilgrim Woman raised an eyebrow at his demands. She sat on the staircase and arranged her bold, embroidered skirts.

‘This story comes from south of here – where lemons grow fat and yellow. But whether it will cheer you, I cannot say.’

She licked her finger and drew the outline of a woman on the plaster beside her. Her eyes never left the shape as she told it this tale:

You go to the market early before the heat has crowded into the alleys, before the tourists and their cameras clatter, before the dew and the smell of earth has left the produce brought inside the walls. You chose the best fruit, talk and tease, haggle for a deal with a smile that moves the headscarf pinned to your thinning hair.

They all know you. They know your children and your children’s children. It takes time to shop, to recall and share how wall the little ones are doing. The steps back to your home are narrow and steep. You do not object to pause and chat. A moment to stop and breathe the scent of flowers grown in old oil cans is welcome nowadays.

If a cat comes by for a fondle, you bend, set your bags down and oblige. God is merciful – why should you not be to to cats?

At home, the dust rinsed from your feet, you wash the herbs. Words of thanksgiving for their billowing smells pass your lips.  You hang them up to dry and turn to the lemons. One pull of your nail along the knobbled rind and an explosion of scent brightens the kitchen. A firework of zest.

The oil leaves a golden trace on the tea-towel as you dry the lemon’s skin. Three swift and practised cuts, and you have the fruit cut into equal smiles. The point of your favourite knife is enough to excise any pips. You bend and check – not even a sliver may lurk in the membranes.

You do not hear the thuds – you feel them through the cool tiles, through your rough-skinned soles. The force passes up each thinned bone, rattles your teeth. Clutching your headscarf to your ears does not keep out the wailing.

The chopping board slides off the sink. The lemon wedges fall on the cracked floor. You cannot stop thought – now how many will I need?

Still, your hands find your shoes and the medical bag in moments.

The Pilgrim Woman nodded to the fading outline as if to a friend. The Landlord swigged his wine and pondered.