The Misbro Tree

I was educated at the University of Chicago and at Radcliffe, writes FRANCES WEISMILLER. “Since then, aside from tico tear years, I hare trailed my husband around certain literary and academic circles, producing joui children en route. Due to a patented secret process, which we trill explain on receipt of $100,000 cash, two of these are male and two female. With this money we plan to purchase the top of a hill, a Neutra house, six horses, three cons, forty hens, and two iridescent green jaguars. My husband is a poet, a Milton scholar, and a teacher of creative writing. He didn’t write any of this.”

by FRANCES WEISMILLEE

1

WHEN we first, went to live in Deyá a goat was tethered on the terrace just below our house to eat the lush January grass. But her time was near, and my children made her nervous, so Pablo took her to have her kids elsewhere. Pablo’s young black pig remained, in a pen ten feet from our house. The goat might have caused as much nuisance if she had stayed, but she would have done so with more grace.

The first time the pig got out, my seven-year-old girl shouted, “The pig! The pig! He’s in Pablo’s garden!”

I rushed out of the kitchen and leaned over the fence beside her, to see him laying waste the young bean plants on the terrace below. I grabbed a stick, climbed over the gate, and hurried down the steps to head him out. “Sally, you run to Pablo’s house and say ‘El cerdo —’” I searched for a word meaning “escaped,” but 1 didn’t know one — “‘El cerdo es abajo.’” This meant, more or less, “The pig lives downstairs,” but it was the best I could do at the time.

“I can’t remember all that,” Sally wailed.

“‘El cerdo es abajo,’” I repeated, batting at the pig’s neck. “Just yell, ‘El cerdo! El cerdo!’ Run!” I could hear her footsteps, but I was too busy to watch her go. My two younger children began to whimper. I glanced up, to see them flattened against the wire fence, staring at me round-eyed and worried. “Be quiet, Georgia,” I told the larger of the two. “You’re scaring the baby. I’m all right. I’ve got a stick.

The pig made for the potato bed. I chased him over toward the wall. I didn’t know how easily he might become annoyed or how hard he could bite my bare legs or even whether he was likely to. I didn’t know enough to swat him on the nose. All I could do was scold him as if he were a dog and whack him on the side. For perhaps ten minutes we sparred nervously this way, and I was in grave danger of whatever a three-month-old pig can do to a grown woman. Meanwhile the children’s lunch burned on the charcoal fire. At last Pablo’s wife appeared, followed by her adolescent son. The two of them chased the pig up and down the terrace. Dozens of little plants lay trampled in their wake. Finally she caught the pig by one ear, which enabled her to get hold of the other. The boy grabbed the hind legs. Together they dragged the shrieking animal up the steps and into the pen. She beat it with a stick and cursed it in Majorcan, and then, with a sullen nod in my direction, she left. The boy stayed long enough to put a big stone in the hole through which the pig had escaped.

Antonia, who washed my dishes and floors, had appeared in the midst of this. She looked tightlipped and said nothing until it was all over and we had started a second lunch.

“La señora de Pablo no es muy simpatica,” she observed, and then said something I couldn’t understand. We resorted to a mixture of Spanish, French, and telepathy through which I learned that Pablo’s wife had greeted Sally with a screech (in Majorcan — she knew Sally had a few words of Spanish): “It was you, you nasty little insect — you let the pig out!” Then Antonia had intervened, snarling, “Why do you say that? You didn’t see it!” while Sally stood there understanding none of it.

I say Antonia snarled because she must have. Majorcan — a form of Catalonian — is so nasal and harsh that any conversation sounds like a cat fight. But Antonia, like most of the people of Deyá, was kind, gay, and peaceable. To hear her say anyone was not simpatica gave me a turn. I p to this time I hadn’t noticed Pablo’s wife much, but now I began to pay attention. She was skinny (which is a had sign in a grown woman in Spain), with an insincere smile and a voice both earsplitting and unctuous.

I liked her pig no better. Majorcan pigs usually have two little dangling lingers of flesh under their chins, and lilts pig had dirty gray-black skin showing through his meager bristles. I was frightened of what he might do to my baby if he got loose on the terrace; pigs have been known to kill children. Originally I had been much pleased to give him our garbage, but for several days after this incident I felt tempted to send it to somebody’s chickens. Still, feeding the pig had become a habit, and to change would have been a hostile act (which is of course more serious than a hostile attitude).

I had also a less presentable motive for feeding the pig. I wanted some of the fruit of the misbro tree. My neighbor, Mr. Robert Graves, said it was my tree — that it went with the house. I wasn’t so sure. The tree stood on the same terrace the pig had torn up. To be accurate, it belonged to the man in Yaldemosa from whom I rented my house and from whom Pablo rented the land below it. But since misbros are of no money value, because they bruise and don’t keep and therefore can’t be shipped, no one would be coming all the way to Deyá to pick these.

Misbros are loquats, a yellow-orange smoothskinned fruit which grows in the part of California I come from. But my family never had a tree, and I had always yearned for one. It seemed to me that in return for my garbage, which was rich in banana peels and sometimes even included a little sour milk (there is no refrigeration in Deya), Pablo could well let me take what misbros I wanted —especially since he had access to several trees.

Pablo had the local black market in soap and coffee and he was not noted for square dealing or generosity. But I rather liked him; he often stopped to play with my children when he came through on the way to his garden, and whenever I told him I had run out of fuel and that the meat was in danger of spoiling if I couldn’t use the oven, he chopped wood or brought a sack of charcoal immediately.

So I thought he would let me have the misbros, and one day he said that when they began to ripen he would pick out the good ones for the children. I remarked that I knew the fruit, meaning that I should like to pick them myself. He may or may not have understood this; at any rate he repeated that he would pick them.

2

THE uncompromising green of the fruit began to waver; but it was a very slow spring, and though the tree stood against a south wall and would ripen early I watched week after week for a trace of yellow. Early in April I thought I saw it; but then came ten days of wind and rain, and even a shot of hail. After that we had a few good days, followed by another storm.

I think the pig must have been very hungry and that he realized the ground was soft after the rain. At any rate he jumped the eight-or-ten-fool drop from his terrace and dug up half the potatoes. Antonia heard him at six-thirty in the morning when she came to make my fire. I felt relieved that it was before Sally and Georgia were out of bed and open to suspicion.

It was a Sunday. The Graveses, whose three children played with mine, came to drink coffee after lunch. Pablo was there working on a new fence for the pigs run. The children spotted the misbros, which looked almost possible; Pablo kept his promise and picked ten of the least sour, and then we ordered the children away from the tree. It was at this point that Georgia appeared, carrying one of the potatoes the pig had dug up; and since there were live children wandering among the plants, it was natural for Pablo to tell Mrs. Graves that although he was not interested in the misbros, he was interested in his potatoes. This remark was plainly meant for me; but Majorcans are polite and indirect in such matters.

For the next two days I argued with my children and the younger Graveses to let the tree alone, threatened them with bellyaches, and sat at the windy edge of the terrace to enforce the rule. Tuesday evening, after a day of full suit, I told Sally that by two the next afternoon there would be a few ready to eat. But when we arose next morning all the yellow ones were gone and only green ones remained.

Mrs. Graves, remembering Pablo’s remark about not being interested in misbros, suspected boys. So two mornings later, when a few more misbros had turned quite yellow, I stationed Sally in a chair on the terrace, wrapped her up in a blanket, gave her some bread and butter and a book, and went back to bed. Half an hour later Antonia brought me my coffee. I got up and fed and dressed the younger children, and took Sally her egg and her milk and an orange. At schooltime, w hen the menace of boys ceased, no one had come near the tree, I looked at the fruit longingly, but I wanted to let the noon sun do its work.

Noon arrived, and Pablo’s wife came with her boy to feed the pig. They stood a moment on the steps, talking in Majorcan, and I suddenly felt, although I couldn’t understand them, that they were going to pick the tree. I couldn’t think what to do; I hurried into the house and poked the fire, and then went out again to look. They were picking, all right. I wailed “Oh!” and clashed into the kitchen and told Antonia. I was almost in tears — I had watched and wanted those misbros for so long, and kept the children away with such struggles; and I was also missing my husband (who was working in England) and feeling my live months of pregnancy. We went out to look. Every edible fruit was gone.

“What a pity,” Antonia murmured; and she seemed extraordinarily sorry for me.

It was particularly distressing because there was absolutely nothing I could do — Pablo’s wife was quite within her rights. No bargain had ever been made. I had been polite and indirect, and fed the pig, and left the fruit to ripen, and now I had no misbros. Maybe she didn’t even know we wanted them.

“She knew it perfectly well,” Mrs. Graves said that afternoon at tea. “People here don’t care about misbros; and Pablo has other trees. She probably did it just for spite.”

It seemed to be the consequence and just reward of my not liking the woman and her pig. People know these things. I suppose pigs do too.

But late that afternoon Antonia suddenly appeared with a dozen misbros, much fatter and sweeter than anything I should have had from “my ” tree. I started to give the children four each, but Antonia stopped me. “You eat some,” she said very firmly. “You want them.” She made me eat three of them, and refused to take any for herself.

They came from the priest’s old mother. “I said the Senora wanted them, and la mad re del padre said ‘But surely! Why not? She shall have them!’ and ran to pick these. But you must have them from that tree too,” Antonia added in the firm tone she had used before.

Since I didn’t know the priest’s mother at all, this seemed extraordinarily generous, both of her and Antonia. I was deeply touched and grateful, and it was a sentimental moment. Deyá, enclosed down to the blue Mediterranean in its steep rocky crescent of mountains, with its blue sky and terraces of olive trees and the golden sunlight and clear air, seemed to me cousin to my home, but even lovelier. I could taste the ambrosial sweet-sour of the first fruit of spring. I gazed at “my” tree. Antonia was going to say to Pablo, as if it were her own idea, that since the Senora had fed the pig for three months, he really ought to give us the misbros. I might get them yet.

3

BUT what Antonia actually said was something quite different. She informed me next morning that she had met Pablo and told him I had carefully left all the nice ones to get nicer, and then his wife had come and taken them. This seemed to me a very odd approach, especially from Antonia, who is as polite and indirect as any, and hates trouble. The next thing that happened seemed even odder. Pablo appeared at the door, haggard, worriedlooking, and unshaven. (This last wasn’t odd — Majorcans don’t overwork their razors.) He caught me in my dressing gown, with my hair uncombed, but what he had to say seemed too important to be postponed for irrelevancies like that. He apologized profusely. By this time my Spanish was fairly fluent, but I couldn’t understand half what he said. Several times he repeated that his wife “knew nothing,” that the boy had begged his mother to get him some, and that I knew how children were. He assured me over and over that they wouldn’t pick even one more. I shouldn’t have known what to say if I had been able to say it in English; I mumbled, “No es importante; no es nada; much as gracias,” and fled, clutching my robe about me with one hand and still holding my comb in the other.

Whose misbros were they? I knew Pablo was only entitled to the produce of his own planting. So presumably he had no right to the misbros. But that didn’t mean that I had any right to them. Who the devil was I to object to his wife’s taking whatever she wanted? Or was it. just that he was so used to apologizing for his wife’s disputes that ail this hadn’t even occurred to him? Laboriously, I conveyed these thoughts to Antonia. At last she gave me a rather curious smile and stopped sweeping for a moment. “You can have whatever you want to eat; you just point to it. Me, I can’t; but you can.”

I was horrified — I supposed she was speaking of the privileges of the upper class, to which tourists are assumed to belong. But she wasn’t. I had a right to the misbros, after all: in Spain, a pregnant woman must be given any food she wants. I asked whether this was a Franco law or an old custom.

Es custumbre. Otherwise, there would be so many damaged children. It would be very bad.”

I still didn’t understand, so she told me about a woman who saw some sobrasada in a house she was visiting. Sobrasada is a red sausage of raw pork preserved by quantities of paprika. It sounds unpleasant and dangerous, and, like the strong local olive oil, it doesn’t taste good to newcomers. But when you have breathed Majorcan air for a few weeks, you suddenly find them both excellent. Sobrasada must be very rich in vitamins; and since it keeps for years, it can’t be an ideal home for bacteria. At any rate it is a staple food, if you can afford a pig in the first place, and this particular sobrasada was unusually good. The woman wanted it badly, but she didn’t like to ask for it. A few weeks later, when she “gave light” to her baby, its mouth was constantly open, as if it were always hungry. The midwife asked the mother what she had wanted to eat and not eaten, and then fetched a scrap of sobrasada from that particular house and rubbed it on the baby’s lips. The baby shut its mouth and was all right from then on.

This was only the beginning of a collection of anecdotes which went on all through the floor washing and bed making and laundry sorting.

The custom was the same in the part of France where Antonia had worked as a girl. She had heard of a baby with big raised strawberry marks on one leg and one cheek, which grew bigger and redder in strawberry season and went down the rest of the year, because its mother had wanted strawberries and gone without them.

I wondered whether it was bad luck to refuse to give a woman who was embarazada the food she wanted; in Spain you hear now and then of bad people who have been “castigated by God” — usually by means of painful and incapacitating illness. Antonia was a little puzzled by this question at first; no one would do such a thing, since it was only necessary to give a tiny scrap of the food. Apparently it wouldn’t be bad luck, but the word would get around, and people would think very ill of anyone who did it. It was a serious matter. Pablo’s wife had come to Antonia’s house in a rage, asking why Antonia hadn’t told her I cared about those misbros. “I said it was because I didn’t want to talk to her,” Antonia reported; and then, seeing my amazement, “Better to tell the truth — and what else was there to say?”

She went on with her stories. The best came from Deyá itself, and I liked it especially because I knew the priest. The priest was fat and friendly; he liked to try his impossible English on me. His opulence was enclosed in a long black cassock, and he wore a little round shaved place on top of his round black head. His mother, whom I later met and thanked for her misbros, was even fatter and jollier, with all false upper teeth and all gold lower — an effect (in bare-gummed, ill-fed Deyá) most joyfully and deliciously prosperous.

The priest’s mother had told her story to Antonia while she was collecting my misbros. One day, a little before the priest was born, she had seen a salad at a friend’s house. The lettuce was fresh from a particularly excellent garden and shining with oil. Her friend offered her some, but she was ashamed to have been caught staring at it. and refused. All the rest of the day, wherever she went, she kept seeing that salad. When she went to bed she began to cry, she wanted it so badly, and she wept all night. “Es el niño” — the baby was making her cry. Early in the morning she went to her friend’s house. By this time the salad was wilted and dark and watery, and as she entered the yard her friend was throwing it into the rabbit hutch. To her friend’s horror, she snatched it away from the rabbits. Then she washed it and ate some. It tasted wonderful. When she had eaten only a little bit of it, she and the baby were satisfied. Her friend insisted on making her a fresh salad exactly like the old one, and of course she had to eat it. But it didn’t taste like much.

The misbros on the terrace ripened, dozen by dozen. At their best they sometimes had the perfume of pineapple, but they were variable; you could get a sour one that looked dead ripe. My tree — for now it was quite mine — bore a good many small, dry, sunburned fruit: the southern exposure which made it one of the first to ripen also took the moisture out of the ground. But they all tasted delicious to me, and those sheltered by the leaves were sublime.

I could see, however, why my parents wouldn’t have a tree. The children spat gigantic seeds everywhere. Antonia swept ours up two or three times a day and fed them to the pig, along with our dead vegetables and broken glass. (No one scrupled to throw anything at all to a pig; they said that if pigs didn’t know better there would be no pigs.)

These seeds have tremendous vitality and will germinate and take root anywhere. I suppose that’s another reason why my parents refused us a loquat tree. But the most objectionable thing about misbros is their effect on children’s insides. Until they’re so ripe they turn orange and drop into your hand, no one in Deya ever attributes an upset stomach to anything else. They are supposed to be worst if you eat them with the sun still on them; unless it is twilight or a gray day when you pick them, you have to wash the sun off. I still consider them the most desirable fruit in the world; and the best of all were from my dry little tree. They had a flavor which spoke to my soul.

This was evidently a true pica. When I passed on Antonia’s tales to Bobert Graves he told me that was the Spanish for what we call a pregnant woman’s whim. Mr. Graves sang me an old English song about how Mary asked Joseph to pick her some cherries “for her child,” and he refused. The cherry tree bowed down its branches to her. Mr. Graves said the earliest source of the story was in the book of Pseudo-Matthew, and that Spaniards sometimes call a man they hate — someone mean enough to refuse an unborn baby — Tio Pépé (Uncle Joe) after Joseph.

My relationship to the pig mellowed with the misbros. One day Pablo took the pig away for an operation. “So that he will have no children,” Antonia said, confirming my guess. But the pig was off convalescing for what seemed to me rather a long time; and he came back thin and subdued. One day when Sally said something uncomplimentary about him I pointed out what a dismal and lonely life he led, and was surprised to find myself really a little sorry for him. Then we noticed a wound with a stitch well up on his side; and I suddenly realized that he had been a she all the time. I picked her some misbros from my tree — feeling that since she would never have a pica of her own, poor thing, I would lend her mine. This access of benevolence did not survive the season of flies (I was just upwind from the sty, and it was a cold morning when I couldn’t kill two hundred flies in my kitchen just by swatting), nor did it ever extend to Pablo’s wife. But while it lasted, and while the misbros lasted, there was a lovely mood in the house.