Far from the Tree

Listen to Chloe Green read her memoir:

Sunlight through the blue-green bottles on the windowsill casts colors about the room. Summer days stretch like saltwater taffy. Nighttime trains whistle mournfully. Vines in the garden root deep in the rich earth.

My grandfather stands at the kitchen countertop, cutting his tomatoes into transparent slices. Spend enough time in a pathology lab, and your lunch can be mounted onto a microscope slide. If these slices of tomato from my grandfather’s garden were placed under a lens, a story would be written in their cells.

He walks over to the table, placing the plate of tomatoes in its center, each movement weighted with memory.

“You know?” he asks, gesturing at the plate.

I know. This, the favorite story to tell at dinner parties, to children resisting sleep, to strangers seated nearby on a plane.

At the start of World War II, the young man leaves his home in Latvia, at age twelve. He is a tailor by trade, ready to seek his fortune. The ocean may be unkind, but it is nothing compared to the fate that awaits those who remain.

He travels to England, where his family name—“Greengowt? We don’t have any green goats here!”—is truncated, with the stroke of an official’s pen, to Green.

Then a long, starved journey to Johannesburg. The harsh sea beats the hull of the ship. This is what it means to be fragile.

In the harbor at last, a rowboat pulls up to the ship, hawking unfamiliar fruits: glowing oranges, wild plums with firm purple skin, sour kumquats, berries, pineapples. An oceanic goblin market. And then—a sight from home! From the deck, the burnished red peel of an apple beckons temptingly.

It is no matter that these are the last of his savings. This will be the first taste of a new home. The exchange is made rapidly. Shining coins drop from the ship into the boat; a hurried, excited gesture is made toward the goods, the apples tossed gently upward.

The young man doesn’t pause to wonder why the fruits feel different in his hand. It has been so long since he has tasted any fruit at all, let alone apples; perhaps he has forgotten what they are like.

The instant his teeth break through the surface of the apple, he realizes he’s been betrayed. Instead of the firm sweetness he expected, his tongue is met with seeds and acid.

“Rotten!” he shouts. Anger overtaking rational thought, with careful aim he delivers the “apples” swiftly back to their seller.

“They weren’t apples!” my grandfather exclaims. “They were . . .”

“Tomatoes!” I smile back.

History may have taken much from my family, but their stories stay with me; their heirlooms bloom in the garden.

Read the other prize-winning works from the Fourth Annual “Tell Me a Story” High School Contest:

Underaged” by Avianca Jackson
Homecoming” by Uriel Acuna