Cultivating Pomegranates and Figs
by Rebecca Spears


From any vantage point in the yard, I could see the pomegranate and fig trees crowding the back fence as lovers negotiating in a cramped space--the fig's large, green hands reaching into the pomegranate tree. As a child, I imagined loving intimacies, not knowing exactly what these meant--the stewing mix of love, loathing, jealousy, pleasure, and boredom that I would later know. Had my grandmother considered this intimate entanglement when she planted the trees in her garden?

One afternoon while my grandparents napped, I went to the bookcases in the front room, if not to discover the answer to my real questions, then to find out more about these creatures. Carefully, nearly soundlessly, I opened the glass doors of one bookcase and from among the encyclopedia volumes I selected F and P: The pomegranate's wide-spreading growth habit should be considered if you are planting it near the house or other structures. And the ficus carica, the common fig, is fast-growing and may reach up to thirty feet in four years.*

Grandmother's fig tree first bore its fruit in early June and produced several crops each year in the central Texas heat. Even though my grandparents lived in the Hill Country, where the nights could be cool, the sun was all too capable of searing and singeing--as early as March. The chalky limestone that brands the countryside intensified the heat, mirroring sun off its white planes.

The fig tree has deeply lobed leaves. The fruit develops from podlike structures that grow on the branches and that contain hundreds of tiny flowers. I remember being quite content to stand with my grandmother inside the tree's shady arms in midsummer and collect the ripe, green fruit, fill the galvanized pail over its brim. Perhaps I imagined myself as the misfit child of these two fruit-bearing trees. Certainly, my own father and mother worked together like alien creatures at times--my father, nearly silent but as good as his word, whether he spoke with playfulness or in anger; my mother, nearly always in motion, attentive, full of humor. And I, the lone daughter among four offspring.

Together, Grandmother and I would lug our pail full of figs across the back porch and into the kitchen--the center of my grandparents' small, prairie-style home. Here we would wash the figs and set them to dry on old newspaper spread on the Formica table. Finally, we would indulge ourselves with a fig or two. I loved biting into the fleshy red pulp and crunching the tiny seeds. Strange fruits. Not an everyday occurrence in my world.

Figs have probably been cultivated for more than 5,000 years. Figs are small and round or pear-shaped. They may have green, yellow, purple, or black skins, depending on the variety. While Grandmother began another task, preparing lunch or making beds, I positioned myself at eye level with the fruit, my arms crossed on the table, head on forearms. I'd inspect each small, pear-shaped fruit, its ribbed lines leaving thin, shadowed contours in the green. At six, I was just learning how to watercolor. I'd been given a wooden box full of colored tubes, brushes, and a palette at Christmas. I studied the figs, as if to paint them, taking in the many shades of green they cast. Ever so lightly, I touched one, ran my finger down it. It was pliable and slightly prickly with a nearly imperceptible wool nap. I watched the color change under the shadow of my finger. I've remembered this moment all my life--a moment I would later understand as original, where the person who was actually me touched what was really in the world.

I continued my linger in the kitchen, watching and daydreaming, as I often did with my mother and my grandmother. We did not even need to speak. We could work side by side, and I felt part of them, made of the same stuff. Not the same with my brothers, father, and my father's father. Not the same with the pomegranates. They composed a world held in place by tension, a proving ground of sorts. I was already a worthy companion for my grandmother and mother. They understood my motions, my vision, the work of my hands, my search for small pleasures. I was one of them.

Still the pomegranate attracted me to its hard, yellow rind, the ruby seeds inside. My grandparents and parents anticipated the harvest, and the adults seemed to be all about pomegranates and figs. But for me, it would take time and effort to cultivate a desire, a taste for the problematic pomegranate.

Large, showy flowers all summer long account for the pomegranate's popularity in the American South. Its simple deciduous leaves alternate opposite like wings, or clustered in winged pairs. In late summer, I stepped quickly among the lantana and rosemary, my bare feet burning in the garden that took up half the backyard. At ten o'clock on an August morning, a heat mantle had already collected itself and was firing the exposed earth. The soil turned a crackled glaze. Here was a test of endurance, the trek I had to make to reach the two lovely specimens--the pomegranate and fig dominating the back expanse, soaking in the light and heat. Underneath them, I saw pomegranate shoots growing, beginning to overtake the ground.

At times, I would never make it beyond the hollyhocks and purple sage that grew nearer the house, the light so intense, even the sky faded to near-white. I would wander barefoot around the perimeter of the house, then retreat to the back porch near the water cooler or to the side yard where I'd sit under a mountain laurel, near the trumpet vines. I'd pick the flowers, stick them on my fingers, making them into slim ladies in evening gowns. I liked to imagine that I would become one of them. My reverie never lasted long. As often as not, my older brother would come out of nowhere, pull them off my fingers, laughing as he sprinted away, making himself invisible.

One hot day while the pomegranate bloomed, its bright colors pulled me to the back of the garden. There I cupped one flower, then another, all feathery orange in my hands like fantastic canaries that could be held only one second before they asked to be released back into the wild. The pomegranate would persist months under this heat, heat that entombed most of us in dark, cool houses. When we ventured outside at all, the shadowy porch became a lookout. My younger brothers and I would sit in the great Adirondack chairs Grandfather had hammered together and fling our short legs over the chairs' generous arms. These structures swallowed us inside their cool, white skeletons. All the while, the pomegranate was forming its fruits among the flowers and red-tipped leaves. I imagined the verve, the passion inside each bulb, emerging from some dolorous sleep.

The pomegranate's berries mature in September. Its fruit is pendulous, 2 to 4 inches in diameter, and crowned with a persistent calyx. How does one bite into a pomegranate? Really, you can't. To open the fruit, a small, sharp knife works well, cutting through the outer leather. My grandmother taught me how. I would watch her brown-spotted hands as she cut and offered me a section. The first time, I hardly knew what to do with it. I would dig in with an index finger, stick the pink pulp, membranes, and seeds in my mouth to extract the blood-juice and spit out the rest. This was truly too much effort--like trying to understand my wild brothers or attempting to make sense of my father's responses, when he made light of my questions, laughed them off. These difficulties drained any desire I had to keep digging. And I never did get the joke. Maybe at a later stage in its ripening, close to spoiling, the pomegranate fruit would yield in my hands, without the knife. Or perhaps, I would learn to be stronger like my grandmother and mother--they seemed not to mind at all cutting into the pomegranate and uncovering its contents.

* All quotations about pomegranates and figs are from the World Book Encyclopedia.


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