“Leena and the Pepper Tree”

Originally published in Demeter Press’s anthology titled Borderlands and Crossroads: Writing the Motherland, edited by Jane Satterfield and Laurie Kruk.

copyright (c) 2016 by Anjoli Roy

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A loaf of hard white bread sat on the kitchen counter, a half-empty jar of brown swirled with purple muck beside it. Leena looked down the dark paper throat of an empty lunch bag. Peanut butter and jelly? Again? 

Hungry people eat what they’ve got, called her mom as she darted through the kitchen to the driveway. Make it, quick!

Leena watched her mother’s back, felt as hollow as when she’d spoken the words divorce and moving to her the night before. They couldn’t keep the house, with its sparkly pool, on her mother’s nursing salary alone. Leena thought about the moldy dahl in the back of the fridge, the keechuri that would take too long to thaw from the icebox. She tried to remember the last time she’d seen her dad. Ten-year-old arms searched the cupboard and knocked over the cayenne, blooming a small red cloud that clawed the back of her nose. The shelves were empty. Her breakfast belly was empty too.

Leena, come on! her mom hollered from the car.

She shoved the empty paper bag to the bottom of her backpack.

You smell rotten, her mom said when Leena sat down, fanning the smell away from her face. She flinched when Leena slammed the car door on accident. They both rolled down their windows. What did I tell you about letting the clothes sit in the wash all day? What’ll your rich kid friends think?

Leena knew better than to answer. She smoothed down her scratchy uniform skirt and was happy she wouldn’t have to wear one in the fall. Even though starting a new school, a public one, meant making new friends. At least the skirt looked clean. Still, she hoped Jane and Sophia wouldn’t smell her.

She sat quietly, waited for her mother’s car to turn onto Wildrose Avenue.

Mildew rose off her body like a rotten morning mist.

The wrinkled face of the San Gabriel Mountains loomed behind Leena as she walked into the schoolyard, talking to her stomach.

Keep quiet, she said.

She hated how it’d started growling during morning chapel. Hated how the sound of her empty belly rumbled across those old stone tiles like so many demons determined to betray her. Leena didn’t believe in this church—she wasn’t sure what she believed—but she knew it was rude, what her body was doing. Outing her like that. Her schoolmates giggled whenever the sounds got loud, but some church miracle made it so no one other than her friends, Jane and Sophia, who flanked Leena during the service, knew the sounds were coming from her.

Hey, weirdo, talking to yourself again? Jane called to her from the swing set under the soft branches of the school’s pepper tree, its leaves floating in the wind like feathers. Sophia laughed. Jane glared at Sophia with that look of hatred that made her and Sophia best friends. Sophia shut up.

Leena smiled at them fast, pretty sure that Jane was just teasing, that she wasn’t actually making fun of her. It was getting harder to tell lately.

Leena chose the open swing with the broad black leather seat between her two friends and started pumping her legs fast. The spring sun climbed higher in the morning sky. She hung her head back to look up at the branches of the pepper tree.

Leena wasn’t sure why she loved this tree so much. Bushy and wild, the tree looked funny with the other evergreens in the yard that had better posture and trimmer trunks whose bark didn’t gnarl and peel away in long strips like paper. But she liked how it looked like the tree could go on forever, like its branches could stretch and hang anywhere they wanted, just as the tree was happily rooted right where it was. Its small pink berries bunched here and there made Leena feel optimistic. Even though she heard the teachers complain about how messy the tree was, how the berries would polka-dot the walkways, make them slippery and wet, Leena loved this tree and the soft shadows it threw on the yard they played in. She saw a drawing in a picture book once that looked like it, but Leena remembered that the story said something about that tree weeping. A tree that weeps? Leena knew the school’s pepper tree couldn’t be that. With its long leaves blowing in the wind, the pepper tree looked like it would always be happy. It would always be just fine.

Leena swung her legs faster on the swing until she felt long lines of sweat racing down her calves. She blocked out Jane and Sophia, who were talking behind their hands from the swings on either side of her. She felt how the boys from their grade were clustering nearer, trying to get Jane and Sophia’s attentions, like always.

Jane and Sophia were the most beautiful girls in the fourth grade, had that yellow hair, those straight backs, those loud, confident laughs. They wore oversized flannels on top of uniform blouses that hugged their plump girl bodies. Their moms waited at home for them with afternoon snacks: string cheese, apple juice, chocolate chip cookies straight out of the oven. Big pepperoni pizza they ordered through the phone or crispy fried chicken or nachos and taco dinners that dripped mouth-watering, yellow-red grease splotches on their pretty, clean, flower-print pajamas.

Leena had been the sidekick, pet, to Jane and Sophia since preschool, had been going to their sleepovers every year, when their moms and dads put all the wiggling girls to bed, teased and kissed each other in the kitchen when they thought no kids were looking, told their daughters they loved them. Leena’s parents used to let her have sleepovers too, but Leena couldn’t do that anymore, not in her empty house with a gone dad who used to cook everything, where now there was hardly anything to eat.

Leena knew Jane and Sophia were annoyed that they hadn’t been invited over to swim in her pool since the heat had exhaled like so many hot, smoggy breaths into the valley where they lived. Leena thought she might have heard Jane and Sophia call her a mooch, a snob, on the playground recently, but she wasn’t sure, didn’t want to believe they’d say that about her.

Leena did wonder sometimes why Jane and Sophia liked her. Once, when their teacher, Mrs. Johnson, was teaching a lesson on ocean animals, Leena’s eyes lingered on a picture of a shark and the little fish that hung around it. Maybe Leena was like that. She didn’t attract boys’ attentions, was just weird enough—with her frizzy black hair, ever-dirty blunt knees, and up until recently her smelly curried lunches—not to be a threat. And she wasn’t too weird. Maybe that fish, weird as it was, kept the shark company. Maybe they were good friends. Had fun, even though they were so different. Even though one had a million sharp teeth and a whole ocean full of soft fish to bloody, and the other just wanted folks to be with. Leena wondered though—wasn’t hanging around a shark dangerous?

Dana was born with a hairy lip, Jane sing-song-called out across the schoolyard from the swings. That’s why the doctors had to make her a new mouth!

That’s why she’s so ugggggg-uh-lee! Sophia added, pumping her legs and swinging higher and higher.

Leena watched Dana freeze up when Jane and Sophia said this. She was the quiet girl with a funny scar that ran like a fault-line from her upper lip to her left side of her nose. No one could be friends with her because she got made fun of, had tricks played on her. Dana scuttled back to the safety of the classroom, where she stayed until the morning bell rang for chapel.

Leena didn’t laugh at Jane and Sophia’s taunts. She didn’t look at either of them as they laughed hard into each others’ bright pink mouths when they saw Dana running away. Leena kept swinging her stick legs, felt for a moment on her own face Dana’s throbbing pink scar.

What’s that smell? Sophia asked, jerking her thumb in Leena’s direction and making a pee-ew face. It’s like sweat and…

Cheese farts! Jane laughed.

The boys from their grade overheard this from the field where they were playing tag and laughed too.

Leena tried to shake off the wet blades of freshly cut grass that were clinging damply to her white socks. She pumped her legs until all she saw was a blur of sand beneath her, the swing of the clear blue sky above, and a smudge of pretty pepper tree leaves that looked green and happy, like wild hair, like flying, like being far away from everywhere. She swung her legs harder and harder, sure she’d flip over the A-frame swing set if she wanted to. She launched herself out of the seat, expecting to land on her feet as she usually did. She watched the sand of the playground rise up but felt her feet slip out from under her, then the harsh smack of the ground on her bottom.

Sophia and Jane laughed hard at her. The few boys around did too.

Leena dashed to the girls’ bathroom to get out of laughing range. She rubbed some of the sharp, lemon-scented hand soap on her dark blue uniform skirt, then stood under the hair dryer in hopes of burning out the mildew smell.

Sophia and Jane kept their distance from Leena for the rest of the morning. During chapel and morning class, they laughed behind their hands, exchanged glances that Leena didn’t understand. The boys started prowling around Leena in droves. They made weird growling noises at her and ran off.

Miss Leena, where’s your lunch today?

Leena turned to face Mrs. Johnson, whose seventy-year-old hands were now resting on her shoulders, light as birds. The metal picnic table burned Leena’s thighs through her scratchy uniform skirt. Her knees shook like rattles. Leena felt Mrs. Johnson’s nails clawing at her collarbone.Mrs. Johnson could be mean sometimes. Leena braced herself, held up her empty paper bag. She showed it to Mrs. Johnson. I ate it already, she said, smiling.

You sure do eat fast, missy. Mrs. Johnson patted Leena on the head. As she walked away, Leena heard her call out, The food you brought is the food you eat. Remember, no sharing!

When Leena turned back to the lunch table, Jane and Sophia made pouty faces at her before Jane pointed at her lunch, said, You can have some, if you want.

We’re not supposed to share, Leena whispered across the table to her friends.

Leena felt Mrs. Johnson pause a few tables down in that way that made all the kids around hold their breaths.

What did I say about trading food? Mrs. Johnson said darkly to a third-grade boy. She clamped her claws on his shoulders and pulled away the small, potbellied boy from his lunch table for a time out by the trashcans.

His head hung low.

Jane opened the silver wrapper of her granola bar, the one with the chocolate chips she didn’t like. I know you’re hungry, she said, looking at Leena with concern. You don’t want your stomach to keep making all those noises this afternoon. What if we can’t sit next to each other in class? she said a little quieter, a threat bubbling just beneath the surface of her words.

Leena felt her heart thudding. Jane was right—she needed to eat something to shut her belly up. She wished she’d packed a stupid peanut butter and jelly that morning.

Jane took a bite of the granola, sucked on and extracted the chocolate chips from her mouth like they were pointy fish bones. She piled them on a little white napkin where her mother had written Mama loves you, Jane! Jane had wiped her mouth with the napkin, smudged the e! after she’d finished her turkey and tomato sandwich on white bread. She hadn’t seen the message. Leena had.

The small chocolate mountain was glossy with Jane’s spit.

Eat them, Jane said like a dare. She pushed them across the table to Leena. I won’t tell. Jane smiled a funny smile at Sophia, who made a face that said gross, crumpled up her lunch sack, and ran out to the recess field, leaving Jane and Leena alone.

Mrs. Johnson was talking to the pot-bellied boy, who was rubbing his eyes.

Leena watched Jane finish an apple, a juice box, a fistful of Pringles, and the rest of that chocolate-chip-less granola bar.

Leena curled her body over the metal picnic table, hoping that if she kept her stomach tight, curled up, it wouldn’t growl. She hoped that if she focused on the desert-dry dirt swirling under the picnic table, her eyes wouldn’t look so vulture-y.

She waited for the rest of the kids to finish their lunches, to leave the picnic tables before she inhaled a thief’s breath, looked around fast to see Mrs. Johnson was long gone, breaking up a fight by the monkey bars across the yard, and smashed that tiny, glistening chocolate pile into her mouth before she darted out to the recess field. It tasted sweet and delicious. She held the chocolate in her mouth, let it melt around her teeth before swallowing it all down. That just might last her until school let out.

When the grass field was under her feet, Leena saw Jane standing beneath the pepper tree, near the swing set that they’d played on that morning. Jane whispered something to Sophia who repeated it to the horde of adoring boys who now surrounded them. Jane and Sophia looked at each other, then pointed their sharp girl eyes at Leena. Their pink mouths dropped open like traps. Leena’s friends joined in with the boys, who clutched their stomachs, pointed and laughed at Leena.

Rumble Gut! they called her. Spit Eater!

Leena’s feet squelched in a puddle by a broken sprinkler at the edge of the lawn. She felt cold mud flooding her ankles and then her heels.

It wasn’t the boys’ laughter that cut her, or even Jane’s or Sophia’s. It was the sound of a lone laugh at the edge of the small grass field that bit. It came from Dana, who was huddled alone by the cavernous mouth of their classroom door. She was standing away from everyone, but was with them in their laughter.

Leena looked up at the evergreen pepper tree, blurry in her vision, and saw that it was trapped in that small, mean schoolyard. The tree was weeping too.

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