Yes, there were peaches, fresh peaches from the mountains, on the table that afternoon. January’s rice crop had already been taken in, leaving two glorious weeks of idleness until the July seedlings had to be planted. All the men were at war. In the small living room, cooled during the day by a dulcimer breeze, I watched as aunts descended on the fruit like egrets on a freshly turned field.
I was eleven that summer, but one of those girls perpetually trapped in a body too small for their age. I held my peach tightly and stood by while the aunts chattered about when the war might be over, who their daughters would marry now that so-and-so was dead, how much of their harvest the government was claiming for the war effort—but this deluge of disturbances washed right over me. I paid close attention as juices from the peaches ran into the furrows around their lips, into the troughs of their chins. The peach in my hands was covered in a light fuzz, a down that reminded me of my mother’s cheek when she was overdue for a face threading appointment, after which her cheek would be smooth like a bathtub, for a time, until the down inevitably grew back.
I sometimes imagined that my mother and these aunts, who oftentimes murmurated in our small living room, were in fact birds who had lost their feathers, perhaps due to some clandestine procedure, or else some peculiar disease.
The susurration of long grass that was so common in our house was now noticeably absent after the harvest, and an odd silence permeated the room beneath the aunts’ chatter—a stillness, so odd and still that I felt for a moment part of a picture, suspended in time, with the peach halfway to my mouth—a picture of a summer full of the sweetness of peaches, far from the war, that would never, ever end.
Then, unwontedly, a baby cried; and that wonderful when was destroyed forever.
The peach child glistened on the table in the late afternoon sunlight, its skin still slick with juice. My mother had excavated it from the flesh where it was trapped in place of the peach stone, and now it writhed and wriggled on a shallow dish like a bait-worm on a hook.
After examining the miracle for only a few moments, the aunts and my mother once again began bickering—this time about what the omen could possibly signify: that the war might soon be over (and in fact, an announcement was made only the next morning to that effect over the tannoy perched on the electricity pole at the bottom of our lane), that the harvest would succeed or else fail, that long life would bless our family or else we would all die young. And while they bickered, only I stood in attendance as the peach child’s cries became whimpers, and rapidly, faster and faster, it began to grow older—first scuttling about the bowl like an upturned insect, righted; then standing upright as it took its first tentative steps; then burgeoning like a bamboo shoot as parts of it began to swell, parts that I recognized had begun to swell on my own body too, though far more slowly, subtly; and then the peach child was standing tall, no longer a child, though the juice remained wet on her shoulders and in her hair that had quickly grown dark and long; and only a moment after she had extended a hand and observed with momentary joy its elegance, so the skin on her extremities began to wrinkle and crease and her hair sprout streaks of grey, so that she looked so much like my mother, holding her lower back where it ached; and then curling inwards like a caterpillar scared by a touch, the peach child was now my grandmother, bent over so far her head almost reached her knees and whose skin was scarred deeply like a peach stone; and the peach child, head buried now in her sagging belly, clasped her arms about her knees and moved no more.
When, a moment later, my mother glanced back at the table, she saw me—her young daughter on the cusp of womanhood, on the cusp of life and care, who looked so much like she did at my age; and although she treasured me, she felt, too, as if I was something she had lost, misplaced along the path of her life—a moment of calm that she had not enjoyed in so many years, with the worry of the house, and the harvests, and the war; indeed, she had barely enjoyed her peach, for as soon as she had bitten into it, it had begun to scream, unveiling yet another preoccupation—the peach child and what it might signify—the child that, blinking, she realized was no longer there; for on the table, now in my hands, now being proffered to her, was only a peach stone; and in that moment, she laughed, at her absurdity, at her heat- and worry-addled mind, that there could be such a thing as a peach child; and she gathered all the aunts around her and said look, look how foolish they had been to imagine such a thing; and before I could speak, she had taken the peach stone from my hands and tossed it through the open window into the field.
Later, I would retrieve that stone and keep it in a secret box in my room, the first of many secret things that my mind would dwell on. And each night, before I slept, I would run my fingers over its furrows, and feel their shadows, like feathers sprouting on my face.