"Oh Stevie! Oh please be careful! Stevie... Stevie please don't fall!"
"Um...Don't worry, Audrey," I stammered trying to sound less confident than I was, "I... think I'll be alright... that is... I mean I... I probably won't fall!"
"OOOOh!" moaned the anxious little girl looking up from thirty feet below, pressing her fingertips to her lips and holding her breath. I suppressed a smile and eased myself up to the next higher branch of the old pear tree at the north end of our yard. Many times I had climbed this familiar tree, until I knew all but the smallest branches by heart but never in front of such a raptly attentive audience.
"Stevie?" she called, "You can come down now! I was just pretending to like pears! You don't have to get me one. They're yucky!"
Su-u-re. So 'yucky' that my Mom scolded her just two evenings ago for picking out and eating most of the pear pieces from the fruit salad before dinner. So yucky that ten minutes ago, the sight of several large, ripe pears hanging from the topmost branch of the tree had moved her to wish aloud for one, only to learn, to her amazed consternation, that her wish was my command. "So you think pears are yucky, huh?" I said loudly, playing along with her, "Well that's because you've never had Matson pears! Matson pears are second to none! So I guess I'll just have to get you one......or die trying!"
"OOOOOOOOh!" came the distraught wail from below. The branch with the coveted fruit was very close now. I continued to pull myself slowly upwards with my arms while hugging the nearly upright trunk with my legs. I had intended to just shake the pear-laden branch to cause a few to fall, but when I encountered a small,, dead, side branch about the thickness of my thumb, a mischievous notion and an idea occurred at once. Grabbing the gray barkless rod, I pulled hard on it until it snapped off in my hand with a crack like a pistol shot. "AAAIIIEEEEE!" I cried as if falling to my doom. This brought a shriek from below, as Audrey clapped her palms over her eyes and hunched her shoulders, afraid to look. Then she heard my laughter and looked up at me brandishing the broken branch. "Stevie Matson don't you DARE scare me like that!" she wailed with a stamp of her foot, "I'm TELLING!" Nevertheless, she remained rooted to her spot, showing no inclination to tell anyone anything. I quickly apologized, while chuckling inwardly at my mean little joke. With dead branch in hand, I could now reach individual pears and dislodge them.
"Get ready to catch, Audrey!" I shouted, and jiggled a fat pear back and forth on its stem. Mouth agape, Audrey scurried into position beneath the tree and held up her open hands to catch. She looked tense and worried as she waited for the missile to plummet. "He-e-re, it co-omes!" I sang as the pear broke loose from its branch. Audrey's large, brown eyes widened as she stiffly extended her hands in the air above her. It looked as if she was going to catch it but at the last instant she squeezed her eyes shut and flinched as if afraid of the descending pear and it splatted on the flagstones. It had been a ripe one, alright, very soft and mushy. But there wasn't much left of it now. For the space of a second, Audrey stared at the ruined fruit and then burst into tears. "Don't cry, Audrey!" I called down to her, "Please don't cry! There's more pears up here. You can try again!" But she seemed inconsolable, continuing to hang her head and sob.
After I tried several more times to convince her to give it another shot, she looked up at me, teary-eyed, and wailed, "I'm not a good catcher!" and cried even harder than before. I ached inside listening to her cry, and longed to soothe her somehow. The stress of worrying about my safety and the needless fright I had given her by snapping that dead branch must have worn her down. I'd tried to impress her and be a hero, and now look what I had done! Audrey imagined that I had just risked life and limb only to have everything go wrong because of her. Yes, I still had a lot to learn about being a "big brother" to a little girl, alright. And still the miserable sound of Audrey's tears welled up from below. As her crying diminished, I said, "Audrey? Maybe if you went to the house and got a pillowcase and held it open you could catch the pears in that? Or maybe you could-"
Suddenly her face lit up. "I know!" she chirped. It had been her first day in her new school, and she still had on her brand spanking new school uniform, a dark green jumper with the school patch on her heart, worn over a long-sleeved white blouse. She grabbed the hem of her skirt and held it taut in front of her. A lace-hemmed white petticoat preserved her modesty. When pulled straight out, her skirt made a sizable catchbasin for pears. "Now try!" she called, her proud smile seeming incongruous on a face still damp with tears.
"He-e-re go-o-oes!" I called as another green morsel plunged earthward. Flexing her knees she glided a step sideways to position herself, her eyes never leaving the falling pear. Her knuckles whitened as she tightened her grip a half second before the pear landed with a whoosh in green cotton valley.
"You caught it!" I enthused, "Ya-a-y Audrey-y-y!"
With a gasp of delight, my little cousin retrieved the fruit and held it in front of her eyes. "Oh Stevie, it's so pretty!" she cried, hugging it briefly to her chest before setting it down on a flat rock several yards away and scampering back to spread out her skirt for the next descending fruit. Three more pears followed, each of which she caught. Climbing down the tree took less time than climbing up. She greeted my final jump to solid ground with a relieved hug and two pears. "Let's go wash them off with the hose!" piped Audrey, and after gathering the rest of the pears in my arms we marched triumphantly to the side of the house and washed our prizes. Audrey closed her eyes, sighed and mmmmmed with pleasure as she bit into the soft, sweet flesh of her pear. The juices ran down her chin until she wiped it clean with the sleeve of her blouse. Then the whole process began again with the next bite. Setting my own fruit aside, I watched, smiling, as she went through several bites, enraptured by the delicious flavor and quite unaware of my attention.
"So," I deadpanned, "are they yucky?"
Her nose crinkled with mirth as she looked over at me for the first time since she'd begun to eat. She gazed at the sky for a moment, shrugged and, with a twinkle in her eye, deadpanned, "Yup... they're yucky!" and continued to eat with every indication of relish. When her first pear was gone, she took a couple of bites out of a second, then sat it on her lap and frowned, as if in deep thought. "Stevie?" she asked, "Are people smarter than trees?"
I chuckled at her naive question. "Yes, Audrey. Trees are dumb. They don't have any brains at all. But people have the smartest brains in the world."
"So," she continued, "How are pears made?"
"Well," I said, warming to my role as pedagogue, "They grow on trees, of course, like the one we just got these pears from."
"Can people make pears, too?"
"Well," I said, surprised to find myself getting out of my depth so quickly, "we... uh... we just... don't know how to, I guess!"
"So," she asked, matter-of-factly, "If trees are dumb and people are smart, how come a tree knows how to do something that people don't know how to do?"
"Um...er...uh... Hey look, Audrey!" I piped, hoping to change the subject, "here comes your Mom," as Aunt Betsy appeared around the corner, fresh from her afternoon at the tennis club, clad in a short, white tennis dress and carrying her racket. "Let's show her our pears."
"Mommy! Mommy!" cried Audrey, running to meet Aunt Betsy, still grasping her pear, "Guess what me and Stevie did!? We-"
"WHAT is that in your hand, young lady!" hissed Aunt Betsy, pointing an imperious finger at the half-eaten pear. Audrey's jaw dropped in astonishment at her mother's unexpected anger. She looked at the pear in her hand and then back to her mother, her lips moving as if trying to speak but with no sounds coming out. "WHO gave you permission to eat between meals?!" thundered Aunt Betsy, "You know FULL WELL that that is against the rules, you bad girl!" Poor Audrey looked flabbergasted; clearly it had never occurred to her to think of our hard-won pears as just another forbidden between-meal snack.
"Aunt Betsy," I said, walking over to her with a smile and a fresh pear, "These pears came from the tree over there. Audrey helped me pick them. We picked this one just for you!"
"Get... that... germ ridden... piece of garbage AWAY from me, Steven Matson!" spat Aunt Betsy, her nose wrinkling in distaste as she looked at the pear. Turning in my direction she took a step forward and fixed me with eyes like a cobra about to strike, "I might have known that YOU had something to do with this! You have been nothing but a BAD INFLUENCE on Audrey ever since we moved in here and I'll have you know that I WON'T STAND FOR IT!" She was actually shouting and so completely threw me off guard by her vehemence that I took a step backwards in spite of myself. Closing the distance between us again, Aunt Betsy barked, "I am raising MY DAUGHTER the way I see FIT, and I will NOT tolerate an IMPERTINENT... SPOILED... LAZY... UNDISCIPLINED... twelve-year-old, know-it-all, BRAT to undermine how I choose to do so!" As I opened my mouth to speak, she shouted, "If your father or I behaved like you when we were your age we wouldn't have sat for a WEEK! I told your father you needed a GOOD, HARD PADDLING after your little caper with Audrey last night but HE WOULDN'T HEAR OF IT!" She wheeled to face Audrey again. "And as for YOU, young lady," she began to shout in the same tone, but suddenly checked herself. She breathed deeply and continued in a normal voice, "...you are confined to your room while I get washed and dressed. And when I am done I'm going to come up there and give you a good spanking!" She clapped her hands smartly to emphasize that final word. Audrey burst into tears, dropped her pear, and ran up the garden path to the front door, still weeping as she disappeared inside and headed to her room to await her fate. Fixing me with her most disdainful expression, Aunt Betsy sniffed, turned on her heel and headed up the path towards the door.
When she turned away, it was as if a spell had been broken. I hurried after her. "Aunt Betsy, please, don't punish Audrey. She didn't mean any harm. Those pears were special, we picked them ourselves. You don't understand. We-"
"NO!" she barked, wheeling to face me and advancing to within inches of my face, "YOU don't understand!! YOU don't understand how hard your mother and I work cooking for you. YOU don't understand how WE would feel if you didn't eat what we what we prepared because you'd been stuffing yourselves between meals.!"
"But Aunt Betsy it was just a couple of pears!" I protested, lamely, "Why are you making such a-"
"And what's MORE, young man, I don't want to hear ONE MORE WORD out of YO-O-OU!" She drew out the last syllable, venomously, then spun and walked away without another word, leaving me speechless.
Once she had ascended the big, stone steps and passed through the front door, my capacity for speech returned and my mind flooded with eloquent rejoinders to Aunt Betsy's words. But of course, it was too late. I cursed myself for having let her push me around that way. In my imagination I put her in her place again and again. How dare she speak to me like that! I grew up in this house! I learned to walk on its floors! She was just a poor relation with nowhere else to go! Who did she think she was, moving in here, taking my bedroom, and then talking to me like I was dirt! The more I thought about it, the angrier I got. I couldn't tell at whom I was the maddest, Aunt Betsy for what she had said, or myself for letting her say it. But I sat out in the yard, not wanting to go inside and risk actually meeting Aunt Betsy. I was loath to admit it, but Aunt Betsy had gotten my goat. I was intimidated by her and she knew it. Now it would be even harder to stand my ground against her in the future.
When enough time had gone by that I figured she would be in the shower, I quietly entered by the kitchen door and went up the servants' stairs and through the door into my bedroom. From behind the bathroom door down the hall came the sounds of Aunt Betsy's hairdryer. Faintly, from Audrey's room next door, came the sound of weeping. Numb and dejected, I sat on my bed, staring off into space, still not quite admitting to myself why I had come.