It was April again, and the feet were getting ripe. They hung from our large tree’s lower branches, emitting a scent similar to an old, damp rag, swinging back and forth, slowly, following the direction of the wind. It was only a matter of time before they took shape and touched the ground. By then they would resemble plump apples, but would smell more like frozen air. We were the ones who waited for them. We owned the tree. We knew what to do when the season of bodies began.
The feet were the smallest we had ever seen, even smaller than the fists of babies. They grew back every year, in pairs attached to calves, knees, the shortest of thighs. In a few days we would see their naked bellies: some of them round, others toned, and still others sunken under breasts that were either flat or swelled generously. They had hands that were clasped as if begging, their fingers a line of small bumps stuck together. Below, a clump of hair, and under that the most miniature of genitals. Carved on their backs were the bends of spines, their full, prominent bottoms, the darkened creases on the backs of their knees.
They were beautiful, in a way. It was difficult not to look. Neighbors we hardly knew flocked our home to stare, as if the tree dangled jewels from its branches, or gold. Sometimes a few of them asked to see the bodies up close. Sometimes we let them.
Overnight, the heads would appear. They were covered in wrinkled folds that made them look like prunes. The first batch we had ever gathered had their eyes closed, their expressions as innocent as newborns. The next ones seemed to stare back at us, surprised. They never blinked, or moved, even as we heard them whisper word after word of what seemed like nonsense. None of us understood what they had to say. It was as if they had their own language, one we could never learn.
After a few minutes, they went silent anyway, though we held them close to our ears and shook them as hard as we could. We asked them questions, told them our names, but heard only a thin rattle amidst the sleepy lub-dub of their hearts.
Who were they? The newest bodies spoke as little as the rest. Their eyes and mouths were wide open; their pupils and jaws almost hollow. A few had the dawn of rot upon them, but most had smooth rinds that glistened in the sun. They had moles, scars, even bruises. They fit neatly in our palms, they had this rare balance of softness and toughness that only bodies were known to have. We made sure not to squeeze them too tightly. We had nails that could break through their skin after all. We could easily tear into the pulp and tendons encased within them.
It had become our custom to share the first few baskets with the neighbors. We would invite them to our house, and soon the entire village would gather in our small garden. They would bring paper bags, plates, plastic utensils. They would line up in front of our gate, set up stools and tables. We would chat, our smiles present but forced. Anyone passing by might have mistaken the event for a roadside wake, when, in fact, we were all there to share our good fortune.
We liked to call them fruit. What else would their names have been? They grew from the tree in our yard. They were small and spherical. They had stalks amidst the coarse hair upon their heads, hair that came in the same colors as ours. We didn’t fear them; we understood what they were, and knew what exactly we should do about them.
The fruits were peeled, juiced, dried, and preserved. They even had seeds, one inside each of them, nestled in the chambers of their raw hearts. Those tiny pits were round and black, wrapped in a thin, watery film. We could slice them easily with our white, breakable knives. Soon, we discovered that they tasted vaguely of fisheyes.
Why did we eat them? Why did we let our teeth tear into flesh so similar to ours? We have asked ourselves these questions ever since. Maybe because we believed that it was possible, and that we couldn’t help ourselves.
* * *
Time after time, we grew hungry for them. That was all we needed to know. Everything just became simple, though it wasn’t always so. Back then, we questioned what we knew was wrong. We thought the fruits were simply anomalies, quirks of nature, like the Virgin Mother appearing on a slab of stone, or the national hero manifesting on the flecks of a corn chip. Perhaps we were suffering from an extreme case of pareidolia, a collective hallucination that we just couldn’t shake off.
There were other guesses. Some of us insisted that it was a miracle and called our tree “The Tree of Life.” Others told us that we were cursed and brought us other herbs, other plants, to shake off the spell of bad luck. We ignored them. We were not a religious family, and weren’t that well-liked among the neighbors. We lived in a house devoid of figures and crucifixes. On Sundays, we dined out. Our curiosity leaned towards some form of science, and we knew there were more precise reasons for the way things were.
We investigated. Our daughter spent hours researching strange produce online, even scouring the few ancient books we could get our hands on. She found stories about people worshipping faces in the trees. There were others who offered food to more mischievous gods. Our son confirmed that the information we gathered was mere hearsay. Father and mother agreed that too many of the stories were sensationalized, tales from folks who believed too easily in magic. Other accounts had no bearing on the situation at all, but were told to pass the time.
None of us found answers, only sleepless nights. We stopped working. We left the house in disarray. For hours, we stared at the human-shaped fruit that we left sitting on a pile on the floor. We glanced at them often and felt forced to hold them one by one, scrutinizing the faces that looked like they were on the cusp of waking.
They never did. They stayed immobile until they began to decay. Eventually, we saw them turn ugly. They became shrouded in a fuzz of mold, a dry white froth all over the skin that we couldn’t bear to touch anymore. It stripped away the peels, wrinkled the pink muscles and the dull purple veins within. Their stench, too, became an affront, nauseating and sickly-sweet, like garbage mingling with the familiarly foul odor of a long-dead rat. We knew we couldn’t keep them. We did what we had to do and set fire to them the next morning.
For days the smell lingered. Flies circled the house. People passed by our gates with their hands covering their mouths. Some called us on the phone and complained, but soon let go of the matter. We all persisted. Each of us was aware of how human it was to adapt.
When the tree bore fruit the following year, we decided to give them away. We plucked them from the branches, polished them until they glinted and gleamed. We handed them out to those who could not resist free gifts, convinced them of the fruits’ decorative purposes. We were sure that the more people took them, the quicker we would find uses for them. Several neighbors refused. Others hesitated, though with some coaxing, agreed. With their support and penchant for gossip, interest in the fruits grew.
Everyone had ideas for that second batch. We thought to sprinkle them with salt to make them last longer. We also tried to bury them. When nothing grew, we dug them back out and dusted the soil off their skin. They had turned soft as boiled potatoes, so we mashed them, placed them in bowls with a sprinkling of spices. Some of us rubbed the mush on various surfaces, trying to discover better effects. A few claimed that the fruits were cleaning agents or beauty scrubs, though most of us saw them for what they were: a perishable item to dust off and put away.
For days, the fruits sat in our homes untouched. But among those who accepted them, one family had young children. They lived a few houses away from us. Our kids knew theirs from school. We had been in one another’s dining rooms, had broken bread and chatted with others at their table. One day, their only daughter took a bite out of the small, round body, mistaking it for an apple. She kept chewing, oblivious, even as blood and spit dribbled down her chin. It was only as she passed by their dining room mirror that she realized what she had done. She looked at the fruit in her hand, at the cavities and dents tinged with the same liquid that ran through her veins. She brought it up to her face to inspect each tunnel, each unknown curve and bend.
She said she had never witnessed anything like it before. She was too young. But we were old enough and knew better. We knew that what she saw was each of us: our untouched insides, our secret caverns. We thought of ourselves caught between her jaws; the bits and pieces that made us all the same, digested in her small frame. It was us who disappeared into her stomach, squeezed into places none of us could ever truly reach.
We had hoped to ask her what the fruit tasted like, but we felt like we already knew. We knew the warm slickness that came from a kiss, the pressure in licking the necks of our lovers or the blood off our split lips. We had nibbled on ears, sucked on tongues. Our teeth had felt the force of fists. We should not have been so surprised when we discovered how right we were.
It was, as the family recounted humorously weeks later, a stupid idea to place the body in the fruit bowl, but it turned out to be lucky. The girl’s first taste made us certain that the fruits were not poisonous. They caused no harm, only effects that we could steel ourselves against.
We tried them cautiously at first, but each bite burst in our mouths, crisp, the way most fruits were. The juices were pure, like fresh but colored water. They cooled and heated our gums. We gnawed through their yellow globules of fat, their stringy leathers of tissue. We came to know how close flesh was to the crunch of bones. We swallowed until we understood what it was that the girl had described to us.
“Everything is syrup, then it all turns to a stop,” she said, confused, as she continued to consume the fruit in her hands.
We would have said it better. We would have said that it brought all of us an uncertain peace, the world being massaged into submission. We would have said it was hopeful somehow, a restlessness dulling our surroundings, giving us passage to a shaky dwelling we knew so little of.
The fruits taught us what it meant to hover between starts and standstills, to breathe within an edge. The bodies made ours slower, but they gave us lightness too, a softness. There was no resistance in the sensation. There was only buoyancy.
We learned to welcome it. We had been living our lives so quickly that we had forgotten the existence of this liminal space, how to float in the indefinite and accept it for what it was. There was a buzz in it, the stirring of an idea that we could do anything we wanted, or didn’t even want, as long as we were caught in its flutter. We didn’t see or hear anything anymore. We only felt.
Mother felt too dazed to experience her prominent back pains. She spent her days stretching, reaching towards the ceiling and down towards her toes. Father felt ready to dance again, even amidst the mayhem of his office. Son and daughter couldn’t focus on their schoolwork, almost incurred our wrath for their slipping grades. But both came home looking just as pleased as we had been after a few bites of the fruit.
We saw less and less of each other, and when we did, we told each other our experiences. We tried to explain it as best we could. Other parents chewed the fruit on their calmest nights, looking to make their lives more exciting. Young couples claimed it multiplied their deepest desires, left them wanting and wanting more. Once, a lonely widow mixed the fruit with mangoes and turned it into jam. She had it for breakfast and spent the rest of her day tingling with – what, she didn’t know. No one did. She could only claim that she’d felt the silhouette of her dead husband, his arms touching her once more, and still she couldn’t be sure. She thought to compare it to the moment when, as a child, she stood on tiptoe upon the fulcrum of a seesaw, shaking there, almost weightless.
There was also a man who had baked the fruit into a pie. He told us about how he started observing clocks with more focus. He pointed to the second hand, how it had been as stuck as he was, quivering between the numbers three and four. He had wanted to step in with it, mimic its stilted movements. But he had eaten his share of the fruit. He couldn’t return to that state until he had more.
Children brought slices of it to school. Teenagers popped chunks of it in their mouths, even as they crossed our streets. Teachers were awed by the decline in trouble among them, the lack of their noise in the halls. But some of the teachers, too, had been eating the fruit. We knew from the twitches in their eyes, their bodies’ refusal to stay completely still. We found them entranced in hallways, in parks, their faces often in a blur as they stood by their windows at night, their lights flickering on and off.
Headaches seemed to waver, as did other minor ailments. The fruits were said to have cleared acne, could turn our locks of hair more lush. There were other rumors; we couldn’t keep track of them all. We kept finding something new about the fruits everyday, and we didn’t stop looking.
Since then, our neighbors have shared recipes and tips among themselves. Slices were ground and grated over pasta, sautéed with garlic and fried with day-old rice. We carried bite-sized pieces in bags, brought them to the movies, where we couldn’t see what it was we were actually eating. We paid little attention to the stains of red on our chins. We blotted them out with tissue paper, which we balled up and threw away to hasten our forgetting.
The bodies became such a big part of our lives. We ate them and savored them, our months spent in constant flashes of levity and the lure of contentment. Some of us constructed schedules around the experience: one bite in the morning before going off to work, another in the middle of the day. We knew that a few nibbles would send us trembling for hours. But we also knew to leave the seeds for last. They were the most potent. They could knock us out, and we never knew when they would take effect.
That year, each of us learned control. We were sure we did.
* * *
During the party, we expected the same sense of delight. It was the third year of the tree bearing fruit, and none of us could miss it. We called the neighbors into our home during those last few hours of sunlight. We didn’t invite anyone else. No friends, no relatives or strangers. We were all we needed. We closed our gates, kept to ourselves. We didn’t dare risk anyone finding out and taking the bodies from us.
Our son and daughter doled them out at the party, making sure each person had at least two. Some would pocket them for later, others would eat them on the spot. Some sat in groups, chatted a little, but all of us knew why we were there.
Soon, our small garden became crowded with people in pause. Their eyes were wide, their mouths were open, but each one was as silent as the fruit they ate. We didn’t mind. We had allowed ourselves the same pleasure. We had been chewing the bodies throughout the day: a salty shoulder, a succulent toe. We realized that the sensation didn’t last as long as it used to. We would only feel the tremble of it for half an hour, and would transition back into our normal states until we had another bite.
We didn’t think that we would all crave the fruit so much. A few kids tried to line up twice. Elders claimed they had misplaced their share. We knew each of their faces and stopped them. We had a system to obey.
Once, however, a teenage girl asked to switch. She showed us the pair we had given her: a man and a woman, average but perfectly ripe. She told us that she didn’t want them; she would rather choose from the basket herself.
“I’d like to find two I can love,” she said. We let her do as she pleased, what was the harm, and she ended up taking fruits with the darkest hair, with faces so beautiful you had to look at them twice if you passed them on the street. The girl stood before us and licked the fruit-woman’s cheek. Already we could tell she was in her own state of rapture.
Others followed suit. They picked and chose, until all that was left were the scarred bodies, those with faces that were either so ordinary or unspeakably deformed. It made no difference to us. We kept those to ourselves. What we were truly after were their effects, and looks had nothing to do with it.
Soon, night fell, but a handful of our neighbors still hadn’t left our home. Men and women stood among our pots and vases, their eyes in spasms, whites staring up at the sky. Their chins dripped red; their mouths and shoulders were slack. Kids, too, were caught in a stunted sort of movement, as if each was a statue being constantly remade.
We were sure that one bite of the fruit couldn’t leave anyone like that for so long. We knew hovering was not meant to last. We tried to shake them awake, snapped our fingers before their faces. We even tried calling their names, but none of them responded.
Something had gone wrong. In their greed, they had eaten the fruits in their entirety, from the tender skin to the seeds within. We didn’t know when the limbo would leave them, or what we could do to pull them out of it. Still, we did what we could. We didn’t want to abandon them there after all.
We attempted to drag them into safer spots of our house. The couch, the chairs indoors. None of the people could be moved. We could only watch over them, make sure nothing worse would occur. But as we watched they rose, twelve or so of our neighbors, floating an inch above the ground. They were suspended like swings, fruits from a tree that was missing. They dangled in mid-air and they didn’t seem to be rising any further. They were simply stuck there, hanging in the never-settling tremors caused only by what they had eaten.
We had not expected this. We had watched one another before, had seen each other glide into a different state of consciousness as we swallowed each bite. Our eyes had been open; pupils were rolled back into the dim light of sockets. Then, delight. That was after one bite. More, and we would be asleep all night, not knowing how much time had been taken from us.
“They’ve started to breed!” we heard someone say from outside our gate. It was the girl from earlier, calling out to us as she held her fruits in one hand. The couple she took from us trembled in each other’s bright arms, merging into a single fruit that lay shaking on top of her palm. She wanted to return it. She couldn’t force herself to bite it or keep it any longer.
We didn’t know that the fruits could fall in love so easily. We didn’t know as much as we thought we did.
We left the fruit-couple on our kitchen table. As the girl turned to leave, she asked us about what had happened to the others. We could only tell her what little we discovered, how these people appeared to have overlooked the basic rule of eating the bodies.
She walked over to look at them, and held the now-smooth hands of the oldest woman in our village. She tried to shake her awake, as we had. She checked her pulse, her temperature. She did the same to several others until one of the hoverers laughed. We barely heard it. The child had a small voice. But soon his laughter grew louder, and all the dangling neighbors joined in. They cackled, their mouths still agape, each one lacking the curves of a smile. There was no joy in the sound. There was no cruelty either. But it droned on, steady, a rumble surrounding us, never changing its pitch.
The girl ran for help. She left our gate open and knocked on every other door in the village, begging for a response. Some answered, concerned about the laughter that disrupted their quiet, fruit-filled nights. Others were found already hovering in their living rooms, dangling over fancy rugs or bare floors.
Among those still conscious, none of us was equipped to handle the strange affair. We gathered outside, in our yard, trying to figure out what would become of the hoverers, and of us, those they left behind.
One or two kept watch over their suspended family members. Some popped pieces of the fruit in their mouths, hoping to join in the limbo of their lost kin. They burst into tears minutes later, realizing that the effects had worn off too fast. We had to intervene. We stopped them from eating the bodies whole. We forced them to hand them over. We pleaded with them to go home.
They refused, claiming that all of it was our fault. They accused us of delivering the fruits to them. They said we had infected the innocent. We saw the blame in each of their gazes, in the fingers that they pointed towards us.
A woman said that the fruit made her hear her own voice in her head, and it told her that she would amount to nothing. A teenage boy claimed he had never begun to question his sexuality until then. Children suffered through nightmares of endless falling; parents had forgotten if they’d put their kids to bed that night, tossing and turning in their own beds, wondering and wondering.
How anxious they had all become since the fruits were eaten. We saw no mercy in their conviction, but we had nothing to say. What would we apologize for? We only wanted to give, to share. We didn’t even know where the fruit had come from or what it could really do. We could not tell them how long the tree had been there, for it had always been there, rooted in its spot ever since we moved in. We only wanted others to enjoy the fruit-bodies, to admire the taste of such firm skin on their tongues, of the stupor and pleasure in every bite.
The crowd didn’t listen. They raised their voices and fists at us, demanded justice for what had transpired. They yelled amidst the drone, fusing their anger with the unceasing cackles of their fellows. Some of them gripped the fruits they had taken and flung them towards our home. Some hit the laughing hoverers, but they took aim at us as we ran to hide. We tried to shield ourselves from them, rushing back inside the house, but with this their vengeance escalated. They stormed our yard, insisted we pay for our transgression.
We didn’t know what to do next. They were coming for us, their fists pounding on our doors, their voices worse than those of the hoverers. We barricaded every entrance, dragged tables and chairs towards the windows for cover. We leaned on the hurdles that we had placed, pushing against a crowd asking for something that wasn’t ours to give.
It was then that we noticed that our son had shifted consciousness. His eyes were glassy, completely white. He had splatters of blood on his shirt, bright red bursts we were sure belonged to someone else. He was crouched under a table like we were, but he floated, an inch above the ground like the others. Had he eaten the fruit whole? Was he hit too many times? We couldn’t say. We only knew what we thought we wanted, and how we could return to the place where we found peace.
Mother picked fruit after fruit from the floor, body after body. Father gathered all of them in front of us, an entire basket’s worth. There were more than we thought. Some of the fruits had already merged. A few had started to grow a third fruit between them. We thought about those still lying on the ground outside, how the people tore them apart, fruit families that they willingly threw at us in retribution.
There was little left for us to do. We opened our mouths.
Neobie Gonzalez is from Manila, Philippines. Her works have appeared in Kritika Kultura, Juked, Used Gravitrons, and others. She is also co-editor of the online prose journal Plural (www.pluralprosejournal.com).