THE ALMOND ORCHARD
Glass skyscrapers were inexplicable to me when I was a kid.
Whenever we drove to San Francisco, I’d crane my neck to look up at them. Dad would tell me to face forward so I wouldn’t get carsick, but I couldn’t help myself. Later, when I puked in the parking lot after we got to the hospital, he’d thrust a wad of tissues at me and grumble: “Are you done yet? I’ve got enough to worry about with your sister.”
One minute Caitlin would be skipping through the trees singing to herself, and the next she’d go stiff and start twitching like a freshly caught fish. The doctors did their best to adjust her meds, but they either didn’t work or made her so sluggish she’d nod off before dinner and then wake up cranky and ravenous in the middle of the night. Living with her was like walking through a haunted house while bracing yourself for the ghoulish props to lunge out and startle you.
Scrutinizing the outlandish steel and glass structures of the city became an escape for me. I was fascinated by the way they changed color depending on the weather and the time of day, from shimmery blue and green when the sun was shining to steel gray when the fog hung low. At sunset, when we left the hospital, they would turn such inconceivable shades of copper and gold that I’d grab Dad’s phone and snap pictures until my stomach started to lurch again.
Even back then, I knew that glass was brittle. I knew it couldn’t bend and crinkle like the shiny aluminum foil Dad used to wrap up leftover lasagna. What I couldn’t understand was why the people who designed such tall buildings chose something so fragile to clad them in. Was it because it made them glimmer like jewels?
I could never get enough of gazing up at the soaring geometrical shapes that made up the jagged edge of the skyline.
“Dad,” I’d say. “What building is that?”
“I don’t know, Robin, I need to keep my eyes on the road.”
“What difference does it make?” Caitlin said from the back seat. “They all look the same anyway.”
“Just be glad you’ll never have to work in one of those monstrosities, girls.”
When Caitlin needed a brain scan, we took her to a neurology clinic in a high-rise building. I ran to the window as soon as the elevator doors opened and pressed my forehead to the glass.
“Wow, you can see the whole city!”
Caitlin’s eyes glazed over. “Yeah, nice view.”
“Look, Dad! There’s the Transamerica Pyramid!” I scanned the view for other landmarks to point out. “Dad?”
He was still standing in front of the elevator and his face had turned the color of horchata.
I stopped talking to him about skyscrapers after that.
But when Dad was running our 150-acre almond orchard, he was completely at ease. Overcoming challenges like mite infestations, crop-withering droughts, and a dearth of honeybees had shored up his confidence in his ability to nurture the family business.
At harvest time, he’d have Tony drive him through the property to check if the trees were ready to be shaken, stopping at each row and jiggling a branch to see how many almonds would fall to the ground. He’d make a note on his clipboard and then move on to the next row, while Tony drove alongside in the truck, taking care not to stir up too much dust.
A few days later, workers would start making their way through the orchard with the shaking machine. It had a big clamp on it like a crab’s claw that grabbed the trunk of each tree and shook it for a few seconds, unleashing a raucous shower of almonds.
After all the trees had been shaken and the almonds had dried on the ground for a few days, the sweeping machines would come around to gather them in the middle of the rows, and then the harvesting machines would scoop them all up for processing.
Caitlin and I weren’t allowed to play in the orchard during harvest time. Not because the machinery was dangerous, but because Dad didn’t want us tromping on the almonds drying on the ground. I liked to watch the machines from our house, though. Their jerky movements reminded me of droids. I used to draw pictures of them with human features and make up stories about the characters I’d created: Shirley the Shaker and Harry the Harvester. They were in love.
For a few weeks in early spring, the modest-looking trees were embellished with pink and white blossoms. From a distance it looked like someone had strewn cotton candy from the sky and little chunks of it had gotten stuck in the trees. Bloggers and amateur fashion mavens drove around the valley looking for photoshoot locations, never failing to stop and check out our place.
While I preferred the harvest season with all the brawny machinery, Caitlin came into her element during the blossom season. Whenever she spotted anyone posing in the orchard, she’d let down her long wavy hair, put on a flouncy dress, and wander around outside pretending to look for the cat. She couldn’t get enough of people oohing and aahing over how adorable she was.
One afternoon when the trees were frothing with blossoms, a tired-looking silver hatchback pulled up in front of the house and sat there idling. Caitlin noticed it from the window and rushed to get changed. Right after she stepped outside, a woman with the same reddish-brown hair as mine got out of the car.
Caitlin fluttered around the yard, calling, “Bella, Beeeeeeeellaaaaaaa! I’ve got some kitty treats for you!”
The woman just stood there gawking at her like a creep. Was she stalking my sister?
But then I saw her mouth moving.
Caitlin froze. I knew I should have called Dad, but instead I lurked inside the front door where they couldn’t see me.
Even though I’d never heard anyone call my sister Katie before, it didn’t sound jarring at all. In fact, it almost sounded familiar.
My mother had left when Caitlin was six and I was four. No matter how much I scoured my memory, I couldn’t summon up a clear image of her. Dad always told us she moved to L.A. because she got an important job there, and I used to fantasize that she’d become a high-powered lawyer or FBI agent like the ones on TV. But this woman looked nothing like the mother I’d imagined. She had short messy hair and was wearing faded jeans and a loose mango-colored shirt.
Caitlin’s arms were dangling by her sides. She took tiny steps, edging a little closer to the woman, but not close enough to reach out and touch. The woman kept one hand on the handle of her car door.
“Katie, is that really you? You’re so tall.”
Caitlin looked down at her feet.
“Is your dad here?”
“He’s in the office.”
The woman let go of the handle. “I’ve missed you so much, Katie. I’m sorry I had to leave.”
Caitlin’s mouth was a hard straight line.
“Have you been okay?” The woman’s eyes traveled down to Caitlin’s feet and back up to her face again.
Caitlin said, “Are you coming home?”
The woman stepped closer to Caitlin and crouched down so their faces were at the same level. I strained to hear what she was saying. She stared into Caitlin’s dark brown eyes as if searching for something and slowly shook her head from side to side as she spoke. When Caitlin glanced toward the house, the woman straightened up and reached for Caitlin’s arm.
Caitlin spun around and bolted for the trees. The woman got back in her car. I saw her face contort as she wiped it with the heel of her hand. When she backed out and sped away, I felt like something sharp had been thrust deep into my chest.
That night Caitlin had her worst seizure yet.
When I got to high school, I had my first real encounter with glass. Our main project for art class was to create a stained-glass panel. First we drew our designs on graph paper, and then we picked out pieces of glass to cut and solder together with lead. I originally drew a city skyline backed by a vivid blue sky and an orange sun, but Mrs. Endicott said the design was too complicated, so I settled for a simple almond blossom. When I looked through the boxes of glass, though, none of it was the right color.
“Just pick the closest shade you can find,” Mrs. Endicott said.
“I guess I’ll just use clear then. All the pinks are too bright.”
But the next day, Mrs. Endicott showed me a catalog and said she could place a special order for whatever shade I wanted. I chose the palest pink they had.
Cutting the glass was my favorite part of the project. Some kids couldn’t stand the scraping sound of the glass cutter, but I loved the sensation of scoring the glass and the clean snap when it broke in two.
After we finished the stained-glass project, we could work on whatever we wanted. I sketched buildings in black ink and filled them in with watercolor washes. Mrs. Endicott gave me some pointers on perspective and brought in magazines with photos of city skylines. The more I studied them, the more I wanted to learn about the structures beneath the glass facades.
Dad did a double take when he spotted my drawings in the art room on back-to-school night. He’d said the glass panel was pretty when I took it home, but he’d never seen any of my architectural sketches.
“Robin’s very talented at drafting, and she has a great sense of color,” Mrs. Endicott told him. “You must be very proud.”
Dad scrunched up his forehead as he studied the drawings. “Uh-huh.”
“She has such a bright future ahead of her.”
“Robin, what makes you so interested in cityscapes?” Dad asked that night at dinner. “I thought you’d want to draw more nature scenes.”
“What?” Caitlin said. “What cityscapes?”
“I just like the way buildings look.”
“Don’t you like the way trees look?”
“I can like both, can’t I?” My voice sounded so feeble.
“Well, art’s fine as a hobby, but your biology teacher said you need to work harder if you’re going to take AP Physics. We’re counting on you to be our machinery expert.” He looked at me the way he looked at Tony when he was telling him what to do. “Caitlin’s going to be our VP of marketing, aren’t you sweetie?”
Whenever Dad talked about his plans for the three of us, I felt like I was suffocating.
Originally from the United States, Sascha Udagawa spent most of her childhood in the United Kingdom and has lived the bulk of her adult life in Japan. She is currently employed as an editor and Japanese-to-English translator in Tokyo and has studied creative writing at Temple University Japan and UCLA Extension. This story is an excerpt from her novel in progress.