It was bad enough that his mother was dying. Her eyes went yellow and she moaned all night. The scar between her thumb and wrist bone opened again, and a livid wound lived there, unsealed, obscene, and red. The same darkening blood seeped from her pores, speckling her arms and legs with clot-red spots, small as pinched ticks. But her mouth was the worst of it: he watched her thirsty tongue shrivel and split, her teeth gone soft and twisted as salt-hills, brown triangles spreading across her gums.
It was bad enough that his mother was dying, but then she started talking about fruit.
“I’d give anything for an orange,” she’d whisper, licking her parched lips while he passed the damp rag across her forehead. “Just an orange. Seeds, or seedless, I don’t care! To peel one and let that zest smell hit me in the nose. We used to buy them by the dozen. They came in segments, little segments. Big as an ear and filled to burst with juice.”
When he fed her, twice a day, he rolled spent tubes of nutrient paste into tiny, silver scrolls to force the last tastes out. He spent precious rainwater drowning her fevers, hauled her bedside pail away and sloshed its mess on their dying tree. Sometimes he lingered in the yard, watching the yellow sky through the crooked branches, even as she called his name.
He squeezed a tear of blue goo on her pink and cracking tongue, his own stomach grumbling.
She shut her lips and closed her eyes and sucked, remembering. A wet kissing sound slapped behind her nose.
“Blueberry,” she croaked.
Phoo, poo—she tried to spit it from her mouth.
“If only you could know,” his mother said, “how much this is not blueberry. This is the ghost of blueberry. A real blueberry is plump and juicy as a pinky toe. It’s sweet with just a little kiss of sour. But this is bubble gum.”
She threw herself into a fit of hacking coughs.
“Go out there,” she croaked. “Find me something. Real fruit. An orange. But I’d take an apple. I’d take a single grape. Oh,” she said, and gave a long, unholy groan, “I want to taste real fruit again before I die. I don’t care what you have to do—just get it.”
He dabbed the wet rag at her forehead and whispered hushing sounds. But when he finally left the house to pace the open air by the sulfur pits, sucking the pebble he used to stem his cravings, a stuck sob widened in his throat.
• • •
The boy had never tasted fruit in his whole life. When his mother grew too sick to work, he tied a bandanna around his head and waited in the slog farm lines. He was underage but passed through the checkpoint with her ID and no one looked. He’d made a friend there, Zamir, an older kid with dark and dancing eyes. Zamir knew why sulfur smelled the way it did, how mosquitoes’ wings whined with tinny noise.
“Zamir,” he said once, as they shoveled through the muck. “My mother wants a piece of fruit.”
Zamir laughed: a wild, high whinny.
“You know what I’d like?” he said, and started to unspool his dream of citrus tarts and endless bottled water.
“Listen– she’s dying.”
Zamir planted his shovel in the muck.
“Dying?” he said.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “My parents too. I know.”
They began their work again, listening to their shovels slurping through the mud.
Then Zamir said, “From the bridge by the waste lake you can jump on passing trains. Two stops away people have money. You might find a good store—steal her something.”
The boy looked at his palms. They were covered in hardened blisters that jutted like too-tight bones.
• • •
He perched on top of the whistling train and when it slowed he rolled over the rounded edge, fell to the ground and ran. A line of tall street lamps led him through the darkening gloom, then he crept along a row of ruined houses. Blue-and-white leaves of plastic wrappers swept in flurries through the wind. He saw no stores. Above a hill, a broken sign blinked SALE SALE SALE.
But as he crossed a high bridge over the inky lake he found himself in a neighborhood like Zamir had promised.
Here were wealthy houses, winged and wide: their windows glowing with orange light. A fence of girded wrought-iron spears hemmed them from the road. In the dark, he felt for miles along the border, testing the might of the cool, hard rungs with his hands.
He spent the night in a cove under the bridge, shaking under a blanket of rustling, scooped-up leaves. A blanched moon howled over the oily water. In the morning the air was light and his clothes were soiled. His mother would be crying for him. He flung a rock across the gorge and howled a curse.
The boy was halfway down the ridge again when he saw it: a stubborn little bush with a dozen purple berries hanging in a mess of thorns. He ran and knelt, plucked one from the vine—thick as a grub—popped it in his mouth and bit. The juice broke on his tongue and stung his lips with wet and sweet. He tore another from its twig, and another, and again. It was only when the bush was bare, and his hunting fingers found just leaves and thorns, that he realized what he’d done. When he rattled the bush, nothing fell. He’d plucked it clean. So he lowered his gaze and slunk away, sucking the purple dye that stained his hands, his belly, for the first time, full.
When he pushed through the door into his home again, he heard her coughing out his name. He ran to her bed and she held him weeping with bone-thin arms. It was bitter to hear her, the way she cried for berries, for apples, and for lemons, in her final days. But far more bitter still was what he’d tasted, the way he’d come to share her hunger in his heart.