Fruit of the Lemon Tree
Anthony Pusateri was a peace-loving man. The short, stocky devout Roman Catholic lived with his family on 10 acres just outside of Palermo, Sicily. One beautiful Spring morning, Anthony’s wife, Rose, cleared the breakfast table, poured her husband a second cup of coffee, then asked, “Tell me, An-tony, what on earth will I fix for dinner?” Anthony just grunted. She gently patted the thinning hair on his head. “Dear St. Theresa,” she begged. “This is my provider? God bless the soul of a man who won’t shoot a deer or even a rabbit.”
After leisurely sipping his coffee, Anthony responded. “Jesus, Mary and Joseph, woman. If you want meat there’s chickens in the coop.”
“Those hens lay eggs, four of which you just stuffed in your stomach.” The irate wife turned her attention to an antique shotgun resting in the corner. “Why don’t you dust off your father’s blunderbuss? Walk the lemon grove and bring back a clutch of dove.”
Anthony shook his head. "He of the Compassionate Burning Heart has told us, the dove's tender breast belongs attached to the bird not resting on my dinner plate.”
Letting out a loud sigh that spoke of her frustration, Rose begged again, “Dear St. Agnes, protect us. I’m afraid our family will starve, or worse, we’ll become vegetarians.”
“Rose,” Anthony said, his patience finally wearing thin. “If you’re looking to worry then look no further than our lemon trees. Here it is already June, and so far, this year there’s only been a little more than two inches of rain.”
“Have patience, Husband,” Rose said, making a sign-of-the cross. “God will not fail us. He works in mysterious ways.”
“It’s not God who worries me, it’s the sirocco. If we don’t get moisture soon what happens when the hot wind from Africa blows this way?” Rose was silent, so Anthony countered. “I’ll tell you--the thermometer will read forty degrees Celsius.”
Rose shrugged. As she busied herself cleaning off the kitchen table, she laughed and said, “We could always sell the lemon grove and move somewhere besides Sicily.”
“Surely, you joke, woman.” Anthony stared at his wife, who stared back and shook her head ‘no’. “B-but, if we leave Sicily, where will we go?”
“America,” Rose declared. “Those letters you get from your brother, Al. All he talks about is how wonderful it is in America.”
“I know,” Anthony said and chuckled. “Plus how much money he makes, and how smart his kids are.” He laughed out loud. “But us, go to America? Ha. Not in a million years.”
Surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea, Sicily is located just off the southwestern coast of Italy. Over the centuries, the mountainous island that could be mistaken for an irregularly shaped soccer ball, has been kicked around by the Greeks, Romans, Moors and Spaniards, just to name a few. It maintains a constant mean temperature of around sixty-five-degrees Fahrenheit, but in some years rain can become scarce.
Due to the mineral rich soil on his farm, Anthony Pusateri’s trees produced the juiciest lemons on the island. Dozens of lemon trees dotted the rugged terrain. There was also a grove of the everbearing trees that flourished on the south side of the sturdy house that Anthony had built years earlier using stone quarried from the rocky part of his land.
It was during that unusually dry Sicilian Spring of 1879, that a brutal conflict between competing armies was brewing thousands of miles away from Palermo. The Anglo-Zulu War pitted Britain's well-trained, regimented troops against hordes of drug-fueled Zulu warriors, all hell-bent on fertilizing the African soil with white man's blood.
Britannia might have ruled the waves, but the iron men who manned England's wooden ships would often be plagued by spontaneous bleeding and swelling in their legs. It was soon discovered that this physical discomfort, if not properly treated, could eventually lead to death. A deficiency in vitamin C called scurvy had become the scourge of the British Navy. The British naval surgeons’ urgent call to keep the ship’s crew and its military passengers healthy increased the demand for lemons by a hundred-thousand-fold.
As luck, or maybe divine intervention would have it, in that dry year of 1879 there was still enough moisture deep in the ground so that Anthony’s lemon trees produced a bountiful ‘first crop’. The big surprise came when Anthony received over 100 lire for a ton of lemons. But, when the last lemon had been picked, weighed, and all the lire had been counted, Anthony felt that something wasn’t right.
One evening while sitting at the dinner table, he looked up at Rose, and said, “I think we’re missing some lemons. I estimate the total tonnage was off about one-and-a-half ton. Not to mention, we’re several hundred lire light from the last picking.”
“What? Did you just say we’ve been robbed?” Rose asked, ladling marinara sauce onto the ravioli piled high on Anthony’s dinner plate. He nodded and covered the red sauce with grated parmesan cheese. Rose placed the sauce bowl on the table and eyeballed Anthony. “But who would do such a thing? Take our lemons and our money?”
Anthony stabbed a ravioli with his fork, shoved it into his mouth and shook his head.
The very next morning the farm's trusted caretaker, a man who had toiled twenty years for the family, was put on the carpet. “Giuseppe,” Anthony said, his voice low and rumbly. “I know you have harvested lemons from my farm for your own profit. What do you have to say for yourself?” Giuseppe only shrugged. “Well then, if that’s the case, I have to let you go. I will not tolerate a thief on my farm nor in my family.”
By mid-summer, the price for a ton of lemons had shot up so high that the sour yellow fruit was traded as if it was gold, or possibly tulip bulbs. Anthony hired a new caretaker, but a week later the man was found lying face-down in the lemon grove, shot in the head at close-range. And still there was no rain, oh, a few drops here and there, but not enough to bring a bountiful ‘second harvest’.
It was mid-August when Anthony sat at the dinner table savoring his wife’s version of chicken cacciatore. Rose took a place at the table across from her husband, and asked, “Well, what did the police say?”
Anthony looked up and shook his head. “Nothing, Rose. They say nothing. Of course, they say they held an investigation, but they couldn’t find a single suspect.”
Rose made a sign-of-the-cross, and hissed, “It’s that devil, Giuseppe. I tell you Husband, he killed our new caretaker and now he’s out to kill you.”
“I know, I know,” Anthony whimpered, shaking his head. “The situation has become deadly. What are we do to, wife?”
“We fight fire with fire,” she answered.
“But there are many more of them, than there are of us.”
“Them? There’s only that skinny Giuseppe.”
With red pasta sauce still clinging to his lips, Anthony leaned toward Rose and whispered, “The Black Hand.”
“Ha. Surely you don’t believe the silly rumors. The Black Hand is a made-up fairytale meant to scare children.”
“Are you sure, wife?”
“That’s what my aunt Aurora told me.”
“Ha. That old crone? Named after a Roman goddess she is. What does that woman know about anything? I’m telling you, Rose, no good can come of any of this.”
The storm clouds started forming in early September. They weren’t producing any of the wet stuff, yet, but both Anthony and Rose were hopeful. It was around noon when the couple stood on the front porch. Surveying the trees in the grove close to the house, Anthony turned to his wife.
“The fruit looks small now, but if God hears our prayers, there’s still time for them to grow.”
“I’m sure of it, Husband,” Rose said, brushing loose crumbs of freshly rolled dough from her apron. “God will provide for the trees. But now you must be their caretaker.”
Anthony sighed and looked at the antique shotgun at his side. “Do you really think I need to carry this?” he asked.
“Of course,” Rose said, sternly enunciating each word. “What if that Giuseppe tries something funny?”
Anthony shrugged, shouldered the ancient weapon and stepped off the porch. He stopped, turned to Rose and smiled. “I’ll be home shortly,” he said, and headed toward the lemon grove.
Even though the lemon trees were thirsty for a sip of water the green leaves and smallish fruit still produced a sweet organic scent. Strolling along the shady side of a row of trees, Anthony breathed deeply. “Ah, heavenly,” he muttered, while reaching up to pick a misshapen lemon off a withered branch.
Just as he wrapped his fingers around the yellow globe, Anthony felt a sharp sting on the right side of his head. Thinking he’d been stung by a monster wasp, he gingerly touched the sore spot with his fingers. When he looked, his hand was covered with blood.
“My God,” Anthony cried. “I’ve been shot.”
The following week, with his head wrapped in white bandages, Anthony Pusateri sold his lemon farm to Giuseppe’s brother-in-law at a substantial loss. After paying-off his creditors, the ex-lemon farmer used what little money was left in his possession to purchase five tickets on the MS Vulcania. On the morning that the Pusateri family huddled on the dock in Palermo, waiting to board the neglected Italian passenger ship, a bank of storm clouds rolled in from the North. The sky darkened. Jagged bolts of white lightening electrified the air.
There was a metallic crackling sound, then the ship’s loudspeaker came to life. A bosun-mate announced, “The MS Vulcania will now board her passengers.”
Slowly shuffling up the gangplank, carrying a heavy suitcase in each hand, a heavy rain started pounding on Anthony’s bandaged head. He stopped, then turned around to look at Rose. With strips rain-soaked cotton hanging down to his shoulder, the weary Anthony sighed.
“You’re right, Wife,” he said. “God does work in mysterious ways.”