The couple had thirteen children by the time they were finished siring. One by one, as each child came of age, they were sent out into the world to seek their fortunes and their purposes for themselves. To each child their parents gave one gift to help them on their way. And upon receiving their gifts, each child proclaimed their grand aims.
To the firstborn went a bag of gold coins. Her parents did not dream they would have another child in those days, so their gift was a rich one. Their firstborn proclaimed that she would double those coins and double them again, and again, until she became wealthiest woman in all the land. And then she would acquire for her parents whatever their hearts desired.
When the second child was born, he received the gift of his parent’s sturdiest steed. The secondborn child proclaimed that he would study and practice and ride, until he become the greatest horseman in all the land. When all who adored him would ask him how he had become so accomplished, he would shift his great renown to his parents, and they would be praised for raising such an extraordinary son.
When the third child was born, she received the gift of magic potions. The potions were of high quality, but of no use to her parents, who had never learned to use them. The third child proclaimed that she would become the greatest magician in the realm, and conjure unique things for her parents, things that money could not buy and that renown could not match.
And on and on it went. Each child received a gift, as valuable a gift as their parents could manage. For with the coming of each child, there was less and less of value for the couple to offer.
By the time the thirteenth child was born, his parents had given away all the most valuable gifts. All they had left to give was a basket of lemons.
Unlike his siblings, the thirteenth child, whose name was Rodney, did not proclaim grand aims and did not make spectacular promises to his parents.
The lemons in the basket were of high quality—as were all the gifts his parents gave. But a lemon of high quality was not as valuable as a magic potion of high quality.
And the basket only contained nine lemons.
Rodney had not the slightest idea how he might turn nine lemons into great riches or great renown. He could not begin to consider how he might inspire wonder or awe with nine lemons. He could not even fathom that he might purchase a night of sleep in the stables of a common inn, much less a lifetime of wages, from nine lemons.
When his siblings learned of his gift, a few of them came to visit him. They attempted to advise him, as their own elder siblings had done for them when they first received their gifts and left home for the first time.
One of them suggested that Rodney find a monarch or a noble or even just a wealthy merchant who had a taste for lemons, and insinuate his way into their favor, thereby securing a patron. His siblings noted that the lemons were of quite good quality, which was strange, because no one knew where their parents had gotten them. The family owned no orchards or fields. Rodney suspected that his parents bought the lemons at the last minute, not knowing what to give him.
Another sibling suggested that Rodney go find their thirdborn sister, the magician, and learn some spectacular spell using lemons. Their color was rich and their aroma was fragrant, moreso than common lemons. They were certainly enchanting. Perhaps they were enchanted as well.
Still another sibling claimed he had heard of stories where lemons could be traded for goods and even lands in the hidden fairy markets. (And when Rodney pressed his brother on where he might find such a hidden market, he received vague answers about dancing in rings of mushrooms under the light of a crescent blue moon.)
But after listening to his siblings’ grand and extravagant ideas, Rodney decided that he would repay his parents with humble offerings.
He kept safe the basket of lemons while he traveled out to the country and found a field where he might begin his orchard of lemon trees. He bargained with the family who held a claim to the field, so that he might live upon and work upon the land. He picked through the basket of lemons, choosing the four that seemed the most common, and he planted all the seeds he found within those lemons.
All the while, he wondered how he might repay his parents for raising him by using their own gift to him.
He pondered what his mother and father actually enjoyed of life.
His father had a sweet tooth and loved cakes. So Rodney decided that he would find the best recipe for a lemon cake and make one for his father. He preserved the zest and the juice from the lemons whose seeds he had planted.
The lemon seeds began to grow right away, and that gave Rodney some comfort.
Then he wondered what he could do for his mother. He had always had more difficulty choosing gifts for his mother. He wondered if he might turn the lemon oils into a fragrance. But his mother did not like fragrance at all. Over the years, she had collected the many perfumes her children had gifted her and placed them in a drawer that she rarely ever opened.
He thought of other lemon desserts he could bake—tarts and custards and candies. If the trees in his orchard bore fruit, he would have bushels of lemons to make into sweets.
But his mother did not like sweets as his father did.
As he wondered how he might present the best lemons to his mother, he thought to himself, If only the lemons were flowers, for she might like them if they were flowers.
And he began to wonder if the blossoms from a lemon tree were pretty, for if they were, he could give them his mother. Or rather, he could bring her to walk in his orchard, for his mother had once delighted in plucked flowers, but now preferred to see them in the wild, alive amongst their companions.
From the seeds he had planted grew tender yet strong shoots.
So Rodney decided that he would plant the rest of the lemons he had been given too. For the remaining five lemons were even more vibrant and fragrant than the first four. Surely they would yield more robust trees with the highest quality fruit.
But when the time came for his to cut open those five lemons, he hesitated. For some reason, he could not bring himself to slice through the skin of yellow so jolly and vivid, a yellow whose gentle warmth comforted his weary hands. He lay each lemon on a wooden table inside the empty barn beside his little home, and gazed upon them, raising his knife and bracing himself for the task. One of the lemons rolled off the table and fell to the ground before he could catch it. The grass bent around the lemon, seeming to cradle it and hide it from Rodney.
“Tomorrow,” said Rodney. There was no rush to plant more seeds after all. He placed the lemons back in their basket and left them in the barn.
He thought of what his sibling had said, how the lemons seemed enchanted. Indeed, they had not rotted or shriveled as common lemons would have in all the time that Rodney had possessed them. He wondered if it might be wise for him to seek his thirdborn sister’s advice after all.
That night he drafted a letter to his magician sister, and decided that he would keep safe his last five lemons while he waited for her reply.
The next morning, he went out to fetch the lemons and found that the basket had been tipped over, and all five lemons lay in the grass.
And they truly lay in the grass, for the grass seemed to have grown around them, as if hiding, sheltering, and keeping warm the lemons.
Rodney knelt and reached out to pluck one of the lemons up, but found that he would have had to tear and tug to free the lemon from the grasses’ embrace.
“Curious,” he whispered. He reached for another lemon, and found that it was similarly entwined in grass and cradled in the rich soil beneath.
He had work to do in his orchard, so he let the five lemons be, and went about his work.
When he returned in the evening, the lemons were buried even farther in the ground. He could only see glimpses of their vibrant yellow skins peeking through the overlapping blades of grass.
Rodney decided to let them be and check on them again in the morning.
The next morning, he found nothing where the five lemons had fallen. When he placed his hand on the grass and earth, he felt not even a lump. His hand formed a claw by instinct, but he resisted the urge to dig up the earth to try and find the lemons.
For a few days, Rodney wondered about the lemons. He wondered if he should plan to disassemble the barn, for there might soon perhaps be five great lemon trees growing in the soil, great enchanted lemon trees. They had been close together. He hoped their roots would not interfere with each other. He wondered what kind of lemons would grow from enchanted lemon trees.
He had not yet sent a letter to this magician sister. Perhaps he should invite her to visit to help him care for the enchanted lemon trees.
Even as his orchard of common lemon trees began to fruit and to blossom, a mark of his honest labor, Rodney wondered what wonders he might reap from the five enchanted trees that must surely soon be sprouting from the earth in his barn. Perhaps he would have a spectacular gift for his parents after all.
On the fifth morning after he found the five lemons on the ground, Rodney went to the barn and found the most unexpected fruit from the planting.
Five babies, covered in soil, but laying above the earth, squirmed as they woke. Rodney gaped. It was a mild morning, but the earth was chill. He dropped to the ground and swept the babies up in his arms, placing them on the wooden table, and searching for something to swaddle them in. Right away he noted that the babies seemed unusual. Each baby’s skin was warm despite the slight chill of a spring morning. None of them cried. Their complexions varied, from pale to dark. And their features varied, save for one quality. They all had bright amber eyes. And they all smelled of fresh lemons.
Rodney brought the babies into his little house, but he did not know what he should do. He could go into town and ask the constable if anyone’s babies were missing. But he feared for a moment that he would be accused of kidnapping the babes. And then he watched them watching him with their golden eyes, and he realized that they were not kidnapped, they were enchanted.
“Are you…fairies?” he asked the babies. One of them giggled and kicked his feet.
Rodney was out of his depth. He made a thick bedding in a wagon he had borrowed to carry lemons into market, and he placed the five babies in the wagon. He decided to go into town with the five babies, but not to visit the constable.
Though he had aimed to grow a gift to bring his mother, he had instead grown a problem to bring to her.
With two babies in his arms, two in his father’s arms, and one in his mother’s arms, Rodney explained to his parents all that had happened with the five lemons.
“Though you did not plant them, these seeds fell upon your earth,” his mother replied. “Now you must care for what has grown out of them.”
“But I am not ready to be a father!”
His mother gazed down at the two babies in her arms. Their each smiled up at her and their golden eyes twinkled.
She looked up at Rodney. “Then perhaps someone else is.”
So Rodney went to the center of town that very day, to find out where he might leave the babies so that they could be accepted into other families and cared for as well as they deserved.
On his way, he tended to the babies as best he could, having taken advice from his mother and father on the care of babes. He fed them goats’ milk, for he had no mother’s milk to give. The babies seemed to enjoy the milk. They smiled and burbled and giggled. They made charmingly mischievous expressions, but did no actual mischief. Never did they cry. Of this, Rodney was suspicious, but he carried on.
When he went to feed one of the babies, she grasped his forefinger in all of her fingers and held on with such unexpected strength that his heart froze for a beat, before she let go.
One of the boys laughed and kicked his legs as if dancing a jig, when Rodney checked if the babies had soiled the diapers that his mother had taught him to wrap around their bottoms. None had, though it had been a few hours since their first feeding. Rodney did not know if that was strange or typical.
When he inquired about what he might do with the babies, Rodney was first pointed to an orphanage, which he wished to avoid, then to a child employer, whom he found distasteful, and then to a schoolmaster.
The schoolmaster had, at last, the kindly face and ease with the babies that Rodney had been hoping for. She told him that she had indeed many contacts with an agency that found good and steady homes for babies who were abandoned to them.
“Are they fairy children?” the schoolmaster asked, peering into one of the baby’s eyes.
Rodney shook his head. “I’m not certain.”
The schoolmaster provided him with the names and professions of those in town who could vouch for her reputation. But Rodney had already spoken to a few of the names she supplied. He knew he would be leaving the babies in good hands.
He turned to leave, and still they did not cry.
But he turned back, and asked the schoolmaster if he might have a moment to say goodbye. She set down the baby she was holding, nodded, and stepped back. The babies lay side by side, squirming and burbling.
Rodney smiled down at them. He hovered his hand above them, meaning to wave goodbye.
But as one, they all reached their hands toward his and grasped each finger and thumb. Rodney’s smile widened and a film of tears suddenly formed in his eyes.
“I cannot do it,” he said, quietly.
He had not the heart to leave the babies. But he had not the means to raise them.
“My orchard thrives, but it will be a while yet before I am comfortable,” Rodney said to himself as he carried the babies back to his home—to their home. “As I struggle, they will struggle. It should not be so.”
His love and his good intentions would not feed the babies, or cloth them, or provide all that they would need as they grew bigger and grew up.
His mother and father had taught him how to feed and change the babies, but even if Rodney had riches enough to provide all that they needed in food, clothes, toys, books, and so on, they would have needs that no amount of riches could provide.
When Rodney returned home, he found the letter he had been meaning to send his magician sister. He rewrote that letter. And he drafted more letters. Eleven more letters in all. He wrote all day, and the babies were happy at first, but they soon began to cry. The first piercing screams startled Rodney and he nearly knocked over his inkwell. The sound was terrifying, but it was also strangely comforting, for it was expected. He had pitied the parents of crying and screaming children on many occasions.
“I am now to be pitied,” he said, grinning down at the babies as he checked them and fed them. For at that hour, he still had enough will and spirit left to grin.
Having only two arms, he could not rock every baby to sleep at the same time. And he had not enough rooms in his tiny home to put each baby where it would not hear its siblings.
Sometime in the deepest hour of the night, he managed to put down all five babies, and he too slept until the brightening morning woke the babies, and they began to cry from hunger.
Rodney fed them and cared for them, and when the mail carrier came with his letters and packets for the day, he sent off the letters he had written to all of his siblings, letters imploring their aid.
He had dreamt of one day inviting his siblings to his home, once he had established his orchard, so that he might show them his humble accomplishments. But he had never dreamt of inviting them to come out of need, perhaps even…desperation.
Four of his siblings came within days. To Rodney’s surprise, his eldest three siblings were among them.
“What are their names?” the firstborn asked, gazing down at the golden-eyed babies, who had decided to behave themselves around their first guests.
Rodney drew in his brows. “I…haven’t thought of that yet.”
His magician sister slapped his back. “Five! What have you been up to, little brother?”
Rodney sighed. “They are not the children of my loins. As I explained in my letter.”
“Then who are they the children of? Or what?”
“Aren’t you afraid some fairy queen will come and curse you for having carried off her heirs?” the secondborn said.
“They came to me,” Rodney said, pulling a towel from his shoulder to wipe the spit from one of the baby’s chins.
“Can you prove it?”
“Why keep them, little brother? Why risk it? If they are not your blood…”
“Indeed, they are charming, but you are not beholden to them.”
Rodney drew in a breath. “Perhaps not, but shouldn’t I be? Shouldn’t we all be? Alone, I cannot manage it, caring for my orchard and my home, taking the lemons to market, and raising five children. But with your help, they would have good and happy lives.”
“Some of us have children of our own to care for,” the secondborn said.
“I understand, brother.”
“But those children should meet all their cousins, should they not?” the firstborn remarked as she tickled one of the babies.
“Some of us don’t have any children, and don’t have any new endeavors or adventures to embark upon at the moment,” the thirdborn sister said. “I am with you, little brother, though…we will perhaps have to build a larger house.”
“Thank you, but I remind you, they are you nieces and nephews, sister, not the subjects of your study.”
The thirdborn sister wrapped an arm around Rodney’s shoulders. “Can’t they be both?”
“I jest,” his sister said. She released him and then faced him. “I will love them as I love all my nieces and nephews. But they are different, little brother. Born of lemons. I’ve never heard of the like. They may one day ask questions that you perhaps cannot answer.”
“And you perhaps can,” Rodney said, smiling at her. He shifted his gaze to his firstborn sister, then his secondborn brother. “Or you, or you, or any of their mighty aunts and uncles.”
And more of those mighty aunts and uncles arrived in the following days.
By the end of the week, all of Rodney’s siblings had come, some staying with Rodney, some with their parents, and some at inns in town.
Though the thirteen siblings wrote to each other, and several met each other on occasion, their lives and travels and endeavors had kept them separate. Never before had all thirteen siblings gathered in such a reunion as the one that Rodney had called for. They gathered at their parents’ home to speak of Rodney’s children.
Four of his siblings agreed to come back to the town of their birth, to stay with Rodney in the countryside outside of that town, and help him to raise the children born of lemons.
Rodney had feared that his parents would disapprove of his calling for the aid of his siblings, but they understood. For though they had thirteen children, they too did not raise more than a few at a time before releasing them into the world to make their own way, and to make room for their younger siblings.
“It remains to be seen if you will be a good father,” his mother said that night, as she sat outside with Rodney. “But you have made a wonderful start.”
Rodney’s father nodded as he munched on a slice of lemon cake.
“I am fortunate that I have so many to turn to,” Rodney said.
“And what would you have done if you did not have your siblings?”
“I would have sought the aid of friends, of neighbors. Or perhaps, perhaps I would have left the children in the care of the schoolmaster. The thought fills me with doubt…and no small measure of panic.”
“Welcome to fatherhood,” his father said. He rose, and with a pat on Rodney’s shoulder, he went inside to find more cake and play with his newest grandchildren.
“It is strange how all this came about. I only aimed to plant a few trees, and show you the blossoms,” Rodney said to his mother. “A simple gift that I hoped would make you smile.”
“Instead, my sweet son, you have brought all my children together for the first time in all our lives,” his mother said. She beamed. “It is the best gift I have ever received.”
Rodney smiled and he marveled at the humble gift his parents had given him as they sent him into the world, never knowing what, if anything, he might bring back to them.
He gave a silent thanks to nine lemons.
Copyright © 2020 Nila L. Patel