The first summer and winter were taken up with the move. He was five. Packing up his things in one house and unpacking his things in another, shopping with the family for a new sofa and kitchen table at Tonnesdatter’s, then Sears, and finally at Kaufmann’s, where his dad scowled at the price tags. The boiler and its octopus arms had to go. I am not shoveling any more coal, his dad declared. The replacement gas furnace required that the walls throughout the house be opened to accommodate the new aluminum ducts and registers. The wallpaper with gigantic roses and carriages pulled by horses with shaggy hooves and purple plumes between their ears had to be removed, scraped off with putty knives layer by layer and inch by inch.

Then the scars in the naked plaster had to be spackled and sanded, and the walls primed and painted. In the kitchen a looming cupboard had to be brought down with hammers and crowbars for his mum’s new Magic Chef, and men to come and install fresh linoleum that his dad swore looked just like flagstones. Meanwhile, he had the serious task of establishing a new bedroom. First room of his own. Where to put the bed? The dresser? The desk? What to hang on these new walls? No one listened to him. The bed, dresser, and desk went where they were told to go. On his pictures he put his foot down. There, he insisted, and there and there. All this to be managed inside meant that what lay outside would have to wait.

Next year, his mum promised.

So, it was not until the second year that they smelled the spring blossoms and noted the budding fruit. The wizened peach trees, the apple and pear, and in the far corner of the backyard the two cherry trees, sisters, whose dark, witchy limbs overnight became clothed in pink petals. Cherries were red. Even a six-year-old who’d grown accustomed to having everything he said corrected or overruled by whoever was older, which was everybody, could confidently attest to the color of the fruit that filled his favorite pies, red, red, red. Except . . . these cherries.

White cherries, the next-door neighbor informed them. Creamy-yellow actually, with blushing cheeks. Small things, not a lot of flesh enrobing the tiny stones. But what they lacked in size, the cherries more than made up for in numbers. Jelly? Jam? Pie? His brothers climbed into the crowns of the trees, reaching out with their saucepans. People stood on chairs and swept sprays of branches down in their arms to collect the fruit. Someone waved a broomstick. The neighbor, whose family had built the square house when it sat at the summit of their farm, remarked that it was a distant memory when the orchard had yielded such abundance. And that was not necessarily such a good thing, she hinted darkly. An ailing tree will sometimes produce extra seeds when it senses its life drawing to a close. No one had the time of day for her. The laden pans were dumped in the sink and sent back into action, and the question arose: What to do with this miraculous windfall?

Jelly? Jam? Pie?

No, his dad corrected him. Properly, these are called Queen Anne Cherries. They are to be stewed and eaten with cream.

His mum was sick. Last summer, she had hurried into the earth her flowers and the lilac shoots she transplanted along the sides of the yard. Not this year. This year she was wan and weak, his mum. Many days she stayed in bed. She didn’t talk much. She seemed to be pulling away from the family. But even she could not resist this outpouring, this providential gift of fruit named after a monarch. I wish I could can them. She ran her eyes wistfully over the blushing cherries filling the deep sink. Oh, they would be so lovely in January.

The neighbor, a mite too concerned with how things were developing in her house, suggested freezing them. Blanch them first, she specified. A little sugar, especially since the Queen Annes tend toward tartness, ginger or orange zest if you have it, then freeze them. And make sure you press the air out of the bags. In their old house the icebox had lost its handle. No one knew what happened to the handle. To open the door, you reached for a pair of pliers on the counter. For this new house the embarrassing icebox would not do.

You don’t want to shovel coal, his mum said, I don’t want to use something from your toolbox to fetch out the eggs.

Fortunately, the new icebox—refrigerator, his brother corrected him—had a large freezer drawer.

We will stew them, his dad settled it. Lightly stew them, mind you, and freeze them.

So, no cherry jam or jelly, no cherry pies. But spooned over the French vanilla frozen custard he loved—a choice that drew disapprovals from his brothers who sought out more exotic flavors on Paulie’s Frozen Custard signboard—especially when the custard was allowed to melt to pure cream—which drew further unfavorable comment—the sweet syrup and the cherries that had grown darker and lusher for being stewed were wonderful. Ambrosial, his mum said.

His birthday fell in the summer. School awaited in the fall. In the days of warm, drowsy afternoons remaining there were the basement and coal cellar to ransack for treasure, the attic to explore, the intriguing path at the rear of the yard to follow to who knew where, and the roads to wander down someday that led to the crest of the hills that dropped away to the river.

There was no end to the world. You traveled east, you came back west. His dad’s globe proved that. You traveled north, you came back south. Everything was possible, and someday you might be smart enough to correct your brothers. All winter on special occasions they withdrew from the freezer drawer a bag of lightly stewed fruit, warmed the frozen cherries and drizzled cream over them, and all winter he longed for summer and the return of the Queen Anne Cherries.

But the cherries never returned. And his mum died before his birthday.


Robert McKean’s novel Mending What Is Broken was published by Livingston Press. His short story collection I’ll Be Here for You: Diary of a Town was awarded first-prize in the Tartts First Fiction competition (Livingston Press). His novel The Catalog of Crooked Thoughts was awarded first-prize in the Longleaf Press Novel Contest (MU).