Sweetbitter
by Iris Jamahl Dunkle

1
In 1700s Prince Carl of Denmark eats Gravenstein apples while visiting the dappled shade of an orchard in Italy. Its rigid trunk offered the cuttings of an idea that would take to graph at his summer home: a white castle on the blue lip of the Baltic Sea. Seeds planted, then tended until great orchards bloomed across the flat low lands where the sea seeps in slowly, where salt, like history lingers on the air. Tart-sweetness bulging from a red-barred orb.

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By the time the orchards grew into vast bounding fields, the Germanic spoken legends of the North Sea were receding like the tide as were the resources. Whole islands of stories were swallowed whole in a storm.

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For a century gardeners cut and grafted the bone-barred heart of the fruit to perfection: until it tasted bittersweet enough, until it kept long enough to travel long distances. Then, the seeds and cutting were slipped into the trunks of steamship passengers. Tiny seedlings kept moist across long passages. Until the Gravenstein seedling was carefully unwrapped from its moist, burlap coverings
to be planted here, in Sebastopol, on freshly clear-cut hills that rolled to the sea.

4
In the 1850s, those who didn’t find gold farmed. Orchards covered the bare hills as fast as they were cleared of scrub oak and pine and Miwok. And the years seeped in. The horticulturalists grafting to win a longer market, a higher yield. But, what the apple bore was memory: a long traveled, bitter-sweet taste that can’t be bred out or baked out or forgotten.

Red lines that bind the fruit to the hands that pick to the stories that still whisper on the low roll of a long travelled sea where salt, like history, lingers on the air.

 

Published in Cider Press Review, Volume 16, Issue 4.

Iris Jamahl Dunkle’s debut poetry collection, Gold Passage, won the Trio Award and was published by Trio House Press in 2013. Dunkle received her B.A. from the George Washington University, her M.F.A. in Poetry from New York University, and her Ph.D. in American Literature from Case Western Reserve University.

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