Courtney Miller Santo has dual degrees in Journalism and Russian Studies at Washington and Lee University. She teaches creative writing at the University of Memphis. Her debut novel THE ROOTS OF THE OLIVE TREE was published by William Morrow. Read her interview here. Below you can read an excerpt from her novel, THE ROOTS OF THE OLIVE TREE. Courtesy: Courtney Miller Santo.
Chapter One: Arrival
Anna Davison Keller wanted to be the oldest person in the world. She felt she was owed this distinction due to the particular care she’d taken with the vessel God had given her. In her morning prayers, she made a show, in case God himself was watching, of getting out of bed and onto her knees. She spoke to God in his language—asking for a length of days to be added to the 112 years she’d already lived and pleading for health in her navel and marrow in her bones. She didn’t say outright that God ought to strike dead that jo-fired man in China who was keeping her from the title, but after all these years, surely, God knew her heart.
In 2006, summer overstayed its welcome—giving the entire valley the look of wildflowers sat too long in a vase. Dawn was still an hour away and although it was early November, the air that morning was warm and stale. Anna dressed in the dark, while her terrier, Bobo, nipped at her heels—urging her to the door. Rising before the sun gave her privacy enough to be pleasant with her daughter and granddaughter, who shared the tidy house with Anna. People often mistook them for sisters. Rubbish, Anna always thought, but that was the young for you—to anyone under thirty everyone over sixty looked the same age.
She didn’t want the toast and marmalade on her plate—making it was part of her routine, but she was realizing that too many minutes of her days were taken up by unexamined habits. She forced a bite, tossed the remainder to Bobo and stepped onto the back porch. For the past several days, she’d been preoccupied with the impending arrival of a doctor, a geneticist, who was coming to study Anna and her progeny. As it had been explained to her, the man hoped to unlock the keys to longevity that hid in the genes of certain people—super agers they were called. Anna thought of it as a holy grail search, although she sensed saying this aloud would be tomfoolery on her part.
Thank God he was finally arriving today, the anticipation had kept her from giving full attention to normally reflexive activities, like sleeping. Last night she’d been plagued by dreams filled with half-formed images of umbilical cords and the face of a woman she didn’t recognize. Then, there was her appetite. Each time she tried to eat, her stomach seemed to be full of its own acids. Anna needed a distraction and today, with the harvest finally over, the olives would be waiting for her.
In the dark, the long slope of lawn was grey and heavy with dew. She stayed at the porch railing and watched Bobo run down the steps and across the lawn to where the grass ended and the family’s orchard began. There was not enough light to see the olive trees, but Anna could hear the leaves rustle as the Northers blew through the valley. She pursed her lips. A muttering, anxious voice inside her clawed its way to the surface: There’s fruit to glean. Olives plumped up so tight that the skin’ll split at the slightest touch. Dozens of drupes dropping to the ground with each sway of a bough. They’re out there rotting, an ample feast for pests.
She felt this guilt after every harvest. The pickers were only ever able to collect nine-tenths of what the grove had to offer. Anna had never been able to abide waste. She blamed her frugality on her parents and their heritage. What was it people said? Shown the Eiffel Tower any good Scot-Irish would ask what fool wasted good steel. Anna pulled on the muddy galoshes they kept on the porch and emptied the basket where they kept kindling. God knew; if she didn’t glean, no one else would. It was futile, but she felt certain that one year she would succeed in stripping a tree of all its fruit.
Bobo met her as she descended the hill. She bent down to rub his ears before he trotted back to the house. She was surprised to find when she raised her eyes that her mind was not on that November morning, but on a memory more than a century old. For Anna, time had a way of folding up on itself. There were certain seasons when she felt the reminiscences about her father and mother, both dead since the early 1930s, as freshly as if it were the day they’d formed. She knew that every second she’d breathed had been recorded by her brain and that occasionally, her mind surprised her by recalling a moment she’d not remembered before.
The smell of wet flannel tickled her nose and she heard the echo of giggling. It was an old memory, she couldn’t have been more than ten. She and her brother, Wealthy, were gathering fallen olives from the squares of grey wool laid on dewy ground. The perfect olives were put on one, the split and shriveled fruit on another. They were dutiful children for a spell, but before long, they were sitting cross-legged, playing slapsies. She was much slower than her older brother and the backs of her hands were red from being hit so many times. Her hands hovered just above Wealthy’s. She watched his eyes closely for the first sign of movement. She ached to win, to get a chance to slap her brother’s hands. Neither of them noticed her father, standing half-hidden behind an olive tree, with a deep frown across his face.
He was a tall man. Anna imagined that if her father’s skin were to be peeled back, like whittled bark, that there would be green wood underneath. His blows always felt like those from a switch. There was rebound in his strikes. He boxed Wealthy’s ears with open palms and roared at them both about the wasted time. Anna, seeing her opportunity, slapped the tops of her brother’s hands and ran off. She remembered turning to look at her father and brother, their mouths open, their expressions changing from anger to laughter and then she tripped.
It was a small cut, one that healed without leaving a scar. But it bled like an artery had opened up. “Scalp wounds are always bad,” her father said, peering at the small cut above her left eyebrow. He dabbed at it with his handkerchief and then sent Wealthy to collect all the spider webs he could find. When he returned, his fist was clamped tight around sticky threads pressed into a grey oblong. Together they picked off pieces of the ball and pushed them into the cut until the bleeding slowed to a trickle.
Anna stopped near the end of the lawn and cursed. The early dawn light didn’t provide enough illumination to go into the grove, which absorbed and diffused the sun’s rays so that even at noonday the inside of the orchard was dim. She should have remembered about the light. Hell. She hated to be made to feel foolish, especially by her own actions. This lapse made wary and with her fingers, she reached up and felt along her eyebrow. She pushed the wrinkles aside and ran her finger along the few brow hairs she had left. Nothing. No slight bump, or irregularity in the skin to authenticate her memory, and yet she knew it was true.
The sky turned from purple to blue. She treaded along the edge of the grove, where there was just enough light and picked fallen fruit, reaching for the limbs on the outer edge of the orchard and feeling for the drupes by touch. A lifetime of this touching meant that she knew—by the shape, the heft of each fruit if it would be good for pressing. That word, drupe, had confused her for many years. Her mother would tell her the pansies in the window boxes were drooping and needed to be watered and Anna would run to the window wondering what wonderful fruit the yellow and purple flowers would produce.
That was a story she’d told on herself before, but the miracle of spider webs was a newly remembered tale, one that she needed to tell her daughter, her granddaughter and anyone else who would listen. All that the generations beneath her did not know worried Anna. She wanted to find someone who would listen to her. Really listen. The world hated old people. Even her own family thought they’d learned all they needed to know from Anna. She was no longer consulted, and she couldn’t start a story without her daughter, or granddaughter, interrupting to finish it for her. They had no perspective, no understanding of how much still needed to be preserved. It would take a lifetime to tell them her secrets, and Anna had already lived two lifetimes.