She lived among an orchard of lemon trees with her father. At spring’s beginning she would pick unripe fruit from the branches and squeeze the juice of fifty-seven lemons – always fifty-seven, carefully picked and carefully counted – onto her hair and skin so that she shined and lost all color and was almost translucent. In the summer she stunk of sweet rot, and everywhere she went all who smelled her would stop and stare.
At first, her father thought it wonderful for his daughter to have an aroma so sweet and skin burned so smooth and so delicate it was fine as paper silk. Many village boys had already come on bended knee before him and asked for her hand. To each her father consented, and they hopped the stairs to her room with their nostrils flared and their lungs waiting to be filled with the sweet stink of her. But when each boy got near her pale form their faces would fall, their noses would close up and they’d say, thank you kindly but no thank you, and be on their way.
Her father began to worry that she might never get married. He dusted off the old texts his wife had purchased before their daughter was born, read them, and shoved them into the back of the bookcase. They were titled Raising Lilith into Eve, Overcoming Ophelia and Girls Will Be Girls – Uh Oh! According to these books his daughter was practically an old spinster already – almost sixteen! And who would take her if not on her beauty alone, for she could not do any sort of lucrative craft like weaving or playing the harp or keeping the toilet clean. She only knew how to wake up, put her legs over the bed and glide into the orchard. Her hands had talent in the way they curled into a claw and snatched the lemons from the branches. And how they could curl ever tighter, like a vice, when she hand-squeezed the lemons into her morning, midday, after dinner and midnight baths.
He began to spy on his daughter to see what it could be that turned so many men away. The books encouraged this – cut out unattractive behaviors, they all said. He drilled a bite-sized hole in the bathroom wall and followed her with his eye, but nothing seemed out of the ordinary – though when she squeezed the lemons in her dainty hands the juice sprayed into his exposed eye and he cried all night.
Would you like a husband? he asked her, holding her pale hand in his own while she soaked in lemony bubbles. From the books, he showed her pictures of girls with young men. The girls in the pictures could do all sorts of things when their husbands grasped their hands. They could float. Their feet didn’t even need to touch the floor.
She looked at him as if she could not fathom what he was talking about, but she nodded and said, I suppose, in an airy way, and when he looked sad she said, Okay.
But he wanted the help of an expert, so he called on Yadda Gaga, the old witch who lived in the black forest. She was a small, hunchbacked woman with greasy, stringy hair and only two black teeth she used for chewing and spitting bitter tobacco. She came with a white, lit candle in one hand and a pencil holding what little hair she had in a bun. She rolled her eyes at the father when he explained how his daughter was not attracting a man, and used the candle to look up the girl’s nostrils.
My, said Yadda Gaga, what a tasty little girl she’d be. If she wasn’t so sour.
Then she pulled out the pencil and poked the girl’s arm with the eraser. Her skin broke apart and bled in a little eraser-shaped hole. Yadda Gaga spat on the floor.
Why are you still in the bath? asked the witch. It’s the middle of the day.
Where else would I be? said the girl in the tub.
You’re ill, said Yadda Gaga.
Am not, said the girl.
Impertinent, too, said Yadda Gaga. And blind. Worst sort of illness. Take the lemons away, she said to the father. You can see the sick. Once they’re gone her skin will toughen up.
She wafted her hand over the girls’ hair and retched. Then she let the father look up the girl’s nostrils with the white candle, but all he could see was pink skin and hair.
The daughter cried and said, Oh no, Daddy, don’t take your lemons away! They’re helping. I might be worse without them.
Her father stared at the black cud on the floor and said to Yadda Gaga, Lemons are my life. Haven’t you tasted my lemonade? I’ve won blue ribbons.
Piss water, said Yadda Gaga, and took her leave, but not before spitting on the front door.
When she was gone the daughter took her father’s hand in her own and said, Daddy, your lemonade is my favorite. Then she said, Ow, when her father squeezed her hand in thanks. When he looked down his palm was covered in blood.
Because his daughter wept and thrashed and spilled lemon bathwater on the ground when he tried to take the lemons away, he called in the local array of doctors, all of whom had degrees. They were tall, thin men with moustaches and they towered over the father and his bathing offspring. When they saw the girl they put clothespins over their noses.
She smells like rotting disinfectant, they said. We smell that quite enough, thank you.
They prodded her arms and legs and took her blood with long needles and sealed it in small clear vials. They put tubes down her throat, long ones, the kind that made her choke. They felt her breasts for lumps and looked inside her with a shiny new speculum. The father protested, Are you sure that is necessary? They assured him it was.
Two weeks later they mailed him the results: She needs distractions. Make her fall in love. Now. Young girls her age should be in love. See page 87 of Overcoming Ophelia for proof. That’ll fix her right up. It’ll toughen her thin skin if he breaks her heart. It’ll toughen her skin if he loves her back. All the other young ladies will be jealous. Jealous young ladies bite.
Also, here’s the bill.
P.S. Take care of the bill ASAP.
P.P.S. If that doesn’t work, try aspirin.
The father wrung his hands and covered his face and said, Oh, where can I find a young man who will love the easily bruised fruit of my loins? He sat on the edge of her bath and asked what sort of man she could love best: Brunette or blond? Tall or short? Fat or thin? What was her opinion on facial hair? Should his nose be aquiline? Are brown irises ugly? To each question she gave a small shrug and said whatever he thought was best certainly was best.
I am off to find you a strapping young boyfriend, her father said. But before I go, can I do anything for you?
Just leave me a bucket of the best lemons, please, she said. I wouldn’t ask you, only…
She raised her arms out of the water. She had no more fingers, just small stumps, like she had been born without.
Her father wept and kissed her stumps and asked what had happened. She said she did not know, only that she thought more lemons might help. So he brought her three bushel baskets of lemons while cursing his luck – marrying away a daughter without fingers would probably be very hard. Then, before he left, he laid out three aspirins and a glass of lemonade on the porcelain edge of the bath.
When he left his doorway he saw Yadda Gaga standing among his lemons, smoking a large pipe and sniffing one of the fruits that had been left unattended on the tree, pale yellow and white with rot. When he approached her she asked, Is your daughter still whole or does she look like this? Then she curled her withered fingers around the lemon until its innards spilled out.
The father shuddered and said, If I pay you, will you go away?
Yadda Gaga only laughed.
The father walked past the edges of his village – none of those boys had wanted his daughter anyhow – and went into the great pastures to find a simple boy who would not care if his girlfriend was whole or not. He talked to every shepherd he came across, but they were only interested in women who knew every detail of a sheep’s hoof – from the keratin content to guessing its exact diameter at a single glance. What use, they asked, was a woman who only cared for lemons? It seemed very narrow-minded to them.
He wrote his daughter a letter asking her how she was and if she had her heart set on a shepherd, and she wrote back saying, I suppose. Okay. Daddy, my feet have gone. I had to pick fifty-seven lemons on my knees with my teeth. That old witch stood in the orchard and watched me the entire time. Won’t she go away? I’m writing this letter with the pen between my molars. Won’t you come home soon?
With little time left, he went to the stables and approached each stable hand, but they too were only interested in women who knew about horses, or at least could do useful things like braiding a horse’s long tail or tying bows into their manes before shows. The father shook his head, clenched his hand and cursed his daughter’s missing fingers, for certainly she could have learned how to braid. Even he knew how to do that.
He wrote and asked if she had her heart set on a stable hand, thinking he could glue some twigs to her stumps and she could manage that way. He received a letter that did not say anything at all, but inside was a crushed lemon peel and citrus tears.
Immediately he made his way home. He had only been gone a week, but in his mailbox were two letters from the doctors about the bill, one polite, the other not so.
He walked into his house with his heavy head sagging on his chest. He called out his daughter’s name. Her reply was so faint and tremulous that he took the stairs three at a time. But in his bathroom he did not see his daughter, only lemon bathwater with two yellow peels floating next to one another, and Yadda Gaga sitting in a chair with her feet propped up on the edge of the tub, smoking her heavy pipe. He called his daughter’s name and asked what the old hag had done to his little girl. Yadda Gaga spat and rolled her eyes.
You let her marinate too long, said Yadda Gaga, tapping the edge of her pipe with a crooked finger. She pointed to the lemon peels and said, There, there is your little girl.
The father realized that those were not lemon peels floating in the water, but two bright yellow, thick and bumpy human lips. They gathered together in the water and he watched them say, Sorry, Daddy. Fifty-seven lemons, Daddy. I need fifty-seven lemons.
Yadda Gaga reached down, plucked the lemon lips from the sour water and placed them between her withered gums and black teeth. She chewed, once, and the father watched his daughter slide down the witch’s old throat.