S H O R T S T O R Y
THE SAD ORANGES OF POLAND
b y t o n y d o w l e r ~ s e a t t l e, w a s h i n g t o n
THERE ARE no sad oranges left in Florida. They were uprooted and destroyed by decree of the state legislature and the efforts of specially assembled teams of horticulturalists, industrial landscapers and, in at least one instance, a gang of tired thugs imported from Newark.
A certain orange tree, the last of its breed, was shipped out of state by night in a locked container truck and brought to a wealthy anonymous collector. It remains, in all likelihood, unique in North America. You can't buy the variety now. The seeds are illegal to import.
Nowadays, in advertisements for Florida orange juice you will see only oranges of the happy kind, laughing children, wholesome sports heroes, and the Governor of Florida smiling in an indulgent way. There will be no tears in our orange groves.
Oranges, as any American child can tell you, are Saturday morning cartoons, part of this complete breakfast, a glass of sunshine. The orange is a picture of pleasantness, a package of joy. Orange, is it universally acknowledged, is a happy, warm color.
But it was not always so.
Ask a historian about oranges, one who was educated before the current vogue for the party line. If he is a man who is past career prospects and popular honors, if he looks out the window for a while and thinks when asked a question, you have found the right man. He will not smile as he pours you a glass of orange juice.
"The Roman legions knew of oranges," he might begin, "but they did not invent them, no. They got them from the Arabs, and the Arabs got them from peoples further east. It goes like this all the way to China."
And he will tell you a story about the Emperor seeing, for the first time, an orange, how here was sudden incontrovertible evidence of a land beyond the bloat of even his Imperial appetite. How sad and mocking, an orange.
Where do your oranges come from? Don't answer too quickly. In China, they also grow oranges American style, and Mandarin oranges don't all come from Japan. The wrappers show places quaintly bulging with regional charm, but in fact the food is anonymous. The people who make the packages don't know where the oranges came from. The family farm is a factory producing, among other things, pictures of a family farm.
And the oranges themselves, perfect, bright, unblemished, are false. The produce is sprayed with chemicals and treated with radiation to keep it fresh. Immortality, perfection, these are not the true messages of the orange, but a clever fabrication. This is what one learns who watches oranges mature and spoil on the tree: the time to taste a fruit is when it has begun to die.
It was an immigrant named Abraham Fenske who isolated the melancholy strain in oranges, using tried and true techniques of grafting, culling and cross-pollination (these were, after all, the days before genetic engineering). A special breed of oranges was his triumph. Glowing, nearly luminescent, bitter and tangy to the taste, they were, nonetheless, satisfying. Some wept to taste them, and even strong men turned their faces away. Yet these sad oranges gave zest for life and were valued for this. Poor farmers ate them, and migrant workers, and miners, and soldiers ate them before entering battle.
The Fenske party hailed him a genius, a progressive thinker, an artist. He became a hero to the orange-growing establishment. But his discoveries met with distrust and ignorance elsewhere. "Unnatural," some claimed. Certain allegations were made. There was an inquiry. His opponents mounted a smear campaign. It was mentioned on the floor of Congress.
"We're all for science and innovation," it was said, "but here we see talk of surrender, or irresolution and, most of all, resignation, something the United States of America cannot and will never allow to enter within its borders."
Fenske turned to other ventures—for example, a hardy olive that blossoms in wintertime—but in his heart he was already a broken man. Finally, he returned to Europe penniless and alone.
They eat blood oranges in Italy, and do so with relish. In America there are onions to provoke tears, and radishes for a sort of bitterness. And in Poland there is rumored a grove of Fenske's melancholic fruit (for they grow well in any climate).
If you want to taste them, you must go there and live among the natives for a generation. Once you have grown old with them, teeth crooked, children gone down in some winter epidemic, husband dead in a foreign war or invasion or farm accident, an old man of the town will lead you to an inner garden. Without a word he will show you a fruit of a color you never suspected. He will put it on a white plate and cut it into one hundred sections (according to the custom of the place). As you taste it, juices running down your cheeks and salted with tears, you will realize that you know the secret of Abraham Fenske and the Roman Emperors: we have no power over an orange. Consumption is a temporary victory, for it changes us. We are not the same as we were before we tasted the orange, this bitterness of becoming, this stinging juice of slow death.
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