Leveler Poetry Journal
About Leveler Submission Guidelines More Poems

Bitter Almonds

My mother found the letters

in a shoebox in a plastic tub in the garage,

like almonds hidden

under shell and hull,

when she needed space

for the furniture we’d have to move

before the window installers arrived.

I know almonds are perfect

because as a child I spent springs and summers

sitting in the wide-spread arms of an almond tree—

My sister, named like the holy ghost, on the limb above,

my brother, named like the patron of monks, on the limb below.

The three of us sat

under its low canopy, snapping the nuts

from among the shrubby leaves. My brother and sister looked

for caramel colored shells; I tugged

at the hulls to find the loosest and the most open.

We all peeled back the outer

layer, unzipping

the woody tabs from the peach pit bodies, pressing

down to break into the prize,

then dropping the refuse into the circle of moist earth beneath.

And almonds are perfect.

The sweet spring

from millennia of contact with human hands, rising

out of white blossoms, giving way

between the teeth like the soft wood of a sapling,

cool, wet, and endlessly yielding

before finally coming apart.

The bitter sprout

from trees unplanted, their blossoms pink

as the memory of blood, their tissues

dissolving into poison when crushed.

The differences between the two are few,

except for the blossoms, which must be seen

to be recognized—the bitter, broader and shorter in the nut,

the sweet, wider at the base of the leaves—

the things better noticed

by experience and by touch.

So my sister and my brother had the advantage, seeing

the white or pink petals as they glanced up

during the blossom months, while the distinction

for me was made under the branches themselves, time

after time, the leaves and nut

between my fingers, the kernels,

sweet or bitter as I took each

into my mouth, preparing

to swallow or spit them back out.

But this is not about the almonds—

It’s about the letters my mother found in the garage,

the twelve or fifteen envelopes tied

together in a ribbon under long-paid bills,

under old receipts and children’s artwork.

They were written thirty and forty years ago,

when my mother and father said here

and meant the land they’d come from,

when my sister and brother and I went to school,

none of us with enough

English to tell the world

we understood about books, hard work, art,

the things our kind were thought too stupid to know.

The letters were from that period of our lives.

They came on airplanes

with multiple stamps, written

in the home language from aunts, uncles, grandparents:

“Son, I took the tractor out to the field

for the first time today. It was faster than that old mule,

but the year hasn’t seen any rain,

and the avocados won’t be up to much.”

“Hello, I hope you don’t mind my writing

to you. I know I’m only a girl and only your sister-in-law,

but I was missing our kitchen afternoons, singing

to the radio, rolling out tortillas for my brother’s dinner,

talking about dresses and waltzes and hair.”

“My dear daughter, you’ve been in my heart

all day, like a presence,

and I wish I could hold you, so alone

in that big country, the children so small,

your husband in the hospital another week,”

“Sister, congratulations

on your new house. The hedge,

the back stoop, and the almond tree sound darling.”

“Brother, come home.

You can not raise your children

in a land where they can not know

how to tend avocado trees in a desert.”

“Oh God, mom had a stroke.

She was standing at the kitchen table when she fell,

on her feet one moment, on the tiles the next.”

My mother read

each of them out loud to me,

her voice cracking on the patio,

while we sat waiting

for the new windows to go in,

the ones I paid for from money I had earned

at a job I liked, just as I had

paid for the new roof, the air conditioning,

the tile, the stucco, and the fence.

She read them from beginning to end

while the men called out instructions, while we waited

for the sun to fold into itself.

She read

them, each fragile as a memory, blooming

into the voice of its sender from the greeting

till it closed, my mother lost

in each individual moment

while I smarted from the taste

of the unintentional, the final paragraph

of each letter, always the same,

like the scraps of a season’s harvest:

“Love to husband or wife,

hugs and kisses to the children,”

the daughter named like the holy spirit,

the son named like the patron of monks.

None mentioned the other child,

the one named after the patroness of lost things,

of miscarriages, of the unseen—

Except for the letter with the post script

that blessed my mother’s little angel

as if I were dead, not blind.

Ana Garza G'z