By Hannah Christensen
Rardy was disappointed to wake up on the morning of the Orange Festival in bed. Voices clattered below in the kitchen, which meant Clementine was already up. Rardy wiggled himself out of bed and pattered downstairs to check on her. He had climbed out of bed four times the night before to sleep by his sister’s door. She had been chosen as an Orange Blossom Maiden for the festival, and he had wanted to watch her put up her hair. Orange Blossom Maidens always had crowns of orange blossoms in their hair, and he wanted to see how she got them to grow there.
Downstairs, Mother had filled a platter with pancakes and was now fussing around a large picnic basket. Clementine perched on a stool, flowers sprouting from her hair. Rardy climbed sadly onto a chair and began gnawing on a rolled up pancake.
He didn’t have much time to be sad, though. He barely had time to eat a full breakfast before his mother swept him upstairs to get dressed.
On the way to the Festival, Clementine allowed her little brother to touch one of the flowers in her hair.
“The Orange Blossom Maidens are one of the most important parts of the festival,” she told him, sitting straighter than ever.
“The most important part of the whole festival?”
“Well, the Mandarin Princess is more important. But she is chosen from among the Orange Blossom Maidens.”
Rardy didn’t think he could remember seeing a princess before.
“Of course you saw the Mandarin Princess last year,” said Clementine. “Remember, Fe went up on stage in front of everyone to receive her Royal Mandarin Pie, and everyone clapped? It was right after Rey got in trouble for hooting at Lindy for being proclaimed the sour puss.”
“What’s a sour puss?”
“That’s the most snooty, inhospitable, flirt—oh, it’s the worst part of the day.” She shuddered. “I keep wondering what would happen if all the maidens were nice, not like that Belinda. Would they skip it that year? I would die if they handed me that lemon in front of everyone.”
Rardy decided he would help Clementine stay away from lemons.
He stayed close by as she welcomed people to the festival and directed them to the Lemon Roll Race and the Pomelo Toss. He worried when it was her turn to serve lemonade, but she showed no signs of falling down dead, so he decided lemonade didn’t count.
When it was almost time to gather at the grandstand, Rardy spotted it. Sitting by itself on a little pedestal was the biggest lemon he had ever seen. There a few other lemons on the nearby stands, but this was definitely most dangerous of them all.
He glanced nervously at Clementine. She was busy chattering to a man in a suit. She hadn’t seen the lemon yet. He inched toward the lemon, watching her nervously, but she did not notice. Little by little he crept farther away from her until a swell of people blocked her from view, then he dashed the rest of the way to the lemon. There he stared at the yellow oval, pinning it to its pedestal with the weight of his gaze.
“It’s the biggest lemon you’ve ever seen, isn’t it?” A big boy reached down and patted it. “I reckon it a prize—”
“Get you paws off!” A bigger fellow smacked away the hand. “That’s Clem’s lemon! Don’t you be touching it!”
“I wasn’t hurting it,” protested the first boy, but Rardy was not listening any more. Clem’s lemon! He could not let them give that lemon to Clementine. He had to get rid of it.
A quick glance showed no one was paying him any heed. Lifting the lemon down, he hid it under his shirt and ducked beneath the stand. This was not as good of a hiding place as under the table at home, where a tablecloth hung down. When someone came for the sourpuss lemon, they might find him.
If he couldn’t hide, there was one other way to get rid of the danger. Slipping it back out of his shirt, Rardy sank his fingernails into the thick rind. He pulled and pulled until some lemon peeked out, then leaned down and sank his teeth into the sour yellow fruit.
The sunrise painted the clouds tangerine the morning of the Orange Festival. Clementine bounced out of bed and danced into her white Orange Blossom Maiden gown. The loose sleeves swirled deliciously around her arms as she brushed her hair. She could already hear her mother working in the kitchen, so she tiptoed downstairs to ask for help putting up her hair. She had been old enough to plait and arrange her own hair for years now, but this was a special occasion. At the kitchen threshold she hesitated, poised on tiptoe.
Her mother looked up from her mixing bowl and smiled. “I suppose you’ll be going out to gather blossoms, now?”
“Oh, mother!” The orange grove was a good ten minute walk away, and her hair was still fly-away loose. Besides, she couldn’t risk tearing this dress climbing up fruit trees.
Her mother laughed. “Your father went and fetched some for you already. They’re in a bowl on the table.”
“Oh, mother!” Clementine darted in and hugged her mother.
“Wait a moment, honey. I don’t want to get flour all over you.”
Clementine perched on a stool to wait while her mother finished mixing and wiped her hands. She happily chattered about who else had been chosen as Orange Blossom Maidens, and who was assigned to what duties. Gently her mother began to brush up Clementine’s locks and weave a braided crown across the top of her head.
“Has there ever been a Mandarin Princess without a sweetheart to share her pie?” she asked.
Her mother laughed softly. “Now don’t get your heart set on that, sweetie. It’s a great honor to get chosen at all, and you are one of the youngest of the Orange Blossom Maidens.”
“Oh no, of course not.” Clementine’s cheeks pinked. “I would never expect that.”
“Good.” Her mother began to pin in the white blossoms. “I want you to enjoy the day for what it is. You’ll have enough to think about with your duties and Rardy without muddying your mind worrying over pies and the suchlike.”
“Rardy!” Clementine groaned. “I don’t have time to babysit!”
“You know he won’t leave your side. I could hardly keep the child in bed last night. And he doesn’t stir up mischief like Rey. He’s such a shy little shadow you’ll barely notice him. But it would break his heart to leave behind.”
“Don’t worry about on stage. He’ll sit with the rest of us. But it won’t hurt for him to tag along while you’re playing hostess. I always did say young ones made the house more inviting.”
“We won’t be at the house,” Clementine pointed out, but with resignation. “I suppose he could wear a sprig of orange leaves in one of his buttonholes. Then he wouldn’t look so much like a tag along.”
Her mother smiled. “I’m sure he’ll be glad to do that for you.”
Clementine’s mother was right. She barely noticed her little brother that day. He kept close, but did not try to hide in her skirts like he had when he was a baby. Too shy to do more than stare solemnly at the stream of guests, he evoked much admiration.
“Isn’t he the cutest little gentleman!”
“You’re a lucky young lady to have such a handsome escort.”
“That’s a good looking prince you have with you today.”
“My, isn’t he a fine fellow!”
He also came in useful running errands, as long as they were close enough not to lose sight of her. She didn’t even notice when he slipped away from her side. A commotion sprang up at the nearby fruit exposition, but there was no time to worry about that. The masters of ceremony would be coming to summon her to the grandstand any minute now.
“Rardy, you should bring this pitcher back now. It’s almost empty. Rardy.” She looked around. Her little brother was nowhere to be seen. “Gerardo!”
Now she felt a bite of panic. Could someone have kidnapped him?
She tapped the shoulder of the nearest person. “Excuse me, have you seen my little brother? He’s—”
“Is he the little vagabond that stole what was going to win my cousin the prize money?”
“My brother’s no vagabond.”
“Well, someone should call security.” He pushed her off and went back to fuming about the commotion across the way.
Clementine tried to pull someone away to help look for Rardy, but instead found herself sucked into the crowd until Officer Billaud pushed forward. “What seems to be the problem here?”
A cry escaped Clementine as she watched an older boy drag a small figure forward by the collar. It was Rardy, his hair tousled and his eyes wide with fear.
“This is the thief right here!”
“Don’t you call my little brother that.” She clawed her way through the inner ring of people to pull him fiercely against herself. “Where have you been wandering off to? I thought someone had stolen you!”
He wiggled his sticky face out of her embrace.
“You’re safe now. I got the lemon, and they can’t get it back.”
“Yes, yes, of course you’re safe,” she crooned.
“Did you hear that?” The older boy tried to wrench him back away. “He as good as admitted to stealing Clem’s lemon. If the evidence all over his face wasn’t enough. He should be locked up.”
Rardy clung to his older sister, peeking at stern Officer Billaud.
“Has anyone seen Miss Clementine?” A new voice boomed onto the scene. “It’s time to—ah, is everything all right?” One of the Orange Blossom Maiden judges stood looking from Clementine to her brother to Officer Billaud.
Clementine wanted to say yes. She knew Officer Billaud wouldn’t really throw Rardy in jail. She wanted to say yes, she was just coming, and ignore the scraps of lemon peel all over the ground and the glares of the farm hands who had gathered around. She wanted to just let the grown-ups take care of it.
Rardy’s arms squeezed tighter.
“I’m sorry,” said Clementine, fighting to keep an even voice. “Something seems to have come up. My little brother needs me just at the moment.”
“Ah. Yes. Perhaps…Yes, of course. I’ll be on my way then.”
He turned and disappeared into the crowd.
Clementine blinked hard. It was time to mount the stage and she was being left behind. What would everyone think when one of the Orange Blossom Maidens just didn’t show up? What if everyone heard it was because her little brother was a thief? She would be chosen as the Sourpuss, hands down. At least she wouldn’t have to face the humiliation in front of everyone.
“Officer Billaud, I think you should contact my parents. They would be at the stadium now, waiting for me and Rardy. I’ll take him out to the parking field and make sure he doesn’t cause any more trouble.”
Waiting for the rest of the family to arrive, Clementine sat on the crushed grass, back to a wheel and knees pulled up to her.
“Not now, Rardy.” A blossom dropped from her hair, and she let it fall. Clouds glowed tangerine under the sun’s rays, but it was no longer sunrise. Darkness slowly crushed out the color.
When the stars on the horizon began to dim, Clement had already been watching the sky for hours. He tried to think about the path of the stars above rather than the coming Orange Festival, but the lump kept growing in his stomach. Just before pink smudged the sky, he rolled out of the hayloft and headed to the northeast corner of his uncle’s lemon orchard.
This was the corner his uncle permitted him to work as his own. It wasn’t big enough to have much more than a lemon tree, but that was enough for a start.
Even in the dimness, the lemon glowed. Clement sighed in relief. Nothing had stolen it during the night. Scaling the tree, he stretched out and gently, gently plucked the fruit. It was the largest lemon he had ever seen, around three times the size of most of his uncle’s crop. It was almost sure to win the lemon entry at the Orange Festival, and the prize money would make a good start to a piece of his own land one day.
He rolled the lemon in his hands as he imagined his father stopping by to visit, and hearing he had moved to a place of his own. Surprise would twitch his brows together. “Maybe you’ll see my tree is worth something after all,” Clement whispered, thinking of his father’s last visit—how many months had it been since business brought him out this way?
Clement dropped to the ground. Winning the prize would be something, all right. People would be willing to pay more for lemons from a prize-winning tree, and would stop to nod and say good morning instead of just hurrying by. Maybe even the girls would stop snooting their noses in the air like they were too good to breathe the same air as a bare-foot farm hand.
Clement gently wrapped the fruit in a cloth and headed back to finish his chores as fast as possible. His uncle had given him the rest of the day off as soon as he finished, and he aimed to be waiting at the Festival grounds when the gates were unlocked.
Throughout the haze of the day, Clement’s pals looked him up to praise his lemon and make predictions to the outcome of the judging.
“You’ll win hands down, Clem! That thing could be a grapefruit.”
“Nah, I hear Mr. Perez is keeping his under wrap until right before the judges show up. It’s supposed to be big enough to win in the pomelo section.”
Clement could only partially enjoy the attention. His hands kept getting clammy, and he had to check on his lemon. When Rob came running to get him because someone had stolen his lemon, his breathe had frozen so it should not have been possible to run like he had. Then he stood staring at the little boy trying to hide lemon rind in his pockets. This was not just theft, this was utter demolition.
Clement stood staring, unable to dig up a single word. It was his friends who collared the boy and ran down the officer. People pooled around the stand, ogling his utter ruin. Then one of the Orange Blossom Maidens stepped in and started defending the criminal.
“Those Orange Blossoms,” Rob growled. “They think they’re the best just because they got picked by some committee. I think they should all be made Sourpusses.”
Clement looked harder at the Orange Blossom Maiden. It was the Perez girl. She was one of the nice ones. Not that she ever paid him any notice, but she didn’t stick up her nose about it. She just didn’t notice.
Then one of the judges came to fetch her away, and she didn’t go. She decided to stick with family instead. He watched them leave the fairgrounds together, longing threatening to drown him through the shock. That’s how family should be.
“Officer,” he said once they were gone. “You don’t need to get the Perez folks. I don’t aim to press charges.”
“That’s mighty generous of you. That was one of the finest lemons I’ve laid eyes on. But the boy’s parents do need to hear what’s been going on. I’ll tell them of your generous offer, though. If you’re sure.”
Clement nodded. He stared after where the brother and sister had disappeared. He would need some more ingredients—eggs, sugar, flour. There should be enough lemon money to cover. Maybe his aunt would be willing to help.
Late that night, when the moon no longer shone, Clement crept up to the dark farmhouse. Nervously, he circled it. Under one window lay wilted orange blossoms. Lace curtains fluttered in the breeze. He hesitated, edging toward the door, then carefully clambered up a tree instead.
At the window ledge he listened. The breeze almost hid the soft breathing of the sleeper inside. Slowly, slowly Clement slid his burden onto the window sill. The climb had only chipped one part of the crust and slightly dented the meringue.
He slid down, only hesitating a moment before slipping back through the shadows toward home. Perhaps one day he would find the courage to try and talk to her. He pressed the crushed orange blossom to his nose and drank the sweet smell.
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