The Fifteen-Minute Window
By Cappy Hall Rearick
“Now learn a parable of the fig tree; when his branch is yet tender, and putteth forth leaves, ye know that summer is nigh.” —Matthew 24:32.
The fig race, normally begun in mid-June, is late. Every year at this time what it boils down to is: them or us, man against nature. Fig lovers have a fifteen-minute window of opportunity before an army of black birds dive-bombs every fig tree in sight. After gorging on the tender ripe fruit, the birds fly away en masse, winging their way straight to a recently washed vehicle. Nothing is left on the fig trees save the fat umbrella-like leaves, a colorful reminder that early birds go after more than the lowly worm.
As I pull into my driveway I notice there are plump, magenta colored figs on the neighborhood tree, which makes me hope the birds have taken a wrong turn this year. The tree is so heavy with fruit it looks almost Biblical.
I can hear my mother’s voice. “Cappy, go out there and pick those figs before the birds get ‘em.” Mama never knew my St. Simons Island neighbor, Ed Cheshire, aka the Fig Filcher. I once saw him out there picking only a fig leaf. Knowing Ed, he probably had plans to wear it. If Mama had ever met Ed, she'd have amended her warning about the approaching birds so as to include the Fig Filcher.
When I was growing up, we always lived in a house with a fig tree in the back yard. It was the first thing Mama planted whenever we moved. Now, as I look at our neighborhood tree, I am reminded of when back yards were playable, trees were climbable, hopscotch was hoppable, and if any cement could be found, it provided a perfect surface on which to play Jacks.
We ran so hard. Ran till we were out of breath and had to stop and hold our aching sides. “Time Out!” we yelled if we were being chased in a wild game of tag. We drank sugared, thirst-quenching Kool-Ade in frosty aluminum tumblers, ate Cracker Jacks for only one reason: the prize in the bottom of the box, usually a plastic monkey with its tail curled into the shape of an “O.”
I wonder how many times I said, “Oh, shoot! I got a gnat in my eye!” We grew up with gnats, mosquitoes and houseflies. We didn't use “Off” to keep them away. Insects coexisted (with an occasional swat) alongside children tumbling onto stretches of dirt at the bottom of a sliding board, or kids looking for the elusive four-leaf clover in patches of green not yet planted with St. Augustine.
We skinned the cat on tree limbs big enough to hold us, and small enough on which to wrap our skinny legs. We even climbed fig trees, once the birds had come and gone.
The birds! I totally forgot about them! I need to take a detour off Memory Lane and get cracking before they pick that tree clean.
I park my car, unload the groceries and think all the while about the bulging fig-laden tree just outside my door. In less than twenty minutes, I am there, scanning up and down Butler Avenue for either Ed the Fig Filcher or the swarm of expected black birds. Happily, they are nowhere in sight. My window of opportunity appears to have been extended beyond the fifteen minutes, which makes my heart pound in expectation.
I continue to gaze at the sky and down the street while moving stealthily with plastic grocery bags in both hands. As soon as I reach the tree, I am thunderstruck. There is but one fig left. One! And it’s hiding underneath a fat leaf way in the back.
Damn those thieving black birds! Not only did they strip the fig tree bare, but they stole my fifteen-minute window right out from under me.
I shake my fist and yell Just wait till next year at the few remaining birds hovering over the roof of my recently washed car.
“And seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, he came, if haply he might find anything thereon: and when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves.” —Mark 11:13