Cherries and Honey by Abby McCord

I want to be like a Hawaiian honeyeater. A songbird that sipped nectar and sap and hid bright yellow feathers underneath its black wings—a yellow so special it was wanted for ceremonial robes. A creature gone extinct that remains known for what it hid. Only in flight, caught underneath the sun, could the precious yellow be seen.

In the summer of 2019, I visited O’o Farm, a sustainable farm high in the mountains of Kula, Hawaii, with naturally cultivated growth of fruit orchards and flowering trees. O’o: the Hawaiian word for honeyeater. Near the back of the farm is where they plant their coffee trees, Coffea arabica. Rows of deep green and red, the constant fog from the mountain sheltering them, protecting their growth. Coffee beans do not start out as brown beans with a rich, bitter scent—they start out like cherries. Sweet, gentle, new. They grow in a small fruit cocoon where they develop their shape and light color prior to roasting. You can eat the fruit around the growing bean by sucking off the cherry pulp before your tongue reaches the center. They are like the nectar of childhood—sugary and innocent.

Coffee cherries grow in clusters. They huddle close as their skin stretches and softly welcome their changes. Their rubbery leaves provide them with shade when they need a break from the sun. Like a mother bird softening her hatchling’s food, the leaves feed them water droplets more gently than the rain could.

In 2019, I entered my twenties—the years for growth and opportunity. The years for budding new friendships and falling in and out of love. As my naivete taught me: the years for knowing who you are. I imagined the tick of the hand hitting midnight would signal something within me—a shedding of skin or a new seed to plant. But I remained the same; my years felt simply lonely. It was easy to wallow in the soil of self-pity when I was the cherry who fell through the branches and the leaves. I watched others in their groups, growing together. I watched birds sip the nectar above me instead of listening to the way they sang. It was easy to look in the wrong places and blame anything but myself. I didn’t want to believe my loneliness was my own doing, that I dropped from the stem and placed myself in the soil.

All I wanted was someone to grow with—to grow close to. I desperately wanted to find a place in the shade, a rubbery leaf to provide me with comfort. I threw myself at anyone who could give me a break from the sun but threw myself so hard I let them touch me and rip out my premature seed. I let them burn and sizzle my stretching skin. I let them pluck my precious yellow feathers. It was all for a connection that I didn’t have—one that I needed with myself.

When walking through the rows of Coffea arabica, a gardener handed me a cherry in her cupped hands.

“You can eat it,” she said. “They’re sweet.” I took the cherry and popped it into my mouth. “Don’t eat the seed, though,” she added as the syrupy flavor hit my taste buds. “Put it back into the ground; it will grow again.” I pulled the seed from my mouth before it met my teeth and gently placed it back into the soil. It will grow again, I thought.

Later, we walked up to the small house where the coffee roasting takes place. A beautiful wooden room with natural light that smelled like the warmth of a thousand drips of coffee. I remember the three big roasters churning coffee beans in the corner. The beans hitting the metal edges sounded like pouring rain as the sweet cherries developed a robust flavor worthy of drinking in the morning.

O’o Farm was so high up into the mountains that you could see above the fog from the porch. The clouds made the sky look like an ocean. Soft, tender water that moved with benevolence. The air was pure, like a kiss for the flowers and my skin. From up there, I could see the rows of Coffea arabica, the flowering trees and fruit orchards. Everything was still, simply soaking in the love from their earth. The birds sang and enjoyed their sap as they built nests into the wooden planks of the porch. The same thing Hawaiian honeyeaters did hundreds of years ago, maybe in the same place. I wondered: maybe from up here, nothing matters except for growing. 

My elbows rested against the paint-chipped railing of the porch as my yellow feathers tucked beneath my arms and slowly grew back into place. They stretched my skin, but I let them. I was sweet, gentle and new. I was growing again. I was like a Hawaiian honeyeater, protecting what was hidden, becoming rather than knowing. There, I could open my arms and let my precious yellow be caught underneath the sun.

Photo by Forest and Kim Starr, used and adapted under CC.