Apple Pirn stood in front of the kitchen window in her old Vermont farmhouse among the fruit flies and cidery light wearing a thrift store blouse with the front unbuttoned to expose her sagged breast.
The man on the telephone had told her to wait and so she was waiting.
“They were the first to come back.” She tucked her breast inside her bra. “After the Blitz.
Bracken carpeted the vestry of St. James in Piccadilly. Ragwort shot up through the rubble.”
“They’re resilient. They cling to things. They lie and wait. You have to be proactive.”
“We’ve already been out there.”
Apple squinted out the window at the 10-acre field that hadn’t been mowed in more than a year. Tall, uneven grass. Oxeye daisies, cowslips and orchids.
“We came out last June,” the man said. “And then we came out this July and again in August.
The last time,” the man lowered his voice. “The last time my employee said you threatened him.”
“We can’t come out again. I’m sorry.”
Apple pulled the telephone from her ear as though something had crawled out of the receiver.
She hung up and dialed the only number she knew by heart.
“They won’t mow my field.”
“Will you let them?”
“The weeds are relentless. They swallowed my wheelbarrow whole.”
“They’ll take care of it if you let them.”
“They won’t do it right.”
“It doesn’t have to be perfect. It doesn’t have to be like Dad.”
Apple studied her dim reflection in the window. The sun-coppered field. The shadowed bank barn. The wild apple trees. The dense branches grafted onto her skin. “The other thing is that I’ve got cancer. Breast cancer.”
“Seventy-six years old. It almost seems ridiculous.”
“I’m coming out there.”
“Stop it. That’s not why I called. I haven’t heard his voice in a year. You sound like him.
When you say home especially.”
The other end of the line was quiet.
“I’ve decided to do it myself.” Apple began to button her blouse. “Mow the field I mean. I’ll go at the weeds with a scythe.”
“Your father would admire my pluck. Don’t you think? I may not get it right. I might roll the damn thing over, but he’d admire my pluck.”
“Let me help.”
“You want to fly across the country to mow my field?”
“It’s Boston. It’s hardly across the state. And I will.”
“You’ll hurt yourself.”
“Say it for me.”
The line was quiet.
“Ah, there he is.”
In the evening, she busied herself around the house. His smell was everywhere – black coffee and grassy wool. It saturated the couch cushions and painted the cupboards. When her feet sored, she turned on the radio and poured herself a drink from the bottle he kept in the pantry room.
Henry Louis Pirn had grown up in a home for boys. Apple met him in 1965 when he asked for a pack of Lucky Strikes in the A&P where she was working at the customer service desk. He had been repairing tracks along the Missisquoi River. Pulling out old ties, replacing them with new ties and spiking them into place. His face was sun-worn, and he kept his thumbs hung below his belt. He had an odd stillness that seemed to exaggerate her own movements so that she felt around him like a moth around a lightbulb.
For two years, they saw each other nearly every day. There were times – usually in the evenings parked in the woods behind the old high school – when he talked about St. Joseph’s Orphanage.
He smiled as though it was the springtime of his youth, but his fingers dug into his knees and he had trouble looking her in the eyes. He told her that he saw a 6-year-old boy get pushed out of a fourth-story window by a nun. The boy bounced, he said. He told her that he had been hung by his legs over a well and that he had been locked in a closet for three days. He said only the boys who the priests favored had their birthdays celebrated, and you did not want to be favored by the priests.
She told him things about herself, although they did not seem like the things he told her. She told him that her father drank too much and that he did not get mean or happy but just fell asleep.
She told him that her mother had stripped off all her clothes and stood at the edge of the pond behind their house one Easter morning threatening to drown herself if they didn’t move somewhere warmer.
There were days she thought she would leave him. He could be distant. He seemed to be operating across a bad telephone line. She would wake in his apartment in the middle of the night and find him sitting on the bathroom floor in the dark. When he told her he was going to enlist, he did so without emotion as though they had only just met and he had no reason to believe she might miss him or that she might even object. She thought about the ways trauma ripples and swells – how she read once that a swell can cross an entire ocean.
The motion light on top of the barn switched on. Apple studied it for a moment. She glanced at her watch. It said 1 o’clock, which seemed impossible. She stood unsteadily and gripped the side of the table. “Christ,” she said. The man on the radio was talking about how the pollinator species were in peril in Vermont. Habitat loss, pesticide use and disease. The species of bees were declining. The rusty-patched bumblebee had disappeared altogether. Apple carried the bottle to the window and stood studying the light in the distance.
She didn’t believe her relationship with Henry would survive. It seemed built on quicksand.
But he wrote her short letters from Parris Island and Camp Lejeune that became long letters from South Vietnam, and she found herself thinking about him at odd times of the day. When he received his honorable discharge, he showed up at her door with a clutch of bird’s foot violets, and they were married at the county courthouse the following spring.
Apple pulled open the screen door and stepped into the tall grass. The full moon hung low, and she could hear the trill of field crickets in the distance.
They rented an apartment above a laundromat where lint settled on the windowsills. Ten months later, Apple gave birth to Mattie. It took time for him to love their daughter. His quietness became silence, and he would not hold her when she cried. But he was only so vigilant, and when the dam broke he quickly drowned. They bought a house outside town. Ten rough, hilly acres that nobody wanted with a ruined barn and hundreds of neglected apple trees chewed to near stumps by cows three decades before. He chased Mattie through the field – a sun-swept child duck-footed with a smile that peeled open her face like a coin purse. He taught her the names of wildflowers and showed her how to scratch the bark of the black birches to produce the smell of wintergreen. He began working on the collapsed barn wall. He bought a pruning saw and lopped off diseased apple branches with vengeance.
Mattie was tall like her father with auburn hair, and the children picked on her relentlessly.
Henry worked nights as a security guard, but he drove her to school in his 1962 Ford F100 every morning and slept in the parking lot so she knew he was close. He wrote little notes and put them in her lunch sack. They said things like “you are as tough as a wild iris.”
Apple waded through the tall grass. As she neared the barn, the motion light snapped off, and she stood breathing heavily. Slowly, her eyes adjusted and she watched as a white-tailed deer stepped out from behind the hinged door. The deer paused less than 10 yards from Apple. It stared at her with its head tilted at an odd angle. The hair around its eyes and ears was missing, and the skin was wrinkled and scabbed over. Apple waited for the motion light to snap back on, but it never did, and the deer disappeared quietly into the woods.
Mattie showed up the next morning. She stood on the porch with her hair tucked under a baseball cap looking around like she was thinking of buying the place.
Apple opened the door. “What are you doing here?”
“I told you I’d come.”
“How’d you get here so fast?”
“It’s a three-hour drive. I was going to mow. I thought I’d surprise you.”
Apple let Mattie inside. “I’ve called it off. I’m going to let it grow. The bees are disappearing. The rust-covered ones are already gone.”
Apple started toward the kitchen and then stopped and turned to face Mattie. “How are you? I didn’t even ask. How’s work? A doctor – a youth counselor. I still can’t believe it.”
Mattie shrugged. “Fine. Not fine. I don’t know. I’m pissing in an ocean.”
“You’re doing God’s work.”
“You don’t believe in God.”
“That’s why you’re doing the work and not him.”
Mattie looked around the living room. “When did you find out?”
“You still drink coffee, I take it?”
“Have some coffee. There will be plenty of time to talk about my tits.”
Apple led her daughter into the kitchen and pulled a mug from the cupboard. “I saw a deer last night. By the barn. It was sick.”
“Can a deer get rabies? I don’t know. It just looked sick.” Apple picked up the coffee pot and paused in front of the window. “The apple trees have gone to hell. All whorls and water sprouts. I feel bad. You spent so much time out there with your father.”
“That was a long time ago.”
Apple poured the coffee into the mug. “I never told you how he died.”
“I know how he died.”
“Not that ridiculous thing. I mean how.” Apple carried the mug over to the table where Mattie was sitting. “He got confused at the end. I kept it from you. There were times he didn’t know who he was.”
Mattie turned away.
“I should have taken him back to the hospital, I suppose. I don’t know.”
“I should have come back out here,” Mattie said.
Apple waved her hand. “We didn’t know anything then.” She sat down at the table next to her daughter. “He woke up early and drove to the hardware store. I didn’t know, of course. He parked in the lot and started walking down Main Street. He made it a couple of houses and then turned down someone’s walk and went right into their home. The family was having breakfast. He just walked down the hall unnoticed and climbed into the little boy’s bed and died there.”
“She came out to see me. The woman who lives there. She kept apologizing. Do you know what they did – the family? They set a strand of braided horsetail on his chest – for strength – and then they stood around the bed and sang while they waited for the ambulance. Can you believe it?”
Apple stiffened her jaw. “I wouldn’t have done any of it. If it were me who found a dead man in my bed, I’d call an ambulance and hightail it out of there.”
“That’s not true. You don’t give yourself enough credit.”
“I don’t know.” Apple looked down at the table. “A year. My God. How will I live another year? I hope the cancer kills me.”
“Don’t say that. You have me.”
“I know I do. But you’re so far.”
“No, I’m not. I’m right here.”
“Say it for me again.”
“I don’t sound like him.”
Apple reached out suddenly and pulled the hat from her daughter’s head. “Yes, you do. It’s the way you draw it out. The way it sounds like a sigh.”
Mattie was quiet.
“There he is.”
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