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The Orchard’s Descendant
by Anne Fricke
Going back home was not an option. Even as she stood in the deepening twilight staring at the crumbling yellow house, shivers of regret splintering along her skin and a menacing itch in the air, she knew she would not go back. She was alone, surrounded by acres of fir forest and oak studded hillsides, a land she knew very little about, but she would not get back in her car and drive away.
She knew too well what she would find if she went back, a bustling city of strangers, people too busy with their phones to interact anymore. She had loved Oakland as a child, the chaos of highways and people, the parks, the community, the day trips to San Francisco. As an adult she had begun to find it tedious, oppressive and distracting. This was easy to overlook when she had her lifelong friends, her parents, and her community in the school she had worked in for eight years. But things had changed. She would never have the same familial sensation when she thought of the school. Now, thoughts of its open-air hallways and the barrage of students filtering past her left her feeling depleted and slightly broken.
It had all happened so quickly, the scandal. He was a new teacher at the school, young, attractive and decidedly male. There was a work party that went on late and turned into drinks afterwards. He was attentive and she, having been lonely for too long, was willing. The experience itself was rather pleasant. They laughed and talked and, though she knew dating a fellow teacher at the high school was out of the question, what they did in private was no one’s business. Then the condom broke and unfortunately the morning after pill was ineffective. She learned he had a wife shortly before realizing she was pregnant.
She had not handled it gracefully. Disappointment and rage led to written letters, frantic texts and trembling hands when he was near. He begged her not to tell his wife, something she hadn’t even considered. But the baby, she had wanted a baby, though not like this. Never like this. She was angry that his lies had denied her of this chance. Whatever concern for her he expressed that night had long dissolved into angry whispers in the teacher’s lounge and statements of ‘just get rid of it’. She awoke each morning with swollen eyelids and tremors in her gut but eventually she made the hardest choice she ever had to.
Her grief began to gnaw at her until even her students noticed how unhappy and angry she was. She found it hard to focus on her classes and fell into exhausted sleep most hours she was away from the school. Her body felt mutilated and empty. Seeing him wander the halls of her school made her want to vomit and commit heinous acts of violence. He had soiled her home.
If she was honest with herself, this experience was just the final impetus for leaving. She had been discontent with her life for many years. All of the unsettledness, the doubt, the anger and the dissatisfaction erupted on her thirtieth birthday, just a few months after her visit to the clinic.
She was leaning on the bar of a local pub for support, trying to order another whiskey and coke through slurred speech, when a pathetic realization swept over her. She had been in the exact same spot nine years before celebrating her twenty-first birthday. She was in the same neighborhood bar in Oakland, with the same friends, reminiscing about the same school age memories and really not much further down the road of life.
Abbey, her best friend since elementary school, had come stumbling up to her at the bar mumbling about some cute guy that had just walked in. The local band was finishing their last song and she, in the newfound realization of the sinkhole she had been living in, was horrified to feel tears slide down her face. She grabbed the bar as her stomach lurched and vomited on the floor of her favorite pub. Abbey, to her credit, shuffled her out of there as quickly and quietly as she could. In a moment of nostalgia Maggie glanced back at the pub as she was stepping through the door. There at the bar sat the teacher with whom she had shattered the stability of her current life. She vowed never to enter the pub again.
Perhaps her move was a bit extreme, she thought to herself. Her eyes wandered along the walls of the 110 year-old farmhouse in front of her. Faded yellow paint curled and flaked off and one of the second story windows was covered with cardboard and disintegrating duct tape. It was a square, flat-faced two story-house with nothing so fancy as a porch. Dry grass and blackberry bushes grew all around the house and the front door looked to be hanging at an odd angle. She thought suddenly that her grandmother would not approve.
Grandma had always wanted to see her more settled. She hated how Maggie moved from apartment to apartment, dragging the same crappy furniture with her, living with random roommates.
“That’s how I lived, Maggie,” she would say. “But you are different. You need a home. Settle down and make a family.”
Maggie hated these conversations. She loved her grandmother, and respected her immensely. Her grandmother had been a tried and true activist, traveling the country fighting for unions and women’s rights. She had given birth out of wedlock before it was a hip thing to do, and probably right there on the floor in the middle of a union meeting. The dedication most women reserved for their families she had put into community organizing. Her grandmother was proud of all that she had accomplished and it had saddened Maggie that her grandmother had not thought her made of the same grit. This was apparent in the stipulation her grandmother had added to Maggie’s inheritance. The money she willed Maggie was to be spent only on buying a home.
Grief stricken that her grandmother was gone, and angry that even in death she had carried on with her seemingly lack of faith in her, Maggie refused to touch the money, or the letter that came with it. It wasn’t until she found herself in the deepest despair, curled in pain on her sweat-soaked sheets, mourning yet another loss, that she finally opened the letter.
It was more sentimental than she remembered her grandmother to be. The letter reminisced of her grandmother’s childhood, raising her mother along the activist trail, and the joy that came with watching Maggie grow into a woman. The disjointed memories of a woman who knows there is too much to say as her vitality faded quickly into darkness. She had the final say on their recurring argument of Maggie’s life, and Maggie was grateful for it.
“You are going to do great things Maggie May, I know you will. Some of us are seeds floating along the wind, ready to alight onto fertile ground. And others were born with their roots dug into the soil, there to provide shelter and strength. You Maggie, need to find your home, dig in those roots, and see how big and strong you will grow.”
A sudden rush of wind whipped through the tops of the trees and a shiver crawled along her skin. Rosa, her shepherd mutt, nudged her hand with a little whimper. She absently shushed her, still taking in the sight of her new home as if the longer she stared the more sense she could make of her situation.
She had taken the money willed by her grandmother, found a teaching job via the bulletin board in the teacher’s lounge. That fact that the teaching job was in the rural hills of Northern California, in a place none of them had ever heard of, made it that much more appealing. The miracle, she thought at the time, was finding a house fairly close that she could afford to buy.
“Why rent when you can buy?” asked the realtor she had contacted to help find a rental. A vision had arisen of her drinking coffee on a warming porch in the morning, the sound of birdsong filtering through the air of the forest around her. She would stretch and meander to the garden for fresh vegetables, the buzzing of bees harmonizing with the birds; a very appealing domestic bliss.
“Yes,” she had agreed, “I would like to buy.”
She stood rooted to the spot, silently cursing the city realtor as she scanned the house. There was no porch. The realtor here, the one who had met her on the road before the driveway and gave her the tour, was friendly enough and slightly apologetic even before they walked through the house.
“Before we go in,” she had said as Maggie stood dumbfounded before a house that looked very little like the picture, “just know that a lot of houses need work when people buy them.”
Eventually Maggie noticed that Cheryl, the realtor, was staring at her the way she was staring at the house. For fear of being rude and impolite, as if Cheryl had built this house, Maggie smiled and said, “I love it.” Cheryl gave her an odd half smile and replied, “Come on, we have to go in the back door.”
The back door, hanging correctly on its hinges, opened into the hallway that it shared with the stairs and front door. Off to the left was the kitchen, to the right was perhaps a dining room. Moving towards the front door they passed a small washroom with a sink and a toilet oddly broken into pieces, as if smashed with a sledgehammer. At the front of the house, to the left, was a living room with an old brick fireplace and big window boasting a view of the front lawn overtaken by weeds and blackberry bushes, barely visible through the layers of silt and unwashed years spreading across the glass. The foot of the stairs started right outside of the room across the hall, presumably a study for the bookshelves lining one wall. They started up the stairs, carefully stepping over a few broken steps as creaks echoed through the vacant house.
By then Maggie was fairly breathless from anxiety and breathing the dust and mold. The windows were dim with grime, the floors had a thick layer of dirt and who knew what else, and the counters and shelves were covered with the tell tale signs of rodent inhabitation. Wooden floorboards creaked and moaned under their weight. The upstairs had three bedrooms and a washroom, which did boast a lovely, if dirty, claw foot bathtub, but no toilet. Here and there was a random table or chair that had been left by some unknown occupant. Otherwise, the house was empty.
They had wandered the dust-laden rooms for about 20 minutes before they made it out back and both took deep breaths to fill their lungs with the fresh air. Cheryl broke the silence first, “Obviously it needs a bit of work.” Maggie looked at her quizzically for a moment and then burst into laughter. She laughed right through the uncomfortable silence until Cheryl looked as if she would run to her car and drive off.
“I’m sorry. It’s just that, yeah, it needs a bit of work. Quite a bit.” Maggie, finally shaking herself out of shock enough to acknowledge the trusty shepherd mix she had dragged up to the country, reached down to scratch Rosa's ears. “I quit my job for this. Left my friends and family. I could be eating a sushi dinner right now and going home to a clean bed and a working toilet. The toilet was broken in half! And what about the porch? There’s a porch in the picture?”
Cheryl, who had been politely concerned-looking during the outburst said, “Oh, well, there used to be a porch on the front, years ago. I’m afraid the picture you have is slightly outdated. Maggie let a breath of annoyance burst out. Cheryl continued unabated, “But there is an outhouse this way.” And with that she led Maggie to a rotting wooden structure about 50 feet from the house.
Maggie opened the door and quickly closed it again, not sure what kind of animal had made the outhouse it’s home. She looked at Cheryl and mustered a smile. Digging deep to find her quickly dissolving sanity she said, “Good thing there are lots of bushes around here.”
“You know, there is a bed and breakfast in town that isn’t too far of a drive. I could call and see about getting you a decent rate. It would be a nice place to stay while you fixed up the house enough to live in it.”
“Ugh, I’d rather not get back in the car right now,” Maggie replied, thinking of the moment when trying to decide what to pack in her sedan and grateful she had refused to leave behind the cherished, and expensive, camping gear. “Besides, I can’t spend all my money on a B&B. It looks like I’m going to need all I’ve got for the house.”
Cheryl studied her for a moment before saying, “Well, I have a good connection with a local handyman, he’s my husband,” she said with a wink. “I’m sure I can persuade him to come out tomorrow and start working on some essentials like digging a new outhouse and cleaning out the spring box.”
“Cleaning out the spring box?” Maggie had asked, dumbfounded.
Cheryl sighed, “Do you have enough water to get through the night?”
“Um, yeah, I think so.”
“Ok, I’ll have Charlie come out first thing in the morning to help get you set up. He can bring some lumber for the outhouse, we have tons of it lying around. If we haven’t used it by now we won’t need it.”
Not sure really how to respond, Maggie smiled and thanked her. Her mind was more focused on berating herself for not checking into this whole thing further before she dragged Rosa and herself up there. No toilet, no water, and she now assumed no power.
“Maggie?” Cheryl finally broke through her thoughts and looked questioningly at her, “Are you going to be ok out here?”
“I guess I’ll have to be. This is my new home.”
Home. Maggie wasn’t sure what that word really meant anymore. She thought she had at one time, but that home was tainted and didn’t bring her comfort anymore. It was not a place she wanted to be. Despite her childish need to prove her grandmother wrong, she knew she truly needed a home. Now, she was going to have a fresh start.
Fatigue and disbelief shuddered through her as she stared at the shadowed house. Rosa nudged her hand when the tears began to shake her body. Maggie dropped to the ground and allowed herself the sobs of fear and grief and regret. She let them flow onto the ground, as if an offering to her new home, watering the very roots she hoped to dig into the soil, until her body was weak with exhaustion, her breath became more rhythmic and she could again feel the textures of the earth beneath her. Rosa had finally given up moving her and had lain gently pressed against her. Maggie took some deep, solidifying breaths, dried her tears and stood up with a groan.
Night had fully descended and she did not have the energy to set up camp. She looked into the darkness, towards the orchard they had not walked through, and found a moment of hope and excitement in the possibilities. Some unknown animal called in the distance and Maggie felt suddenly vulnerable. “Come on Rosa, we’re sleeping in the car tonight.”
Maggie unloaded some things from the back seat so she could recline the passenger seat as far back as possible. She wrapped herself in her sleeping bag, silently longed for a real bed, and watched Rosa struggle to get comfortable in the driver’s seat. “Sorry girl, tomorrow we’ll sleep better.” Maggie looked over towards the barn and a feeling of unease tugged at her. She reached out her hand to lock the door, as if that would provide safety, and rolled to turn her back to the barn.
She had lost a child, lost a home and lost the world she knew, but she would not lose her dignity, or her way. She would make this house her home, and that was that.
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It is Enough
Her spirit awakens in the darkest hours of the night, the cold stillness that permeates the landscape just before the sun’s glow creeps towards the horizon. This is her magic hour, open to her only if she pushes through the dredging tiredness and wills her cells to vibrate with lucidity into this time too often trampled by human exhaustion.
As the sun ascends into the morning sky, calling the diurnal creatures to their tasks, she sits with her coffee. She drinks it black as a practice of self-control, a minor abstinence to begin her day with some sense of accomplishment; sipping the bitter brew slowly as she tries to rid herself of the desire for coffee placated heavily with maple syrup and cream. If she allowed herself these little indulgences her thighs, too big for her tastes already, would grow beyond her capacity to love herself.
The sudden grumble of a lawnmower jostles her out of any peaceful reverie. The distinct sound always fuels the sense of longing in her. She remembers the sound well from her childhood, one that reminded her then that a lawn mower meant there was grass to cut and most likely a father to do it. She had been blessed with neither, and to this day feels the pain of that loss. Even as she looks about her home, the solid walls she can claim as her own containing the things she has accumulated throughout her life, even thinking happily of the yard surrounding these walls and the garden she has so lovingly tended; even these images are not enough to resolve the emotions of longing and despair that dug its roots deep into her psyche as a young child.
The rumble of the lawnmower chugs to a stop, allowing the bird song to break through her thoughts. She smothers the memories and heads to the stereo. A sweet scent of honeysuckle rides the breeze in through the window, shoving the sadness aside. She gently drops the needle onto the record and breathes in deep as the voice of Edith Piaf stumbles through the rhythmic scratching, beginning its dance about the room. She stands still for a moment, filling herself with the melodic feel of side walk café’s, freshly baked bread, and men with magically exotic tongues. She overflows and glides across the room in a graceful arc. She has always dreamed of traveling to France, but for now allows herself to be satisfied with Edith Piaf and bare feet dancing on cool tile floor.
She is a bundle of longing, a perpetual hand stretching towards what she does not have; a husband, children, memories of a warm cup of le chocolat chaud in her hands as she sits idly in the Tuilerie gardens in Paris. But in this moment, as honeysuckle flows delicately around her twirling body, fluffing her hair as she spins, the voice of Edith Piaf echoing off the blue and yellow curtains of her sun warmed window and pulling gently at the corners of her mouth, it is enough. For now, it is enough.
The Face in the Window
The face in the window stared back, unblinking and devoid of emotion. It was not my face, nor one I recognized. The dogs had not set to barking so were either asleep or dead. It was hard to think through the pounding heartbeat reverberating across my bones. Then, the face was gone.
I stood quietly for a few moments, listening as the wind threw branches against the shingles of my country home. The wood stove crackled violently with the surge of oxygen tumbling down the chimney pipe and I convinced myself I had imagined the face.
The skies had been unleashing rain for several days now and I wondered when the swollen river would reach its breaking point. I feared it would be soon. I lived several miles from town, a lone woman with several dogs in a run-down cabin at the end of a long gravel road. I rarely had visitors. Except for tonight.
I walked into the living room and there was the face. Ageless, tired, pained, and now horrifyingly familiar. The arch of the eyebrows lay flat against the plane of a recognizable face, still absent of movement, or of life. Again, I stood quietly, waiting for something to happen. For the face to make its intentions known. Again, I could not think for the blood rapidly pulsing through my veins, urging me to defend myself or to flee. Again, I wondered why the dogs were silent.
I willed my eyelids to descend over my pupils, shutting out the knowing face. Perhaps the wine had not been a good idea. My doctor had said as much, alcohol would not react well to the assortment of pills I swallowed daily to stay alive. In hopeless retraction I hurried to the kitchen for several glasses of water to flush my system of the potentially toxic combination. As I leaned against the sink, back to the window, I could feel the face slide slowly, almost menacingly, into frame, watching the back of my neck intently, waiting for my acknowledgement.
I clung to my glass of water, tried to anchor myself to the reality of my kitchen but the compulsion to turn and face the image in the window was stronger than my instinct to stay alive. I knew, before seeing, that I would know the face. That the deep green eyes, ‘the color of Ireland’ as my mother used to call them, would delve into mine with in intimacy born of the ultimate familiarity.
In a fit of panic I smiled at the face, in hopes of seeing the return smile, to prove to myself it was reflection and nothing else. But the features remained still. I reminded myself of the wine, its red bitterness swirling in tumultuous currents with little blue pills and white pills, dancing erratically in the cavern of my stomach.
I picked up the phone to call my doctor but found, true to the character of the story, that the line was dead; communication cut-off by the thrashing of branches against telephone lines. There was nothing to do but lay down in hopes of sleeping off the hazardous combination, drinking water to dilute my system.
I turned lights off as I went, hands trailing against walls as a lover’s hand on flesh, the coarseness of spackled drywall rubbing against the soft tips of my fingers. I pulled the door closed behind me and looked longingly to my bed. From where I stood I could see the body-shaped lump underneath the covers and felt a force stronger than earth’s gravity pull me forward.
I reached with trembling fingers to the cover tucked around an unknown form. I could feel the rhythm of my heart jump erratically in my chest, aware of every sensual detail as the organ filled with coursing, frightened blood and expelled it in rapid bursts of terror. The depth of cold reached my fingertips as I managed to pull the covers down over the waxen, familiar features. Ireland stared up at me and my heart exploded.
“Summertime, and the livin’ is easy,
fish are jumpin’
and the cotton is high,
your Daddy’s rich,
and your Mama’s good lookin’,
so hush little baby, don’t you cry”
She was born in the heat of the summer. When tendrils of humidity hang from rotating ceiling fans and the incessant buzz of cicadas texture the moist, oppressive air. The wail of her cry pierced through the blanket of heat settling onto her mother’s sweat-soaked body, scaring the crawdads back into their holes. Her mother, hearing the desperation and longing in the cry of her first born, began to whimper as the vitality flowed slowly and steadily from her battered womb.
The baby grew to be a shy, awkward girl tucked away into a foster home wrought with the comings and goings of one displaced youth after another; relegated to quiet corners, burnt, tasteless edges of casseroles too inadequate to feed hungry, growing bodies and slivers of threadbare blankets commandeered by older, stronger children.
She is a storyteller, a weaver of fantasies whose roots dig deep beneath the earth on which she stands, the long limbs of images and visions reaching towards the sun and wrapping her safely in metaphors and happy endings. In these stories she is never a motherless castaway, bereft of the security of unconditional love, but a flourishing child whose world is full of possibilities.
On stormy days, as clouds grow on the horizon, grumbling and groaning, slowly slogging across the sky, she sits on the back porch, snapping endless piles of stringy green beans, and looks over the grove of orange trees behind the foster home, lined by ancient oaks and approaching kudzu vines. Her feet twitch with the desire to tramp through fields, splashing rhythmically into puddles. As she watches the heavy drops plop decidedly onto the ground she imagines the cool, squish of mud oozing between the toes of her bare feet. She rubs her feet together, tickling her toes and reveling in the sensation of her imagination. She longs to run into the storm and bathe the world with the story of her birth, screaming into the whipping wind the anguish she somehow remembers in her mother’s dying face.
In the heat of the summer, when the air is thick and stagnant, and her skin glistens under a layer of salty sweat, she whispers her stories into the patchy grass beneath her; stories of fairy queens and beetle driven chariots, of far-off worlds where trees can sing and plants dance waltzes on rippling rainbows; places where she is always welcome, where her voice and her stories have meaning.
Some of the other children had caught her once, in a soft patch of grass near the house. She was speaking to a collection of empty cicada shells she had gathered around her like an audience, describing for them the iridescent feathery wings of the Fairy Queen who sends messages to her from her mother. They laughed at her, mocked her by taking it in turns to say ridiculous things to her unmoved audience. Some of the more disturbed children said nasty, devious things to her cicada shells before violently crushing them one at a time. One kid went so far as to push her, hard, sending her flying back into the menacing thorns of a rose bush. Cackles plagued her ears when she began to cry from the humiliation and blood slowly trickling from her pierced skin. They made fun of her because their hearts are broken, and they could see that hers is not.
“but til that mornin’, there’s nothin’ can harm you”
So now she shares these tales only with the orange trees furthest away from the clutter and chaos of the house. On the edge of the grove she can watch the pale green Spanish moss as it drips from the spreading limbs of nearby oak trees or let her thoughts float amiably along on the droning buzz of bees hard at work amongst the orange blossoms; a place where words spill from her lips into the waiting ears of ladybugs or alight onto the tiny wings of honeybees to be carried into the world.
She watches the bees in their melodious dance, hovering over white blossoms, and imagines her stories resting in anticipation on their backs. She watches as the bees fly farther away and imagines the words reach her father, wherever or whom ever he is. She imagines that he hears the words and, knowing them for his daughter’s, comes to find her, to rescue her from the desolation of not belonging, of not having a family, of living a blurry existence whose intention has not yet come into focus.
“with Daddy and Mama, standin’ by”
Sometimes she imagines the words tumbling off the honey bee, resting briefly on a petal before they grab on to the wings of a passing hummingbird, spill off onto a crow, rub against an eagle and fly high into the heavens where her mother hears them and rejoices in their beauty.
One particular afternoon, as she leans against the smooth bark of a solid fruit bearer telling an exciting tale of talking horses and magical miniature rose buds to a gathering of busy ants, she hears a distinct shifting behind her. Startled from her tale, heart pounding, she quickly silences herself, afraid one of the kids has heard her speaking to the ants and will bring the others to mock and torment her again, or possibly worse. Through the muffled rush of blood filling her ears she hears a small, shy voice ask, “What happened to the horse’s daughter, the one who got lost?”
She jumps at the voice, momentarily stunned and terrified that she has been caught. Her fear gives way to a calming recognition. The voice, weak but filled with a tentative longing, belongs to a young child, new to the house just yesterday morning; a young, shock-riddled boy whose grief and fear emanate from sad, sunken brown eyes. She smiles kindly at him and motions him closer. Relieved, he scoots close enough that their arms are touching, a silent and unconscious plea for comfort and closeness. She leans into him and whispers, “She found her way home.”
The child relaxes, letting go just a breath’s worth of his grief in a relieved sigh, a step into the journey of healing and finding his way in this world. His silent acceptance wraps around them a cloak of comfort and newfound hope. Our heroine of unrecognized potential allows the harmony of buzzing insects, pulsing heat and far-off voices to hold the space around them for a moment. Infused with the susurric grain of sand inside her oyster shell, she begins a new, inspired tale of a family created on a hot, southern afternoon, under the dappled shade of an orange tree, as cicadas drone wildly overhead.
“One of these mornin’s, you’re gonna rise up singin’,
you’re gonna spread your wings, and take to the sky,
until that morning, there’s nothin’ can harm you,
so hush now, little baby, don’t you cry…”