The Orchard

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The Orchard

Maude had tended the trees for as long as most people around could remember.

She was eighty years old now if she was a day, but she still went out each morning and made sure they had everything they needed. There were more than sixty trees in the orchard now, lined up in a grid of eight on a side, and some days it took her most of the morning to do whatever she needed to do.

Maude had always turned down any offers of help from others, and truth be told there weren’t too many people around anyway. Her land was on the outskirts of town, and she had lived in the area since she was a little girl. Most of the people who had known her parents had already passed away years ago, and even some of those who grew up alongside Maude herself. She showed no signs of giving in to age, though she had inevitably slowed down a little in recent decades.

Her nearest neighbours were the two farms up over the next hill, but they had little reason to be involved with her beyond the occasional polite hello and neighbourly enquiry over a fence, or to check in on her during severe weather. Any visitor always found her in one of two places: her kitchen, pottering away over the stove, or outside tending to her trees.

There were occasionally reports from local children that the old woman could be found in the orchard at unusual hours, such as before dawn broke, or even late at night once the sky was fully dark. There would be no reason for her to go out at those times, and it wasn’t without risk when you lived alone and far away from potential sources of help, and your mobility wasn’t what it used to be. For the most part, the stories were dismissed as imagination, or rumour-mongering. Children loved to tell tales, and the branches of trees blowing in a night breeze lit only by the moon could look like almost anything from a distance.

It was known that she had a husband once, many years ago. Some people said they’d been married for a year, and some said it had been ten years, or twenty. The town’s memory was vague on the details, with each source absolutely certain of their own accuracy, but no two sources agreeing. On the very rare occasion that anyone had the opportunity to ask Maude such biographical questions, she only smiled and waved her hand, effortlessly conveying that the details of the past were unimportant and best left alone.

What was generally agreed upon, though, was that the man had been quick to anger, and probably an alcoholic, and that it was a damned good thing for Maude that their association had probably been brief. The land had been his, of course, times being what they were, and she had inherited the whole thing when he died. There were no children, and her late husband had no other immediate family to speak of. There must have been quite a bit of money in his estate besides the land itself, though, because Maude had somehow been living on it ever since, without appearing to take a job at any point in living memory.

The men of the town made their comments, and the women of the town made their comments, and Maude outlived most of them.

Every year when Hallowe’en rolled around, she would welcome the children of the area onto her property, and she would give them the expected confectionery but also several of the apples from the trees. They were large and juicy, with just a hint of bitterness, and always delicious. Even the children themselves liked the fruit, and the adults liked that someone was giving out natural treats beside the processed sugars. Maude smiled benevolently through it all, and she apologised for the irregularity of the apples compared to what the children were probably used to. Some would fall early before she could pick them, she said, and some got different amounts of sun or rain, but they were all perfectly ready to eat.

Once in a while, one or another of the women would ask Maude if she wasn’t a bit lonely out here by herself, and Maude would laugh. Not at all, she’d tell them, and they could see on her face that she was telling the truth. Sometimes they’d even offer condolences about her long-gone husband, and then sometimes Maude would laugh at that too.

She didn’t miss the man at all. Nor did she miss the opportunistic thug who had broken into her house forty or so years ago, trying to take advantage of a single woman living alone. She didn’t miss the distant relative of her husband who had shown up a few years after the man himself had died — or rather disappeared — seeking to claim a part of the estate as inheritance. She didn’t miss any of them.

Because they were still here.

Just out there in the orchard, on the farthest tree. You could see, if you really looked, by moonlight or by the golden rays of the first light before dawn. Each apple hanging there, never picked and never having fallen, so shiny and full. If you squinted a little, and if you knew what to look for, you’d see the faces frozen in surprise, or shock, or disbelief.

There were the new ways, but there were also still the old ways, and Maude came from a line of women every bit as old as the land beneath her feet. She knew how to speak to the earth, and she knew what it truly meant to curse another. Her husband had raised his fists, and his relative had raised his voice, and her would-be attacker had raised something else entirely, but they were all gone now — yet still here.

Just out in the orchard, hanging there from strong and healthy branches. A bump of rosy flesh, or an indented darker patch, or a striation where red met green. In the proper light, the faces were plain to see.

If you knew where to look.

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