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Authors: Nancy Means Wright

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Poison Apples

BOOK: Poison Apples
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POISON APPLES

 

Nancy Means Wright

 

A goodly apple rotten at the heart.

0, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!


William Shakespeare

The Merchant of Venice
(I, iii, 124)

 

 

Chapter One

 

Moira Earthrowl was Irish enough to know that a bird that tried to enter your house meant death. And here the cardinal was, flinging itself at the living room window again, thud, thud, thud at the glass: a stout red bill, a rush of scarlet feathers.

“Get away, get, you crazy bird!” She waved her arms at the intruder. How could she concentrate on her weaving, with a foolish bird assaulting her window? It was the third day in a row it had come, and she was mystified. More than that, she was downright worried.

Now, she didn’t really believe that a bird could bring death, but twice already the superstition had come true. A blackbird had flown into her grandfather’s workshop in Ballyvaughan, Ireland, and the next day the old man was dead of a massive heart attack. And at Aunt Bridget’s funeral a sparrow darted through an open window, circled the casket three times, and flew out. Of course, Bridget was already dead, so it wasn’t quite such a concern. But it proved the superstition; her mother had reminded her of that.

Here it was again: wham! barn! dashing its crimson side against the glass, then its fiery red beak. She half expected to see a spot of blood on the glass. But there wasn’t any. At the very least the bird must be brainless by now, she thought, all that bashing and smashing!

What she really worried about, though, was her husband Stan. Not that he was superstitious, oh, not at all. He was a pragmatic man. But he was so sensitive, so vulnerable these days. Always, it seemed, in a bad patch. There he was, out in the orchard now, arguing—or so it seemed—with the orchard manager, Rufus Barrow. Stan was practically a foot taller than short, stocky, soft-spoken Rufus. And yet Rufus seemed the more powerful one, feet planted on the grassy triangle between cider barn and house, arms folded, head tilted slightly back to make eye contact with Stan.

And not stepping back, she saw, when Stan shook his fist. What was the matter now? The cider press not working right? The local pickers dropping too many apples? They were slower than the others: After all, the Jamaicans were professionals. And the locals were young: the Butterfield twins, Rolly and Hally; a tall athletic young woman named Millie Laframboise from East Branbury, who had an ailing mother and three other part-time jobs; Adam Golding, tall as a Knicks player, his ponytail gleaming in the sun like a mass of spilled coins—he was aptly named. Then Emily Willmarth, from the farm on Cow Hill Road. It was Moira who’d argued with Stan to hire the girl, but she might have made a mistake. Just this morning she’d seen Emily and Adam whispering together, looking quite chummy. Yes, she’d better keep an eye on that one. The boy was in his twenties, the girl still in high school.

Now Rufus was wheeling about, moving doggedly off. He was upset, it was obvious. He wanted things to go right. There was something almost maniacal about the way he ran the orchard: not a minute to be wasted. He knew exactly what he was about, and he resented Stan butting in. She watched Stan stride down into the orchard, stop short at the first tree, where Bartholomew, the Jamaican Number One man, was standing on the third rung of a ladder, picking; Stan shouted up at him, his cheeks red as the apples.

Now, she couldn’t have that. She couldn’t have Stan taking out his anger on Bartholomew. The cardinal flung himself at the window again and fueled her with purpose. She dropped the loom stick, dashed out of the house to intercede.

“Stan,” she cried. “Stan, can we talk? We have a problem, sweetheart, I’m going mad with it. Stan?”

The old Jamaican’s face was inscrutable. He was a tall, proud-looking fellow, sixty-one years old, but still picking, a fisherman by trade who boasted twenty-one children. He was on his third wife now, she knew, a younger woman, who was always pregnant, it seemed—but by her husband? The younger men joked about it. And Bartholomew had to support them all. He’d been working this orchard for ten years, seven years before she and Stan had bought it. She was fond of these Jamaicans: They brought, well, vibrancy into her world. Jamaicans singing in the trees, like a chorus of sleek dark birds: “Papa save my body, Papa save my soul....” The ripe red apples, hanging like shiny Christmas balls in the green-leafed trees—oh, she loved the autumn. She loved the orchard. It was Leonardo da Vinci, it was Michelangelo. If she could only paint!

Her ruse worked. Stan was turning around, Bartholomew going on with his work—though he’d stopped humming. She took Stan’s hand. “Hot coffee for you, love. The coffee cake you like, fresh from the oven.”

“He’s gone and done it over my head again,” Stan said, jerking his head toward the apple barn where Rufus—bossman, the Jamaicans called him—had disappeared. “You’d think he owns this place. You’d think I was one of the local pickers.”

“Oh, he does
not
think so,” she said. “You’re getting paranoid. He respects you. He knows you’re a naturalist. He’s a reasonable man. Only yesterday—”

“So what’s this big concern?” She could hear him taking deep breaths, trying to cool down. At least he was aware he had a problem. Actually, he’d had a problem for three years now, since Carol’s death. Devastating though it was, Moira had come to terms with that death; Stan never had. And then the poisoning last spring, a fifth of the trees destroyed, those budding apples. A mistake, they said, someone using the wrong spray, an herbicide called Roundup, in spray tanks used to apply a fungicide. No one could say how, why it happened. The sprayer himself was horrified, had no idea how it got in there. He’d put in Diazinon himself, the night before. It was evidently the wrong herbicide in the wrong canister. No one to take the full blame.

She told Stan about the cardinal, led him to the window. Of course it wouldn’t appear when Stan was there; he waved away the worry. “I’ll cut an owl out of cardboard, if it really worries you. They’re scared of owls, those birds. It’s just being territorial, that’s all.”

“Would you do that?” She threw her arms around him. They needed more touching, more feeling; she pulled him close. Stan Earthrowl: She’d laughed at the name when she first met him. He rather resembled an owl himself, in fact: those round, black-rimmed glasses, the solemn look. They’d been so much in love!

He was tense in her arms. She could feel the nerves, like wires, tightening in his body. She pulled back. “I’ll pour your coffee, Stan. I’ll warm the cake in the toaster oven.”

“Cake, yes. Coffee, no.” He was heading for the liquor cabinet—at three in the afternoon. The gray-bronze hair bristled on his head, his back was a brick wall. The cat, Ben Blue, followed him, meowing; mechanically, he threw a handful of dried food in its dish, then fixed himself a Manhattan, glugged it down, kissed her quickly on the cheek, and ran outdoors again. She went back to her loom. Soon the apple barn would open up, children coming from the local schools to watch the cidermaking process—a neighbor had volunteered to operate it. Finally, customers coming to pick drops, buy cider and bags of apples. There’d be no time for her own work. She leaned into her weaving, into the bright pink and mauve threads. She craved sunshine in her life. Dream time.

She was just getting up to stretch her back—at forty-three she couldn’t sit and concentrate for hours anymore the way she used to—when the phone rang. It was Annie May, Stan’s sister-in-law, down in Houston, Texas. Her voice was breathless. She called only when there was a trauma—what now? “In the hospital! As a patient!” Annie May shouted. “Lindley’s in the hospital and I got to be with him. The heart thing, you know—I tol’ you about it. They got to do an angioplasty! How bad is that?”

She didn’t wait for an answer—not that Moira could tell her much. “They’re going in,” she screamed, “sticking in a tube, a balloon. Imagine. A balloon in his heart!”

“I’ve heard it works, though,” Moira said. “He’ll come out all right, I’m sure of it. He’s a doctor, he’ll know how to take care of himself afterward.” She felt a balloon inflate in her own heart, squeeze her ribs. Lindley had met Annie May when he was interning in a Houston hospital and Annie was an aide. She was lovely: eighteen and ready to nest; Lindley thirty-six and newly divorced. Annie got pregnant; they married after a six-month whirlwind courtship.

“Lindley’s a gynecologist,” Annie May was shouting. “What does he know about hearts?”

“He’ll be all right, I’m sure. Do you want to talk to Stan? He’s out in the orchard. I can run out with the phone.”

“No, no, you can tell him. I got to talk to you.” Annie May’s voice was jarring in Moira’s ears. The bird was crashing into the window again; the sounds joined in a cacophony that made her head drum. It was Opal, Annie was talking about now, the daughter she’d had with Lindley. Moira hadn’t seen the girl in years;

they’d sent her away to boarding school when she was twelve. Moira had never understood how they could do that. She and Stan had kept their own daughter Carol at home through high school; even then, she wished she’d spent more time with the girl. She’d been so self-satisfied, so laid back in those days. . . .

“... to your place, up there in Ver-mont.” Annie May always divided up her words, giving the same emphasis to each syllable. “You got room, don’t you? Stan says it’s a big house, just the two of you. I mean, just for a few weeks, a month maybe, till Lindley recovers. Opal’s home now from that school, she doesn’t want to go to col-lege. After all we done for her education. She’s too much for Lindley. She wears him out, you know? Will you, Moira?”

What could Moira say? For a moment the house was quiet, the windows mute, the voices of the pickers far away, remote; she heard the distant honking of geese—Stan’s acquisition. It was lovely, that quiet. She could work on her weaving, that’s what she’d come up here for. With Stan it was apples, though she was determined to learn about those, too, so many varieties! She’d take one each day, read about its qualities. Stan was learning how to graft: maybe four kinds of apples on a single tree—a true act of creation. Her first love, though, was the weaving: shawls, scarves, they were selling them now down at the State Craft Center. It was a way of meditation, a way of healing.

“She’ll fly to New York, take a bus from there. She hates flying! I wish I could come, but you know I can’t. She can help around the house if she’ll do it, she can pick apples.”

Picking apples was a skill, not everyone could do it, but there was no point explaining that now. Annie May was in a “dash” to get back to the hospital, she said; Lindley needed her. Moira agreed to meet the bus. Day after tomorrow. The five-ten.

Annie May said, “Thanks, I’ll pay you all back, maybe we can come get her when Lin’s better. I’ll send plenty of clean underwear. She’ll throw it in your washer, you know? And make her work, she’s not crazy to work, but make her.”

When Moira hung up, the cardinal began dashing its body at the window again. It was more than territorial, she was sure of that. It wanted to come in. It wanted something from her. It wanted to take something from her. With Carol gone, she had hardly anything left to take—except Stan, the orchard. What— what did it want from her?

She banged her forehead with her fist to dismiss the superstition.

 

Chapter Two

 

Stan paid off the last Jamaican—the men were going into Bran-bury to shop. They were all slicked up: hair brushed and greased, clean bandannas, fresh cotton shirts—Ephraim, the one they called the “scholar,” wore a bright red tie, although the others teased him. Stan paid them by the bushel, it kept them hustling. He sank down on a stool in the apple barn. He needed to be alone. Things were getting beyond him this year. The Jamaicans demanding a goat for the harvest supper, for one—where in hell was he supposed to get a goat? They didn’t sell them in the Grand Union. The men had gotten their own last year and now they wanted him to supply it. Rufus complaining about Bartholomew, who was too old, he said—couldn’t pick his limit. The younger men had to pitch in for their elder and then the whole output was less.

Two hundred forty bushels a day, that was what Rufus asked for, and yesterday they’d picked only two hundred thirty. And Rufus expected Stan to do what—fire Bartholomew? Where was he to get another Jamaican, with the season already started? He’d had to cut back by four men this year as it was, with a fifth of the orchard destroyed last spring.

He dropped his head in his arms, was suddenly overcome by the tart smell of pressed apples. The orchard was supposed to have been a cure for his troubles. To have filled up his life with Carol gone. He’d needed to get out of Connecticut, out of teaching high school biology—after Carol’s death he couldn’t look at those rosy-faced girls, and Carol not among them. He needed to take on something completely new. And it had worked—for a time, anyway. Until that spraying fiasco. A deliberate poisoning, he was sure—never mind what the police said about some bungler. Roundup! It was a weedkiller, for God’s sake! It was no mistake, no sir.

BOOK: Poison Apples
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