January 05, 2009

The Orchard

By Joe Speaker © 2008

I reach for her hand, probing, touching it delicately. We don't form a fist when we come together, nothing like the taut intertwine of fingers you see lovers form, those Gordian knots, unwieldy like a stone fortress. Our fingers hang off each other's loosely, three of mine, two of hers, vice-versa, and they dangle. Spider webs in the wind. Tenuous connection.

"Are you cold?" she asks.

"A little."

We drift over the crunching leaves, fall's blanket covering the moist Earth for the coming winter. The cycle. She steps lightly, as if she doesn't want disturb the ground. I drag my feet through the layers, kicking up little storms. The sky is a monotonous gray and the air is misty, dense.

"Want to go back inside?"

I move closer, shoulder to shoulder. "Not at all."

The day is darkening, invisible sun. Stealing light, these final moments before I go home. Time hangs over us, pressing down, thick as the rolling fog drifting in over the treetops on the south edge of the orchard.

She lurches in front of me, separating our hands. I goad her into a picture to pull her back. To capture her so I don't forget. We're different that way, like men and women are. I pretend I'm a fashion photographer, kneeling and whirring. Snap, shutter, click and there she is, arms out like the bare branches above her. Behold. She throws her head back, the sharp air slashing her cheeks and she blooms red and gold like the leaves at her feet. Jesus Christ Pose. And lo, I am with you always, even until the end of the Earth.

We circle around the orchard, the apples gone for the season. It's high on a plateau, one edge looming like a storm over the swirling Willamette River. This is her refuge, her beating heart. Her voice cracks when she talks of it, shudders and halts, like the silent hills surrounding us. We could disappear. Hour upon Day upon Week upon Infinity, happily stuck in this sealed-off daydream. Just the two of us. Timeless. We see a family of deer up peek from the tree line, as quiet as we are heedless, as still as we are fluid.

Ours is an unlikely affair, a confluence of chance and timing conducted from nearly opposite ends of the Pacific Coast. We danced apart, guarded, like adolescent smiles across a darkened gym. Thrust and parry. Talking around the desire we felt, until falling furiously into each other, atoms colliding, all shackled energy and recognizing only then the fuse of loneliness that had burned inside of us, waiting to detonate. We conspired to find each other in strange beds, neutral ground, and I rode jet streams to clandestine spots, my blood boiling like a wild mustang, forgetting the anxiety of wind-slapped takeoffs and constipated landings, dreaming of her high above the earth, un-tethered and out of control, overcoming my fear for her lightning touch. And now, she's brought me to her home.

Whenever I see her, in those first few moments, she looks bewildered, arrhythmic, as if she can't quite place me. It's hard to talk initially, for both of us. I feel this sensation of wanting to burst, but the words are senseless drabs until I can get my balance. We talk of others, our sons mostly, safe ground. The trials of single parenthood, our adoration unrestrained, those emotions we can betray, if not yet for each other. The boys are more entertaining, free to say whatever their brains conjure. We cut and paste, our silences like a swamp, heavy and absorbing sound.

Finally, I'll reach for her, she for me, bridging that temporary canyon with an electric caress across the table. She always seems to find my pinkie. The right one. I broke the finger playing basketball in college and it never healed right. It's misshapen, jutting out like a craven idol. She moves along the length of it. It doesn't bend right. Deformed like an injured bird, she cradles it in her palm.

“What do you think?” she asks, her face earnest, the answer is important to her. Lingering, tenacious leaves fall, brush her shoulders, like she's posing for a postcard, a sales brochure.

"It's beautiful, baby," I say, sweeping my arms, all I survey. "Really."

The limbs form a tunnel, shelter, the trunks in perfect rows. "They're dying," she says.

The trees. Rooted here for generations, it doesn't seem possible. They stand so solid, impeccable posture, a contrast to our temporary state. We are aimless, chasing scents on the breeze. Not like at home, where life crashes, demands. Cars, factories, deadlines, alarm clocks. Outside my bedroom window, I see slate roofs, nothing like the unbroken expanse here. My days are mandated, like the other homes on the street, like my neighbors, uniform and complying beneath the summer heat. The lawns are a mirage of imported relief. Brown air covers everything, except when it is pushed away by hot winds, revealing a snatch of the mountains in the distance, with their bald and threatening high peaks. It's briefly beautiful, in those two winter weeks when topped with snow, white as a straitjacket. Otherwise, a foreboding and jagged callous.

She breaks away from me again, bored by my silence. She spins around a tree, her fingers dragging across the trunk. It's a childish gesture, a game around the maypole that reminds me of my son, who purposefully makes himself dizzy, but her face betrays none of his cheery delight. Her lips are set and her eyes far away. She hates me. The distance. This fantasy we perpetuate, 48 hours at a time. Around she goes then lists away. She needs a couple steps to regain her balance and looks back at me when she rights herself. I smile into the wind, encouraging her, thinking I'd like to stay. I want to tell her that. Shout it. Knowing I have to go home. To my life. My son.

There's a park two blocks from home where he likes to play. We walk past the muffled voices of my neighbors behind their castle walls. It's always a crooked trip. He slithers like a snake, four years old and on the hunt, curls back when he sees a flower, a bug, trash. New discoveries. Questions rattle from his mouth like machine gun fire.

"What's that, Daddy? Are you taller than a gorilla? How come you and Mommy don't live together any more? Did you know a spider web is as strong as steel?"

On the cracked cement of the playground is a faded map of the United States. We talk about the places I've been. He points them out, proud smile on his face. Florida, Texas. I've shown him Oregon, the state 892 miles from us.

"What if we lived in North Dakota?" he says, and I joke with him about having to get warmer clothes. "Los Angeles is right here," he says, stamping his foot confidently in Southern California. "It's only four steps to North Dakota."

I laugh, which I know he wants, and he beams back at me.

"Look Daddy! I'm running to Maine!"

"Wish it was that easy," I say and he sprints off toward the monkey bars. I sit on a swing and watch him attack the playground, scrambling impatiently. His tongue protrudes with concentration when he climbs, his legs twisted like putty. My mouth turns dry when he leans back, eight feet up, or when his foot slips on the ladder. I tell him to be careful, small tremors in my throat, and I'm on the balls of my feet. He protests when I pull him away. We start to walk home and he willingly reaches out. I cover his hand in mine and we swing our arms back and forth like a jump rope.

She walks to the edge of the orchard and looks down the craggy precipice toward the river. The breeze is stronger here and I stay a few steps back. I jam my hands into my pockets. They are raw from the cold. Inside the sprawling farmhouse, there is coffee and I think about wrapping my fingers around a steaming cup, blowing into the dark, glassy surface. She turns and looks at me in that way, seeing me again for the first time. Visual inspection, a poker player looking for tells. There's a curious bend in her smile. I don't know if it's amusement or consternation.

"Oh, I forgot," she says, noting the safe yardage between me and the edge. "Heights."

"Yeah," I say. The drop. Recent rain has left the cliff muddy. Brackish rivulets roll near my feet and vanish over the side.

"I'm afraid of falling," I say a few beats later.

She nods, as if this is the most natural thing in the world. I could tell her about the dreams, the ones that came night after night when I was a child. How they'd always end the same. I'd jump, from my top bunk, a staircase, showing-off, tricks of bravado like my son on the monkey bars, the same laughter. Then the floor would recede, the world with it. Every night plummeting into a beckoning abyss, an endless crypt, and feeling final, blatant terror.

A car barrels down the road behind us. The noise is an intrusion, tears me from my memory. I snap my head around and, sensing the cliff, instinctively take a step away. The car pulls into a gravel driveway at the other end of the orchard, crunching, spinning waves of pebbles at a solid strand of pines. The trees are nearly uniform in height, stacked like a barrier. I'm suddenly angry. I resist the urge to chase the car, throw rocks, shoot out the tires.

My eyes follow the car and stop on the tree house. Her son is holed up in there. The man of the house, older than my boy, an adult before his time. Wise, yet still a boy, from the pictures. He is mostly an image to me, as I'm a threat to him. He's quiet, like his mother, wary eyes through the slits in the boards of the tree house. She sings his name.

"Do you want to come down and say 'hello'," she asked her son when we walked by earlier.

"No." Keeping a safe distance. He is watchful underneath that mop of hair. Eyes on us as we walk away. I hear him and his friend giggle nervously, scuffle around inside their lair.

The car quiet and forgotten, we turn and walk along the cliff, me at a slow, safe distance. She moves naively, not feeling the moisture of the leaves sopping her pant legs. Her arms are crossed, but not against the chill. She holds tight. Everything she sees and thinks. She loves the beauty, the physical charge, of the orchard. Out here, just her and the boy, away from the cruel city she mistrusts, insulation from the wounds she absorbed. She sits on the porch and stares out at the trees even when they're shed of color, massages the places where the sutures were, can't hurt her now, not here. She feels this place, becomes the orchard and everything around it. The way the earth plunges to the green valley, the sheer leap to the river beyond. When the wind whips the water and the waves go white on top, briefly.

Her arms are bare, half-sleeves underneath a vest, and her pearly skin glows crimson. She takes on color, like a chameleon, her arms red like the leaves and the end of summer. Blue in her midnight bedroom from the gurgling glow of the aquarium. White this morning, her splayed, pale body offset by black curls. I watched while she cherished those last minutes of sleep. I traced her imperfect scars with my fingertips, re-lived my lips on her, how her blood rose to greet my kiss. Curves like rolling hills and the sad sighs just before waking. The picture I wish I'd taken.

The fog is coming fast, descending from every direction. I pick up my pace and close the distance between us. She turns back toward the farmhouse, less a structure from this distance than a shape in the dying light, a long, low rock. She hears them before I do and lifts her head to see a flock of crows alight from the pine trees. They fly in tacit circles over the orchard, stark and black, forbidding as a nun's habit. Suddenly, they explode into high-pitched chatter. The cacophony sounds like a taunt to my ears and I instinctively dip my shoulders. I feel, abruptly and keenly, useless.

"I'm not afraid of dying," I say, the words out of my mouth involuntarily, paired with an urgent need to be at her side.

The leaves crunch and break underneath my heavy, impatient steps. I try to ignore the panic in my head, the unwelcome strain nesting here, in this peaceful place, this important place. I hope my face doesn't betray me. She sees me coming, and in hers, I see no alarm. She smiles, that guileless smile, and extends her hand. I'm almost running, quickly covering the last yards. I reach out for her. She takes my hand and pulls me close.

"I'm afraid of the certainty," I say.


"Not dying, just falling, or crashing. Knowing that's it, the end, right here, right now. What I would think..."

My voice trails off and she pins my thoughts there with a kiss. I lean into her, a stalk arching toward the sun. Her lips are hot and I wrap my arms around her like a vine. So often, I feel a million miles away from her, forgetting what this is like, right now. We are weighty, tangible. My flight home is in two hours.

Pulling back, she calls out to her son and his friend, chipmunks in the tree. There is hot chocolate inside the farmhouse. The boys sprint across the orchard trailing laughter while we slalom around the trees together, stepping over roots, thick cords plunged deep and resolute into the soil. They guide our way, sturdy and sure.

"They're dying," she'd said. The trees. That can't be true. I envy them.

Joe Speaker is a writer from Southern California.

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