That old adage about the benefits of eating an apple a day meant nothing until Dr. Paul broke up with her. Up until that time, she had been eating an apple a day for nearly two months. Although Dr. Paul claimed this had nothing to do with it, Adriana could not help glaring at her orchard. It had betrayed her; of this, she was certain. She sensed a smugness in the apple trees that the oranges silently endorsed. Meanwhile, there was nothing silent in the peaches; they openly mocked her for ignoring them.
Dr. Paul had ended things in front of them all. It seemed only appropriate, for they had witnessed everything else. The Cortland could testify to having seen the flirtation go from tentative to shameless. It was near several McIntosh that Dr. Paul first seized her, and there was a clearing by a pond where reckless fornication had scandalized the Granny Smith forever. It was impossible for the trees to ignore such events. They rained apples whenever Dr. Paul was beneath them. Somehow, the fruit remained unscathed while the doctor became more and more bruised. Chastising her orchard did Adriana no good; the seven thousand trees had made up their minds. So it was with great satisfaction that they rustled in the wind the day Dr. Paul recited his carefully prepared speech, which bore not even a passing resemblance to the marriage proposal Adriana had been expecting to hear.
“Well, I hope you’re happy,” she said to the orchard. “There will probably never be another doctor as long as I live.” She was thirty-five; the days of cute young doctors were passing her by. Frustrated, she plucked an apple from the ground and threw it against a tree. The apple smashed instantly, but this was small consolation – there were thousands more everywhere she looked.
Later, in the shop, she wearily sold preserves and thought of his remarkable shoulders. The most singular thing about them, she thought, was that there were two. One beautiful shoulder was a common thing, but when the other matched, it was not to be taken lightly. Not when so many people were lopsided.
As if to prove her point, André Chevrier wobbled in, malposed and bearing a basket of Cortlands. All of them were tattered, grey and thoroughly inedible. “Fire blight,” he proclaimed sadly.
Adriana was not surprised. Orchards always showed some sign of sickness and decay. If left unchecked, the problem would spread, leaving the apples unsightly and the trees susceptible to infestation. She took a Cortland from the basket and studied it. “Go enjoy your weekend,” she said. “I’ll take care of everything.”
After the workers left and she had locked the front gates, Adriana drove through the orchard to the grove of Cortlands. The blight had attacked the shoots and blossoms, curling them at the tip and turning them black as if they had been scorched. Carefully, she took out her tools and pruned away the infected areas. Normally, she would now drive back to the shed, burn the infected wood, and sterilize the tools. Instead, she took the infected wood deeper into the trees, where she placed the Cortland branches up near the canopy. Nearby, she spent a few minutes clipping away at the leaves with her infected tools. When she was done, she returned to the cottage, parked the car, went inside and prayed for the two things that would help infection spread: wind and rain.
It was hardly ridiculous of Adriana to blame the orchard for her troubles – she had been doing it her entire life. The orchard had been a personal dictator for as long as she could remember. Growing up, her father had expected her to help with both planting and harvest; her mother had expected her to help with the baking and the shop; and her sister expected her to run the business so she wouldn’t have to. “Well, one of us has to do it,” said Nellie Germain. “And I want to go to law school.”
“Maybe I want to go to law school,” said Adriana.
“No one is going to law school,” shouted their father from another room.
In order to prove her potential, Nellie began citing case law. She reminded their father of the law of primogeniture, whereby inheritance of land goes to the firstborn. “That’s Adriana!” she proclaimed. Refusing to be beaten, Adriana went off and did research on her own. She returned with the triumphant fact that primogeniture had died out after the American Revolution.
“This isn’t America,” said Nellie. “This is Canada. We’re descended from the British and the British still recognize the law.”
“Only in cases where the landowner has no will,” said Adriana.
“Daddy doesn’t have a will,” Nellie pointed out.
“Yes, but he’s not dead yet,” Adriana reminded her.
Robert Germain threw up his hands. This had been going on for weeks. Grabbing both his daughters, he took them into the barn, where he snatched up two pieces of straw. “Choose,” he instructed. “The shorter one can be a lawyer.”
Adriana was astonished. “You can’t make us decide our lives by drawing lots.”
Robert Germain believed he could. That his daughters would succeed him was inevitable; that he wasn’t forcing both of them to do it was nothing short of an act of charity. Horrified that her father would subject her life to a whim of fate, Adriana refused to participate.
“Then your sister wins by default,” warned Robert Germain.
“My sister can go to hell,” replied Adriana. “I’ll be in the winery.”
She spent the night with the cellar door locked, drinking cider and wondering how long it would take to chop down seven thousand apple trees. After her second bottle, she decided to find out. With her father’s axe, she managed to fell a single tree by the time the night ran out. It was a struggling McIntosh, already sick with rust; still, she felt proudly defiant. Merrily, she stole two more bottles of cider and slipped away from the farm in her father’s truck.
Her intention was to keep driving until the car ran out of gas or the province ran out of highway. Instead, she was pulled over for speeding less than ten miles from the farm. Her flirtatious smile did no good: she had no license and the two cider bottles were empty. She refused to call her father.
She gave a fake name and spent the weekend lounging in jail. But the ruse only lasted so long. Through the car’s license plate, the police were quickly able to determine who she really was.
“Your father’s coming to get you,” they announced.
“Under no circumstances are you to let him pay my bail,” said Adriana.
The police did not listen. Shortly after, Robert Germain arrived. He had just paid a great deal of money to get his car back and he looked sour as a Granny Smith. Adriana backed away from the door and refused to leave her cell. “I won’t go back there,” she announced. Two officers carried her from the cell, kicking and screaming. She pulled on their badges and clawed at their guns, and they tossed her into the parking lot. A moment later, Robert walked by and went to his truck. He opened the passenger door and looked back at his daughter. Adriana shook her head. Robert slammed the door, then drove away.
Adriana looked around her. She had drawn her lot after all and it was behind a police station. Sullenly, she began to walk, in the opposite direction from the one in which her father had driven.
The first McIntosh trees had been planted by her great-grandfather in 1904. Hiram Germain was obsessed with whores and gambling and though he had money, he had little faith in his ability not to squander it. Always practical, he planted the orchard so his family wouldn’t starve and he could enjoy his vices in peace. It proved a wise precaution. Despite enormous debts and a death from syphilis, his descendants remained large and fat. It became almost genetic, and despite a diet comprised exclusively of food grown somewhere else – anywhere else – Adriana found herself destined for plump thighs and a round middle.
“The women in our family have always been like this,” Nellie told her. “It’s not the orchard’s fault.”
Adriana only snorted. In her opinion, everything was the orchard’s fault. It had been six years since her father had picked it over her and she had not seen him since. Nellie was almost a lawyer and Mrs. Germain was maintaining a strictly secret correspondence. Through these letters, it was clear that Mr. Germain had not softened over the years. “He looked up ‘primogeniture’,” wrote Mrs. Germain. “And he likes it.”
“Tell him to look up ‘obstinate’,” Adriana wrote back. “He’ll probably like that too.”
She remained adrift in the city, sharing various apartments without ever putting her name on a lease. She became a waitress and was good at it unless someone ordered the apple cobbler – it had not escaped her notice that the restaurant’s apples came from Germain Orchards. She took psychology at a local college, where she concluded she had too many problems to ever be of help to others.
Then her father died. He fell amongst the McIntosh while pruning leaves. The stroke was sudden, and in his death spasm he knocked the ladder away. The boughs of the tree caught him, and the leaves rustled softly and told him not to be scared. The workers found him tangled in the spring blossoms and when they tried to release him, the trees refused to let him go.
Adriana came back for the funeral, for of course the orchard was where Mr. Germain wanted to be buried. Nellie had been wrong all those years ago; Robert did have a will and it divided the estate between his daughters. Fearing that Adriana would only sell her half, he cleverly did not divide the orchard down the middle. Instead, he specifically noted which portions were for whom. In the end, each daughter ended up owning every other acre, making it impossible for either to sell without the other’s permission.
Adriana was infuriated. She wanted to sell to John Hearn, the orchard conglomerate, and use the money to rescue herself from squalor. Nellie, of course, refused. “It’s not what Daddy would have wanted,” she said.
“But what are we going to do with it?” said Adriana.
Nellie only shrugged. “You’ll think of something,” she said. “I have to be in court in the morning.”
Adriana’s solution was to let her mother run things. Mrs. Germain had other ideas. Three months after her husband’s funeral, she keeled over while filling a basket of Cortlands. As a sign of solidarity, several apples rolled away and drowned themselves in the river. Nellie still refused to sell. She also refused to buy Adriana’s portion. “I’ll just leave,” Adriana threatened. “I’ll walk away and never look back.”
But Nellie knew her sister was bluffing for Adriana had nowhere to go.
“This orchard is the best thing for you,” she said. “You’ll see.”
Stubbornly, Adriana began searching for someone to manage in her stead. No one came forward. The workers might have, but they had sworn to the Germains that they would not take the family business away from the family. “Of course,” remarked André Chevrier, “you could always bring me into the family.” He winked slyly. Adriana might not have been so quick to turn it down had she known it was the only proposal she would ever receive.
Adriana could hardly help becoming terrified by age. Her parents were dead and she was quite certain mortality was inherited. She knew she was not infinite. Her skin was pale; her blood pressure was high; and she had never jogged a day in her life. Instantly, she stopped eating red meat and adopted a diet of salad, echinacea and skim milk. She examined her body daily for signs of disease and in this manner soon discovered a mole on her breast. She did not think it was cancer; cancer was too common for the likes of her. She was convinced it was something so rare and deadly that she would have to be either quarantined or shot.
“It’s a beauty mark,” said Dr. Paul.
Adriana frowned. “How can it be a beauty mark?” she asked. “It’s hideous.”
Dr. Paul smiled. He motioned to his numerous degrees. “Trust me,” he said. “it’s a beauty mark.”
“I want a second opinion,” declared Adriana.
A few weeks later Dr. Paul appeared in the orchard and asked if anyone had disagreed with him. Adriana reluctantly confessed that no one had. She was more irritated then relieved that she wasn’t dying, but Dr. Paul softened the blow by taking her to dinner. At first, dating him had been more about strategy then love. His bedroom was lined with medical books and after he was asleep, Adriana would sit up in bed and read. She began with cellular division and worked her way up to heart disease. She did not expect that she would contract heart disease herself. But Dr. Paul was thoroughly charming. His private life was a self-prescribed regimen of crossword puzzles and vinyl jazz. On Sundays she would wake to find him taking his coffee in bed, a new puzzle opened before him.
“Seven letter word for ‘heartwood’,” he would say by way of greeting.
“Duramen,” she would reply, half-awake but not so asleep that she didn’t notice her ability to respond had impressed him. Despite small pleasures like this though, she did not enjoy the sensation of falling in love; ultimately, it was thoroughly aggravating and her nails were often bitten to the quick.
In one of Dr. Paul’s magazines, she read an article that claimed the old proverb about an apple a day was more than just myth. Psychologists believed apples helped protect the mind from growing senile, while cancer studies labeled apples as the new preventative. The notion appealed to Adriana’s obsession with herself; she instantly decided it was time to make the orchard work for her instead of the other way around. For a few brief weeks, she believed it had worked, but the potential of long life and a doctor for a husband was all a ruse. Once again, she had been duped. An apple a day had pushed her doctor away. The orchard had still worked against her, and it was almost insidious the way it had done it.
It was pleasant, then, to see it suffering during that last summer. Thanks to her efforts, the orchard was blighted with all sorts of malignancies: rust, fungi, scabs, canker rot, aphids, moths, curculios, fly speck, sooty blotch. Withered Granny Smith bled crumbled excrement; dimpled Gala had tunnels bored through their flesh; the McIntosh were lesioned and showed crescent scars seared across the flesh. The leaves of the Jonathan were olive-brown; the Empire were spotted yellow; and the Fuji had holes right through to the core.
Adriana wandered happily through the dying trees. She felt lighter than ever: the orchard was bordering on incurable. Soon, there would be nothing to do but burn the entire thing to the ground. What was more, she was happy to find she was no longer so concerned with her own demise. Death, she now realized, could be controlled. She had brought it to the orchard and, if she cared to, she could exile it just as swiftly.
Meanwhile, the parade of nature lovers and apple pickers had dried up. A carefully placed sign on the gate read “Closed Due to Blight: Reopening Soon”. This last part, she expected, would prove to be a bald-faced lie. The shop was bare and the bakery had nothing but stale, lamentable pies lining the windows. She had also fired all her workers. They were getting in the way, especially after André Chevrier realized what she was doing.
“You’re killing them,” he exploded.
Adriana shrugged innocently. “I don’t know what I’m doing. I never did.”
She dismissed André and the orchard continued to suffer. By happy coincidence, August proved to be dry, and aside from the blight, the trees were becoming parched with thirst. Adriana took great pleasure in wandering past them while sipping lemonade from a canteen. Her arrogance told the trees all they needed to know. They had known they were dying for some time; now they finally knew why. At night, the leaves billowed and conversed and the wind carried their mournful hiss across the estate. The healthy apples became sick with poison while the fallen ones clustered in grave conspiracy. At the outskirts, some of the trees fell in an attempt to block the road and keep Adriana away.
After Dr. Paul left her, she cut apples completely from her diet; even so, it was not until late in early September that the doctor telephoned and asked if they could meet. Adriana smiled with satisfaction. She had just released a pack of mice into the orchard and felt vindicated.
In the city, they met for tea in the elegant lobby of a hotel. Adriana wore a wide-brimmed summer hat and a dress whose straps were designed to slip off the shoulders at precisely the right moment. Dr. Paul was already waiting for her. He wore a white suit and looked like he belonged in a Cuban plantation. She thought she might wilt, but somehow managed to keep her knees from buckling. “Hello doctor,” she cooed, and allowed him to pull out of her chair.
They ordered mint tea and scones. Dr. Paul asked her how her summer had been. “Lovely,” she said, thinking of the twisted, battered trees.
Dr. Paul frowned. “It was my understanding that the orchard’s not doing well.”
Adriana raised an eyebrow. She envisioned Dr. Paul driving up to see her, only to find the gates locked and her hand-lettered sign in the entrance. “August was a dry month,” she said. “There’s nothing wrong that a good rain won’t fix.”
“I think the drought is the least of your problems,” said Dr. Paul.
Adriana’s eyebrow dropped. “What do you mean?”
Dr. Paul told her that Nellie had called him. “She wanted me to talk to you. She received a call from one of the men who used to work for you. André Chevrier. He’s very concerned with the way you’re treating the orchard.”
“He’s a fool,” said Adriana, but she could not lie to Dr. Paul. He knew her too well. Horrified, she watched as he scribbled down the name of a good psychiatrist.
“Tell him you know me,” he said. “He’ll give you a good rate.” The rest of their tea was stilted and full of malice. Adriana implied several times that not only was he boring, but that his shoulders were not as perfect as she had once believed.
At home, she made two infuriated phone calls. The first was to André Chevrier.
“You don’t have to be petty, just because I wouldn’t marry you.” she said.
“You’re a fine one to call me petty,” snapped André.
“This is between me and my orchard,” said Adriana.
“Actually it isn’t,” said André. Apparently, her carefully cultivated blight had begun to spread to neighboring farms. “This is bigger than just you and your fifteen acres,” said André. “It’s affecting other people. You’re going to get sued.”
“Let them try,” said Adriana. “I know a damn good lawyer.”
She slammed down the phone and called one. But Nellie was unsympathetic. She finally offered to buy Adriana’s portion of the orchid. “Just get away from there,” Nellie demanded. Now though, it was Adriana who refused to sell. The orchard was done for and she was going to watch it wither until the very end. The sun set and she stared at the trees. In the moonlight, they were little more than a gnarled silhouette. Still they howled at her, challenging her to approach. She should have ignored it, but she was seething and brazenly followed its cry.
At the entrance to the orchard, she had to get out of her father’s truck to clear a path through the fallen trees. When she started to drive again, branches whipped against the roof and the windows. The air was thick with the stench of plague. The orchard was blurred and indistinct; decay had seemed to rearrange it. There were new clearings and the road was not where it should have been. Other trees had been falling and their brambled fingers tangled the tires, finally forcing her to stop.
She put the car in reverse, but right then one of the flailing branches crashed through the back window, sprinkling glass everywhere. Adriana cried out and fought with the car door until it opened. She toppled onto the orchard floor. There was no stopping her then. Now her resolve was an affliction and with fury, she grabbed the container of kerosene off the back of the truck. She doused the trees, which responded by shaking with rage. Apples rained down upon her. Adriana was pummeled, but she did not stop as the kerosene turned the dirt into dark incendiary muck.
From behind her, she heard a door slam. When she turned, she found the keys were now locked inside the car. She smiled smugly. The trees were trying to stop her, but they did not know she had her lighter with her. Just then though, the moon vanished behind the gathering clouds, and the only light was from the headlights, which were shining in the opposite direction. She fumbled in the dark, but her fingers were greased with kerosene. The lighter slipped to the ground. Something in the dark chuckled as she scrounged through the mud. In the pale glow of the truck’s headlights, she could see the apples sliding off their stems, rolling down the trees and circling towards her. She continued to claw at the ground, but suddenly all she could find were apples, nothing but apples, they were all rolling into her way on purpose and when they touched her, the blight they carried spread to her hands.
Then, in what would be her last moment of triumph, Adriana found the lighter. She trumpeted loudly, set flame to the ground and stood back, breathing hard, as the kerosene caught. In the glow of the fire, she saw apples everywhere and she believed they were screaming. She went around to the back of the truck and, with her coat sleeve, began sweeping away the shattered glass. She heard the creaks and cracks as the fire climbed hungrily up the shriveled trees. Adriana felt no regret, no pity, only that sublime peace that comes with getting what you’ve always craved.
The glass cleared and she clambered through the opening. She was halfway through the window when there was a roaring crack from somewhere above. It might have been lightning, but there had been no flash; nonetheless a moment later the immense trunk of a McIntosh tree crashed through the roof of the truck. The metal wailed as the weight of the tree twisted the car into an intangible mess and Adriana saw that she was stuck, for the window had coiled with the rest of the truck and a sharp pain in her side told her that something had sliced through her, was in fact still slicing through her as the truck continued to fall apart.
Adriana did not cry out. She refused to give the apples the satisfaction.
The fire leapt around the orchard. She knew she was losing blood and that there was no one left to rescue her. She consoled herself with the thought that at least she would take the orchard with her, but then there was another crack of lightning, followed by the nearby rumble of thunder. Rain was coming to put out the flames, and she knew the trees had never feared her, for they had known it all along.
An earlier version of this work was originally published in Riddle Fence.
Joel Fishbane’s debut novel The Thunder of Giants is now available from St. Martin’s Press. His short fiction has been published in a variety of magazines, including The Saturday Evening Post, The Massachusetts Review, and Witness. For more information, visit his website: http://www.joelfishbane.net.