by Emilie-Noelle Provost
Aline’s boots made a squishing sound as she walked along the rows of apple trees at Champlain Farm, her family’s orchard. Ripe cortlands and galas hung singly and in clusters, weighing down the trees’ gnarled branches. Much of the fruit also lay in piles, rotting on the wet grass. Taking advantage of the bounty on the ground, the resident deer had created delicate mosaics with their hooves in the muddy places where grass no longer grew.
The scent of decomposing apples, warmed by the sun after days of heavy rain, attracted dozens of yellow jackets. The insects darted and hovered around the fragrant heaps, lapping up their sweet juice.
Although Aline had been at the farm a little more than a week, it was the first time in years she’d been in the orchard. Until late August, when her brother, Joe, had called to let her know that their mother had been diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer, she hadn’t given the farm much thought.
Aline used her outstretched hand to shade her eyes from the sun. Someone was walking up the row from the direction of the house. After a moment, she recognized the figure as her younger brother. She hadn’t set eyes on Joe in nearly ten years, but there was no mistaking his walk. After shattering his pelvis in a car crash when he was in high school, he had always favored his right leg.
“Hey, Aline,” Joe said, offering her a one-armed hug. His navy coveralls were stained with motor oil. A grimy baseball cap featuring the logo of a tool manufacturer encased his shaved head. He stepped back and adjusted the hat by pushing down and then up on its visor, a nervous tic he’d developed as a kid.
“You’ve still got that, huh?” Aline pointed to a fading tattoo on the back of Joe’s wrist. Egged on by the townies he hung out with down at Roy’s Garage, he’d gotten the Black Sun, a neo-Nazi symbol, on his eighteenth birthday. When their mother had asked him what the wheel-like image meant, he’d mumbled something under his breath. But Aline had known what it was. Joe’s views were among the reasons they had stopped talking to each other.
Joe stood silent, the toes of his work boots covered in mud.
“How’s mom?” Aline asked. “Did the hospice nurse show up?”
“Not yet. Gabby’s taking care of it.”
Aline started walking again. Her brother followed a few steps behind.
Gabrielle, Aline’s twenty-year-old daughter, had come to the farm for the long Columbus Day weekend—she called it Indigenous Peoples’ Day—leaving behind her friends and University of Massachusetts dorm room to visit her mémère, maybe for the last time.
Aline wasn’t thrilled by the idea of Gabby talking to Joe, but she knew her daughter could handle him.
“How long have you known that no one was taking care of things around here? I mean, you only live ten miles away.” Aline tried not to let her voice give away how angry she was. “These trees haven’t been pruned in years. Perfectly good apples are rotting on the ground.”
Joe shoved his hands in his pockets and turned his head so that he was facing away from her. “I don’t know. A while, I guess. I figured Mom was thinking of selling the place or something.”
“You never thought to ask her? It didn’t occur to you that maybe Mom wasn’t taking care of things because there was something wrong? You know she never asks anyone for help. It would have been nice if you’d let me know what was going on before the place got this bad.”
Joe stopped walking. “Don’t put this all on me. You’re the one who moved down to Mass.”
When Aline didn’t reply, he said, “Look, I’ve been busy at the shop. One of the guys quit a couple of months ago. Keri’s pregnant again and not feeling too well. I’ve been leaving work early to take the boys to hockey practice after school.”
Aline rolled her eyes. Even though they’d only met twice, Keri, Joe’s wife, was the type of person she could only take in small doses. Keri was loud, and regularly became involved in other people’s conversations, talking about herself or her kids virtually nonstop. Perhaps even more annoying, although Keri grew up just a couple of towns over—in Vermont—she insisted on wearing cowboy boots just about everywhere she went.
“Jesus, Aline, I came over here to help. I brought my tools so I can fix the tractor, so we can harvest whatever apples are still good.”
Aline had noticed the rusting John Deere parked in front of the dilapidated cider house the day she arrived. It hadn’t occurred to her that it might be broken.
Aline and Joe had been close when they were growing up. Only a year apart in age, they would sometimes spend hours playing hide-and-seek in the orchard with their cousins and the kids from the next farm. Aline had happy memories of times she and Joe would spend entire afternoons scooping up buckets of tadpoles from the cow pond behind the house, both of them covered in mud by the time their mother called them for dinner.
Aline met her first boyfriend at one of the bonfire parties Joe and his buddies used to throw in the woods.
It was when Aline went away to college in Boston, and Joe started hanging out down at Roy’s Garage, that they began to grow apart. She drove up to Vermont on long weekends and holidays for a while. But every time Aline visited, she and her brother seemed to have fewer things in common.
Aline began coming home less often after Gabby was born, after she overheard Joe talking to one of their uncles about Miguel, Gabby’s father—a tall, olive-skinned Colombian Aline had met at a film festival. Budweiser in hand, Joe had called Miguel a spic and a pimp, his eyes bright with loathing.
Gabby had her father’s coloring. And although Aline and Miguel hadn’t been married, their daughter had his last name. After Gabby’s tenth birthday, Aline had made sure to only come to the farm when she knew Joe wouldn’t be there.
“Do you remember this tree?” Aline paused beside an ancient winesap growing near the top of the orchard’s tallest hill. Its tortured trunk was so full of holes that Aline thought it was a miracle that the tree was still alive.
Joe took off his hat and stuffed it in his front pocket. “Pépère used to say it was the oldest tree here, that this variety dated back to the days of Ethan Allen. He said the feds missed it during prohibition when they cut down all the cider trees. There are a few more here, you know. Old ones like this. I think they’re varieties no one grows anymore.”
They had been terrified of the winesap when they were kids. On winter nights, usually after Sunday dinner, their pépère, who had a flair for the dramatic, would gather Aline and Joe by the woodstove, along with whichever of their cousins happened to be there, and tell them creepy stories until their mother or one of their aunts came in and said they’d heard enough.
Pépère’s big brown eyes would grow even larger as he set down his whiskey glass and began to talk about how the old winesap was haunted. In a soft voice, he’d go into detail about how the souls of the farmers who had lived on their land hundreds of years ago had become trapped inside the tree—after they had been shot or tortured to death by British soldiers. For added effect, Pépère always made sure to add that if you cut off one of the tree’s branches, human blood would ooze from the wound. He’d tried it once, so he knew it for a fact.
Any time Aline and Joe played truth or dare with their cousins, they always chose truth, no matter what they might be forced to admit out loud. They knew choosing the latter would almost always mean being made to run up the orchard hill in the dark to touch the tree’s rough bark.
“Do you know where the other old trees are?” Aline asked, shaking the farmers’ ghosts from her thoughts.
“I think they’re a couple of rows over.”
They walked down the hill in silence, doing their best not to slip on the muddy slope. Once they’d made it to the bottom, Joe said, “Gabby told me she wants to meet the boys. They’re her cousins. They’ve never even seen each other.”
Aline stopped walking. “You know perfectly well why that is. But Gabby’s grown up now. I can’t stop her if that’s what she wants to do.”
A hurt expression darkened Joe’s face. He’d been hoping Aline would say she wanted to meet his boys, too. “I’m not like I used to be, you know. I’ve been trying.”
“Trying what, Joe? You are who you are.” Aline turned and began to walk away.
Half running and half limping, Joe caught up to her. “I stopped going to the meetings almost a year ago. I started really listening to the things some of those guys were saying. It made me think about you and Gabby. I was wrong.”
Another timeworn tree, shorter than the winesap but just as twisted, stood beside them.
“This is one of them,” Joe sighed, gesturing toward the bent trunk. “I think it’s a Northfield beauty.”
“I’ve never noticed this tree before,” Aline said, impressed that her brother knew something about the farm that she didn’t. “How did you know what it was?”
“A guy from UVM Extension came by a couple of years ago asking if he could look at the orchard. He was trying to find old apple trees, wanted to know if we had any since the farm’s been here so long. I walked around with him. He got excited when he found this one. I let him take cuttings, so they can grow more of them.”
Aline started to say something when her cellphone rang. It was Gabby.
“It’s Mom. The hospice nurse wants to talk to us. We have to go back to the house,” she said.
Joe nodded. He pulled his baseball hat out of his pocket and put it back on.
Aline slowed her pace so that her brother could walk beside her.
When they were halfway back to the house, Aline turned around to look at the orchard. Cotton clouds drifted across the intense blue of the October sky. The foliage on the distant mountains blazed orange and yellow. Occasional dollops of red popped in places where swamp maples grew.
“I’d forgotten how beautiful it is here sometimes,” Aline said.
“I know,” he said. “I did, too.”
The hospice nurse’s red Toyota was parked beside Joe’s truck. “Looks like her front tires could use some air,” he said as they reached the top of the driveway. “Maybe I should have her follow me to the shop.”
“Let’s just get this over with,” Aline said.
Joe stayed put beside the car, the fingers of his right hand resting gently on top of the trunk lid.
Aline’s cell phone buzzed. “Gabby’s texting. The nurse has to leave soon.”
Joe followed her up the stairs. When they got to the door, Aline said, “You first.”
Joe reached for the knob and turned it.