Short Fiction ~ Bruce Meyer
(Third Prize, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 2)
A young woman has been bequeathed, in perpetuity, the windfalls from her uncle’s orchard. She will never own the orchard. That gift went to someone else, a distant cousin who never visited the uncle when he was dying. The windfalls, however, are not bad as windfalls go.
Some of the apples are bruised, some have small brown spots. She will never offer anyone apples with worms in them. That would not be right. The apple belongs to the worm who has found it. Other fruits may not be the best apples a person can buy, but they will do for pies or tarts or for those who are hungry and simply need most of an apple to eat.
Every morning from late August to early October when the rains pour and it is too cold to sit outside and sell apples, the woman walks the distance into town, carrying two butter boxes full of apples and a length of wooden planking under her arm. She sets up her stand facing the church door. Before setting the apples out for passersby to inspect, she polishes them on her white apron so that the skins catch and reflect the light, gleaming as if they are striving to be better than what they are though she never makes any illusions about what they are. If people ask she tells them, honestly, that the apples are windfalls. Those who know her respect her honesty. The apples are all she has to live on. Over the years, people count on her being there. It is reassuring to see her there, patient, waiting, selling her apples as best she can.
There is a rumor that she was almost married. A young man who cut hay in the orchard might have fallen in love with her. There are days in the harvest season when she sits in front of her plank and butter boxes stares up at the sky above the cross on the church steeple. She seems far away. Some people says she has a look of love in her eyes. No one is certain, though. The young man who cuts the hay and trims the floor of the orchard short, so sheep can safely graze there, never comes to town. No one has any idea of what he looks like or if he even exists. But there are rumors. That’s the way stories go. They aren’t made of certainties.
On the plank she arranges the apples in ranks as if they are soldiers who are to be inspected before they are sent off to die. As the boys and men pass through the town square on their way to the train station, they wear long coats, steel helmets, and carry rucksacks filled with tinned food but never anything fresh. She hands each of them apples. They lean from the train car windows and kiss her, but she knows the kisses are not for her. They are for the world each of them is leaving behind, a world where they will not taste apples.
During those times of sadness, most of her fruit rotted before it was sold. Some of the apples, when the townspeople were destitute and hungry, she merely gives away because charity is the least one can do in the face of suffering. Some of her fruits are kicked to the gutter when the town is invaded. Others are confiscated to feed the invaders. Even when she tried to keep some for herself, they were confiscated.
One soldier pelts her with her own fruit saying that she is a criminal to sell rotten apples in the middle of the town square, especially facing the church door where God peers out between the heavy oak slabs and sees her for the awful wretch she has become. Then, the invaders go away. The apples are no better and no worse than they have always been though there is something missing from the taste that was once so familiar and inviting to her. The trees from whose rooted feet she gathered the windfalls are spare and scrawny as her own limbs have become. She is no longer able to bend down to pick up the windfalls. Her back aches and her legs have grown stiff from sitting on the pavement of the town square.
By the time she is an old woman, she has sold her apples for more than five decades. She has watched the blossoms burst from nodes in the spring, seen the petals scatter on the warm breezes of early summer, and witnessed the fruit ripen in the sun and grow red and round and full more times than she can count. She would like someone to listen as she tells the story of the apples, but no on stops long enough to hear her out.
She has seen the fruit of her life – the apples, the boys she loved when she was young, and the men who came later full of ardor and eagerness to experience the hardships of the world where they thought they could test themselves against its violence and its pain, go off to wars and not return.
There is one apple, however, that never turned brown. She was tempted to eat it during the harder times but held herself in check. She kept it in the pocket of her white apron, a perfect, round, red apple that never blemished or shrank or grew too tangy to be near. She takes the perfect apple from her apron pocket, writes a note, and before she walks away from the butter boxes and the plank she has knelt before as if an altar for more years of her life than she can recall, she takes a pencil and writes a message on the paper and lays it beneath the apple.
“This apple is my story,” is all the message says.
Bruce Meyer is author or editor of over sixty-three books of poetry, short fiction, flash fiction, non-fiction, and literary journalism. His next book of flash fiction, Down in the Ground, will be published by Guernica Editions in 2020. He lives in Barrie, Ontario.