The Orchard Farmer by Robert Geyer
This story will be appearing in print in the second issue of Furtive Dalliance, available Summer 2018.
From the top of the hill overlooking our orchard, I could see the American River off in the distance. In wetter years, the river had moved with great force, sending boulders tumbling like pebbles as it rushed west towards San Francisco’s famous Golden Gate. The five-year drought had left the river silent and nearly barren, just as the Forty-Niners had stripped the river of its gold more than one hundred and fifty years ago. Now the naked river bed was all that remained, a dry witness to both the recent and distant past.
Using my long-handled axe as a cane, I worked my way back down the trail, step by slow step, landing the axe head on the rutted path with a repeating thud. Below me stood what was left of our orchard. The latest waterless summer had taken more trees than it had spared. Exposed patches of ground were growing by the day. It seemed like the earth was swallowing up the trees while we slept at night.
When I reached the bottom of the hill, I could hear the John Deere straining to pull another stump from the ground. Given how hard we had been working the tractor, I didn’t think it would be much longer until it finally gave out. That was a hard thought to swallow. In my heart, I knew that when the John Deere finally quit that I wouldn’t be far behind it.
I leaned on the axe to watch Jimmy, our only child, riding the tractor like it was a rodeo bronco. When the tractor yanked on the stubborn stump, it bucked so hard it looked as if it might throw Jimmy to the ground. But I knew there was little risk of that. Underneath his sagging clothes Jimmy was all sinew and muscle and strong as a plow horse.
From the outside, there didn’t appear to be much to Jimmy. His Wranglers would have fallen to the dirt if it weren’t for the worn leather belt with the extra holes punched so he could cinch his pants up tight. His flannel shirt hung off his shoulders like he was wearing an old set of drapes. The deep lines in his face revealed every bit of his fifty years, and most of those doing hard labor. Nobody would pick a fight with Jimmy if they knew how strong he was. But then again, Jimmy was too sweet to fight back anyway.
When the stump finally gave way, dirt sprayed the air in a fountain of dust. Jimmy turned off the John Deere’s engine. It became so quiet I thought I could hear the falling dust specks sprinkle the ground. The stump laid limp like a trout pulled from a pond, left to suffocate on the bank, dying from too much air.
“Looks like you finished pulling out this section of stumps,” I said.
“Uh-hum,” Jimmy muttered. When he was young, we knew there was something different about Jimmy, but we thought it was because he didn’t have anybody but the John Deere to call his friend. It wasn’t until Jimmy was a teenager that we first heard the word autism.
“Are you finished with the tractor?” I asked Jimmy.
“Can I have the axe?” He answered my question with a question of his own. It was as if my words hadn’t registered with him. It was best to avoid too much back and forth with Jimmy. I knew he understood what I was saying. I handed him the axe, handle end first. In one smooth motion, Jimmy grabbed the long handle and dropped the head over his shoulder, pointing the blade skyward. Without another word, Jimmy turned back towards the stump. He spied the mass of roots, looking for the best place to start chopping. I left him to decide how to break up the stump and then bury it with the other dead trees in our growing cemetery.
I climbed on the John Deere and settled into the seat. When it was new, the metal seat had been painted green, the same color as the rest of the tractor, but after a few decades of hard riding, the paint had been worn off leaving nothing but polished chrome steel. I turned the key to bring the tractor’s engine back to life. I followed the well-worn path through the sporadic orchard back to the barn, the same path I had walked nearly every day of my eighty-seven years on this planet. I was certain that if I had suddenly gone blind I could still find my way back to the barn without any help, that by simply pressing my hands into the friendly ground beneath me that the earth would lead me home, because the earth could never fail me. If only the sky would do its part. I looked up into the cloudless blue sky above me and wondered if this might be the winter when the rains would return.
Up ahead the weathered barn stood tall. Its peaked gable roof pointed towards the stingy sky. The sliding double doors opened wide to welcome me and the John Deere back under its protective shade. I braked to a stop and killed the engine. The John Deere sputtered into silence.
Usually by this time of year, the barn would be filled with hundreds of crates of red and amber-tinged Fuji’s, the cool autumn air keeping them fresh and crisp. Now fewer than two dozen crates were scattered across the barn’s floor. With the unseasonably warm weather hanging on so deep into October, every day meant the few apples we had were at risk of rotting. I knew we needed to get them into the cider press. For a second, I was grateful there weren’t too many crates for me and Jimmy to handle, but that feeling passed as quickly as it came.
The old cider press was tucked in the back corner of the barn. It looked like a rusted antique, its useful days a distant memory. Like the John Deere, I wondered what the lifespan of the old machine might be. I took hold of the starter cord and with a single pull, the cider press roared to life. Underneath the tarnished engine cover the gears turned as smooth as they had in their youth. Confident it would handle our small batch of Fuji’s without difficulty, I throttled the cider press back to a stop. I decided I would come back later in the afternoon with Jimmy to press the juice.
I hobbled my way from the barn to the farmhouse. Inside the doorway, a stack of envelopes was scattered on the floor at my feet. I gathered up the letters, most of them new additions to an ever-growing stack of bills that needed paying. More than a few were marked “final notice” in red letters. The bill collectors didn’t know me if they thought a tough looking letter was all it took to worry me. I dropped the nagging bills on the side table, saving that headache for another time.
I mindlessly started to walk through the living room towards the kitchen, my boots leaving an incriminating trail of dirt as I went. I knew after taking only a few steps there would be hell to pay. Despite Margaret’s struggling with catching her breath, her hearing and her tongue were as sharp as ever.
“I know you’re not tromping through my clean house in your dirty boots…” Margaret called out from the kitchen. Her voice trailed off, wheezy and weak sounding. The quiet way she rebuked me made it that much more damning.
“I apologize. I must have left my brain back out in the barn.” I backed up and tip-toed out the front door, so I could get my boots off and come into the house the right way. With my dusty boots stowed safely on the porch, I padded back into the living room in my woolen socks.
Margaret came into the living room from the kitchen, holding a warm cup of tea while towing her oxygen tank behind her. During the last winter, Margaret’s doctor had warned her to stay out of the cold—an order she ignored. In the end, all of her mucking around outside had cost her two weeks in the hospital with a case of pneumonia. Now the lingering effects held her hostage inside the farmhouse. I knew it was hard for her to quietly sit by and watch the apples as they began to drop. This was the first autumn I could remember where Margaret wasn’t patrolling the orchard rows in search of fruit to fill her pies.
She sat down in her favorite chair—a floral, tufted armchair that sat in front of the living room’s big picture window. From her comfortable seat, Margaret spent hours reading books or knitting, all while having a perfect view of the wedding present I gave her almost seventy years ago.
We were both barely eighteen years old when Margaret and I got married. I had known Margaret her whole life. Her family owned the big orchard down the road, the one with the trout farm and the pony rides that all the city kids from Sacramento would come up and visit on their school field trips.
When we got married I barely had enough money to buy Margaret a new dress, let alone a proper wedding ring. Every penny I had I gave to my father to help him keep the farm. What I knew I could do though, was plant an apple tree for Margaret in a place where she could enjoy it every day—which as best I knew, she had done nearly every day of our marriage. I could only hope that she would continue enjoying it for as much time as we had left together.
“Can I get you anything?” I asked, hoping a helpful tone might get me out of the doghouse.
“Nothing for me, but I can hear the broom and feather duster calling for you. This house is dusty enough without any more help from you.” Margaret took a quick sip of tea to hide her grin.
“Well, lucky for me I happen to have experience with both of those items.” A compliant attitude was my only hope for a quick and painless resolution to my messy mistake. I swept up the dirt I had tracked into the house along with a few dust bunnies I found hiding behind the couch. I dusted every one of Margaret’s knickknacks that lined the shelves of our living room. All that was left to clean were the pictures lining the mantel above the fireplace.
Everything in our house was placed with purpose—and the framed pictures were no exception. Margaret had lined up the pictures as if they were intended to tell a story, a story that had words only we could hear. The first picture was of me when I was just a young boy—maybe two or three years old—sitting on my father’s lap, both of us riding on the John Deere. The tractor was brand new. Even in the black and white photo you could see the green and yellow paint glistening in the sun. When I was a boy, I made believe that me and the John Deere might be brothers. If only the John Deere were made of flesh instead of metal.
I set the picture frame down and gently lifted the next photograph. I blew the dust from the glass. The picture was of my brother, Louis, standing tall in his dress whites in front of the barn right before he shipped off to Hawaii to fight in the second world war. The sun was so bright that his shadow watched over him like a ghost. In the confines of the picture frame, the photo of Louis and his faceless twin transmitted a heaviness, a harbinger of dark memories to come.
I was twelve-years-old, sitting high atop a ladder in the orchard pruning our apple trees, when the two Naval officers came walking up our driveway. My father walked halfway down the drive to meet the men. Maybe he thought he could stop the news from reaching my mother, or perhaps he felt he could at least deliver the news in a way that would spare her even one ounce of grief, but that was impossible. She knew the moment she looked at my father. In the days following my brother’s death, I sat at the kitchen table with my mother to keep her company. She stared out the window while she peeled apples, so many apples that no amount of pies could have used them all. It wasn’t more than a year later that she died, leaving me and my father to tend the orchard, and our lives, all by ourselves.
I worked my way through the row of pictures that Margaret had added over time—pictures of Jimmy mostly, back when he was a young boy. There were a few of Margaret and me. We looked happy—because we were and always had been.
When I reached the mantel’s end, I stopped at the last picture. Before picking it up, I breathed in a sip of air and held it in. No matter how many times I saw the picture, it always gave me a start. Tucked inside the tiny black frame was a picture of another young soldier standing with his mother and father in front of their farm somewhere in China, more than halfway around the world.
In the pale light of the moon, every shadow seemed to level a rifle back at us. With the calm of Camp Pendleton’s surf more than five thousand miles behind us, I knew even the tiniest sound might cause one of the boys to fire off his weapon and reveal our position. I believed what the Captain had said, that more than a hundred thousand Chinese were hiding out there in the frozen stillness even if Washington refused to admit that the Red Army had crossed into Korea.
I pulled off my pack and pressed myself as low as I could into the shallow trench. The frozen ground had made digging nearly impossible, but we scraped away enough snow and dirt until there was a deep enough dent in the earth to convince ourselves we could hide from incoming fire. Some of the boys built up small berms of snow to hide behind, never stopping to think if their handmade walls would be able to stop a bullet.
I rummaged through my rucksack to find the topographic map. I flicked on the flashlight and hunched down low over the map, trying my best to stop any light from sneaking past me into the surrounding night. Staring down at the map’s contours under the weak light, I had no idea where we were other than somewhere deep inside Korea’s northern peninsula. I stowed the map back inside my pack and clicked off the light.
The moon reflecting off the snow-covered ground illuminated the boys around me: barely legal-aged, laying on the frozen ground, helmets strapped on, rifles aimed at the unseen and unknown. Most of these boys had gotten little more than a few weeks of push-ups and jumping jacks in boot camp to prepare them for war, and not one of them with any guarantee of returning home.
Even with the air temperature hovering at twenty degrees below zero, I could see beads of terror dripping down a few of the boys’ faces. Looking at the wide-eyed boys, I wondered if I ever held that same look: terror hiding behind false courage. After thinking on it, I knew I must have. “I could see beads of terror dripping down a few of the boys’ faces. Looking at the wide-eyed boys, I wondered if I ever held that same look: terror hiding behind false courage.” It seemed impossible for any man running towards death not to have his fear reflected in his eyes. I tried to remember what it felt like the few times I was able to sneak up on death without getting caught, but that feeling for me was gone. It seemed six months of war was all it took to dry my fear out for good. I reached up to wipe my brow anyway.
Without being able to measure the moon’s rise and fall, I had no way to mark time. I wasn’t sure if we had been there for a few minutes or a few hours. I had to blink constantly to stop my eyes from freezing open. I tapped the trigger of my M1 to stop my mind from freezing, too.
A single flare shot into the night sky. I could hear the hiss of the smoldering flare over the sound of my beating heart. The red light fluttered towards the ground until it blinked out. In the moments of blackness following the enemy’s flare, my mind had time to travel to even darker places, places where the end was known but couldn’t be seen. More unspecified time went by. Then a second flare went up. I knew something much worse than a third flare would be coming next.
A nightmarish Chinese New Year began to erupt before me. Tracer rounds filled the air, their red laser lines zeroing in on our muzzle flashes. The sounds of whistles, bells, gongs and bullets began ringing in my ears. Black shadows began racing up the mountain slope. All around me, our men aimed their fire into the charging Chinese ranks. As our bullets raced downhill to meet the enemy, the faceless shadows fell into blackened lumps on the white snow. But for each Chinese soldier that lay dying or dead, two new ones would appear in their place. At the pace the Chinese were multiplying, there was no way we could kill them fast enough to hold them back.
When the first enemy wave reached our dug-in trenches, most of the men stood to fight the enemy hand-to-hand using their rifles as simple, blunt force weapons. Some of the men swung their rifles wild with panic, making them vulnerable to the enemy’s bullets. Most of those men fell where they stood.
One of the Chinese soldiers that made it through the fusillade threw himself into our shallow trench. I was closest to him, less than ten feet away. He landed so hard, the fall separated him from his rifle. For a moment, he stayed crouched on the ground. He eyed his rifle, but it was closer to me than it was to him. With no choice but to finish what he started, the Chinese soldier came at me.
I thrust the butt end of my rifle at him. I hit him in the head but not hard enough to knock him off his feet. He kept coming at me. Looking at him, I couldn’t tell if he was filled with fury or fear. I pulled my rifle back to hit him again, but before I could connect a bullet ripped through the Chinese soldier. Then the world went black.
I opened my eyes. A few slow blinks later the world started to come back into focus. The morning’s first light was creeping over the hilltop behind me. All around me, the air settled low to the ground in an angry gray mist. Gone were the rifle reports and the screams. Not even the sound of a lone bird greeted the day. I wondered if the fog itself was made up of the escaped life from the dead soldiers surrounding me.
I could feel the hardened snow pack beneath me. The entire length of my backside was numb. I tried to move but I couldn’t. A heavy weight held me down. I lifted my head up to see what was on top of me. I could see tiny spouts of steam coming from the Chinese soldier. The two of us were frozen together in a heap of east meets west.
“Can you hear me?” I asked with barely a whisper. My vocal cords must have frozen too. Not a sound came from the Chinese soldier. I tried sliding out from under him, but his dead weight pinned me down. A brief moment of panic sent a pulse of adrenaline through me, giving me just enough strength to shove him off of me.
I pushed myself up to standing. I took a second to inventory my situation: hands in gloves, cold but functional, feet solid bricks without feeling. My head pounded. After inspecting my helmet, I saw the dent where a bullet fragment smashed into my head just above my temple. For me, those two inches marked the distance between living and dying.
A faint human sound broke the silence. The Chinese soldier had let out a muffled groan. I grabbed my rifle and pressed the muzzle into his side. His lungs filled with a whoosh of air as if he had been waiting all night to take one final breath.
I could see that he was in terrible shape, but somehow the combined warmth of our bodies had been enough to keep us both from freezing to death. His face was so bloody and bruised that, had it not been for his eyes, I wouldn’t have known he was alive. His blinking eyes told me what I needed to know: he was alive and hoped to stay that way.
I knew I had a decision to make although neither of my choices gave me any comfort. I knew the simplest option was to walk away. But whether I left him to slowly freeze to death or whether I mercifully shot him in the head, the result would be the same: a helpless man would be dead by my hand.
All around us, lifeless husks blanketed in snow covered the hillside making it impossible to tell which of the dead were American and which were Chinese. Anyone who lived through the night had long since escaped. I had no idea where or in what direction everyone had gone. The longer I sat still, the silence only led to more silence. My decision didn’t become any clearer.
In those dreamless hours we were together, we were no longer enemies; in sharing each other’s warmth, we had become the other’s savior. But when consciousness returned, we were supposed to revert to our former state of war.
My limbs started to shake violently. We were both close to dying from hypothermia. I grabbed him by the shoulders and lifted him to a sitting position.
“Unless you’re ready to die, we need to get moving.” He blinked like he understood me. Somehow, I managed to get us both standing. He had to put nearly all of his weight on me. I could barely keep myself upright. I leaned all of my weight back into him to form a kind of human teepee. I pointed us downhill and we slipped our way past all of the bodies. Their anonymous arms and legs pointed in whatever direction death happened to leave them in the red-stained snow.
At the bottom of the hill we leaned against a tree that stood on the edge of a frozen reservoir. Looking out at the endless bed of white, I knew moving onto the ice might mean the difference between the Chinese soldier living and dying. I also knew that stepping out from the cover of the tree-line would make me an easy target. But since we were dying breath by frozen breath, I moved us out from the safety of the forest’s edge and stepped onto the ice floor. We walked forward together.
Somewhere in the middle of the frozen lake, I could feel them coming for us. No sights or sounds to signal our survival. Just a steady thrumming vibration under our feet. It seemed like the lake needed us to know that help was on its way, that we only had to hold on a few minutes more. An army green speck raced towards us. I could see an ice crystal plume kicking up behind the jeep’s tires.
As we rode together in the back of the army jeep, back to a world of safety and warmth, the Chinese soldier began thumping his chest with his clubbed fist. I pulled off one of my mittens and clawed my frozen fingers into his coat pocket. Inside was a picture of the Chinese soldier standing next to his parents. It was a sunny day and the three of them were standing in front of some trees. I could see that the trees were evenly spaced in neat rows. It was his family’s orchard.
I pulled out the picture I kept tucked in the lining of my helmet, the one with me and Margaret standing in front of Margaret’s apple tree. I placed my picture in his pocket. I slipped his picture in my helmet lining. I held him as close to me as I could—not only for shared warmth but also for his protection. I couldn’t let the Chinese soldier die a lonely, frozen death.
I sat down to pull on my rubber boots. This time the year before I thought I might never have another need for the boots, it had been so long that any rain had muddied the ground. There had been so much rain and Sierra snow the past winter the newspaper had talked about the drought being over, but I thought about it differently. I had seen enough seasons come and go to know that the only certainty was that dry followed wet just as wet followed dry.
I walked over to the barn, splashing through a puddle, mostly because the puddles were unavoidable, but also with a careless joy. I wondered how so much more water could come down than the parched earth could absorb.
Jimmy had attached the two-wheeled trailer to the back of the John Deere. Instead of the scattered apple crates that had littered the floor in the fall, every inch of the barn floor was covered with saplings. The Fuji apple saplings didn’t look to be much more than sturdy weeds. It seemed impossible that in only a few years’ time that their ripe fruit would bend their limbs towards the ground—fruit I would never taste but could enjoy nonetheless.
Jimmy handled the young saplings with the care a father would show his child. He made sure the saplings’ tender roots and leaf shoots were safely settled in for the short, bumpy ride to their new home.
“Looks like a long day of planting ahead. Do you need any help?” I asked. I was unsure of how much help I could really give.
“I can do it,” Jimmy said. I believed him. I knew he could do it all on his own. He probably always could. The farm was his now, both in kind and name. The lawyer had finished the transfer of the deed the week before. I used all the savings I had plus the life insurance money to pay off the mortgage along with the new trees. Jimmy and the farm were debt free. There was even enough left over for a new tractor once the John Deere decided it had worked long enough.
With the first trailer full of saplings loaded up, Jimmy slowly rolled the tractor out from the barn’s shade into the spring sunshine. Usually Jimmy raced the John Deere through the orchard as if he were practicing for the county fair’s sprint races, but today he drove like he was carrying a barrel of bird eggs. I wondered if it was unfair to treat the young trees so gently given the hard life they were about to begin.
I made my way back to the farmhouse. I swung open the screen door. The creaky hinges squealed. Helpful at keeping the flies out, the screen door did little to keep out the dust, which is probably why Margaret had kept the front door closed all those years. There was nothing Margaret disliked more than a dusty house. This thought made me stop before entering. I sat down on the porch chair and pulled off my muddy rubber boots.
Walking through the house in my rag wool socks, I stopped in the middle of the living room to listen for any of the old sounds: the whistle of a teapot, baking pans being set down to cool on the stove top, the swish of dust under a broom’s whisk. But it was silent. There wasn’t one familiar sound from my life. I focused on the ground to avoid making eye contact with Margaret’s memory. I put the half-filled kettle on the stove to boil. When the whistle sounded, I poured the scalding water over a spoonful of instant coffee.
With my mug in hand, I sank into Margaret’s favorite chair—the overstuffed one with the floral print next to the picture window. Sitting in Margaret’s chair, looking out the window filled me with a pain that made breathing hard. I could see the blossoms beginning to open on Margaret’s tree. I remembered the winter day a few months earlier when the ambulance silently drove away with Margaret in the back. No need for lights or sirens. She was gone for good.
From up on the mantel, Margaret looked back down at me. Her hands were pressing down her favorite gingham dress. The pink of her face brightened the blue in her eyes. That picture of Margaret could always salve a heartache. Her smile put the breath back in me. Next to Margaret was a picture of me sitting on the John Deere in front of Margaret’s apple tree, its blossoms reaching for the sky. I listened for the sound of a gold-filled river rolling towards the Pacific. I knew when it came time to for me to leave, we would all be there together keeping watch over Jimmy and the orchard.
Robert Geyer has published stories in The Corner Club Press and The Fable Online along with a self-published coming-of-age novel. Robert is a fourth generation Californian and has spent the better part of his life working and living (but mostly driving) somewhere along Interstate 80 between Sacramento and San Francisco.