At the orchard, the trees twist into gnarled poses. They seem feral and stubborn, yet they sit in perfect formation, organized by name and breed: Royal Gala, Fuji, Jonagold, Crispin/Mutsu, Honeycrisp, Paula Red, Rome Beauty, Baldwin. Some are for baking, some are destined to be cider, or mashed into a butter spread. Most are eaten raw. People who come to pick their own pecks and half-bushels chew their harvest, and suck juice from their fingers as they walk between rows, appraising.
The grove’s owner drives a tractor-led hayride back and forth between the entrance and the middle of the property. He’s a loping man with white hair like brush bristles. The top half of him, clad in denim, is thicker and wider than the bottom half of him, also dressed in denim, and if you visit the orchard, you will admire the disproportion of his dimensions.
In the pumpkin patch, the buds bloom into petals and the flowers grow into lantern shapes—ripe orange and verdant, twisted and round. The children of New England have always bought the gourds in October, carved around their stems with steak knives, fished out fistfuls of goop, and salted and baked their seeds. But even when they first observe fruit growing on the snaking stalks, it will seem like the strangest thing they have ever seen.
The apples grow in unfamiliar ways, too. They hang atop the canopy in clusters, so the plants appear to slouch or shrug, or are hidden in the tangle of branches underneath the leaves. Others dangle like earrings. Some trees are past their prime, surrounded by the fallen, stacked like cannonballs around the trunks.
You will sample each with ravenous curiosity. Your teeth tear a jagged circled into the purple skin of a Macoun, revealing the pale inside. The Braeburn, marbled green and red, tastes sweet and tangy. The flesh of a Pink Lady crunches in your jaw, and spurts a tang. The green hide and blushing meat of a Granny Smith turns sour.
The branches form an uneven ladder, but, hugging the trunk you can make your way up, get lost in the foliage, and speak for the trees to passersby. You can whisper tales of its lineage (“I am an Empire, daughter of the Red Delicious on my father’s side and the McIntosh on my mother’s!”), the dreams it had as a sapling (rainstorms, pie crusts, the winds picking it up and carrying it away), and its fears (chainsaws, fire, scabbing). It will enjoy having a voice, and try to hold you there, its twigs snagging your sweater, your scarf, your hair.
People balance their bags between their heels while they wait for the trailer. A mother pours some cider for her child. Dressed in wool tights and an overall dress of pink corduroy, the toddler holds the tiny cup with both hands and drains the brown nectar. Two girls each balance a peck-sized bag on a hip. A man passing tells them they won’t need to go to the gym later. Half-bushel bags may topple and spill an assortment: large ones, yellow ones, sweet ones, mealy ones, russet ones, big ones, perfect orbs, and ones shaped like women.
The tractor rumbles up slowly and the pickers mount the steps as the driver, his hands as knotted as the trees he cultivates, stands by and watches. A teenager, out with his parents, will pull the hood of his sweatshirt over his eyes and pretend to sleep. One child will wave to every stranger who catches her eye. Another will stand on his mother’s foot while she asks what they should do with the apples (“Should we make a pie?” “Yes.” “Or a crisp?” “Yes.” “Or a cake?” “Yes.”) The tractor rolls along the path for five minutes and stops in front of the store where baked goods, dried corn, and jugs of juice are sold.
The owner loops his thumbs in his belt loops and watches the customers dismount the trailer, chaff sticking to their shoes and the back pockets of their jeans. If you say, “Thank you,” he will say, “Thanks fer coming, folks.”
His wife works at the register, ringing up cider donuts, the soft cakes rolled in a dust of sugar and cinnamon and nutmeg and other mulling spices. She says that her husband wants to buy a train for the customers, instead of a hayride, then rolls her eyes and adds, confidentially, “Riiiight, for the customers.” She tosses her gray hair behind her flannel shirt. “He just wants a toy.” She wears her engagement ring and her wedding band on the same finger. And you will know with the flash of the small diamond that even now, though he is only one hundred yards away, she longs for his gruff presence, his dirt-stained fingers, his musk.
Of all the varieties of men she went with before she settled down—the carpenter, who smelled of sawdust, the doctor, whose odor stung of antiseptic, the academic, with his aroma of chalk—she fell for the perfume of pollen and the cider press and straw from the hay ride, that complex fragrance of the orchard drew her to him and she wanted to absorb it. She wanted him all around her and in her pores.
She will ring you up and say, “If you see a train here next year, you’ll know why.” And she’ll wink at you.
You will walk to the car with the sweet cake softening in your saliva, your stomach already churning from all the apples you ate. Patting your stomach, you will think of the gluttony of variety. You can have so much, so much, it makes you sick.
Cara Bayles lives, writes, and works in the Greater Boston area.