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The Apple that Survived
The dew was cold, like sparks that had rained from a far away ice shelf to crown the blades of grass. Everything about the clearing was precise and sharp. It felt, to me at least, that the sky was a flat pane of glass, blueblueblue only because some idiot child had taped a pastel sheet over it. It was pretty, anyway. And the trees bent away from the place as if some horrible monster has spited them. I imagined such a creature, clawed and hissing at the blackened trunks. Good thing it was gone. But I wasn’t.
I was plain and just so cool, posed as a central apex, Nem’s last apple in my palm. I crouched. My pale knees were the color of teeth as they sank in the feathery vegetation. Bare, naked flesh that would have ashamed me on any other day was my only aspect here. I wanted to breathe this place in, let the eerie ice mold that seemed to linger here moisturize the withered catacomb inside me. Yet I felt myself curling up, trying to remember how I got this way.
Hair on my face, like a mother’s hands, and I remember.
Kissing the soil and the wormy breath, and I remember.
Thinking, believing, that the sun is a cotton blob that can never set, and I remember.
There were no more apples on the trees where I used to live. All that was left were the autumn trees, my favorites that I named. Branches blossoming with marigold colored leaves, every inch of green bled out of them back in September. Crisp, chopping-block-in-the-evening brown, too. The tiny tip of a flame on a match, that brilliant orange was evident in splashes amongst the foliage, neighboring fire truck red and a muddy crinkle shade. Just six trees lined Nem’s skinny driveway, casting spidery shadows across the gravel when it reached a certain hour. They were all marigolds, and I named them accordingly. Lemon, Poppy, PollenSpring, Summer, Addy, and Jess. Smile, and they would whisper and yawn. Whisper, and they would yawn and moan. I missed them. I spent my final conscious moments at Nem’s place perched beneath those trees, feeling almost nothing, but mostly waiting.
All of the apples had been picked and sold, shipped off in the big tin trucks that came once a year. I’ll always remember them as they rolled out, smelling like cider musk and sending up boiling clouds of dust. If Nem wasn’t right at the screen door, I’d chase them long enough to start coughing. What joy that was.
So there I was, thinking of all those trucks, when the first lick became visible on the horizon. At first it was a snap, a quick flash of the heat’s tongue dancing above the hills. But soon it was the whole mouth, roaring and spreading as if stretched.
“What is that?” I asked loud enough for Nem to hear. She would be near the kitchen window with a tiny slit open, doing dishes most likely. I was stupid to ask. Staring out at the endless tumble of hills it was obvious what was coming, crawling like a snake on its belly.
“Sweet baby Jesus..” her wrinkled hand, like parchment paper, found my shoulder as I stood. She always moved fast for an old woman. “Get the ladder, girl. This is our one chance. Get the ladder.” I sprinted for the back shed, smelling smoke already. My socks were picking up chiggers and little bits of wood as I went, curling up at the heels.
Why the ladder? I would never have dared ask such a question out loud, so I let the energy of that thought ride out through my fingertips and grab the ladder. It was absent of cobwebs, evidence of the recent apple pickings. And to accompany the many incidents of oddness, the ladder, the growing fire, I was able to run quite fluidly with the metal structure. Extensions and all it was several feet taller than me, but I have to say that Nem looked taller than both of us put together when I got back. The stress of the moment was pulling her up and up like taffy. So it was she to run to the distant apple trees, bare and begging for our comfort. It was then that I realized that they would be among the many victims of today, lost soldiers. The house, too, and maybe even Nem. But not me. Not me.
Past the withering leaves she climbed, branches crinkling against her skirt with the sound of tinfoil. What is she doing?
“I saved this one...this one,” her words snagged a tangle of wind to reach me.
Could it be an apple? A single, unbruised apple, like a ruby fruit hidden up there? But why?
“Hurry, take it.” She was hustling, now. And sure enough, it was an apple, the taught red skin of it being thrust from her hands to mine.
“Love, my child, get your things and run. A few simple things and take off up those hills. Keep running, don’t stop until your off the dry grass. These strands of grass are like candle wicks. They knew, we should have known.” Her stoney face said a lot more to me than that, though. The competitors. All along Nem talked to me about the competing apple orchards that bordered us, wanting to sell more, make more, be better. I never saw as many tin trucks roll away from those orchards as they did ours, and that was something to consider. The job of the competitor was to destroy. Literally, in this case. I had every reason to believe that the neighboring orchards had teamed up to light this fire, get it rolling until it reached us and spurned every inch of land we owned, right down to the foundation of our home. Our poor little home with the rocking chairs and memories. Dear God, it was going to swallow us alive.
I didn’t bother looking back at Nem, I was a blur darting for the house. Clothes, a few dingy shirts that could use a wash, and a tiny glass picture frame. It was from the one time Nem and I attended the fair. The photo itself was a mess of powder white glitter and smiles. I almost wanted to cry.
“RUE!” her holler ripped through my daydream. The smoke was sneaking through the cracks in the windows. How did I not notice that?
“Do I run? Do I run?”
“Rue, little Rue, run and take the apple with you. You carry hope and a seed. This orchard can be saved yet. I may not be able to outrun this fire, but you can.” We hugged, and that was it. It was in short bursts and gasps that I sprinted across the grass, but not quite fast enough. Pretty soon I could hear the sizzling of grass heating up, the multiple forked tongues of this fire reaching out to me. At some point I dropped the picture, the shirts slipping with it. The running and forced breathing were all I knew for so long, and before I knew it the fire was lapping at my ankles. Searing ocean water. Just so it wouldn’t gobble up my clothes I threw those away, too. I was nearly flying across the grass, naked and holding onto that apple for dear life. I couldn’t even think of Nem being lost in all that fire. Maybe, if she was smart, she had killed herself before it came. But there was extreme doubt in that.
So many hours of running, weak running, and here I was. The clearing of secret monsters. I pressed the apple to the earth as if it might start growing right then and there, spring up with a hopeful new orchard. But I had to sleep. So my face pressed to the earth with subtle strength, ready to sleep. So far, I had saved the orchard. Me and this half dead little apple.