Don’t go into the Miller’s orchard during apple season. Remember, some ghost stories are true.
Evening fog began to settle on the long dry grass and Lucy walked through her kitchen door to greet it. Gnarled trees stood in front her, heavy with their crop. Branches pointed downward, as if beckoning someone to notice the layer of rotted fruit uncollected on the ground. Apple season. The wind did its part and carried the scent of ferment to neighboring farms – the smells of apple wine, apple cider and uneaten apple pie all together – but neighbors were surrounded by the odors of their own work day and didn’t notice. Cow, goat, lavender, wine grape, wash on the line, burnt leaves, a frozen pizza in the oven, any one alone could overpower the scent of an orchard early in the season and all together well, the apples didn’t stand a chance.
Lucy walked a labyrinth pattern through the orchard, down one row, across another, turning, twisting, never tracking back. She walked through her labyrinth unbothered by the slick ooze of rotting apples under her bare feet. No fountain trickling a soothing song lay in the center of the orchard, no gazing ball or bench for rest. Only one thin rope hung tangled, barely visible, in the limbs of a dying tree. Its frayed and dirty ends showed its age. But Lucy forgot, from dusk to dusk, that only trees waited to greet her in the middle of the apple orchard. Trees and apples, fruit flies in the air, goat head thorns on the ground as big as your thumb. She walked out by the same pattern; her head hung low and strings of brown hair swayed back and forth beneath her chin. Her lips moved as if in prayer.
Most farms in Sweet Valley started to quiet down after the fall equinox. The crops were in and boxed for farmer’s market or on their way to processing. But, for the Johnson’s pumpkin farm and Miller’s orchard, fall marked the beginning of their busy season. The Gravensteins, Lucy’s favorite cooking apple, began to ripen in September. Lucy had enjoyed filling old-fashioned apple baskets with the low-hanging fruit and washing them one by one to make her pies. Later, the pickers would come and dump everything onto the washing conveyer, but early in the season the orchard belonged just to her, and Dan.
Lucy liked the quiet of early season, she preferred silence when she washed and peeled the apples, except for the songs she hummed – songs her grandmother taught her. When people asked Lucy why her applesauce tasted so good she answered “because I sing to the apples.” Naturally, they thought she was teasing
The cedar-shaked cider house used to be the busiest place on their acres during apple season. It was where Lucy sold apple pies baked in brown paper bags, jars of applesauce and apple butter, soft-jellied candy and perfect slices of chewy dried apple. There were secrets that she wouldn’t share no matter how fervently a customer asked. What made her pie crust so flakey and crisp? A quick pour of cold white vinegar in the bottom of the mixing bowl. What was that special flavor that made her apple butter the best anyone had ever tasted? A sprinkle of chili powder – not enough to bring the heat, but just enough to be there. Tricks she’d learned from Grandma Lee , ones she’d hoped to pass on someday. But that day hadn’t come – wouldn’t, unless they let science help. Something Dan wasn’t keen to do.
Once upon a time, a giant lived in Sweet Valley. He could carry three hundred pounds of apples at a time, one hundred on each shoulder and one hundred more balanced on his head. His hands were free to swing the mallet that shook the trees that brought the fruit to the ground for his wife, Lucy, to glean. She made enchanted pies with the apples, and he made cider from a recipe his mother-in-law, an old witch, gave him before she died. There was a secret ingredient in the cider that made everyone in the valley crave it the way a hummingbird craves nectar. The giant and his wife were happy during apple season. They baked and pressed and shared their bounty with every man woman and child who came to visit their orchard.
“The Cider House” was just a name for the store, but many people seemed to think the jugs of cider they purchased there had been squeezed from the nine gallon press Dan set up for demonstrations. He’d built a platform so even the smallest children could climb up the steps, toss in a few apples, turn the crank if they were big enough, and make a glass of cider pour out of the bottom nozzle for their thirsty friends. The little press was just for fun, of course. For charm. The real work happened in a sterile metal building up the hill with Dan paying careful attention to the ratio of spicy Fortunes and sweet-smelling Arkansas Blacks that went into his cider mix. The commercial press was powerful enough to crush a man’s skull if he managed to squeeze in past the safety rail while the machine was on and wedge his head between the hydraulic press and the rack.
If something like that happened, it would be hard to believe it was an accident no matter what anyone said.
Lucy avoided the commercial building now. The sugary smell of apples cooking, of vinegar and chili pepper were long gone. Those smells were covered in a thick layer of dusty cobwebs just like the ovens and mixing bowls and pie plates and the big press where years have deepened the color of the black stain on the concrete below the nozzle meant to fill five-gallon buckets and not paper cups for school children to drink from.
Dan had loved apple season. He smiled as he hefted full boxes of apples onto his right shoulder and took the stairs up to the wash station two at a time. He patted Lucy on the bottom a dozen times a day and called her baby. He was the kind of man who loved hard work and sweat and making something with his own hands. Dan stopped taking his meds during the fall. The highs helped him work harder. Cider gushed from the press for a thirty-four hour stretch once during the last season. Lucy walked up to the metal building wearing a short, thin nightgown and whispered naked things into Dan’s ear just to get him home. He walked through the orchard at all hours of the night, checking for the ripest apples, inspecting the gloss of the leaves, the sturdiness of the branches. He wanted her with him when he walked at night and in the very center of the orchard, a center he somehow instinctively knew, he like to lay down with her and look up at the stars through the vertical maze of apple branches. He’d lay and watch the stars, or watch Lucy as she slept, or run his big rough hands up and down her body to warm her, but he rarely slept himself. Dan always said he came to life when he stopped taking the lithium. He wanted to enjoy every moment.
Apple season was heaven for Lucy and Dan. But after it – winter.
But one day, when apple season was over and the wind blew ice through the air, the giant went mad – some say from drinking too much of his own magic cider. He roared through the orchard, smashing the trees with his mallet. Not even his wife could stop him. After knocking every limb from every tree he stomped into the cider house and smashed his own head as flat as a dried apple ring. Instead of brains and blood, juice oozed from his ears, dark and red as the skin of an Arkansas Black.
Lucy found her husband in the cider house, the flesh and fluid inside his skull making a black stain on the floor where only weeks before happy children had sipped cider and eaten wedges of crisp, fresh apples dunked in caramel. The sight made her lose her mind. She lifted the mallet to smash her own head, but it was too heavy for a woman like her – strong from toting apple bushels, but weakened by the shock of the gruesome scene. Instead, she walked to the center of the orchard and climbed a tree with a thick white rope tied around her neck. When Lucy jumped, a few frozen apples, missed by the pickers, fell to the ground and bounced up toward her feet as if they were hanging themselves in reverse.
Farmers in the valley say that the night the giant and his wife died, the scent of apple pies was so thick in the air they had to cover all the windows and doors with blankets to keep the smell from choking them with each breath. They say Lucy’s out there still, wandering the orchard with the mallet dragging behind her. Since that night, five years ago this winter, at least three people have trekked into the orchard to find her. Not one came back out. Once, Gary Johnson, nearly mad himself with the craving for apple cider, went into the cider house in the middle of the day and saw Lucy’s ghost sitting on the floor peeling apples. She didn’t even look up when he screamed, just kept peeling and humming a song.
I’m telling you, stay out of the Miller’s orchard during apple season or you might end up in one of old Lucy’s pies.