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Authors: Nancy Means Wright

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BOOK: Poison Apples
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“Shut up!” he screamed at the closed door. “Shut up! You have no business here! Leave me in peace!”

Still the voices rose, circled his head; it was as if they were inside: disembodied voices, swirling in a vortex about his brain. He was hot, he was angry, they were driving him crazy. He ran to his study, yanked open the desk drawer, snatched up the pistol he’d kept there since his early teaching days in Brooklyn—why had he brought it up here to rural Vermont? Vermont, which had once been a republic? He’d loved that idea, a republic where all men were equal, Jew and Gentile, black and yellow and white, straight and gay.

One shot and he’d frighten them off—he didn’t care about the consequences—let them call the police. What did it matter anyway? He’d as good as lost his job. He wasn’t cut out for teaching:

He was too emotional, he took things too much to heart. Rachel always said that.

They were banging on the door, calling to him. “Repent, repent!” Repent of what? Repent that he was a Jew? That he’d come to believe in nothing now, no God except in his heart— though even that One seemed to have deserted him? The pounding grew louder, the voices crowding his ears, persecuting:

“Satan! Deliver him. . . .”

“Out of here! Get out of here!” he screamed, and when they didn’t, desperate, at his wits’ end, he picked up the gun.

 

 

Chapter Eleven

 

It was three o’clock Sunday morning, an hour when most working people were still asleep. The geese were quiet; he’d slipped a powder into their feed. He moved down into the south quad of the orchard, far from the bunkhouses. A sliver of moon wove in and out of the clouds to guide his path. He would concentrate only on the outer block of trees, six or seven of them this time. He was carrying a cardboard box and a large glass jar, which he placed carefully on the grass. He removed the cover of the first and peered in at the wriggling mass of small greenish brown worms. He had bred them himself at home, off season, so they would be ready to feed in early fall. He took out handfuls of the squirming things and laid them on the branches of three trees, just above where the apples were clustered. The worms would spin a light web, rolling several leaves together, enclosing the clusters of fruit.

He took up a glass jar and unscrewed the top, waiting a moment before opening it all the way. Inside were a hundred apple maggots, a native pest. Smaller than houseflies, they had black bands on their clear wings, a white spot on the back of the thorax, a black abdomen with light-colored crossbands. The design was quite beautiful, be had to say so. He had been breeding the maggots for a whole year now, in preparation for this night. The females would deposit their eggs singly under the apple skin, and then the larvae would burrow in and feed on the flesh. Soon the brown decayed areas would show, and bacteria would cause the fruits to rot internally. They were mostly Cortlands in this block, the apple most susceptible to maggots.

Of course, it was already the second week of September and the apples were ripe and ready for picking. But the flies on the few trees they would strike would cause damage, the apples would be unsuitable for eating. Besides, this part of the orchard had been sprayed with malathion throughout June, July, and August; no one would expect the maggots to appear in September. This was all the more pleasurable to contemplate. He imagined the confusion, the anger, the hysteria. What next? Earthrowl would say.

What next? Well, he had bigger things in mind for what next. The leaf rollers, the maggots, were only a beginning.

He opened the lid all the way and the flies rushed out. He didn’t have to lay them on the branches. They would know exactly where to go.

 

 

Chapter Twelve

 

Moira took Opal with her to pick up the goat for the Jamaicans. She thought the girl might enjoy the outing, have a chance to see the area. Everywhere in Vermont, it seemed, there was a view. In Branbury it was the mountains—the blue curve of Adirondacks to the west; the rolling Greens to the east. And below, the pastures alive with cows and horses, their necks bent to feed on the succulent grasses; and then the open cornfields where the September corn was as tall as—what—an elephant’s eye? She smiled, remembering the musical
Oklahoma!,
hummed a few bars. The local high school had put it on, Carol had played a small part; she’d looked so fresh and homespun in her jeans and pale pink shirt that it had made Moira’s eyes water.

And here she was, at it again. Moira wiped her eyes with a denim sleeve, willed herself to stop thinking about the past.

Beside her, Opal sat, looking sullen. She hadn’t wanted to come, of course; she was reading a book, a paperback romance. The cover depicted a hairy hand pulling back a diaphanous shower curtain. And of course one could see the woman’s perfect white body shining through.

“So what do you think of Vermont?” she asked Opal, and heard the girl give a small groan. “Dullsville,” the girl said. “This book, too. It doesn’t live up to its cover. Page sixty-two and they haven’t gone to bed yet.”

“Branbury’s a small town,” Moira admitted. “But there’s plenty to do if you look for it. Take Emily Willmarth, now: She belongs to 4-H, a couple of clubs in school, she plays softball—there’s a town team of girls at the rec park.”

“Softball. God,” said Opal, and sighed again.

Moira gave up. For the time being, anyway. They were already in Panton, at Atwood’s goat farm. Opal was staring out the window, her face a pale mask. “Hello there,” Moira called.

Old Mr. Atwood emerged from the barn, a short cheerful man with hairy sunburned hands and a fringe of white hair on his pinkish skull. “Got her here for ya,” he said. “You just drive round now t’back of the barn.”

Opal didn’t want to get out, so Moira helped Mr. Atwood entice the goat over to the pickup. It was a small, white-faced, black-nosed goat; she could hardly bear to look at it herself, thinking it would soon become curried stew. It clambered up the walkway Mr. Atwood had prepared for it, but then balked; it didn’t want to get into the truck. They might have to leave it there, forget about goat stew—Moira almost hoped so. But she remembered how eager the Jamaicans had been, how important the goat was to the harvest supper. They had to get it in the truck.

“She’ll go, she’ll do it, give her a push now,” said Mr. Atwood, and finally, with a concentrated effort and a few giggles on Moira’s part, they were able to shove it up in. He locked the tailgate behind and tethered the goat to the side of the pickup.

“So,” the old man said when they were done, when she had paid him, “pickin’ goin’ well up t’the orchard?” She glanced at him to see if there was a deeper meaning behind the words, but his round pleasant face was innocent of innuendo.

“Well enough,” she said, “though there’s been a lot of rain lately just at dawn. All they’re picking today is brushwood and drops. We don’t need our Jamaicans for that.” She wasn’t going to say any more. Everyone knew about last spring’s spraying fiasco, it had been in all the papers. Stan hadn’t reported the most recent incident. He wanted it kept quiet.

“Guess not,” he agreed. “Don’t help the haying none, either.” Mr. Atwood had a dozen cows along with his goats, and a huge garden full of corn and pumpkins and green vegetables. His farm was an example of self-sufficiency farming at its best.

They were off then, with Opal holding her nose as if, even up front, she could smell the goat. Back at the orchard, where they’d parked down by the Jamaicans’ bunkhouse, she scrambled out of the pickup and raced up to the house. Moira heard the screen door bang behind her.

“He’s a good’un,” Bartholomew said as he came running up when Moira honked. He still had a bucket of drops around his neck; he slipped it off to help untether the animal. “Ex-cell-ent stew, oh, you see.” The whites of his eyes shone in the dark brown face. He had a red cotton bandanna wrapped twice about his thick neck, though it couldn’t be any less than sixty degrees outside. She could see the drops of sweat on his wrinkled forehead.

“You be sure to save us some of that stew,” Moira said. “We don’t want to miss out on the feast.”

“Oh, we make a big potful, don’t you worry, mum.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of,” she teased. “Poor goat!”

“I got a new recipe,” he went on. “Lot of spice, my wife make it up. But first we got to fatten her up more, you know.” He grinned, and trotted on to the bunkhouse with the goat, his free arm swinging.

It was raining lightly again; there wouldn’t be any picking until it stopped. She heard a harmonica playing a lively tune inside the bunkhouse, then a shout, and laughter. Then Adam Golding came down the path from the barn, with Emily Willmarth. The girl was wearing a cotton shirt, a bright green bandanna—no coat in spite of the rain. Her face was rosy, it seemed her cheeks would crack with the smiling; Adam’s face had a look of satisfaction, the way boys looked when they’d made a conquest. Moira knew the look; she’d seen it on Hilly Winner, on Jake Candido’s face, when they came looking for Carol, and Carol gave them all the same warm smile, the same close attention—but then she always kept something to herself. She didn’t give her full self until. .. that last boy, the one who caused her death. The boy with the handsome face, the shock of dark brown hair that fell almost into his eyes so you couldn’t tell what color they were, what the boy was looking at, thinking. And Carol believed in him; Carol, who was so discriminating, whose judgment of people rarely erred, who saw through a teacher when that teacher tried to throw the bull, or the parent who tried to dismiss a teacher who was hardworking, teaching what she considered meaningful. To that boy, Moira worried, Carol was merely a conquest. And yet she was wholly taken with him; she thought, for the first time, she was truly in love.

The pair passed by, laughing. Emily seemed so caught up in the romance of it she didn’t even acknowledge Moira. They moved on out past the farmhouse. Opal was standing on the porch with her guitar, pretending she didn’t see the couple. She had changed her clothes, she was wearing something hot pink, her hair was freshly washed. She was pretty, as her mother had been pretty before she had Opal and gained all that weight, those facial jowls.

When Emily had moved out into the road, on her way home, Opal called out to Adam and he halted, went to the corner of the porch. Was Emily out of earshot? Moira thought she saw the girl’s back slump slightly forward. Emily had been disappointed once before in love, Ruth had told Moira, her boyfriend taking up with some city girl. Emily had never wholly forgiven him, and now he was away at school.

Moira wanted to run and hug her.

But here was Stan, calling to her from the barn doorway. “Where’ve you been, Moira?”

“I told you. Getting the goat. It’s outside the bunkhouse, Bartholomew’s tied it up.”

“Let’s take a walk. I need to talk. Christ, you don’t know what’s happened?”

Now she was alarmed; she felt the hairs prickle on the back of her neck. She ran to him, took his arm. He was rushing her down the path, away from the bunkhouse. She stumbled on a Fallon apple. “What, what?” she said.

Stan’s face was contorted. He looked as though someone had given him a blow on the head.

Finally he stopped, grabbed her hands. “It’s Samuels,” he said. “He shot himself. Last night. After the hearing. He went home and shot himself. He’s in a coma now.” His voice rose with each sentence. “And that bitch did it. It was her fault. It was—it was murder, Moira. Attempted murder.”

“Wait a minute.
She
didn’t shoot him....”

“She might as well have. She was his tormenter. He was sensitive as hell. Everyone says so. He couldn’t take the hammering she gave him. Oh Christ, Christ, that poor fellow. ...”

He pushed his damp face into her shoulder. Her left shoulder was soaked, and not just from the rain.

 

Chapter Thirteen

 

Ruth was swabbing down the barn floor when Emily ran in, breathless, her face streaked with grime and tears. The floor was Emily’s job, but now that the girl was picking apples, Ruth was doing it. Emily flung herself at her mother; the mop in Ruth’s hands went flying. “Emily! What—what is it?”

Emily sank down on a sawhorse. She was openly sobbing now. Ruth knelt beside her. And heard the news about Aaron Samuels.

“My friend Cissy Harper told me, I met her on the way back from the orchard. It was all because of Harry Rowen’s mother. She’s a fundie. She complained after that school board woman tried to—to persecute him.” She blew her nose loudly into a tissue. “He was so wonderful—is! He’s such a great guy. We all love him. He understands us. He liked that short story I wrote, the one about being a farmer’s kid…” She broke down again. Her hands were trembling where they gripped the rough sides of the sawhorse.

Ruth squeezed in beside her daughter, put her arms around the girl. “I’m sorry, so sorry,” she said. She’d only met Mr. Samuels once, at a school open house, and liked him. He’d been divorced a year or two ago, she’d heard; his wife had left for the city, taking along their young son. There might have been more to the shooting than just that school business. But Emily wouldn’t see that. She’d see it as persecution. Everyone was persecuting everyone else in Emily’s world. The US government persecuting the farmers. The Republicans persecuting the Democrats. Someone persecuting the orchard next door. Emily was upset about that, too; she’d talked incessantly about the latest incident, the destruction of two trees. And now the school board had been persecuting her favorite teacher. And the teacher was unable to fight back. Or lacked the courage. ...

Ruth was mad at him suddenly for taking an easy way out; for trying to kill himself when he could have stood up to his tormentors. Unless there
was
a relationship between him and that boy .. . was there?

Emily answered her question. “Harry’s all broken up about it, he thinks it’s his fault. That’s what Cissy says, she lives next door. Harry loved him, he really did—I mean, in an innocent way. He went to see Mr. Samuels every day after school, he was Harry’s anchor, his anchor, Mom. His parents are so strict, all that religious stuff Harry doesn’t believe in. They don’t want him to read anything except the Bible! Mr. Samuels was all Harry had. He’s such a shy kid. And now ...”

BOOK: Poison Apples
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