The apples taunt her. She can hear them falling to the ground, thud after thud, footsteps moving closer. By now, she should have hired men. She should be putting in ten-hour days, picking the branches clean, sweeping the ground for cider. Instead Grace watches the trees knit together from neglect, snarling like uncombed hair.
“Open the orchard to pickers,” advises Ruth. Her silvery hair is wound into a tight knot on her head that makes her look efficient and smart, like she is storing it up there for the winter. “People are crazy for apples this time of year.”
“I could use the money.” Any money, Grace thinks.
“Paint some signs and see who shows up. You’ll be surprised.” Of course, Ruth is biased. Like everyone else in Rutland, Ruth is in on the apple picking, lending a hand at the Rudnick farm over by the lake.
Ruth is the regular, Grace the newcomer. She and her husband Harry bought the orchard last year, retiring from work at the electric company, exchanging duplex for colonial, Buick sedan for Ford truck, garage for barn, lawn for orchard. They bought it as a fixer-upper, planning to do the work themselves. Then, in April, Harold died. The rows of soil he had turned for her garden, the days spent hammering in the barn, the new windows installed in the drafty kitchen: any one of these exertions could have killed him. As it was, Grace found him splayed on the kitchen floor. Her son and daughter flew in for the funeral, but left shortly after. There wasn’t anything to stay for.
“Have you heard about the wolves?” asks Maura Pembroke, the Willow Diner’s owner and only waitress. She modeled lingerie for department stores in Albany when she was younger and is still attractive despite the extra weight, but it is a studied beauty. “Down by the high school. They were in the trash bins out behind the cafeteria.”
“They’ll come that close?” Grace has heard this wolf lore before. She thinks the town craves these wolves, wills them into existence. There had been so many neighbors at Harold’s funeral. They had filled the church, crowded around the plot at the cemetery, followed her home with pots of noodles and stew. It was nice, at first; the obituary hadn’t made Telegram and Gazette, and few of her old friends had made the drive west. But her new friends didn’t know when to go home. No one noticed when Grace slipped upstairs and lay down on the bed, dangling her feet over the side like a child.
“Tell you what.” Ruth takes a last swallow of coffee and drops coins on the counter. “I’ll come over tomorrow and help you.”
“It could tide me over,” Grace allows.
“The best picking is Cortlands right now,” Ruth says over her shoulder as she pushes out the door. “Red Delicious aren’t sweet enough yet.”
Grace hugs her mug with both hands, hoping the heat will loosen the joints of her fingers. The thought of apple picking is painful.
“More hot water?” Maura pours before Grace can answer, but it’s all right. Grace always has two cups to Ruth’s one. This is how they have become friends: through a careful recipe that gives absences weight and lets inequalities add up. They have struck a silent agreement to keep a certain distance. Their conversations dwell on the objects of life: paint that’s chipping, radiators that need bleeding, roofs that need reshingling. Grace asks questions and Ruth gives her advice she doesn’t take. But Ruth allows her to live in the present, and she is thankful. When she is alone, Harry is alive, his voice spouting farm facts he has learned from a book. Her memory is magnetic; their arguments and conversations loop through her mind, an endless recording of the days they’d lived here together. If only she had Ruth’s strong shoulders, Grace thinks, she might shrug off the past. As it is, she has begun to hunch unattractively, her spine pulling down toward the earth like a divining rod.
That evening Grace confronts a can of red paint and a few shingles that have fallen off the house. As she works, she hums the tune from Oklahoma! that Harry always whistled. We’ll haul that old equipment out of the barn, he told her, and get animals in there again. Instead it has come to this: a falling-apart farm where she, an old lady, listens to the wind draw in and out of the house like breath.
The next morning, she speeds along the narrow back roads trailing off the highway like capillaries from a vein. By Route 20, the sun has risen above the trees, flooding the valley with light. She nails the red and white “U-PICK APPLES” and “Wolf Hill Farms” signs to telephone poles.
It works. Carloads of pickers come and roam through the sprawling trees, reaching for the apples that have not fallen, snatching up the few runty pumpkins she’d managed to save from the garden, smiling as they hand her their cash. She can’t tell which apples are good right now. She can’t even tell what kind she has. So she sells them by the bag, $8 for a small, $12 for large. Two hundred twenty six dollars, she counts, when everyone’s gone. She grips the thick bundle of twenties, tens, fives, and ones, marveling at the money’s bulk in her hand; she’s never held so much before. She sorts the bills into neat piles by denomination, drops the few coins into their appointed slots, then locks cash box with a small brass key she’s tied on a string around her neck.
Ruth has still not shown up, but Grace has decided not to mind. It is the sort of autumn afternoon that feels like the last act of nature: all long shadows and flaming sunset. She is not afraid of death; the prelude worries her more: the slope of decline. Harry had none of her slack-muscled, brittle-boned fragility. There was a solidity and permanence to his good looks that grew with age even as her soft beauty smudged and disappeared. Little did they know he was rusting out from the inside like an old car.
They’d met when she was only twenty-one. Grace had rejoined the typing pool and he’d just returned from the war. I have a scar to prove it, he’d bragged, turning over his hand to show her the jagged seam on his palm where the shrapnel had hit him. “The doctors said if it hit anywhere else, I’d have lost use of the hand.” Grace couldn’t look at the leathery skin knit into thick knots, all green and blue with healing, so she stared into his eyes as he told his story, smiling back when he smiled. He began to stop by her desk everyday and it was quickly settled.
At first they had to sneak around, leaving separately and meeting around the corner from the company parking lot. When the war was over, the company let the girls stay if they wanted. It was seen as a favor—the sexes weren’t accustomed to mixing in the workplace. Girls had to guard their virtue, warned Mrs. Duneen, the elder stateswoman of the typing pool. Grace later learned that she’d guarded hers with the head of the company, during lunch hours at a nearby hotel. By that time, Mrs. Duneen’s dalliance was no longer scandal but liberation, and Grace and Harold had been married nearly twenty years. In the end, they’d both stayed with the company—Harold rising to upper management, Grace picking up where she left off when the children were grown— for over forty years. Their goodbye party filled the cafeteria to capacity, requiring three sheet cakes and a polka band. No one stayed with a job like that anymore. Clarissa and Frank often asked how they’d managed it, one place for so long. Grace replied, It never occurred to us that we could leave.
Clarissa and Frank left as fast as they could. She and her husband are in Alaska, of all places, on a wildlife preserve; he’s out in Idaho selling fly-fishing paraphernalia. Grace has never been to visit either of them, mostly because they always come back to her, but also because she’s never been invited. She thinks they don’t really consider these places home. They vacation in Asia and talk of settling in Europe, while Grace has lived her whole life in a two hundred-mile radius.
Finally she sees someone winding up the driveway: Ruth at last. It is too late for her to help, but Grace no longer cares. She bites into an apple and watches her emerge from the shadows. As Ruth kicks up the driveway, Grace sees what she wants to see: the flint gray of his hair, the tilt of his head deep in thought, the wobble of his pigeon-toed walk. A rumple of corduroy and denim, Harry swings his arms, propelling himself toward Grace with an easy self–assurance. Good news, Grace hears him say, I’m not dead.
As she hears these words, Ruth arrives at her stand. But it’s not Ruth. It’s a young woman, perhaps Clarissa’s age, maybe younger—young people all look the same to her now—wearing baggy clothes with lots of pockets. She can see why the kids like these outfits, how they make them feel useful. Lately, she has taken to wearing Harry’s work clothes—sweat-stained flannel, oil-cloth trousers, and oversized work boots that squash all debris in her path. The girl is a drifter, with stringy hair and a nose crooked like it’s been broken with a large hoop hanging from one nostril, calling attention to its imperfection. A drop-out. A loser.
“In the mood for apples?” Grace asks, pretty sure she is not. I am a loser too, she thinks. I have lost.
The girl scans the empty orchard behind her. “I didn’t come for apples.”
Grace stops in mid-chew, swallowing hard on a large piece of apple. She holds the rest in her fist like a baseball.
“Thanks but…” Grace hears a low, rhythmic thumping. Silver wires trail from the small, ratty backpack she has slung over one shoulder, crisscross the girl’s jacket, and wind into her ears. She hums to herself in a drowsy voice before continuing. “I was catching this show over in Northampton and wound up getting high with this guy. So my boyfriend left me. And this other guy bolted. Then my dog ran off. Seen him around?”
“I didn’t notice.” But what Grace does notice is the red in the girl’s eyes and the leftover tears that make her hair stick to her cheeks. She knows the feeling. “We can take a look through the orchard, if you’d like.”
“That works.” The girl looks up, not smiling but visibly happier. “They’re silvery, like money.”
Grace slips out of her booth and crunches into the orchard. The girl lags behind her, flared cuffs dragging in the dirt.
“How will you get home?” Grace asks, wondering how people drift from one place to another without deciding.
The girl seems unconcerned with her abandonment.
“Hitch,” she says, then spits her gum into the dirt.
“Isn’t that dangerous?”
“It’s not so bad,” the girl says as she moves into the orchard’s creeping darkness. “People surprise you.”
They separate and search along the unmown rows. Tree limbs knit together shadows and gaps that flip past rapidly like the frames of an old movie. Through the trees, Grace can hear the girl shouting and absently singing out words to the song in her head. “Cry!” she wails. “Try a little harder!” Pause. “For me!”
Grace walks over to the edge of Wolf Hill, encrusted with a mosaic of old leaves. She pictures a pack of silver-eyed wolves hidden in the black stomach of the hill, waiting to emerge like a swarm among her apple trees. These wolves are the least of her troubles. She only wants to drift through the rest of her life, riding out the waves of the past, without choosing between herself and Harold, between her life and her memories. But the world is forcing her to decide. The night is falling thick and fast; the air is sparkling with cold. The house will be howling with drafts when she returns. Closing her eyes, she imagines lying with Harry again, together in the slim box under the white stone cross she chose from the monument shop.
Leaves rustle above her. The girl is no longer within earshot. A fear blooms in her stomach. On the black hill above her, a howl rises, at first low and cold, then warming, lengthening and rising until it is high and roaring, spreading out over the night like a bird with open wings. Then, silence. Again Grace hears the crush of leaves and brush giving way on the hill above her. Across the orchard, she hears Ruth call.
“Out here.” In the fresh darkness, the orchard floor is a minefield of rotten apples and hunchbacked roots. Grace stumbles to the light-soaked driveway where Ruth stands next to her truck.
“What are you doing out there?”
“A girl lost her dogs.” Grace walks slowly, breathes heavily.
“Who?” Ruth’s eyes search the woods.
“Lost her boyfriend. Lost her dogs.” The howl’s cold grip wraps around her like a snake, squeezing the breath from her.
“Where’d she go?” Ruth’s puffy down vest making her look barrel-chested and muscular.
“I don’t know.” The girl has disappeared as quickly as she arrived. The night has settled back into silence.
“You didn’t leave the cash box unlocked?” Ruth asks, her arms crossed tightly, elbows pointing downward as if in disapproval.
Grace rushes toward the booth and reaches under the counter. The box is there. She holds it so close that its sharp corners poke through her sweater into her flesh. Then she notices that the lock has been popped out. In its place, a single hole. She flips it open: empty.
“Gone,” says Grace, fingering the key around her neck. There are no dogs, of course. Perhaps no show or boyfriend either. There are only wolves and her willingness to believe. Grace stares at the inside of the box, where she can still see the neat piles of money, each in their proper slot—except that they are gone and the only thing that remains is a wooden nickel one of the children gave her as a joke.
“Come on,” says Ruth, putting an arm around her. Grace’s shoulders buck beneath her arm. “Let’s get dinner.”
Ruth’s house is huge. Lacy woodwork trims the roof; stained glass windows flank the front door; a pointed turret rises above the trees.
“The ancestral manse,” says Ruth, by way of explanation.
She leads Grace into the kitchen, an unreal expanse of white countertops, chrome appliances and copper pots. On the stove, a stockpot bubbles over, nudging off its lid. Ruth quickly shuts off the gas, grabs a sponge and a potholder. “Want root beer?”
Grace nods and slides into one of the high-backed benches. “You live here alone?”
“I used to have a cat but she ran away.”
“My parents would hardly recognize the place.”
Ruth lays bowls of chili and glasses of root beer on the table. She chews slowly and stares out the window into the thick darkness.
“I was married once, if you can believe it,” Ruth continues. “But the only time I really felt married was at his funeral. Everyone treated me like I’d lost something. But it was something I never really had.”
Ruth twists the gold band from her middle finger until it slides off into her palm. She holds it out for Grace to see. Inside is the inscription, “Douglas to Ruth, 1942.”
“It’s his,” Ruth says, and it takes a moment to register with Grace. His ring. “I threw mine in with him. He looked so stiff and lonely laid out in his uniform. Then it turns out the undertaker had slipped his ring off for me. He thought I’d want to have it.” Ruth turns the ring back toward herself, as if she’ll find something new in the curling letters. “I’m still his more than anyone else’s.”
Grace looks at the antique band that was her mother’s. Perhaps Ruth has the right idea. They should reverse the ceremony at the end, give the rings back and undo the whole business.
“I wanted to run as far away as possible,” Ruth continues. “But there weren’t any men around and my father needed help.” She scoops up the last of her chili from the bottom of the bowl and stands. “Come on. It’s not too cold to sit out.”
On the porch they settle on the swing, pushing off with their feet, sending it skyward. As her eyes readjust to the night, Grace can see more of the world around them. Mountains emerge where once there was only darkness. They sit and listen to the wind. If she tries, Grace can let herself drift and almost forget about the two hundred twenty six dollars. A hired hand. A plane ticket to Alaska.
Grace feels a tug on Harry’s jacket.
“Just let him go,” Ruth says.
As if Harold were a balloon she’d tied to her finger.
That night Grace locks the door and climbs the moaning staircase. The windows rattle; the curtains billow; the house whistles like an ancient instrument. She pulls on a nightgown and crawls under the covers. Closing her eyes, she rolls over and places her hand on his pillow. Cold. He was as familiar and essential to her bed as this pillow—the warmth of his body, the steady rise and fall of his chest, the hiss of his breath, the stroke of his hand on her forehead after he’d made love to her. She conjures him out of the darkness. Then she allows herself to remember the one conversation she has been trying to forget. She can hear her own voice clearly. She cannot believe her own stupidity. Yet here is the proof, surfacing in her memory like a bottle washed ashore on the tide.
“I hate your damn sister’s jelly. If you want it so bad, you open it.”
Her last words to Harold. Of course she hadn’t really been yelling about the jelly. He’d come clean about the life insurance, cashed in to pay for renovations on the barn. She slammed the jar on the counter and stormed out, letting him sit there for a good half hour to think about what he’d done without even asking her.
When she stormed back in, purple jelly oozed blood-like across the linoleum and he lay knocked across the floor like a fallen tree.
In the close, cottony darkness, Grace listens for the words she cannot remember.
“You and your damn temper,” he whispers in her ear.
The kitchen. The windows propped up, the damp air smelling of fresh grass and mud puddles, the percolator bubbling with coffee, the newspaper thrown open on the kitchen table. Grace opens the screen door and steps inside. He is standing at the counter, silver streaks of hair falling into his dazzling blue eyes, slathering a slice of toast with jam. “You and your damn temper,” he says, holding out the jar. It is open.
When Grace awakens, the sun is already burning through the clouds. Instead of driving into town for breakfast, she lies in bed with the covers pulled up to her chin and surveys the view. A house so drafty the closets heave like lungs. An orchard as gnarled as her arthritic fists. A bank account as empty as her bed.
She thinks of her father. When Grace brought Harry home to meet him, he’d pulled her aside and said, Love him like there’s no tomorrow. A fierce red blush consumed his face shortly after, but he got the words out. There’d been plenty of tomorrows; too many, some days. Slowly Grace forgot the reasons behind her life. Her dreams became entangled with Harry’s until she could no longer tell whose were whose.
Later, on the counter of the booth, she lines up the different apples she’s gathered from the orchard floor and compares the pictures in Harry’s book to the real thing, trying to figure out what she has on her hands. Most of the names in the book sound like prom themes: White Angel, Sweet Sixteen, Royal Gala, Keepsake, Rome Beauty. But her apples are wallflowers: Mactinosh, Cortland, Braeburn, and Empire. She takes a bite of each, rolling the flesh around her mouth to get the flavor. When a beige sedan rolls up the drive, she clears away her experiment, shelves Harry’s book out of sight. The doors swing open and three little boys wearing Irish knit sweaters tumble out, itchy to run and dig in the dirt. The mother and father sit for a minute fogging up the windows, then rise and slam doors.
“Hold hands!” the mother cries.
“Who wants apples?” the father asks, but the boys have found worms in the grass and are crouched over them, poking with their fingers. The mother and father walk over to them. She has her arms crossed and her sunglasses on. He bends over with the boys, shouting so his wife can hear his enthusiasm.
“How much for a bag?” The father has made his way over to Grace, wad of cash in hand. As he speaks, he looks over his shoulder at his wife, who is watching their sons run through the field.
“$12 to pick your own,” says Grace. “They’re big bags, ” she adds.
“We’ll take one.” The man peels off a twenty and slaps it on the counter.
As Grace is making change, the woman makes her way over to her husband. Pushing her sunglasses back onto her head, she asks “Is it true they’ve seen wolves out here this year?”
“No,” says Grace.
The woman nods and smiles but Grace sees a little spark fall out of her eyes. An anticipated thrill lost, a small danger averted, a disappointment sets in.
“Not yet.” Grace adds as she hands the man his change.
As she watches the woman and the man shepherd the boys away from the worms and toward the apple trees, Grace hears a short, roaring howl, shot off like a rocket. Then a shock of boyish shrieks. But no one comes running.
This story appeared in Indiana Review 36.1, Summer 2014.
Anthony Correale (Fiction Editor): The most obvious feature of “Wolves” is the pleasing specificity of the language–the kind that causes the reader to audibly sigh as the words snap into place and the world around them comes into sharper definition. Such precision etches a snapshot so clear that it animates the unknown beyond its frame where–who knows?–there might just be wolves.
Caitlin O’Neil’s short fiction has appeared in the Kenyon Review, Indiana Review, Ninth Letter, Calyx, Calliope, Beloit Fiction Journal, and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She won the Ninth Letter Prize in Fiction, the Women Who Write International Short Prose Contest, and received a Massachusetts Cultural Council individual artist grant. She was a participant in the Squaw Valley Community of Writers annual conference and a resident at the Vermont Studio Center. A graduate of the MFA program at Columbia University, she is currently a full time lecturer in English at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.