by Tammy Huffman
His reach fell short. Just beyond his fingertips. He wanted the fruit in the highest branches. Only those apples would do for his seed — the ones that bobbled like rubies, the ones without blemish. Brice grabbed a limb and hand-over-hand bowed it toward him. Slowly, carefully. He was too greedy to let any drop to the ground and be wasted. The upside down cluster of apples opened before him. His for the taking.
He cupped the first apple, the best apple, in his palm. He held it before his eyes. Then he turned it in his fingers, checking for rotten spots and worm holes and blight. It was perfect. He placed that one in a jacket pocket. He made a pouch of his shirt front and stuffed it full. After he stripped the limb bare and was big with apples, he snaked down the tree. He poured the apples into a basket. It was his mother’s laundry basket with stave-wire sides and metal handles. It would hold a good bushel.
He slithered back up. The trunk forked and he wedged one foot on each large bough. He got a leafy handhold and straightened, spread-eagled and shirt-tail winged. The rising sun had pried open the horizon to a red-rimmed slit. Mr. Johnson’s pasture was on a rising plateau. With little chance that his invasion would be discovered, Brice took his time looking around. He could see his father’s farm just across the fence. The house and barns and cribs looked gray-smudged in the thick morning mist, like the charred hulls of a flotilla. The wind picked up and he swayed on his crow’s nest of branches. The distant farm seemed to roll and recede. For a moment he felt let loose, floating away and free. He fancied the galley slave had turned mutineer and brigand. He’d boarded, ransacked, and burned the ship of his captivity and now he watched it sink from afar. He was glad beyond measure to be rid of its sweaty, unbearable, suffocating hold.
Brice quit his fantasizing and dallying and repositioned himself and continued after the fruit. He worked quickly, diligently and without pause — until the wild dogs set in. They were very near and he shrank inside the tree, holding an apple against his chest, feeling it quiver against his own hard-beating heart.
The coyotes were hunting just down the bluff at the drainage ditch. One of the coyotes yipped and the whole pack yowled and all of the dogs on the neighboring farms started up. The coyotes were on a chase and their howls were a mix of ecstasy and mournfulness that thrilled the boy to the marrow even as it chilled his spine. The howls reached to riotous and became blended screams streaming in a whirlwind. Then the pack fell perfectly still. The beasts had made their kill. Brice was awed by a gluttony so consuming it devoured its own tongue, but he was also relieved, and he moved the apple from his heart to his stomach. He got down to empty the sagging bag.
On the ground, he stretched and yawned.
Mr. Johnson’s herd of purebred Angus were stirring in the pasture. The cattle swished tails, chewed cuds, grazed the green grass on the pond bank.
Brice spotted his father’s runaway sow drinking at the pond. The old hog seemed to feel the boy’s eyes on her. She quite her guzzling and raised her dragon head and stood frozen, listening, smelling. Brice could hear the water dripping from her jowls. She turned her head and stared at him for a moment. He thought he saw curiosity in the black, bottomless eyes that blinked at him, and he imagined he glimpsed something else in the high way she held her snout and snuffled and turned away from him, something like contempt. But he forgot about her as he went back again and rustled inside the tree’s veil and plundered the fruit.
Bow the limb, twirl the thick stem, pluck the fruit. Brice’s system for ravaging the apple tree became tiresome, mindless, and his thoughts drifted.
His folks had lusted for the apple tree.
That was yesterday, when the four of them, him, his mother and father and little brother, had been bucking hay in the hay field. In the sultry heat the field of yellow stubble had blistered and bruised Brice’s tired, sneakered feet.
His mother drove the tractor that pulled a flatbed trailer. In low gear, the tractor-trailer waddled like a wind-up bug between the endless rows of green stippled hay bales. His little brother Zeb sat on her lap and pretended to steer. He gripped the wheel and made his own engine noises, “Vroom, vroom, putt, putt, putt.”
Ahead of Brice, his father’s hay hook flashed. He snagged a seventy-pound square bale and tossed it onto the flatbed on top of the other bales already stacked and wobbling. He moved to the next bake, spiked it, wheeled and pitched it. He dispensed with the bales with the same ease Samson’s jawbone made short shrift of the Philistines.
Not strong enough to carry a bale, Brice drug it by its strings as close as he could get it to the path of the passing flatbed. The bale was bundled tightly by two strands of twine wrapped around the ends. The strings pinched through his gloves and left deep red welts on the inside knuckles of his fingers where he gripped. By the time he yanked and drug it over the rough field to the trailer, the strings loosened and the bale split apart like flayed hide.
“That’s my boy,” his father said, barely glancing at him, and with no hint of disappointment. He heaved the bale atop the other bales.
Your boy, thought Brice. How did that ever happen? His own hands clamped to rebellious fists doing the backbreaking farm work — hoeing, fence mending, ditch digging, brush cutting — chores he loathed and his father relished.
Like today. In the breath-taking heat under a pounding sun his father was bareheaded. His skin was tanned the dark brown of boot leather and he went barebacked. The muscles in his arms were like cable and his palms were so calloused he went barehanded and the heavy iron hay hook was light as a toy in his grip.
Brice, on the other hand, was wearing long johns meant to ventilate perspiration, under a long-sleeved shirt meant to save his pale, freckled skin from burning. Every exposed bit of him burned anyway, and sweat soaked his clothes till they chafed and the elastic band of his billed cap until it smelled sickeningly of older sweat and the spicy odor of aftershave. The flies and gnats and mosquitoes that his father didn’t seem to notice or mind absolutely ate him up. Every so many steps, his hands beat to slap his face and neck and arms, as though he were a self-punishing fanatic and could pound out of his own flesh notions that lit and bit and galled him.
At the end of the field his father bellowed for water and his mother braked the tractor to an abrupt stop that threatened the bales with capsize. She cut the engine and swung Zeb over the tractor tire to the ground. Rubbery-legged from the vibrating tractor seat, Zeb went weaving, lost his balance, and plopped on his behind.
“He’s drunk,” his father said.
His mother climbed down. She took off her straw hat — she called it her Minnie Pearl hat — and horse-lip whiffled to them. “Vhew.”
They collapsed in the grass of the road bank with only the tractor tire for shade. His father brought the water jug from under the tractor seat. He drank in a steady sluice that made his neck cords stand out.
His mother passed the jug to Brice. “Give your brother a drink, too, please and thank you.”
Brice drank his fill. Then he interrupted Zeb’s picking dandelions to help him tip the jug while he held the bottom for balance. Zeb swigged and swigged until his mother said, “That’s enough, Brice. You don’t want to make him sick.”
You don’t want to make him sick, a voice inside his head mocked. Please. And thank you.
Brice jerked the jug away and the icy water splashed down Zeb’s chin and neck and he clawed at his wet shirt front and scowled.
“That’ll cool you off, idjit,” Brice said.
His mother fanned herself with her broad-brimmed hat. Her face was flushed from the heat and her eyes watery from gas fumes and ragweed. Her hair was bunched on top and strands hung down in tentacles so that her hair looked like a squid sitting on her head. She wore a loose, oversized blouse handmade from a bolt of cotton print. She wore blue jeans and long socks and heavy men’s shoes. My clod hoppers, she called them.
“It’s so pretty,” his mother said. “Like an oasis in a desert.”
She was looking at the apple tree, just across the fence in Mr. Johnson’s pasture.
“Know what I see?” his father said. “Hot apple pie fresh from the oven with a dollop of vanilla ice cream and a cold, cold glass of milk.”
His mother brought a rust-seamed can of bug spray out of some deep pocket and ordered Brice to use it, saying he looked like he’d gotten the chicken pox, then told him to spray his brother, too, please and thank you. Brice grabbed Zeb by the wrist and gassed him. Zeb tried to hold onto the dandelions and said “Leave go!” but Brice shredded the heads and told him “She won’t want those weeds.”
“How does it stay so pretty and green when everything else is as dead as dead from the drought?” his mother said.
His father stretched out and put his head on her lap. “Runoff from the pond. Pond is spring fed. Mr. Johnson sank his well just below it. He never runs out of water.”
“He won’t pick the apples. He won’t make pies or applesauce.” Her voice had an unusual petulant note and Brice’s head cocked and swayed on his neck as he listened more closely. But “Too bad something so fine has to go to rot” was the only other thing she said. His mother folded her arms under her head and her eyes grew droopy staring at the tree. She breathed deeply as though she were breathing in a nectar of apple blossoms. “I could just bathe in it,” she whispered.
“It must be nice to afford to be so wasteful,” his father said. His father squinted at the neighbor’s farm. Brice looked where he looked, at the tall stone silos, the red barns, the split rail fences, the paved driveway lined with dogwood. The house, a two-story brick, was plain as an old school house, but stately and imposing. His father’s eyes fell on the apple tree as though it were the crown jewel of the larger estate.
“It’s really too rich,” his mother said, and her voice had gone one note beyond petulant to bitter and Brice heard it and his eyes flicked back to her and focused to pinpoints. “Almost makes me sick.”
His father stood up, and he blinked at the hot sun and brushed hay seed off the back of his neck and seemed tired all at once, and said, “Come on. Let’s get back after it. Watch for snakes.”
And so it was, trudging along the field, that Brice glanced again and again at the flaming apple tree. Because of the look that had been in their eyes, he could not keep his own eyes off of it.
Using his free hand to break their tumble, Brice poured the last apron of apples into the basket. He picked it up and started for home. He thought to hurry now that it was past daylight. But he had not gone far when he stopped and set the basket down and backtracked. He had scaled the walls of the mighty and spoiled his treasures and now with one final act he put down his confidence and strength. Leisurely, not at all urgently, Brice peed on the apple tree’s naked trunk.
He came up behind the house and left his hoard, save one, by the machine shed. He sauntered around the house into the front yard. He tossed the prized apple proudly from hand to hand.
His father was sitting on the porch rail with a cup of coffee. Zeb was squatted on the porch steps, poking at something with a stick. Brice could hear his mother in the kitchen, humming as she fixed breakfast. He could smell breakfast smells, coffee and sausage and biscuits and gravy.
“Those are fine looking apples I saw you with,” his father said. “Where did you get them?”
“Off the ground.”
“Off the ground. Mr. Johnson will not take kindly to having his apple tree looted. In the end, you have only saved him the trouble of picking them himself.”
“He wouldn’t have picked them,” Brice said. “He would have let them go to waste. You said it yourself.”
“Then it would be Mr. Johnson’s waste. Not ours. He might have given them to you, Brice, if you had asked. Why didn’t you just ask?”
Brice hid the apple behind his back. “I brought them for pies. Hot apple pies with ice cream. Homemade ice cream.”
“Throwing words back isn’t going to help, Brice.”
“They’re a gift for mom. To make her feel special. A nice surprise.”
“Trespassing. Vandalism. Stealing. Your mother will be surprised at you, all right. And troubled. As I am.”
Brice slipped the apple into his jacket pocket out of sight, lest it too should be stripped of him. He met his father’s eyes. His father’s eyes were cold and hard and unblinking and reminded Brice of a marble he owned and kept with his other trinkets in an old cigar box.
Zeb tugged at his father’s pant leg and the man broke his stare and looked down. Zeb had a worm in his outstretched hand. It was fat and swollen green and seeping brown juice with spiked hair and a tiny horn on its tail.
Brice saw his father’s eyes soften at his brothers gift. His own eyes smoldered behind half-lowered lids and his face grew pale as the worm of envy coiled around his heart squeezed tight.
His father thumbed the worm’s prickly spikes. “Thank you. They call that a tomato worm.”
“Why?” Zeb said.
“They call that a tomato worm if it gets in the tomatoes and a corn worm if it gets in the corn and a silk worm if it gets in the silk and down south they call that a tobacco worm if it gets in the tobacco.”
“Because a worm can get into anything.”
“Put the apples in the cool of the cellar for now to keep, Brice. And then you will give them back to Mr. Johnson to do with as he will. That’s how worms feed, Zeb. They gnaw from the inside out. Go show it to your mother. She’ll get a kick. Don’t let her use it to spice my eggs.
Coming around the machine shed, Brice heard the sow mashing and slathering over the fruit before he saw her. He yelled and chucked a rock and the sow lumbered off. Her rolling lard-layered backside was stained with something that looked like tar and her heavy teats nearly drug the ground.
She’d tipped the basket over. Brice saw the damage was not that bad. She had eaten only one apple and tromped a few others. Brice started to put the apples back in the basket, but stopped. Then, calmly, almost serene in his violent decision, he picked up an apple and slung it at the sow. And then another as he poured out his wrath and another so that the red balls flew out rapidly as from a repeating gun. The startled sow trotted off towards the woods.
When Brice reached and felt nothing and looked and saw the apples were gone, he was surprised and disappointed that the apples were spent and his fury was not. But when he saw the bright, shiny apples strewn over the pasture, he was mollified. They would soon rot in the sun and they would be meat for the birds and the rodents and, yes, the worms. Brice turned to leave. A smile tugged at his lips. There would be no taking anything back now.
“She had her babies last night down at the drainage ditch,” his father said to him when he came back around to the porch.
The sow was waddling down the path through the timber. And Brice realized that what had looked like tar on her backside was the issue of birth.
“Take some corn to feed her from now on of the mornings.”
“From now on?” Brice sat heavily on the porch step. His late night foray that had crested to zealousness now sank to sloth. He yawned and his stomach rumbled.
“She won’t forage of a night now. She’ll want to stay close to her young. I’ll bring her down a bale of straw in a while for her to line her bed. By the time you are done feeding her, breakfast will be ready.”
“She’s a stupid old rip for having them out in the woods instead of inside the barn,” Brice said. “She’s just asking for the coyotes to get her babies.”
“She will get the coyotes first. She will make short work of anything that threatens her young.”
“She’s nasty,” Brice said. “She eats garbage and cow flops and maggoty gross stuff. Why does she get the run of the place, anyhow?”
“Because she’s too smart for a pen to hold her. She’s a maverick.”
“She’s ugly,” said Brice.
“She’s a beauty,” his father said. “She had twelve little ones.”
“Twelve little ones,” Zeb marveled after him.
“She’s a monster,” Brice said to his little brother. “She could eat you whole.”
“She’s a gentle old sow and a good one,” his father said.
“She could swallow you alive,” Brice said to his brother. “Chomp, chomp, chomp.”
Zeb looked at his father’s face to see if that were true.
But his father was looking into the face of his oldest son. “Take her some corn. About a pound coffee can worth. Brice, I will not tell you again.”
Brice shot to his feet and stomped off. Zeb followed him to the wagon of corn parked by the grain bin. Brice slashed savagely at the corn with the scoop and hurled the grain at the mouth of the chore bucket. Zeb had a little sandpile bucket and he grabbed fistfuls of corn and threw it in. Brice jumped out of the wagon with his bucket and opened the gate. Zeb ran after him.
“Where is she?”
“Why, why, why. Why did you have to come along?”
Brice walked through the barn lot and down the path through the bluff of oak and maple and his brother followed. The narrow path was packed hard by cattle and deer and went down hill. Brice carried his near empty bucket easily, swinging it along. Behind him his brother’s pail was growing heavy. He switched its hooped bail from hand to hand.
“You’re spilling it,” Brice said. “You’re stringing corn all over the farm.”
“You carry it.”
“I’m not carrying it.”
“I’m not carrying you,” Brice said. “Who asked you to come?”
He’d reached the drainage ditch at the bottom of the hill. His brother followed at his heels as Brice forced through a cattail stand and slogged through waist high swamp grass.
“There she is,” Brice said, only to himself.
The sow had burrowed out a mud hole at the edge of the marsh. She was lying with only her snout and gristle-ridge of her back above the water. She watched the boys through eyes matted with gunk. Her eyes were tiny and black and deep as dates skewered into raw dough. She wallowed in the mire and snorted bubbles through her nose.
Brice poured out the corn on dry ground and it fell into a sliding heap.
The sow snorted eagerly as she struggled to get up. She pitched and rolled this way and that and got her legs under her and gave a heave to her feet with one ponderous movement that made suction noises and slapped the brown water in drudging waves. Another lumbering heave parting sludge and she was on the bank. She stood dripping filthy water and the mud caved off her sides like sloughing scales. She sniffed at the corn and then began to eat.
The sow was a brood sow. She was four hundred pounds of blubber on disproportionately tiny and fragile hooves. She was solid white with bristled hair rubbed bare in patches and quickly drying to coarse-grained dander. A stalk of Jimson weed was stuck between her huge back teeth, cockleburs knotted her tail like a bola, one ear was notched with a metal tag, and a ring glinted in her nose.
Brice glared at her with wholehearted disgust and it did not occur to the boy that she was a wise and clever brute; that she laughed at fences and the men that made them; that she counted poisonous weeds and venomous snakes as trimmings; that she had tromped the earth fierce and fearless and had survived fangs and claws since the ice age. He saw only that she was fat and filthy and ugly and all the world held her in legendary scorn.
“You smell,” Brice said to the sow. “Like you just fell off a gut wagon.”
The kernels powdered to meal between the sow’s sharp yellow teeth and her mouth frothed and drooled.
Brice stood with his hands in his pockets and watched the sow eat. When he looked, Zeb’s pail was there but he was gone. He saw him moving in the woods. When Brice came up, he found his brother squatted on his thighs. He was unmoving as he peered through a thicket of gooseberry bushes. Brice heard a faint mewling. He shoved his brother aside roughly and lifted the vines. The litter of slumbering piglets was pink and tan and almost merged to vanish — except for a kick and twitch and squirm — in the bed of leaves and twigs and rooted, red clay clods.
He counted eleven piglets. His father had said twelve. Brice began to search the ground, stooped over and intent as a bloodhound to find the lost pig. Separated from the others, it would chill, starve, be eaten. He had hardly begun looking when Zeb stumbled across the newborn. Frustrated, Brice kicked dirt at the both of them, and said, “Big deal.”
The pig was curled in the roots of a sawed off tree stump in a clearing of what had once been a logging trail. It was sound asleep. Zeb brushed the pig’s tight, milk-swollen belly and its ears wriggled and its wet, flat, black nose flared, but it did not wake up.
“He’s lost his mommy,” Zeb said. “Little runt. I’ll take you to your mommy.”
“Go ahead, idiot,” Brice said. He walked away and snatched up the chore bucket. “Pick her baby up. See what mommy does.”
Brice stopped in his tracks and turned when Zeb did immediately as he was told and picked the animal up. At first the pig, still mostly asleep, only wriggled in the little boy’s grubby hands. And then it awoke fully and grunted and squirmed. Zeb gripped it tight around the middle so as not to drop it. The pig thrashed and began to squeal in high, hair-raising shrieks.
Brice shifted his glance to the swamp. At the panicked trilling of her young, the sow’s head came up with the force of a sledgehammer. There was a brief pause for honing, then she wheeled and charged. Brice was amazed by the speed of the animal. She plowed a furrow through the soft marsh grass and crashed through the thick stand of cattail reeds.
Zeb did not have sense enough to let loose of the screeching pig. Instead he shook it, to get it to mind. The sow came barreling steady and fast through the underbrush of the timber. Brice watched the ground narrow between his brother and the enraged sow. He saw his brother’s eyes startle wide with terror when he saw the huge sow coming straight at him. The big eyes, as big and blue as any marble he owned, turned to him for help. Brice opened his mouth, but only a grunt escaped him as the wind was knocked from his lungs.
His father slammed him out of the way. The straw bale the man had been carrying burst apart and Brice saw through the dust that his father had skidded into the path of the sow that was now mere feet from Zeb. He smashed his heavy work shoe into the sow’s snout, jolting her around.
“Drop the pig!” he shouted at Zeb.
But Zeb was fuddled and peevish in his confusion, wanting to bawl. The pig paddled air with its front feet, squealing to beat thunder. The crazed sow lowered her head like a battering ram, but before she could lunge the man whipped round, slapped the pig out of Zeb’s hands, picked the boy up by the nape of his shirt collar like a cur, and leapt to the safety of the stump.
The sow circled the stump and took stiff legged jumps at the man and boy, snapping her teeth, slobbers flying. She stood suddenly still, her snout way up in the air. Rumbling grunts came loud and deep from her belly, like a challenge. Then, satisfied, she turned to her baby.
The little pig was sitting on its haunches, stunned. The sow sniffed and huffed and bumped it around and off the ground with her nose.
The man jumped off the stump and sat Zeb on the ground. “Are you hurt?”
Zeb shook his head.
He felt over the boy. “Are you sure?”
Then in a few quick steps he crossed the ground between him and Brice. Brice jumped to his feet. He saw the look on his father’s face and glanced frantic all about him, like a cornered animal. His father grabbed him by the shirt front and shook him. “What is the matter with you?” he said. He shook him again. “Why didn’t you help your brother? Why did you just stand there?”
Brice wrenched free of his grip and staggered back and his face was flushed bright red and scrunched. There were tears in his eyes, not of hurt or anguish or remorse, but of outrage. “Those were for seed!” he shouted. He smote his chest with his fist. “My seed!”
“What?” his father said. His eyes were narrowed and pained and searched hard.
He waited. Brice only stared, blinking back the hot tears and snorting the run from his nose, lips quivering.
His father looked away and focused on nothing for a moment and then he let Brice go with the slightest push and turned and went back to Zeb. Zeb had taken off after a grasshopper. The man picked him up and put him on his shoulders. He took the path for home and did not look back.
The sow was eating a dead frog or lizard that had dried to green leathery skin and white hollow bones. The little pig was under her feet, spinning in circles, making grunting sounds in his throat.
Brice sat on the stump and watched the little pig for a while. He reached in his jacket pocket and brought out the apple. It had not bruised when he hit the ground and he saw in the vanity of his own sight that it was still perfect. He thought to tear out chunks with his teeth, spit out the pulp, and save only the core, the seed. But it was all spoiled for him now.
“Here,” he said. “Take it.”
Brice tossed the apple and it rolled to the sow. The sow sniffed it once, blasted it with a disdainful mist from her nostrils, and turned in preference to the dead thing.
About the Author:
Tammy Huffman has a degree in English/Journalism and has worked as a reporter on a home-town newspaper for 25 years. She lives in the rolling hills of northwest Missouri. She currently resides on the same farm she grew up on.