Apples and Oranges
© 1997 Veronica McLaughlin
Standing on the crest of a hill at the end of the day, with her black muslin skirt catching the wind, ripping at her calves, the woman raises a hand to her eyes and squints into the setting sun. A few last rays strike the clouds as they rush in off the ocean forming irregular lines of gold, a dazzling flow of amorphous grey encased in light, brushed by the furies propelling them forward. She searches the sky for one in particular, the one, the shadow she will recognise; hair, head, neck, shoulders and sees him gazing down on her as his brothers race on, gathering momentum for a storm. There he sits, a solitary form in a patch of blue, unchanging, unmoved.
“I see you,” she whispers softly as if the cloud were inches away, as if she could reach up and take him into her arms. A gust of wind catches her hair, blows it into her eyes, so she blinks. Only for a moment. Long enough for the cloud to be rent, no longer recognisable. “I saw you,” she says, grinning as she dances down the path to the house, tiny and tidy and safe. She steps inside and locks the door behind her.
It is cold, so she builds a fire, piling log upon log, until it roars, throwing heat and light into the room. Behind the lock the wind begins to howl, banging a tree branch against the window pane. Storm clouds race across the darkening sky, bunching into fists, spitting lightning, spilling water that pummels the windows, leaving streaks that glisten in the firelight. There are faces in those streaks, those droplets slamming against the panes; faces here and gone, like the persons they belonged to, now only memories. Quivering, she closes her eyes so they disappear into red eyelid darkness. The little house shudders. Shivers rattle the glass, tremble through her feet, but she is safe. She loosens her shawl and sits before the fire.
Thump! Thump! A pounding on the wall beside her. Thump! Thump! “Let me in,” it calls. Words inside her head or words from the other side of the glass? It is nothing more than the thump of a single green apple, clinging to a tall branch long past the time all other apples have been picked, or fallen to be eaten by slugs and snails. ‘Let me in! Let me in!’
She smiles to herself and picks up an orange, peels it and throws the skins into the fire so the room is filled with a sweet, burnt odour. ‘There is no one here but me and the wind and the rain and that tenacious apple,’ she thinks, placing a wedge of fruit into her mouth. The juice spreads across her tongue, runs down her throat, sour sweet and cool. Delicious.
‘Let me in. Let me in!’ Urgent. Ardent. Thump! Thump! Thump! She can bear it no longer and rises, whispering, ‘He is there. I must answer.’ The fire crackles and dims, but she has turned away from it and does not see.
She pushes the door open a crack, holding the doorknob with both hands and calls, “Hello?” The wind takes hold of the door, throws it wide, pelting icy rain headlong into her face, over her body, so she forgets the question and gasps, rushing her fingers to her eyes to wipe away the blinding water.
Shaking with cold and surprise, she rushes outside and grasps the wooden frame, but the wind slams it shut, leaving her outside, beaten by walls of water, her skirt wrapped about her legs so tightly she can barely step. Her hair clings to her face blocking breath. “Stop!” she cries out, “Stop!” No answer. Gripping the doorknob tightly, she twists and pulls until it opens a crack, and wedges her fingers between the jamb and door, though they are crushed, bones and skin squeezed to pain. She pulls, and the door jerks wide, thrusting her body against the small wood house, so her head crashes against the wallboards and she cries, “No!” then stands, silent, shielded for the moment, staring through glass panes assaulted by enormous drops of water, now unable to touch her.
Carefully unbinding the skirt, she reaches a leg around the door, feeling the rain’s sting on her bare skin; then an arm; then pressing her body against the long edge, half protected, half beaten, inching slowly, winning this small bit, then one more, until at last she stands with her back broad to the rage with her eyes fixed on the fire within. She leaps to safety, eyes closed as the door swings shut behind her.
“I am strong,’ she laughs bitterly, catching her breath, shedding her skirt and blouse, rushing to the fire to wring the wetness from her hair. Rivulets of rainwater race down her forearms, warming as they reach her elbows; then stream to the floor where they form small puddles that rise back in steamy mists about her feet. Eyes closed, arms raised, she turns, letting the warm air dry her body. She picks up her robe and throws it over her head, momentarily losing herself in the blue-cast darkness, emerging into the firelight, and ties a cloth belt about her waist.
“Must you make such grand entrances?” exasperation revealed in her eyes and in the thin line her mouth forms as she turns to face him.
“You love the fight,” he answers, chuckling from his place on a chair by the wall.
“It is you who love it. I would have let you in had you simply answered my call.”
He smiles, a grin both loving and cruel. “One can never be certain of that.”
“Why do you come here at all? I saw you. I would not have kept you out.” She moves toward him with small even steps, balancing carefully as if walking on a high wire, her blue gown grazing the floor.
“So you say. Yet you left me pounding over and over.”
“That was an apple pounding on the wall.” He smiles knowingly.
Suddenly shy, she studies him reclined in the chair, his feet shrouded in a mist rising from the small puddles of rain water her hair had created. Never the same; at times tall, at others diminutive, elf-like; his hair now dark, yet on occasion the flaming auburn of a volcanic sunset. Even his eyes seemed to change; blue, green, brown; almond shaped or round. There were times his face was tired, aged, lined with creases, at others smooth, almost childlike. When she touched his cheek, he might be flushed with fever, or cool as death. Now he sits in what she supposes is his true form, a most ordinary looking man, neither short nor tall, great nor small, neither handsome nor homely, a face she might easily forget, never notice at all if it were not his face.
“What brings you here tonight, when you have been absent for so long that I have learned to live the days and nights without you?”
“I missed you,” he says rising to hold her. She glides away, just out of reach.
“Should I be flattered to be missed?” she asks, maintaining an aloofness, a coolness that cloaks her true feeling.
“No. It is never flattery that brings me here.’
“Then what?” She wants to hear him say he is helpless in the face of his need for her and that if he could choose he would never see her at all. He never says those words, but she knows they are the truth, the unspoken bitter truth of unwanted love.
“We must go,” he says, offering his arm. He does not smile, but the memory of the smile that once played on his lips is enough for her to see it on his face and she takes hold of him.
“Will you stop the storm? I have fought it once tonight. I am already tired.”
“Of course.” He opens the door, and stands back so she can step through ahead of him. “Where to?”
Behind her eyes she sees the places they have been, the visions they shared; how once his eyes contained a blue lit eternity in which nothing else existed; how his fingers, his hands contained the whole world; how she’d lain on the grass with his head in her lap; how they had talked for hours, so many words, so few of which she could recall, words that had moved them, joined them, carried them over the clouds and into the night sky so they could hold the stars. Those destinations are not found on any map; nameless locations stumbled upon with eyes open in the night, behind doors whose keys presented themselves then disappeared.
“To the place we must travel to,” she whispers with a crack in her voice that pierces like a sliver of glass.
“As you wish.” He does not know what she knows.
It is quiet, the wet quiet after the storm, peppered by calling birds and fiery cicadas, ersatz raindrops dripping from branches and leaves as the evening breeze rustles through the trees. She holds onto him as they walk, his arm firm beneath her hand.
“I want you to be happy,” he says with a smile that is empty and weak and says he knows nothing of her feelings.
“I am. You should not have come.”
“Why not?” His eyes reveal nothing.
“I don’t know,” she answers, hiding her own, which reveal everything. “If we must walk, then let us walk.”
The woman and the man find themselves in a room without a door, neither ingress nor egress, nor window; a closed room, with a table and two chairs that face each other. They sit. There is nothing between them. They could reach across and touch hands without effort, yet the nothing is so vast, the time required to traverse it would outlast their lives. She picks up a small weathered box lying at her feet and places it between them. Removing the lid, she takes a feather into her hand and holds it out to him. He does not take it. The feather flutters to the floor. “Now it is done,” she says, closing the box again.
“Not yet,” he says as he pours two glasses of red wine, then holds one out to her. “We must make a toast.”
“Yes, a toast. To the fallen feather, to the bird that dropped it, to the wings it propelled through the heavens, to the nest it grew in.” She sips her wine, letting the warmth spread throughout her body, rising to her face, so her cheeks flush with excitement. “To the flight.”
He does not answer, only sips his wine, a knot forming on his forehead. “Let me have the feather,” he says at last. “I will keep it forever.”
She bends down and, slipping the feather back into the box says, “No, it is gone. It is time to go.” The box fits neatly under her arm. It is heavy, but she does not show how its weight pains her.
They return to their place of departure, where the fire burns quietly, now turning to embers.
“I will go now,” he whispers.
“Yes, you must,” her voice is soft but sure, though the box grows heavier with each word.
“I will return.”
“No, you will not.”
“Then you must go, too.” His eyes grow wide with uncertainty.
“No,” she says, her voice stronger. “I will never leave.”
“But are you happy? I wish for your happiness.”
“As much as you are.” She smiles at him so he will know she is happy.
Suddenly she notices his feet, realises she has never seen them before, that they have always been cloaked in mists so familiar and common, she never questioned them. His feet are small and stand on solid ground; hers remain hidden beneath the hem of the blue robe. She opens the door. “Good-bye,” she calls, closing it behind him. Setting the box on the floor, she lifts the lid, removes the feather, and runs it across her lips as her eyes watch through the glass, watch his feet walk away, left then right then left, until he disappears from view. The fire crackles, sending up a few final flames. She holds the feather over the dying coals, then pulls it away, returns it to the box, and places the box beneath her bed.
Before sleeping, she hears the rustle of the wind, the soft thump of the single apple against the wall, then dreams she is sleeping but the wind and the apple are silent. Waking to silence, she rushes outside and finds the apple has fallen. She picks it up, turns it over, and sees that snails have gotten it already. She places it gently on the ground and begins to dance to a distant waltz playing inside her head and to the rhythmic jangle of all the keys that clank in her pocket.
The orange tree is full of fruit.