Every day after school I ran through the acres of trees and every day the orchard was stripped of more fruit. The farm that was alive with activity became emptier and quieter until all the trees were barren and silent. I walked alone beneath the rows of naked, lonely branches. My warm breath formed fog as I exhaled, and I shivered from the first chill of autumn. I ran down the deserted rows of trees, afraid to look behind; chased by a cold, cutting fear running up my spine. A veiled phantom had control of the orchard, of my playground. I ran into the house, slammed the door behind me and shivered by the stove.
After a dinner of English pot roast and roasted vegetables with burnt gravy, everyone sat around the stove and toasted the end of another season. The entire sixty acres of apples had been nurtured, picked and delivered. “Why is it so cold in here?” My mother asked. “The stove is stoked up so high we should be roasting.”
Grandpa checked the outside thermometer. “It’s ten below zero (Fahrenheit).” He said shivering from cold and uneasiness. “It shouldn’t be this cold for two months.”
“I think we’d better keep the fire burning until we’re ready for bed.” Dad packed in more firewood. “Damn it’s cold out there.” He threw an armload of fresh-cut wood into the wood box.
“Heat up some water for the hot water bottles, Maritsa.” Grandpa’s teeth chattered as he spoke to Grandma. “Our bed will be cold.” Chairs scrapped across the floor as we formed a semicircle around the big stove in an effort to get warm before braving the frigid bedrooms and the icy sheets. Last night was so hot we sat out on the verandah and watched the sunset through the haze of tobacco smoke as the heat from cooking supper drove us outside. Tonight we huddled together in silence; the only sound was the crackling fire. Everyone was quiet, listening. Listening for what?
The first sound was a loud, piercing crack as if a high powered rifle was fired outside the kitchen door. The next was a rumble from a distance, an echo, but so close. “What was that, Dad?” I warily asked my father.
“That was the house groaning because it’s cold.” Uncle Harry laughed timidly.
I checked out Harry, shook my head and sighed, then referred back to Dad. “What was that noise?”
“The house is cold, and it’s shivering.”
“I don’t think so, Dad, houses don’t shiver. What was that noise, Grandpa?”
Grandpa looked at me, he looked at Grandma sitting with her head bowed, and then he stared straight at my father as he spoke. “That’s the trees freezing. They are so cold they are splitting. It’s too cold too early. The trees are full of sap, and the sap is freezing. It will kill the trees, and there’s nothing we can do.” Young Red Delicious trees which two weeks before were full of apples, groaned as if in pain. Their branches, still succulent with leaves and sap, expanded and exploded as the liquid in their limbs turned to ice. My family, huddled in the drafty old house, heard the screaming of trees breaking apart. The life in their branches and trunks froze and split them: ravished by giant axes of ice. Trees, that should be dormant with all the sap from their limbs and trunks safe in their roots waiting for spring, died in the breath of a freakish early frost. Thick trunks of healthy young apple trees were split wide exposing their insides like gaping wounds. Branches cracked open with echoes that resounded around the valley below the orchard. Echoes beat like drums all night heralding the demise of my family’s dream.
The next morning I ran through the devastated orchard ahead of my father and grandfather. The frost had come and gone. Sap, that froze the night before, melted in the sunshine and ran down the branches and trunks of trees like blood oozing from wounds of dead and dying soldiers: soldiers with limbs hanging lifeless. “Why are all the branches broken and lying on the ground, Dad?” I asked.
“The trees are dead, Son. They froze. Half our damned orchard has been killed.” Dad spoke with a strained whisper as if afraid to put those words to this tragedy, afraid to make it real.
“These are the Red Delicious trees that froze,” Grandpa added sadly, “the apples that bring the most money. The later varieties of apples that make our profit are dead. All we have left are the big Macintosh trees; they don’t make as much money.”
“What the hell can we do now?” My dad asked. “It takes years to grow a tree the size of these.”
“We pull them out in the spring and plant new ones.” Grandpa answered. “That’s the way of a farmer.”
“I don’t think so, Grandpa, they’ll just freeze again,” I spoke with the sense of a child. “We should plant something that doesn’t freeze.”
“We should find work that pays for what we do and fuck this farming.” My dad’s voice cracked with such emotion I thought he was teasing.
“What does fuck mean, Dad?”