The Diligent Woodcutter
She came again last night, the old woman, to pick apples from our tree.
Through my den window, I saw a familiar figure in a crocheted shawl shambling across the backyard. Unable to concentrate on the botany book my wife had been urging me to read, I opened the sliding glass door and stepped outside into the crisp autumn air. From the shadows I watched her pluck a cluster of small, red apples from the lowest bough and hold them close to her cloudy blue eyes. After a careful inspection, she discarded any misshapen, wormy apples and then with surprising agility filled the brown paper bag at her feet. She's been coming here for weeks even before the apples were ripe, but I've never felt compelled to shake my wife awake and ask her to witness the peculiar scene. These days my wife, because of her snoring and weird, nocturnal outbursts, sleeps in the guest bedroom.
A chronic insomniac, I usually pace the halls and recite from memory an obscure folk tale that I intend to use in my magnum opus on cryptozoology. Sleep will come soon enough, I always think, but so far nothing seems to do the trick. I've considered making an appointment with my analyst to ask him for more pills, but I no longer trust the diagnoses of overworked clinicians or the habit-forming pharmaceuticals they prescribe. In this regard, I believe, the old woman and I share a healthy skepticism for the unearned wisdom of the modern age.
Sometimes I'll fix myself a scotch and soda, but more often than not I find myself staring into the moonlit yard, tallying up the day's petty grievances, obsessing about my professional rivals, thinking of the past. It's a spacious and well-maintained yard, nearly half an acre in size, with unobstructed views of the wooded valley. Over the years my wife, a meticulous groundskeeper, has cleared the yard of trees—cherry, plum, persimmon, paw paw—all of them dropping fruit and making quite a mess. The apple tree, a variety known as the Northern Spy, is the last one standing. The previous owner must have planted them all. When we moved into this house twenty years ago, our little boy was delighted by the trees and built a kingdom in the sturdiest limbs, a series of interconnected platforms where he could hide whenever my wife and I were having one of our disagreements.
I don't mean to suggest that my marriage has been an acrimonious one. There have been plenty of good times. On brisk autumn afternoons, my son and I would pick apples, and then my wife, a wizard around the kitchen, would use them to bake pies and to brew big batches of hard cider. Our neighbors, I now realize, probably grew weary of us showing up unannounced at their doors with trays of apple fritters and strudels and mason jars of high-octane apple juice. These days, lacking the youthful enthusiasm for apple picking, my wife and I are happy to let the deer and rabbits nibble the fruit fermenting in the tall grass. It makes them a little tipsy, I think. After they've had their fill, the animals teeter around the yard before making their reluctant way back to the valley.
The old woman has made fast friends with these woodland creatures. In fact, far from being afraid of her, they seem to anticipate the old woman's arrival and at her approach they race in circles around the tree. The raccoons and possums and ever attentive fawns brush against her legs, and from her own hand she feeds them apple slices. One night a mangy coyote appeared in the yard. It flashed its teeth and snarled at her, but she jabbed a finger at the ground and in a strange guttural tongue spoke to it as if to a bad dog. The coyote whined and yapped in response and then sat obediently at her feet while she scratched behind its big, pointed ears.
This incident I remember quite well because, earlier that same evening, my wife and I attended a party at the end of the street, but only an hour after our arrival we were unceremoniously shown to the door. My wife, it came as no surprise, had indulged in one too many mugs of hot cider. Our hostess accused her of flirting with the host—something about a stolen kiss on the patio—and demanded that we leave. Naturally, my indignant wife feigned innocence, but the two women soon engaged in a rapid-fire exchange of personal attacks. The evening ended in disaster when my wife shoved our hostess against the kitchen counter, causing a cherished crystal decanter to shatter on the floor. Well, you've never heard such theatrical gasps from guests in all your life.
I choose not to dwell for long on these embarrassing episodes. Over the course of our marriage, my wife and I, like every couple, have had our fair share of tearful ultimatums and groveling reconciliations, and on sleepless nights I often wonder if the old woman has experienced similar troubles. It seems unlikely. There is something about her manner that suggests asceticism. Maybe it's the austere way she holds her head or the deliberate manner in which she raises her arms to reach the apples. Where she goes after completing her work I cannot say, but I believe she has lived alone her entire life. What she does with the apples is also something of a mystery. As far as I can tell, she has no teeth.
Last night, after weeks of observation, I decided the time had come to speak to her. You are welcome to our apples, I wished to say, as many as your bag will hold, only tell me why you visit our yard. Do you pick from every tree in the neighborhood? I had other questions, too, but the old woman, as if sensing my presence, cackled quietly to herself and darted her tongue over her wrinkled lips and toothless gray gums. She lifted her brown bag from the ground and hobbled away. She stopped beside the woodpile and made a cryptic gesture, as if beckoning me to follow her. Then she shuffled past the potting shed and crept into the woods.
It was a cold October night, the first frost of the season, and the air was smoky with distant woodfires. Wearing only my robe and flannel pajamas, I traipsed across the yard and scanned the trees for the woman's hunched silhouette. Although I could no longer see her, I heard the crackle of dry leaves and the sharp snap of twigs and fallen branches. Without a phone or flashlight or blunt instrument to ward away hungry predators, I stumbled under a lush canopy of oaks and sycamores and walked along a winding trail. Somehow, I knew it was useless to ask her to slow down, and I made a valiant effort to keep up with her.
We traversed a series of dizzying switchbacks until we reached the valley floor. In her black leather boots, she splashed across a rocky stream and tramped through a small circular clearing of withered goldenrod. From time to time, I heard the shriek of nocturnal birds and the lunatic chatter of foxes. After an exhausting hike, we came to a river. I remembered how, when I was a young man and didn't take my troubles so seriously, I used to bring my boy here to fish for rainbow trout. In the springtime, when the water was running high and clear, we waded waist deep into the frigid water. Fascinated by the lures, my son took a long time to rig his line. An anxious and lonely child with few friends, he found some peace of mind on the river. During his teenage years, he grew increasingly distant and rarely joined me on these expeditions. His grades began to suffer, and the summer before his senior year he was arrested for shoplifting a six pack of beer. A college dropout, he now lives on a cattle ranch somewhere in the high deserts of Utah. It's an honest life, so he tells me, and a pure one, though I'm not sure what he means by this. He rarely calls to say hello, and since moving away five years ago he has never come home to visit, not even for the holidays.
In the moonlight I felt suddenly like an intruder in an alien landscape. The river looked unfamiliar, and I realized my son's boyish face had faded from memory. I looked up and saw a stooped figure limping across a natural bridge. I followed close behind, and we scaled a treacherous path up the steep ravine. Soon we reached the northern rim of the valley. Panting, sweating, completely disoriented, I rested my hands on my knees and tried to catch my breath. We had emerged from the forest and were now standing in a working-class neighborhood of terraced rowhouses. Under a flickering streetlight, the old woman paused to glance back at me. She then mounted the crumbling limestone steps of one of the houses, opened the front door, and vanished inside.
With growing unease, I brushed away the dead leaves clinging to my robe and inched along the slate sidewalk. There was something vaguely familiar about this place, its dirty lead windows, its empty flower boxes, its faded green paint curling from the wood siding. Then I recalled how, when we were dating in graduate school, my wife and I rented the top floor of a house very much like this one and how our elderly landlady, who also wore a crotched shawl no matter the weather, said she only rented to married couples. The rent was cheap and the location ideal so we lied.
In those days my wife, an aspiring horticulturalist with a fascination for psychoactive plants, had ambitions of becoming an ethnopharmacologist, but her professors found her unorthodox experiments ethically dubious and methodologically unsound. Pressured to abandon her thesis on trailer park communities in the state's national forest, she dropped out of the program and consoled herself with private investigations into the human soul. Then one dreary spring morning, as I sat shivering in our rented garret, scribbling away at my own dissertation on an exceedingly rare species of freshwater serpent, I felt a heavy hand on my left shoulder. My wife, her eyes still puffy with sleep, leaned against the desk and in a quivering voice told me that she'd had a dream, a kind of vision. She'd never been an especially religious person, but now in cadences inspired by King James, she spoke of Adam and Eve and how, after their expulsion from the Garden, they had but one saving grace. In their guts they carried the seeds of the forbidden fruit they'd eaten. And as they wandered through the inhospitable wilderness, they came to rest in a lonesome place and passed these seeds. And the seeds did take root. And soon an entire orchard grew and blossomed. And the fruit thereof did nourish them. And the man and the woman took care to cultivate these saplings of Good and Evil. And we are the inheritors of their labor.
My wife gazed out the tiny window and then, before returning to bed, announced that we were going to have a baby.
Over the years my wife and I have had our fair share of moral failings, true, but we are not bad people, not evil. At least, I don't think we are. Neither of us wanted a baby, that's all, and as I climbed the porch steps, my fingers grazing the splintered wood banister, I recalled how after that spring morning our path seemed to bifurcate into a choice between painful reality and interminable self-deception. In the end, we chose the path of least resistance. After all, what would the kind landlady say if we abruptly packed our things and went our separate ways? I now found myself knocking on the door, hoping to ask the old woman for her advice, her wisdom, her guidance. "How do I find my way back home?"
Patiently I waited on the stoop, but when she did not answer, I grew restless and turned the knob. The door creaked slowly open on its rusted hinges, and I stepped inside. There were mice droppings along the baseboards, and the walls and ceiling suffered badly from water damage. In the middle of the entranceway, the old woman had deliberately placed the brown bag of apples. Was it a gift? Or a trap? I took an uncertain step forward, but the hardwood floors, badly warped and crawling with roaches, groaned under my weight. Over the years, my wife has fattened me up with sumptuous pies and strudels, and I didn't want to risk taking another step. Still, I felt a powerful urge to look inside that brown bag. Somehow, I knew the apples had shriveled and now resembled dozens of familiar faces, all of those men my wife had known over the course of our marriage, the neighbors, friends, colleagues, even that handsome fellow with the tattooed biceps who tended bar at our favorite bistro on the boulevard. Terrified and intrigued, I tiptoed down the hall, but with each step the house creaked and groaned. Even the concrete slab that served as a porch seemed to buckle behind me. Before I became a permanent addition to that old ruin, I decided to make my escape and raced out the door.
I did not attempt to retrace my steps through the valley but walked instead through the narrow brick lanes of the neighborhood until I returned to the safety of my gated community of stately brick Tudors and colonials. By then the clouds were turning pink with morning light, and in some of the houses my neighbors were already preparing for the long workday ahead. When I finally reached my house, I heard a terrible sound. In the backyard I found my wife, an early riser, standing with ax in hand and the sleeves of her flannel shirt rolled up past her elbows. She adjusted her grip on the handle, planted her feet, and raised the ax head high above her head. She swung the sharp edge deep into the trunk, and apples rained down from the highest branches, a feast for the deer and coyotes.
I marched determinedly across the yard, crushing apples underfoot, and stood glaring at her in a circle of solid red. Evidently, she'd decided it was high time to replenish our dwindling woodpile before the first snowfall. Ignoring my cries of protest, she lifted the ax and with a groan of pleasure took another solid swing. She wiped a bead of sweat from her eyes and told me to stop my blubbering; it made me look weak and impotent. She couldn't understand why I became so emotional about these kinds of things. "Go inside," she commanded with a smirk. "Breakfast is waiting on the kitchen table."
For a moment I considered storming back into the woods, but I kept my eyes focused on the ground and walked toward the house. As I sat at the table, chewing without pleasure a tough strip of apple-cured bacon, I listened to the sharp crack of wood and thought of our son. Perhaps this was the reason he'd left and never returned. Maybe he couldn't find it in his heart to forgive his mother for chopping down all of his beloved trees. She'd insisted it was for his own good—he might lose his footing, plummet to the ground, crack his skull, break his back.
In the end, the tree fell with a terrible thud that silences the birds. My wife plants the ax in the stump and adjusts her leather gloves. She'll be busy all day, splitting and stacking the wood, and there doesn't seem much point in telling her about my adventure last night. Anyway, she probably wouldn't remember the rowhouse or the landlady. A shame. But the old woman must know something of life's catastrophes and the ease with which we pursue self-destructive behaviors, and if she returns tonight looking for apples, I hope she will not judge my wife too harshly for the wicked thing she has done.
Kevin P. Keating's first novel The Natural Order of Things (Vintage 2013) was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes/First Fiction award and received starred review from Publishers Weekly and Booklist. His second novel The Captive Condition (Pantheon 2015) was launched at the San Diego Comic Con International and received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Library Journal.