A Woman Lives By Herself
This story first appeared in Broad! Magazine on November 3, 2015.
A woman lives by herself in a medium sized house in a small orchard, tucked away from her nowhere village, near a nowhere forest, equidistant from the two roads that lead perpendicularly out of the village, heading nowhere. The orchard was her parents’ orchard and her grandparents’ before that. She grew up with these trees and this house, and moved back in after her husband died working at the village mill. She and her sister cared for their parents as they died, then her sister went back into the village to her own husband’s house and left the woman alone with the house and the trees. The walk from the village to the house is one and a half hours on a lovely day, an hour if she takes the horse to trade apples for the things she can’t make herself – flour, sugar, salt, fat, twine, news.
The woman’s apples are good because her grandfather was a great arborist and orchardist. He planted the trees and grafted them and pruned them and fertilized them and sang to them in warm summer evenings. He chose his trees carefully, emphasizing variety and rarity. The result was a glorious testament to the fruit; proud branches heavy with rich, bright apples. His son, the woman’s father, was a good orchardist. He tended to the trees as he tended to the memory of his father and hummed to himself as he worked among them.
The woman is neither great nor good, but she hopes that the trees will bear well for as long as she needs them to, until, perhaps, another great or good orchardist comes along. She reluctantly prunes two or three trees each day in early spring until she can’t lift her arms above her head. The orchard holds one hundred trees, ancient gnarled things some over fifty years old, widely spaced, stretching their sturdy arms to their brothers around them, sure of the land and of their place on it. The woman used to play among the trees, as safe in their arms as in her father’s. The sweet smell of fallen fruit harmonizes with the buzz of bees, reminding the woman of her father, humming among the trees.
The woman grows a kitchen garden in front of her south-facing porch. She grows kale there, and chard and herbs and peas and corn and tomatoes and cucumbers and onions and marigolds to keep out the bugs. She learned to plant marigolds from watching her mother, when to add ash or egg shells to the soil. From her father, she learned to listen to the woods to hear the next day’s weather. Wind touches the tops of the firs before bending over the orchard. Deer live in the woods. Under the branches it’s warm and full of life and the deer rarely wander into the garden, preferring, if they stray from the forest, to graze on fallen apples.
She keeps her horse, two small goats for their milk, and three chickens for their eggs. Her sister visits once a week to take some apples and eggs and tomatoes home and to help with canning and pickling in the summer. Their hands touch as they work together in the kitchen, mimicking their mother’s movements, using her knife, her towels, now threadbare, her cutting board. They stand together at the table their father built for their mother. They tuck back strands of thick brown hair, their mother’s, with dark brown hands, their father’s. After her sister leaves, the woman sits on her porch and the air, filled with dust and memories, stirs around her in the summer heat.
The woman is not lazy, for she does the work she needs to keep herself and the animals alive, but she resents these obligations. In the colder winter mornings, she lies in her bed, warm among the quilts, until the goats’ cries drive her from the bed with guilt. She walks slowly through the house, across the broad planks planed smooth by her grandfather. Here and there a brighter plank reveals her father’s hand, repairing his own father’s handiwork cracked or creaky from years of use.
The woman had been pregnant early in her marriage but miscarried months before her husband’s death. The next years were occupied with caring for her parents, then the orchard and she slowly became part of the fabric of the land. She is thirty-four.
On midsummer day, when the proud sun takes his longest trip across the wild blue sky above the forest, the woman leaves her house and her orchard. She rides her horse into the village to tell her sister she will be gone for a little while but in the end does not tell her, and only gives her sister six eggs and a tomato vine sagging with fruit. Their hands touch over the produce and the woman yearns for something she cannot name. She rides back to the house and writes a note to her sister saying simply “I will be back, please take what you want.” She sets the goats loose in the orchard and the chickens into the garden, looks back at the apple trees a final time and takes the path towards the road, turning away from the village, toward the warm dark forest.
In the premature dark among the trees, canopied by branches as familiar as her sister’s outstretched hands, the woman stops her horse because she is weeping. After some time, weaker from crying but stronger, unable to name the wild spinning yearn inside her, she tuts to her horse and continues through the forest. The threads tying her to the orchard stretch and stretch until they snap, one by one, leaving her free.
The woman binds her chest when she works in the orchard or garden, not tightly, and wears a man’s linen shirt and pants. At first, when she was married and then before her parents died, she would wear dresses if she was going out in the village. But as time wore on and she seemed to slip from people’s gazes, she began to wear her comfortable clothing even into the village. And so she wears her shirt and pants, breasts bound loosely underneath, as she rides her horse into the forest and the world beyond. As she rides, she is easily taken (not mistaken, merely taken) for a man, with her loose clothing, short thick brown hair, and wide brimmed hat keeping the sun from her eyes. She does not hurry to correct this assumption. She speaks little and keeps away from the busier roads, preferring the winding paths among the farms and fields, the nowhere paths between nowhere farms like her own.
She takes time to reflect on her life, her parents, her husband (strong and warm and full of plans and thoughts about the future), her sister (always exasperated by the woman, grateful for her having taken the orchard), her horse, her goats (lonely in the orchard), her trees, her father’s trees, her grandfather’s trees. She thinks about her crumbling well awaiting repair, her kale and chard, her peas (wild and tangled), the woods behind her land (warm and secretive), her shirt, her arms (brown and strong), her bed and quilts, her house (dusty but sound), her barn (disused and drafty). She thinks about her mind, closed even to herself, and her heart, tender and lost and big and scared and proud and strong.
She sleeps in the woods and the fields, cooking before the sun sets and damping her fire tightly at night, and always feels safest when she’s alone. She has no goal and no obligations and soon begins to feel a looseness come over her, a thrill and warmth in her joints that she recognizes as happiness.
She meets strangers along her road. One wetter night she sees a lighted window in a farmhouse and knocks on the door to ask if she can use the barn. A young couple with a baby invite her to eat with them, fresh bread and milk and a meaty stew that make the woman quiet with concentration. She sees love and generosity and light and goes to sleep in the barn despite their invitation to stay by the warm fire. The hay loft is warm as well, heat rising from the pigs and goats and horses crowding in from the rain.
Another night the woman camps too close to the road and a man stops by her fire. He is small and quick and she takes her knife from her saddle when she rises to get another round of cheese to share. She can only stay completely silent for so long and when she speaks and he realizes she is not a man, he leaps from the fire to grab her. In the dying sunset, she pulls her knife and sticks him in the arm. He howls and curses but she runs to her horse and rides away, leaving the fire and her best tin cup behind.
One month from the day she left, when she reaches the edges of the capital, more fields, more people, houses clustered in the distance, the woman feels melancholy battle her excitement. She doesn’t want this time to end, but at the same time is eager to discover what the next month, day, hour, minute holds for her. She takes her horse onto the high road and pats the sack of apples she has been saving as cover or disguise. She is unsure. She had scavenged along the way for fruit and vegetables to accompany her daily bread and goat's cheese rather than risk being naked, without a plan, although she would have been hard-pressed to articulate what that plan was.
Now in the capital she crosses through the thick gates set into the wall around the city itself, nestled around the castle like a mother cat around its kitten. She rides slowly through the quiet afternoon streets, knowing to stay close to the wall but far from the gate to find an inn she can afford. The fourth inn she tries has a small barn and the hayloft is unoccupied. The woman negotiates a rate for herself and her horse for one week, trading her cheese for her room. That night she doesn’t sleep, listening to the sounds of human life around her, very different from the sounds of animal life in the fields and forest, but also very much the same. Sounds of love and hate, sounds of contentment, sounds of scolding and praising, sounds of dinner and music. The murmur of goats is replaced with the quiet babbling of a mother bathing her child. The creak of old apple branches with the lilt of the fiddler playing to the stragglers in the inn below.
The next morning the woman rises, binds her breasts in the hayloft alone, eats her small breakfast, tucks her apples under a broken basket covered by the hay, and descends into the streets. That first day she walks for hours, as invisible as she is among her trees or in her village. Eyes slide over her, while her eyes devour everything. There are houses upon houses upon houses. Filth and flowers. Narrow streets with washing hanging between opposite windows. Narrow lanes suddenly spilling into a market square. The castle itself was built on a hill, now concealed by the sprawling city. That first day she stays within the twisted quarter near her inn. The next day and the next, as she grows more comfortable with the spiraling sloping lanes, she explores further, watching the houses grow grander as the streets slope up, seeing the squalor stacked against the wall itself.
On the fourth day, she is crossing the broad lane that leads up from the gate to the castle walls when she hears a swell of noise and looks down to the wall to see a host of riders. Flags hang in the warm still air and horses step proudly, choosing their footsteps carefully on the cobbles. The woman stands in the small crowd of people who now must wait to cross the boulevard. The first riders pass, armor-clad noblemen with plumes in their helmets, women with silken dresses and brocade on their chests. Then a set of six handsome white horses, their riders all bearing the same standard, a blue teardrop on a white field, the standard of the queen regent, mourning for her king, lost these last ten years. The first four guardsmen pass and then the woman sees the queen, riding a dun brown mare and carrying no standard for herself. The queen is sitting sidesaddle, as she must in her dress, blue as the teardrop on her flag, silk and velvet and who knows what else, thinks the woman. The queen’s hair is brown as her horse and her lips not frowning and not smiling. Her eyes are set straight ahead but as her horse passes the woman, the queen looks over the people on the road and the woman can see strength and warmth and plans and ideas.
The woman realizes she hasn’t breathed and takes a breath of the dusty air, rich with human, animal, and vegetable smells. The queen’s guard passes, followed by more noblemen and women, although less noble, then wagons of goods, then servants and guards on foot, carrying sacks and armed with pikes and bows and arrows.
When the processional passes, the woman crosses the broad lane with the other people, on their way home from the market or the blacksmith or the castle. She climbs up into her hayloft and sleeps, dreaming dreams in blue and brown.
The woman does not see the queen again. She continues to walk around the city, celebrating her anonymity, but the weather has turned hot and dry. Her thoughts turn to her farm, her trees, her goats, her sister, her house, her heart. At the end of the week, she pays for another with the last of her goats’ cheese. She sits in the inn with the innkeeper’s wife, sharing a small glass of beer, listening to the talk around her.
Took ill she has.
The queen. Hasn’t left her room in three days since she got back, they say.
Trip too much for her? She’s not so strong these days.
Could be, could be. Castle’s inviting doctors from all over the city, big crowd up there today. Looking for anyone who can help.
Poor girl, last thing she needs.
The woman finishes her beer and goes up into her hayloft. She removes her shirt and her bindings and holds her breasts in her hands. They are warm and full of life. Then she rebinds herself and puts her shirt back on, pulling the bag of apples from under the basket and descending into the streets.
It is past midday, that sleepy time, as when she first arrived in the city, when people hide from the sun in their dark houses or shops, waiting for the cool of the afternoon to return to their business. The apples heavy on her back, the woman walks slowly through the streets, parallel with the wall, until she reaches the boulevard where she saw the queen’s procession. She turns up the hill to face the castle, and begins her slow walk up. The houses along this way are nicer than those deeper in the city, but as she walks upwards they became nicer still, broad stones with brass details, red roofs and colored glass windows. Then, no houses as all, only level terraced grounds between her and the castle gates, looming dark at the top of the hill. There are guards at the gate, but they aren’t the queen’s guards and the gates are open anyway at this time of day. Inside, the air cools out of the sun and the woman slows her pace further, waiting perhaps, relishing perhaps her last moments of utter anonymity.
The man at the inn was right, the castle has invited all of the city’s doctors to heal the queen. They stand, in their black robes and caps, in a crowd at the far end of the courtyard, blustering to one another with grand gestures and deep laughs. A man stands in a broad doorway, writing in a big book. The woman watches as doctors approach the man and speak for a few moments. The man nods, writes in his book, and beckons the next doctor forward. Willing her legs to move, the woman walks towards the doctors and the man. Still murmuring, the doctors don’t notice the figure among them, sack on its back, old shirt and old pants, until it climbs the steps towards the man with the book. She can feel the doctors’ eyes on her back.
I’m here for the queen.
Are you a doctor, sir? Ma’am?
I am not. I’m an orchardist. That is, I grow apples. I thought…
I thought the queen would like my apples.
The man looks at her closely. She tells him her name and he writes it in his book. He points to the left and she walks slowly back down the stairs to stand near the doctors, murmuring again, but in a different tone. The woman watches as the remaining doctors tell the man their names until he finally closes his book with a clap.
The queen thanks you lords... and lady... for your concern and begs you to wait at your leisure until your name is announced.
The woman dares not look at his face in case he is looking at her. He turns on his heel and enters the castle proper. The woman sits beside her sack of apples, leaning her back against the cool castle wall. She looks at her feet.
The doctors do not approach her.
Time passes. The man comes back and reads names from his book. Each name sends a rumble through the doctors. Each time, a man in black robes and a black hat ascends the stairs and passes through the broad doorway. Then another name is called. Another rumble. And so on.
The day lengthens into evening. And evening into night. Some doctors leave before their names are called, grumbling in a different tenor. The remaining doctors huddle together, perhaps seeking strength in their dwindling numbers. They spare the woman no words, glancing only before turning their faces away, having concluded their diagnosis or judgment. The woman stands and stretches her legs, then lies down on the paving stones with her back against the apples. Her stomach aches.
When she awakes into the early morning dew, the sky is already warming with the pink bits of sun far to the east over the courtyard wall. The woman looks around and sees a dozen doctors sleeping on the stairs and against the walls. The man with the book opens the door and peers into the courtyard. He looks poorly, his eyes red. He calls a name, but no one answers. Another. Another. These are the men who went home. Another. The doctors wake as he calls names and begin to answer for the missing.
He’s not here.
He left, too.
When will you call our names?
The man opens his book and looks through.
You are all dismissed. You should have gone to your homes. Your teachers and mentors and masters have already tried and failed. You will fare no differently.
The remaining doctors howl.
We waited all night! We must see the queen!
I’m sorry, you must go.
The doctors leave.
The woman stays behind. When the last doctor whisks his dark cloak through the courtyard gate, she lifts her bag of apples and walks up the steps to the broad door. She knocks. The man opens the door and stands silhouetted by cool darkness.
Why do you persist? The queen will not see any more healers.
You should have gone to your home.
I have no home to return to. I live very far from the city. Your doctors failed. Will you let the queen try my apples?
The man shrugs and gestures for her to wait. He closes the door. The woman waits. When the door finally opens, a small girl’s hand beckons her inside. The woman walks through doors into a cool dark hallway, smooth underfoot and unfathomably long and tall. She stands still to let her eyes adjust, but the girl tugs on her hand and leads her into the dark. The girl turns up a broad set of stairs that lead up one story into another hallway. At the end of the second hall, the girl knocks on a gilded door. She walks away, leaving the woman to stand with her sack of apples in front of a gilded door in a darkened hallway on the second story of a castle in a city far from her home.
The door opens and the man with the book steps into the hallway. He isn’t holding the book any longer and somehow he looks worse. His collar hangs limply and sweat shines on his pale face.
Please do come in. We are at wit’s end.
The woman enters a narrow hall behind the door and moves to let the man pass.
Down a short hall, through a door on the right and then across the room looms a bed with hanging. The man approaches the bed and pulls one curtain back slightly.
Your majesty. May I?
He beckons the woman closer and gestures for her to put her sack on the floor. She does, opening the mouth of the sack and pulling one apple out. It is small, tart and full of juice. It is her favorite. And her sister’s favorite. Her husband preferred another variety, large and crisp, with thick skin. And her father a third, bright green with little flecks of red and an almost syrupy taste.
She passes the small apple to the man’s outstretched hand. He holds it to the break in the curtains. A thin brown hand emerges and the man places the apple in the hand delicately, reverently. The hand withdraws. A sigh. And then an almost comical crunch of crisp skin and tart flesh. Another bite. Another bite. A murmur and the man’s head bows close to the curtain.
Yes, of course.
He waves the woman close and she takes a step, almost touching the drapery around the bed. The man slowly pulls the curtain aside and from within the woman can hear a voice.
Please let me see your face.
The woman looks at the man who nods, so she ducks carefully between the drapes to lean into the darkness. The queen lies still, deep over pillow and under quilt. Her brown hair is damp with sweat, stuck to her cheek and brow. The woman resists an urge to smooth it away. The queen’s eyes are closed and her lips are barely open, chapped and cracked. The woman waits. The queen’s eyes open and there. The woman drowns. And resurfaces. There is warmth and strength and plans and ideas and beauty and purpose. There is deep sadness.
The woman feels her own heart beating. Her heart is an apple being peeled by a sharp knife, a paring knife, separating skin from flesh. Warm hands, her husband’s hands, her father’s hands, her mother’s hands, the queen’s hands, are holding her apple-heart and peeling the tough skin, leaving only sweet white flesh.
The queen takes a shallow breath.
You brought this apple.
From your orchard.
Yes, your majesty.
It was delicious.
Thank you, your majesty.
Are there more?
Infinitely, your majesty. Yes.
Later, the woman is sitting in another room in the queen’s suite. She is listening as the man with the book tells her that the queen has been able to eat three more apples and some porridge. He is looking more tired than before, but not quite so gray. The woman has learned that he is the queen’s steward, has been since her marriage to the king and become her confidant and counselor after the king’s death. The queen fell ill quite suddenly when they returned from their latest trip abroad and nothing could rouse her appetite or her spirits. The man with the book is very talkative and the woman lets him talk, thinking only of the queen’s eyes, of blue and brown.
That night, the woman sleeps in a bed in the queen’s suite with covers as blue as the teardrop and wakens to the news that the queen has eaten nine apples, some chicken, and a few bits of bread. The servant who wakes the woman is beside herself with joy. The woman eats breakfast silently and waits in her room for the man to come back.
He doesn’t and finally the woman opens the door to find the staff bustling back and forth with hot and cold dishes. The woman feels their eyes slide past her and doesn’t know whether to be relieved or disappointed. She finds her clothes folded neatly on a chair in her room, changes out of the nightgown they gave her and into her binding, shirt, and pants, and slips away. Down the short hall, into the larger gallery. Down the stairs, through the grand hall, and out the front door. Across the doctor-less courtyard, now busy with smiling guards and cooks and stable boys and handmaidens, all full with the good news. Through the castle gates, open for the day’s business, down the broad lane and into the slippery side streets. As she walks, her heart is full and does not empty. It fills and fills and fills not as if her heart were a cup but as if her heart were a well, endlessly swelling with water from the surrounding earth. She makes her way to the inn, greets her horse, pulls the saddle from the low wall, and rides away just as the sun is reaching its highest point.
Back to her home. Back to her trees and her sister and her goats and her peas. Back to her bed and her quilts and to endless dreams of blue and brown.