Branches sag under the weight of Granny Smiths that gleam like giant emeralds. Abigail reaches for a fruit, sliding her sneakers up the trunk, twists an apple free, and bites in. But unripe, it’s too sour. She lets it slip from her fingers and plunge through the leaves. She should know better, but it’s hard not to eat them when she remembers how delicious they can be. That, and the apples are lush with power. The crisp green of Granny Smiths is perfect for life magic. The energy in red apples is too often misunderstood by the more impatient magics of death and love. That’s why fairy tales favor them. Abigail rubs the gnarled bark, and the green apples bob in encouragement. Though she knows it depends on who uses apples and what they’re used for, she’s never heard of them bringing back the dead. But if she can carve an apple doll, carve a face so true to life it’ll be a portrait in fruity flesh, will that bring back her grandmother?
She tries to ignore the guilt that knots around her heart. Gram was sick. It can’t be her fault she’s dead. It can’t.
A breeze, the first earthy breath of autumn decay, snakes out from the cedar forest and rattles the leaves around her. If she’s learned anything about magic, it’s that the apple tree will need something in exchange if it’s to concentrate its wonders in a form she can use. Maybe it wants a few drops of her blood? Abigail climbs down and, as if in answer, a twig scrapes her arm and takes the blood for itself. At least she doesn’t have to worry about pricking her finger.
She wanders through the orchard inspecting apple trees for rust or blight. Double-checking that no others call to her before she loses something else she can’t get back. None do. Out of the dozens of trees, there is only that one, that special one. It’s the one she has sat under most, reading or thinking or drawing. It’s the one she can see from her window as it rises above the others. It’s not really a surprise that it calls to her. Or that it’s a little larger than the rest. It is, after all, the tree around which her family is buried.
A few years ago, driving up the interstate to visit her grandmother for the long weekend, her dad swerved to avoid a deer and sent their car careening into an oak. Abigail doesn’t remember the accident, but she’s the only one who survived. She had nowhere else to go but Gram’s. They ate a lot of venison that first week. Her grandmother said it was payback, but at the time Abigail didn’t really think about what that might have meant. She just burrowed into Gram’s lap and cried and cried while Gram stroked her hair.
Abigail needed toys, Gram said, so she taught her how to make apple dolls. They carved and dried a father, two older brothers, a mother—a whole family of leathery, withered faces to replace the ones they’d lost.
But those dolls were just dolls. It hasn’t been long since Abigail played with them—it hasn’t been long since Gram’s last breath, either. The memory catches in her throat like a seed.
She returns to her tree as the sun sinks towards the jagged jaw of sky. Out from the cedars darts a raccoon, its eyes putrid, its coat almost bare. On its hind leg rises the knotted ridge of scars left by a trap’s metal teeth.
Abigail might not recall the car accident, but the funeral she remembers. It was spring. The apple trees were blooming and it looked like snow had caught in their leaves. Then a breeze came and shook the petals into all four graves. Gram had said she wanted her family close to home, not in a cemetery surrounded by strangers. Only eight, Abigail had been too little to dig the graves while her grandmother was too arthritic—and too broke to hire anyone. But when Abigail helped roll her mother into the ground, she saw how the dirt walls had been scraped by claws.
They belonged to one more secret, rescued thing. As for the raccoon stalking her? She’d watched Gram padding herbs inside the dead animal’s wounds before stitching them up, then saw her lay its body on the porch steps under the moon. Somehow Gram had known Abigail was spying and spoke without turning around. “One more thing to keep the house safe,” was all she’d said.
Anger rushes through her. When she’d realized what Gram could do, she’d asked her to give the apple dolls life, to give her family back to her, but Gram refused. She said they wouldn’t be the same. There wasn’t enough of them left.
At least now she can’t stop me, thinks Abigail. And she hopes, too, that she has spied enough, gleaned enough from her grandmother to know what she’s doing.
Somewhere in the orchard, the raccoon is watching her. She can feel it. She heads to the cottage and from the mantel fetches the cookie tin heavy with ashes. It was only a few days ago that she’d swept Gram’s charred remains out of the fire. It had taken hours for her to burn—and most of the wood stored for winter. But she can always chop more. Though tears ran down her cheeks and into the flames and, later, into the dust, she was not about to waste Gram on worms and beetles and other things waiting hungrily in the earth.
Abigail carries the ashes to the tree, and when she opens the tin, the perfume of smoke circles her as if the fire is right there. Fresh.
In her periphery, she catches her oldest brother’s face flashing across the shiny skin of an apple. But she has no use for warnings. She sprinkles soot and bits of blackened bone over the roots. Puts Gram into the fruit. Foolishly, she’d waited too long in bloodletting and the fluid had become tacky and congealed. With the ashes, her fingertips come away gray and itching, and she wipes them on her jeans.
There on the moss lies the apple with her bite stolen from its hard, green shell. She picks it up and nibbles it again. Yes, much too sour. The sky is ripe with sunset and, hanging above her clapboard cottage, the moon is a single white feather. By the time it is full and round as an old, dimpled face, the apples will have sweetened. Maybe they’ll restore a sweetness to Gram’s nature. And a forgiveness. Abigail misses having her hair stroked.
She tosses the apple into the orchard. Where it falls with a thud, the raccoon dashes out and snatches it in its bony paws before disappearing again into the forest.
When her apple dolls eventually spoiled, she’d found that dead raccoon looting their moldy heads from the compost. “Death attracts death,” said Gram when she told her. But death attracts hope, too.
A cloud passes over the moon. She’ll watch the sky and wait.
Down the road at the farmers’ market, Abigail sells jars of raw honey and bunches of dried herbs and doesn’t bother to remember the tourist faces that change every day. She’s been coming here since she was little. Every summer, every weekend. After the first week with her grandmother, things settled into a new normal. On top of homeschooling, she learned how to harvest and dry rosemary, how to make jam from blackberries, collect honey from bees, haul it all to the farmers’ market, and tie ribbons on everything, just so, for the tourists to buy.
She also learned how to keep from crying in front of them—even when they bought apple dolls, plain-faced and anonymous. The strangers cooed over how cute and quaint everything was here in the back of beyond. And Abigail learned to nod and smile.
Now, it’s hard to remember how. What will the new normal be? What will it be like having Gram back, a little apple doll stuffed in her backpack making sure she’s talking up her wares?
A tiny voice pops up inside her. What if—what if she comes back mad? Abigail pushes it down. No. She’ll come back and all will be forgiven.
Old Mrs. Crockett shuffles over from her fruit stall. “It’s so strange seeing you here without Dot. Where is the old girl?”
“Oh, Gram is off visiting family.” In a way, she is.
Mrs. Crockett frowns in surprise, but at least she lets her be, and Abigail trades some herbs for one of her lemons. She’ll need it to prepare the apple doll. She holds the fruit away from her like a small, hard star about to explode.
Every night, she goes home and sits by her apple tree. She presses her hands to its rough bark. She hugs tight its ugly branches. Wishing. Pleading. Trying to breathe normally as that guilty little knot around her heart grows tighter. Tighter.
She used to dream about her parents and brothers, Nick and George. They wore ancient apple peels instead of skin and smelled of pie when they played with her. Now she dreams and sees an old woman with an apple face humming lullabies as she sits on her rocker and knits. But the needle slips and pierces her thumb. Out flows juice, and the old woman begins to moan.
Abigail wakes shivering.
Something is scratching at the window. There are no trees or bushes near enough for that to be it. She hopes it’s only the raccoon.
The scratching won’t stop. She peers out. It’s too dark to see much, but nosing above the trees is a full moon of clotted cream.
Her stomach clenches. It’s time to harvest the apples. She knows this deep inside herself in a way that Gram always talked about as bone-knowing.
Abigail pulls on a sweatshirt, slips her feet into sneakers, and grabs a flashlight and a sack from the cupboard. Earlier that evening—or was it yesterday?—she thought to cut up another sack, sew it, and fill its belly and limbs with split peas. She jammed in a dowel for a spine and made a dress from Gram’s faded floral apron. The doll waits, headless, in the kitchen. She needs one last thing: the perfect apple. She steps out into the night in search of it.
She has been so excited, so impatient, but her fingers are trembling. What if none of them are good enough? She clutches the burlap tighter.
On nights like this, she knows she isn’t the only one drawn to the energy pulsing in the orchard. Batwings whisper past her and things rustle above in the branches. A half-dead squirrel? A robin with one, bony wing? Under the leaves, it’s too dark to spot them. Abigail has left lamps on in the cottage and they glow, watching as she feels her way among the apple trees. But she is not so afraid of the night or its secrets. She has grown up alongside them. Maybe, just maybe, she is one.
The branches bow like her grandmother’s back and the fruit is heavy and tart. She doesn’t need to taste it to know. The apples smell ripe against the cold, dank autumn air crackling in her lungs. Somewhere to the east, one of her neighbors has built a wood fire. It, too, is drawn to the magic, and smoke circles the tree in a gently swirling haze faintly lighter than the pitch of night.
From her pocket, Abigail takes her small flashlight and flicks it on. Its beam is as cold as moonlight, but denser, and as she shines it over the apples, they seem to retreat from its stare. She understands. She, too, prefers the shadows.
She clenches the flashlight in her teeth and shakes open her sack. There’s no need to climb; the apples hang low. As she reaches for them, fallen leaves make a roving skirt around her jeans and flutter hungrily for the energy she collects in the burlap. She nests the apples gently so they don’t bruise.
There are enough for dozens of dolls’ heads, but she will make only one. And the rest? The tourists wouldn’t want these—or she doesn’t want them to want these. Bits of Gram and Mom and Dad, elements of Nick and George. They belong to her. She will brew apple cider. Stew apple butter. Bake apple pies. Her grandmother will wake to an apple feast.
Abigail has always shared meals with her dolls. Crumbs of crusty rolls and cheese. Mugs of milk. Cobblers of wild blueberries or peaches. Her old apple dolls never touched these, of course, but it was good to pretend.
She stops, apple in hand. Will Gram be able to taste such things once she comes back? Will she enjoy them on her own apple tongue?
So Abigail fills the sack with fruit for herself and in falls another morsel of worry. In the cedar grove, a pair of barn owls talk, their faces like ghosts.
Back in the cottage, she locks the door with its iron key and pulls the gingham curtains shut. No one is around to see in, but it doesn’t hurt to be too careful when things get restless, jealous, even hungry if they sniff magic nearby.
She builds a log fire and sets a small pot of water and forest herbs to boil above it. If she is lucky, the odor of wild leek and wild rocket will cloak the scent of a magic apple drying in the oven.
In the kitchen, she picks up the lemon from the market. It is precious, traded for more than a few bundles of thyme and sage. She raises it to her lips and kisses it lightly as if it will turn her hopes to truth. Sunny hints of citrus dance under her nose, and as she slices the lemon, a kind of clean washes over her. For a moment, she feels cut loose of guilt. But that moment doesn’t last. She squeezes the juice into a bowl of water and, whispering her own spontaneous incantation, sprinkles sea salt in a circle above it. Then she turns on the oven and drags over a stool and the sack of apples. Lining them up in a row on the counter, she selects the one with the clearest skin and roundest shape, though neither will matter once she starts cutting.
Out of the corner of her eye, Dad’s face flickers over an apple sitting on the counter. She looks away before she sees something she doesn’t want to.
The headless doll leans against a jar of homemade pickles. Its apron-turned-dress is wrinkled—Gram won’t appreciate that—but it’s the least of Abigail’s worries. The doll droops to one side almost impatiently, and fear whirls through her. What if she doesn’t get this recipe right? These apples are a little larger than most. What if it’s too heavy and her grandmother can’t raise her head, like when she was in bed, ill and hot with fever? What if—what if Abigail gets it wrong and nothing happens?
Guilt crowds out her breath.
She should’ve handled things differently when Gram was sick. A lot differently. Gotten help sooner. Gotten any at all.
Abigail picks up her paring knife, hands shaking. She pushes away nerves—and the guilt that has tied itself around all of her organs—and skims the blade over the apple. As she peels, a bright vine unwinds to her knees.
There’s another scratch at the window. Is it the raccoon? An owl? Something else? She ignores it, but that doesn’t stop the tingle that zips down her back. The kitchen fills with a stewed, peppered pungency from the pot of boiling herbs—and the scratching stops.
The bare apple is smooth and sticky-fleshed. Holding the stem, she dips it in the lemon water to soak as she eats up the green, snapping skin and wipes juice from her lips. She doesn’t take her eyes off the peeled apple.
When she and Gram had sewed dolls’ clothes from would-be quilt scraps, Abigail, new to needlework, pricked her finger more than once. Each time, Gram clucked and carefully wiped away the blood, making sure the bright red never touched anything that might go near the green apples. There is always danger in making a doll. So many things can go wrong. Not only to fingers. Cut too deep, and the apple will rot. Don’t dry it long enough, and the apple will rot. Sometimes, they just want to go bad. Eventually, doesn’t everything?
As her family of apple dolls began to spoil, she’d wanted to cook and eat the beans inside them. Carry part of her family within her, never mind that it wasn’t real. She thought Gram had indulged her when she made ham and bean soup one night, but after dinner when Abigail was scraping the pot, she’d found a mound of worm-threaded navy beans amid the apple faces molding in the compost. She took an old bean and swallowed it. It was soft and foul, and later, though her stomach twisted and spasmed, she’d had no regrets. The next morning, she went back for more beans and that’s when she discovered the dead raccoon holding George’s moldy face in its jaws. It hissed, scaring her off.
There are dead things and then there are dead things. She’s very glad indeed that Gram never had to reanimate her—if she even would have. She doesn’t want to think about what her family would look like if Gram had stuffed and stitched up their bodies. They wouldn’t be able to go anywhere, do anything, without drawing unwanted attention.
But a little apple doll hidden in a backpack? That’s different.
“Come on, Gram. Come back,” says Abigail, plucking the peeled apple from the lemon water and dabbing it with a rag. Thumbing her paring knife, she begins to carve. An ear here, its lobe stretched as if by a silver hoop. Another there. Cheekbones to capture dark eyes, of course. A nose that will pinch as it dries. And what else but a tiny chin and smile? She hopes her grandmother will remember how to smile.
She inspects the fruit. It’s Gram’s face—but younger. Livelier. She ties twine to its stem and hangs it inside of the oven where it will wrinkle-dry. Though the fire has died to glowing coals, the pot continues to bubble. Perhaps it is the ashy trace of Gram among the brickwork that keeps it simmering. And even with the boiling herbs, Abigail can smell the magic in the room—like damp fur and lilac.
It’s either very late or very early, she doesn’t care which. Yawning, she pulls the faded quilt from Gram’s rocker and goes to sit on the stool by the oven. She keeps the lip of the door open to warm herself with its hot, apple sighs and falls asleep at the counter, head on hands, the row of rejected apples bumping away. In her dream, blossoms drip tears, not rain, and whisper. Whisper.
Abigail wakes to the sound of screaming. It’s coming from the oven, its door still ajar.
She snips the twine and, with the edge of the quilt, draws out the warm, dried apple. The heat has withered it, and it glares with her grandmother’s cracked, old face and does not stop screaming.
She knows that scream. As Gram’s bones ate themselves up and her skin mottled with sores, Abigail could do nothing to help. But she’d tried. She foraged for feverfew and other herbs. For mushrooms. She plucked and boiled chickens and poured the broth down Gram’s throat. Anything to stop that screaming. For days, neither slept, until at last Abigail took her grandmother’s pillow and buried the old woman’s face.
She should’ve gotten a neighbor. Called an ambulance. Chased down a doctor—one of many among the tourists, or so she assumed. But who would’ve wanted to come back here to a falling down cottage visited by dead animals and dotted with family graves? They would’ve called social services. Like they did before, after the car accident.
Now, cradled in the blanket, apple eyes tightly shut, Gram’s mouth breaks into a sweet, hollow O of anguish. Part of her has seeped into the fruit. The very worst part.
It’s too much. Abigail cannot fix this. What can she do to end the screaming?
The kitchen window squeaks open and bony paws part the curtains. The dead raccoon has found a way in.
It hops towards her, its knuckles scraping the oak floorboards. The circles on its tail are all but smoke rings. Though its fur is thinning, it still wears a black mask around what remains of its eyes.
The apple, propelled by moans, sways on the stem between Abigail’s fingers. She tries to steady it as the raccoon raises scabby paws to her.
One more thing to keep the house safe, Gram had said.
Abigail’s chest tightens. Did she mean safe from me?
She’d wanted to hold onto some essence of her grandmother, of her family, and now what can she do? She bends to give the raccoon the apple head.
The curtains twitch with a breeze creeping in from the night—the night that she is only afraid of in the same way in which she is afraid of herself.
Her apple is just above the raccoon’s skeletal fingers when she pauses.
The screaming doesn’t.
The raccoon drops its paws as Abigail lifts the apple to her own lips, parts her teeth—and bites in.