A long time ago, along the winding roads that lead deep into the hills and that disappear beneath the winter snows, grew an apple orchard. The trees were old and gnarled, with twisted trunks and deep roots. They clung to the side of the mountain, and despite the driest summers and the harshest frosts, they always bore sweet fruit. The orchard was tended by Mother Haskell, who was as old and gnarled as any of her trees. Some said the trees were cursed, or blessed, or planted from the seeds of Eve’s apple, but most agreed that Mother Haskell was a witch, for how else could the trees bear fruit in years when the surrounding farms produced barely enough to harvest?
But whatever else she might be, the families on the surrounding farms knew Mother Haskell to be a kind, generous woman who made the best apple pies in any of the hollers. When she got to baking, the smell of golden pastry and warm, sweet apples would fill the whole valley. It was said her pies could cure ailments, mend broken hearts, or bestow sweet dreams. They were made with just a touch of magic, though no one could agree on whether it came from Mother Haskell or her apple trees.
On one crisp, sparkling morning limned with frost, Mother Haskell was wandering among her trees gathering the last of the winter apples when she got the feeling, deep in her bones, that it was time to make a pie. A gust of sharp wind swept up the mountains, carrying a few glittering crystals of ice through the orchard and shaking an apple loose from the very top branches of a tree and straight into Mother Haskell’s basket. She plucked it out and inspected it in one knobby hand, then smiled and took a crunching bite.
When she got back to her cottage, she set to chopping up the fruit before the thin crust of ice could melt from their bright red skins. Her knife gleamed in the morning light and the sound of chopping echoed in the warm space of the kitchen. She swept the apples, crisp and tart with frost, into a pot and set it to simmer on the stove. Then she took down the sweet maple syrup she’d collected herself when the maples were vibrant and blushing with fall. She’d bottled up all that exuberance and brilliance and placed it in a stern clay jar to mellow until it was slow and sticky and sweet as molasses. Now she drizzled that sweetness over the apples and added a dash of cinnamon, a sprinkle of sassafras, and just a pinch of her precious cardamon to warm the eater from the inside out.
While the apples were cooking, she cracked two eggs with delicate blue shells, mixed in a generous portion of butter from the vengeful dairy cow, a heaping of sugar, and finely ground flour and kneaded out the dough. It was a process that couldn’t be rushed, and Mother Haskell took her time.
The pastry was buttery and golden as sunlight when she laid it over the apples in an intricate lattice braided with dough cut outs in the shape of apple blossoms and swooping swallows diving across the pastry. She tucked the pie into the oven. All that was left was to wait.
When the light outside the cottage shifted, the pie was just about ready to come out of the oven. The sky was clear and pale blue as it only ever is in winter, but though the sun shone thin and bright, there was a dimness to it now, as though the sun would rather look away but was forcing itself to watch regardless. Ah, Mother Haskell thought, here he comes.
Up the dirt track rode a figure on a pale horse. The horse was a great, towering beast with hooves the size of dinner plates and a neck as thick around as an oak tree, and the person on its back seemed small and fragile as the first buds of spring in comparison. When the figure neared the cottage, he slid from his horse and landed softly in the thin dusting of snow. Beneath his feet, the grass, which was already tinged brown, withered to a desolate gray. Mother Haskell bustled to the door and threw it open before he could reach it—it wouldn’t do to wait for Death to knock.
“Come in, come in,” Mother Haskell said, “warm yourself from the cold. There’s a pie in the oven.”
Death looked at her steadily from beneath his hood. “What if I’m here for you?”
Mother Haskell barked a laugh. “You’re not.” It was an old joke between them, though only Mother Haskell ever laughed. “Now come in before you let out all the heat.” She offered a windfall apple to his horse, who chewed on it happily. Death smiled faintly and stepped inside.
Mother Haskell and Death were old friends. They’d met when he was riding through the valley on his way to collect a soul and he’d smelled Mother Haskell’s pie on the wind and, well, Death has always had a sweet tooth. She bustled him inside and set him by the fire. He always radiated cold, though Mother Haskell didn’t think that he could feel it. She pressed a warm cup of tea into his hand anyway and threw an old woolen blanket over him while the pie cooled on the counter. They talked of the usual things: whether burlap or bell jars were better for protecting plants from the frost, the benefits of silver versus iron horseshoes for travelling the corpse roads, and that year’s apple harvest. Death had two large helpings of apple pie and Mother Haskell drank a whole pot of tea. Eventually, Death stood and gathered up the dishes. He washed them in the sink while Mother Haskell dried and returned everything to its proper place—she was very particular about these things. Afterwards, she trailed behind him as he headed outside and climbed back onto his horse. There wasn’t a single windfall apple left on the ground. The horse looked quite pleased with itself. Death lifted a hand in parting and rode into the dusk. Neither of them said goodbye—they would meet again.
The days passed, and Mother Haskell made a pie for a new mother, making sure to fill it with love and joy and a dash of chamomile for restful sleep. She collected eggs and skillfully dodged the kick of the vengeful dairy cow. Mostly, she walked among her apple trees.
It was on one of these walks that she noticed the cracks. They streaked the tree trunks like lightning strikes and Mother Haskell frowned. In all her years, she’d never seen anything like it. She returned to the cottage and consulted her books. She tried wrapping the trunks, and rubbing them with various oils, and hanging good luck charms and sweet wishes from their branches. She performed spells under full moons and half moons and new moons and still the cracks lengthened and grew.
Her trees were dying.
Mother Haskell was waiting, her arms crossed against the cold and the fate of her trees, when Death ambled over the ridge and up the path to her cottage. Death looked grim and did not make his usual joke. For one moment, Mother Haskell wondered whether he was there for her—but she shrugged off the thought. Not yet. There was a pie in the oven, but it could wait.
He slid silently from his horse and followed as she led him to her trees.
“Hmm,” Death said when he saw them. He did not sound surprised.
“Hmm?” Mother Haskell echoed back indignantly. “These trees are as old as the hills boy, and they aren’t going to die on my watch.” Death pressed his fingers lightly into the soil. “I’ve tried burying rusty nails and old tea bags,” she said, exasperated. “I’ve hung wishes from the branches and sung them every song I can think of, but nothing’s helped.”
Death wiped the dirt from his fingers onto his robes as he stood. “You know I can show no favoritism, that Death cannot be bribed or bartered with.”
Mother Haskell frowned. “Mighty hard to make apple pies without any apples,” she mused.
Death stared at her silently for a moment, then sighed. “I’ll see what I can do.”
Mother Haskell nodded, tight-lipped, though she knew it was the best she could ask for, and led him back to the cottage. He ate pie while she sipped her tea. They did not talk of frost or horseshoes or that year’s harvest. Each stared into the flames of the crackling fire and thought of things they did not tell the other. When Death had finished his pie, he gathered up the plates and did the dishes. Mother Haskell stared into the flames. Death opened his mouth, as though he would say something, but closed it again, the words unsaid. He dried the dishes and put them away. He knew everything’s proper place.
When he turned to go, Mother Haskell rose from her chair and followed him to the door. She lifted a hand in parting and watched as Death rode away into the dusk. Neither of them said goodbye—they would meet again.
When Death returned, Mother Haskell already knew what his answer would be. The cracks had scored themselves deep into the bark and they wept black sap and sickly green resin.
“I’m sorry,” Death said, and he did sound apologetic. “There’s nothing I can do.”
Mother Haskell nodded. She knew you couldn’t barter with Death, that it wasn’t personal, that he had a job to do. She gave him a slice of pie, and if it was more bitter than usual and laced with sadness, he didn’t comment on it and ate it anyway. As the dusk fell, he mounted his horse and rode away. Neither of them waved.
That night, Mother Haskell dug out her cookbook. It was made of old, cracked leather and bursting with loose papers and pressed flowers and bits of string and ribbon that had been stuffed into its pages. She opened it to the very back, where she kept her strongest recipes, her oldest magic.
Beneath the cold, clear moon and the frozen stars, Mother Haskell cast her final spell. An icy wind swept through the orchard and knocked the very last apple, delicate and pale, from the dying trees. It bounced through the branches on its way down and landed directly in Mother Haskell’s palm. She smiled and bit into the fruit.
It was cold and glittering and fizzed against her tongue. She felt her legs strengthen and stretch and dig into the soil, stretched her hands high above her head until her fingers grazed the stars. She felt the trees lean in towards her. The cracks stopped weeping black sap. The green resin hardened and scarred and grew over with new bark. Despite the snow and the cold, their branches began to bud. Mother Haskell’s heart beat wildly in her chest. She felt her roots tangle with those of the apple trees, her love and life suffuse the soil. Her vision blurred and the stars wheeled overhead, but there—her eyes snagged on a shadow perched at the top of the hill: a slim, dark figure on a pale horse.
He was here for her.
Mother Haskell smiled and closed her eyes. Her roots were deep, her trunk strong. These trees were as old as the hills, and they weren’t dying on her watch.
Around her, the trees burst into bloom.
The cottage is gone now, crumbled to dust and reclaimed by the forest, but they say, if you look carefully, that the trees are still there, clinging to the side of the mountain. The trees are not easy to find, but if you climb into the hills after the first snowfall, sometimes you can find hoofprints, huge as dinner plates, leading through the snow. If you follow them, eventually you will come across a pair of boot prints where the brown grass has withered to a desolate gray, and there, melting away the snow, will be a steaming mug of tea pressed against the trunk of an apple tree. And there, in the branches, apples. Some say the trees are cursed, or blessed, or planted from the seeds of Eve’s apple, but most agree that Mother Haskell was a witch. Despite the driest summers and harshest frosts, the trees always bear sweet fruit. Go on, pluck an apple from the branches and bring it to your lips. Take a bite; they say it will taste just like Mother Haskell’s pie.