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The Girl in the Orchard

 James Guthrie - In the Orchard, 1885-86.jpg
 
The Girl in the Orchard
by Rebecca Harrison

On the edge of snowy fields, behind orchard walls, Elsabeth sat in autumn sunshine beneath an apple tree. She watched bluebirds flitting through warm shadows and as copper leaves sank on her hair, she heard the cries of children playing. She climbed up into the tree and gazed over the wall: white fields reached to a silent sky where clouds slow with snow floated over distant farmhouses. Children ran through drifts and broke puddles of ice. A boy glanced up at her tree, meeting her eyes. She plucked a fat apple and dropped it over the wall to him. She watched him gather the apple from the snow. Then, hearing her mother’s calls, she slipped down the tree and ran, leaves crunching under her steps.

“Have you been idling all morning? There’s ice on the other side of the orchard and the apple-pickers will be here soon,” her mother shouted after her. Elsabeth hurried – on the far end of the orchard, the trees were bare and swirling patterns of frost stiffened the ground; a snowflake drifted through the empty branches. But as her steps neared, the air glowed into autumn sunshine, frost brightened into grass, and leaves unfurled, trembling while the trees became heavy with red apples. She paused, autumn breezes stirring her chestnut hair, then, hearing hoof beats and the creak of wooden wheels, she ran towards the house.

“Quick, quick,” her mother said, watching her dash up the path. “Lord knows how they got here so early in this weather. Now, inside before they see you.” Elsabeth slipped through the doorway. The house unfolded about her in shadowed mahogany halls and still rooms filled with stale air. From the highest window, she could see far beyond the edges of the orchard: snow-swept paths and hills stretching into the distance; but in the middle sat the orchard, a vivid square of autumn against the white world. Hidden behind the lace curtain, she felt lifted closer to that world she couldn’t reach.

* * *

That evening, Elsabeth lay in her chill bed listening to autumn winds in the apple trees, while outside the orchard walls, moonlight and snow silence wrapped the white slopes, and in the farmhouses beyond, families warmed themselves with spiced drinks in the glow of broad fireplaces. She couldn’t sleep – the house felt huge with darkness, and she was certain that, after night fall, the rooms multiplied and towered. Even in day, gloom clung thickly to the long corridors, as if the great house’s true place was midnight. She shuffled beneath her covers, then, hearing the dim snoring of her sleeping parents, slipped from her bed, and crept out of her room. The landing was like a cave. She inched alongside the wall, holding her breath – sounds at night seemed to fury and swell, and she called the house ‘the orchard of echoes’. Her arms were cold. At the wide stairway, she made careful steps down, clutching the banister. Downstairs still smelled faintly of dinner. In the chill dark, she turned a door knob slowly and stepped inside: the curtains were open and moonlight splashed the wide room. She knew where her books were hidden. After heaving an encyclopaedia from the cupboard, she sat cross-legged on the moon bright rug, let the book fall open on a random page and read about swallows – birds from foreign lands, visiting the summer skies. She’d only walked beneath autumn skies. Over two years ago, on her ninth birthday, her father had given her the set of encyclopaedias, calling them ‘Elsabeth’s school’, and she had dwelled swift hours within their pages, until one day, her mother found her trying to open the high window – refusing to move until she’d seen butterflies. The books were put away. She needed to be safe, they’d said.

* * *

At breakfast, she ate slowly – the winds outside sounded hard and cold but the porridge was lumpen warmth. She watched her father gather his winter coat and hat.

“So: soap, flour, sugar, potatoes, and what would you like me to bring you, Elsabeth?”

“Can I come?” she whispered.

“Now, Elsabeth, we’ve talked about this.” He turned and walked out of the room. She heard the front door. The windows had become squares of grey light and drizzle.

* * *

Later that morning, in her rain coat, her hair sticky beneath her hood, she traipsed between the trees, trailing her hands on rough bark – above her, empty branches billowed with red apples, but she didn’t look up until the orchard was scarlet with leaves and fruit. Her socks were wet. At the wall, she climbed up into her tree to see over the white stretches – the snow looked made from silence and light. Cloud wisps stroked the sky.

“What’s your name?” a voice said. She glanced down - the boy had come back. She pulled an apple from the tree and dropped it to him. Only her parents knew her name.

“Elsabeth.”

“You live there?” He pointed at the great house.

“Half in there and half out here,” she said, trying to make her voice bigger, so it wouldn’t merge with the tree rustlings. She saw his hair was sandy under his hat and his breath made white puffs.

“Why is it always fall in there?” he said, eyes broad with the question.

“I don’t know.” She slipped from the tree.

* * *

The next day, the boy stood boot-deep in snow, hands plunged in his pockets and face reddened by the harsh wind, while over the wall, Elsabeth sat in soft sunshine among the fruit. She plucked an apple to throw to him.

“It’s too cold to eat,” he said, teeth chattering. Then, he stared hard at the bricks, found foot holes and began to climb up the wall. She glanced back at the house to check her parents weren’t at the high windows. “I’m Matthew.” He sat on the wall top, half in gentle autumn light while winter blew snow at his back. She looked past him, at the road which led over the hillsides towards the town, beyond to the city and further still to the sea.

“Where are you from?”

“Over there – the second farmhouse from the left.” He pointed at the distant shapes vanishing behind the thickening snowfall. “Can I wait here until the snow lets up?” He jumped down from the wall, landing in a pile of bronze leaves, and shook the ice from his hat. She clambered down and stood warily in a sun patch before him - the warmth on her clothes felt like shelter. He looked round the orchard: the dappled light and gentle winds, amber leaves and bright fruit.

“I haven’t finished today – the roads got too bad for the apple-pickers to get here, so I got lazy,” she said. He startled and stared at her. “Follow me.” She darted away between the trees, keeping close to the wall, far from glimpses of the house. He hurried behind her. They stopped near a corner of the orchard where the winds darkened and leaves lay frozen on the ground. She told him to wait. He watched her move to the trees – winds calmed, trees bloomed and colours brimmed. She stood beneath archways of apples.

“You did this?” he said.

* * *

Every day, after filling the orchard with autumn winds and an apple harvest, Elsabeth met Matthew by the wall. In soft rains and muted sunshine, they wandered pathways between the trees which only she knew, hunted for the heftiest apples and took fast bites before they heard the wheels of wagons on the roads.

“Can’t you come with me?” he said, as he started to climb the wall.

“I’d melt the snow.” She shook her head.

“It’ll melt soon, anyway.” He paused on the wall top and then jumped down on the other side. She listened to the crunch of his steps as he walked away.

* * *

“Ma, can I go to school?” Elsabeth stared at her dinner plate, so she didn’t meet her mother’s eyes. The room felt swollen.

“Elsabeth, we talked about this,” her mother said. “School’s not for you.”

“I want to go.” She looked up – her father had put down his knife and fork.

“Now, Elsabeth, you know why you can’t go. You’re not like other children, are you? People out there, they wouldn’t accept you – the world is an unkind place. Better for you to be here, safe, with us,” he said.

“I want to go.” She wasn’t sure if she was really speaking.

“You don’t remember my Ma, do you? She died when you were still very little – now, she had a rose garden. Beautiful, it was, yellow roses and pink, all colours, she had. And we took you there to visit. Now, what do you think happened to her rose garden, Elsabeth?”

“I don’t know.” Her voice felt very small.

“I can’t hear you, Elsabeth. Speak up.”

“I don’t know.” She almost shouted.

“That’s better. Now, she was very proud of her garden. Of course, if we’d known then what you were we wouldn’t have taken you there. Her flowers, they all died. Withered. And that was when we knew – knew why our crops wouldn’t grow. It was you, Elsabeth. That’s why we grow apples. They’re all we can grow.” He picked up his cutlery and cut brutal chunks of beef. “Now, finish up your dinner.”



That night, Elsabeth lay still in her bed – she didn’t want her parents to hear her crying. Her throat was a sore lump. Through the open curtains, moon glow calmed her room; it looked like the colours of winter. She pulled her quilt to the floor, curled up in the pale gleam and tried to pretend she was lying on the snows she could never touch.

* * *

The ice melted and spring stretched the days in yellow flowers and green warmth, but inside the orchard walls the trees brimmed with autumn shades, with orange and gold. From the high window, Elsabeth watched the green slopes for Matthew’s approach – he was back at school and sometimes busy with farm chores, but late afternoons he sneaked away to the orchard. There, they lingered in unseen corners, sharing sun patches, or sheltering from the rain together. One day, he brought her a map.

“I couldn’t get you a school book without anyone noticing, but this folded right up and I thought if you’re not going to go outside, then at least you can see what’s out there.” She took it and quickly pushed it inside her coat, to keep it out of the drizzle. They heard the wagons of the apple pickers approaching. “Come with me, just once.” He scaled the wall.

“The flowers would die,” she said.

“So what? They’ll die anyway.” He jumped down on the other side. While she was walking to the house, the rain stopped. She pulled the map out and looked at the roads and fields: she didn’t yet know how to read it. Suddenly, she heard footsteps – the fruit pickers. A bearded man moved between the trees. She shoved the map inside her coat.

“Well, look here,” said the man. He gripped her arm, marched her up to the house and knocked on the door. Her mother’s face was white fury. “I found myself a little thief,” he said. “I guess you know her parents.” She nodded. He walked back to the trees.

“You are going to stay in your room,” her mother hissed. She dragged Elsabeth to her room, threw her inside, and locked the door. Elsabeth pulled out the map.

* * *

Days dragged by and they didn’t let her out. She thought of Matthew waiting by the wall. When she heard slight footsteps, she called out, but her father told her she’d go hungry if she wasn’t quiet. She hushed and tried to make her silence loud. Weeks passed. Shut in her room, she sat at her window, watching autumn fade from the orchard. The apple pickers were turned away. Spring burst into summer and swallows sped past her window, but she didn’t glimpse Matthew. She studied the map. One day, her father came to her room.

“Now, you know what you are, Elsabeth.” He sat down. “Folks out there, if they found out about you, they’d lock you up – yes, they would. You haven’t liked being shut in here, have you? But that’s what would happen, and not just for weeks. Years. Now, can I trust you not to let something like this happen again?”

“Yes,” she said. But she thought of her map.

* * *

She walked autumn back into the orchard until every branch swayed with apples. At the wall, she waited for Matthew.

“I thought you’d gone,” he said. “I watched everyday.”

“They locked me in my room.” She felt Matthew hold her hand. They sat against the wall and listened for summer sounds outside the orchard: bees in lavender, faraway games, and fields silent with golden harvests. She thought of the map and of the woods, dark with late summer, beyond the hills. “Can you see those woods from your house?” she asked. He nodded. “Will you tell me when they change colour?”

* * *

Every day, they met under her tree and lingered by the wall, quiet outside summer, while they listened to the dwindling warmth. In the evenings, in her stern room, she studied the map until she knew all the names of the roads she would travel, past the hills and forests, through far towns. One afternoon, he told her the woods had turned amber and red.

“It’s fall now.”

“If we go, they won’t be able to follow us,” she whispered.

* * *

That night, she took shallow breaths and steps as she inched through the house and out into the orchard. The moonlight was thin beneath the trees. She trod on fallen apples. Her hands were cold as she climbed over the wall. Matthew was waiting.

“I got all the food I could carry,” he whispered, nudging his bag.

“There’s always apples,” she said. They crept silently, keeping to shadows, until they reached the path. Then they ran faster, their footsteps mingling with the night sounds, the slopes about them wide with starlight. When they reached the hilltops, she paused to look a last time at the house: it was just a shrunken shape in the orchard. She felt the forests ahead of her, the roads twisting through the valleys and towns, the broad lakes and the rivers which ran into the sea. She walked out into the world.

* * *

At dawn, Elsabeth’s parents found her bed empty. After searching the house and orchard, they bridled their horses and took to their cart.

“I can’t see that she’ll have got far. And being what she is, well, we’ll find her soon enough,” her father said as their cart pulled out onto the road.

But from the top of the hill they saw autumn woods reaching in valleys and slopes beyond the horizon, and every tree was vivid with scarlet and bronze.

* * *
 
Rebecca Harrison sneezes like Donald Duck and can be summoned by a cake signal in the sky. Her best friend is a dog who can count. Through the WoMentoring Project, she was chosen by Kirsty Logan as her mentee. Rebecca’s been nominated for Best of the Net, and her stories can also be read at Maudlin House, The Wild Hunt, and elsewhere.

What do you think is the attraction of the fantasy genre?

For me, it’s connected to the books I loved most as a child; so many of them were fantasy or fairy tales. I guess, I’m probably seeking long ago days when I dwelled in those stories.

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