by Mary I. Cuffe, Galway NY
The Writing Contest for Young and Adult Writers
Winner in Category: Creative Nonfiction, Age 21+
First, seek the apples.
Choose a day in late September. The air must be bright. When you
take a deep breath, it will life you a little off your feet. The
sky, of course, must be utterly blue.
You will need a knapsack.
Go where farms had been but are no more, and haven't been for over
fifty years. Abandoned orchards have the apples you are seeking.
They are small orchards, of 20 trees or fewer, and they will be
found not far from where a farm house stood.
This will take some searching. Second stage forests have over-run
these orchards along with the fields of buckwheat, barley and corn,
the house, barn and outbuildings. To find where these farms had
been, it may be necessary to ask a person old enough to remember.
They will tell you where the farms stood and whether or not they
had orchards. Casting back a little further, they will direct you
to the roads, ghost roads now, that led from farm to mill to town
and between farms. Follow these.
Some of you may have already turned back, thinking it all sounds
like too much bother for a pie. But for you who continue with me,
there will be rewards. No pie you've ever tasted will be as good
as an abandoned orchard apple pie.
Don't let yourself be too easily discouraged. There will be times
when you will not be able to imagine a farm on the ghost road you
are following. But keep the faith. Soon you will come to stone walls
that once traced the outline of fields. Some will still hold fence
posts of Black Locusts. Walk along these until you come to a row
of Sugar Maples. These maples will stand out from the second stage
forest like giants among children. They will be older than 100 years.
Once they wore a girth of sap buckets in the spring. Now they stand
like veterans of a war. They will be broken and hollowed out, twisted
and ruptured. But, amazingly, there will still be life in them.
You are close now.
Perhaps there will be an opening in a stone wall leading to a slight
depression in the forest floor. Maybe there will be the stones of
a foundation. Maybe only a whisper. Something will tell you. A house
was here. Look around, maybe 100 yards from the house. There the
orchard will be.
Don't expect the trees to look like apple trees you are used to
seeing. First, they will be as tall as 60 feet. They are enormously
theatrical. Their branches will gesticulate in all directions, some
descending to the ground as if inviting you to climb. But unpruned
all these years, they will be thorny and ingrown, their branches
tangled in fox grape and bittersweet.
The apples will cluster at the tips of branches. They will appear
larger than they are, a dusky vermilion against the sky. You will
be amazed that these trees so besieged by the forest, still offer
apples. As long as they have an itch of life in them, they will
bear fruit. I remember a tree that was completely uprooted still
extending fruit on the tips of its branches.
To have these apples you must climb the trees, pushing through
the thorny twigs and vines. Inch your way out just far enough on
a branch bearing fruit to get a good grasp of it. Shake hard. This,
of course, can be tricky but it is a very important part of the
recipe. The tree will not give up its apples easily. The tree must
be sure you really want them.
If you shake hard enough, the apples will rain down on the earth
with little thuds like the hooves of a passing herd. When you climb
down through the vines and branches to collect them you will think
they have vanished. Don't worry, they are there. Again, they require
that you look for them. They do not give themselves easily, as I
said. When you collect them, you will see they are not at all like
they appeared at the end of the branch. They are turned in on themselves,
mottled with blemishes and a little grotesque. But the red will
strike your heart like the wind burned cheeks of children. You will
love them for this and put them in your knapsack.
If you discover an orchard of an abandoned house that is still
standing, you must take a slightly different approach.
I find my pie apples in an orchard of an abandoned farm a few miles
from my house. The roof of the house is caving in and the porch
collapsing, but each spring a welcoming of Daffodils and Hedge Roses
still bloom along the walk to the front door. There is a pond beside
it, ringed with willows and wild irises. Occasionally, I surprise
a Great Blue Heron from it's station there. The front of the house
has the look of an old person gaping across the fields. Fields that
are now forest. Behind it is the orchard. You enter it by a little
path that was once so foot worn, the depression remains. The path
leads through the cathedral of the orchard out again to the brightness
of high grasses, which fifty years ago were fields of buckwheat.
The inheritor of this house manages to keep the fields mown to hold
the forest back.
The effect of viewing the golden field on the other side of the
orchard is spiritual. Entering the orchard, I look up where the
branches of the trees come together, allowing only shards of skylight
to fall through. Birds pass silently from branch to branch, witnessing
me. I tread carefully. The apples will have rained down already,
the air fizzing with their cider. The buzzing of bees seems to be
the conversation of the trees. There are many of the old varieties
of apple trees here - Baldwins, Northern Spy, Hubbardsons, Alexanders,
even a Blue Pearmain. Some of the trees I climb, for their branches
seem made for this. Mostly, I collect the apples from the ground,
turning them over in my hands to select them, like offerings.
When I have selected enough apples from the orchard, I go to the
two trees beside the house, one a McIntosh, the other a Golden Russet.
I collect a few apples here, but mostly I stand and look into the
darkness behind the window and see the woman who lived here. The
woman who canned and baked and preserved these apples. The woman
who came with her baskets and ladder and gathered apples while her
husband and sons worked the fields. This was her place, this orchard.
I imagine her handing an apple down to me from her ladder.
And I see all the climbers of apple trees of my youth. I see my
younger sister here, who I lost last summer. I hand her an apple.
Then I go home to make the pie.
Here's the rest of the recipe.
Take the apples out of your knapsack and investigate them. Taste
them. Taste everything that has happened to them. Some will make
your jaws ache with tartness; others will waft perfume and sweetness.
Peel them carefully because they are small and you don't want to
waste the flesh. You will have to pare them down anyway for these
are apples of untended orchards, with insect burrows and blemishes.
Some apples you will cut thin, some thick, depending on their densities.
You'll need about four cups for a 9-inch pie. One cup of sugar,
depending on how many tart and how many sweet, and a dash of cinnamon.
This recipe requires judgment. Pile the apples in the crust (Note:
don't use one of those pre-made crusts. Make one yourself. These
apples demand it.)
Dot the apples with butter before putting on the top crust. Cut
a little cross in the center and place the pie into the pre-heated
oven. 350 degrees for about 40 minutes should do it.
While the pie is baking, smell the apples, smell the stories they
are telling, the days and nights of getting there, how brave they
are. How far they've come.
Finally, take the pie out of the oven when it is golden brown and
the juice is bubbling amber through the crust. Listen to the hiss
and whisper of rendered apples. Marvel. Know life is good. Then,
the pie is ready.