In our farmhouses and our fields, stories of the past still linger.
By Carrie BramanI live on 40 acres of brush and pasture, crisscrossed by sagging stone walls and dotted with shade trees. There are also 200-year-old apple trees that bear fruit as earthy and crisp as yellow-skinned potatoes. The apples are heirlooms, white-gold, with mottled spots of red and green and brown, and they have a lemony fragrance that puckers the mouth. Some are blushed with pink on their sun-facing sides.
The trees they grow on are broad trunked and low canopied, and you can stand beneath their biggest branches and shake them until the apples fall in angry little storms. The apples bruise easily, and they can get impaled on branches or prickerbushes, condemned to rot in the warm days of early fall, so this approach isn’t practical, but short of dragging a ladder outside, it yields the best bang for your buck.
From the house, you can see the trees across the meadow, the top-branch apples yellowing, pinking, then finally dropping, to be worm-eaten in the grass. From that distance, they seem huge and numerous and globular. But up close, staring into the tree with your head tilted back, you can hardly see anything above you, so you tend to focus on what’s below, the apples spilled across the grass like so many speckled eggs, so many half-dug potatoes, so many bulbous thumbs. Apples hidden like Easter eggs among the chest-high raspberry bushes, the milkweed, the thistle, the decaying wood.
The trees they grow on are broad trunked and low canopied, and you can stand beneath their branches and shake them until the apples fall in angry little storms.
The heirloom apples are a variety called Cole’s Quince, which originated in Maine in the 1850s, so named because they have a strong “quince-like aroma” and a similarly knubbly shape. They were common in Maine for a century or so, but now they’re rare. They make excellent sauces and pies but are not “keepers.” They make a delicious sour cider when ground and pressed, but the cider turns alcoholic in less than two days and tends to erupt out of milk jugs in the fridge.
This wasn’t an orchard or a fruit farm. This was a sheep farm and a peat farm and, fairly recently, a chicken farm. There’s still hay in the barn, which smells of animals and sweat and cold winter mornings. There are piles of tools in the egg house, rusting, and a cracked cement Finnish sauna that someone built next to the garage. Whenever I turn over soil, I find glass and rusty cans and nails as big as pencils. In the house, there’s a secret door that accesses a brick and mortar chimney from the original house, where there still sits an old, ornate coal stove, propped against a cobwebbed wall.
An old man died in this house, or anyway, he lost his mind here. When we moved in, the bathroom tiles smelled of his piss. There were linoleum mats on the bedroom floors, lined with mold and newspapers from the 1940s. Beneath the peeling wallpaper is plaster and lathe and horsehair as old as the house — 200 years! — and the plaster was clearly made from sand, because flecks of mica and mineral glitter when the light is just right. We’re only a few miles from the ocean, and I sometimes picture horses pulling wagons of sand from the shore. I picture men in old-fashioned hats and muddy boots shoveling sand into the wagons.
She didn’t like the idea of us moving in, but she took it in stride because she had to, because without renters, she couldn’t afford to own all those memories.
When the old man moved in, he had just come back from the war and was sure of his future as a farmer. At that time, the house sat on the edge of a dirt road, and the man owned all the land he could see. He let his livestock wander across the road, which kept the cars calm and slow. Before he lost his mind, he got in three separate accidents pulling out of the driveway, because by then, the road was paved and the trees grown in and he was too slow for the world around him.
When he died, the house remained and his daughters battled it out — whether to keep the house or sell, keep the land or subdivide. While the battle raged, the house remained, as did the land and the apple trees and the barn and the tools and the moldy mats and the empty rooms. When we showed up, the house had been empty seven years, and for seven years, no one had eaten the apples, except for the deer and the worms and the flies.
It rained hard the day we moved in, and we tracked mud from the yard and left damp puddles under the chairs at the kitchen table. We drank tea with the old man’s daughter, and she packed some things into boxes and looked forlorn. We moved our boxes in, and she moved hers out. She told me that her sister had died when she was young and that all of her things were still in the house. Her mother too had died there. Her father — all his things were there, his military uniforms in strict row in the wardrobe upstairs, his touch on everything, from the plumbing to the ungrounded electrical outlets. She didn’t like change, and she didn’t like the idea of us moving in, but she took it in stride because she had to, because without renters, she couldn’t afford to own all those memories.
Later, I learned that my landlady’s sister, one of the old man’s teenaged daughters, had in fact wandered into the fields behind the house and simply never come home. As a child, a friend had been among the parties who gathered at the farmhouse to begin a fruitless search, and she remembered walking along stone walls and through meadows and up over ridges, looking for the girl. She remembered that someone found a piece of her sweater, but that was all, and they never figured out whether she was dead or kidnapped or disappeared or alive. This girl’s things were in the house still — our landlady had said so — and I thought in a new way about how forlorn and strained she had been, going through her absent sister’s boxes in the attic, and about why she had kept the house. I imagined the lost woman someday walking across our fields, hovering at the apple trees, then finally coming into the house, the door slamming behind her. And I knew then that my landlady could never sell the house, that it was there as a symbol of her patience, her desire to demonstrate that she would always be there and that the door would always be open for her sister, who, perhaps, even after all these years was not really lost.
The Cole’s Quince tree sits in the middle of our view to the east, out towards the ski hill. It bends its arms outward, and its sour fruit provides fodder for the deer. I don’t know what it meant to the family, to the old man or his daughters. I know that it seems tragic to me, beautiful and rare and permanent in the way that nothing human ever is. Our landlady comes and goes as no landlady is supposed to. She enters the house without warning and leaves notes on the kitchen table. She suggests that we keep our keys in the old coffeepot, where they have always been kept, or that we keep a chair by the refrigerator, where her mother did. I’m not brave enough to tell her that she can’t come in without our permission. I know that urge to stop time, to keep vigil.
Unkas_photo | istock