Long ago in a place farther than far, lived the Selppa people.
They were a good and strong and curious people. They sent their children far and wide, hither and thither and yon to seek all the Truths of the Universe.
And some of their children came here to Earth to seek the Secrets of the Dark.
Those children found the Trees with the Apples of Golden Light.
The Selppas saw that the Trees with the Apples of Golden Light needed to be tended to and safeguarded so that the men of Earth did not use them unwisely.
And so, they stayed, making their homes among the men of Earth and keeping the Secrets of the Trees safe. Then, for a time, there was peace.
– Cycle 1, Daina 1
Shade and Twilight
(October 14, 1945)
It’s not fair! It is completely and utterly unfair. ‘You’ll understand when you’re older. You’ll be told once your power arises,’ they tell me again and again. They speak as if on the day my powers arise, my brain will change and I will suddenly be able to understand answers I cannot now, but I have spent my whole life watching the things Mama can do in the shade of the Mystic Tree. I have seen how Great Aunt Lil never makes sense, except when she makes a strange and wise kind of sense that nobody else does. I know how my father and grandfather died. I can tell there are important things to know, but I cannot guess them. ‘That is the way it has always been and how it will always be,’ they say. Except, that is not how it will always be, because when I’m grown and I have a daughter, I will not do the same thing to her. I will tell her everything as soon as she asks. I think once a girl is curious, she is ready to handle the knowing of things. I know I can handle the knowing of things, if only they would let me.
I get up from my bed- where I had laid down to contemplate tyranny- go to the closet and open the door. I pull my housecoat from its hook and look at myself in the mirror it was covering. My short, eleven-year-old self looks back at me. I’m too chubby, too pale, too dark haired to be considered anything but plain. Still, I look something like my mother and she is beautiful. I pull the golden scarf Uncle Liam gave to me on my last birthday around my head and look at the effect. The color makes my skin look warmer and my dark eyes seem lighter. I cross my arms and hold them away from my body just below shoulder height, hiding my lack of womanly curves. I tilt my head to the side just a bit. I imagine myself a Bedouin princess. I can see my prince, tall and brave and honest. He tells me everything, all his secrets- how to get into the Pyramids and how to make carpets fly and how to see in the dark . . . ‘Won’t you come away with me to my kingdom and be the noble and mysterious queen of my adoring people?’
I sigh wistfully at my fancy, hang my housecoat back up and close the closet door. I push the wispy scarf fabric down around my neck, but keep it there for a lark of remembrance, and wander downstairs to the kitchen where Great Aunt Lil is cooking. I peek under a pot lid while she is searching the pantry for something, but she catches me and shoos me out with a string of words I don’t understand.
My Great Aunt Lil is old, ancient, so very old that no one even knows how old she is. That is a mystery lost to time. According to Granny Birdie, Great Aunt Lil looked just as ancient and frail when Granny was a girl as she does now. The one thing we are sure of is that she was not born here. She made a transatlantic crossing from the old country a long time ago. Which old country, is also shrouded in mystery.
The story- as told to Granny Birdie by her grandmother- is that an already aged Great Aunt Lil fought her way onto a ship bound for the New World and refused to disembark. The captain ordered her removed, but none of the crew wanted to drag an old woman from below deck and toss her from the ship. The only choice was for her and her nieces to book passage and immigrate to America. When they arrived, Great Aunt Lil stole a horse and rode to the ruins of an Indian village. Her nieces followed her and found her deep in conversation with an old woman sitting under the Mystic Tree. The old squaw uttered a few words like an enchantment and died. Great Aunt Lil sat under that Tree and refused to move. She has not been more than 100 yards from that spot to this day. At least, that is how the story goes.
You see, Great Aunt Lil is crazy as they come, but her memory is very good. She is especially good at telling about old things. You couldn’t ask her to help you with a history report or where Mama has gone in such a hurry, but she is forever recovering some new song or craft or recipe from the far reaches of her memory and teaching them to me. Granny Birdie is sure that she just makes up all the songs out of gibberish, but Mama told me she is sure that they are in languages so old that no one but Great Aunt Lil can understand them anymore. I like to believe that Mama is right.
Once out the kitchen’s back door I go, like always, to the Mystic Tree. It is the only one of its kind. It never blooms, but is always covered in Apples- Golden Apples. They are special Apples, so special, they can’t be eaten. They don’t even fall. Year after year, the Apples hang there, enticing and forbidden and never getting older. They are just like Great Aunt Lil, who has to be at least 110 years old, but never seems to get any new wrinkles. The Tree is one more thing I’ll find out more about once I’m older. I slip onto the old wooden swing and look up through the branches as I sway. The other trees- the orchard trees- are gnarled and stubby, pruned short so we can manage them, but the Mystic Tree is tall and wide. The branches don’t look like they grew, so much as flowed into place. They are a woven pattern of convolutions, no angles or broken branches, just smooth graceful curves leading to gently tapered ends and beaded with shining rounds of gold.
As I swing, I sing to myself and try to imagine I’m waiting for my love’s return ‘under the old apple tree’. Not that I have a love to wait for, mind you, none of the boys I know are anything like my handsome Bedouin. They are just boys, rough and loud and forever getting dirty when they’re not supposed to- playing at chasing Nazis. As if Jackie Delfino would do anything other than wet his trousers if faced with a real, live SS officer. Maybe they’ll find a new game now that the war is over, but I find it hard to imagine Jackie and Michael Parker being as keen on playing ‘Rebuild London’.
I look across the orchard’s rolling hills, smelling the earth on the brisk autumn air. My family has farmed this land ever since Great Aunt Lil led her unwilling nieces over the Atlantic to The Shade. (That’s what we call the orchard, The Shade.) Remembered laughter plays on the phonograph of my memory as I think of the harvest that was just a few weeks ago. Those days, a twilight between late summer and early fall always feel like a celebration. They are as joyful as they are tiring, my family working to bring in the apples together with the migrant workers -who magically arrive every year just a day before Uncle Liam decides the harvest is ready. There is singing and story telling and Great Aunt Lil spends all morning in the kitchen making foods we’ve never tasted before -and may never again- for our lunch. Then she spends all afternoon preparing mason jars and paraffin wax for the applesauce and apple jelly or making pies from the first fruits to send over to the inn for the workers’ dessert.
Most of the farms around here have dormitories for their workers, but since they only live there a few weeks a year, they are usually not well kept up. We’ve never had dormitories- instead, we pay Mrs. MacPherson to rent us her entire inn for the duration. That means we can’t pay as much in wages, but the workers still show up for the good beds and the hot showers, not to mention that Mama and Great Aunt Lil are the two best cooks in the county. Mrs. MacPherson won’t cook or clean for the migrant workers though, so Mama takes over the inn, kitchen, laundry and all, and Mrs. MacPherson visits her sister in Red Bank. Every year she comes back, ranting about how hard the workers probably were on the rooms and the sheets and, ‘is any of the crystal missing? My grandmother brought that crystal over on the boat from Scotland and I managed to hold on to it through the Great Depression (though my daft brother Hamish tried to sell it behind my back so he could buy that Jezebel wife of his a silk nightdress from Paris, the half-wit). So I’ll be damned if I’ll let some darkie take it to use to buy rum.’ The workers are never hard on the inn though, and Mama makes certain that Mrs. MacPherson has nothing to complain about and she’ll let us rent it out again the next year.
This year’s harvest was especially enjoyable because I got to work along side a new man named Nat. He was young and tall- taller than anyone I’d ever met before. He had long dark plaits he called locks and a deep, rich laugh that made me want to find more ways to amuse him. He told me stories about growing up on an island far away in an accent that was even more exotic than the other workers’ drawls. I was the one charged with showing him the right way to pick the apples so as not to ruin the buds for the next year, his strong, brown hands following my directions, his dark eyes intent on my motions. It was just for a moment and nothing of any importance really, but it made me feel wise and adult and I wish I could go back there and live in it. I wish I could live in his smile and his laugh and the warm autumn sunshine on my cheek and the smell of the apples and of the earth and of whatever Great Aunt Lil was cooking that afternoon. I went to sleep those nights with aching arms, basking in that shiny moment and trying to imagine an island place where frost never blankets the ground making dead leaves and grass break underfoot like Mrs. MacPherson’s cherished crystal.
I abandon my swing to wander through the yard, fetching a few late apples along the way. The musty-sweat smell of the horses grows strong as I near the stables. Stayman whinnies softly when I push through the heavy door and offer him one of the apples, but Winesap ignores her apple and me, just like always. I stroke Stayman’s flank and tell him how, ‘I like you better than that grumpy old nag anyway,’ as I saddle him. I can’t take him far since his one leg is getting lame, but it seems to pain him less if I give him half an hour’s walk down to the millstream and back every day. I climb into the saddle and give him a gentle nudge towards the stable door. Winesap snorts her relief that we’ve finally left her in peace and starts in on the apple I brought her, perhaps thinking I can’t see her anymore.
When I was younger, first learning to ride, Stayman used to like to wind through the orchard, taking advantage of the shade and looking for the good grasses that grow in tufts at the ends of the rows or where trees have been taken out and not yet replaced. Now I have to keep him away from the uneven ground around the trees, so he doesn’t catch his weak hoof on a root or throw a shoe. As we near it, I catch the vinegary smell of the cider mill on the breeze. The day has been sunny, so the odor is strong for October. Beyond the mill is the stream where we stop so Stayman can drink and I hop down to settle in on the bank and listen to the low babble of the water and trail my hand in the slight pull of the current.
There was a time when riding was my fondest wish. I spent far too much of the summer of my ninth year astride Stayman forgetting my chores and thinking about becoming the first female jockey to win the Kentucky Derby, never mind that the only horse I’d dream of riding in it was a fairly lazy, overfed farm horse way past his prime. Now of course, I’ve grown up quite a lot and the fact that I’d ever consider leaving The Shade and my birthright to do something as trivial as horseracing embarrasses me greatly. Mama says that that is because my power will arise any day now, so I’m feeling the pull of the Tree as it approaches. I hope she’s right- my curiosity is an itch worse than the measles ever were.
Stayman finishes his drink and strolls over to me snorting and nosing at my shoulder. He wants to get back to the stable because he knows a sugar lump and a good brushing are waiting for him at the end of his exercise. I slip a hand along the top of his nose, just saying howdy, and then clamber up on his back. The sun is getting low and I have a history essay on the Revolutionary War to finish before school tomorrow, so I give Stayman’s side a little prod to tell him to take the return trip a bit faster, but it has little affect on his pace.
Winesap whinnies as we re-enter the stable to tell me- again- how she dislikes me. She is Uncle Liam’s mare, but I don’t think she likes him either. Lucky for Winesap, Uncle Liam is the kind of man to whom that doesn’t matter much. He decides what he thinks of you for himself and once he’s set on it, he won’t be swayed no matter how rude or kind you might be to him. Mama says it’s to do with the eye he never shows anyone, the one he keeps under a patch as if he’s Captain Ahab or Long John Silver. Most folks in town think the patch is to cover where he lost his eye but I’ve seen it, he’s still got his eye and it looks fine. The one time I asked him about it, Granny Birdie wouldn’t let him answer because I was too young to hear such gruesomeness.
I set about getting Stayman brushed and settled for the night. He gets extra carrots, the good oats and an extra blanket because every time Granny Birdie sees him she says, ‘he’s not long for this world, that one,’ or something else just as dismal. I know she says things of that sort to annoy Mama, but the truth is Stayman might be facing his last winter, so I take the extra time to make him as comfortable as I can. As I finish, our big, orange, perpetually pregnant, barn cat nuzzles against my ankle, reminding me she is eating for at least four and, ‘I don’t have thumbs to milk the cow myself, you know.’
“All right, Circe, let’s go up to the house and you can beg for something tasty from Great Aunt Lil,” I say, scooping her up, mindful of her bulging belly.
A charm of goldfinches is resting in the orchard on its way south. I know that a charm is the proper name for a group of finches, since I wrote a report on them for school last year. I’m not the best of students I’m afraid, since the only thing I recall from all that work is that poetic name. Wait, I also remember they are the state bird, but what good knowing either thing will ever do me is certainly uncertain.
I have Circe, the fat cat, clutched under one arm as I make the trip between the stable and the main house. The finches take to flight, fluttering in random unison, chittering to each other excitedly, as if spooked. Ladon, our retriever, must have taken notice of them, though I don’t hear him barking. As I draw near the Tree, I hear Great Aunt Lil chanting in a strong, toneless voice. I can’t make out her words, not that they were likely to make much sense anyway. There are other voices too, deep, male voices, men talking to Great Aunt Lil, telling her to, “calm down, all we want is one Apple, you’ll hardly miss it.”
I drop Circe and break into a run, drawn to the Tree when it is in danger. The fact that I am an eleven-year-old girl without so much as a stick to poke with is, somehow, not important. Coming into sight of the Tree, I realize I know one of the voices I’m hearing threaten and plead with Great Aunt Lil. Nat, the migrant worker who kept me company during harvest, is standing in the shade of the Tree, a pistol in his hand. Ladon, our poor hound, lies on the dirt not far from him dead or beat down. There is another man, a blond man, at Nat’s side and the two men are trying to outsmart Great Aunt Lil, luring her away from a third man, who is hiding alee of the Tree with a knife.
Without thought, I change my path so that I am headed straight for the man behind the Tree. He sees me coming and before I can lay a hand on him, he twists me around and pulls me up against him, holding the knife at my throat, the fabric of my scarf a flimsy barrier. He forces me forward, bringing us into Great Aunt Lil’s sight. She sees me, I know she sees me, but she shows no reaction. Part of me wants her to give in and let them have it, anything to live through this, but another, stronger part of me knows that she will not. I am nothing compared to the Tree. Even a single Apple is far more important than my very existence. I know this without knowing it. I will die for this cause that I don’t understand and I cannot regret it.
Great Aunt Lil’s chanting is growing more fevered and, as if in response to her, the world is shaking. The blond man is panicking, retreating, but Nat is staring at us, at the man holding the knife to my throat and at me. He is saying something that I can’t get my frantic brain to make sense of, while the blond man pulls roughly on his arm. Why is Nat still standing there? He should go before . . . The man holding me answers him. His fierce shouts echo through me adding tremors to those from the unsteady ground and my frightened body. I don’t know what he said either, but Nat’s response is to raise the gun that is in the hand that had been hanging at his side and point it, not at Great Aunt Lil, but at the man who holds me, the man who I’m now sure will kill me.
I didn’t know what Great Aunt Lil was bringing until I saw her- Mama, in all her power- all her beautiful, frightening power. She is like fire, like thunder, like vengeance, her legs eating up the ground between her and the Tree, the setting sun over her left shoulder dimmed by her blaze, loaded bow in her hand, calling these men out.
I’ve never seen Mama like this before. Once, she showed a small spark of this hidden power when she and Granny Birdie had argued. What they were arguing about no one would tell me. They fought for days on end until Mama had pulled Granny out to the Tree and dared her to deny something, the Tree’s power I think, and Granny had given in. Granny Birdie had never been much fun but, since that day, she’d been even more sour than before. Not long after that, Granny had gotten a room in town and now I only get to see her on Sundays for dinner, which is plenty in my book.
Mama’s attention is not focused on the knifeman and me, but on putting herself between us and the Mystic Tree, getting the men to back away from its branches. Even she puts the Tree above my safety. Nat backs away, still aiming the gun at my captor, who isn’t backing down. They are all talking at once, Mama, the attackers and Great Aunt Lil still chanting. His panic finally getting the better of him, the blond man with Nat gives him a brutal tug on his arm, unbalancing them both. A flicker of light pops from barrel of the gun in Nat’s hand, an instant later, my leg gives out, and then I feel the knife’s blade split the skin of my neck and warmth wash down my front, soaking through my golden, Arabian scarf, before blackness comes over me.