Saturday, June 18, 2016

The Snowdancers


The first of the family to meet the snow dancers was Eli. He had braved the drifting snow to help a mare drop an unseasonable foal. The first lithe form skimmed the edges of his vision. The next soared over his head. As he raised his face, half-blinded by wind blown flakes falling in his eyes, a third, or perhaps the first again, flew an arc toward the glow that marked the full moon’s place in the clouded sky.
Being a stalwart man of stoic stock, Eli walked the rest of the way to the barn, birthed the breech foal, and returned to his home to scrub himself clean of the fluids that slicked the newborn horse. His wife, relieved that he had not been lost in the driving gusts and snow, warmed the bed a pan with coals and bundled him up beneath heavy blankets without hearing a word of the wonder he had just witnessed.
Only after her death, a widower with a weakness for the company of kind young women who could bake wild-berry pies, did Eli ever mention the glimpse of the fairies he had seen on his way to participate in a far more familiar miracle.
Widow Therese, an Acadian woman with a marvelous accent and a gift for any food involving butter, recalled her old friend Eli a generation later when her daughter, only child surely of her lawfully wedded husband, no matter the gossip, came to tell her that the orchards were haunted by “cheeky devils.” Faces appeared between branches, parting the leaves and startling the young woman each time she reached for a particularly fine apple. Each time, also, the apple, untouched, would fall to the earth, striking the hardened ground, making it unfit for the market. And yet, not a one of the extra apples that year showed a bruise when Widow Therese prepared them for cider and sauce. She cut enough for half a dozen pies, baked the pies, and left three of them to cool in the kitchen. The other three she transported, still piping hot, in her grandson’s little red wagon out to the farthest line of crab apples standing sentry against pests and blight around the orchard’s edge. Just beyond the tree line, she set the pies out in a holy triangle and prayed for the Lord to bless the orchard and the offerings for their uninvited visitors.
“Be ye not devils,” she proclaimed in her best imitation of the priests of her youth, “then eat heartily of these apples you plucked from our orchard and leave the rest of the work for our human hands alone.”
Workers on the farm denounced her as mad or worse, though how “worse” they wouldn’t say. Her daughter, wary of her own chances of being condemned to a sanitarium, did not speak up to explain her mother’s actions to the local sheriff. And so, Widow Therese’s offerings were the last glorious pies she would ever make.
Gordon, a young man of few words, would listen to the tale of the spirits each afternoon when his rounds of Spring Lake Sanitarium brought him to the cozy little corner where Widow Therese waited near the window for any sign of her daughter or her son-in-law. To be fair, the tale wasn’t why he joined her at the sill. No matter how chill the drafts around the rest of the institution at that hour, Widow Therese sat in an afternoon glow of amber toned sun. Her white hair would seem to catch fire as the light reddened with sunset’s first blush. Her eyes, too, would gleam as if the sun set in them, not merely reflected off of those cataract hazed corneas. Gordon would stay to the end of the telling, pat her hand, and remind her that dinner would be served shortly. Not once did Widow Therese’s reply vary.
“Oh, I’ll be fine right here. Later, I’ll have my slice of pie.”
When Danica finally brought home from the hospital their twin girls, Gordon began telling the stories of Widow Therese and Old Eli to his precious daughters. Even after Widow Therese passed away, he would see the glow she used to get around sunset and his young girls would beam all the brighter to hear him talk of it. They played at fairies and danced in every snow storm, scaring their mother and sometimes chilling their hands and noses to a bright and painful red. They adored pies, even if they never touched the fruits in any other recipe. Danica, of a household of practical-minded, Midwestern stock, had no problem using the recipe her husband recited from memory, even if real butter crusts were going out of style with the rise of margarine and artificial everything else. Gordon’s gentle hands would help by crimping edges of crusts as he sat with his wife and daughters, telling again their favorite tale, and no one would complain if the juices bubbled out or a too thin edge cracked in the oven’s heat. Every bite tasted as glorious as the sunsets he described.
So it was that Elinor and Jeanie grew up in a modern world of medicine without leaving behind the “kid stuff” of myth and legend. If their parents could still smile with amusement, not indulgence, at the rambling tales of Old Eli and Widow Therese, they could spin tales of their own to their hearts’ content. Jeanie embraced the “flights of fancy” as she called them and went off to the city to study literature at Columbia. Elinor could never be bothered to wipe enough dark earth off of her boots to enter the ivory tower, so she took her share of their parents’ savings for their education and spent it on the best acres of apple orchard around, the same ones Widow Therese had once owned.
By then, the town had expanded until it bumped right up against the farm and threatened any year now to engulf it with cookie cutter houses, but the widow’s family had never been able to sell the land to developers.
Elinor watched the widow’s grandson wipe sweat from his brow after signing the last of the paperwork.
“Not a moment too soon,” his realtor commented.
Elinor didn’t inquire, but rumor had it that the money from the sale would save him from a decade’s worth of back taxes recently unearthed by a diligent IRS auditor.
Elinor’s modest down payment and her family’s good name had secured a 30 year mortgage for the property. For the first three years, she struggled under the costs of the tending and refurbishing and replanting, but each year, with what apples she gathered, she made a half a dozen pies true to Widow Therese’s original recipe. Three for herself and three to set at the farthest corner of the property. And each year, when the snows came, she would dance in whirling leaps from the house to the stable and back before tucking herself into bed with a hot mug of cider. The moment all of the trees were hale enough to flower for her first good harvest, she wiped her own brow and whistled long and low. She sympathized with the grandson. It was a lot of work to run the orchard. But if he’d only known the trick to get the most of it, he’d never have let her make such a paltry offer. The next three years paid off the majority of her loan, and her friends and family never turned down a slice of her pie.

Inspired by Robert Frost’s “After Apple-Picking”

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