The March Featured Writer is Justin Guleserian
Please feel free to email Justin at firstname.lastname@example.org
THE APPLE HEADS
I was halfway through the bottle and hunched over the piano when my wife called. Bourbon and Bach swirled in my head, a mesmerizing ballroom dance that near deafened me to the telephone’s ring. I almost missed the call and almost kept the peace. I almost saved myself.
My wife was calling to say she would stay at her mother’s indefinitely. The children would stay too. Shirley at once detected the slur in my speech and accused me. I heard my mother-in-law sound off in the background. Any plea would fall on deaf ears now, so I spared us all the effort.
Knowing my habits, Shirley had timed the call perfectly. She knew I’d be sitting at the piano, knew the bottle would be half-drained. My wife knew me, as all wives know their husbands. And I knew her. It was just like her to leave me with a long-distance call. I told her so. I shouted it and slammed down the phone.
Standing alone in the house, a house built for a family, now empty, intolerably vacuous, I had only the sound of my own breath to remind me I still lived. An open window let in the breeze. Fragrant and cool, autumn air wafted into the parlor and dried my face. I had to get out, not to seek company, as I wore shame on my face and carried it on my breath, but go out of the house and into the night, to walk in the dark and sobering woods, to let myself cool and think.
I don’t recall how long I wandered in the woods or at what point I strayed from the trail, but the moment when I first came upon that orchard and stepped into its rows will forever be branded upon my memory. Though the moon was full and high, and though I could see the ground ahead well enough to avoid tripping over root or rock, I kept my head down.
When I did finally look up, it was as if the orchard had come out of nowhere, emerging like a dream before my path. Indeed, I wondered if I hadn’t simply drifted asleep after my solitary picnic at dusk, as I hadn’t heard of any farmland in the area. Yet there I was, peering down well-tended corridors of apple trees, which stretched on until swallowed by darkness.
I wended lazily through the rows. Every direction I turned, a new hall was formed by the walls of leaves, blue-black in the moonlight. As I went, I became aware of a strange music as from a harpsichord. By its clarity I was certain that this was no recording. Someone had brought his instrument into the orchard and was playing a mellow air, a slow and haunting melody that pulsed between the rows of trees and drew me onward to discover its source.
After a time, I came upon a clearing. It surprised me as surely as had the orchard itself, for the rows had appeared endless, and never once did I glimpse any substantial break in the foliage. But I turned and there it was, as if I’d been walking beside it the whole time.
At the clearing’s center stood an apple tree that towered high above its lesser siblings. It was barren of blossoms or the red ripe fruit that the other trees wore. In their place hung strange figures, each about the size of a child’s doll. Perhaps strangest of all was the sight that appeared beneath the tree’s limbs. It seemed, for all the world, that a scarecrow was playing a spinet. The figure sat upon a milking stool and bowed over its instrument. A tall and tattered hat hunched over the shoulders of a patched and tattered coat. Curiosity soon outweighed my unease, and I ventured on to see what tricks my eyes had played on me. The moonlight changes many things.
As vague outlines grew distinct, I saw that the scarecrow was in fact a man, a curious figure to be sure, but flesh and blood. Still I was correct in my impression of the tree’s ornaments—they were dolls. I had seen their kind once before, as a child, when my mother dragged me to and from every flea market that hatched within fifty miles of our home.
They were called “dried apple heads” and were aptly named. The doll-maker would cut a face into a ripe apple, as if carving a miniature jack-o-lantern, then dry the apple until the features shriveled and shrunk to resemble the face of an elderly man or woman. The dried fruit was then mounted atop a doll’s body.
I had never liked the look of the things, for they appeared more like miniature corpses than living elderlies. And here they were, in dozens, in hundreds, covering every limb of the tree. Each was dressed in what appeared to be a lovingly hand-sewn garment. And each wore little bells about its neck. I was curious, naturally, to learn the tree’s decorator as much as the purpose of the moonlight serenade.
I decided it best to approach the subject indirectly, for the man was still very much absorbed by his playing.
“Excuse me, sir,” I said at last, feeling awkward and intrusive. “But I happened into this orchard and heard your music. I play a little myself. But you play beautifully.”
“It’s an old tune,” said the man, still playing, not looking up from the keys.
“What’s it called?”
“It hasn’t any name that I know but was written for the very task which I now undertake.”
“And what task is that?”
The old man looked up from his keyboard. His eyes, peering out from above a scraggly gray beard, shined with weariness.
“It’s a lullaby,” he said.
I made a show of looking about me.
“Are there sleepless children around?” I asked, with a poorly-concealed air of amusement.
“You are unhappy, sir.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“You would not be here otherwise. You should go now.”
“Yes, well, I’m sorry to have disturbed you.”
“It’s no disturbance. Go. And for heaven’s sake, if one of them should drop, don’t look behind you. Don’t run.”
“If one of them should drop,” I repeated.
“Don’t look back!” he growled, his trained fingers not missing a keystroke. The old man nodded upward, directing my attention to the dolls, whose only stirring was at the prompting of a gentle and aromatic breeze.
A chill froze the sweat on my back. I had learned quite enough of the musician to satisfy my curiosity, at least so far as my safety would allow.
“Fine,” I said. “Call me Orpheus. Goodnight to you, sir.”
I wondered if the man had any family to look after him, wondered if they knew of his nocturnal habit. I wondered in what direction I should leave, as I wanted to be free of the apparently senile old man and his brood. I decided to exit the clearing the same way I had come as I had no inkling of how far the orchard extended in any other direction, though I had a mysterious impression that the doll-covered tree occupied the very center of the field.
Stepping back into the tree rows, I suddenly realized I couldn’t be sure of how I had entered the orchard. I’d taken many turns on my way through the trees.
Still, it was good to be back among the healthy and blessedly-ordinary fruit of the smaller apple trees. And my mind would have taken some ease except that I could still hear the music, which dwindled as I walked but still hovered over my path. The notes grated my nerves at every step. How I wished for silence.
When silence came, I realized my mistake. There was a discordant twang as of many keys struck by an untrained hand, and the music ceased. I froze in my tracks and listened. Truly, I hoped the old man had not suffered some seizure and collapsed over his Spinet. More likely he had simply drifted off to sleep. But it was not for the man’s stirring that I listened. The sound that reached my ears, the half-expected and dreaded sound that carried just above the rustling of breeze-blown leaves, was the tinkling of bells.
If one should drop, he had said. There were hundreds dropping everywhere.
The tinkling of the bells drew ever closer. They came slowly, steadily, almost synchronized, almost marching. I wanted to flee, to run screaming until I either left the orchard or woke from the nightmare. But in my heart I knew this was imagining and, still worse, that should I leave the orchard, the infernal jingling of those little bells would follow.
In my mind’s eye, I could see horror spreading across the faces of my wife and children as they watched me approach, my hellish entourage in tow. Shirley would urge the kids to run, the only words she could manage. The kids would stay by her side, clutching her trembling legs, all of them paralyzed by fear. And I would come on, begging them not to leave, not to leave me alone with this nightmare caravan.
I heard a half-sob escape my throat. There was really no question of what I must do. My feet were already following the reluctant command that my heart had spoken. And so I began a wide arc through the trees, wide enough that I never glimpsed my pursuers from the corner of my eye.
The arc led me back to the grove, back to the spinet, and its player. My heart sank to see the old man hunched, motionless, on his stool. He seemed at peace and I did not mourn him. But my last hope of rescue vanished with the sight of the old man’s half-open, lifeless eyes, peering sightlessly down at the keys that had bound him to this place.
I confess that I resented him. I loathed him for his peace, no matter how well-earned. Couldn’t he have played another hour and let me go about my life? No. To have played another hour, to have seen my escape, would’ve added days, perhaps years, to his unfortunate commission. He had been waiting for me to come, poor wretch, me or someone like me. He was not to be my rescue, but I, his.
I stopped before the spinet. The bells, too, jingled to a halt, like soldiers coming to attention. I dragged the old man from his stool, as gently as I could manage, and pulled him to the edge of the grotto, and left him to his decay, so that I might better see to mine. No words can recall my sorrow as I settled down to that crude seat. My seat.
It was a small matter to recall the tune. I could’ve have left this orchard, lived another fifty years, and upon my death bed, hummed it note for note. I put my fingers to the keys and began to play. Almost immediately, I heard the jingling of the bells move again, more languidly now, making for the giant tree that was the grove’s centerpiece. The jingling rose into the air, a niggling percussion to accompany my playing.
I kept my eyes upon the keys, but I shuddered to imagine the motley creatures crawling in a lazy swarm, up the trunk and into the limbs, to return to their perches, which I remembered seemed more like little gallows when I first entered the grove. Soon, all was silence, save for the lullaby and the occasional rustling of leaves under the gentle brush of the wind.
How long must I play? How long until another comes to take my place? If the antiquity of the old man’s clothes are any measure, I should try to make myself as comfortable as my soul will allow. There isn’t much comfort, but the breeze is pleasant, and the tune is not without charm.
Justin Guleserian is the founder of The Society for Finding Spaces between Other Spaces. He lives in Phoenix, Arizona.