The old woman wanders slowly through the orchard, pulling her shawl tightly across her shoulders. The sound of crunching fills the air as she steps through the freshly fallen leaves of various colors––yellows and oranges and reds. The sun is warm on her back, to which she gives a perplexing smile––because the air is rather icy. Freezing, actually. She watches as her exhaling breaths form small puffs of condensation.
She sighs in content. A perfect day.
The voice flutters across the trees from her left. She turns to the voice, and breathes a sigh of relief upon seeing the familiar face. A young girl leans against one of the trees; she can’t be more than fifteen years old. The girl is tall, with olive skin and long brown hair reaching past her waist. Her feet are bare. And her eyes are a warm amber behind large glasses.
“There you are. I wondered where you’d run off to,” the old woman says, smiling, her voice withered with time.
“I was just over there, by the clump of apple trees near the edge of the orchard. I think they might be ripe now. Want to come see?”
“Of course,” the older woman says, nodding. She gathers her shawl and picks her way leisurely through the leaves, following the girl.
They walk through the orchard in silence, the old woman's feet still crunching in the leaves, the sound loud in the still and quiet scene.
The older woman studies the girl carefully as she follows her. The girl hasn’t changed much. Still wearing that pale blue sweater, those ripped jeans. The red glasses sit at their familiar perch on her round nose. Her hair sways behind her in the air, rippling against her back as she walks.
“This way.” The girl tosses the words over her shoulder, veering toward a small clump of five apple trees near the edge of the orchard. They’re large, with beautiful leaves and apples scattered around them.
The girl leans down to pick up an apple. She wrinkles her nose, turning the apple toward the woman. It’s black and wrinkled on one side, with a worm flailing around its interior. She drops the rotten apple in disgust. “Well. I thought they were ripe.”
“It’s still a bit early for disappointment, don’t you think?” The woman tuts, shaking her head and wagging her finger. “Don't you remember? We need to check our favorite tree.”
The girl smiles, brightening. “Yes, of course! I didn’t think of that!” She turns around and slips between the trunks of the trees.
The woman follows along, slower, carefully edging through the trunks. She hugs her shawl against her chest, careful not to let any branches snag the thin fabric. Finally, she meets the girl. They stand together in front of a large tree at the very edge of the orchard, behind the large clump––which hides it well.
They stare at the tree in awe. It is large, standing tall and firm, its branches spread wide, full of ripe red apples glittering with dew. There’s a wooden ladder leaning against the trunk. An empty wooden bucket rests at the base beside it.
“Shall we start our normal routine?” The girl asks, still looking at the tree with wonder.
“Certainly. I’ll take the bucket. You take the ladder.”
The young girl confidently steps forward and onto the rungs of the ladder, pulling herself up, higher and higher. The woman wobbles toward the bucket and picks it up off the ground.
“Ready? I got one!” The girl shouts from above, her hand stretched in the lush green and orange leaves.
“Ready!” The woman yells from below.
The girl drops an apple. The woman catches it perfectly in her hand, wrapping her fingers around the cool fruit, before placing it carefully in the bucket.
The girl and woman continue their ritual; the girl climbs higher up the ladder, gathering apples one-by-one, dropping them into the woman’s outstretched hands far below, who never fails to catch them.
They laugh and giggle together, talking about their favorite memories of the orchard, reminiscing about their favorite tree that always stands tall, full of ripe apples. The girl climbs further and further into the leaves, until the woman has to squint her eyes to see the girl's feet on the rungs. And, then, the girl disappears as the leaves enshroud her. The woman still catches the apples as they fall down.
“Okay, stop!” The old woman calls up to the girl. She glances down. The bucket is full to the brim with ripe red apples. “I think we have enough to last a lifetime."
A rustling behind her. The old woman jumps, turning around wearily toward the noise.
Another woman approaches. Older than the younger girl, but younger than the old woman. Her short hair stops just below her ears, and she wears glasses, too––although these ones are thin and black. She folds her arms, shivering, her amber eyes questioning as she peers at the older woman.
“Mom, who are you talking to?” the woman’s daughter asks curiously, looking at the tree.
The older woman looks down at her hands. The bucket is gone. When she glances back at the tree, she finds that it is empty, too––no ladder. All the leaves and apples have fallen; the branches hang bare. The tree is still and dark and empty, without another soul in sight.
The woman sighs. “Nobody,” she says quietly.
“Huh. I must’ve heard Riley and Taylor, then. I think they’re on the other side of the orchard playing somewhere. Come on, let’s go––we’ll find far more apples over there than in this old thing,” the daughter says, laughing, waving dismissively at the decrepit tree. She smiles at her mother before turning away, calling after her children.
The woman looks back at the tree. So bare and still and empty.
The woman slowly walks toward the tree. Her eyes blur as memories of many years long ago fill her head; memories of playing and apple picking and joy in this garden with her twin sister.
She lays her hand on the trunk. It is warm, surprisingly. She smiles, feeling the beat of a distant rhythm in her hand, the beat that has powered her memories and her life. The heartbeat of her sister.
And as she stands there, her hand pressed to the wood, feeling the beat of her sister, of her twin, of her best friend, her fingers sink into the trunk, melding into the tree, becoming it, stretching upwards and out with the branches, her body entwining with the wood, bursting with lush green and orange leaves and enough ripe red apples to fill buckets upon buckets upon buckets.