“Come, darling. The stew is ready,” Eva Kane called from the far side of the grove. Alex sat with his feet in the cool brook. The shallow water bubbled through his toes, around the smooth stones, and then swiftly disappeared under the dense thicket to his left; the deep, gnarled thicket that encompassed the tiny grove and held them there. Trapped them there.
“No trout today,” he sighed.
He thumbed the frayed edge of his faded cerulean shorts. Shorts that once were pants, pants that used to be slacks. Slacks of a deep royal blue, paired with a crisp white shirt and maroon striped tie that comprised his school uniform. But that was nineteen years ago, or less perhaps. Time moved differently here, as if it had been poured through a sieve and the sifted moments and memories became like a mountain of flour. Shifting and floating away at the whim of the breeze.
He looked to Eva. She stood beneath the large apple tree in the centre of their camp, mashing a blunt stick into a crude wooden bowl. Not a bowl as such, more of a hollowed bit of tree branch. Where else would she be? This brush encased patch of green was modest, featureless and inescapable. A tight ring of thin grass bound by twisted bramble. This was their home, their prison. Other than the small brook that ran along the top end, appearing from the undergrowth on one side and vanishing under it on the other, the area was empty. But for the tree. The bloody mammoth apple tree that served as their shelter, provided their meals and whispered to them in the night.
“Alex,” Eva called again.
“Yes, yes,” he said as he stood. Eva had once been a strong and intelligent woman. A professor of English, seductive and captivating in an inexperienced pupil’s eyes. He had been twenty-one, and she just forty. But that was then, and this, well, this was not. Now, she was not attractive and had long since lost her mind.
Alex trudged the short distance to the tree and slumped against it. Eva handed him his bowl and he stared down into the paste of mashed apple and bits of wood.
“Have you been for a swim, love? It’s such a lovely day,” she chirped. It was a lovely day. It was always a lovely day, nothing ever changed. Nothing, other than the rare appearance of a small brook trout, that when mixed raw with chunks of Macintosh, was also lovely.
Alex ran his fingertips over the deep scars that thatched his cheek and sighed. Just as he had done countless times before, he rued the lustful impulse that landed him here.
It had started simply enough, in one of the damp lecture halls of Kindreth on Green College. Alex had been pecking away furiously on his laptop as Professor Kane had droned on about the sorted relationship between Lord Angelo and Isabella in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure.
Eva had paused and popped a toffee from her pocket into her mouth, tossing the wrapper towards the wastepaper bin. Alex looked up from his keyboard and saw the foil flutter over the rim, spiral down and land on the hardwood floor. Eva stooped to retrieve it in a manner befitting an English Professor. Yet, even as she took great care, her grey tweed skirt slid over her knees and exposed the briefest glimpse of her thigh. Alex’s heart leapt. Her lavender blouse drew tightly against her breasts as she reached for the errant wrapper and Alex became acutely aware of her soft neckline barely visible through the single unfastened button.
As young men’s pulse will do in such situations, Alex’s quickened. His mouth dried as he studied her, all his attention firmly affixed on her form. Professor Kane stood slowly while scanning the hall. Her eyes met Alex’s and locked for a heartbeat, then another, then another. He knew he should look away, but found himself unable to break the spell. Her eyes flickered with understanding. Alex knew she had read his gaze, filled with lecherous intent, and there would be no escape from her revulsion when it came. It didn’t. Instead, Professor Kane’s full lips drew into a wry smile, signalling a subtle flash of acknowledgement, then it was gone.
The lecture continued, Alex kept his head down and focussed only on his note taking. The lesson concluded and Eva dismissed the class a few moments before the bell. Alex stood, closed his computer and retrieved his backpack from under his seat. His sole aim was to exit the room in anonymity and melt into the throng of students that would flood the hallway. He stuffed his laptop into the bag and tugged at the zipper.
“Alex?” the professor called. “A moment, please.” Alex half expected a chorus of oh’s and aha’s from his classmates, but none came. This wasn’t high school, it was college, and no one cared if they held you back after a lecture. The hall emptied quickly. Alex froze in his spot, eyes downcast, and awaited the distasteful confrontation that was surely to come. He sensed her approach. The faint scent of lilac preceded her arrival desk side. Blood pounded in his temples and he felt the heat of Eva’s proximity.
“Did you fully understand the lecture today?”
“Yes… yes,” he stammered.
“You seemed distracted. Are you clear on the dynamics within the relationship between Lord Angelo and Isabella, the tensions created by the very proposal of such a lustfully sinful union?”
“To be honest, I’m not sure why she was so against it.” Why in God’s name did I say that! He scolded himself. He knew why. The Professor chuckled.
“Nor am I. Well, if you need any further explanations, I am available to you,” she purred, dragging her fingernail across the back of his hand. Her wedding ring glinted in the overhead lights, Alex kept his eyes averted and mumbled a thank you as Eva left the hall.
“I must be mad,” Alex spat, as he paced back and forth under the Crestmen Arch that separated the main common from the small rear parking area. He had been lingering around Professor Kane’s Audi until the rain began. Sheets of it dropped from the misty night sky and forced him to seek shelter beneath this stone canopy.
The warm glow of a single lamp lit the professor’s office window on the far side of the common. He squinted at it through the mist, and for the umpteenth time in the last thirty minutes, questioned his actions. She’s made it bloody obvious, he reasoned. The sly smiles during lectures, the quick lick of her lips as we pass in the hall. She is encouraging a rendezvous! The light extinguished and he caught his breath.
“I guess we’ll find out,” he whispered. He leaned back against the damp brickwork and watched. A few minutes passed and suddenly, she was there, striding along the cobblestone footpath, hunched under a yellow umbrella. Drawing near the arch, she spied him and smiled.
“Hello, Alex,” she said, ducking in from the rain and dropping her brolly. “I have been wondering.”
“Yes. Wondering if I had misread your looks. Mistaken your intents.” Her brow wrinkled and the corners of her eyes creased inquisitively.
“Oh! That. I… hmm…” he stammered.
“Hush, dear boy,” she breathed and placed a single finger over his trembling lip. The professor’s face softened, and she smiled. “I understand. This is a sorted business. You’re aware I’m married?”
“Yes,” Alex said, and his mood darkened.
“It’s alright, love,” she cooed. “Discretion is quite often the saving grace of a stale marriage.” Alex shivered at the logic. “I have no expectations of you, no demands. I wish for nothing more than a provocative tryst with a handsome young man to reignite my appetite for passion. Someone to fan the smouldering coals of my near extinguished desires.” Alex nodded and she laughed softly.
“Professor Kane,” he began.
“Under the circumstances, I think ‘Eva’ will be fine.” She leant forward and arched up to meet his lips with her own. The smallest of pecks, yet Alex savoured it as if it were a sip of honeyed wine. Again she smiled and brushed his rain matted bangs off his forehead. “Your dorm room is simply not an option, nor is my home.”
“No,” he agreed.
“This Sunday, Darlington Civic Orchards at 3:00. Two acquaintances picking apples. How innocent is that?”
“The grounds are huge,” she laughed. “Over a hundred acres, plenty of room to steal away from curious eyes.” This time, Alex smiled. “Three o'clock, don’t be late.” Eva gave him another quick kiss and spun towards the car park. “And bring a blanket,” she called over her shoulder.
A soft autumn breeze stirred the cinnamon and copper leaves at his feet. Alex kicked at them absently as they skirted away across the parking lot. He waited at the orchard’s admission booth. He had been skulking around it, rolled blanket under arm, since 2:15.
His apprehension grew with every tick of the second hand from the large granny smith clock hung over the All You Can Fit In A Basket For A Fiver sign. He was nervous. Not from inexperience, he’d had a girlfriend or two in his twenty-one years. But that’s the thing, isn’t it? A girlfriend. Eva was a woman. An older woman. In this arena, he’d had no participation.
Still, the situation itself was not unusual. College professor takes up with a student for romantic liaison. A popular topic of conversation around campus, almost commonplace in this day and age. Why, one of his mates had been carrying on with an Ethics professor just last semester. The irony of that! He chuckled to himself.
Lacking any appropriate clandestine lover apparel, Alex wore his navy school slacks and a sharp tan pullover. He felt out of place now, seeing the other folks about, off to pick apples in their denims and plaid flannel shirts. He sighed. The crunch of Eva’s silver grey Audi’s tires on the lot gravel drew his focus. She parked and slid from the driver’s door like a cat from its bed and waved at him. She was stunning, wearing a faded blue jean skirt, white trainers and a hip length sweater jacket drawn closed over a black cotton tee. The blood thumped in his ears.
Eva’s long auburn hair flowed over her shoulders as she walked towards him. Her lips were shining in a dark brown gloss and her eyes shone like beacons of lust. His heart raced and palms dampened as she drew ever closer. Older or no, she was an exquisite woman, a throwback to the days of classic beauties. Sofia Lauren, Elizabeth Taylor, Jaquelin Onassis. All of his reservations dissolved into vapour.
“Hello, Alex,” she said.
“Hiya, Eva.” She bounced to the booth and purchased a basket with a mischievous grin, then led him through the entrance gates by a belt loop.
It seemed like hours. A light film of sweat coated his brow as they trudged through the orchard in silence. Alex’s impatience grew with every swing of her hips as she relentlessly marched forward. On and on they went, deeper and deeper into the trees. Eventually, the chatter of the others faded and the air became still and serene. Yet nevertheless, on she led. The grove was darker now, more dense; as less and less of the late afternoon sun filtered through the boughs. They entered a small grove and Eva stopped. She placed her hands on her hips and looked this way and that, then to Alex and smirked.
“Well?” she asked with a raised eyebrow and backed herself against the trunk of a large apple tree. Alex dropped the blanket and went to her. His wanton thirst propelled him into the oasis of her arms.
They kissed deeply, both with a desperate appetite to seek each other’s innermost aphrodisia. She moaned into his mouth as he pressed himself against her, compressing her supple form between himself and the hardwood of the tree. They pawed at each other, grasping and caressing, as the heat of their embrace intensified. Eva’s moan suddenly transposed to a shriek.
Alex snapped open his eyes and he tried to step away from her. He couldn't. The surreal display in front of him gave birth to his own shriek that choked out midway up his throat. The offshoots of the apple tree had grasped the both of them. They were alive, moving, snaking around their thrashing bodies and binding them together. Pure horror mixed with dread as he saw the tips of two branches worm into her ears.
She screeched out again as others still punctured the skin of her cheeks and moved about under the flesh like wasps in a hive. He watched as blood poured from her mouth and eyes until the sting of his own tearing flesh darkened his sight. Shadows and screams. There was a howl in his head, an overture of a thousand mis-tuned symphonies and a chorus of overlapping whispers. He struggled against the slither of wooden tentacles biting into his face, his arms. Alex tried to force the blinding noise from his thoughts, but the harmonic, disembodied chants filled his mind.
You wish to eat of forbidden fruit? Forbidden fruit? To eat. Lustful, shameful, lustful. Eat the apple, the apple. Forbidden apple, lustful fruit. Shame, shame. Eat it, eat it! Alex screamed as the crescendo of dishonour pierced his eardrums and crimson tears of disgrace ran from his blackened eyes.
They awoke at the base of the tree, lying among the knotted roots that broke the surface of the silty earth, both of them scared, laced in scars and alone. The reality of the situation was determined quickly. They were trapped in a miniature grove, hemmed in by thick intertwining underbrush. Many attempts to break the thicket proved unsuccessful, as did screeching for help.
Over the next few days and weeks, the routine also became clear. The weather never changed, the small brook provided water with the odd fish and the single apple tree produced fruit. As long as the two made love. If they did not copulate, the branches would be suspiciously bare of fruit for a time.
As the years passed and Eva’s beauty faded, the unions became more and more difficult to consummate for Alex. Eva’s mental capacities had diminished with the isolation and the boredom. They each took their toll. Eventually, Alex had to force himself into acts of intimacy with an old, insane woman. The one thing that did not slacken, however, was her desire for him. It was insatiable, constantly demanding his attentions.
Once, in desperation, Alex had outright stopped engaging in the carnal act. He could face it no longer. All that had lured him into the clutches of this woman had vanished. The heightened sensuality of undertaking in improper lovemaking was now nothing more than a function of nutrition.
After abandoning any reasonable hope of freedom, he forced himself to endure the ten-day agony of starvation. Laying under their tree in utter despair as his body ate itself. Alex surrendered, writhing in pain until his scant frame finally succumbed to the welcomed escape of death. Alas, his withered corpse would only awaken the next morning under a bountiful apple tree.
Drowning himself in the brook produced the same results. Fighting off the panic and begging for release, Alex forced himself to inhale the cool, sweet water, until his lungs saturated and darkness came. Again, the next morning he peered through the apple laden branches of their tree, glaring at an empty and unforgiving sky.
He considered removing the object of his pain, bashing her crown with a stone from the creek or a weighty bough from the tree, unleashing his torment in fits of exasperated rage, swinging again and again until the fragile bone of her skull fractured and spit forth the fleshy mass that had manufactured his circle of hell. But he knew in his heart of darkness she would simply rise again the following morn. Rise and demand to be loved.
He laid awake at night and listened to the sorrowful humming or nonsensical babbling of Eva. She would thrash and spew her internal torment. Alex would plug his ears with wadded grass, only to have her rantings replaced by the tormenting whispers of the tree. The tree, relentless and bedevilling, forever scorning him, forever reminding him of his sins and worthlessness. His provider and judge, the hateful hound of his existence.
“Do eat up, my love,” Eva purred, and nodded at his bowl. He studied her, withered and wanting. Alex dipped his fingers into the sour mash of apple and wood chips. A tear slipped from his eye as he licked the bitter sauce clean. “I want you strong and healthy, darling. I’m feeling frisky, and have an ache you need to sooth,” Eva cooed.