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Carter's Orchard

Matthew Hobson

Her feet don’t touch the ground as she crosses the highway. She floats towards the lake, cherry petals swirling around her like snow in the moonlight. The tips of her toes skim the cold stillness of the water as she drifts further and further out towards the deep and distant middle. I lose sight of her as she’s swallowed by the phosphorescent lake vapor.

“Come back,” I yell, but my voice is carried away with the dancing white blossoms.

I sit up in bed. I’m panting hard. My room is dark. I feel like I’ve been holding my breath a long time. Seconds later, the motion sensitive track lighting in the hallway blinks on. Silver light seeps under the bottom of my bedroom door. Then the hinges creak. My sixteen-year-old daughter, Kit, appears in the doorway. She enters, sleepwalks across the hardwood in flannel socks, and stands beside my bed. I kick back the covers, grip her arm and walk her back to her bedroom. As gently as I can, I push her head to the pillow and pull the covers to her chin. I double-check the security locks on the front and back doors, then return to my bedroom.

It’s hours till dawn, but I don’t want to fall asleep again, so I take a quick shower, dress, sit on the edge of my bed, pull on my boots and dry swallow a couple No-Doze. I listen as I pass Kit’s door. She’s still snoring and will be for hours. I go the kitchen, brew and drink a pot of coffee, make another for the day, and head out back. The sun’s hours away yet and everything’s gray as hoarfrost. I walk to the tree shaker, brace my toe on the step-up and hoist myself into the bucket seat. I jostle the choke, and with a turn of the key, the engine expels burnt diesel smoke. I drive down the slope towards the cherry orchard. The trees are dense with fruit, the branches bowing under the weight.

Sixteen years ago this season, only weeks after Kit’s birth, my wife killed herself, walked into Still Lake and didn’t come back. When Kit was young, she never questioned it, why she had no mother, why we lived alone in this house. That didn’t last long, of course. The first time she asked about it she was in Kindergarten. It was parents’ night, and she was showing me a wall hung with finger-painted family trees. All the trees had wide-spreading branches and filled-out canopies, except for Kit’s tree.

“I have a mom, right?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“Where is she?”

I stared at the tree, straight and limbless, topped with only two leaves on which someone had written “Me” and “Dad,” and I didn’t know what to tell her. So I made something up.

“She’s a movie star,” I said. “She lives in Hollywood.”

For the next few years, Kit believed this. I got disapproving looks from teachers and babysitters, but I didn’t care. Death is an ugly truth, suicide even uglier.

By the time she was eight, she had other questions. Why didn’t she write? Couldn’t we make a trip to Hollywood to visit her? Didn’t they have phones in California? I danced as quickly as I could, but she figured it out. We were downtown, watching the parade go by. Miss Harvest wore a banner across her chest and a crown on her head, waved to the crowd from the backseat of a pink Cadillac convertible.

“She’s dead, isn’t she?” Kit asked.


“My mother. She’s dead.”

I took her hand and led her to a quiet bench.

“Yes,” I said. “She’s dead.”

I was prepared to comfort her. I reached out and put my hand on hers. She was silent for a second, but she didn’t cry like I always expected she would. Her hand yanked back. When I scooted towards her, she stood and stormed down the sidewalk, vanished into the crowd. Half an hour later, when I finally found her, she was sitting in the park, crying.

“You’re a liar,” she screamed.

Her face was bright red. I reached down and picked her up, held her so we were face to face.

“Don’t lie to me again,” she said, sternly, as if she could control these things.

“Listen here,” I said. “I’m the grown up and I’ll do whatever I need to do.”

Kit looked scared. I hadn’t realized how hard I’d been gripping her shoulders. People stared as they strolled by. I loosened up and set her down lightly. I knelt down and held her face.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean to lose it. It’s just, you need to trust me.”

I carried her back up the street to the ice cream parlor and bought her a jumbo waffle cone. At home, I brought down the box from the attic and let Kit go through all her mother’s old photographs. I waited for the questions to continue, but they didn’t. Kit seemed satisfied with this. She tacked the photos to her walls. My wife in the papery pink dress she wore in the summer. My wife holding a Petoskey stone she’d found on the shore. My wife was beautiful in these photographs. This is how I wanted Kit to remember her. Happy and bright, as radiant as any Hollywood actress. This is how I wanted to remember her, too, the woman I married, the woman who lovingly ladled water over our newborn daughter’s head while she bathed her in the tub. With dreams like the one last night, though, it’s hard not to remember the woman she became, the mood swings and sleepless nights, the blight that destroyed her mind.

Something stiff scratches my face. I snort, muscle the steering wheel blind-left to get the shaker out from the trees. I cut the engine and the shaker sputters to a halt.

“Get it together, Carter,” I say out loud.

I drink the rest of the coffee in my thermos. For the next few hours, I drive up and down the orchard. I like the way the diesel noise calms my head, as though this is what silence sounded like all along. I like keeping the tires righted in the grooves. The concentration and the knowledge that the world is only fifty acres square. The sun rises, and I watch as it thaws everything back to color.

When I go inside to check on Kit, she’s lounging on the couch with one of her anagram puzzle books.

“Lice, nice, tine, lust, cent,” she says, not looking up at me.

“Did you take your medication last night?”

She stares off.

“Is hensile a word?” she asks.

“I don’t know,” I say. “What about the pills?”

She looks up at me.

“They taste like tuna. And they zombify me all day.”

“You need to take them.”

We stare at one another until she glances back to her book.

Last month, I took her to the Grand Traverse Sleep Institute where specialists stuck electrodes to her temples with cold pink gel. I watched from behind one-way glass as she lay on a cot in a room lit by glowing green monitors. In the end, they found nothing wrong with her. The pills, they said, would help keep her asleep, but may or may not stop the sleepwalking. “I see,” I said. “Is there anything else I should worry about?” They studied me for a moment. “What in particular concerns you?” I thumbed around in my pockets. “Kit’s mother,” I said, “she killed herself when Kit was just a baby, just a few weeks old. She acted sort of strange, too, right at the end there.” They looked at one another, as though conferring telepathically. One doctor flipped through Kit’s medical history and then looked back at me matter-of-factly. “Your wife may have suffered from postpartum depression,” he said. “Somnambulance is just somnambulance. All you need to worry about is keeping her safe.”

I sit on the edge of the couch and wait for Kit to look up from her puzzles, but she doesn’t.

“Those pills are for your own good,” I say. “Doctor’s orders.”

“Line, entice, until, untie, unite, lintel,” she says.

“We’ll finish this later.”

She doesn’t seem to notice as I leave the house.

Still Lake stretches out flat as a tight blue sheet. Across the road, Tilly Watson walks out on the narrow jetty, leading a rope to free her boat from the sandbar. We’ve spoken several times in the past, nothing too deep, but enough that I know she’s in her mid thirties, divorced, a commercial photographer from upstate New York renting for the summer. I stand at the shoulder watching her for a minute, and after an R.V. caravan and a line of bikers pass, I double step across the road.

“Help you with that?” I ask, unbuttoning my sleeves and cuffing them back.

“Carter,” Tilly says. She tips her dark Jackie O sunglasses and smiles. “You have excellent timing.”

She passes me the rope, and when I take it she rests her hand on my forearm. Her fingernails are clean and short, shiny but not painted. When she takes her hands away, I wrap the rope around my wrist, heft the boat free with three strong tugs and lead it to the end of the planked pier.

“I have enough bait for us both,” she says. “Are you busy?”

I shuffle slightly.

“It’ll have to be another time,” I say. “I’ve got a crop to raise and a daughter to harvest. Something like that.”

“I understand,” she says. She stands and cranks the cord to fire the outboard motor. “See you later.”

With my boot heel, I push her boat away from the dock. As she heads for deeper water, a wake fans out behind her. When she turns and waves at me with a big red sun hat, I wish I’d gone with her. I wave my hand above my head, but she doesn’t notice, and before long she’s gone too far to see me.

I kick a pebble back across the road to my house. I look up from the ground just in time to see the curtains rustle shut. Kit, spying. She’s disappeared by the time I unlock the deadbolt and enter. Music blares from the bathroom, something classical I don’t know the name of. I go to Kit’s bedroom and enter. She took down the photographs of her mother years ago, and I never asked what she did with them. The walls are painted white to match her trashcan, bedside lamp, hamper, and bedding. Her bed is tightly made with hospital corners, and propped against her pillow is the last stuffed animal kept from childhood, a ratty sheep she used to call Cottony but which she now calls Bed Lamb. She’s fastened its arms across its chest with safety pins.

On the bedside table is her bottle of pills. I take the bottle and start to unscrew the lid, but then stop. I raise the bottle to my ear and rattle the contents. Kit caught me counting them once, and she was furious. Your precautions are ridiculous, she’d said: the track lighting; the bubble tape on the glass coffee table; the Fort Knox security locks. But this? Counting pills? That was like calling her a liar.

“What’s next?” she’d yelled. “Why don’t you grind them up and sprinkle them in my spaghetti?”

I didn’t tell her the thought had crossed my mind.

“I trust you,” I said, and I promised her I’d never count them again.

“Carter?” she calls.

I set the bottle down quickly. The bathroom door’s still closed. The music has stopped for the moment.

“Can you bring me the dish gloves?” she asks.

“Why?” I ask. “What are you doing?”

“I’m cleaning the bathroom,” she says. “Just bring them, please.”

I go to the kitchen and rummage under the sink for the stiff yellow gloves.

Kit cracks the door just enough to slip out her hand.

“Can I come in?” I ask, my grip still firm on the gloves. “I want to talk to you.”


“Soon,” I say.

I release the gloves. She closes the door. A soft buzzing starts, then the music comes back louder than before.

I go to the kitchen and make myself a deviled ham sandwich. Then I make a second sandwich, cover it in plastic wrap and put it in the refrigerator for Kit.

The rest of the day rumbles along. I fight back sleep, but by five-thirty I’m too exhausted to continue. I leave the shaker mid row, not even bothering to park it near the barn or clean the catch tarp. I stumble inside and retreat to my bedroom and lay down. My neck and shoulders are stiff as frozen meat. I close my eyes and think of Tilly. She’s arrived back to shore. I am with her. I help her from the boat, tie the rope to the mooring and follow her inside her house. Her shoulders are brown from a day on the lake. She stands close to me and touches my face with her soft hands.

I wake with a start. I try to stand, but I’m dizzy, so I wait for my head to settle. I hear whispering from the other room. A few seconds later, I rise and walk out. My daughter stands with a tall boy. Her hair, which fell past her waist this morning, has been cut to a short bob and bleached white. The boy wears baggy pants, a puffy fishing vest over a T-shirt, his eyes hidden beneath the low worn bill of his ball cap. Kit hangs her weight around his neck like a yoke.

“What happened to your hair?” I ask.

“Nothing,” she says, turning sharply. “I cut it.” She unclasps her hands from around his neck and steps away.

“This is Jacob. He’s my sidekick.”

They both chuckle like it’s an inside joke.

“I’m Kit’s father,” I say.

He extends his hand. I squeeze hard and expect his palm to be a milksop, but it’s not. He’s got a firm grip. His forearms are sunburnt and corded with muscle.

“Do your parents farm the area?” I ask.

Kit laughs.

“No,” he says. “We live in town.”

“He’s a drummer,” Kit says.

“Afro-Cuban,” he says.

“You’re a friend from high school?”

“Sort of. I graduated last year. I’m up at the community college now.”

“Well,” Kit says. “If you’re done with the third degree, we should go.”

She swings her backpack over her shoulder and trucks for the front door with Jacob in tow.

“Where are you going?”

“The Cherry Festival. I told you about it yesterday.”

“I don’t remember that,” I say.

“That doesn’t change the fact that I told you.”

Jacob squirms in his shoes.

“We need to talk about this,” I say.

Her cheeks and neck flush pink from the heat of her blood. We stare at each other for a few seconds.

“Wait for me outside,” she says to Jacob. She walks him to the door, takes the key from the wall hook and unlocks the deadbolt so he can leave.

“I’m going out,” she says. “And I took my frigging pills.”

I nod. I can’t tell if she’s lying.

“I want you to stay in tonight,” I say.


“Because I want to talk to you about some things.”

“What things?”


We stand quietly for a few seconds.

“I’m not crazy,” she says.

Her eyes are clear blue. They burn like ice. I can’t look at them. I imagine Kit strapped to a gurney with thick canvas belts.

“Don’t be silly,” I say.

“I’m going out,” Kit says. “You can’t stop me.” “I’m not going to stop you. I’ve got heaps of work to finish while I still have sun. I trust you to make the right decision.” I hold up my hands and back out of the room.

When I return, she’s gone. She’s taped a note on the fridge:

Dear Warden Carter: I’ve DECIDED to go to the Cherry fest with my sidekick. My phone is on if you have a crisis. I’ll be home by 10, so please let me back in my cell. —Kit

I sit on the edge of the couch and hold my head in my hands. The house is silent. I wish I could get back among the bone-jarring noise of the shaker. I close my eyes and think of the day last month when Tilly came over to deliver a platter of cookies. I’d given her a quart of cherries earlier in the week. The air was crisp. We ate the cookies and drank coffee together on the back porch. I wanted so badly to kiss her.

Without thinking, I rise, take a hot shower, brush my teeth, retrieve my town clothes from the hanger at the back of the closet. The shirt hangs on me like a scarecrow’s coat. The pants are looser than I recall, so I have to wipe dirt from my work belt to keep them up. I rub a thick layer of bootblack on my shoes, brush and spit till they almost shine.

The sky is a dark shade of blue. Across the road, light spills from Tilly’s house. Slowly, I walk across, up the steps, knock on her door.

“Hello?” she says through the door.

“Hi. It’s Carter.”

Her dog barks.

“Just a second,” she says.

My shirt collar is tight and itchy.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “If this is a bad time—.”

“No,” she says. “Just give me one minute.” She returns and opens the door. She’s wearing a yellow sundress and her shoulders are bare and bright.

“Come in. I just uncorked a bottle of wine.”

“I didn’t mean to disturb you,” I say.

“You didn’t. Really, I much prefer not drinking alone.”

She shows me to the living room and tells me to make myself comfortable. There’s an open bottle of wine on the table. A few minutes later, she brings in two glasses and a little plate of crackers and cheese. She pours us each a glass. She sits with her legs drawn girlishly beneath her. An hour and a half later, a second bottle of wine drips over our glasses. I can barely keep my eyes open. I fidget a little and look at the wall clock.

“Do you need to get back?” Tilly asks.

“It’s my daughter,” I say.

"You can invite her over. I’d love to meet her.”

“No,” I say.

“Right,” Tilly says. She starts to stand.

“No,” I say. “I mean, she’s gone.”

Tilly sits back, this time on the cushion beside me.

“I told her I didn’t want her to go out, but she did.” I fish the note from my pocket and hand it over. “Can you believe that?” I ask.

Tilly smiles with half her mouth. “I can’t imagine,” she says.

“You don’t have children?”

“No.” She takes a sip from her glass. “I have a bunch of little nephews and nieces. I’m the fun aunt with the dog who lets the kids stay up all night.”

“Well, there’s probably something to be said for choosing dogs over children.”

She drinks the rest of her wine. “It’s not exactly a matter of choice,” she says.

We’re quiet for a few seconds.

“It must be difficult,” she says. “Difficult for you to do this all alone.”

I stare at her. I reach out and take her hands.

My mind swirls. I want to tell her about how a false spring can shock out an early bloom before snapping back cold and killing a crop. I want to tell her that my wife was a good woman, a kind woman, but you never really know a person. I want to tell her about Kit, how she wanders the house in the dead of night, the way I’d found her once with her hand poised on the front door knob. I want her to know that she’s right, that it is difficult. As I stare into her eyes, I know she’ll understand.

Before I can say any of this, she leans over and presses her purple mouth to mine. Our teeth scrape. Her tongue tastes tart like white cherry skin. She holds me by my arms and draws me close to her. I bring one of my arms around her and then the other. I close my eyes and circle my palms against her back. Her skin is warm beneath the thin cotton. Her chin burrows into my shoulder. We fall back on the couch. Soon, I’m floating on the surface of water.

I wake.

“Kit,” I say.

At first, I don’t know where I am, but then I remember I’m at Tilly’s house, lying beside her in bed. She shifts next to me but doesn’t wake. I find my clothes and dress by moonlight through the window. I leave quietly. Across the road, my own house is dark. I run to the door. I dig the key out of my pocket and enter, fumble for the lamp, then move from switch to switch flooding the house with light. I go to Kit’s room and open the door, but of course she isn’t there. She has no key. I take a flashlight from the pantry and head out back. Kit’s rucksack sits on the porch step.

The moon is high and bright and lights my way as I sprint towards the orchard. Down the first row, I slash the flashlight back and forth. When I reach the middle of the row, I stop, whistle loudly, and listen past the buzzing insects for some response. Hunching down, I part the low curtain of leaves and stand and stare down the next row, whistle, listen, part the leaves and cross again. I do this until I reach the final row, and then I double back. Half an hour later, I stand panting, my head reeling. I kneel down and put my head between my knees. I think of my daughter, wandering the lakeside highway. I try to stand, but can’t. Before I know it, I’m weeping.

Then I hear something behind me. I wipe my eyes, spring up and swing the beam towards the sound. Kit sits atop the shaker, her knees drawn to her chest. I go to her.

“Are you okay?” I ask. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

I put my hand on her shoulder and shake her. She doesn’t move. I train the beam on her face. Her eyes roll beneath their lids. Her lips shape soundless words. Eventually, she starts to chant.

“Race, quell, tell, bale, bat, lace, tale, aqua.”

Carefully, I slip one arm behind her, the other under her legs, and lift. She feels heavier than I remember. She shutters and moans as though she will wake, so I set her back on the shaker. She eases her legs over the side. Her toes dangle inches from the ground. As lightly as I can, I take her hand and help her down. Still chanting, she heads up the tree row. I don’t move. A shiver shakes my spine. In the moonlight, her figure is phosphorescent, and as she ventures deeper into the darkness of the orchard, towards the dark fields that border our land, she grows fainter and fainter until finally she becomes lake vapor. When she disappears entirely, I jog to catch up. I glimpse her at the end of the row as she rounds the corner.

“Spoon, tune, spot, out, soon,” she chants.

Row after row we go. With each step, I expect she will trip. I keep my hand near her arm to catch her. Soon, I loop my arm around hers at the elbow. The night air smells cool and ripe. Kit’s words settle on my eyelids like hours, like days, like sleepless weeks, and then they soften and fuzz until they are not words at all but a humming. I concentrate on the sound. On my breathing. On my footsteps. Minutes later, I close my eyes. At first, despite my weariness, it is difficult to keep from opening them, but soon I can’t open them to save my life. Kit marches straight ahead, sightless but unswerving. I hold her elbow and imagine I am leading her.