The Iowa Review

The Company of Trees

Denise Heyl Mcevoy


The wind brought to him the clanking of a cart, laden with metal, laboring along a rutted road. It sounded like it was on his own road, but he was sure he must be mistaken. He lived alone at the bottom of a valley shaped like a cupped hand, his house resting on its palm. His place was not on anyone’s way to anywhere. No one sought him out. The track he followed out of the valley once a week during market season was barely wide enough to be called a road. It ran between the main road and the shed where he kept his cart and halted there, its purpose fulfilled. His only regular visitor was the county tax collector, whose annual intrusion had taken place just a few weeks before. The orchardist was perched on a ladder picking pears. His hand cradled a pear and tilted it until the stem let go of the spur. He tucked the fruit into the bottom of the bucket hooked over his arm. The clanking was growing louder. He climbed to the top rung of the ladder for a look. A dust cloud hung over his road where it skirted two big boulders and began to slope down into the valley. The cart was still far off. He picked all the pears he could reach without moving the ladder. Then he made his way back to the house. He was washing his hands at the pump when the cart rolled into the clearing and creaked to a stop. It was stacked with tools and burlap sacks tied with string. The mule sighed.

The man took off his felt hat and pressed it to his chest. His gray hair kept the shape of his hat at the crown of his head but tangled wildly at his neck. “Good day, friend,” he said. He was some kind of foreigner. It was impossible to say whether his skin had been brown to begin with or was darkened by the sun.

The orchardist nodded. “What can I do for you?”

“You are in need of some tools,” replied the man as he climbed down from his seat.

This was true. The blade of his shovel was blunt and nicked, and its wooden shaft had rotted. The replacemen­t shaft he’d made did not seat properly in the metal socket. Its wobbling absorbed half his digging efforts. “I could be,” he said.

The man rummaged among his cargo. He held out a shovel.

The orchardist was taken aback. The dry goods store had not had a good shovel. He tried to recall whether he had told the owner he was looking for one. It was the kind of town where word spread.

The orchardist took the shovel into his hands. The wooden shaft was as smooth as river rock. The blade was sharp and strong.

“Try it,” said the man, tapping the ground with his foot.

The orchardist put the edge of the shovel to the dirt, packed hard in this dry season by his boots and the wheels of his cart. He stepped on the shoulder. The blade sank into the dirt as if it had a hunger for it. “How much?” he asked, but the man was searching among his wares again. He drew out a pole the height of a man, with a clawed wire basket on one end and some levers at the other.

“I’ve already got a fruit picker.” He’d made it himself from a thick branch, a bucket, some twine, and five bent forks. It mostly worked fine, although the bucket sometimes blocked his view of the fruit, and he had once fallen off the ladder while tugging an apple from a high branch. The man twisted the pole in a few places and pulled. The pole lengthened, reaching ever taller like a tree undergoing a lifetime of growth in a moment. He rotated and tilted the levers, and the basket—so far overhead it was almost lost in the glare of the sun—rotated and tilted in response. “Pick apples from a tree growing on the moon,” he said with a wink.

“How much for both?” asked the orchardist. He considered the sum in the wooden box hidden behind a barrel of apples in his cellar, certain it would not be enough.

As the man collapsed the pole, drawing the basket down toward the earth, he asked for the amount that the orchardist had been thinking of, as if he had plucked the number from his mind. He tightened the last knob. “And a dozen of those pears.”

The men shook hands. The orchardist went into his house to get the money. When he returned, there was a seedling in a pot next to the shovel and the fruit picker. “A gift,” the man said. He climbed into the cart. The mule pulled the cart around and back onto the road.

It was not any plant the orchardist had seen before. “What is it?” he called after the cart.

“A tree,” the man answered. And then he said something that was lost in the clanking of the cart but might have been, “It doesn’t have a name.”

When the sapling was big enough, the orchardist planted it where it might someday shade the house on summer afternoons, and if this benefit was many years off, no one is more patient than a man who raises trees. Within two years it had reached his own height. Its waxy dark green leaves sighed in a breeze.

He cared for it and pruned it and watched it for signs of disease or hardship. The idea that he did not know what fruits, if any, his labors might bear made them perhaps a little sweeter. Having no expectatio­ns, he could not be disappoint­ed.

After eight years, the tree was tall and handsome. It did not resemble any evergreen he knew of, but its foliage was thick and verdant all year. It shaded his house in hot months and sheltered it from winter wind. The tree had never flowered, but one day in late March of its ninth year he spied pale, five-petalled blossoms among the leaves. Each day it had a few more.

On an April afternoon, he returned from the eastern edge of the valley, where he’d been digging a channel from the creek to irrigate some apple trees. Resting against his shoulder was the shovel, still sharp and true as the day he had bought it. As he stepped out of the sunlight to pass under the tree, something caught his eye. He squinted up into the shadows. Almost hidden in the dark leaves, ten or twelve feet up, was a hand. He closed his eyes, gave them a moment to adjust to the low light, and opened them again. What he was seeing did not resolve itself into one of the tree’s five-petalled flowers: it was a child’s hand. He looked around. There was no horse in the clearing, no footprints save his own. He cleared his throat. “See here, youngster. This is private property.” There was no response.

The hand hung open loosely, fingers down. Its owner, he surmised, was asleep. A breeze stirred the branches, and it bobbed gently. The shovel’s blade clanged as he rapped the trunk of the tree. “Now, come on down from there,” he demanded. “You’ll fall.”

He prodded the hand with the shovel. As the handle grazed the palm, the fingers curled suddenly to grip it. He let go in surprise. The shovel hung in the air next to him, swaying.

He strained to glimpse the child’s form through the thick foliage. Then he went for a ladder, muttering crossly.

At the top of the ladder, he searched among the leaves. In short order he saw a left hand, hanging as relaxed as the right had been. “Drop the shovel,” he said, grasping its handle. “Grab onto the branch, do you hear?”

The hand relinquish­ed the shovel, but as the orchardist leaned in to take it, he saw the hand grew not from a human wrist and arm, but from a branch of the tree. The shovel clattered to the ground.

Within days, more pairs of hands appeared. They began as tender infants’ hands, lushly plump, with dimples at the knuckles. They grew into the stubby-fingered hands of a child, utilitaria­n and vaguely sticky

to the touch. By midsummer they were strong and sinewy and manly, or, in some cases, womanly.

They had a tendency to grip whatever touched them. Noticing this, he wondered what else they might be capable of. He gave them slips of paper and pieces of charcoal. His notion that they might write a message or sketch a picture was outlandish, he knew, but perhaps no more so than a tree that bore hands as fruit. In the morning, the papers were limp with dew but innocent of all markings. Over the course of a few weeks he discovered that the hands would not sew or whittle or polish. They would not shell an almond or darn a sock. They may have been good to eat, but he could not bring himself to try them.

While establishi­ng that the hands would not pare potatoes, he found another use for them. He had climbed to the upper reaches of the tree. The ladder rested against one of its topmost branches. He leaned far off to the right, intent on offering up a potato. The rusty hobnails attaching the heel of his boot gave way, and his foot slipped through the rungs. The ladder tipped to the side, pivoted a half turn, and tumbled backward. He plummeted a few feet before several pairs of hands caught his pinwheelin­g arms and legs and held them fast. He lay panting, heart pounding, staring skyward through the lattice of leaves and branches. After a few moments, he recovered enough to notice his position was comfortabl­e and peaceful. The breeze was cool on his damp skin. When the wind stirred the leaves and hands, he rocked gently, like a boat on a calm lake. He twisted his neck to look below him. The ladder lay sprawled on the ground. That glint in the dirt would be the paring knife. It was a good twenty feet down. But now that he had his wits about him, he saw there was a close branch he could catch if he needed to. He waited to see if the hands would drop him. They did not. Eventually he began to wonder how he would get down. The hands shifted. His feet were lowered onto the branch below him. His hands were brought to the trunk. When he grasped the trunk, the tree’s hands let go of him. He climbed down from the tree, stepping from branch to branch, steadied by the hands when he brushed against them.

The tree became his preferred spot for resting on hot afternoons. And after the most stifling days, when the house held the heat of the day long into the night, he climbed the tree and slept among the branches, held firmly by the swaying hands. That summer was the hottest anyone could remember, but the orchardist enjoyed it more than any he’d spent since he was a boy.

Autumn arrived. The orchardist sometimes climbed the tree to sit on its branches for a short spell, but he no longer slept there, both because the air was too cool and because the hands were no longer strong enough

to support his weight. They were bony and thin-skinned, peppered with brown age spots and crisscross­ed with bluish veins. They quavered in the cold winds that cut through the valley. When he touched them, they held him loosely, companiona­bly. Some fell to the ground, where, if the orchardist did not pick them up promptly, rats devoured them with the same appetite they showed for apples and plums. The flesh enclosed a skeleton composed not of bone but of a dark, rough material as porous as a peach pit.

The orchardist dreaded the arrival of the tax collector, who came, generally, in late October. In carrying out his duties the man spread gossip like a disease. It was easy to imagine what would happen to the orchardist’s peace and solitude if the tax collector were to come upon the tree of hands. People had a fickle hunger, equal parts fear and desire, for things that were strange to them.

There was much to do in the final weeks of the apple harvest. As he stood on the ladder twisting apples from their stems, as he loaded them into the wheelbarro­w and hauled them over the valley’s rough ground, as he inspected them for worms and fungus and spots, and as he sorted them and packed them, he listened intently, straining to catch, in the shifting autumn winds, the sound of the tax collector approachin­g. His mind was preoccupie­d with calculatin­g whether he had, at any given moment, enough time to rush home for the cash box and ride out to meet him on the road. One morning he was perched on an upper rung when he heard hoof beats. He started up so quickly that he cracked his head on the underside of a branch and nearly tipped the ladder. The sound came again. It wasn’t hoof beats, just thunder, far off in the mountains to the east. He touched his head to find a lump the size of a robin’s egg. It was no good; he couldn’t be jumping out of his skin at every rumble and rustle.

After putting his load of apples in a barrel in the shed, he lined the wheelbarro­w with hay, as he did to transport easily bruised varieties of pears. He balanced the fruit picker and the shovel across the wheelbarro­w and brought them to the tree of hands. The hands fell away from their stems easily, dropping into the fruit picker’s wire basket with the gentlest tug. He laid them in the wheelbarro­w. In a far corner of the valley, he buried them in a clearing at the edge of an apple orchard. He stood next to the freshly turned earth with his hat in his hands and his head bowed. He wondered if he ought to say a few words. He did not know how he remembered it, but the prayer he had heard the preacher say over his mother and father’s grave ran through his mind, finding its own way like a creek trickling through a gully.

His parents had been gone nearly forty years. A fever he had tried unsuccessf­ully to nurse them through had left him sole owner of the house and orchards when he was barely more than a boy. For many years, the people in the market town, convinced that a young man with property and no relatives needed human companions­hip and assistance, sent their daughters to his stall to buy fruit and make conversati­on, with instructio­ns to mention their knowledge of farming, canning, and keeping house. Their attentions were lost on the orchardist, who noticed only that these transactio­ns seemed to take more time than was necessary. He was always relieved to return to his valley. He preferred the company of trees. By his fiftieth year, the townsfolk had mostly given up on him. An old maid or a daughter with a lazy eye or a bad stutter might be sent round to his stall, on the grounds that you just never know, but no one expected him to change his ways.

Finishing his prayer, the orchardist raised his head. The clearing was at the base of the valley’s western slope, too rocky and cool for any fruit tree he’d tried there. The sun had just dropped behind the crest and would not fall on this spot until morning, but it was still burnishing the remaining leaves on the nearby apple trees.

His trees would outlive him. The knowledge had been in him from the start, of course. But it was a worriment fertilized by age: it took root and grew as his opportunit­ies to remedy it slowly died off. He had sensed it more and more often as he stirred together rich mulch from his father’s recipe or pruned branches with the delicacy of a surgeon, and he felt it keenly as he stood before the buried hands. He had been a good caretaker to his trees in every way but one. Who would care for them when he was gone?

The tree’s foliage blanketed his house all through that cold winter. Spring came late. He often glanced at the tree as he went about his chores. Who knew when, or if, it might flower again? But it doesn’t do to watch living things too intently, and so he kept his attentions casual. In April, he spotted a five-petalled blossom on the tree. His heart bloomed to see it.

All was as it had been before. Blossoms gave way to hands. The orchardist spent summer nights sleeping in the tree, cradled by the hands.

At the market, a young woman came to his stall each week. She was shy, with a limp she did not complain of or explain. She had an eye for the ripest, sweetest fruit, and also the fruit that would ripen best over the week. On the fifth Saturday of their acquaintan­ce, she brought him peach and apricot preserves that tasted of purest sunshine. On the sixth

Saturday, the parson, who was no relation to the girl, inquired how he had liked the preserves.

The next week a crowd of sisters and aunts accompanie­d her to the market, flapping and squawking like a flock of crows. The young woman separated herself from the group and made her way to his stall. She greeted him quietly as she studied the pears with a seriousnes­s that gratified him. He had in mind to ask whether he might hire her as an assistant, having calculated that he could afford to pay her a wage. He might teach her all he knew. If the weather was stormy or she was too tired to travel back to town, she might sleep on a cot in the big pantry, as he had as a boy. He thought it might please her, too, to lie surrounded by shelves stacked with gleaming jars of orange, gold, red, and green. By candleligh­t it was like being inside a stained glass chapel, or so he imagined. And in the summer she might sleep in the tree of hands. It seemed a rare and lovely thing to offer her, a chance to be lifted and held, to leave her infirmity on the ground and float above it.

The girl held out the pears she had chosen. She looked him full in the face for a moment. He did not know how to meet her level gaze. He glanced away to see her relations roosting watchfully at the baker’s stall and pictured them descending on his valley. He swallowed his offer and bundled her purchases without a word.

In the spring, seedlings appeared in the clearing where he had buried the hands. Within a few years, he had a grove of hand trees. Initially he fussed over them, but his pruning and fertilizin­g seemed to have no effect. He learned over time that they thrived best when he let them be. The orchardist spent more and more of his free time there, taking joy in the trees’ wild and luxuriant growth and comfort in his own superfluou­sness.

Other trees, too, showed signs of needing him less than he had once imagined. Along the northeaste­rn edge of the valley was a stand of stunted trees he’d given up on many years before because the soil drainage was poor there and some younger trees had grown tall enough to block out the sun. He had not been to the spot in years, but passing by one day he was surprised to see the scrubby trees weighed down with glossy red apples.

He stepped into the grove. It was cool and dusky. A family of yellow warblers darted among the haphazard, crisscross­ing branches. Their chirping was bright, like the flash of their wings.

An apple fell into his hand when he touched it. He rubbed off the dust and bit into it. It was crisp and sweet. A warbler perched on a branch to watch him. “Oughtn’t you to be flying south about now?” he said. But

he did not feel inclined to leave either. It was a restful place. He sat on a low branch. As he worked his way toward the apple’s core, he considered that his trees perhaps took care of him more than he took care of them.

Years passed. One afternoon in late autumn when he was bent with age, he walked out to the grove of hand trees with a wheelbarro­w of hands to bury. He found a small clearing between two trunks. The shovel he had bought from the peddler so many years before was sharp as ever, but his fingers and his back ached. The trees were fruitful; the hole he dug was more than large enough for a man. Exhausted, he rested the shovel against the trunk of the nearest tree. He could not catch his breath. Shhh, went the leaves overhead. Something gripped his heart, pain or regret or gratitude. Then that feeling ended, and his heart stopped. He tumbled gently into the hole. A pair of hands from the nearest tree took up the shovel and covered him over with loose earth.

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