The Wanderer: The apple

The wanderer stopped at the side of the road, stooped down, and considered an apple that had settled itself into the muddy sluiceway.

It did not appear to have come there naturally. There were apple trees in the distance, to be sure: Ghostly fingers reaching up into the late November sky, backed by a gray soup of swirling clouds. But those were far away, and this apple did not carry the scars and wounds of a fruit that had been taken from its natural milieu by a curious animal.

This apple was red all around, unblemished by bruises or cuts.

It could have fallen off a passing truck, but if so, where were any of its compatriots? Why wasn’t there a line of apples strewn intermittently along the road? Why had this apple, and this one alone, jumped out of the truck’s bed and found its way into the mud?

The apple was damp and cold. It felt densely cold, as if it had fully absorbed the moroseness of its context. The bright red skin belied its fatalistic meat. In the fading light of evening, the wanderer could see that redness, which had resisted the chill in the air with callous defiance, beginning to swoon.
Even as it had stood up to the ravages of the brisk autumn gusts, the skin had forgotten its reliance on sunlight for its strength. Its boldness was in its redness, and without that, it was nothing. It might glow for a while after the dusk had completely taken hold, but eventually, it would yield. It would coalesce. It would converge.

The man held the apple close to his nose. It smelled sweet. It smelled like autumn ought to smell: Not the oppressive chill of November, but the warmth of campfires and the crackle of burning leaves piled high in the middle of the yard, streams of smoke curling up, upward, farther up to the cloudless sky, to the full moon bearing down with all her might, to the stars that, out here, away from the cities, still dotted the sky.

He held the apple close to his nose, and for a moment he forgot himself, he opened his mouth and pressed the skin to his teeth and ran his tongue up against the cold chill… and then he remembered. Like an electric shock, pulsing through his soul, he remembered.

In anger, he pulled back, ready to throw the apple. In his mind’s eye, the wanderer saw the apple hurtling across the sky, barely visible in the impending night, landing somewhere, out there, in the darkness and the solitude, left to rot. To rot slowly. To be forgotten, half buried in the cold, muddy earth. To be buried by snow, slowing its decay. Perhaps it would even be there in springtime, long enough for its hope to be crushed as it will tilled for the summer crops.

The wandered held back. That could not be this apple’s fate. Not after it had struggled to survive even in its own death. An unblemished fruit deserved a better ending than that.

The man took a handkerchief out of his pocket, and carefully wrapped the fruit in it. He tucked it tightly into his pocket, adjusting it so that it would be protected as the man continued on his way.

This would be its beginning, the man decided, not its ending. This was as it had been decreed.

The abandoned dacha

That morning, I met with Oleg in the house in the valley at the bottom of the steep road that nobody with any sense would ever try to drive up, the one carved straight up the side of the hill because people in that part of the world had apparently never heard of switchbacks.

I remember thinking about that road, about how precarious it was, and yet at some point it had been built by people who thought it was a worthwhile idea, and at some point it had been used by people who were not nearly as afraid of gravity as I was. As Oleg was.

For ourselves, we’d made our way to the valley, individually, by way of the footpaths that had been beaten through the weeds by marchers over time, by the consensus of the people who needed to go up and down that hill and who had chosen the same, relatively safe paths.

Oleg had gotten there before me. He was being paid hourly, and so he made it there before anyone else so he could claim he’d gotten there any time that he’d thought we’d believe. I was paid in food, shelter, and gratitude, and so I got there when it suited me. He’d already been there two hours, or so he told me.

The sun was still suggesting morning; the heat was noticeable, but comfortable.

There was a stray dog wandering along the dirt road that had once serviced Ladas, carting furtive peasants around the valley ring below the erstwhile fort at the top of the hill. The road was mostly overgrown; now and then, someone would manage to force a car along it, the crunching of stripped gears punctuating their attempts, but for the most part, it was a footpath now. Another footpath, through a gash in the world that technology had forgotten about.

We were to pull weeds. It was a Sisyphusian task: The nettles were up to my waist, and we without gloves were rasping our skin raw. After two days, it looked like we had barely made a dent. We had cleft a path to the front door of the house. That was it.

That was where I found Oleg, taking his break. His breaks were as long as his work periods, which was the Ukrainian way. Or so he told me. Or so, at least, I think he told me, because his broken English was barely serviceable and my Ukrainian, then as now, non-existent.

“I’m don’t know,” he said, wiping the back of his hand against his forehead. “This house. Is not good.”

I stepped through the threshold. This had once been someone’s life. Most likely, a dacha, a summer home. Someplace to put up one’s feet for a few months, to catch snatches of solitude and relative peasant comforts before the Soviet Russians had come and claimed them as communal property. And then, of course, left them alone. Left them to go back to the elements.

This had once been someone’s life. If the walls could have talked, they would have sighed wistfully and waxed nostalgic. But now, the walls were barely recognizable as such, with chunks of plaster and wood missing entirely, or collapsed onto the floor.

This was the living room, but I could look straight up and see the cloudless blue sky above me.

“Do they really want us to sleep here?” I asked, mostly rhetorically.

“I’m don’t know,” Oleg said again. He was just the hired help. We were just the American scholars whose hotel fees had gotten too expensive for City Hall. This was just their attempt at an idea, a building they possessed because the Soviet Union had willed it to them after its demise.

I tore at a stinging nettle that was growing up through the living room floor. I pulled it, caressed it, considered the ball of dirt that was snowing onto my feet.

“This place needs to be torn down,” I said. It was not a decision that was within my power to make.

Oleg laughed, then stood up and went back outside (which is to say, back to the other side of the doorway). I heard him start to hum a happy Ukrainian song as he went back to pulling weeds.

This was the decision point: This was the message. We never did sleep in that house. We wound up staying in what had been a low-level government office of some sort, a miserable and dusty place with gaping holes in the walls, no climate control, unreliable electricity, and an outhouse out back that we shared with the clothing factory next door.

The message was: No more hotel. The other message was: Don’t complain about the quarters we give you, because we can give you worse.

Looking back, I wonder what happened to that dacha. Sometimes I think that we were the last humans sanctioned to visit it, its last gasp to be connected, officially, with human hands. As I drive through Detroit and see its gutted skeletons, the tendon my soul has with that lonely dacha gets tugged just a little bit.

Just a little.

A Sad Pantoum, Mine

There was something about the trees:

Their burning leaves,
Curling up on the ground
In a black-gray fog.

Their burning leaves
A dark sadness, full of regret
In a black-gray fog.

Dead fruit rotting on the earth:
A dark sadness, full of regret,
As our cold tongues inspired to speak like
Dead fruit rotting on the earth.

Would it be so soon our time?

As our cold tongues inspired to speak like
There was something about the trees:
Would it be so soon our time,
Curling up on the ground?

— ptkh 11-11-12