So I do. A weather advisory on television.
—There’s a hard frost coming late tonight.
Coming from where or how or why I do not know.
—Will we drink coffee, sit up late, light smudge pots beneath the trees?
By the look on his face, I know that I am disdained, outsider and optimist, stupid girl. I am tactless or foolish, to be asking such questions, as if having a farm were having a party.
No doubt I should feel ashamed, to be thrilled by this threat, by the romance of burning chimneys arrayed in a dark orchard. The farmer and I, working all night to save his cherry crop—and what if we really were to fail, the new blossoms wilting like crepe paper gone damp? I would trail after him then, his apprentice, having exhausted my book learning, hoping that he might remember a lesson taught to him by another farmer, of some older tragedy, overcome. And if he did, afterward we would run back to his house, the frostbitten blossoms kissing our faces, the orchard reborn, our livelihoods secured—and it might seem as if the farmer were a younger man, mine. All the way down the dirt road home our boots would make the frozen mud crack—a sound more exciting than deadly—and we would trade embraces back and forth, clasp hands, our faces shining and ageless in the fragile light. Only under the yellow bulb in the back hallway would we remember ourselves: me, a college girl, a finagler of off-campus study grants, a supposed lover of the land, struck by the notion to be a fruit farmer; and him, a fruit farmer. Maybe then he would put his hat off and on and I would find a difficult knot in my bootlace, so that we wouldn’t look at each other until the dangerous moments had passed, and he was an old man again, and I, a plump, foolish girl.
This farm hunkers on a prime plot of land, hundreds of acres near the end of a peninsula; from the rattled windows of the farmer’s tall house we can see two blue bays of Lake Michigan, dark and boatless at this time of day and emanating cold, still, at this time of year. Most nights, after we eat our separate dinners and wash our separate dishes, the farmer telephones his mother, downstate in an assisted living facility, and I sit in a Shaker chair at the old kitchen table and reflect on what I’ve learned that day, typing up whatever fruit facts or pseudo-sociological observations occur to me in these interminable moments. Most of the other orchards have been sold off to real estate developers or plowed under and planted with grapes; most of the other farmers have retired now to Florida, or have turned into vintners, with tasting rooms in the old outbuildings, vats of grapes fermenting where the soaking bins once stood, and wine tourists navigating the peninsula in wobbly caravans. The farmer’s mother is past ninety, but every night, for hours, she lectures him on the proper maintenance of the cherry trees (telling him when to spray, prune, pick, sell), and it is a wonder to me that he can bear to be apart from her, tall broad woman wearing pants even in her wedding photo; indomitable woman whose six children were born in this very house. If I am nothing next to him, I am less than nothing compared to her, and yet the farmer has loaned me her tall old bed, whose creaks console me these nights I can’t sleep—because my thesis is a compilation of anecdote and pressed cherry blossoms, and because my senior spring is unfolding far from campus, where is it likely that no one will visit, and no care packages come.
On this clear cool night I cannot find harbingers of frost, insensitive as I am to the climate here: to the smells of the northern air, the criss-crossing breezes off the two bays, the phases of the moon, which I notice only when the moonlight grows strong enough to brighten my room, lighting the black trees below, rendering them haiku-like in beauty and defiant of all my attempts to photograph or sketch them. The farmer and I have finished our nightly rituals by the time the frost advisory is announced on the news; I have asked my questions—will there be coffee, wakefulness, smudge pots?—and he has given me a look like a king would a commoner, as if surprised, given the content of what I have uttered, that I am capable of speech at all, a being below him, dumb as a dog but not quite as serviceable or handsome.
—Yes, he says slowly, and I am pleased that I can at least name the procedures, even if I do not know, not for a single minute, what it is like to make a living at the mercies of weather and agritourism; but though I cannot sympathize with him in these respects, I do know—I think I have always known—what it feels like to be left alone in an emptied house, disregarded, and unsure whether the larger world exists or matters.
This early in the growing season migrant workers have not yet arrived in Michigan—their cinderblock quarters stand dark and spider-filled behind the pole barn (and it must mean something that I am sleeping in the farmer’s house, rather than in one of these dank cabins)—so it will be up to the two of us, the farmer and me, to fill the smudge pots ranged between the trees, to light those pots, to keep them lit, all night until the sun rises and drives off the killing frost. I need you to work like a man, he says, and coughs, as if embarrassed by this lapse in our etiquette, which so far has consisted of never acknowledging that the other person has a gender, no matter what thoughts we’re thinking instead of writing our thesis; I imagine he coughs also for his mother, who could do the work of both of us, if her heart hadn’t started to give out, if her hands were not gnarled like tree roots, from having begun work in the orchards before she was even old enough for elementary school.
It is a long, cold night—longer by several factors than the most desperate all-nighter I pulled at college—but the man that the farmer had hoped to find in me does emerge, even if his muscles are hidden by my round body; even if he cries to himself as he works up and down the endless rows of trees, lighting pots with a diesel torch and waiting as the farmer adjusts the roaring flames; and even if he realizes hours before daybreak, half-choked by smoke and staggering into saplings, that he does not have the fortitude to be a farmer. When morning comes at last, when at last the mercury rises, the crop will be safe, the sun will be bright, the farmer will be (at least temporarily) relieved, and—caked in soot, sweat, tears—I will fall fully dressed into the farmer’s mother’s bed, to be awakened at noon by a knock at my door, a cough, and an invitation to share the farmer’s ham and eggs, to take my place opposite him at the scored kitchen table, where, many years ago, like me, he did his school work, plotted his future, and weighed whether or not he could become a farmer.
—You did good last night, he says. You did good, but you ought to get back to school.
Of course I have anticipated this, from the beginning, a quiet moment like this when my internship would come into question, when someone—farmer, parent, friend—would question my right to be here, would cast me back into my other life. But why now? Out the kitchen window, all I see are blurred cherry trees, at the earliest stage of their slow ripening. Each bud saved by us. Maybe it is too much for him, too, this life of constant heroism. Maybe he’d like to leave—like me.
—Will you sell?
The farmer eyes me, eyes his orchard, and I wonder how many hard harvests he has seen. He has estimated me rightly; I am no substitute for the son he never had, the wife he didn’t seek or never found. But we both smell of burnt oil; we both have our heads full of smudge pots and paper blossoms. And why not?
The farmer shakes his head, looks away. —Too late.
Stephanie Carpenter’s work has appeared in Big Fiction, Crab Orchard Review, turnrow, Avery, The Saint Ann’s Review, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from Syracuse University and a PhD in English and Creative Writing from the University of Missouri. She lives in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula—where, at press time, it is probably still snowing.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: In graduate school, my workshop instructor asked us to invent writing exercises for ourselves. I decided to use prime numbers as my constraint: each sentence in the story is a successive prime number of words in length, from 2 to 103. The end of the story breaks from this pattern, but the word counts of those sentences are also prime numbers. I didn’t know what the story would be when I began writing, but as the first short lines took shape, this subject suggested itself. I’m from Traverse City, Michigan—the Cherry Capital of the World—so cherries and the complexities of growing them are pretty deeply ingrained in my consciousness.
Q: What does your writing space look like?
A: It’s a slope-ceilinged attic with a chimney running up the middle. I don’t like desks, so I tend to work from a chaise lounge, with my laptop in my lap.
Q: What’s your writing process?
A: Turn off the internet for two hours; write. Repeat if things are going well.
Q: What living writer do you admire most and why? Is there a particular book you refer to again and again?
A: I love the complexity and intelligence of Claire Messud’s characters. I go back to Rebecca Curtis’s stories for help with plot, characterization through imagery, dialogue…just about everything, really.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’ve got a couple of short stories underway and a pair of novellas in the planning stages. The novellas are historical in setting, as is my first novel, which is currently on the market.