by Joy Spahr
The first time Mary Anne murdered a man, she puked all over the blue and yellow plaid apron that used to be her mother’s. She tried to wash out the stains, but the skirt was eternally soiled and she had to bury it with the body. The first time she cut into a man’s throat and released the volcano of warm, thick blood, her hands shook. She struggled to keep the blade on task as it wobbled and clung to muscle and flesh. It was almost Autumn, that first time. The ground was soft and there was a cool breeze after the sun deserted its subjects. She was careful, even then, to make sure she left enough room in between the grave and the hole. She had read that if the fertilizer comes too close too soon, it can overwhelm the sapling and kill the baby tree before it ever takes root. She wrapped the body in an old blanket that she found in the garage and the bottom of the tree in an ice cold towel. Both sat for two nights while she picked the perfect spot and prepared the ground. When she was ready to plant them, she used her father’s rusty old furniture dolly to carry them to their new homes. Strapping the corpse in was surprisingly easy. She’d expected him to fold into a heap of farting jelly like he did right after he died, but he was as solid as the frozen tree roots and once she buckled and pulled tight the nylon belts, he gave up with little fight. She was pretty sure she’d broken a bone somewhere because she heard a crack when she kicked the wheels back and began to cart him across the faded brick sidewalk that encircled her little green house.
Getting the tree in the ground was a lot more challenging. The video she’d watched suggested mixing store bought soil with ground and instructed her to make sure that once laid down, the thick green and brown tentacles were arranged as to not strangle the life out of their brothers and sisters. She had dug the hole just a little too deep and had reach in past her elbows to sort out the mess. When she finally had both new life and dead man sufficiently planted, she closed the ground with purpose and pride, like a surgeon closing a wound. She cared for that first tree as if it was her first born. She’d lay a blanket over the unmarked grave and kneel in front of her offspring. Pruning and tending and humming it a song. She’d heard music was the trick- showing the little tree love. She’d ask it outright to bear her fruit and talk to it about the delicious things she’d bake with it’s harvest. She felt like a mother and a grandmother at the same time.
As time went on, she became less squeamish about the murders. She’d learned to do it in the yard, at night so no one could drive by and see and she wouldn’t have to haul them so far. She’d meet them at her stand and sell them gorgeous ripe apples. She only offered Fuji and Red Delicious. She said the Granny Smiths were for baking, not eating. She liked to watch the sweet juice run down their chins as they took their last bites. Her apples were known to be the biggest and the sweetest. Everyone wanted to know her secret. She told some of them about the singing.
The men would come to see her. Many of them would drive by first with their families or their girlfriends. They would notice her modestly arranged little stand, painted white and lined with red gingham napkins she’d sewn herself. She would catch and then hold their eyes as they rubbernecked. She knew what they were thinking. She saw the want in them as they caught a glimpse of her muscular legs backlit by the sun and visible through her strapless cotton dresses. She could tell they were imagining tasting her pink lips while they were telling their passengers they had a craving for some fresh fruit. Sometimes they’d lose control for a moment as they passed, letting their tires slip into the country mud before correcting themselves.
When they came back in the evening, they’d alternate compliments and questions and always ask for a sample so they could linger while they ate. She’d wince as their teeth broke the skin. It pissed her off, but she’d smile politely, fingers crossed behind her back, and invite them to see the trees. They’d follow her like obedient children. In the beginning, she hit some of them with a shovel or let them think she was open to their advances and stabbed them hard right above the belt line as they learned in close. But she’d learned that bringing them down first before she finished them off was less efficient than it sounds. The best and cleanest way was to take them to the spot where she’d be planting her next bud and as they bent down to admire her work, bring the knife quick and clean across their Adam’s apple. She missed out on watching the light go out of their eyes, but she’d hear them gurgle “why” and that was enough to satiate her.
It’s important to note, because it’s important to Mary Anne, that she was never a victim. No stepfathers or hairy uncles snuck into her room and fiddled with her innocence while her mother lay drunk on the living room sofa. No god fearing relatives locked her in a closet to pray or beat her with kitchen tools. Her parents didn’t get murdered at a bodega in front of her or burn up in a fire that she started. Her father taught her how to tend the land and left her this house. Her mother taught her the precision and the art of baking the perfect pie. She had pets and friends and and took dance class in town. She got fairly good grades and went to community college for a year and half. No boy in particular broke her heart and no girls called her names or refused to let her come to their sleep overs.
It was interesting to her that the men would ask her why. How should she know? Was she the one who left a wife and kids back at some overpriced bed and breakfast, waiting in a stranger’s old house with a stack of chewed up board games and spotty wifi? If they’d told where they were going, someone would surely have come looking, but they never did. The guilt of what they wanted outweighing their self preservation. Of course, no one, man or woman, ever really saw her as a threat, so it was easy to let their guards down. And they did, finally, after the initial begging with their eyes and clawing at their throats trying to scoop the blood back in with their fingers, they all let down their guard. Eventually, they all became as quiet and still as branches on a windless day.
As her land became more and more productive, she became more efficient. She tried hiring machinery, but to be economical, she’d have to pay for six or seven holes at a time and leaving them until she had the perfect ingredients to plant was bad for the baby trees, so she invested in a portable trencher and an electric digger. No one questioned her purchases because her apples had become famous throughout the town and the next one over. Sometimes, she’d hire the young boy who lived a half mile down the road to come help her get things started. She made it a point, as much as she could, to lay blankets on the graves and sing soft music to her trees.
The first time she’d killed a man, she got sick. Each time after, as she simultaneously took and spawned a life, she became stronger and more sure of herself. Her arms were like trunks that could hold up the world. Her hair blew in the wind in concert with the leaves, and her skin was smooth and glistened in the rain like dew on the apple blossoms. She drew life from her private forest and she kept it well fed.
And as her trees grew old, so did she. Her dark curls turned brittle and grey and her moist lips became surrounded by what her mother had called “smile lines.” She had a better chance of seducing a man with the sweet smell of apples and cinnamon cooling in her window cill than by bearing her sun damaged shoulders. The once fiery reds and iridescent greens that had lit up the grove were faded yellows and pinks. Their juice, once so tarte, your cheeks would pucker up at the first bite, or so sweet, you had to close your eyes and drink it in like a baby vampire, was bland and grainy. She tried singing more often. She offered birds and bunnies and other garden pests, but nothing could bring back the luster and lust that had marked these trees as Mary Anne’s. She became week and her core was cut with rings from the inside out. She spent most of her time on the front porch of her little green house drinking store bought cider and remembering the satisfaction of planting her orchard.
She died sometime in late October. No one noticed for quite a while. The locals had stopped calling on her for fresh fruit and hot pies. Tourist who drove by the country road could barely see the old wooden cart now overgrown with weeds and brush. When they found her, after a winter thaw, her body had melted into the dead leaves next to a large grey tree. The dirt covered bones and grey matted curls looked like discarded branches and rotten roots. The ground was too cold for them to bury her there, so she was sent to the crematorium, her ashes spread in that same spot in the Spring. Some years later, a hipster real estate developer bought the property from the probate court. He had plans to turn it into a quaint little restaurant and hotel for city folk who wanted to unplug. He brought in his own construction crew, refusing to let a single job go to a local for fear his corner cutting might get called out. Unfortunately, he never got a chance to earn back his investment once the digging began and Mary Anne’s secrets were uprooted at last.
Joy Spahr is a full time mom, part time student. She enjoys making up silly stories to tell her 4 year old son and writing stories that he’s not allowed to read for a few more years.
She has worked as an assistant editor for The Gateway Review and had work published in the Mid Rivers Review. She is currently pursuing a creative writing certificate at St. Charles College.