In the Orchard | Winner of the 2019 Construction Fiction Prize
When the girls gathered around Eleanor in the black walnut orchard behind the middle school, she caught the first whiff of Fall. Decay and rot stung her nose; the season’s first black walnuts had already fallen. Something about how the girls had said her name made it sound unfamiliar: they had to say it several times to get her attention, to stop, and turn around. Her gaze had been caught by the sight of the trees, of the walnuts hanging on the branches, the ones already on the ground, how there were so very many of them. She had been in a world of her own, and Eleanor didn’t know these girls or understand how they knew her. These girls had known each other since long before they ever attended school. They could recognize each other in all their forms. Even now as they wore ironed white blouses over the curves of breasts that had emerged over the summer. The way her name moved through their rounded mouths sounded like a threat.
That morning, her aunt had suggested that it might be time to begin making friends, for Eleanor to make an effort. After all, she was here for good now, and she would be with these girls until high school. Eleanor thought too that maybe she would try, maybe in this place she could be someone different than who she had always been. In the last place she lived, her neighbors and the other children in her classes never warmed up to her. They seemed to think her mother’s troubles infected her as well, as if anger and madness were contagious. Eleanor could understand this, in a rage or on one of her darker days, her mother scared Eleanor too. These kinds of fevers were unpredictable; no one could tell what set her mother off. But here, no one knew her mother. Eleanor did hope she could start fresh at this school. She wanted to try, to be a girl who smiled easily, who fit in wherever she went. She wanted to be the kind of girl that didn’t stand apart. Yet, as she took the first steps into the new classroom, at the new school, and heard the conversations around her stop every morning, she couldn’t smile or shrug off the newness easily, as if she’d always belonged. She didn’t know how to relax her face or how to smile on command. When Tess pulled her aside before the class went to lunch that day, Eleanor understood that it didn’t matter, that a fresh start was a false pretense, that adults gossip too. It made her first pick of the girls this year. Tess said it might make her the only pick.
The girls continued to say her name as they closed in on her. Their voices together created a kind of hum that buzzed in her ears. Her body, between her rib cage warmed and spread, a caged bird wanting an escape. Eleanor kept walking, but now backward downhill on the bumpy ground of the orchard. She rolled her feet toe-heel-back, now aware of her posture. She focused on keeping her back yardstick straight, her head up. These girls were not taller than her, but they were wider, possibly heavier, and they kept up with her stride. Her ankle rolled mid-step, but she caught her balance and stayed upright. Her skin chilled with the realization that she had to stay upright.
In a fairy tale, there would be an incantation she could say, an innate intelligence only she had for outsmarting these girls or a piece of wisdom given to her from her recently dead mother. But here there was nothing for her. She didn’t know the rules of this school or the kinds of friendship these girls had. Eleanor hadn’t yet learned their names, she remembered only the name of Tess Gunderson, the girl who had forewarned her again before the bell had rang. Before she died, her mother hadn’t given her any kind of wisdom, any kind of warmth. Only shadows and her wailing cry in the dark.
The clouds gathered; wind brushed through the branches, each gust dropped a new cascade of the thick pimpled green hulls of the walnuts to the ground, the sound a heavy full monosyllabic note. Already scattered were the previous days’ falls. The hulls began to rot immediately, enveloped in their own dark rank earthliness.
Eleanor’s house was down the hill, not far from the entry into the orchard, where her street dead ended at the entrance. Her house was the second one from the end. The neighbor’s yard she walked past that morning was full of dandelions. The husband collected the yellowed feathered heads to make wine, while the wife sautéed the greens with garlic. The scent wafted through the neighborhood, a somewhat bitter medicinal smell. Eleanor walked past their house in the last three weeks of afternoons and wondered what it would be like to have parents who felt nurtured by their environment, who took what the earth provided for their meals. If she could just get down the hill. She had no guarantee those neighbors were home or that they would recognize her. Her move in with her aunt and uncle was sudden. She hadn’t officially met them, only seen them in passing as they checked the mailbox or as they moved through their kitchen on the other side of their curtained windows. They stripped the leaves directly off dandelion stems, and plucked the heads off with efficient snaps, both of them mouths moving, talking to each other.
Eleanor kept her eyes fixed on the girls. Clouds darkened overhead and a rumble of thunder rolled through the sky. She wished for a storm, a downpour, as if it would deter them. But the thunder was dry, in isolation, and they came from this place. They were not scared of rain; like crows, it didn’t bother them. The weight of water would not disrupt their movements.
The girls moved closer still. As they narrowed the distance around her, it seemed there were more of them, a row behind the girls who first called her name, and another behind them. Their long skirts swished around their shins. Their hair had spent the day in braids, but now their waves hung loose around their faces and down their chests. The heat of their bodies and their sharp vinegary and bitter scent pressed against her. Their lips were stained red; wine red, apple red, pomegranate red. All of them were hungry.
A crow called, and another answered, but the girls stayed focused.
“You might as well stop walking,” the lead girl said. Her chin came to a point, pale skin with freckles, sky blue eyes, so light, Eleanor didn’t think this girl could be human. Her hair was as black as the crows that landed on the ground not far from all of them. The girls bent down to pick their walnuts, while still looking her in the eye. They could tell by feel which ones were the more rotten, the ones whose hulls would begin to break apart, the ones that would stain her new school uniform. They picked up their skirts with one hand, so the fabric looped into a basket, and with the other hand, they dropped in the fist-sized globes.
Tess Gunderson had said that the girls had this game, that they had had this game for so long, they couldn’t remember whose idea it was or if it was a game learned from their older sisters or their mothers before that. The game had been around so long it seemed as if the idea had risen from the ground itself where the Black Walnuts grew. Only dirt circled each tree, because nothing else could grow there, not even grass, because Black Walnuts poisoned the ground for everything else. This had been the only thing her aunt had told her about her new home.
The girls backed her against the trunk of a tree. The sky grew darker, and a series of crows cawed-cawed behind her. Gusts of wind blew, and the next series of walnuts rained down from the branches all around her and the girls, like giant hailstones that could break the surface of the earth, walnuts far heavier than anyone could have imagined. A knot of the tree wedged in between her shoulder blades. Eleanor pressed her hands into the bark and dug her fingernails in. She had been told she had a high tolerance for pain, and at the time, she had thought it was obvious. How else would one get through life? But now her mind showed only black and she realized it wasn’t a high pain tolerance at all, but numbness, as if the center inside of her had a seed of deadness, a black hole, where nothing could grow, no different than the tree in her backside. The girls closed in, and Eleanor saw that within her it had always been dark and she had always been alone, and if there had been a flicker of light it would have surprised her. She wouldn’t have known what to do with it or how to feel. Still, she jutted her chin out at these girls, forced her gaze to the clear blue eyes of the girls. She wished for a spine of stone and as the girls fingered the walnuts in their palms, she found herself wondering if this was what her aunt had meant by making friends, if the game was what girls did to each other, if becoming like them or not were the only two choices. Tess Gunderson had tried to tell her, but Eleanor didn’t know what she would have done differently; she didn’t yet know the long way around to her house. She didn’t know any other way. She wondered what Tess thought she could have done and what she would say to Tess the next day. She wondered what she would say to her aunt, how she would explain her ruined clothes, or how she didn’t know how to prevent the violence she inspired in other people, as they couldn’t help themselves. Another gust of wind, and the walnuts fell.