....by Larry Lynch
"A boy's will is the wind's will, and the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts"
- Robert Frost, who daydreamed so much in school he was expelled.
Mable's large breasts lead her around my mother's kitchen. She rearranges napkins and spoons on the table, more ill at ease than I have ever seen her. I remember her in high school—she walked the halls with her shoulder tight to the wall, with her arms folded across her chest, her eyes trained to the floor. Able Mable. She looked ashamed even before she got pregnant. Able Mable's over-the-shoulder-boulder-holders. Teenagers can be cruel. Able Mable, what do you eat to make your tits so big? the boys said. We girls laughed—some out loud, some out of allegiance. That was eight years ago. Today she forgives me with tea, in my mother's china, trying not to treat me like a guest.
Mable can not hide her discomfort. If I was not here she might be less miserable, or at least feel less like she has to feign some sort of normalcy. If I were not here, I would be at home feeling the same way she does, doing unnecessary things to avoid the awkward silence that has taken over my married life.
"Do you mind the radio?" she asks me. She turns it on then rolls the dial in one direction and then the other, as if a new station might change everything. But there is only one station that comes in during the day here in this valley. At night there are a few more that come in clear from as far away as Halifax. A ten minute drive in any direction produces a choice of stations on the dial in the car. In the daytime there is one. Static fills my mother's kitchen.
I remember what the kitchen looked like before my mother added her elegance to it. It was she who wanted the wood burning stove, with its heavy lid and white enamel door. And the shelf that circles the room only a foot or so from the ceiling—her idea and effort—is lined with antique bottles, jars of spices, cookbooks, and knickknacks in which my father sees no charm, (I wonder if he notices it at all), but in which my mother found simplistic, eloquent style. The ball of aluminum foil squeezed around the antenna of the radio is my father's touch. Every day he would come in at lunch and he and my mother would listen to the news, then the funeral announcements while he ate. All the while I know they quietly considered their own aches and pains. The ball of aluminum foil on the antenna still bears the impression of my father's hand, as the walls and cupboards and shelves bear that of my mother's.
The first two weeks of June are painted pink and white, my mother would say when she was alive. Pink and white clouds of witnesses, she said as she stared with satisfaction at my father's orchard that stretched from the barn to the river. I didn't make that up, she would admit after a quotation such as that. Kay Smith, she told us. My father allowed her to rub salve on his sun-burned neck while he ate. I know somewhere in the rows of books in her sitting-room are Kay Smith, and Robert Frost, and countless others from whom she could quote, and from where I imagined she drew her gentle countenance. My father does not see clouds of witnesses. He sees blossoms crowded thick and many, needing to be thinned—the smaller outside ones culled so the large center ones can bear the largest fruit. My mother struggled, but eventually succumbed. A thick blanket of blooms wept over her grave in a spring of pink and white lament.
We moved to this house when Dad retired from the Air Force. The field that slopes to the river was a tangle of long grass and neglected, scattered trees then. The house was ordinary. My father pruned, planted, grafted, and fertilized while inside my mother painted, decorated. Each spring cars would stop on the side of the road in front of our house. People would come to the door and ask to walk between the rows when the trees were alight with their pastel petals. I even recall people in their tuxedos and white satin, posing for posterity with the blooms and the river as their backdrop. We should charge admission, my father joked with my mother. At times, this place was like a well- marked tourist destination. People from all over the province, from New Brunswick, even Maine and New Hampshire found their way here, and roamed freely as if they had been invited. They walked between the rows, photographing, smelling, and touching the blossoms. They would come into the barn and press my father with questions. How many trees are there? Why are the limbs of some trees bowed toward the ground and tied to stakes with rope? They asked about the knobby deformed bulges on the trees. I remember my father's reluctant, rehearsed explanation of grafting. People wandered throughout the barn, a museum to them, eventually finding their way to the large window in the hay mow. There they lingered in the all-encompassing view of the orchard sloping down to drink from the river, or the river from it.
GRAFTING - in grafting, the surfaces of two freshly cut stems are bound tightly together so that they can not twist or pull apart. The tissues of the stems grow together, and the stems fuse into a single functioning plant. The most common grafting methods are known as cleft grafting, and budding. Cleft grafting is accomplished by inserting the tapered end of a scion into a correspondingly shaped notch, or cleft, cut into the cambial region of the larger stock. In the budding method, the scion consists of a bud and a narrow strip of bark and phloem around it. Bud grafting is usually most successful in late summer and early autumn before the bark of the stock hardens and becomes tight. Grafts are usually most successful between members of the same species (apple on apple, peach on peach). Some plants can be grafted onto other species in the same genus: oranges on lemon roots (both genus Citrus), or peaches on plum roots (both genus Prunus). Grafts between different plant families (orange on apple roots, grape on walnut roots) usually don't form a union at all and in any case, never survive long enough to make a desirable plant.
My father's patients were limited. Are limited. I remember him fleeing the crowds of strangers. I escaped with him on the tractor to the river where he attached a pump to the rear of tractor. Through the elaborate system of pipes and nozzles my father had arranged, he pumped water from a deep pool at the rivers edge—a pool that slabs of ice had carved out over the years, and where my mother watched me swim each summer until the shore became so eroded that it was impossible to climb up the steep, slippery bank. To the delight of the people crowded in the window of the hay mow, the pump cast a canopy of spray over the orchard. He guaranteed both crop and curiosity with the water.
The year my mother was dying, died, my father neglected the orchard. Both small and large blossoms alike eventually turned to apples—undersized and numerous apples that rotted brown and soft in the long, unkempt grass under the trees. The subsequent spring the neglect was repeated. From blossoms to rotting apples, to seeds, to small unruly trees growing helter-skelter among those which had been so carefully tended. People stopped coming.
The production of grafted plants requires more skilled labor and considerably more time than that involved in producing plants from seeds or rooted cuttings, so grafted plants are usually more expensive than those produced by other means. Still, there are good reasons to graft some plants. Grafted plants are usually more uniform in their growth habit, flower color, flowering season, fruit size, shape, and quality, etc., than seed-grown plants. If you planted seeds from a 'Golden Delicious' apple, the resulting trees would produce fruit of varying types but none of them would bear 'Golden Delicious' fruit. Grafted trees, using scions cut from a 'Golden Delicious' tree, would all produce typical, 'Golden Delicious' apples.
I had not seen or thought of Mable McLeod in years until she came to the door with the ad from the newspaper in her hand. When she saw me, she stared at the door mat in our kitchen as if it was the tile hallway of the high school. My father hired Mable to do house work a few days a week while he and I spent all our time at the hospital. When my mother died, he hired her full-time. You have your own house to keep, my father told me when I offered to help. A year later he married her. Married Mable McLeod. Then it was I who stared at my feet when someone asked me, How is your father was doing these days? or said, So, Frank remarried?
I dreaded going to town. I still do. People went out of their way to talk to me once the news of my father's marriage spread. My line at the grocery check-out always grew behind me with curious people and asking curious questions, until it was the longest one in the store. After the newness was gone from the talk of my father's marriage, it turned conciliatory. I must have looked as though I needed convincing that my father marrying a woman the age of his daughter was a positive thing. Your father is too young to spend the rest of his life alone, they would say. Doesn't she have a boy around the same age as your young fella? Oh yes, I felt like saying, You're right. I guess that makes it OK. These days when they see me, Mable is usually with me, and no one knows what to say now. Since the boys died. Mable and I endure polite smiles. But, I am sure they find their tongues once we are out of sight. She said to me once while we drove back from town: It feels like I am back in school. I shook my head, feigning a look of bewilderment, and I touched my face to see if it was as hot as it felt.
That first time Mable came to the house, Jeffy pulled free of her hand and ran to where my son, Adam, sat playing with toy trucks in the front room. Tucks, he roared as his mother called after him. He knelt in front of Adam and said, Tucks? His face was only inches from Adam's. Adam passed Jeffy a truck, and he pushed it all around the room at full speed making loud engine noises. His name was Jeffery, but he could not say his R's, so everyone called him what he called himself.
Jeffy did everything full-speed, with his mother's constant gentle reminders, (too gentle, my father always remarked), following him everywhere. One minute Jeffy would be sitting quietly watching television, and the next he would be cutting something with the scissors, or dropping things into the toaster. He would take things from the house—books, pots, towels—and take them outside; one could not be sure exactly why, and he would lose them in the long grass, or leave them in the barn or in the middle of the driveway. He would pelt rocks against the mailbox, or throw rocks onto the tin roof of the barn and watch them clatter off.
My father avoided him. After he married, he called me almost everyday and asked me to visit and to bring Adam with me. Every time I drove into my father's driveway Jeffy would run to the car. I was always afraid he would run in front of it and that I would not be able to stop. When we arrived, I could see my father begin to relax. The boys played together like two puppies, racing amongst the trees, hiding from each other, or laying in the tall grass waiting to pounce and try to scare either my father or me. I could act surprised. My father could not. Once, when I went to get them for supper, I walked between the trees searching for them. I pretended as though I could not hear them giggling under the cover of branches that swooped to touch the ground. When I stood next to the tree and called their names, they giggled louder. "Adam. Jeffy. Supper." Giggles. "There's cake." They bolted from their hiding place and shouted that I could not race them to the house. They were red-faced and panting at the table when I came in behind them.
Jeffy liked to talk with his mouth as full as he could get it. Mable scolded him. I know it grated on my father's nerves, especially when Jeffy spoke to him. "Fank. Look." Jeffy liked to show him how many string beans he could get on his fork. My father just nodded, and urged him to finish his supper. There's something not right with that boy, he told me once. After supper, my father absolved himself in the barn. The boys played outside, or in Jeffy's room. Mable and I knitted the air in the kitchen into a tight awkwardness.
Use a sharp knife. A grafting knife needs to be literally razor-sharp. A dull knife will almost guarantee failure at grafting. Budsticks should be collected from young but firm stems of the plant you want to graft. Use stems which are no longer succulent, having produced some wood. Some recalcitrant species graft best if the wood is cut just as the buds are beginning to swell for a new growth flush. Budwood should immediately have all the leaves removed, to avoid wilting. Place the sticks in a plastic bag with a few drops of water, a damp paper towel, or a bit of moist peat moss, and seal the bag. If left in the sun, the wood may die within minutes, but in a shady, cool spot, it should last several days.
Mable is wearing a sleeveless cotton dress. Her arms are tanned only to the elbow. Nothing she wears or does, has ever done for that matter, as long as I have known her, makes her look at ease. I wonder if she looks as void of confidence when she sleeps. (When she first married my father I avoided using the upstairs bathroom at my father's house, because I would have to pass their bedroom and did not want to chance their door being open.) Her pale upper arms tremble and she steadies herself against the counter by the window. She looks toward the barn. Mable is about to cry. I know the signs. I have watched her. I have felt her shake, felt our tears trapped between her cheek and mine. I have looked into her eyes, brown like oiled leather, and seen my wet, inconsolable reflection in them. When she raises her hand and cups her mouth, my throat tightens as well. At her first sob, confusion and sorrow and blame and questions and tears will take over this kitchen. What remains when it is over will be the radio and the graceless tension that has always been us.
"Do you know if Dad wants anything in town?" We are preparing to drive to New Glasgow. The right words provide aversion.
"I don't know," she says, and stops shaking. "He never tells me anything. He hardly speaks." She looks to the barn. I looked to the barn in the same way after Mom died, wondering what solace he found there, while I felt ignored and guilty, as if I should have been able to prevent her death for him.
"I'll go ask him," I say.
I remember walking across the yard to the barn when I was sixteen to ask my father to use the car. My mother would watch from the kitchen window, and quickly ask me whether he said yes or no when I returned. I feel sixteen again. I know he hears me come into the barn, but he does not acknowledge me. He is fastening barrels to a wagon that is hitched to the tractor. The air in the barn is thick with smell of the fuel that sloshes in the barrels.
"We are going into town," I say. When he is like this—bitter, unapproachable—unless asked a direct question, he is deaf. If he does respond, it is brief and sharp, and makes you regret opening your mouth.
"What are you doing?" I persist.
I watch him tightening straps that secure the barrels to the wagon. The pump he used to water the orchard is on the wagon as well. He has not shaved today. He is panting, and looks anxious. Sweat sparkles in his beard. "Nothing," he says.
"We are going into town."
My father stands from his squatting position. His eyes are wide, and flash back and forth scanning my face. "Well? Go then," he starts loudly. "Take Mable and go into town." With each word, his shoulders relax. "I don't want anything." He says this low. I can barely hear him.
In addition to working quickly, you can prevent the cut surfaces of your scion from drying by making those cuts first, then storing the scion cut- side-down on your tongue while you work on the rootstock. Of course, scions of toxic species or plants you've recently sprayed with an insecticide shouldn't be placed in your mouth, but most commonly grafted plants are harmless. Commercial citrus budders often cut large numbers of scion buds at once, storing them in their cheeks for later use. Saliva is harmless to the buds and doesn't seem to promote rotting or other problems for the graft. Cut surfaces should not come in contact with the soil, which contains rotting organisms. Unless scions are in scarce supply, it is usually wise to discard any that are dropped on the floor.Mable and I were doing the supper dishes when Jeffy came running into the house. "Mommy!" he said. "Me and Adam need knives." He was winded from running, and stuck out his tongue in exaggeration.
"Knives?" Mable said. "What for?"
" ‘Cause Fank is cutting bugs. Me and Adam want to help."
"Bugs?" Mable said.
I knew what Jeffy meant. I told Mable that my father was in the barn cutting buds, and grafting them to root stock. I know she did not understand, but she looked relieved anyway. I was relieved he was tending his trees again.
Mable gave Jeffy two pairing knives and told him to be careful. He ran out of the house with them. "Don't run with those knives," she called after him, but the screen door was already flapping shut and he was out of sight. From the kitchen window the orchard was speckled with blooms. Nothing like the lushness that brought strangers to our door when my mother was alive. The tractor moved toward the river. The boys stood on either side of my father, steadying themselves with one hand on his shoulder, and one hand on the fender.
Mable looked out the window as she dried a bowl. Her chin was up. Mable looks like a different person when she is not looking at the floor. Her face is pale against her dark hair, and is more strong than delicate. But Jeffy was so fair. And so little—a head shorter than Adam. Wispy butter-colored hair, long eyelashes, and skin that darkened in the sun like bread crust. Looking at him, I could never help but wonder who his father was. I wondered if he had looked more like his mother, would she have been less humbled.
Later that evening, when the sun was low and painting everything with an orange light, the boys came running into the house again. They laughed and were tripping over one another. Their heads were tipped back so they would not lose what they were holding in their mouths.
"What do have in your mouth?" Mable got up to inspect.
"Bugs," Jeffy said.
"Bugs!" Mable shrieked. She cupped the back of Jeffy's head, and bent him forward encouraging him to spit into her other hand. He spit out bits of bark into her palm. I do not think there were any buds. I made Adam surrender his mouthful as well.
"Where is your grandfather?" I asked Adam.
"In the barn," he said. "We gotta go help him." Adam grabbed Jeffy's sleeve and they raced out of the house again. Mable and I shook our heads and grinned as we washed the spit and bark from our hands.
The time from when the sun casts its orange light, the light photographers wait all day for, to the time when everything is gray, is brief. Washed in pre-dusk gold, the orchard fades from the warmest pinks and greens, to matted shades of black and not-so- black that blend grass and trees, earth and sky, into silhouettes in a matter of minutes.
My father came into the house. "Are the boys in here?" he asked us.
"Aren't they in the barn with you?" I said.
"They were." He turned and went back outside.
Mable went to the window. All that was visible was a thin ribbon of sky between the horizon and the night. She turned on the radio, and wheeled the dial until something from Halifax or Truro came in. I am not sure how long it was before I heard my father calling my name. Two songs. Maybe five or six. Time seems longer when it is just Mable and I in the kitchen. The first time I heard it, I thought it was the radio. "Katherine." Then again, louder. "Katherine." I went to the window as well. The small light on the front of my father's tractor was bouncing through the darkness, making its way from the river. "Katherine." I shut off the radio. "Katherine." The tractor stopped at the front of the house. I turned on the porch light, and Mable followed me outside. My father rushed passed us, with a boy over each shoulder. "I didn't know," he said. "I didn't know."
My father was wet to the chest, and mud and water dripped on the floor. He lay the boys on the floor, and knelt beside them. "I couldn't…" he started to say, looking back and forth between Mable and I. "I didn't see them go…"
I know I cried. And screamed Adam's name. I kissed his face, his cold face. I stroked his matted and muddy hair. And cried. And cried. And cried. My father called the ambulance. When they came, I remember they had to pry Jeffy, little Jeffy, from his Mable's arms. She held him tight and rocked back and forth with him on the floor. She trembled, and tears ran down her neck. She kept saying his name. Jeffery. Oh, Jeffery.
In warm weather, keep a graft wrapped 3-6 weeks, depending on the species being grafted. If callus tissue has developed on all the cut surfaces, the graft is probably ready to be unwrapped. (Callus is the wound-healing tissue of the plant, and looks like a small blob of white or pale tan spongy material.) In cold weather, grafts should be left wrapped longer. Fall-grafted plants may be left wrapped until spring, in colder climates.The school bus we have been following all the way from town deposits some children at a gate, and veers down a side road. Mable watches the children disperse and walk toward their homes. It has been a quiet, and difficult day.
There is a cloud of smoke that is visible as we approach my father's house. The cars that have been passing us stop along the road by our mailbox. Dozens of them. People are standing outside their cars watching the smoke and cinders ascend, blackening the sky. Some point to us as we drive into the yard. In the distance I can here a siren getting closer.
The tractor is in the barn. Its wagon empty. My father is standing in the kitchen, leaning against the counter. He watches from the window as each tree crackles and burns, throwing up oily clouds that collectively smother the sun.
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