You are reading Fiddleblack #15
It all began with an extraordinary bout of suspicion.
“I saw what I saw,” said Griffey as doubt quickly ravaged his soul like a corpse confined to a cheap pine coffin. He leaned his shotgun against a hedge of tightly woven branches and paused. A catbird was whistling somewhere in the distance. Her broken melody sounded more like a chuckle than a chirp and if he’d glimpsed the black-capped nuisance cackling anywhere near him, he’d certainly have shot her!
It was a warm morning. The scarlet rim of dawn was edging the gloomy Shenandoah like a bright celestial grimace. Mosquitos were gathering around the muddy banks of the river, hovering in swarms above overturned picnic benches, rotting tire swings, decaying tree stumps, and heaps of tangled brush and ivy.
Old Griffey drew a pint of gin from his haversack, took a long but measured pull, and bit into an apple for a chaser. He had a headache, a toothache, suffered a vicious sort of throbbing against his temples, forehead and jawline just beneath the ears. A warm chill, possibly from fever, numbed his joints and cramped the back of his legs. He stepped off the trail and found a shade tree some thirty paces from the river and sat down. Placing the shotgun on his lap, he swallowed another pull, chewed another bite, and rested comfortably beneath the dark canopy. He reflected upon his age, his life, and took stock of what was around.
Between the riverbank and a stretch of pasture stood a crumbling rock wall, it leaned beside the river like a bloated body overtaken by purple wisteria vines. Low clusters of Lonicera and braids of smashed Celastrus berries betrayed silver epaulets of skylight from one end of the wall to the other. The fragrant effluvia, mixed with the scent of damp soil and turbid river water, carried Griffey’s thoughts onto his wife. A black wave of nausea suddenly took hold of him. He leaned forward, gagged, and recoiled like a tightly wound spring. He kicked off his boot, squeezed his big toe onto the trigger, and bit onto the barrel of his twelve-gauge. But now, shaken by savage uncertainty, which oppressed him like a dense shadow of bad luck, horrified the old man beyond unspeakable doubt during these dark, diminishing years of dotage and irrelevance. He hesitated…
Approximately fifty years ago old Griffey inherited sixty-five acres of an apple orchard eleven miles east of Charles Town between Dunkirk Grove and John Phillip’s County. Fertile valleys occupied its golden lowlands to the west while a diminishing tail of the Blue Ridge Mountains crowned its horizon to the east. A swell of cotton fields, divided by a stretch of train tracks, billowed beyond a small textile plant and surged southward. The air here was always pleasant, often smelling like a freshly woven basket, a scent not unlike alfalfa meadows or the dry, medicinal fragrance of ragweed or wormwood.
It was a productive autumn. An unusually high demand for York and Stayman apples across the Midwest began depleting Griffey’s orchard before the end of October. During these rare agricultural upsurges, additional farmhands were almost always needed. Often arriving from the two adjoining counties, they were picked up in town, driven to the orchard, and provided temporary housing inside the old gristmill beside Thompson-Press creek. About forty-five paces from the mill, perched upon a small bluff hedged by a white picket fence, stood Griffey’s modest two-story farmhouse. It was a gray, pleasant, peaceful affair adorned by scores of curtained windows that fluttered like long, coquettish lashes during brisk autumnal crosswinds. A feminine hand of domesticity could be felt in every room, space, and corner. Even inside its narrow dog-run, painted haint blue and littered with old boots, weathered jackets, and smashed top hats, could one notice the devoted presence of a wife by the vague, intoxicating scent of purple lavender, sweet peppermint, and wild lilac.
Griffey’s wife, Marie, was the youngest of three children raised in the cold, desolate mountains of Morgantown. Living in poverty, she was the only sibling to survive a devastating scrofula outbreak, which nearly annihilated that entire region of Appalachia during the turn of the century. With the loss of Marie’s two older sisters, her father managed to save enough for a modest dowry, and sent her away to live with an aunt following her seventeenth birthday. However, the blue pastures and green meadows of Virginia failed to produce an immediate suitor. And because she wasn’t a society woman, Marie’s only option in finding a husband was limited to poor community dances, wretched livestock auctions, and tedious bingo gatherings. But one day, as Marie was helping her church organize the annual apple blossom festival just south of the county line, she was introduced to her future husband peddling his prize-winning apples.
“Griffey’s a rich and harmless old sort,” affirmed her aunt one evening over dinner. She was a frail but pragmatic woman deeply familiar with economic hardship herself. But after having blown through Marie’s dowry from those “hidden ‘spences” associated with raising a niece, she’d suddenly become cold and awkwardly distant. Finally, as the bitter sting of penury eclipsed Marie’s hope in finding true and everlasting love, living conditions with her aunt began deteriorating rapidly. So after a handful of dates, several dinners, and chaste moonlit evenings under the lambent shadows of his vast orchard, Marie graciously accepted Griffey’s proposal without pause or hesitation.
Within a few weeks of marriage, however, the physical act of love became a humiliating task for the young woman. She thought the encounter with Griffey felt more like an impropriety, a sacrifice—an immoral violation of boundaries—than the frenzied, erotic release she had once imagined. Old Griffey took this in stride. He began comparing his wife’s amatory reluctance to the process of breaking a filly too temperamental to saddle and much too inexperienced to lunge.
“She’ll get used to it,” he was fond of saying after every frigid interlude, whistling and arranging his pearl-buttoned shirt as he returned to his orchard. Suddenly good health, energy and vigor descended upon the old man every moment he thought of her. As if plunged into the depths of a cold mountain spring after an exhausting harvest, optimism gilded his rheumatic life like a crisp, effervescent breeze. It oiled his joints, hammered the bend from his back, and imbibed his threadbare desires with a delicate and bewitching taste for the young, adorably obstinate female. But like early autumn hoarfrost, which devours the blush from apples by rotting their fibrous core, icy pillars of suspicion had suddenly nipped the farmer’s composure and haunted every crease in his soul.
One evening, tired and feeling under the weather, Marie left the orchard early on account of piercing cramps and a persistent headache. Quickly finalizing a few administrative duties and wrapping up a handful of incidental tasks, she hastened to close the farm office an hour before twilight. As the harvest season was coming to an end, and only a few itinerant workers had remained on the farm, she wasn’t surprised to find Griffey helping load apples onto stakebeds heading west. Marie approached, gave him a quick kiss goodnight, and walked back to the house beneath an avenue of lindens arching over the meadow like a soft purple umbrella.
Beyond the orchard, past the valley, and above the shallow hills and rolling meadows, the gray half-light of evening had arrived. It sketched the cool, open horizon with bright silver lines and dark sloping shadows. Griffey was tired and left work early. He cut through the orchard, bypassed the tall avenue of lindens, and paused beside the creek to pick a handful of dame’s rocket growing beside a hedge of boxwoods. They were Marie’s favorite perennial.
“But to blossom this late in the season…” he muttered to himself while smiling toward the great, vacuous, and unresponsive sky, “must certainly be some kind of favorable omen.” And like all hardworking countryfolk tethered to superstitions believed to pierce the unfathomable mysteries in life, he whispered a quick prayer of gratitude before continuing his way home.
The damp air, fragranced by the blue and white petals of these long, delicate blossoms fluttering beneath his nose, reminded the old chap of his beautiful little wife. Her soft gray eyes, her radiant blond hair, the curl of her prudish mouth pouting beneath her angular nose, it all described the most erotically charged profile. Every farmhand on the orchard was distracted by her presence, rudely gazing at her small, delicate backside draped behind a thin linen skirt, and openly comparing it to a round, crispy apple! As he followed the meandering creek beyond a sunken hay barn, he glimpsed his reflection in a moonlit puddle eddying between two weather-beaten stones. He looked old, sour, haggard by labor and withdrawn by the heavy pull of time. Vexed by this specter, and ashamed of his constant state of arousal, old Griffey began feeling more like a lecher than he did a husband, friend, or partner. He tore his anxious gaze from the creek and onto the pale, glistening horizon. A slight distance away, gently lighting the tendrils of a drooping willow tree, stood a thick tallow candle burning inside the gristmill between the threshing floor and a narrow hallway. The distorted figure of a woman, whose breasts flickered unevenly onto the far wall, was now pulling a loose fitting blouse over her firm torso. A few moments later, retreating to an empty grain closet, she blew out the candle, walked beyond the threshold and stepped onto the moonlit pasture. As she rushed toward the gray farmhouse overlooking the mill, she tucked loose strands of hair behind her flushed ears and weary face, took in a deep breath, and walked inside.
There was no time for Griffey to think or even react. Instead, a vague rush of colliding emotions flooded his heart like some dry and ancient estuary. He caught his balance on an old maple tree and leaned against it until his head had finally stopped spinning.
That same night, resting beside his wife, which proved to be a tedious challenge of endurance and restraint, had rendered the old man weary and revolted by inaction.
“What should I do?” he asked himself. “Retrieve my gun? Flog my wife? Ambush the scoundrel who emerges from the mill?” Unable to think beyond the narrow and restrictive horizon of jealousy and despair, he turned onto his side and gazed at Marie. She was lying on her back and sleeping soundly. A warm poultice had been placed just below her navel and fragranced the air with lemon grass and eucalyptus leaves. Strange ribbons of moonlight, which gauzed her skin like a vault of venerable brilliance, streamed in from the curtained window in transparent waves of shadow. She began resembling a fair, almost mythical maiden poorly cloaked by a robe, but secretly convalescing from the savage, carnal, gluttonous touch of a crude and indiscriminate farmhand!
“In fact,” hissed Griffey, affixing his gaze onto the porcelain washbasin wedged beneath receding beams of the paling window, “that blackguard is probably bragging about it in some decaying beer tavern across town!” And as he imagined the laborer snapping Marie’s panties off below her pelvis, knees, and ankles the lash of betrayal scourged his heart as if struck by a gruesome branding iron. Griffey reeled from exasperation. He stood up, ambled across the room, and caught his breath upon leaning against the window. His head was reeling, his mouth was dry, and the weight of his legs felt heavier than coal. He tried to glimpse the mill beyond a deep undergrowth of shadow, only there wasn’t a glint to be seen, just an empty, unending hole of blight and blackness. A solemn church bell, which mourned for daybreak beyond the soft, golden windrows of dormant meadows, pierced the bedroom walls with gloom behind twelve iron-tongued clamors. The cold and pious melody, which seamed the old man’s heart with threads of reverence, also flushed his doddering virility with unexpected boldness. And like a healthy, salacious, inexperienced young man blinded by the erotic intoxication of a fleeting moment, old Griffey felt a vague inducement to strangle Marie with a surge of exhilarated passion, to kiss her mercenary lips, and bite her unfaithful breasts. And perhaps then, during a prolonged amatory conquest, between tones of silence and moans of protest, might he finally hear a whispered and whimpered confession.
The next morning, however, recovering from the shallow depths of vile and repugnant impulses—the old apple farmer, cowering from grief and trembling with shame, was discovered on the bank of the Shenandoah—lifeless, missing his head, and partially obscured beneath a network of a low growing copse.
Patrick Falconi is a short story writer from Washington DC. He earned an undergraduate degree from VCU and an MFA degree from the American Film Institute Conservatory.