Poison Applesby Nancy Means Wright
What could be more picturesque and peaceful than an apple orchard in Vermont in the fall? Ripe, juicy red apples hanging on the trees waiting to be picked, pickers ready to go to work with their baskets, and busloads of school children ready for their tour. These were the scenes that Stan and Moira Earthrowl were picturing when they bought the orchard to help them heal after the devastating loss of their teenage daughter.
The orchard, however, offers little comfort to the grieving parents. Stan not only has to contend with a bossman who sees himself as the owner of the orchard, but with a series of progressively more serious mishaps that are plaguing the trees. On top of these problems, Stan also fights a local cult who wants to dismiss a high school teacher and a developer who wants to buy the orchard. Frazzled by her husband's behavior and all of the "accidents," Moira finds support from Ruth Willmarth, whose daughter Emily is working at the orchard. The women slowly develop a friendship over coffee and try to figure out who could be bent on destroying the orchard. The vandal's next effort becomes a fatal one, and even Ruth's cows are threatened.
A Vermonter, Nancy Means Wright creates such a vivid setting that readers will want to drop by and pick some apples, assuming of course, that they have not been poisoned.
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Moira Earthrowl was Irish enough to know that a bird thattried to enter your house meant death. And here the cardinal was,flinging itself at the living room window again, thud, thud, thudat the glass: a stout red bill, a rush of scarlet feathers.
"Get away, get, you crazy bird!" She waved her arms at theintruder. How could she concentrate on her weaving, with a foolishbird assaulting her window? It was the third day in a row ithad come, and she was mystified. More than that, she was downrightworried.
Now, she didn't really believe that a bird could bring death,but twice already the superstition had come true. A blackbird hadflown into her grandfather's workshop in Ballyvaughan, Ireland,and the next day the old man was dead of a massive heart attack.And at Aunt Bridget's funeral a sparrow darted through an openwindow, circled the casket three times, and flew out. Of course,Bridget was already dead, so it wasn't quite such a concern. But itproved the superstition; her mother had reminded her of that.
Here it was again: wham! bam! dashing its crimson sideagainst the glass, then its fiery red beak. She half expected to seea spot of blood on the glass. But there wasn't any. At the veryleast the bird must be brainless by now, she thought, all thatbashing and smashing!
What she really worried about, though, was her husband Stan.Not that he was superstitious, oh, not at all. He was a pragmaticman. But he was so sensitive, so vulnerable these days. Always, itseemed, in a bad patch. There he was, out in the orchardnow,arguingor so it seemedwith the orchard manager, Rufus Barrow.Stan was practically a foot taller than short, stocky, soft-spokenRufus. And yet Rufus seemed the more powerful one, feetplanted on the grassy triangle between cider barn and house,arms folded, head tilted slightly back to make eye contact withStan.
And not stepping back, she saw, when Stan shook his fist.What was the matter now? The cider press not working right?The local pickers dropping too many apples? They were slowerthan the others: After all, the Jamaicans were professionals. Andthe locals were young: the Butterfield twins, Rolly and Hally; atall athletic young woman named Millie Laframboise from EastBranbury, who had an ailing mother and three other part-timejobs; Adam Golding, tall as a Knicks player, his ponytail gleamingin the sun like a mass of spilled coinshe was aptly named. ThenEmily Willmarth, from the farm on Cow Hill Road. It was Moirawho'd argued with Stan to hire the girl, but she might have madea mistake. Just this morning she'd seen Emily and Adam whisperingtogether, looking quite chummy. Yes, she'd better keep an eyeon that one. The boy was in his twenties, the girl still in highschool.
Now Rufus was wheeling about, moving doggedly off. He wasupset, it was obvious. He wanted things to go right. There wassomething almost maniacal about the way he ran the orchard: nota minute to be wasted. He knew exactly what he was about, andhe resented Stan butting in. She watched Stan stride down intothe orchard, stop short at the first tree, where Bartholomew, theJamaican Number One man, was standing on the third rung of aladder, picking; Stan shouted up at him, his cheeks red as theapples.
Now, she couldn't have that. She couldn't have Stan taking outhis anger on Bartholomew. The cardinal flung himself at the windowagain and fueled her with purpose. She dropped the loomstick, dashed out of the house to intercede.
"Stan," she cried. "Stan, can we talk? We have a problem,sweetheart, I'm going mad with it. Stan?"
The old Jamaican's face was inscrutable. He was a tall, proud-lookingfellow, sixty-one years old, but still picking, a fishermanby trade who boasted twenty-one children. He was on his thirdwife now, she knew, a younger woman, who was always pregnant,it seemedbut by her husband? The younger men joked aboutit. And Bartholomew had to support them all. He'd been workingthis orchard for ten years, seven years before she and Stan hadbought it. She was fond of these Jamaicans: They brought, well,vibrancy into her world. Jamaicans singing in the trees, like achorus of sleek dark birds: "Papa save my body, Papa save mysoul...." The ripe red apples, hanging like shiny Christmas ballsin the green-leafed treesoh, she loved the autumn. She lovedthe orchard. It was Leonardo da Vinci, it was Michelangelo. Ifshe could only paint!
Her ruse worked. Stan was turning around, Bartholomewgoing on with his workthough he'd stopped humming. Shetook Stan's hand. "Hot coffee for you, love. The coffee cake youlike, fresh from the oven."
"He's gone and done it over my head again," Stan said, jerkinghis head toward the apple barn where Rufusbossman, theJamaicans called himhad disappeared. "You'd think he ownsthis place. You'd think I was one of the local pickers."
"Oh, he does not think so," she said. "You're getting paranoid.He respects you. He knows you're a naturalist. He's a reasonableman. Only yesterday"
"So what's this big concern?" She could hear him taking deepbreaths, trying to cool down. At least he was aware he had aproblem. Actually, he'd had a problem for three years now, sinceCarol's death. Devastating though it was, Moira had come toterms with that death; Stan never had. And then the poisoninglast spring, a fifth of the trees destroyed, those budding apples. Amistake, they said, someone using the wrong spray, an herbicidecalled Roundup, in spray tanks used to apply a fungicide. No onecould say how, why it happened. The sprayer himself was horrified,had no idea how it got in there. He'd put in Diazinon himself,the night before. It was evidently the wrong herbicide in thewrong canister. No one to take the full blame.
She told Stan about the cardinal, led him to the window. Ofcourse it wouldn't appear when Stan was there; he waved awaythe worry. "I'll cut an owl out of cardboard, if it really worriesyou. They're scared of owls, those birds. It's just being territorial,that's all."
"Would you do that?" She threw her arms around him. Theyneeded more touching, more feeling; she pulled him close. StanEarthrowl: She'd laughed at the name when she first met him.He rather resembled an owl himself, in fact: those round, blackrimmedglasses, the solenm look. They'd been so much in love!
He was tense in her arms. She could feel the nerves, like wires,tightening in his body. She pulled back. "I'll pour your coffee,Stan. I'll warm the cake in the toaster oven."
"Cake, yes. Coffee, no." He was heading for the liquorcabinetat three in the afternoon. The gray-bronze hair bristledon his head, his back was a brick wall. The cat, Ben Blue, followedhim, meowing; mechanically, he threw a handful of dried food inits dish, then fixed himself a Manhattan, glugged it down, kissedher quickly on the cheek, and ran outdoors again. She went backto her loom. Soon the apple barn would open up, children comingfrom the local schools to watch the cidermaking processaneighbor had volunteered to operate it. Finally, customers comingto pick drops, buy cider and bags of apples. There'd be notime for her own work. She leaned into her weaving, into thebright pink and mauve threads. She craved sunshine in her life.Dream time.
She was just getting up to stretch her backat forty-three shecouldn't sit and concentrate for hours anymore the way she usedtowhen the phone rang. It was Annie May, Stan's sister-in-law,down in Houston, Texas. Her voice was breathless. She calledonly when there was a traumawhat now? "In the hospital! As apatient!" Annie May shouted. "Lindley's in the hospital and I gotto be with him. The heart thing, you knowI tol' you about it.They got to do an angioplasty! How bad is that?"
She didn't wait for an answernot that Moira could tell hermuch. "They're going in," she screamed, "sticking in a tube, aballoon. Imagine. A balloon in his heart!"
"I've heard it works, though," Moira said. "He'll come out allright, I'm sure of it. He's a doctor, he'll know how to take care ofhimself afterward." She felt a balloon inflate in her own heart,squeeze her ribs. Lindley had met Annie May when he wasinterning in a Houston hospital and Annie was an aide. She waslovely: eighteen and ready to nest; Lindley thirty-six and newlydivorced. Annie got pregnant; they married after a six-monthwhirlwind courtship.
"Lindley's a gynecologist," Annie May was shouting. "Whatdoes he know about hearts?"
"He'll be all right, I'm sure. Do you want to talk to Stan? He'sout in the orchard. I can run out with the phone."
"No, no, you can tell him. I got to talk to you." Annie May'svoice was jarring in Moira's ears. The bird was crashing into thewindow again; the sounds joined in a cacophony that made herhead drum. It was Opal, Annie was talking about now, the daughtershe'd had with Lindley. Moira hadn't seen the girl in years;they'd sent her away to boarding school when she was twelve.Moira had never understood how they could do that. She andStan had kept their own daughter Carol at home through highschool; even then, she wished she'd spent more time with thegirl. She'd been so self-satisfied, so laid back in those days....
"... to your place, up there in Ver-mont." Annie May alwaysdivided up her words, giving the same emphasis to each syllable."You got room, don't you? Stan says it's a big house, just the twoof you. I mean, just for a few weeks, a month maybe, till Lindleyrecovers. Opal's home now from that school, she doesn't want togo to col-lege. After all we done for her education. She's toomuch for Lindley. She wears him out, you know? Will you,Moira?"
What could Moira say? For a moment the house was quiet, thewindows mute, the voices of the pickers far away, remote; sheheard the distant honking of geeseStan's acquisition. It waslovely, that quiet. She could work on her weaving, that's whatshe'd come up here for. With Stan it was apples, though she wasdetermined to learn about those, too, so many varieties! She'dtake one each day, read about its qualities. Stan was learning howto graft: maybe four kinds of apples on a single treea true act ofcreation. Her first love, though, was the weaving: shawls, scarves,they were selling them now down at the State Craft Center. Itwas a way of meditation, a way of healing.
"She'll fly to New York, take a bus from there. She hates flying!I wish I could come, but you know I can't. She can helparound the house if she'll do it, she can pick apples."
Picking apples was a skill, not everyone could do it, but therewas no point explaining that now. Annie May was in a "dash" toget back to the hospital, she said; Lindley needed her. Moiraagreed to meet the bus. Day after tomorrow. The five-ten.
Annie May said, "Thanks, I'll pay you all back, maybe we cancome get her when Lin's better. I'll send plenty of clean underwear.She'll throw it in your washer, you know? And make herwork, she's not crazy to work, but make her."
When Moira hung up, the cardinal began dashing its body atthe window again. It was more than territorial, she was sure ofthat. It wanted to come in. It wanted something from her. Itwanted to take something from her. With Carol gone, she hadhardly anything left to takeexcept Stan, the orchard. Whatwhatdid it want from her?
She banged her forehead with her fist to dismiss the superstition.
Excerpted from Poison Apples by NANCY MEANS WRIGHT. Copyright © 2000 by Nancy Means Wright. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Are you out of your mined just be hearing about it makes me more not to bye it.
Three years ago in Connecticut their daughter Carol died. Needing a change to start over, high school biology teacher Stan Earthrowl and his wife Moira buy a Vermont apple orchard. Moira has since come to grips with her child¿s death, but her spouse still suffers from his devastating loss. The hope for an idyll life has not been smooth as someone wants to destroy the Earthrowls efforts to succeed. Last year, someone allegedly using the wrong herbicide poisoned a fifth of the trees. Now, some one is cutting down mature trees. Finally one of the Jamaican pickers dies form a poisoned apple. With her spouse accused of the crime and suddenly ailing from a stroke, a desperate Moira asks her neighbor Ruth Willmarth for help. However, unbeknownst to Ruth, her land is also coveted and the people who want it could be her ex-spouse, local religious fanatics, or just some land grabbers. POISON APPLES is an intriguing regional mystery that vividly brings Vermont¿s personality to the audience especially through Ruth, a wonderful character. The story line will remind readers of a roller coaster as it slowly works its way up to the first peak before taking off at a rapid pace. However, the numerous extemporaneous subplots clutter the fine main tale but fans of this New England mystery series will still enjoy this work. Harriet Klausner
Namcy Means Wright does an excellent job putting you in Vermont with Ruth. You can see, smell and taste the apples. The book is well written and will keep you on the edge of your seat.