Mom looked up groggily as we ran into the kitchen, giggling. Dad chuckled and stroked her hair, and soon she was asleep again.
He arrived sometime in the months before I turned thirteen years old. My father had just passed away. It was quiet in the cemetery, just the soft sounds of sighing and the wind through the leaves. Everything was grey: the sky heavy and dark, our black clothes, dull and sodden with the fog, the stern slate of the headstone, and the etchings of my father’s name.
Lizzie held my hand. She had been through this before. Her mother died four years ago, before we were even friends. She stayed with us the night before my father’s funeral, laying on her side in my bed and watching me through the orange streetlight and bars of shadow. She told me to remember that it was okay to cry. But Mom wasn’t crying, only looking at the plain black coffin as if she couldn’t really understand what it was there for. Sal was clinging to her the way he sometimes did, his little limbs fastened tight around her hips and neck. When he did that, Dad used to call him a monkey, and they would run around the house shrieking and snorting monkey sounds, pulling my hair and throwing socks at Mom until she chased them, laughing, with a spatula.
Mom’s arms dangled limply at her sides, one hand occasionally rising to adjust Sal if he was slipping. He had fallen asleep.
Lizzie squeezed my hand. I looked up, realized everybody’s eyes were on me. My heart was pounding but the only thing I felt was stage fright. I let go of my handful of dirt over the coffin. It fell with a sound like rain.
Lizzie tossed her handful of soil into the open pit, and soon everyone else did the same.
I shivered and looked past the priest. Leaning against the trunk of a tree, small and slight, and dressed in green, was a figure I’d seen in a dream. I wiped my sticky palm against my black wool dress. The rest of the dirt clung there.
He came, it seemed, for my mother. He met her outside the cemetery gates, to offer his condolences. This didn’t seem strange at the time—many people filed past, heading into their separate cars to drive to our house with cakes and casseroles, all the things you bring a family in mourning. His coat was so dark it was almost black, except when the sun broke through the heavy clouds; then, it shone green as moss. He must have been someone my father knew.
“Thank you,” my mother said vaguely, as he leaned in to kiss her cheek. She shifted Sal onto her other hip and was ushered away by a well-meaning neighbor. As she stooped to place Sal into his car seat, I watched the man walk back into the cemetery.
“Come on,” Lizzie said, leading me around the car and opening the door.
“Who was that?”
But the door slammed and we drove home.
Mom didn’t remember him the second time they met. She said she met him at a flower shop a month after the funeral. She picked out fresh flowers to bring to my father’s grave, and he suggested she bring ones to plant instead.
I recognized him, though.
“These are hardy,” he said, indicating a pot of shy-looking bulbs. “You can bring a bouquet, of course, if you want, but these’ll keep him company year ‘round. They bloom red with the frost.”
He accompanied her to the plot and even planted them for her.
She went back every few weeks to the flower shop. She started to ask me to brush her hair, or button her up into dresses that she hadn’t worn in years – not since she and my father were dating. She said his eyes were as blue as cornflowers; that’s how she talked about him. Sal asked if she was going to marry him.
“No way, little man!” she laughed. “He’s much too young for me,” she added conspiratorially to me. She fastened on a bracelet and reapplied her lipstick before she walked out the door.
It was weeks before Mom brought him home, but once she did, he was around all the time. He made my mother happy, and brought toys for Sal and me, even though I was too old for toys. Sal was so little that he got confused and called the stranger ‘daddy.’ Mom started to cry. He was as sensitive as ever, leaving quietly, staying away, until she was inevitably back at the flower shop, inviting him for dinner, for movies, for board games on Tuesday nights like we used to have with Dad.
“I don’t see what the problem is,” Lizzie said lightly, biting into an apple. “He keeps her happy and out of your hair, right?”
I pretended to be engrossed in my math homework, pressing down with the pencil until the tip snapped.
“Kat,” Lizzie repeated. “What’s wrong?”
“He’s the one.”
“He’s the one,” I said, louder and annoyed, “from my dream.”
“You know, with the onions.”
Lizzie leaned back, tapped her fingers on the table.
“Oh,” she said.
There were a lot of things Lizzie believed. She believed that her dreams could divine the future. That another person’s tea leaves could tell you if they were lying or not. That spirits inhabited her Tarot cards, that they helped her speak to her mother. And she believed in spells.
We’d done one, once. We drew a pentagram on one of my mom’s old towels, and sat in the basement surrounded by candles. In a small velvet pouch, we’d written the name of a girl in our class, Catie, one hundred times on little scraps of paper. Lizzie mixed a bowl of olive oil and vinegar and we burned each strip of paper and dropped it in, and chanted a spell of banishment, because neither of us liked Catie very much.
“So mote it be, so mote it be.”
The basement smelled like salad dressing, but Catie left us alone after that.
By August, he was practically living with us. Every Friday, he drove by in his red pick up truck to take us to the orchards upstate. Mom sat next to him. Sal squished between her and me, insisting on smelling the pine tree air freshener that swung from the rear view mirror. He didn’t mind when Sal shoved it in his mouth and slobbered all over it, or even when Sal started screaming that it didn’t taste good. He said he had family up there, loudly describing the fields and the tractor and all the different kinds of apples they grew, until Sal finally quieted down, intrigued. His great-great-grand uncle owned the orchards, he said, getting the idea for them after he ate an apple and threw the core over his shoulder:
“And just like that, voila! an apple tree! Almost overnight.”
“Like Jack and the beanstalk?” Sal asked.
“Just like Jack.”
“Are there giants in the orchard?” Sal was captivated now. My mother smiled into the mirror, and the man grinned back. I rolled down the window and sighed.
Lizzie never came with us to the orchards. There wasn’t enough room in the pick up. Sal ran straight toward the tractor, and we rode up and down row after row of apple trees, pointing out the different types on sight. We wouldn’t start to pick them until late August, but the orchards were fascinating to Sal, and Mom loved spending the last days of summer in the sunshine, picnicking atop haystacks.
He refilled my glass of sparkling cider.
I flicked at an ant as it climbed across my bare knee.
“Say thank you, Katherine,” Mom reminded me.
“I’m going to the raspberry patch,” I said. I took a bite of an apple and tossed it over my shoulder, daring it to turn into a tree.
He was painter, apparently, in addition to being Johnny Appleseed. That’s what he told Mom, anyway; and that’s what she reported giddily to her friends, who were excited to see she was dating again. He looked the part, they agreed, with his dark hair and pale, wan skin. His long slender fingers stained in colors that he named cerulean and vermilion and aubergine. He stroked Mom’s shoulder with a fingertip, called her canela, spicy and sweet. He only ever described her like she was something to eat.
I picked the raspberries and crushed them in my palms, digging the juice under my nails, and dragging the warm sticky red along my cheeks. War paint. When I walked back to the truck, he tossed an arm over my shoulders and ruffled my hair. My mother smiled at this display; no hard feelings. He called me a hellion, a little wild cat, and my mother grinned at me.
“That’s what her dad used to call her, you know,” she said, as if this were some sort of sign she had been waiting for, as if he had passed a test.
In the shower that night there were bruises on my arm from where he’d grabbed me, coin shaped bruises, more than there should have been, as if he’d touched me with many hands, many fingers. I told my mother and she shook her head.
“I saw him, Kat, he didn’t grab you. And I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t be so rude to him, you know. He’s been very nice to us…and I like him, Kat. Don’t you?” Her voice lost it’s usual hoarseness, like she was speaking through a throat full of honey. She played with the ends of her hair. I looked around quickly, my eyes suddenly stinging as if someone was chopping onions in the room, and noticed that all the pictures of my father were gone from the walls, replaced with photos, instead, of just Sal and me. Mom bit her lip.
“Just give him a chance, Kat, please? I miss your father too, but please…”
“Sure, Mom,” I said. I went outside, and as I passed through the dining room, I saw the flowers he brought her. Brazen daffodils, all wide open yellow, trumpeting his triumph.
“Are you sure you’re not just jealous?” Lizzie asked. “After all, he was in your dream. And he’s young.” She paused and then said thoughtfully, “and pretty cute.”
We were sitting on the back porch. I studied her bare toes, painted a dark, deep plum, as we rocked back and forth on the swing. She’d brought peppermint tea in a large thermos and I wrapped my fingers around the top of it and breathed in the steam.
His name was Virgil. Mom thought this was exotic and sexy; she purred it sometimes to herself as she plucked her eyebrows or touched up her roots. He was ten years her junior. It made her self-conscious.
He knew this, of course. He asked to paint her, and she blushed very prettily and said yes. Sal and I were sent to Lizzie’s house for every painting session. Sal watched television. I moped on the couch.
“Have you still been dreaming about him?” Lizzie asked. I wrapped my arms around my knees and nodded. Lizzie leaned forward eagerly. “What kind of dreams?”
I felt my neck and ears start to burn.
The truth is, I dreamed of him every night.
He tells me he is giving me a gift. He moves silently, but one of his feet ends in scales and claws, and there are feathers on his back that ripple like water. I wonder if Mom has seen them—if he shows himself this way to her when he paints her. His eyes turn gold in the moonlight, or else they’re flat and black as stones, lizard’s eyes. He touches me with many fingers, many hands.
You can never receive a gift, he says, without giving something in return.
I told Lizzie all of this, stuttering in starts and stops. I bit my lip and looked up at her, and my eyes begin to itch again. “It just feels…really real,” I said. “Really…wrong.”
Lizzie looked fascinated. She didn’t say anything. Then she stood up, walked to the kitchen, banged open cabinets and drawers, and emerged holding a small wooden box that she handed to me.
“What is it?”
“Spread it on the floor by your door when you go to sleep at night,” she said. “And also around your bed. Then we’ll be able to tell if he’s coming in or not.”
I opened the box. Pink sea salt, with crystals as big as my pinky nail and others as small as dust. That night, before sleeping, I did as she said.
“My mother?” he laughed, and a forkful of linguine splashed onto his plate, splattering his white shirt red. “You wouldn’t want to meet her. She’s an ogre.” He looked sneakily at Sal, all wide dark eyes and hanging jaw. “She’d cut you and your sister up, sauté you both in garlic and leeks, toss in some corn and carrots and peas—” Sal looked promptly disgusted; not at the notion of being made into dinner, but at the thought that he might be cooked alongside the hated peas—”and cook you into a stew and serve you in a bread bowl!”
Sal giggled himself into hiccoughs.
Mom stood up, her face smiling and relaxed. She gathered up Sal’s plate and made her way to the kitchen. Virgil sprung up after her and spun her around, pressing a kiss to her neck and looking at me over her shoulder.
“You stay,” he told her.
She sat down, cheeks pink, eyes bright. He clattered in the kitchen, running water, banging open drawers to find paper towels. Mom glared at me.
“Would it kill you to crack a smile every now and then, Katherine?”
Katherine, Katherine, Katherine, I thought, and I could kiss her for calling me by that name.
All he ever called me was Kat.
We had apples at every meal. We had cider, and apple butter, and fresh apple vinegar splashed atop apple slices and cranberries and arugula salad. I only ever ate the pies Mom made, or else I fixed myself sandwiches and cereal. I didn’t eat anything he cooked. Mom noticed, of course, and scolded me privately—“He’s only ever nice to you, Katherine, why do you have to be so obstinate?”—but didn’t mention it at the table.
She was embarrassed of me.
To keep myself from listening to his stories—tales of places he lived, fabulous places, famous people he painted—I concentrated on the way the taste of the apples changed as the season dragged on. Hard and bitter, then fuller, then late in September, so sweet you could get drunk off an apple just picked and still warm from the sun.
We kept going back to the orchards, weekend after weekend, gathering apples to boil into apple sauce, apples to bake and apples to cobble. My blood must have been made of cider, I thought; I could never get the taste to leave my tongue.
In my dreams, we met in another orchard, this one perpetually drenched honey-gold in the setting sun. I wore long dresses, sometimes white, sometimes crimson, and he followed me into the brambles and pressed me down into the grass. He stared at me with all the viciousness of a wasp.
There are squashed and rotting apples in my hair.
There are hardly any more raspberries in the raspberry patch.
“I’ll never leave,” he hums, and he drinks me in, and he’s covered in fur like a bee.
I wondered if there are other girls like me, other girls he haunts and hurts, if he flits from one of us to the other, mixing our blood, pollinating us, his own personal garden.
I told Lizzie that I still dreamed of him, even though there was no trace of onion under my pillow, and there hadn’t been for months. She asked me if I was still using the salt she had given me. I was, and every morning the line by my door remained unbroken.
In stories there’s a huntsman, or a wise old granny, or even your very own wits that send you up a tree and out of harms’ way. In real life, there are none of those things.
The salt wasn’t disturbed the next morning, or any morning after, but this didn’t stop him. I tried to avoid being around him. Mom tried to be understanding. She talked to me often about my father, good memories to show that she hadn’t forgotten him and she didn’t want me to, either. But her wedding ring was now stowed carefully away in her jewelry box, and her wedding photos were stored neatly at the bottom of her closet, face down.
He took us back to the orchard in mid-September, our last day to pick apples. No amount of reluctance—complaining about headaches, insisting that I had too much homework to do—could convince Mom to leave me at home. We were a family, she decided. Whole and complete.
Mom walked behind him slowly, a basket of goldens and galas held carelessly in the crook of her elbow. She was humming. He had given her a ring—not an engagement ring, she assured me, just a present. The sun glinted off it as she walked. A yellow diamond. He carried Sal on his shoulders, helping him reach the tallest apples. I headed again toward the raspberry patch.
I picked the reddest berries I could find and held them in my shirt, the way girls in fairy stories held them in their aprons, to offer them to elves for wishes granted. I was wearing one of Dad’s old shirts, green and checkered. I wished for a charm against him, my mother’s new young lover, to keep him from my dreams, to keep him from my father’s place, but all the sticks and stones nearby were too small even for pocket knives, let alone swords. I closed my eyes.
The wind slowed, and the raspberries burst, too sweet and too ripe and too warm on my tongue. When I opened my eyes, there he stood, his face painted the way I had painted mine. He grinned at me.
“Green suits you,” he said.
He left with the first frost, without any warning, almost a year to the day since he came. Mom tried, more than once in the previous week, to get him to invite his mother to dinner. She wanted us to be a family. While he was out building Sal a tree house, something my father started but never finished, Mom took his cell phone, called his mother, the so-called ogre, and left a message inviting her to lunch. It began to thunderstorm as she hung up, and he slammed through the door with Sal clinging to his leg.
“Who were you talking to?” he asked.
“No one, no one,” Mom said breezily, and poured him a glass of apple juice. “Let me get you a towel, you’re soaked.”
His mother never returned the message, but he must have seen the call on his phone. He fought with my mother for hours that night, shouting so loud about trust being misplaced and privacy breached, that Sal crept into my room, crying, and scattered the salt.
Virgil moved out, taking his things with him, his paints, his easel, the canvas that had my mother on it in oil, which they were always careful to leave facing the wall. He came around less and less, returning her calls after longer and longer stretches of silence. Her girlfriends visited with casseroles and bottles of wine, fluttering hands and sympathetic murmuring.
Slowly, pictures of my father started appearing around the house again. Mom cried, and she let us see it. She took out her wedding band, but wore it around her neck on a silver chain, instead of on her finger. She never said what she did with the yellow diamond that Virgil gave her.
One morning I woke up, sore and flushed, my mouth tasting like cider. I found a single grain of pink salt under my bed.
Mom said, “I’ve had enough apples to last a life time.”
It was a Saturday morning, and we hadn’t heard from him in over a month. A woman left a message on our answering machine the week before. “I hope for your sake, he’s gone already,” the machine wheezed. “He’s bad news, that boy of mine.”
Mom told Sal he’s gone, he’s not coming back. She said, without too much bitterness, that he probably went to some fantastic place. He might be living in a castle.
I pretended it was a tower instead, surrounded by thickets and thorns and a moat full of snapping, scaly things.
We threw the pies away, the cobbler, the apple crumb and butter and cider. We threw away the rest of the food, too, and scrubbed the fridge with vinegar and baking soda until our fingers were raw and red. Sal asked where he had gone, if he died, like daddy.
Mom filled our fridge with pizza and turkey drumsticks and chicken and vegetables. She made sandwiches for us every day—cheese and tomato and lemon pepper, just like my father used to make. I helped her pick out which pictures of him we will hang on the walls.
We brought fresh cut flowers, every weekend, to the cemetery.There was no one to call me wild Kat anymore, like Dad used to, but it was okay.
I never placed an onion, again, under my pillow.
I swept away the salt.
That night, I wrote his name a hundred times on a slip of paper. I burned it over olive oil, over crystals of pink salt the size of the nail on my smallest finger. I carved his name into a lemon rind and chewed, the bitter taste bringing tears to my eyes.
So mote it be, so mote it be.
He won’t come back.