“Mind if we pick your apples?”
The request isn’t as strange as it might sound. In Montana, the last week of September through mid-October is bear season. The most common bears to descend into the valley are black bears, but sometimes brown bears will lumber down. Almost never grizzlies. If you don’t pick your apples in time, the bears will get them. Every year someone, having not picked their apples soon enough, wakes up to a bear in the backyard and calls the police. The firemen (or some other bear-squad) rush up the hill, tranquilize and remove the munching mammal, hauling them back into the mountains. I know, because it always makes the front page of the newspaper.
Every October when I was a child, my family—mother, father, and three girls—would pile onto two tandems with a tag-along and pedal up the Rattlesnake, a neighborhood in my city that borders the base of Mount Jumbo and marks the entrance to the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Most houses in the Rattlesnake are made of wood; some are new, with rustic craftsman-style exteriors. Others are unappealingly old mint green and bright brown ranch-style houses from the 1960s. Usually, these were the houses with the apple trees.
When we spotted the knotty bark of the trees, we shouted like sailors spotting land and slowed to a stop. My father would dismount the tandem first, jerking out the kickstand with the weathered toe of the same cowboy boots he wore to court where he defended criminals, undefeated as far as I knew. My sisters and I stood by the trailer attached to the back of the bike, fidgeting, keeping a lookout for cars. My father would walk up to the door, and knock with the knock of a neighbor. And although the homeowners were sometimes complete strangers, they always nodded knowingly and waved us into the yard with one arm while the other held open the door. I’d try to peek into the home as we passed through the yard.
We’d enter through the front gate and make our way around the house to the pastures. We kept our eyes on the apples but never lost sight of the horses who, used to the calm of the Rattlesnake where mountain lions and sheep and horses chew grass and daylight, were startled at the noisy onset of five strange city-folk from down the hill. But we were likely more afraid than they—we constantly paid them mind. My mother broke both wrists when she fell off a horse in her twenties, instructing me to never catch myself with my arms outstretched behind me if I fall. I paraded through the house with her old leather wrist-reinforcers strapped over my hands like miniature boxing gloves. Before long, the horses moseyed their way over to the trees where we stood picking. I nearly tripped over the fallen fruits as I ran to my mother’s side, holding my arms close to my chest. We stayed still as my father shook another branch. Like warning shots, the tumble-tossed apples thumped the grass and the horses ran away. They left hoof prints and bruised fruit in the long grass.
But that was all right, because we didn’t pick apples to eat. They’re much too sour for that. We picked apples for cider pressing. Which means we needed a lot of apples. And apple trees don’t give up their apples willingly. Apple picking isn’t as delicate as it sounds. My father would climb up into the branches of the apple trees and, helmets buckled, we watched from below as he shook the tree, his every limb working as he straddled the knotty branches and jolted the old tree with all his might. We ran furiously after the apples, filling the bike panniers as quickly as we could. For us girls, everything was a competition. Who had the wormiest apple, the roundest, the reddest. When we took our turns shaking the tree, our father’s might became much more impressive. Papa: freer of apples and the accused. He applauded our efforts.
My mother picked, too. But more than picking, she taught us poetry. With her, we memorized Joyce Kilmer’s “I think that I shall never see / A poem as lovely as a tree” and William Carlos Williams’ “going by fields of goldenrod in / the stifling heat of September.” With my mother we saw in the fruits and the trees and the pastures not just the greatness of existing; we also came to appreciate the words that lived inside them. And when we pushed back our helmets, strained our necks, and jumped, jumped, jumped, stretching our arms, trying to reach the untouched fruit always just out of reach, we were comforted by our mother and her ready poems:
as the sweetapple reddens on a high branch
high on the highest branch and the applepickers forgot—
no, not forgot: were unable to reach
Sappho knew our struggle. We smiled.
Later, we would press the apples in the handsome apple press that my father had built for my mother for her birthday. I think he gave it to her during a summer month, though her birthday was in October. I suppose the excitement of its usage was more important than a timely celebration of her birth. We were always like that, my father and I, baking before clearing the counter. My mother, on the other hand, encouraged diligence and procedure. She always scrubbed the kitchen clean before meticulously measuring, sifting, whisking, and baking according to the recipe. When it came to cider pressing, she was no different.
She proceeded by recipe of her own invention: First, my mother would brush the concrete slabs of the back patio until the rose-colored cement looked windswept. Then, she would hose out the large silver buckets, carefully pressing her thumb into the mouth of the hose in order to direct the water forcefully into the bucket’s sullied crannies. She’d transfer the apples from the panniers into the buckets and ready the glass jugs for fermentation, lining them up on the granite counter, a washcloth laid out underneath to prevent slippage. One year we ran out of buckets and had to empty the dry leaves out of the small sailboat in our yard, filling it with apples as well. All this before the pressing. When we finally filled the barrel of the press and twisted the handle and watched the pulp and juice separate themselves in the cheese cloth at the machine’s base, we formed an assembly line: rinsing, passing, filling, twisting, and pouring the finished product through funnels and into the large jugs and brown bottles that would sit in our basement all winter, fermenting. Of course, a few bottles would go straight into the refrigerator for us girls.
Ingrid, my youngest sister, nearly hidden by the large silver buckets, diligently bathed the apples in their metal troughs before running them to the press, her hip-length braids in tow. My middle sister, Isadora, stayed watchfully at our father’s side—always his most obvious fan. I, the eldest, surveyed the scene from the back steps until my mother suggested I take up sweeping or rinsing— tasks I suppose I should have assumed instinctively. Once in a while, the metronomic drip of the apple concentrate was interrupted by a girlish whine, but despite any quarreling we still came out of the deal with bottles and bottles of juice. Truly gold juice. And the pulp. Thick like a stack of paper torn into pieces and wetted with warm water.
It didn’t stop at juice. We thought up apple pies and apple crisps, apple-doodles and apple strudel, diced apples and cinnamon, apple jam, apple compote, apple muffins, apple rolls and lots of nameless pastries that, necessarily, contained apples. We made torts, too, of apples and of the plums from our next-door neighbor’s backyard. My mother had snipped the plum tort recipe out of The Missoulian and pasted it on the refrigerator. We always split the plums into ovular halves and sprinkled cinnamon on top, as the recipe instructed. The plum torts were devilish: caramelized dough, a monument of autumn.
The last time I remember witnessing the whole ordeal was sophomore year of high school, when the whole family was pressing apples and thinking up tarts and mini-pies and regular-sized pies late into the night. I sat two rooms away playing piano, waiting to leave for a babysitting job. I remember walking down the hallway to our front door: outside the dark green leaves of our Nanking cherry bushes barely distinguishable against the night. I look back to say goodbye, my dad pokes his head out from the kitchen. All of our walls are pale yellow. The whole scene is yellow, light emanating from the stove, the tiki-torches in the backyard, the laughter, the contentedness of the event. My dad waves, oven mitt in hand, apron adorned with some garish drawing I produced as a young child. He’s smiling as he almost always does.
I wish I could go home. I wish I could go back and apple-pick, run helmet-headed from the tumbling fruits as they drop from limb to pasture and roll through the un-mowed grass. I wish I could go back to barefoot nights with cider-sticky toes and strudel-sticky fingers, to the days of fearing horses and little else. But I’ve seen what happens to the apples who stay. They’re devoured by what’s larger—inevitable, bear-like. Or, alternatively, they rot and freeze, and nothing becomes of them.
Whenever I visit, I miss apple season by just a few days. I adjust the seat on my mountain bike and pedal alone through the valley. I peek through the picture windows of the one-story homes, fixated on the apple trees. As if staring long enough at the hard, green fruits will make them blush, but my eyes sting. It’s wildfire season and I can barely stay outside for five minutes without collecting ash in my hair, eyes, lungs. The sky’s a coughed-up, muted orange. Breathing burns. Morning and afternoon and night are all the same dusty amber. I come down from the hills, come home, cover my mouth, close my eyes, shut the door.
Stella Shannon is from Missoula, Montana. She believes in the power of British accents and banana peppers. She does not believe in the concept of wasting time. Send her an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.