With these sorts of things, I'm guilty of too many blind spots. I don't remember when Ethan and I met. For a while it seemed we were both around the same places, in the company of the same people. Like when you pass the same person everyday on your drive to work. You don't know him and he doesn't know you, but five days a week at six-fifteen, you pass along the same stretch of road. Two strangers waving hello. It wasn't until one summer a few years back, when Ethan took on a contract harvesting seaweed and asked me to help him out, that we really became friends. We spent five months in a low rowboat together, holding close to the shore and hauling great swaths of ribbony green up out of the ocean's gut. Then we'd heap it all into the bed of his pickup. It was an old Ford made sometime in the 70s that still ran like a tin-can dream. I remember, when the bed was full, how the seawater poured through the gaps and rust-holes in shining streams, splashing and clapping on the rocks underfoot. It was a music I could almost understand.
We did that together for three summers straight—just two men, silently at work—until his dad had his stroke and Ethan took over running the family orchard full-time. Then my current company found me and liked me for how little I talked. In the years since, by circumstance, Ethan and I have rarely visited or spoke. Then he called me while I raced above the earth at several thousand feet, asking for my help, and again our lives intersect.
It was almost dawn when I woke but I knew I wouldn't be sleeping any more. I lay on my pallet and watched the light-shapes cast by my window shift and change across the ceiling. Then I called out from work. I didn't even wait for the little man's response. I hung up and dialed Ethan's number.
"Samuel?" Through the phone, his voice sounded dry as an old hinge. "That you?"
I ran my tongue over my teeth. Then I swallowed. "I'm coming."
I hadn't the tools that I used to but I still had a pair of hand-pruners from Switzerland that I'd kept oiled and sharp. I supposed Ethan would have most anything else we could need. I drove out of town and for a while more under shore-side woods, then turned off where two big rocks flanked a driveway cutting through ragged coastal pines. I'd been this way before. We met in the front yard of his family's big white house and shook hands—there was the farm-stand along the driveway, all boarded up for the season, and a row of hubbard squash shining blue in the frosty grass—then we climbed into that same baby blue Ford and drove out back. He looked just as I remembered, tall and wooden and grey. His sister and someone they'd hired—a Jamaican man whose name I never learned or don't remember—followed in another vehicle. We passed through an uneven, rocky meadow of bleached sea grass, then down toward the sandy bluffs where the orchards ranged by the water.
There was a time in my life when the care and propagation of trees was my prevailing motive and occupation. But that life was over by the time Ethan and I became friends. This wasn't my first time visiting his family's orchard but it nevertheless confounded me still that it could exist. Exist and thrive. Never before had I heard of fruit trees surviving in salt water and sand. His family's trees were beautiful.
It was late December but felt more like April without any snow and a thin milky fog rolling in off the bay. On the other side of the inlet, dimly, I could see the town where I lived. It was just past dawn. High and full, cutting through the fog, the moon did the work of the sun.
Where I did my business for the company, there's a man who I felt was torturing me, though I understood it wasn't personal. I just had to work with him more than anyone else. I took the brunt of him. He was a short man, so maybe that had something to do with it. He'd feed me misinformation so that my work would come out all wrong. Or he'd very calmly offer me something—a binder of receipts or my own jacket or some food—then, just as calmly, would throw that something against the wall or floor. He had a doctor's notice, I guess, explaining this behavior, but mostly he was the owner's son. So whatever complaint I might file had no bearing on his continued employment. In time it came to feel as though this behavior was the sole purpose of his job. Getting paid well to make life harder for me. It didn't bother me at all, skipping out for the day.
Though I guess it isn't fair to say that the trees grow all in sand. There were deep veins of rock in the orchard as well. Mostly long granite knuckles of ledge. So for the trees, the sand was a sort of treat. We parked the trucks on a high stony slope above the orchard, then gathered our tools and headed down. Ethan and the Jamaican paired up to prune one row. I was to work with his sister.
Which, I have to admit, disappointed me. There was nothing wrong with his sister—Evelyn was her name, rosy-cheeked from chapping wind and pretty though hard and by this I mean fit, a joyful woman who'd worked this land each day of her life—but I wasn't friends with Evelyn, I was Ethan's friend. Maybe there was a motive in having us work together, I don't know. But I knew Ethan had a new son, his first, born in the summer, and in the months since learning this news, I hadn't been in contact, had not congratulated him or asked after his growing family. It made me feel like a shit for not having done these things. I hadn't thought to ask about his boy in the short ride over from the house to the shore. I'd have to wait more for another chance.
There were other trees in the orchard that weren't so close to the water, Russets and Gravensteins and Rhode Island Greenings tumbling up the grassy slopes above us, their naked limbs making witchy shapes against the foggy sky, but the rows we pruned were those closest to the water. Evelyn used a pole saw to take out the higher boughs. I used my Swiss hand-shears on those below. It pleased me to cut through branches as big around as my wrist, but I didn't kid myself too much about it. I'd kept the tool in good shape. It was doing all the work.
In the row beside us, Ethan and the Jamaican had a similar process going on. Down the line, we thinned and shaped the trees into open rising pyramids. All our trimmings we stacked in knitted piles like beaver dams in the path between the trees. I supposed they'd dry these and use them to light fires. I felt fine out there. Evelyn would laugh each time a big branch came crashing down, like this was some playful sort of game. I've always liked it when people take such joy in their work.
After a little while, their father came walking through the trees to join us. He didn't seem much like anyone who'd had a stroke. His hair and beard were white and he walked with a slight limp, but he otherwise moved with the speed and force of a hungry bear. He took to helping clear the trimmings for us so we could focus on our business of pruning. I don't remember anyone telling me his name.
The autumn after our first summer in the shallows, Ethan's chipper busted. He called me up and I came over the next day and together, in the barn connected to his family's house, we got the machine running right. This was the first time I'd seen his place. Before we got to work fixing the chipper, he took me for a walk through the orchard. Showed me where the first trees were planted, where he and his father had extended the rows, adding varieties. His grandfather bought this land to raise his family and a few beef cattle, and only later discovered the lone apple tree growing with its roots in the salted sand. It was a Baldwin. Wine dark skin and flesh almost stony. He planted his first rows the following spring, right alongside the original. As if it would set an example. Which, in its way, it did.
"This is the tree," Ethan told me then, "that our whole farm is named after." Then he wrested a ripe fruit from among dark green leaves and handed the apple to me. I buffed the skin on my shirt, and smelled it, and bit in. The taste of sea salt and caramel lingered on my tongue through the day.
Something easy can be more work than a difficult task you love. It's the loving it that makes it light. Our movements took on the mechanized regularity of a precise and complicated folkdance, but once when Evelyn ran her saw through the meat of a hardy branch, it was almost by accident that I caught it when it dropped. She hadn't seen that I'd moved over. She thought I was somewhere else. If I hadn't had my arm up already to shield the fog-diffused light from my eyes, the branch would have racked my skull for sure.
Evelyn got everyone's attention by gasping a little bit right then. But the danger was already averted. For one moment, I held the branch barehanded over my head like I was waving a brand or flag. Everyone was watching. Then, like a taut rope snapping, we laughed.
On paper, I am the little man's foreman. On paper, the little man is a dozen laborers. Mostly Mexicans. Men with saws and machines, sculpting the land as I instructed. But on my first day, there was no crew. Only the little man.
"Where is everyone?" I asked.
We were standing in the garage at the maintenance warehouse, between a dump truck and an articulating tractor. The little man had his hands knit behind his back. His blue eyes were fixed and hard.
"Take attendance," he said.
He took a step forward. "Do roll call."
So I did. I read the names off a clipboard.
I didn't go any further. The garage smelled like sawdust and oil. The little man, I don't think, had blinked once.
"You tell me what to do," and he took another step forward, poking at my chest with a stubby finger, "just once, and I'll kill you." Then he slapped the clipboard from my hands.
It didn't take me long after that to figure out what kind of place this was. I filed work-orders for jobs that did not exist. I wrote out payroll for men who weren't real. Some days I rearranged every tool in the warehouse. Other days, I threw everything away. Only rarely was my true use in the company employed. More often, I waited. I managed an invisible crew. Invisible forces managed me.
One time while we were out seaweeding, Ethan and I came upon this great fish lying flat on the surface of the water. I couldn't tell you what kind it was. Something with jaws like an alligator. It was two feet long or more and lay with its jaws just about unhinged with another fish caught in its mouth. The eaten fish was as big around as a softball and stuck in the other's open craw. Both fish were still alive. I remember feeling pretty amazed—what could possess something to do that, to try to swallow whole an animal nearly its same size—but Ethan just looked disgusted. All the lines in his face were drawn down.
"Greedy," was all he said. Then he whacked them both dead with his oar.
We'd been working for a few hours when the water started to change. It'd probably been changing for a while before we saw. The moon was full and the solstice was near so we knew if only by intuition that the tides would be very high, but this was different. Like each new wave came six inches farther up the shore. There was no wind or any big ships to raise a wake. All at once, the ocean wanted more. Over the rocks and into the orchard, the salt water crept silently in.
We were already cut off from the trucks when the old man noticed the flooding. He and Evelyn took to hauling the trimmings to higher ground, I guess thinking that the cuttings would damage the trees if left to float around. Or maybe they really needed that wood. While Ethan and I located a pile of oak stakes in the upper orchard, the Jamaican waded through the encroaching tide to fetch a box of heavy twine from Ethan's truck. The water was shin-deep when he left. It was up to his knees when he came back.
It seemed like a futile measure, but who was I to say? This was their family land. We set to work pounding the stakes as deep as we could into the sand. If we hit ledge, we pulled the stake and tried again. We lashed guy-lines from the stakes to the trees. If the tide came this far and stayed, it could wash out the sand, uproot the trees and carry them away. Any amount of anchor would help. This is what we wanted to believe.
But already I could see it wasn't working. The first tree Evelyn and I had pruned—the one closest to where the tide was flooding in—was already listing above the sea now at its feet. I don't think anyone else saw what was happening. They were busy. But I saw. The founder tree was being washed away.
The body responds while the brain tries to explain. It was like I was seeing something I could almost remember. Then I remembered. And then I forgot. I dropped the stake I'd been holding in my hand and raced across the sand. I'm sure I had my reasons. My footprints filled up as I ran.
Water was swirling around my knees when I reached the canting tree, its surface slithering while beneath me, I could feel the sand sifting like I was standing on a nest of snakes. The tree's roots were visible through the foamy wash. It was floating. I knew if we got it ashore, we could rinse its roots in fresh water and wrap them in burlap, keep the tree stored in a dark cellar until spring. Replant it on higher ground. It wouldn't be the same, but it'd be saved. I wrapped myself around its trunk and heaved and held on. I wouldn't let it go.
And further back, they were shouting. Above the sound of waves, I could hear my friends speaking my name.
"Samuel!" Ethan called, then his sister, more plaintive: "Sam!" Their arms were waving in crosses over their heads. They could see something behind me that I couldn't see. I had no idea what it could be. I didn't want to know. I fixed my feet deeper in the shifting sand and held on.