SHORT STORY. 1000 WORDS. MARCH, 2018.
PHOTO: NEAR UCHISAR, TURKEY. 1997. (SCANNED PHOTO.)
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN LOWESTOFT CHRONICLE (US) – SEPTEMBER 1, 2018. VIEW STORY ONLINE HERE.
One apple goes up, two come down. The movement catches my eye.
A curious outsider, an aimless tourist meandering across the Anatolian plain, I approach the tiny orchard. A young boy with short dark hair looks about seven as he stands beneath a small tree, laden with crimson fruit. Despite the heat and rough terrain, he wears stiff black dress shoes and grey socks. Beige pants don’t quite reach his ankles. A worn but clean white knitted vest covers his plaid, collared shirt. Holding an apple in one hand, he aims, lobs it straight up, then steps back as it disappears in the foliage. Two red orbs come thudding down.
Nearby, a brown donkey with tall, twitching ears is hitched to an unpainted wooden cart. A young girl, his sister perhaps, sits in front, her legs dangling behind the stationary animal. She looks about ten. A peach scarf covers her hair and shoulders. A white sweater is buttoned over a long, faded, blue print dress.
Collecting both apples, the boy hands one to the girl who places it behind her on the cart. He tosses the second into the lower branches and steps out of the way. One apple comes down heavily bruised, another only slightly.
I can’t help laughing at the inefficiency.
Both children turn and see me for the first time. They appear startled. I feel ashamed for disturbing this serene and bucolic tableau; wealth and privilege give me no right to pass judgement.
The girl speaks softly to her brother who shrugs, dismissing me, before handing her more fallen fruit.
The hiking trail bends toward the children before veering away. Stepping closer, I count fifteen apples in the cart. The boy continues tossing the battered apple, missing sometimes but more often dislodging a fleshy reward which he makes no attempt to catch.
The girl turns again to see whether I’ve gone. My presence must be unnerving but I want to help.
“You’ve got to shake it,” I say.
The boy stares, uncomprehending.
I mime jostling the trunk with bare hands.
A hint of fear crosses his face.
“Shake the tree,” I ineptly explain. Mimicking a tight hold, forcefully agitating the wood, a breathy: “aahh-aahh-aahh-aahh” escapes my lungs.
The boy edges closer to his big sister, almost hiding behind the cart.
I realize it might look like I’m strangling someone.
“I’ll show you,” I say and climb the tree. It separates into three large boughs. “Like this,” I exclaim, wrapping my hands round a wide branch. Throttling it, I hope the boy recognizes my earlier gesture.
Limbs creak, leaves swish and fall. One apple lands with a thud. Inspired, I thrash harder. Dozens of succulent crimson orbs release and gravity takes over. I stop, smell bark on my hands, then turn and grab the next branch. More leaves rustle as apples pound out a reassuring drumbeat. Through twigs and greenery, I see the boy’s face, eyes wide with wonder as delicious fruit falls like rain. His joy is palpable.
I shake the last large branch, then jump down, careful not to tread on apples carpeting the stony, weedy ground. “Is that enough?” I ask.
He doesn’t reply but how can he not be impressed? I expect a smile or handshake. Maybe his sister will offer an apple with gratitude.
Seconds pass. Anything could happen. They might even invite me to feast with their parents, where they’ll breathlessly recount my miraculous feat.
But no. In silence, the boy raises an imploring arm and points to the next tree.
I laugh louder than before. “You greedy little shit,” I exclaim, knowing he won’t understand.
Still laughing, I wipe sweat from my brow. Inhaling sweet scented air, I climb the suggested tree and recall my infant nephew flinging a plastic cup from his high chair to the floor. Each time my brother retrieved it, he tossed it again. This went on until my sister-in-law entered and explained: “He’s experimenting with power. He’s throwing to make you bring it back. This can go on all day.”
Thankfully, the Turkish boy doesn’t make me climb a third tree. I wave and he watches me depart. His sister never makes eye contact.
Following the path, I watch cloud shadows race across this bizarre Kapadokyan landscape. Over the millennia, volcanic ash compacted into water soluble rock, prone to erosion. Beneath random granite slabs on the surface, tall cones and chimneys were coaxed from the porous earth as it gradually wore away under heavy rain and lashing wind.
An improbable skyline of chalky pinnacles rises high above the plain. I wonder what it’s like living behind those rough-hewn doorways, courtyards and windows, in a complicated warren of above-ground caves and tunnels, dug centuries earlier.
Local topsoil is another geological miracle. Neat rows of fat zucchinis and orange peppers flourish alongside bulbous red tomatoes. Clusters of pale green grapes grow lazily on the ground, spilling over parched soil, rather than hanging from vines.
From the valley edge, the trail zig zags up a gentle slope of powdery rock. The donkey returns to view and I hear the boy and girl arguing – she refuses to allow more apples in the cart, even though it’s nowhere near full. I assume “yeterli” is the Turkish word for “enough.” She repeats this while blocking his every effort.
Losing patience, she prods the donkey with a stick. It brays and lurches forward, leaving her brother behind. He curses, tears off his vest, then flings it at his feet. Crouching, he fills it with every remaining apple. Knitted fabric stretches and bulges. The improvised bag resembles a heavy sack of potatoes, enormous against his tiny hands and thin arms. Straining to lift, a single fruit tumbles out. He drops the entire load, shoves the stray apple back in and rises again.
Regret washes over me. Instead of a wise traveler who saved an innocent boy some time, I’m the snake who inflamed his greed. Full of shame, I slither away.