The Fall
by Ute Carson
A Walk Through My Garden, edited by Whitney Scott, Outrider Press, Inc., 2007

It was May and the sweet fragrance of apple blossoms wafted through the open window. I had propped my elbows on the windowsill of my upstairs bedroom and was gazing at myriads of pinkish petals illuminating the night like candles. Then I inhaled deeply with my eyes closed.

Mr. Franz's six sturdy apple trees bordered my mother's bountiful flower garden. A white picket fence divided our two properties, and a rusty iron gate hung loosely on its hinges. Low branches tapped it on windy days with an eerie persistence. The trees, all slightly different heights, stretched toward a changing sky. From my perch I could spy out over their tops. There was no official name for the golden sun-baked apples. We called them Paradise Apples.

The apple trees were planted in a semicircle and nothing was used as fertilizer but horse manure. The apples were the best I've ever eaten, firm and juicy. Although wide grease bands encircled the tree trunks to deter insects, the apple skins were pockmarked where worms had burrowed tunnels through them. But we didn't mind. My mother and father, and my sister Inge and I grew healthy and strong on more than one apple a day.

Apples were part of our daily diet. At breakfast my mother sliced them onto our oatmeal. I took an apple to school in my backpack. Setting off to afternoon sports I ran under the low tree branches, grabbed an apple and sank my teeth into it without slowing down. Apples were often a staple at dinner. One dish of boiled apples and potatoes was called "Himmel und Erde" (heaven and earth). My mother prepared it with a roast seasoned with curry and thyme. My favorite apple dish was a dessert of baked apples filled with honey and almonds, and sprinkled with cinnamon.

We made use of apples in many ways. We grated them for upset stomachs, pureed them into applesauce, and canned them. We ate whole apples, core and all. My parents explained to us that "the nutrients are just under the protective envelope-- the apple's skin-- and in its heart." The only time we pared apples was for a Sunday torte. I remember sitting across from my mother at the kitchen table and watching her fingers, quick as weasels, peel the skin off an apple in one long unbroken ringlet. She worked by feel without ever looking. Afterwards my sister and I gathered the peelings in a bucket and took them to the pond where from among the slimy algae ducks splashed toward the water's edge and gobbled up the apple curls which we dangled over their eager beaks.

Mr. and Mrs. Franz were generous neighbors and at harvest time we were all invited over to pick. My father helped Mr. Franz carry a heavy wooden ladder from tree trunk to tree trunk, its bottom raking the ground with a rustle of leaves. Then Father placed one foot on the lowest rung to steady the ladder as we took turns climbing up and filling our baskets which we set on the rung next to our feet. We hooked our bare toes around the slats. Sweat glistened under our armpits and along hairlines. Our waxy-brown calf muscles hardened as we balanced on tiptoe and reached. Once in a while an apple escaped our grasp and tumbled to the ground. Everyone laughed, "That's how Newton discovered gravity!"

I rested after filling several baskets and sat munching on a particularly crisp apple. Inge, who was finicky about eating, scolded me. "Don't crunch."

The apple trees were part of my life. We took our time growing.

We had picnics under those trees with blankets spread on the grass for extra softness. We laughed and talked under the thick dome of their leaves, and my little cousin Ralf used one of the lower branches to steady himself as he learned to walk.

May induced daydreaming to the accompaniment of buzzing bees busily gathering pollen. I remember being entangled by spider webs suspended between branches, feeling their fine transparent threads against my face.

One warm July evening Mr. Franz had his two little grandsons Eric and Wolfgang over. They giggled with the delight of small children, rolling apples back and forth on the lawn between their outspread legs.

With the arrival of October, light came through the branches at a slant and a rough wind ripped loose the blood-red leaves, then scattered them aflutter like a thousand flames. The bees returned, now drawn by the smell of overripe, decomposing fruit. The odor of damp air seeped into my clothes as I shook the branches, and the last apple stragglers which nestled among large serrated leaves fell to the ground.

With the first touch of frost and a nip in the air, my mother and Mrs. Franz circled through the trees in search of the strays and gathered them into their deep red, blue or checkered aprons which they held up by the corners. Apples left on a branch after all the others had been picked tasted especially sweet. They made up for the immature ones in June that had set our teeth on edge.

December lulled me into hibernation, spinning its sleepy time web. The snow came down slowly like confetti, layering the branches with white velvet. And as the trees stored warmth and sap, and the wind blew the remaining crumbled leaves around in big swirls, I moved indoors to activities around the old tiled stove and the nearby kitchen table.

I remember best the summer nights. They would often find me resting my back against the bark of a trunk and hoping that my boyfriend Ernest would soon join me. I had fallen for Ernest with uninhibited feeling but was not yet sure what do with this new sensation. Sitting under my favorite apple tree I took its pulse. Once I was caught there in a warm drizzle. The bark was singing, and the roots gurgled like underground rivulets. Waves of birds circled the crown, flies droned, and grasshoppers jumped to the rhythm of my heartbeat. Lightning bugs blinked off and on as it got darker. I looked skyward through the dense foliage where throbbing stars were beginning to glisten like insect eyes. I pressed my body into the tree hollow and lifted my face into the spray, letting the soft drops lick my skin with their ticklish tongues. The firmament was silver with moonlight.

Butterflies fluttered through my entire body until I heard Ernest's footsteps bouncing over the cushy grass in my direction. As soon as he stood in front of me all movement stopped, and we were suddenly timid. Ernest gently let himself down next to me. We remained silent. Then the tenseness lifted, and we were close again. We traded stories without pause, as though we would lose the connection between us as if we stopped, even to breathe.

The night air pressed against our eager young bodies, and we were camouflaged by soft darkness. The branches gave us gentle cover. Ernest kissed me under my apple tree and I shivered with a fresh awareness like a quivering green leaf.

Our blissful life changed with the onset of World War II. My father and many other men were drafted and we who were left behind retreated into our close family circles and into ourselves. Ernest was inducted into a youth group, and looking forward to snuggling together under our apple tree abruptly ended.

Mr. Franz was too old to be drafted. He continued to prune the trees and harvest the apples, which he no longer freely shared with us but sold instead. On a bitter cold January day we heard hacking sounds and saw the first of our beloved trees fall to his axe. In the coming years two more trees shared the same fate. After the felling of the first tree, Mother and I sneaked out before dawn and collected the few logs, branches and wood chips left on the ground. Mr. Franz had stored the rest of the tree safely in his shed before nightfall.

The atmosphere of the war years was gloomy and drab, filled with anxieties. We knitted through long evenings, and my mother taught my sister and me to darn socks and patch torn sweater elbows and legging knees.

One morning Mr. Franz discovered two soldiers asleep side by side like drunks in their worn-out, olive-drab uniforms right under one of the remaining apple trees. Later I overheard him tell Mother that they had pleaded with him, "Please help us with anything you can spare," and he had handed them some apples. "They went away," he grumbled, "like godless beggars."

There was great joy and relief when my father returned home. The war was over but the postwar chaos and its deprivations were about to begin. The destruction all around us was chilling. We continued to struggle for survival. My father was forced to find odd jobs, mostly manual labor. He no longer had a position as a lecturer in mathematics, because most universities had only partially reopened their doors. He looked plucked and forlorn.

We had sold everything we could spare. We even tearfully parted with Riva, our faithful breeding dog, a golden retriever. A hunter bought her for a bushel of corn, two sacks of potatoes, several bags of coal and a dozen eggs, which kept us going for only a few weeks. But we got by. Somehow my parents found a way to clothe and feed us and even kept the old tiled oven glowing.

Mr. Franz had not totally forgotten us. In August 1946 he delivered a basket of Paradise Apples to our doorstep in exchange for a knitted sweater, which my mother had managed to piece together from leftover yarn. Our delight knew no bounds, but Mother curbed our appetites. She indulged us each with one apple, the rest were preserved for winter. The four healthiest, roundest specimens were set aside for Christmas. We placed them on a newspaper on a shelf next to the canned cabbage and blackberry marmalade in our cool, damp cellar. There they might shrivel a bit but still be a treat for the holidays.

Whenever I was sent to fetch a tin of rations or bring up some coal, I stopped at the display of apples. I fingered them, running my hand over the wrinkly surfaces, then bringing my nose into smelling range, inhaled the familiar sweet fragrance. Once I lifted the rosiest apple off the shelf only to put it back quickly as if I had been stung. By November only the four special apples decorated our cellar shelf. The rest my mother had used for cooking.

The Advent season is a time of preparation in most German households, filled with baking and the making of presents. One frosty evening when our stomachs growled like hungry hounds, my mother decided to donate her Paradise Apple while we were busy wrapping and gluing tiny golden angels onto gifts, readying them for delivery to family members and friends. She quartered the reddish ball, then we dipped our portion into warm honey. We let that taste linger on our tongues before finally swallowing. Later in bed, Inge and I speculated what might happen at Christmas. We were convinced that Father would share his apple with our mother. He was a very giving man.

I never liked the cellar. Except for a slit of a window at ground level, the cave-like room was dim and musty-smelling. Even on a bright, sunny day little light filtered in. At dusk we used the single light bulb which dangled on a long wire from the cellar ceiling. The steps down to the cavern were worn and rickety. The cellar floor was made of concrete and was slightly slippery from the permanent moisture. Only the sight of our three remaining Paradise Apples lit up my mood every time I was called upon to go down to the cellar and bring something up.

Two weeks before Christmas, unusually cold winter days arrived. At the gold-green haze of twilight my father returned from the woods with firewood and splintered it for kindling. Earlier that morning my mother had come home from the black market with meager exchanges of flour and shriveled potatoes. Once a magician at the stove, her cooking had become uninspired under the burden of the dwindling food supply. This didn't stop us from lying to her every night, "It's so good, Mutti." That night, after a small fire crackled in our tiled oven and a pungent odor of sap and cooking oils circulated through the warm kitchen, she told me to fetch a jar of red cabbage. She was making potato dumplings again. Gingerly, I made my way down the cellar steps and pulled the light cord.

That's when I saw him. As soon as the light blinded us both, he spun away from me, his back rounded into a shield, withdrawing his neck into his frayed jacket like a turtle. I froze in my tracks, dumbfounded. I had only seconds to make a choice. I could have withdrawn inconspicuously, silently retracing my steps back up the stairs. I could have ignored his transgression, saved him the embarrassment. But I had seen the bite, a rosy, dripping wound.

Defiantly, I took a stand and waited until my father decided to face me, hand extended, the forbidden fruit glistening in his cupped palm. Suddenly I stepped forward, a feathery panic in my chest and took the cherished Paradise Apple from him and plunged my teeth into the soft flesh. At that moment innocence changed places with the knowledge of sin. I stood glued to the damp cellar floor. Sharing my father's guilt tasted deliciously sweet.

I can't remember how long we stood there in deep shame, our heads bowed toward each other like top-heavy tree crowns, the quiet broken only by the taps of a tattered twig against the glass of the cellar window, which on that night let no light into the darkness, not even the faintest glimmer of a star.

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