The first pest to make itself known in the orchard was the stinkbug, malevolent and focused. It worked at the sap in the fruit, sucking the water from the flesh, leaving behind gnarls and distortions—catfacing, Mona heard it called, though the injured peaches she plucked from her trees’ branches looked nothing like a cat’s face, but more a woman’s, withered by sun.
“I’m going to try traps,” Mona told Vert. He was visiting again.
“They won’t work,” he said. Traps never worked. He’d seen his old boss go that route against his advice, and the results had been poor.
But Mona hung the sticky boxes in the cradles and forks of the trees’ branches, anyway. She followed elaborate, poorly written directions for homemade ground traps that she set in the open rows, ugly yellow pyramids topped with plastic jars, baited with scent.
“This place looks horrible,” Vert said about the orchard. “It looks like a junkyard.”
“I think it’s rather festive,” Mona replied, plucking a jar from one of the trap bases, its clear sides mottled with green and brown bodies. She shook it, deliberate hard shakes. The bugs rattled, their bodies drumming off each other. “I like to disorient them before I smash them,” she said, and Vert watched her shake the jar a few more times, then empty its contents into a plastic shopping bag that she twisted closed, set on the ground, and crushed beneath the heel of her rubber boot.
“This seems terribly time-consuming,” Vert said.
But the waste of time wasn’t what got Mona to abandon the traps—she just wasn’t getting enough pests. The traps seemed to be encouraging the population, bringing in even more, some that went to the boxes and jars and some that went to the trees. She’d never seen so many stinkbugs—greens and browns and blacks, an influx of the predacious variety with its orange and black markings (slightly pretty, she’d admit). They were everywhere.
And so she sprayed, standing to the side while a hired truck rolled down the rows, a tank in its bed, a fine spray soaking the air, the leaves, the wood. Mona wore a flowered handkerchief over the lower half of her face, and she took small, shallow breaths through her nose as she watched. She could see Vert making his way toward her from the house, his face uncovered.
His hands braced his lower back, fingers digging into the tissue, moving it around.
“Back still hurting?” Mona asked.
“Nah. It’s nothing.” He flicked the handkerchief where it dangled past Mona’s chin. “The stuff’s made from plants, you know.”
“Most poisons are.”
“Well, cotton’s not going to keep it out of your nose.”
She pulled the cloth higher, then pinched her nose closed through the fabric, checking for scent: laundry soap, fabric softener.
“They’re making air filters for cars out of cotton now,” Mona said, and then the man in the truck was waving her over. “Shouldn’t you be at your own orchard?” she asked, walking long strides away from him.
“I’ve been spraying this same product four times a year for nearly two decades, and it’s never caused me any harm,” he said, watching her move down the row. Her boots gave way to her mother’s slim legs rising up to Mona’s own hips and tiny waist, sweet in one of her many skirts, this one a deep orange. Her father’s wide shoulders filled an old blouse, its seams yellowed and straining, and his light hair gathered itself low on her skull, trailing its tail under the knot of her bandana. Her mouth was too thin and her nose too angled to let her be beautiful, but from behind, she was the loveliest thing Vert had ever seen.
He’d met her father first, both of them hired on at the same Chilton County orchard in the same month—Vert as the general overseer and Mona’s father as the arborist. Vert hadn’t thought the orchard needed a tree doctor with a fancy degree, but he’d changed his mind immediately upon meeting the man. He was older than Vert by a good ten years, his face lined by sun and weather, and the hand he extended was as rough and calloused as Vert’s own. He wasn’t a typical university man, and Vert was pleased to accept his invitation to dinner back at the farmhouse he shared with his wife and young daughter. Mona was five then, and she took to him like no child ever had. Her parents said it was rare for her, too, this fast affection. Within a month of meeting them all, Vert was making his rounds with little Mona on his shoulders, her heels pressing against his upper ribs, her knees at his ears, her small hands reaching up to pluck a peach from a tree, insisting that they share it, bite for bite.
Now, he watched Mona talking to the man in the truck, an older man, thick in his neck and shiny bald. He had something in his hand that he dropped onto Mona’s open palm.
“Codling moth,” Vert said to himself.
But Mona returned with a worm more brown than pink. She pulled the handkerchief from her mouth and shouted, “Oriental fruit moth,” as though it were Vert’s fault. “I have fruit-moth larvae now.”
The fruit moth is a childish pest, wreaking its havoc in its young larval days, chewing into the fresh shoots of spring growth, hollowing them out, eating away until the twigs droop, their leaves wilt. As an adolescent, it goes for the fruit itself, making irregular channels in the flesh, before hunkering down near the stone, where it grows fat on the sugared, delicate meat.
“The bastard’s saying this spray doesn’t work for them both. He wants me to apply another.”
Vert shrugged his shoulders and pushed at his back. “I apply a complex cocktail. Kills everything.”
Mona dropped the worm to the ground and stepped on it. “I’ll do something,” she said, then pulled the handkerchief back into place and pushed off toward the house, a shifty clapboard affair on the northeast corner of the property. Its barn had long since fallen, the water in its pond long since covered by water spinach and chestnut. The tall pecans along the drive dropped their nuts and leaves and dead branches into the lane. The nuts and branches splintered under tires, and the leaves layered themselves in the ruts. Vert had fired up the tractor a few years earlier to clear the mess, but it replenished itself quick.
“There’s more to this property than the orchard,” he’d said to Mona. “The shed’s going to fall down on your equipment if you don’t replace those rafters soon. The pecans need pruning. Lord knows what’s become of the catfish.”
“Multiplying like crazy now that I’ve closed the pond to fishermen.”
“Your parents made good money on those fish.”
“No, they didn’t.”
They’d been on the stooped front porch for that talk, Mona on the swing she’d lifted from its hooks and turned around so it faced the orchard. She’d put one of the kitchen chairs in the corner by the railing so Vert could sit and talk to her face rather than her back.
“Your parents didn’t leave you this place so you could plant a failing orchard,” Vert had said, reaching his hand out to stop the swing.
She’d looked at him, her face even sharper, thinner, even further from pretty. “Why don’t you go on back to Chilton,” she’d said.
He’d given the swing a rough shove and edged past it, mimicking her stride as he paced to his car. Driving the four hours home, he’d sworn he’d stay away for months—a whole season, a quarter year. See how she’d like that. No one to bounce ideas off. No one to sit in that goddamned ladder-backed chair and fire up the tractor and clear the goddamned drive. That tractor barely started. She shouldn’t even have the damn thing. She should sell it, along with all the other shit in the shed, and use the money for improvements.
And that was his excuse for returning two weeks later, going straight to the shed to work on the tractor. She came to lean in the doorway.
“Don’t mind me,” he said. “Just the equipment I’m interested in.”
“I don’t use that equipment.”
“I know. That’s why you’re going to sell it.”
She laughed at him and turned, heading back to her damn trees. “Thank you, Vert,” she said over her shoulder, and he raised his head to watch her go.
“Vert,” she said, her light hair blending with the cover of her pillow—straw on straw—there in her attic bedroom in that first farmhouse. “Tell me the names again.”
“Correll,” he whispered as he moved, her small breaths like gasps underneath him, tiny threads of fear. “Empress, Regal, Shepard’s Beauty, Harrow Diamond, Valley Fire, Delta.”
“Keep going,” she whispered, which he took as permission.
There was a man on the porch one early afternoon in May, older than Mona, younger than Vert, a slight belly to him that looked new, a concession to some middle age he’d found. His skin was tan and his hair the same soft honey as Mona’s, and Vert might have called his face handsome if he’d seen him somewhere else.
“Morning,” the man said. He was on Mona’s swing, looking toward the orchard. Vert never sat on that swing.
“Afternoon,” Vert replied. “Mona around?”
“She’s getting me a box of peaches,” the man said. “Her yellow ones. I use them in a peach margarita that I sell out of in a day. Gives me a good excuse to keep coming back.”
“Juneprince,” Vert said. “They’re on the smaller side, but they’re good. I’m still surprised she got them to grow down here.” When Mona’s father first told Vert he was taking his family down to Baldwin County, Vert had been infuriated by his friend’s stupidity. “Chilton’s the peach capital of Alabama, for Christ’s sake. Why the hell would you go so far south? You know damn well you can’t grow peaches that close to the coast.” There’s too much rain along the Gulf and not enough cold in the winter. Peaches need cold even more than they need sun.
“We’re not going to do peaches,” Mona’s father had said, and this news was a greater betrayal than the move. What would they be if they weren’t all peach growers living in the north, scheduling their lives around harvests?
The man on Mona’s porch stood and extended his hand over the rail. “I’m Gerry,” he said. “I have Pirates Cove over on the bay.”
“Mona’s taken me there,” Vert said.
“You get a peach margarita?”
“I don’t drink that.” Vert looked off at the trees, Mona’s figure making its way toward them, a heavy crate scooped in her arms. “Why aren’t you out there helping?”
The man laughed. “You think she’d let me near her orchard?”
So he was just a customer, then.
Gerry came down the steps and stood next to Vert, both of them watching Mona. Even with the crate, she moved gracefully.
“How do you know her?” Gerry asked.
Vert hadn’t had to answer that question for decades; he was family. Mona’s parents were both orphans by the time he met them, and neither had siblings. Mona was their only child, and they didn’t have close friends. But they’d welcomed Vert. Mona’s initial affection and trust had meant her parents’ trust, and his role had quickly become permanent—the uncle who watched little Mona when her parents took time for themselves, the friend who helped with household repairs, the confidant who listened to both parents’ sides during their significant arguments, the colleague with the same intimate knowledge of cultivating trees. He was something important to each of them, and the move didn’t change that.
“You’ll visit, won’t you, Vert?” Mona’s mother had said. “We can’t do this without you.”
“You’ll come, won’t you?” Mona had said, thirteen then, a young woman, nearly as tall as she’d become.
“Yes,” he’d said. “Of course,” and he had come every chance his boss would spare him the time—once a month, at least. Then he bought the Chilton orchard and found visits impossible, too busy with all the new pieces, and so Mona’s family came to him. They came several times, staying long through the harvests. Once Vert got everything settled with a solid crew, he let himself indulge in time away again. He helped Mona and her parents stock the pond and gather pecans. He hung back with Mona while her folks took short vacations, and it was on one of her parents’ ventures away—a couple nights in Florida—that they died in a car accident. Mona was in the tail end of her last year of high school, and Vert stayed with her through the summer. He would’ve stayed with her forever if she hadn’t asked him to go home.
“You meet my friend Gerry?” she said as she approached, the slightest sweat on her forehead. She didn’t let him answer. “Gerry, you want to give me cash or have me bill you at the end of the month? Imagine I’ll see you again tomorrow.”
Gerry laughed and took the box from her arms. “Add it to my bill, darlin’,” he said, and with the box between them, he leaned forward and kissed her on her flat cheek.
“He makes the best peach margaritas,” Mona said as Gerry drove away. “I can put away three before I even know it. He’s had to drive me home at least once.”
“Stop it, Mona.”
“Jealous?” she laughed. “Oh, Vert. Come on up to the porch. I’ll get you a drink. We’ve got pests to discuss.”
Years in, she’d become bold, her legs over his in the deep brass of her bed—the same one from that attic room, carted down to Baldwin, tucked away in a dormer. It had been her grandmother’s, she told him, one of those dead relatives she’d never known. Her long fingers traced circles on his chest. “Maygold,” he called her, one of his favorite varieties, and her secrets its very color, deep red when ripe, sweet.
“You don’t do this with anyone else?” he asked her.
“Like the boys at school?” she replied, laughing, her legs waking, moving themselves up and over his hips. “Jealous, Vert?” she’d say, and he would close his eyes, his hands squeezing her waist, a thing so small he could nearly encircle it.
Mona ordered parasites from an insectary in California, microscopic wasps, yellow-bodied and mean. They ate the moths’ eggs and burrowed into the larvae.
“They’ll last longer if you supply them with some nectar-giving plants between the rows,” the salesman said. “Like butterfly weed. It’ll get you some good pollinators, too—butterflies and hummingbirds. You call if there’s a problem.”
Mona planted the butterfly weed herself, lines of it along the borders of the orchard, through the open rows, down along the southwest corner where the property dipped into swampy reeds. The leaves of the plant were long and pointed, dark green swords, its blooms brilliant orange.
“Wasps?” Vert said.
“They’re guaranteed,” Mona replied. “And they replace themselves constantly—thirty generations in one season.”
“They’re smaller than the head of a pin, Vert. You can’t even see them.”
“Even worse. Invisible wasps.”
She laughed at him. “It’s better than poison,” she said.
“I disagree.” Mona noticed his hands kneading his back and slid them away, replacing them with her own, her bony fingers deep in the aching muscles.
“Why’s your back hurting so much?” she asked.
“Won’t you come inside with me?”
He turned and took her hands. Mona still slept in the same bedroom, in the same brass bed. Vert hadn’t been in either for years.
“Please,” he said.
Mona wiped a hand across his forehead, something she’d always done, checking, she called it.
“You’re fine,” she said. “Now, turn around.”
He felt her hands return to his back, digging.
Mona had planted the orchard in November, ten years earlier. It took three hired men and a small machine to lift the weighty trees from the long flatbed that delivered them, their roots bundled into burlap balls, tied up with twine. Mona helped dig the holes, rounding the edges where the machine’s scoop couldn’t reach. She alone untied the roots, watching the soil rain into each hole. They were her trees, and she insisted on tamping down the last of the dirt around each trunk. She ran the rows north-to-south and encircled each trunk with mulched pearl millet she’d cut from the old grazing pasture.
On their second day of planting, Vert had arrived, bristling at the men, at the trees, at the mulch.
“It’s not cold enough to grow peaches down here. Why wouldn’t you just come back to Chilton if you wanted to do peaches?”
“I don’t want to be in Chilton.”
The three men had been standing close, a tree dangling from the scoop of their backhoe.
“Mona,” one of them said. “Want us to put this one in?”
“Stop it!” Vert cried, and Mona had put a hand to his shoulder.
“Go to the house, Vert,” she’d said. “I’ll be right up.” He hadn’t moved, but she acted like he was gone, dropping to her knees in front of those men, reaching her long arms forward to untie the burlap. He watched her fill the hole, watched her stamp the ground with her boots, watched her pull from the pile of mulch, then reach to the tree, a hand to one of its branches as if in introduction.
“We’ll stop there for the day,” she’d said to the men, and she’d walked slowly with Vert to the house where they’d sat together on the porch, facing each other, him in a rocker and her in the swing—she hadn’t turned it yet.
“How are you going to manage the harvests?”
“There’s only forty of each,” she said. “They all ripen at different times.”
“Your harvesting window’s only a week long.”
“That’s only five and a half trees a day,” she said. “I did more than that for you up in Chilton.”
“I wish you would again.” He gripped the arms of his chair and kept his feet still. It was evening. The orange sky collected in the pond, its surface still free of weeds.
“No,” she said. “I need my own trees, now.”
She tells him what is happening. Look: You are wrapping your hands in my hair and you are pulling my head back so that my mouth drops open. She can’t help it, this opening, and she cannot help how her feet move backward, toward what was once her grandmother’s bed, heavy with brass and age. Her knees turn to corners on the mattress’s edge, and his hands pull her head farther back, her mouth still open, and over this opening, he places his own mouth, a mouth that tastes like peaches, as she imagines hers does. One hand stays in her hair and the other goes to her skirt—she wear skirts, even in the orchard—and this skirt is bunched around her waist, her underpants gripped tight, before they’re torn from her hips. The broken elastic will leave welts along the rim of her stomach. The same hand reaches for the rusty zipper of his jeans—they are dirty, those pants; he’s been working—and the rough button there, popping as it lets go of the fabric. He barely lowers them at all, everything he needs opening from the front. He grabs her waist to flip her over, his fingers to the bones of her lower back (already, she knows she is too thin). He pulls.
“Maygold,” he cries.
Her parents are far away in their blue truck, buying catfish from a whiskered man. They are adding to their stock. Where are they, their friend and their daughter, in these parents’ minds? Sitting at the kitchen table, sharing Cokes? Walking the fields, making sure the neighbors’ dairy cows that graze the back forty haven’t pulled the fencing down again, trying to get home?
It is their disbelief she fears most, their choice of Vert over her. He has been there longer than she can remember, more times than she can count. It hurts more than it ever has, though, this time, from the angle, she thinks, or the idea.
Gerry was on Mona’s swing again. It was an in-between week, nothing to harvest. Vert shielded his eyes as he approached, making shade enough to take the man in.
“Can I help you?” Vert asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Do you need something? We don’t have any peaches right now. The Loring has another week before harvest—a week, maybe even two.”
“Must be something out there ready to go.” The man nodded toward the orchard, and Vert saw Mona coming toward them again, another crate in her arms. She arrived, and Vert stood silently by as she exchanged the same pleasantries with Gerry—the same kiss on the cheek, the same passing-off of the crate (did their hands linger too long?), the same playful “add it to my bill.” She didn’t even speak to Vert until Gerry was in his truck, and her first words were, “I’d think you had work to do in your own orchard. It’s a busy time of year.”
“Goddamn it, Mona,” he said. “You need me here.”
She looked at him with an honesty that reminded him of her girlhood self—something plain and calm and clear—and he didn’t wait for the words that were sure to follow. He couldn’t hear them. He wouldn’t. Instead, he climbed into his own truck and followed Gerry out the pecan-littered drive, heading north where Gerry turned south.
“Tell me the names,” she would say. “Tell me the names.”
And then, one day, she didn’t.
So he took it upon himself. “Correll,” he whispered. “Empress, Regal, Shepard’s Beauty, Harrow—”
“Don’t,” she said, her mouth at his ear. “Please.”
He would not let himself register the slack in her hands, the dull weight of her body sinking into the mattress, settling into the frame.
The next time Vert came, Gerry was on the porch again.
“Mona’s inside,” he said.
Vert went in, the screen slamming shut on his ankle.
She was in the kitchen, standing at the counter, mixing drinks, something frilly, crushed peach flesh in the bottom amongst the ice.
“Vert,” she said. “What a surprise. Would you like one?” It was the question that made him most angry, as though he were a father come to visit, a father who’d take drinks with his daughter and her lover out on the porch, who’d sit patiently while they chattered, knowing all the while that they’d move themselves to her bed the moment he left. Vert pictured that barman’s hands around Mona’s bare waist, and it was this image that pushed him forward, that brought his hands to the glasses and raked them to the floor. Nothing broke, save for the ice, shattering into shards that set immediately to puddling. The peach pulp smeared the wood, leaking from the toppled glasses.
“Jesus, Vert, what are you doing?”
He reached for her next, his feet slipping in the mess, losing their traction, regaining. He pushed her into the counter’s corner and dug at the buttons on her blouse, then gave them up for her skirt, lifting it, pulling. He did not register her hands pushing on his own chest, pushing, and then to her skirt, shoving it down. He didn’t hear her say, “Don’t.” He just barely heard a man’s voice behind, bellowing, barely heard it before it reached him, before Gerry’s hands were on his shoulders, dragging him backward, tipping his balance so that when he was shoved free, he couldn’t get his footing, and he fell, his right ribs crushing one of the drink glasses, his cheek hitting the other.
He heard, “Jesus, Mona. Are you all right?”
Something was falling in him, his blood slipping from the slits in his side, his cheek thrumming, a sting as he breathed in, again as he breathed out, something gold coming round the corners of his eyes.
He heard her say, “I’m all right,” before he felt her near him, a hand on his forehead. Her fingers played at his face, light touches around his ear. He could not move. “I am not a little girl anymore,” she whispered, and he tried not to hear it, but it was loud, and then her hand was gone, and she was saying, “We need to get him to the hospital.”
The doctor told Mona it wasn’t so much the fall but the already ruined interior of Vert’s body. It wasn’t strong enough to take such an abuse. “How long has he been working in orchards?” the man asked. “And he sprays?”
Mona held a brochure in her hand, glossy and bright. There were apple trees on the front, rows of them, the fruit hanging from the branches. The brochures were published in the north, so they showed northern fruit. The apples were disgusting, too shiny, smug. Along the ground, under the trees of this make-believe orchard, it said Know Your Poisons.
“His back’s been bothering him,” she said.
“Common symptom,” the doctor replied, and as an afterthought, “I’m sorry.”
On the evening of Vert’s death, she brought Gerry home to her parents’ house, and she took him to her bed. She drew him down on top of her, and she screamed loud enough to wake the catfish deep under the weedy cover of their pond. They stayed in her bed for days, the wasps tending her orchard, the pecans dropping their shells and branches, the drive cluttering, the mustard in the back forty missing its cows.
He is as old as Vert was when he first found her, and he will never set foot in her orchard.
When Mona was twelve, Vert walked into the bathroom to find her naked, recently dried from the shower, a towel on her head. It was her naked back that he saw first, and then he let his eyes move down, all the way to her tiny calves, her bony ankles. Her parents were in the orchard.
“Don’t turn around,” he said.
His hands were dirty—they’d been putting in new saplings in the recently tilled north field—and he watched those dirty hands reach for her as though they were someone else’s, as though he did not answer for them. They found her shoulders, the knobs of her collarbone, and they ran down her arms to the balls of her wrists. They unwrapped the towel from her head. They grabbed the wet hair underneath, fistfuls that they brought to his nose, the bright scent of her shampoo sharp and disarming. His body was against hers, his dusty clothes rough against her clean skin.
“You’re so beautiful, Mona,” he told her, his hands traveling to her hips, cupping the jutting bones.
“Thank you, Vert,” she whispered.
Her parents moved to Baldwin later that same year. “We’re just ready to do something else,” Mona’s father said, his arm around Vert’s shoulders. Vert had to believe that the incident in the bathroom and the move had nothing to do with each other. When the family came up to Chilton to help with the harvests, there was still Mona’s lanky body in his own orchard, her arm still reaching for the June Dixiered and the Topaz, and later the Encore and the Fairstone, a basket on her hip, a bite-marked peach in her hand, juice on her chin.
“You should wash those first,” Vert called to her, but she just smiled at him and brought the fruit back up to her mouth.
Virginia Reeves’ stories have appeared in The Baltimore Review, storyglossia, Takahe, and 42opus.