The Orchard

Maggie Shipstead

Jennings has not come to her bed in eight days, not since the dog died. He begged her to bury the dog, weeping while she looked out the window at the orange trees, eight hundred acres of dark leaves and bright fruit. She could see the roof of the building where the men live. She would ask Petr to bury the dog for her.
       “I don’t want any of the men to do it,” Jennings said. “You knew him. Alfonso shouldn’t be buried by a stranger.” He took her chin in his fingers and tilted her face down at his. “I’m telling you to bury him.”
       So Sophia rolled the stiff Labrador off his cushion and onto a sheet that she dragged down the hall and out to the porch. She pushed him off the edge and into a wheelbarrow that she wrestled into the yard. The horse stood under a tree with crow-filled branches. She stuck her shovel in the ground. The crows rose up, flapping, and settled on the roof. “Hot,” they said. “Hot.” The afternoon faded to evening while she sweated and dug. When the dog was a square patch of new ground, she walked back and forth over him, tamping down the earth.
       Since then Jennings has not come to her bed, and he has only left his study for the bathroom. He sleeps on a leather sofa beneath windows that look over the orchard. Every afternoon he soaks his clothes and his chair with sweat, and every night he dries in the window breeze. Salty white tidal rings make halos on the chair’s upholstery. He has stained a dark shadow on the couch. He smells like old man, old armpits, mildewing crotch, unwashed clothes. If he came to her now, she would turn her face into the part of her pillow that smells like Petr and hold her breath.
       While she is resting on the porch, a dust cloud comes up the road and turns into a car. A man steps out. In the fading light and kicked-up dust, everything is the color of ash except the tooth of white handkerchief sticking from the pocket of his ash-colored suit. He takes off his hat.
       “Good evening. Mr. Jennings is expecting me. Where might I find him?”
       She is wearing rubber boots, ready to go out and feed the horse, but she steps out of these and leads the stranger through the house. His breathing is close behind her. Once she imagines he is reaching out to touch the knot of her apron, but when she looks back, his hands are in his pockets. She taps with one knuckle on the study door.
       “I’m Mr. Blackmore,” the man whispers. She holds his gaze. “Quiet, aren’t you?” he says. Then, loudly: “It’s Mr. Blackmore.”
       “Come in,” Jennings says.
       She opens the door. The man winks at her as he passes.