The Plum Orchard

by Michael Raudzis Dinkel

I. The Plum Orchard

I was a weed in my youth, an archer in the groves of summer. I shot willow bows beneath a yellow straw hat and lost my stick arrows in the tall reeds at the creek. A tangled plum orchard grew on the other side of the gravel road in front of our house. It was thick with old and new trees, their twisted trunks tied together with carpets of matted June grass. Mourning doves nested in the black thorny forks and on summer days I crawled through the intertwine and let the closeness pull me in. Lying there, I imagined the places where new stems were pushing up through the clotted earth and their roots down around the passageways of  ground squirrels and pocket gophers and embracing small rocks and curled around larger ones and then deeper, becoming the veins of the sustaining beast. It was the living earth and it made everything, including myself, alive and the same.

A field of alfalfa stretched behind our house and the white boxes of The Summer Honey Company were set at the far end. Beyond that lay McCarrahan Lake where snapping turtles, black and heavy, drifted submerged along the weed edges seeking fledgling blackbirds and new ducklings. I sometimes watched from the high-bank as nighthawks circled, hunting above their perfect reflections in the still water at twilight.

We had a bachelor neighbor, Shorty Westerberg, who was a carpenter. He worked for my Uncle Clarence building houses in town. He wore railroad overalls and drank Cold Spring beer.  Shorty seldom spoke, and always laughed a little to himself if he did.  He looked exactly like his younger brother Ernie, only shorter and rounder.  Both of them lived in the house at the end of the plum thicket; Ernie had the dairy there, he milked the cows and worked the fields while Shorty pounded nails.  Their house was close to the ground in the back where the long grass from the plum grove leaned toward it because the wind was so often from the west.  Yellow light slanted from the windows and, on some October nights, I wandered there.

I saw them sitting at the kitchen table with their ledgers and butterfly collections. They were inspecting owl pellets. In the yellow lamplight, their rough hands carefully pushed apart the miniature teeth and bones and made notes on the papers scattered beside them. I thought of my own collections of bones from fish and skulls of animals that had died, of freshwater clam and snail shells, wasp-paper, the blue pieces from tanager eggs, and other leftover things.

Soon after this, I think winter was near; I lay in the orchard dreaming of the blue and flecked brown eggs of all the multitudes of our birds that were flying to and from the lake in flocks like colored streamers. I could see a tanager’s nest hanging from the downward swaying branches of an elm tree. I thought about the barn owl in the winter hayloft and the black and yellow of the summer meadow larks. I felt I was moving, or that I had their wings inside my coat and if I pulled away the buttons they would fly from me into the sky.

II. The Plum Orchard

I was like a weed in my young days, a sapling. I grew up across a gravel road from an abandoned plum orchard filled with birds. There were so many I let myself imagine they lived forever though I knew they died and others like them were born and that was the same thing. I kept a wooden chair in its deepest thicket. Mourning doves came to roost in the tangled branches with long tails that were gray and brown. They called softly in the evening and laid eggs in rickety stick nests they had built in the forks of the dark trunks. When they became startled, their flying wings whistled softly. By late summer, the grass there was long and twisted; it hid the yellow and ruby colored fruit that had fallen into the tangle and begun to soften and turn brown.

The orchard was part of the Westerberg farm. Two bachelors Shorty and Ernie lived there in a house at its east end. When I sat in my chair, I wore my old coat and didn’t move. I let the birds light on the branches around me and noticed that sometimes a falling plum became impaled on one of the thorns, dripping yellow nectar. I could hear the soft buzzing of the honey bees that came from the row of white boxes standing out by a field of clover.  Often, in the evening when the wind died, I could hear Ernie calling his cows into the white barn and Shorty’s pickup coming back from town. Occasionally I heard a dog barking, or the droning of a different neighbor’s tractor in a distant field.  The cooing of doves was all around me; and always, just at sundown there was a racket of crows in a pine grove in the east.  When the milking was finished, I could hear the clanking of a cowbell when the gate was opened to let the cattle back out to the night pasture.

On warm evenings Shorty and Ernie sometimes sat on the porch and drank Cold Spring beer.  If I happened by, they told me about the horse drawn days and how Shorty quit high school and went to live with their cousins in Montana. When he came back he brought the old grain truck that they had parked behind the horse barn. Then he was twenty and it was almost new, a bright shiny red Chevrolet.

III. The Plum Orchard

When the place across the road from our house was in its prime, the words Westerberg Farms were painted in large letters on the road end of the barn. It was a white dairy, with two tall corn silos at one end. Behind that building stood another that was used for horses and young stock.  There was a neatly groomed plum orchard growing along the road. It was part of farmyard’s windbreak against the prevailing westerlies. Before the years of neglect by the unmarried brothers who inherited the place, the white spring blossoms blocked out the new green of the May leaves and were visited by wandering bees and evening hummingbirds. In late summer, the weight of the plums bent the long branches to the ground.

When I was growing up, we lived across the road from the orchard and sometimes we farmed with the bachelor brothers. I worked with the men at a young age, baling hay and hauling it in wagons from the fields. Thrashing time was the busiest. The entire neighborhood crewed and we moved to each farm on our road. The woman from the place we worked on brought lunch out into the fields. Ernie and Shorty had no wives to make sandwiches so when we threshed at the Westerberg farm we went down to Selma’s Café in Gutches’ Grove to eat. I was the only boy in that mix and still daydreaming, watching for teal in the creek and being careful for the cottontails hiding under the oat shocks. This is when I learned to drive the old Chevrolet grain truck, though I had already driven all of the tractors.

By the time I was in high school the plum orchard was in disarray. Elm trees and brush sprouted though the unmowed grass. Rabbits lived there and even in the fields. There were still foxes calling in the nights. On all of these farms there was abundance, partly because the land was still new to chemical fertilizers and insecticides.

It was then I learned there were people who thought you could have too many birds.   Blackbirds were in the corn.  It was mostly the red-wings, but there were also yellow-heads, cow birds, and the grackles.  They nested in the growing thickets of cattails along the lake and their thousands raided our fields.  I became an expert wing-shot with the powder and lead my father gave to me.  The flocks were like clouds and their noise deafening.  The crows and jays hunted their eggs and flightless young along the lake, celebrating and fighting over their discoveries.

After Ernie and Shorty died; my father bought their farm. He took down the line fence with the wild grape vines and drained the ponds. We forgot about the plum grove.  Nitrogen runoff and the manure from the cow barns caused a sudden explosion of vegetation in the lake and it began to choke.  The sandy beaches along with the snails and freshwater clams disappeared.  All of our land had drainage ditches and tiles running through it. The fields kept getting flatter and smother until they looked like everywhere and everywhere looked like them.

IV. The Plum Orchard

Before it reverted to a strip of tangled black brush, there was a plum orchard across the road from our farm.  It was my favorite hiding place because it was out of sight from the house where father rested on Sunday. I watched things while lying there in that dusty grass. An old man from town sometimes came and picked what was left of the sour, wilted plums, carrying his tin pail from his old white station wagon. I found tracks of wild hogs that came in the dark to root the sod. Hoards of blackbirds swarmed over the corn fields and down at the lake. When they made it legal to shoot mourning doves, I collected the spent twelve gauge shotgun casings I found in the road ditch.

The Westerberg brothers were casual farmers, easy going, they didn’t bother with small inefficiencies. When they died, my family acquired the place and went to work farming. Ponds were drained, willows were cleared and the plow buried what it could. Soon the incessant machinery leveled everything. The hay mower cut the alfalfa in the new fields, along with the weeds, and sometimes the legs off of the cottontails hiding there. Often they went with the hay and everything else into the baler. After the bales were stacked in the barn, the fields looked smooth and clean.

The wind blew every day and it was always dry. One summer the peat in a new field caught fire. It burned into the fall. In the evenings we filled milk cans with water and hauled them down there in a two wheeled trailer. We poured the water onto the dirty ground where it smoldered. When the snow melted in the spring the fire had gone out.

At night, men hooked the large turtles from our lake; their black sedan gave off a reptile smell when they stopped to talk to my mother. Because the chicken farmers had killed so many great horned owls, skunks thrived in the fields. This made it difficult for the wild ducks and other ground nesting birds that still somehow found cover in the road ditches or in the weeds between the lake and the fields. Meadow larks became scarce.

Following a flock of crows one day, we found a dead calf tangled in a fence. My father blamed coyotes because something had eaten part of it but I could see the tracks of the wild pigs.  Later that summer, I shot a large feral boar as he foraged the thicket for rotting plums. The single twelve gauge slug hit him low behind his front leg, passing through and collapsing both lungs and tearing the blood vessels away from the top of his heart. He lurched forward at the shot, skidded his nose through the dry brown grass and fell, the pooling blood around his head and shoulders silently growing, shadow black in the twilight.

V. The Plum Orchard

A pair of bachelor brothers lived across the road and on the other end of an abandoned plum orchard from our farm. The two of them looked alike, but one was shorter. I only knew Ernie but I did see the other sometimes, driving a black-blue Chevrolet pickup towards town in the early mornings.

I never saw a bluebird while I was young but I must have dreamed of them, and tanagers. The thorns on the plum trees suggested memories of the long tail and soft cooing of a kind of grey-brown dove. When I was fourteen, I plowed down a killdeer nest against the wing-dragging and zigzagging of the female and never saw her speckled eggs in our fields again. Our farm was a place of starlings, pulling things from the coarse straw bales fallen from the barn for the fabric of their nests which they built in the rotting dormers of our old house. The grass was hard and the bones showed beneath the skin of the cattle. Dirt blew through the fields in the incessant wind and the hay was already dry when it was cut.

Once, summer hot and sweating, I found a tanager nest, thinly woven but perfectly round with four bluish eggs.  It was hanging in a chokecherry tree on the fence line in the pasture alongside the hayfield. Hope by then had become madness and I only remember lying along the weedy fencerow, clutching the grass bowl inside my shirt with its warm blue contents and, standing, throwing it into the hungry tines of the baling machine as it roared past. The wind was blowing sand like small stones and dirty brown grasshoppers against my face and shining blue grackles fell and reeled towards me from the naked elms at the edge of the Westerberg pasture. I had to put my hands over my face and the dust caked in the wetness edged at my eyes. I wished then I was in the dream where I had never been born.


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