Fruit in its season

Apples often fall in the wind, dropping between the swaying arms of orchard trees. And because I was once hungry and almost without money while living in an orchard-thick region of France, I went looking for windfalls in the evening. I visualized pies baked and cooling before bees found the fallen, high-noon sweetness in the grass.

The orchard road led away from the village, and I followed it as brown cows passed me coming from the field. My eating had begun just s theirs was done. Hoffs striking asphalt, they moved peaceably toward the milking barn. Silent herd dogs trotted behind.A smiling farmer's wife came last, swishing them along with weeping willow switches.

After half an hour bent over double below the black apple trunks, my basket overflowed, but I wanted one last one and kicked the leaves away to find it. The hidden red round slid into the basket and settled with the others. The orchard rustled around me, and I turned to watch the sky slip away flushed behind a scarlet sun. Red cloud lines grayed silently, slowly. The orchard swayed. Then, exactly the moment before the light folded over to leave, I saw a man in the tree over me, a red-lit silhouette with an arm stretched out. I froze because he did. In a second of shock, I saw the scarecrow stick that was his reaching arm and the disjointed sag in the sack that was without a wooden "bone." Breathing again, I studied a convincingly curved head, a painted face, the legs in pants stretched out and nailed to hold him to the tree.

His floursack face made me look again. It was positively Greek, with a painted archaic smile. The open eyes stared off unblinking toward the sky.Curls lay neatly painted across his forehead, and the hair was simply symmetrical. It was as if this rag man had first been caught in stone, lifted off his temple corner where he'd spent two thousand years and brought down among the apple leaves. I saw him as he peered out from among green leaves of grafted cultures and was stirred by wind that first covered continents. The last sun that day in France slid away behind his arm. I went home to a village built about the time of Jesus and made pies from sweet apples by candlelight. I know the scarecrow smiled through the night.

I'm no longer in France nor completely without money. I could buy my apples and vegetables in a market along with my meat, but instead I have a garden. Out back between the cabbage and a row of corn is my scarecrow. She's rooted in rich earth far below the red radishes that reach into the ground. A dark skirt wraps around her long legs. It hangs limp in the rain and blows dry with wind. I know her red checked shirt, since I was originally inside it. The frayed edges of the sleeves are unweaving themselves on her skinny stick arms. She wears my belt and hat. She doesn't scare crows, and sparrows settle on her shoulders in summer.

It's her face I haven't got. I can't do it up in paint. It seems raher presumptuous of me to try to create the look that seems through centuries of seasons, as if, being young and quite American, I haven't yet earned the right. Perhaps the orchard scarecrow in Greek archaic was a fluke, but that instinctive understanding, refined by years of living, speaks to me now. Even French farmers are heirs of an ancient promise that can surface in simple scarecrows. As for mine, I've completely hidden her beneath a broad- brimmed straw hat pulled low so none of her face shows. Yet. That painting will come in due season. Still, it's not difficult for me to see her expression. She's silently watching there between the sown rows, and when I think of sparrows sleeping on her shoulders or making n ests of my sleeves, I smile in the night.

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