'Windfall apples'

THERE are words that seem to have a story, or a poem, closed inside, like a seed. Sometimes it's simply the juxtaposition of two common words. You hear it, or see it written, and something is triggered: images, a place in time, a glimpse of a different reality. It is not a question of associations, or Proustian dredging up of lost remembrances. Nor is it the recognition of deja vu: You know the place because you see it so clearly, not because you have been there before. The actual meaning of the trigger word might have some bearing on what is happening (how can we ever disconnect the perception of known things from the knowledge itself?), but in the end the meaning of the experience is in its existence, not in its origins. Whether Ali Baba learned ''Open Sesame'' by accident or by spying on the robbers is irrelevant. The rock opens, the words open, and you step in. If you are a writer, you know that words can be many things: They can be stones, transparencies, diffractions. Deep down, at some primordial level, they are simply themselves, as they first emerged from inarticulate sounds, and pleased the ear, and became an act of magic: You said a word, and the thing existed.

Children are enchanted with new words. They seem to find a pleasure in them that goes beyond the joy of acquiring a new skill. When you come to a foreign language as an adult, there is a brief moment when this childhood enchantment recurs. Before meaning, before literature and knowledge, the word is there: something never seen before, function and meaning unknown. The word, so to speak , as an adventure.

The first time I saw ''windfall apples'' was in an indifferent historical novel. I don't even remember the title, but I remember standing there, transfixed like Ali Baba in front of the cave. The words opened to enchantment. And the experience recurs whether I read the words or whether I drive by an abandoned apple tree and see the apples lying on the grass. I stop to pick up one that has fallen on the road. It is always runty, a little spotted - the tree is old, nobody prunes it anymore - and then the story begins.

It is autumn, of course, probably in England (they are, after all, English words) in the Middle Ages. The tree is on land belonging to an abbey, but the abbey is not in sight. A woman is gathering the apples in her apron. She is not stealing; the abbey lets the poor do so. She is wearing some kind of homespun, brown skirt, lighter top, it doesn't matter except as an arrangement of colors, brown, off-white and gray, against the green of the grass. She is young and lives alone. Later, when winter comes, she will gather fallen twigs for her fire. She doesn't glean wheat in the fields at summertime, though. There is something too humbling about that, and she is not the type. I don't know what she looks like and it doesn't seem to matter: It is not her story, it is mine. What matters is my perception of the scene. A perception so acute that I can smell the wind through the branches of the tree, I see each blade of grass - thick, dark green of mature grass, cold to the touch, with the enameled quality of those medieval paintings where each blade of grass is painted separately, clearly, undifferentiated in importance from the eye of the rabbit munching on it, or the figure of the saint coming up the road, a gold halo like an up-ended dinner plate behind his head.

And what really matters are the windfall apples. The sound of the word ''wind ,'' with the onomatopoeic echo that seems to persist in almost all of the Indo-European languages - regardless of the actual etymology - so that you say ''wind'' and, except in Greek, the mouth turns into Aeolus' cave, and the downward heavy gracefulness of ''fall,'' the roundness of the apples. I disregard the too-easy symbolism, because what calls to me is not the essay possibilities in these words, but the poem that I know is there. In those apples , harvest of the wind, gift of the wind to the dispossessed in a time when food was precious and precarious, a last bounty of nature before the merciless descent of winter. Maybe this is why the apples are medieval. The hold on life was so tenuous then, the dependence on nature so deep, poverty so inescapable for those who were poor. Once I know this, how can I disregard the windfall apples? So I stop, whether on the page or on the road, and pick one up - doing a little trespassing where needed (they are only left to rot) - and as I hold one in my hand I feel the roundness of the earth, the continuity of the sky, and I sense something important happening, maybe life uninterrupted, maybe a poem.

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