The Crabapple Tree

Robert Coover

May 19, 2016  By Robert Coover

This happened here in our town. A friend of mine—we were on the cheerleading team together—married a local farmer, and right away they wanted to have a baby, though the doctor said she shouldn’t. She was a bleeder, he said, and if she started he might not be able to stop it. But she didn’t listen. She went ahead and got pregnant, then bled to death during childbirth and was buried out by the farmhouse, under a crabapple tree. It was very sad. I cried for a week. But the baby survived, a pretty little boy; his dad called him Dickie-boy, but I don’t know if that was his real name.

His dad was a hard worker and a nice guy—I went on a movie date with him once when we were young—but he sometimes drank too much and he was hopeless at ordinary household chores and raising babies. So pretty soon he found another wife, either through a dating service or else he picked her up in one of his bars somewhere, because none of us girls knew her. She was a tough, sexy lady, a hooker, maybe. She made no effort to be one of us or to make us like her. I guess she considered us beneath her. We called her the Vamp. She got around, and it was said that she’d taken half the men in town to bed, my own ex included.

They all denied it, like cheating husbands do, but, when the subject came up, little shit-eating grins would appear on their faces and their eyes would glaze over as if they were remembering the wild time they’d had. Maybe Dickie-boy’s dad knew about all that, and maybe he didn’t. He was mostly either drunk or out in the fields, and he left the raising of the kid to his new wife. He loved Dickie-boy to the extent that the child reminded him of his dead wife, but resented him for the same reason, just as he resented the boy’s mother for sel shly dying on him. He had hoped for a sturdy fellow to help around the farm, but Dickie-boy was a sickly, fine-boned child who had trouble lifting a finger to pick his nose, forget pitchforks and shovels. Certainly he didn’t get on with the Vamp, who had a mean temper and slapped him around, with or without an excuse.

The Vamp had a daughter from a previous relationship, a cute kid with big dreamy eyes, called Marleen. I never knew what to make of her. Marleen seemed to live in a storybook land of her own. When she spoke, she spoke to the world, the way singers do, and what she said seldom made any sense. You probably had to be a kid to understand her at all. My little girl—she’s a young woman now and has her own little girl—was the same age as Marleen, and sometimes the two of them played together, my daughter pedaling her bike out to the farm and back, or sometimes I took her and picked her up. My daughter had a lot of stories about Marleen, but I didn’t always understand those, either.

Marleen settled right in with her new little stepbrother. They were as tight as crib siblings and had a way of talking to each other that didn’t use words. My daughter said it might be bird talk, which Marleen had offered to teach her. Some people said that Dickie-boy wasn’t all there, others that he had something almost magical about him. Once, for example, he somehow crawled up onto the barn roof, and they had to call the Fire Department to get him down. The fire marshal said he had no idea how the boy could have got up there, unless he flew. Marleen said he did it because the birds wanted him to. She told my daughter that the crabapple tree had helped him, though it was over near the house, not the barn. I had no idea what she meant. My daughter didn’t know, either, and Marleen never announced it in her peculiar way of speaking.

My daughter and Marleen played dolls and house and nursie, just like all little girls do, and sometimes they used Dickie-boy in their games. In nice ways and maybe not-so-nice ways. Strange Marleen might get up to anything, and my own daughter had a mischievous and curious streak, so things probably happened. Kids are kids, after all. I figured it was best to mostly look the other way. Children have to be allowed to grow up on their own—I’ve always believed that.

Marleen wanted a doggy, for example, so she put a collar and a leash on Dickie-boy and walked him around on his hands and knees with his clothes off and did circus tricks with him. She even taught him to wee with his leg in the air. He never complained. When he did bad things, like biting the mailman or pooping on his stepmother’s bed, Marleen swatted his behind with a rolled-up newspaper just as you would a puppy. Then he’d whimper until she scratched between his ears and gave him a cookie. My daughter said that Dickie-boy seemed to do bad things on purpose so as to get swatted. I suppose he was just looking for attention, given the kind of parents he had. His dad was never around, and the Vamp hated him, so all he had was Marleen and her games.

Dickie-boy wasn’t very healthy, but whenever he got sick Marleen made him well again. It was a gift she had. It sometimes worked on others, too. One time, my daughter had a bad case of tonsillitis, and I thought her tonsils would have to come out, but Marleen somehow brought her fever down and she hasn’t had tonsillitis since. Marleen couldn’t do anything for my ingrown toenail and canker sores, though.

Dickie-boy had gifts, too, and one of them was finding lost things. Once, I lost an earring, and my daughter brought Marleen and Dickie-boy over to the house to find it. He got down on all fours with his face near the floor, and Marleen showed him the matching earring and made a chirping noise that probably meant “Fetch!,” because that’s exactly what he did. It had fallen into one of my old sneakers in the closet. He also found a nail brush I didn’t even know was lost. Hide-and-seek wasn’t any fun at all, my daughter said, because Dickie-boy always went straight to where they were. Same with blindman’s bluff—it was as if he could see right through the blindfold. And ghost-in-the-graveyard, if you played it at night, could be downright scary, because he could give you the feeling that he was there and not there at the same time.

Marleen could be scary, too. Whenever she was around, staring her wide-eyed stare and talking aloud to nobody in particular, I kept stumbling and dropping things. My daughter said the same thing happened to their schoolteacher, who sometimes sent Marleen out of the room so she could clear her head.

Marleen often played with Dickie-boy the way you’d play with a rag doll, tossing him oppily about, dangling him by an arm or leg, he looking glassy-eyed and like he’d lost his bones. It was funny, really. They could have taken the act on television. Playing with Dickie-boy like a rag doll was my daughter’s favorite game.

Then, one day, when Marleen was dragging him around by his soft ankles, his head broke off. That scared my daughter. She came home crying, though eventually she went back again. Marleen told her that her mother hated Dickie-boy and had cut his head off and then glued it back on without telling Marleen, so that the head would come off again while they were playing and she’d be blamed for it. But the police chief, who went to investigate the death, told me that, after talking with the boy’s folks, he was convinced it was just a tragic household accident that the little girl was inventing wild stories about.

* * * *

The boy was buried alongside his mother under the crabapple tree, and that was also sad, but the little boy had never quite seemed part of this world in the first place, so it wasn’t as sad as when his mother died.

I’d been seeing the police chief on and off since my husband left me. Even before, if truth be told. He was sweet and was sometimes fun to be with, but mostly he wasn’t, being something of a nail-chewing worrywart by nature. I could see why his wife had left him. The fire marshal was more fun and never worried about anything, but he’d already had three wives and he said he didn’t want any more. He preferred booze to broads now, as he put it, and—more than either—the weekly football on the box. The police chief had been a senior when I was just a freshman. We did some things together back then, but I was still very young and shy, and I guess, thinking back, he was, too. He was a Catholic and I was a Lutheran, so it wouldn’t have worked out anyway. We were both still churchgoers, so nothing was going to work out now, either, but, at this time of life, that was no longer enough to keep two lonely people out of the same bed.

A few weeks after Dickie-boy died, my daughter went out to the farm one day and found Marleen sitting beside a hole in the ground under the crabapple tree, playing with a pile of bones. Marleen said that the bones were those of her stepbrother, whom her mother had cooked up in a black-beer stew, which her stepfather ate, gnawing all the little bones clean before burying them. Marleen had dug them up and was stringing together a kind of horrible life-size Halloween puppet. She was reciting a rhyme about singing bones, and then she warbled like a bird and held up the bone puppet and rattled it. That was when my daughter stopped playing with her.

There has to be a law against those sorts of things, but when I told the police chief what my daughter had said he only bit his nails and said that it was weird how kids could dream up such crazy stories. I asked him if he didn’t think it could be true, or at least partly true, and he said no, he knew the parents well, especially the girl’s mother, and such a thing could not have happened. I realized then that, like half the town’s heroes, the chief had probably been one of the Vamp’s quickies, maybe still was.

He wasn’t interested in any further speculation about the girl he called “that cute little loony with the big eyes.” He did promise to drop by the farm to see if the grave had been molested, but he never told me if he did.

The part of Marleen’s story that I thought might be true was how Dickie-boy had died. The Vamp, who’d detested her stepson, was completely capable of doing him grievous bodily harm, as the chief would say, in his detective-movie way, and then making her daughter feel guilty for it. There was something monstrous about her—we all felt it. Of course, she’d messed up a lot of our marriages, so we weren’t exactly unbiased. I didn’t think that Dickie-boy’s dad would have eaten him on purpose, but he was often so drunk that he didn’t know what he was doing, and maybe the Vamp had tricked him into it. Stews are stews. Who knows what’s in them?

The fire marshal told me that he’d been drinking one night with Dickie-boy’s dad, who’d complained that people misunderstood his wife. She had her dark side, sure—who didn’t? But mostly she was just frightened and needed protection, and he could provide that. Dickie-boy’s dad wasn’t feeling well, ulcers or something, and he said he knew that whiskey wasn’t a cure for it, but he was a farmer who did certain things every day by the clock. Drinking every night was part of that routine, and he couldn’t change it now. But it meant that his wife was alone much of the time, and being alone scared her, which was why she was constantly shacking up with other men. Everything scared her, he said. The farm scared her, the birds did, the animals, even the damned crabapple tree. She wouldn’t go near it. She kept glancing up over her head as if she were afraid that something might be falling on her. Then the fire marshal made the mistake of bringing up the rumor about the black-beer stew and took a nose-breaking blow to the face, and that was the end of their drinking together.

* * * *

Dickie-boy’s dad died a year after Dickie-boy, almost to the day, and joined him and the boy’s mother under the crabapple tree. The doctor said that he drank too much and ruined his liver, and that was maybe so, but he got sick and died awful fast. The Vamp didn’t even stick around for the funeral, as though admitting what she’d done, but the police chief refused to order an autopsy on the farmer. He said that it wasn’t in his jurisdiction, so we’ll never know for certain. That the Vamp had killed her stepson, poisoned her husband, abandoned her daughter, and gone on the run was the general opinion, but my daughter said she wasn’t so sure. She wondered if Marleen’s mother wasn’t also out there under the crabapple tree.

At the father’s funeral, Marleen told my daughter that she was sorry she’d stopped coming to play with her, but it was all right, because her stepbrother had come back alive from the bones she’d joined up, and they were playing together just like before. The boy’s grave was covered over by dirt and weeds and looked like it always did. Maybe Marleen was making up stories because she was lonely and wanted my daughter to be her friend again, but it didn’t work. As far as my daughter was concerned, enough was enough. Anyway, she was too grown up by then to play Marleen’s weird games. I’ve never seen any phantom boy, of course, though my daughter said she “sort of” saw him, “in a ghost-in-the-graveyard kind of way,” when she was out riding past the farm one night with a boyfriend.

Eventually, Marleen inherited the farm, which wasn’t exactly a farm anymore. She had started keeping birds and other animals out there, turning the place into something of a wildlife refuge. Maybe her imaginary Dickie-boy was part of the wildlife. Some of the animals lived in the house with her. In fact, there wasn’t much difference between inside and outside.

There was no money in a wildlife refuge, of course, so, as she grew older, Marleen took up what we all supposed had been her mother’s trade, but as if living in a story about herself, without awareness or consequence, a sort of rag-doll act of her own.

The fire marshal was getting fat eating carryout from fast-food joints, so he changed his mind about no more wives and agreed to marry me if I’d promise to cook him decent low-cal meals. I could do that, and it gave me a kind of future. His brief attempts at lovemaking were more like ballgame time-outs, always had been, but at least he hadn’t abandoned the practice altogether. Marleen had aroused his curiosity, and he decided to try her out as his stags’-night treat before our wedding, and, a wag by nature, he joked about it with all our friends. I told him to be careful, because people had a way of disappearing around Marleen.

He didn’t disappear. He came back and we got married. But he didn’t say anything about what had happened that night, and, in fact, never said much of anything again. He still went nightly to the bars to sit over his beers, smiling in a nervous sort of way and muttering to himself as if he were running through something in his mind. He retired from the Fire Department. Stopped watching football. Said it wasn’t “real,” but agreed that probably nothing else was, either.

Over the years, we got used to thinking of Marleen as something eerie but mostly harmless at the edge of our lives. Children would sneak close to the crabapple tree, but, like the Vamp, they’d never go under it. They made up stories about the dead bodies buried beneath it, mostly to scare the younger ones. Once, somebody tried to set fire to the tree—it looked like a professional job, and the fire marshal hadn’t had his heart attack yet, so maybe he was involved. To protect the tree, Marleen had an extension built onto the farmhouse, with a hole in the roof for the tree, or perhaps it moved in on its own. Its apples were said to be poisonous, but birds gathered in its laden branches like twittering harpies to eat them, and, if anything, they got louder and bigger, and there were more of them than ever.

Robert Coover
Robert Coover
Robert Coover was born in 1932, in Charles City, Iowa. He attended Southern Illinois University, Indiana University, and University of Chicago. His many awards include the William Faulkner Foundation Award for The Origin of the Brunists, REA Award for the Short Story, Lannan Foundation Fellowship, Clifton Fadiman Medal for Pricksongs & Descants, and Independent Press Storyteller of the Year, 2006. His most recent book is The Brunist Day of Wrath. He divides his time between Providence, Rhode Island, and Barcelona.

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