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The Orchard Watchers

by Conor Darrall 9 months ago in Short Story · updated 8 months ago
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Plant pears for your heirs

The Orchard Watchers
Photo by Xianyu hao on Unsplash

By the new spring's arrival, struggling to make itself seen before the end of March, Fergus’ beard had gone fully white, matching the snowy blossoms that exploded from the pear trees. Another year gone by and he was still fulfilling the promise he had made so many years before. When he thought about it for any great length of time, Fergus could hazard a guess at being somewhat far into his sixties. So much time had passed.

Time never seemed to play a role in life around the orchard, which had stood for much longer than the few decades that Fergus had tended it, and now when he walked between the trees, he could feel the years like an inconsequential breeze blowing lightly on the skin of his neck.

It was true that he now felt somewhat more tired, both in the mornings and sooner into the evenings, than in earlier years, and he felt the cold more than he might have as a younger man, but these observations, and the occasional stiffness or ache, seemed irrelevant as he walked between his friends, the Old Men, tapping them lightly with an old quarterstaff carved from one of their fallen brothers; a victim of a long-ago electrical storm around the years of the dancing lights. Petty things like age and weariness vanished as the colder air hit his lungs, and he cried their names as he gave each of them a sharp crack.

“Nailer, Huffcap, Hatherly, Bastard-Sack, Dead-Boy, Your Highness”

Some of the younger fellows in the orchard had only started to fruit in the last few seasons. They were the babies, jolly and bright-skinned and liable to dance and sway if a mischievous breeze or the ghosts took them. Sometimes he suspected the younglings of visiting each other at night, or else daring each other to cause trouble by throwing a branch or deciding to wait an extra few weeks before blossoming. This was the way of the young, to be difficult and froward and contrary. Some of them might take to growing in a haphazard fashion, or to throwing their skinny fists to the skies in wild protest. He worried about them but could never let their antics vex him. He knew all too well that one tricky frost, or summer of drought, would show them how fragile life could be.

No matter how some of the younger pear-trees grew, he would always love them. He had planted some of the younglings himself, the little miracles, back when the world was smoke and gunfire and the skies danced with the shimmering lights that augured poison dusts blowing from across the sea.

The orchard outlasted the gunfire, as bullets rusted or ran out, and engines choked in starvation, and the electric light flickered and died with the sudden casualness of a piece of fruit dropping from a tree. The death of the old world was so unexpected, so natural, a sight to see and then forget.

In the beehive cottage he kept his tools. His father had built the hut when Fergus was a boy, after they found the orchard following weeks of grief and stress and pain. Fergus had few memories of the time, but remembered his father building the stone walls around the orchard, and crafting the large hut for them to sleep in; stacked flat-rocks that shut out the wind and the rain and the flashing lights.

As the nearby hamlet became a small, walled, town, the people made contact and sent aid; building wooden fortifications around the grove-land, and sending tools and supplies in a weekly wagon. The Keepers of the Orchard were shown love and respect. When his father discovered how to make perry, pear cider, the family became prosperous and renowned. The taverner sent labourers on picking days to help with the harvest, and when his father took the family produce to the merchants, men and women from the Watch would escort him along the road.

“A man plants pears for his heirs.” his father always said.

Fergus attended the schoolhouse in town, walking the miles there and back, always slightly perturbed that the trees along the hedgerows looked ancient, wizened and wind-torn. He learned his lessons and would hurry home, seeking peace amongst the voices and ghosts and spirits that surrounded his beloved pear-grove. He grew tall and strong and quiet.

The Little Wars came when he was a young man. His mother was dying of the long-sickness; the grey ashes had given her a cough that spattered blood on the linen she clutched to her lips. He took his father’s place in the town levy. Having little in the way of arms and armour, his father fashioned a quarterstaff banded with iron at both ends; hard pear-wood that his arms had to strengthen to yield. His father paid O’Brien, the smith, for a helmet and breastplate, and they found him a pike-head to attach to the staff, and a short stabbing sword.

The herbalist Corrigan gave comfort to his mother when she could. She visited with a mixture of mullein, mugwort and skullcap shredded with coltsfoot which his mother would smoke in a little pipe carved from a fallen branch. This eased the coughing and let her breathe more easily.

Sometimes Ma Corrigan would send her daughter, Síofra, along; a young woman, a few years older than Fergus, with whom he instantly fell in love. She was slim and pale, with black hair and vivid blue eyes and it hurt him to look at her. Beautiful Síofra, who took him for a night-walk before he marched out with the levy and led him to a spot amongst the trees and shared the night with him. He kissed his parents and marched away the following morning, his pike on his shoulder and his helmet dangling from a strap on his heavy pack and with a lock of Síofra’s hair to keep him safe.

The wars were cruel and terrible and Fergus returned the following winter scarred and broken and ready to die. He had won glory in battle but it was a meaningless honour. The drink he had used for courage and to quieten his mind for sleep had become a demon in him, and he was numb to the violence that had been his life. He came home to find his mother buried and his father ready to follow.

Síofra and the Orchard saved him. She urged him to work amongst the trees, in his father’s stead; pruning and weeding, feeding and clearing ground space. She helped him to repair the stone walls and walked with him to make checks on the wooden palisades that the town had raised. She had him carve wood, preserve jams, add yeast to the perry vats and help her build an herb croft. All that spring and summer she kept him at work, and then she came to him at night and made love to him. Slowly he found his way back. The armour was left to rust in the old beehive cottage, and he built them a wooden cabin.

They wed in the autumn, under the Old Men in the orchard; binding their hands and whispering their promises to the fragrant silence. His father died that winter.

The years passed by quickly. No children came to them, but they took in the orphans that sometimes washed up in the town, and would raise them for a while; teaching them to live off the land and to love the quiet life. When the orphans went to start their own crofts, they would leave with cuttings and seeds, enough to start their own little herb-patches or fruit gardens.

The last child they took in was Tommór, a quiet boy who had wandered alone on the roads for too many years to apprentice for a busy blacksmith. He refused to speak for the first year with Fergus and Síofra, and they feared that life on the backroads alone had shown him the things that nearly broke Fergus’ soul. Fergus had seen such things in his soldiering life, and he kept the boy to work, hoping his demons would be subdued by the voices and ghosts and spirits that lived in peace in the orchard. On a summer’s day after Tommór’s first twelve-month, Fergus came across the boy, sitting under the ‘Old Men’ and singing to himself. “Nailer, Huffcap, Hatherley, Bastard-Sack…”

Fergus arranged for a little mandolin to be made in town (in exchange for a supply of pear-wood) and Tommór proved to have quick fingers and the memory and voice for song. By the time he was nearing his manhood, Tommór would sit outside the beehive hut and play for them in the evening. They all understood that he would stay, and so Tommór had occupied the old stone hut for his own. The first signs of frost were showing in Fergus’ dark beard, and he smoked his herb-pipe and listened to the songs mix with the click of Síofra’s needles in the soft air.

War, of course, came again. Fergus, once the hero, was exempt from the levy as an honorary Captain of the Watch, but Tommór, notable for his muscles amongst the townsfolk, was not. When Fergus went to take up the boy’s place he found that Tommór had already written his name, and so he went out to war again, to protect the boy. Fergus returned, but Tommór did not. “He lost himself” was all that Fergus would say about it, sparing his wife the truth of besieging walled towns and of Tommór’s lust for plunder; of rows of dead bodies, ring-fingers missing, and the blood dripping from the lip of Tommór’s helmet.

Further years passed, and they aged well, it was said in town. New local leaders came and went, new wars flowed then ebbed, and the season’s changed and the saplings that Fergus and his father planted matured. He tended his orchard and Síofra her herb-croft.

And now Fergus was a full white-beard and the chill of winter had ebbed away and Síofra still dazzled him with her jewel-bright eyes.

“We’ve grown old, my love.” she said to him, and his struck his staff against one of the ‘Old Men’,

“Not as old as The Highness, here.” he smiled.

He was returning to the cabin when he heard a scream from Síofra. His heart galloped and he surged to the beehive hut to retrieve his sword. Had the guards on the road raised the alarm? At this time of year the Roadmen might plunder after a lean winter. They might leave the trees and take the alcohol and stored food perhaps, or they might kill everything. He stepped from the hut, a snarl showing through his beard, and raised his sword.

A shaggy-haired man with a patched eye was helping a pretty, pregnant woman down from a small cart. Behind, struggling with some bags, was a little lad who was trying to help take down parcels.

“Can we stay?” asked Tommór, his remaining eye at his feet.


By the next Spring, Fergus found himself taking the company of the Old Men more.

“You make me feel young,” he would tell the trees. “And you make me feel old.” he would laugh, taking the baby, Fergus-Óg into his arms, before planting kisses on his chubby cheeks or feeding him pap.

The young trees had given the most fruit the previous summer, while the Old Men had started being more selective. Fergus looked over at the younglings as Tommór walked among them with the his daughter, checking for weeds, or red mites, or the first signs of rot.

“Look after them, Old Men,” said Fergus, looking up at his friends.

Síofra smiled as she took her turn with the baby, and started to sing their names, “Nailer, Huffcap, Hatherley…”

The Old Men talked amongst themselves, singing their agreement to each other on the breeze. They would keep their Watch.

Short Story

About the author

Conor Darrall

Short-stories, poetry, tall-tales and all sorts else. Irish traditional musician, sword student and general all-round strange egg. Bipolar. Part of @jerichowriters #UNWC Class of 21/22 with my novel 'The Forgotten 47' - @conordarrall

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