During these last few weeks, I shared two posts about the origins of my novel Harvesting the Sky. The first article covered how I merged issues of an emotional past with plants and the second, my inability to eat apples and subsequent fascination with them. This week I’m posting the final segment of this origin story with the book’s first chapter. It takes place in Kazakhstan.
I hope you enjoy. Feel free to offer feedback in the comments. Thanks!
An Excerpt from Harvesting the Sky
Andre hadn’t believed Nes when he said a white apple tree grew in Kazakhstan, but now he did. He walked straight to it, despite the rain soaking his shirt, despite his heavy pack, despite feeling hungry and aching all over. He didn’t care. He only felt relief in that mountain field. The tree was exactly where the old villager had said it would be, on a small hill between a huckleberry grove and a crooked stream. Good God, it was there. Out in the open. For anyone to study. They’d traversed the wilderness for four days to find it. Now, he would be the first Western botanist to touch it.
The tree was larger than Andre expected with a stout trunk and broad crown. Its branches were evenly spaced so it gained all of the light and air it required. There were no breaks in the bark. No canker or cracking. Somehow it had survived decades of lightning and wind and late frosts. It was a perfect specimen. His dad would have clapped his hands and said, “Ah, here’s a lucky stick!”
As he trudged through the rolling terrain and the tree came into crisper view, he noticed how many leaves were yellow. Most leaves were green but many were yellow. Many. That was a problem. If the tree was going dormant, it had probably dropped its fruit. He wouldn’t be sure until he got to the top of the hill, but from the field he couldn’t see any apples on the tree. He tried not to think about the team’s poor timing.
Soon, the hill that looked small a half-mile away became enormous. The mound rose some 30 feet in the air. Its slopes sharply surged up, covered in tangled dense shrubs. They reminded Andre of the thickets near his childhood home in California. Beyond the small orchard, he would roam the countryside, coming across brambles where he’d peer into dark mysterious holes. He always expected a vicious little animal to jump out and snap at him.
“Great. A hill covered in rocks and thorns,” he said. He wiped his forehead with a sleeve. At least the rain was letting up. He came to the stream and paused. It was a foot deep, about eight feet wide. He stepped down into the cold fast-moving water. It soaked his boots as he hobbled across, the creek’s bottom a scattering of slippery stones. He leaned forward, worried about keeping his pack high and dry. When he got to the shore, he sat down on a rock and squeezed out his dripping pant cuffs, yearning for a warm fire.
Several yards back, the team wound their way toward the stream. Nes appeared first, cresting a rocky rise. He strode quickly, his walking stick stumping into the ground as he went. Every few seconds, he eyed the apple tree. Far behind him, the small forms of Vlad and Samal followed. Vlad, the translator, thumped along in a thick coat and rubber boots. Samal, the guide, ambled past him. Her bulky pack seemed to weigh nothing on her petite body.
Andre turned to put his pack on. A few minutes later, Nes came up. “That water froze my bloody feet off.” He was a sharp-featured, light-haired Scot with bright eyes to match the bright voice and bright forward personality. The right sleeve of his windbreaker sat soaked and wrinkled. The name of his nursery, “Plant Releaf,” had crinkled to look like, “Plant Release.”
“Did you slip?” Andre said.
“Yeah, a bit. Is the tissue still snug?” He turned to show Andre the cloth sack at his shoulder, now wet and dripping.
Andre peeked in. A few dozen cuttings in banded bags of water leaned against each other. One had splintered hard into two sections. “Oh geez.”
“I don’t want to tell you.”
“The Crataegus you’d never seen before.”
“Damn it. Is it crushed?”
The branch had cracked hard, its white tissue split and exposed. Andre felt bad, Nes had wanted those starts. “Yes, a messy break at the main stem. It’s not worth resetting. But maybe I can cut the branch.”
“What? Into a hardwood that can’t feed itself?”
“No,” he said, a little offended. Nes’s quick brain always jumped to conclusions. “In the softwood, higher up with three leaves. I’ll slice it clean at the node bark. Don’t worry, I’ll get it to root when we get back.”
“Nes, the Crataegus is the least of our problems.”
Andre pointed at the hill. “Take a look.”
Nes examined the mound. His blue eyes beamed in the sunburnt leather of his face. “What about the south side?”
“I don’t know, every way up is muddy and treacherous.”
“Well, the whole damn trip has been muddy and treacherous, isn’t it?”
That was for sure. They had paid bribes at highway checkpoints to get into the Alataus, then hiked two miles in the wrong direction before running low on food. They’d even smoked dirty crumpled cigarettes and eaten sheep’s head soup out of courtesy for information.
“Alright, let’s try it,” Andre said.
Back at the stream, Vlad and Samal were in the water. Andre debated whether to go back and help, but Vlad slogged through at a steady pace, then reached a hand out for Samal. She leapt onto the bank, her legs lithe and quick.
“The slope’s softer on this side,” Nes called out.
Andre followed him up the hill. It was an unforgiving climb with prickly shrubs and stony terrain, but he didn’t complain. He wanted to reach the tree before dark. Plus, Nes was the explorer. He went on expeditions almost every year, hiking and camping in the high forests of Nepal, Chile, and New Zealand. He’d suffered malaria and shin splints. A broken arm. If Nes declared this way the easiest, Andre wouldn’t argue.
He stepped over the granite chunks in his path, pressing his machete against the wild roses. Their smell was sweet. Rain fell, drops of cold wetting his face. He stopped and swiped hair off his forehead before setting a flat leather hat on his head. Under his shirt, the bead chain with his mother’s St. Fiacre pendant sat stuck to his chest. She’d given it to him just after the stroke, worried she’d lose it. Now, he worried he wouldn’t return with apples. Leaving empty-handed was not an option. For her sake and the others.
At the hill’s top, the rain didn’t fall far to touch the earth. The wind howled. The snowy peaks they had seen rising up in the crisp sky a day earlier were now lost in a blanket of charcoal clouds. Three hundred feet below, the Dzangaliev trail meandered in the valley. A trail named after a man who’d walked this forest hundreds of times to identify trees and record data while avoiding the old Soviet government. Dzangaliev even fought the system to protect the forest. The birthplace of the first apple tree. Andre wondered if Dzangaliev had ever been this far off the trail. If he’d known the old villager who’d told Nes about the tree he called “Tengi.”
Now under the tree, Andre circled around, searching the branches for white apples. But the entire crop lay on the ground at his feet. Useless. Their white color faded to lumpy beige. No one could be cured with those.
“Oh, hell,” he said. “The apples have all fallen.” They were too late. Late. Late because they’d been sent in October instead of September. They’d mentioned again and again the timing to Monique Castel and her boss but they showed scant concern. Actually, no concern whatsoever. Andre wanted to roar with frustration, let out a booming growl that would echo from Kazakhstan all the way back to Paris. Instead, the sky beat him to it with a rumble of thunder.
“Shite,” Nes said. “Let’s get scions and get off this lightning rod.”
Andre tossed his pack down and searched for the least rotten apples to put in it. Nes cut branches for grafting. They worked for a half-hour until Andre noticed a sucker at the far end of the hill. “I’ll be right back.”
Nes paused, his pruners open at a branch. “Andre, forget the saplings. We’ll get scions.”
“But a sapling will give us apples.” He thought of Castel, of the sleek offices of LaRoche Naturel. “They’re expecting them.”
“They’re lucky we found the damn tree.”
A tall sucker bobbed in the breeze, maybe three years old, gangly with six side branches splaying out, a similar structure to the mother tree’s and in line with what could be a root from her. It wasn’t unusual for entire forests in the Alataus to be composed of one mother and a hundred suckers-turned-trees that had sprung from her roots.
Below in the field, the soft form of Vlad and wiry one of Samal squinted at him. Their packs and bags leaned against a beech tree. A small pile of wood lay by a tent that was spread flat. It all looked tiny.
Yes, the sucker was a young Tengi. It shared the same leaf serration. The trunk, no fatter than Andre’s thumb, grew horizontally for a few inches before disappearing under a rose shrub. He got underneath and tugged at it. It was attached to a hefty root. He crawled in with thorny branches scraping his face and took a folded saw from his pocket. Beyond his hands, tan from the sun, the ground curved into a brief drop before the steep thicket of brambles staircased to the field.
That curve was to his advantage. If he could cut the root along the curve, he needn’t dig in soil. He’d saw straight through the ground. He’d ruin his saw doing it, but it’d be worth it.
He scooted toward the hill’s edge and began sawing at the root. The deep bellow of Vlad’s voice and Samal’s frantic one echoed upward but he stayed laid out on his stomach. His arm hung over the ridge as he sawed. The blade bumped against the root. He almost had it. A spray of rain wet his face. He sawed faster, faster, and finally cut through. The sapling loosened, but a small feeder held it back. He yanked it, felt in the soil with a finger. He needed to get closer. He got on a knee to take out his pruners, still ahold of the sapling, when the root snapped.
Branches slapped his face. He lost his balance and slipped off the ledge, grabbed at a clump of grass. With his foot, he groped for a toehold but only found loose gravel. He considered dropping the Tengi to hoist himself but the trunk would break in the fall. The wet grass slipped from his hand and he slid down, his forearms scraping the rock face, further down, until the ground crumbled and his body caught in a large shrub.
He grabbed a prickled cane. Ouch. Thorns cut his face. He heard himself exhale. Through the leaves, the field, green with gray humps, swayed below. His foot pressed against the shrub’s base, until it slipped. His body jolted. Bump. His head hit a stone. Pain. A warm liquid. Where was his saw? More pain. Was his tooth loose?
Vlad and Samal yelled, repeating Russian phrases again and again, back and forth, negotiating in a panic.
Rain blew at his neck and he gripped a rock, the toe of his left boot stuck in a tangle of whips. Crackling sounds. He was unsure whether looking up or down would worry him more.
Nes appeared at the edge. “Here, catch!”
A clump of rope landed at his chest. Nes threw a leg over, gripping the taut line, and tapped around for a hard surface. The hair on his calf was blonde. His leg, pink. The image blurred from blood. Andre blinked, unable to see, but felt the sapling in his left hand, the trunk as solid as a bone.
“Nes, take the sapling.”
“Andre, forget the sapling.”
“You’re about to break your back, now let it go and grab the rope.”
“Nes, take the sapling.”
“Andre, grab the damn rope!”
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