Harry’s Grove- Part One
Harry Hillis had been tending to his orange grove for fifty years. It was his father’s and before that his grandfather’s. Four generations of Hillis boys ran the property, but Harry was the last of the Hillis boys, having lost both of his brothers to cancer a few years back. He had children, four girls, but they had all gotten married and moved out of the old country house that had been their home when they were old enough. Harry’s wife, Shannon, had also passed away several years back. Cancer ate her up, too.
And so it was, at the ripe age of seventy-four, that Harry resigned himself to finish out his time doing the only job he had ever known. So, he stepped out onto the large wooden porch that ran the length of the front of his house and inhaled. The smell of ripe oranges never ceased to amaze him. It was a comforting smell, filled with memories of his youth, of his wife and his children. It brought thoughts of happiness and warmth and something intrinsically beautiful. It was security. And now, for whatever reason, Harry knew it was ending. He slid an enormous basket under his arm, much like he always did. He walked down the five steps that led onto a dusty path in the front of his house.
The path wound away from the house like a snake, meandering past an old well, and an even older set of willows. Harry looked out into the grove in front of him, making the journey again in his head. He had been doing this work for as long as he could remember. As a child, as a young man, up through adulthood, and now into the very golden years of his life.
The journey into the groves always felt therapeutic. It always felt real somehow. And as he passed the old well and the aged willows, it reminded Harry of many nights with his wife, underneath those willows, making love while the girls slept in their beds. Shannon loved the smell of the trees, and she always mentioned that the grass tickled her ass while Harry made love to her. But it was real, something for Harry to hold on to. Even if it was just a memory, it was his memory. That was enough to get him through his busy day—the thought of his wife and his girls and his real place in the world. Harry Hillis was a man of simple pleasures. One of his favorites being the smell from the groves.
That smell hit him like it always did; subtle. Underneath the smell of the willows, at first, and then stronger as he neared the first set of orange trees. It was a smell that defined everything about the man. Everything that he had been and still was, for the most part. Time had been kind to Harry. He had grayed late in his life, but most of his hair remained. He still had strong bones and muscles. And occasionally, when the mood struck him, his unit rose like a good soldier. Those were usually the moments when he thought about Shannon and their nights under the stars, making love. Wonderful memories. He thought of his girls playing underneath the trees while lazy sunlight filtered through the canopy.
It all made Harry smile, but in a bittersweet way. Life was coming to a close, and he knew it. Not like a premonition that some folks have of their deaths, but more of a comforting afterthought. He was an old man, and old men tended to not wake up from their sleep.
But right now, it was all about the oranges. And the ritual of picking them. There were four ladders still standing near a patch of trees. Harry set his basket down at the ladder farthest from the house. He would work his way backward, towards the house, like he always did. And then he would carry the basket to the barn and unload the oranges, taking extra care not to bruise them as he dumped them into the crates that he would ship to Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, and anywhere that people wanted fresh oranges. He had done this more than a few times. And so it began, with his first step on the ladder. The metal rung creaked as he stepped up, and Harry smiled.
“I’ve been the same weight for the past forty years, and now you want to complain,” Harry said to the ladder. He smiled again and reached through the thick branches towards the oranges that hung inside the tree. He grabbed two of them and pulled them free. They were ripe, beautiful oranges. He stepped down and set the oranges in the basket. And then back up two steps to grab some more. Harry reached deep into the branches again, finding that the sweetest fruit hid a bit from the sun. And that’s when he felt the terrible, ripping pain at his elbow.
Harry instinctively pulled his arm back, watching a bright crimson spray splash out from his missing forearm as he did so. He grabbed the ladder with his good hand and jumped down to the ground. The ivory stump of his elbow poked through ragged flesh as he quickly ripped his shirt off and wrapped his severed arm just below the bicep, effectively cutting off the blood flow, but it was flowing too quickly, and Harry suddenly felt light-headed. He steadied himself against the ladder and tightened the makeshift tourniquet at his elbow—dark stains formed as the blood soaked through the torn shirt. Harry backpedaled, looking everywhere, hoping to make some sense of what had just happened.
He could feel madness settle in on him, like some sinister pair of hands pressing on his shoulders, forcing him down. But he shook his head and regained some form of composure. And that’s when he thought he saw the orange tree to his left, slowly pulling itself from the ground. He thought it was moving through the dirt, coming towards him. But that was madness! Such things didn’t happen.
“Oh my God,” was all Harry could muster as he continued walking backward, stumbling over his feet and crashing onto the ground with a thud. He bit his tongue hard and tasted the coppery hint of blood in his mouth. “Fuck!” Harry said and scrambled to his feet. The tree in front of him continued to stumble towards him like some wooden, awkward zombie, branches like arms, reaching towards him in their bent form. Harry turned on his heels, nimbler than he could ever remember being, and began a quick trot towards the house.
Nothing made sense at this point. Harry’s mind was scrambling, trying to make sense of it all. Harry looked down at the bloody shirt and remembered the pain. Up until now, he hadn’t even thought about it. But now, seeing that soaked fabric dripping with his own blood, the pain came at him harder. Harry grimaced as he ran. Behind him, he could hear the shuffling of more trees. Not just one orange tree, but many. The sound was unmistakable. Harry found he could suddenly run much faster.
He raced across the front yard, passing underneath the canopy of willow trees. Behind him, the sound continued. Harry hit the first step of his porch and stumbled. He felt his ankle protest in pain, and he let out a scream.
“Sonofabitch,” he said. And then he pulled himself up using his good arm and continued into the house. He slammed the door behind him and leaned against it, breathing hard. He could feel his heartbeat thumping in his ears, too loud, too hard. But, right now, a heart attack was the last thing on his mind. It was the trees. The Godforsaken trees that were moving in his orange grove. And when his heart slowed a bit, Harry realized that all was quiet.
He slid against the wall until he hit the grand bay window that ran along the front of his house. He pulled the curtains aside and looked out into the grove. There was his offending tree, standing still just beyond the willows. It had moved, but now it was still. Behind that tree, Harry could see several more. They were loping along, pulling themselves from the ground in slow strides. But the lead tree, the one that had taken his forearm, was still. And as the other trees approached it, they seemed to stop, as if that tree was their leader.
Harry dropped the curtain and stepped back. His mind was racing, a million thoughts tearing through him like a sharp current. He had no idea what the next course of action should be. His arm was throbbing, but the flow of blood had been staunched for the moment. So, he slid over to the end table next to his couch and grabbed the phone from the cradle, dialing 911. The operator answered almost immediately.
“Yes, my name is Harry Hillis. I live out on Roman Farms, Route 16. I’ve severed my arm. I need help.”
“Are you alone?” the operator asked.
“Okay, sir, we’ll have someone out there immediately. In the meantime, keep that arm bandaged and do your best to stop that bleeding. Are you feeling dizzy or light-headed?”
“No. I’m okay at the moment,” Harry said. He thought about telling the woman about the trees, but that would sound like madness. And right now, all Harry needed was to get his arm fixed. The trees could wait, as odd as that seemed.
“They’re on their way now, Mr. Hillis. Stay calm.” The operator hung up, and Harry stood for a moment with the phone in his hand. He looked out through the window, through the fogginess of the sheer curtains, and saw a group of trees gathered beyond the willows. They formed behind the lead tree, making a rough triangle, like a set of bowling pins. Harry wanted to knock those pins down. But right now, the bleeding.
Harry pulled the soaked shirt from his shredded arm and saw the white bone of his elbow again. He felt like he was about to faint and put his good hand against the couch to steady himself. Then he pushed the bloody shirt up against the stump and pushed his damaged arm against the coffee table, holding the shirt in place. He ripped his belt off of his overalls and wrapped it around his bicep, pulling it tight and effectively slowing down the bleeding. He then stood upright and hobbled into the kitchen. The drawer just to the right of the sink had some masking tape in it. Harry snatched the tape out and ripped off a long strip. He wrapped it around the bloodied shirt and strapped it tight. With the shirt firmly in place against his wound, he was free to use his other hand.
Harry pulled a chair out from the kitchen table and sat down. He sighed heavily, feeling more than his age. And for the first time in five minutes, Harry thought of the trees. The ones that were moving outside of his house. The ones that ripped his arm off. Harry slammed his good fist against the table and screamed. And where was the ambulance?