The Bench Under the Apple Tree
By Leah Proehl
An apple tree lay on the edge of a town in a small clearing of trees, hunched over a small bench. The branches curled and basked in the sunlight, laden with blossoming fruit in the cool summer breeze. The wind whispered its way around the tree, rustling the fruits, still so small and bitter, still holding the potential to grow.
The bench that lay beneath was rough with wear, from a time when people bothered to come out and just breath the fresh air wafting through from the countryside. Its wood was chipped and alive with growth, its iron stripped of paint. On the bench sat a petite girl, giggling and talking to the tree in the evening. She beamed as she told stories about her day.
“And then I went to the farmers market! I got lemon poppy seed bread!” Her pigtails bounced as she lifted a small loaf of speckled bread as if to show it to the tree. “I would give you a piece but can trees even eat? You don’t even have a mouth.” She looked up at the tree, her eyebrows knitted together inquisitively. Her eyes sparkled as she set the small loaf back down next to her, not bothered by the lack of response. “You’re my friend. The other kids say I can’t be friends with trees, but I am.”
She sat there in silence for a moment, swinging her legs that weren’t yet long enough to touch the ground. “Do you like my shoes? They’re old, but they still light up!” She slid off the bench, stomping her feet on the ground in demonstration. “My dad doesn’t like them. He says they’re boy shoes because they’re blue. Do you think I can wear boy shoes?” She looked down at the dirty shoes, stomping them again and smiling as the shoes lit up with a weak flashing light.
The rays of the sunset bathed the clearing in golden light, and she glanced up from the ground. Her curfew was coming up very soon. “Do you think my mom and dad are home yet?” She didn’t look at the tree. “I don’t think so. They leave me alone a lot.”
Grabbing the bread off the bench, she walked to where her frilly pink bike had been thrown down. Looking back at the apple tree as she steadied herself on her bike. “I have to go home! But I’ll be back tomorrow!” She smiled and kicked off back into the town.
Within the next week, a name was carved into the tree by hands sticky with lemon poppy seed. Set in the middle of the trunk, messily carved with a dull blade lay the name “June,” carved with the desire to prove that a tree could be her friend.
The tree went many years without seeing the girl again. Seasons passed and the clearing was abandoned by everyone except the occasional squirrel wanting to snatch a bite of apple. Fall came and the bitterness of incoming cold sat in the air, encouraging the apples to grow fat and round, bursting with sweetness. However, the ripening apples were very susceptible to bruising and often went to rot without ever being touched.
The sound of falling footsteps echoed throughout the clearing and a boy stumbled into the clearing. His eyes were swollen with tears and his breathing was uneven, whether it was from running or from crying was unclear. He leaned against a nearby tree while he caught his breath. The rough bark scratched against the baggy hoodie that protected him from the sting of the fall air. Why did he have to be like this? He vigorously rubbed his eyes in an attempt to calm down, but his heart still raced and the lump in his throat refused to go away.
School bells chimed in the distance. He was supposed to be there. He didn’t want to be there. All he would find at the school were teachers droning on about their class rules in stuffy classrooms, filled to the brim with unforgiving students. Talking to his classmates was a game of Russian roulette, littered with white lies like, “No offense” and “Not to be rude or anything.” He couldn’t stand it. It was all too much, and maybe that’s how he ended up here.
With a sigh the boy trudged over to the bench. The tree towered over him, enveloping him in a hug. He flopped down on the bench, the old wood sagging beneath the sudden contact. What God had looked down on him and chosen for him to be like this? Why was he the one who his peers avoided? He wanted to be normal. He wanted a friend, any kind of friend. He wanted to know who he was, and he wanted to know what he was. But he doubted those answers would find him for a long, long time, if ever.
Eyes glassy with exhaustion, not from lack of sleep, but from lack of closure, he stared up at the name etched into the tree. For the first time in quite a while, he felt a calmness sweep over him. For the first time in many years, the old apple tree had some company.
A few days later, the apple tree bore another name. Set underneath June’s messy scribble, in much neater letters, was the name “Jordan.” June wasn’t alone anymore, and now Jordan had a friend.
Yet again the tree went a few years without seeing anyone. Not the girl, not the boy, not anyone. Yet again, seasons passed and the apples still grew and the tree was still forgotten. Now it was winter. The bitter winds of fall transformed into raging winter storms, flurries of snowflakes whipping through the air, knocking the rotting apples down from where they hung from the old apple tree. The leaves were gone, now falling to waste and dirt beneath the snow. The sky was cloudy that day, with the sun breaking through the clouds ever so often. There were children playing outside with rosy, frostbitten cheeks and numb fingers, building snowmen. A person walked into the clearing. A person with a black coat, and bags under their eyes.
Her eyes were a basement cellar, dark and devoid of life, but full of clutter, swimming with thoughts. He slouched as if each thought was a rock on their back, and her feet were dragging because the weight was too heavy. Trudging through the snow, he made their way to the bench. Eyes low, and mood even lower.
Who was she? Were they even human anymore? Why was he like this? If this world was built upon the foundations of self-assured kingdoms who burned in the night, then who was she to try and fight the nature of it?
Looking at the names etched on the tree like broken promises, the person smiled, but it didn’t quite reach his eyes. They gently lowered herself onto the bench. It was cold, and the bench was frozen, and he didn’t want to risk breaking it. The brittle winter breeze whispered a hello, nipping at their nose. The world was frozen in time. All that existed anymore was the apple tree, the bench and the stranger. That’s what she was. He was a stranger. An imposter.
As they sat there, she saw what he was to the world. A lone traveler at a crossroad, not belonging to any of the destinations that the roads lead to, but not wanting to turn back. They were the kind of stranger that could sit on the side of the road begging for food, and nobody would spare her a second glance. Everyone in the world was so occupied with the next best thing that nobody took time to stop and spare him a second glance.
They could fade away here. She could cease to exist, a lone traveler frozen in time under a forgotten apple tree, a lone stranger under the names of people long forgotten. If he was to freeze here, with the rest of nature, would anyone notice? In a world so big and busy, does one person, who has no clue what they are supposed to be, even matter? Does she even matter?
The apple tree, usually so warm and inviting, towered over him, reminding them of how small she was. Cold and lifeless, the rotten apples that stubbornly clung to its branches became grenades of truth. Threatening to drop and prove to him of how much of a difference that they don’t make, proving how everything that lives with purpose falls to rot.
If everything that lives with purpose falls to rot, then what about her? What about him who lives without purpose, or direction, or even a grasp on what they wanted in life?
But did anyone really have purpose?
The names in the tree burned a hole into the strangers’ conscience. Why carve your name in a place that no one will ever see? Surely not to be remembered. They asked herself, what was the purpose of those carvings? Of those people?
The stranger abruptly got up. If he had no purpose, then they could at least lack purpose along with the useless carvings on the tree. June, and Jordan, met another person that day, but not someone with a name. Quickly carved into the trunk in the desperation of frozen fingers, now sat the simple phrase “Who am I?”
The sun slipped through the branches of the apple tree, and as the light hit the snow and lit up the now empty clearing with a blinding glow. The icy bench sparkled, and time resumed as children continued to make the smiling snowmen.
One year passed. One more lonely year for the apple tree and its collection of wandering souls. It was now spring. The tree blossomed with fragrant pink blossoms, beautiful and fresh. The bench thawed and moss started growing along it again. The rotting apples turned to dirt to support new life. The world was thawing, and life was returning.
Jamie walked into the clearing, the soggy ground squishing beneath their boots. They did not walk to the bench. They stopped in the middle of the clearing and stared at the names carved into the apple tree. Jamie smiled softly at each one. They smiled at June’s messy scribble. They used to be June, but June was not them. June was the little girl who couldn’t grasp why she couldn’t wear what society dubbed as “boy shoes.” They smiled at Jordan’s name. They used to be Jordan, but Jordan was also not them. Jordan was the boy who was taunted by society for being in the wrong body. Jamie even smiled at the question at the bottom. “Who am I?” They used to be a stranger, but the stranger was not Jamie. The stranger was confused and unsure. The stranger failed to realize that she could make his own purpose.
So, what was the difference? The difference is that Jamie knew who they were. It took a while. It took a long while, but they figured it out eventually.
Jamie approached the tree and added their name at the bottom. The final addition. And as they stood back to admire everything they used to be, Jamie felt pride for making it this far. They whispered a thank you. And with that, they turned around and left. Jamie never looked back. All that remained was an old rotting bench, and an apple tree with a story etched out in its bark.