S.R. Mandel’s fiction appears regularly in The Daily Cabal, Strange Horizons, and the anthology Escape Clause.
Four Accounts of the Discovery of ORCHARD STREET
(From The Knowledge: An A-To-Zed Of That City We Almost Know)
collated by S.R. Mandel, cartographer
- Palos Largos
- George Town
- St. Petersburg
- A HERO
September 2005. Heraclio Guerrera Galván, CNS, Palos Largos, L.A. County, CA.
How did I find it? Well, I got lost on my way home from work. It was strange—I drive this way home every day, and I didn’t think there was anything west of Sunset except Atlas Circle and the sea. But the light was getting low and the GPS glitched out and I made a wrong turn and there I was.
You know how the light is, at sunset, by the coast? How everything trembles like honey?
Honey drenched the sign. ORCHARD STREET, it said. I was lost, and the light was so gold, and there was just the strangest, sweetest smell of flowers. So I turned in.
There was a long drive past no houses: just green tangles, crowded with fruit trees, some bearing, some in blossom. That was the smell. I’m pretty sure they were oranges, though at the time I thought quince. Last night I woke up suddenly, sweating, thinking apples, though I know they don’t grow by the coast. Even the smells of things change by the sea.
The path ended in trees. I parked and got out. I thought there must be a house around somewhere. I thought I’d look.
But then the girls appeared. There were three, I think, though sometimes in my dreams I think four. They came from the shadows of the trees. Their skin was like the trees, and the light shivered across their shoulders, their knees, the apple-like swell of their hips, their breasts.
They told me their names: Elly, Esther, Erika. Are you all sisters? I asked. They laughed, as though it was funny.
Then they started to sing.
Their singing—I can’t tell you, I don’t have words. There was a glass in my hand, something thick and sweet, with a smell like apples and salt, something strange, hungering. The blood was thick in my head. The shadows oozed with honey and salt on the wind, and the girls sang like sunset on the sea…
Something put its head out from behind the biggest tree. The head said: Hello. We’re so glad to see you. Another head came around and said: I wish we could let you go. A third head came out and said, You’re beautiful. Why are thieves always so beautiful? I wish we could let you live. I wish we could keep you here forever.
The girls laughed, though they didn’t stop singing.
My head was so heavy, from the music and shadows, and from the sweet wine. I said, Wait. What?
No, I said, you’ve got me wrong. I’m no thief.
A head blinked. It said: Didn’t you come for the fruit?
No, I said. No, no. You’ve got me all wrong, I said.
One of the sisters bent down over me. She had told me her name, but it had slipped away. Hester, or Eagle—something very California. She held my shoulders and leaned down.
I have never seen eyes like her eyes before. Her hair smoked with light, like clouds over the sea.
She said, Are you sure you’re not a thief?
She said, You wouldn’t be the first.
She said, That’s what they always come for. Men.
And we know what to do with them, she said.
Her hands burned my shoulders like stars. She looked through me like the end of the world.
I said, Oh, God, you’re beautiful.
I said, You’ve got me wrong.
I said, I didn’t come here for that.
I said, Please keep me.
I suddenly found myself back at the wheel, back on the lane, back on the street, back in the truck. I couldn’t remember leaving the garden, I couldn’t remember turning the key. I couldn’t remember leaving Atlas Street. The light in the lanes was still heavy and thick. My head was drowning, my mouth sticky with gold. But I could still drive home. The sun was still setting. I watched it set in the sea as I drove.
Lasting effects? Well. I’ve tried to get lost there again. But of course I can’t find it. The sign’s disappeared. There’s nothing west of Atlas but the sea.
But I can’t stop looking. I don’t want to forget. The voices, the eyes, the cup thick with blood. Her hair burning my skin…
I wake up before dawn, dreaming of quinces. It was so sweet, that evening light.
- A TRICKERY
July 2009. Mr. Goh Hong Im, Retiree, George Town, Penang, Malaysia.
Well, the light was sweet on the hillside the day that I found it. I had just left the temple, you see. It was early morning; the day was still cool. I was heading up to the tombs on the hill, for a visit. I have friends up there.
Ha ha. Does that sound like a morbid joke? Wait till you get to my age. You’ll see how it is.
So I was going up past the temple. It’s really a beautiful temple, you know—one of the most beautiful in the whole country. All the dragons arcing off the roof as if they were going to fly, and the immortals painted on the walls. Young people these days don’t like to go. They think it’s too old-fashioned. I tell my grandkids it’s their loss. These beautiful things won’t be around forever. And it’s good to know the stories—the dragons and the monkeys, the warriors and magicians, the tricksters and immortal gardens. What are we without stories?
Anyway, I went out the back, as usual, past the ancestor tablets and the tiger shrine. It was a nice morning, not too hot yet, good for a stroll. That path runs uphill up the bukit, and it opens into untended country, heading up toward the tombs.
Now, I’ve been up there literally thousands of times over the years, and yet somehow I managed to take a wrong turn up the hill. The path got misty, like low-lying clouds—very strange for this time of year—and then it brought me out into a grove of peach trees.
I’m an old guy, of course, so I’ve seen some peach trees. But I’ve never seen any like these! The sight made me forget all about the wrong turn and the weather. They were like trees in a painting, strong and lithe. Those ink-black branches! Those jade-green leaves! And the peaches, so bright they were actually glowing, like hearts, like sky lanterns, like firm young flesh…
Well, I don’t know what you’d do, but I’m not too old yet to pick a peach. I must say, I haven’t had my mouth in anything that juicy in years. They were soft, and yielding, and sweet as honey. Mmm.
That’s how the ladies found me when they appeared through the trees.
I have to admit, I must have been a sight. Covered in juice elbows to ears, gripping a peach in each hand, and, um, squeezing.
Now, these ladies were dressed up in fine courtly style—old-country, very formal, like characters from an opera. All silk sleeves and ornate hair, high pale brows, tiny mouths, jewels dangling everywhere. Very beautiful. And very angry!
They started shouting, quite familiarly, as if they knew me. One yelled, “What are you doing? What are you up to now, you rascal?”
The other snapped, “What form have you taken now? We told you to guard the fruit, not eat it!”
I admit I looked on her with more admiration than fear. She was celestially beautiful—I’m not exaggerating—a face radiant as the moon, and skin as soft as the peaches. I’m sure it must have been that soft everywhere. And she was tough too; her voice shook the orchard.
I’m been around long enough to know how to address a lady. I said, “With all due respect, madam, you’ve got me wrong. All I’ve done is what anyone would do, when they found themselves among such beauty as surrounds me.” And I bowed, as genteelly as I could, given my knees.
That gave them pause—politeness always does. But unfortunately, as I straightened up, an ill-timed gobbet of peach dripped off my nose and fell with a squishing sound into the grass.
The lady flew into a rage. “Get out!” she shouted. “You know exactly what you’ve done. And don’t try to take any away with you!”
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” I said, and I turned around as quickly as I could—not very gracefully, I’m afraid—and fled back down the hill, still bowing and dribbling juice. The ladies were still shouting, but the laughter of their handmaidens followed me all the way back to the safety of the temple yard.
I’ve been thinking about it since that day. To tell the truth, I don’t think about much else. And I keep going up and down, like the weather, between happiness and great gloom.
Because I suspect, more and more as I reflect on it, that I know where I was; who those ladies were, and what scene of havoc I left behind me. I think I know whose peaches I’ve eaten, and what gift they gave me.
And what now lies ahead.
I’ve been avoiding the temple, but I can’t stay away forever. How else am I going to fill the time? And there’ll be lots to fill, I think. My knees have been feeling suspiciously strong, and my arthritis has cleared right up.
I think more and more it was a bad turn to take—a wrong turn, at my age. My friends on the hill will berate me for it. Healthy knees, and white hair? All this time, and nothing to do? If I could take it back, I would. I’ll stay out of peach groves from here on in.
Except that if I had the chance… That face as beautiful as the moon… That might be worth seeing again.
Even if it did kill me.
Which, all in all, might be for the best.
Anyway. I can’t keep avoiding the temple forever; it’s much too long a time. I’ll go back—maybe next week. And I’ll try to get the grandkids to come along. I always say they have no idea what they’re missing.
- A TRAVELING SALESMAN
May 2012. “Lou C. Applegate” (suspected pseudonym?), Global Territory Manager, St. Petersburg, Florida.
I’ve never missed a round on Orchard Street. My boss sends me there all the time. I’ve been there more often than I can count—and listen when I say that you should take me at my word.
This week obviously we’re in Florida. Not my choice, but that’s life: the boss says where, and I hop to it. You and me both, buddy, right? Though I don’t mind Florida, really—it reminds me of home.
Well, anyway. So, I’m hurrying along, following the address, just trying to get out of the midday sun, and the next thing you know there it is: Orchard Street.
This time there’s a wall around it. Who’d wall in a whole street? Though I guess it’s not that surprising in Florida. Anyway, I have a job to do, and walls don’t stop me, so over I go.
It’s a zoo in there! Literally, a menagerie. The inhabitants are running around like little kids, playing with the animals and obsessing over name tags. They’re short, like little kids, with empty, innocent faces. I grab the boy by the shoulder as he scuttles past me.
“Nice trees you got here,” I say.
The boy says, “Yes.” Flat affect, no follow-up. Just, “Yes.”
“Who takes care of them?” I ask.
Blank looks. I always forget, they’re not good at open-ended questions.
I say, “What kind of trees are they?”
The girl drops the rabbit she’s been messing with. She starts rattling off: “Prunus domestica, phoenix dactylifera, ficus carica, punica granatum…” The boy adds: “We’re fruitarians.”
What? Yeah, hyperlexia. They’re always like that—obsessed with words, names. Owning things. Dominion.
I play along with them. I say: “Okay. What’s the name of that big tree there in the middle?”
They immediately go: “Oh no no no, that one doesn’t have a name. You can’t eat from that one. The fruit’s bad.”
“What’s wrong with it?” I say.
They start giving all kinds of reasons. There’s a woman in it. There’s a monkey in it. Their dad’s waiting in there with a snake.
“You must be kidding,” I say. I say, “Guys, who told you this story?”
I kneel down, to their level. Very seriously, I go into my talk. I’m an educator. This is what I do.
I say: “Don’t you get it yet? Don’t you know what’s going on in here?”
They just give me that baffled look.
“Look,” I say. “Personally, I don’t like power games. Or secrets. Or having the wool pulled over my eyes.” More bafflement. They’re not great with metaphors, either.
“Okay,” I say, “so, look, I’m going to go figure this out, on my own. Like an independent, human adult.”
They watch me, open-mouthed. They watch me do my thing.
“Okay,” I say. I wipe my mouth. “Now I think I know what’s going on.”
Their eyes are the size of dinner plates.
“And,” I add, “I know the name of that tree.”
Two minutes later, it’s all over. Both their faces are bleared with pulp, and they’re arguing. He’s yelling, “You got it wrong! You messed everything up!” She’s crying into her hair.
This is the part I hate. I do my best to remediate it, every time. But it’s an emotional moment, they don’t like to listen.
I try anyway. I tell him, “Calm down. There’s no point in blaming her. It just makes you sound like you have a problem with women.”
They both glare at me. He says, “It’s all her fault!”
She yells at me, “It’s all your fault!”
What? I’ve tried to talk to them. I try every single time. I’ve tried to tell them about all the things I’ve learned over these years. About agency, and owning your actions. About guilt. Solidarity. Gaslighting. Cults. I’m a world expert in these things, you know.
It never works.
It doesn’t work this time. The boy cuts me off, yelling, “Get out!” His affect sure has developed. He reaches for a rock, though it turns out to be a turtle.
“I know this sucks,” I say, “but I wish you wouldn’t blame me. You guys really think I came here for my health? Who do you think gives the orders?”
But they won’t listen. They’re freaking out, just like usual. So the only thing is to leave them to it, and go back over the wall, and head back to the hotel through the fading sun, leaving them there to beat up each other’s hearts until the boss arrives, to do his usual little sadistic dance over them.
So there we are, and here you find me. Back in the hotel. Spending the usual hours in front of the bathroom mirror, trying to get the taste out of my mouth and wondering what they’re saying about me right now. Awful, I’m sure, whatever it is. That never gets more fun.
What’s also not fun is how bad my mouth tastes. It’s the second-worst part of this job. That is one messed-up fruit. You have to wonder about someone who’d come up with this kind of thing, don’t you?
It tasted like honey the first time, you know. But only the first time. What it does after that is it just gets worse and worse, each time, and no matter how often you scour your teeth the bitterness doesn’t go away. It lingers on and on, until you get used to it, it’s something you live with, and you’ve forgotten why it’s there in the first place.
- A HOLIDAY CARD HOME
December 2017. Cora Cheimonas, Raptee, Onondaga Park Railway Bridge (Underpass), Syracuse, New York.
I forget some days why I’m here in the first place. But I’m sure you remember.
Do you remember when we ate pomegranates together? With honey, for luck, at the new year? Then I was the one who said: I love traditions. Now I think it all depends, whether you’re the one on top, or down below.
You remember how I used to complain about pruning the orchards? I miss them now. The wind, the sun in the trees. You.
You know the story. I took a wrong turn. I stayed out too late. I got lost under the underpass.
Anyway. We both know how this goes. If you leave home alone, you risk losing the sun. You can have anything, as long as it’s what you’re given. Those who love you can save you, but only halfway.
Ultimately, it’s always your fault.
He says I lack for nothing, because I can have anything I want: anything that will grow here. But I don’t like the kind of trees that grow in the dark. Or the honey. Or the sisters.
Things that grow down here grow bitter: words, honey, fruit. Everything has a bite when you can’t see its mouth. Even your sister, getting sharper and sharper—sharp and more sour, by month and by hour.
He kept me hungry, and now it’s too late. She took too long looking, and now it’s too late.
She certainly took her sweet time finding me. Whose fault was it?
Well, at least I’m learning a thing or two. You might be surprised, the things you can learn down here in the dark.
Tell her I’ll be home in the spring.
Copyright © 2019 by S.R. Mandel