By Jody M Keene
Apple trees surrounded Apple Orchard Apartments. The old orchard even bore fruit—hard, tiny apples that were good only for applesauce made with lots and lots of sugar.
The old woman climbed slowly up the stairs to her apartment. Her arms were ringed with plastic grocery bags bulging with the last of the good fruit pulled off the branches she could reach. Above her head, three little faces peered over the second-floor railing.
“Humpback whale’s coming!” their ringleader called, and they flew away cackling.
That was a new taunt. Children, since before their fathers’ time, had called her the Hunchback of Notre Dame (pronounced like the football team), and she had to admit her shoulders were distinctly rounded. She looked down at her orange and yellow caftan, at her foot on the next step spilling out of its plastic slip-on. But a whale?
The next day, while the apples simmered on the stove, a knock sounded at the door. The old woman opened it, looked out, and saw no one. Taped to the door was a torn magazine page of a humpback whale breaching. A childish eye was drawn over it in a Sharpie pen.
As she stood there, the door still open, the smoke detector began an insistent blat, and the room stank of burned apples. A blackened scab clung to the applesauce pot. She pulled it off the stove.
The rest of the apples had rotted overnight in their bags. Tiny worms flicked their heads up out of a few, and the old woman squawked. When she returned from the dumpster, the aspidistra by her recliner caught her eye. She’d been cultivating it for decades, but brown patches bloomed all over, and many of the broad leaves had withered. Her gaze fell on the defaced photo of the whale she’d tossed on the coffee table, the scribbled eye like a warning.
Later that afternoon she cornered the ringleader boy, Leo Printz, on the landing. “What is this?” she asked, shaking the photo at him.
He grinned lazily, his floppy brown hair hanging in his face. “A curse.”
“The evil eye,” she whispered. “Take it off me.”
“You must give me something first.”
“I have nothing you want.”
“Give me your eye.”
She leaned back, almost toppling over the second-floor banister. “My eye? Why would you want that?”
“To see better, Granny. See into your soul.”
Since she’d burned the applesauce, she had hit her head on a cabinet door, broken four plates, and sat on her glasses. A bird flew into her window, and its carcass lay outside on the ledge. She saw it every time she walked by. Worst of all, the television had broken in the middle of the Showcase Showdown. Maybe an eye wasn’t such a bad trade.
“Take it,” she hissed. “Take it before I change my mind.”
The Printz boy reached up and plucked her left eye out of its socket. He examined it and then popped it into his mouth and swallowed it whole.
“Thank you, Old Woman.” He darted down the steps and disappeared.
She wandered the rest of the afternoon among the apple trees of the orchard, searching for fruit she had missed. The blood on her cheek dried and hardened into a crust. She picked the apples she had avoided the day before, the shrunken and bruised ones, and collected them into the folds of her caftan.
She spent the evening making applesauce. Apples, lemon juice, sugar, and cinnamon: simple but perfect. She jarred the cooled sauce and arranged the jars just so on the counter before she went to bed, smiling, because Leo wouldn’t have her eye for long.
The next morning, the old woman camped by the door. As soon as the knock came, she flung it open. “Come in!” she cried.
The little Printz boy eyed her suspiciously. “I came for the applesauce Mama said you had for us.”
“Of course.” She pulled him across her threshold and threw the locks home in rapid succession, hiding the motions with the breadth of her body. She had still not washed the blood from her face, and his grimace made her grin in anticipation.
He stood by the door, his eyes resting on the whale’s photo. “Don’t make me use it again, Humpback,” he whispered.
“Think of this as a peace offering,” she said and gestured to the jars lining the counter. “In fact, let me give you a bowl now, for your breakfast.”
Want flickered across his face. She knew he didn’t get breakfast as a rule; the Apple Orchard Apartments were full of children who ate packets of ketchup for dinner or hot water and honey for breakfast. She moved quickly past him and twisted the lid of a jar before he could answer. She spooned a mass of fresh applesauce into a bowl and handed it to him. He wavered, looking into the bowl with fathomless eyes, and then ate as if starved.
“There,” she crooned. “Isn’t it good?”
He licked the last bits off the spoon and then dragged his tongue around the bowl, his face flushed with pleasure. “It’s so good.”
“More?” She motioned to the jar standing open on the counter.
A change spread over him. It started at his hairline and worked its way down. He shuddered, and then vomited up a great clot of applesauce.
“Ha!” She reached into the mess, searching until she found her eyeball. A curse. She snorted as she plugged it into her empty socket. She had lived too long to fall for a curse from a child. Especially not a Printz. She blinked to wipe the vomit from her restored vision.
“Ipecac!” she cackled. “You’re not the only one with tricks, Little Friend.”
He bolted to the door, which the old woman unlocked without haste. She enjoyed the sight of little Leo Printz flinging himself against the splintered wood. The door finally opened, and he pelted away without his applesauce.