The Death of the Heirloom by Desmond S. Peeples

Cleary walked into work that day to the oscillating roar of the grinder. Accompanied by the high whine of the cider press, the machines always voiced their industrial anger at every frequency, so that all the ear could hear and all the mind could think was laced with their metals.

They ran at least every other day in the fall, chewing up buckets and bins of imperfect apples, all of which were covered in Cleary’s fingerprints. He sorted the farm’s apples for nine hours a day on five days of the week, building great towers of brown and green boxes with lightning gods printed on the sides. He stacked the boxes in perpendicular columns and rows, alternating the order every layer, and he labeled each one with the kind of apple it contained in permanent marker. He packed forty-five boxes a day on average, which he had determined was approximately one thousand eight hundred apples a day, or nine thousand apples a week. That value didn’t include the undoubtedly equal number of apples which he did not pack into boxes, but condemned to the cider press. This had made it far more difficult for Cleary to drive to work each morning than he had hoped. Numbers—he could hardly keep track of himself.

His trouble, Cleary had always thought, was that he never knew when to stop thinking. After all, he had taken the job because he had thought it would help him feel less alone and more productive—although the weight of his reasoning rested in the former. Productivity had never worried him more than other obligations; work, art, exercise, and socializing were secondary to Cleary, not quite goals and only slightly methods, but primarily discardable. He had a strong tendency to linger and rest with certain sensations, rather than tasks. The choice had never been more than a question of pleasure to him, but the burden which his tendency sometimes pressed upon others did lead Cleary to explain it with the rationale that sensations inhabit the body while tasks inhabit the mind, and that his mind had no more room to be inhabited. His mother often called him “cautious.” Nevertheless, he had always been productive. Never had he worked, but he had always been a worker. This was why, he often thought, his employers had always given him the benefit of the doubt. He could keep his bones and muscles clanking and whirring, his blood gurgling and his nerves sparking for hours in congruence with the public world, only turning down his dials and unscrewing himself in his own private company.

He had more of his own private company at the farm than he had expected to have, thus he spent far more of his time thinking than clanking and whirring. A range of subjects would be exhausted over the day before his mind turned to tallying up his yields. At best he would find himself thinking of his various projects, books he had recently read, and new places to hike; at worst, of how cold it was in the storehouse, of how far this practical job was from the improbable ultimatums he had given himself, and of how lonely it kept him. Still, whatever Cleary’s thoughts, they could never get his body to yield all of its powers to them. A tower of boxes was constantly under construction, often still nearby were two or three, complete, waiting to be wheeled away, and apples were always being packed at the approximate rate of eighteen hundred apples a day.

Cleary had thought of a simple explanation for this bodily diligence. There was, he had admitted to himself, another reason for his taking the job. It was this very reason, and perhaps more so the slight shame he took in it, which his body burned as a fuel to operate the programs required of it when he worked in private: Farming had always occupied a place of pride in Cleary’s identity, one which, until taking his present job, he had been certain was undeserved. He had been born and raised in a state of farmers, and no one on either side of his family had ever had anything to do with the practice. They kept up their gardens, but none before Cleary were obliged to return to the drafty, pungent buildings of a living farm, day after day. There other reasons enough to take pride in his home that this had never bothered him more than an itch. But year after year, fibre after bloody fibre, Cleary had seized closer to the kind of power that might relieve his shame. He sometimes felt it nipping at his skin in moments of pride: the magic of chimeras; of Cleary the Farmer.

“How goes the fight, Cleary?”

Looking up from his bin of Empires, Cleary saw his employer slide through the front glass door with a bushel basket cradled in each arm. Clarence’s figure was no taller or thicker than it should have been if he were an average man. It was likely his mere ownership of the farm that endowed him with such effortless strength, that pressed his presence into the far corners of whatever room was subject to him. Cleary often wondered if Clarence became just like other men when he left his farm.

“Not bad,” said Cleary. “Almost done with these Empires.” Five apples tumbled from his open hands into a box beside the bin. Their skins, dark and blooming like wine, scuffed dully against the apples already in the box.

“Empires, eh? Good, great…” Clarence hoisted the baskets down onto a table by the door. “You know, Cleary, I don’t think I’ve ever told you how much I like your name. Now don’t think much of it—I do realize how vain I am.” Clarence grinned to himself as he paused to let his words take up their space. “It’s something about ‘Cl-’ names, don’t you think? They sound like justice.” He drew two glowing apples from one of the baskets, skins scarlet, gold, and dusty pink, and he began to roll them in one hand. “Do you think you’re just, Cleary?”

It wasn’t uncommon for Clarence to, at random, ask Cleary for his opinion on some philosophical dilemma. The man loved to entertain himself with big questions, and loved to think he was catching you off guard with one. This was part of his magic, and he reveled in it, though Cleary was unsure if Clarence thought of himself as a chimera or not.

“Oh, I dunno,” said Cleary. “We’d probably have to work out what justice is before I answer that.”

Clarence let out his cracking burst of a laugh. “I thought you’d say something like that,” he said. “You don’t like to cut corners. Not every course needs to be driven so carefully, though. Justice is probably one of them. Sometimes what’s just is only just for me, and sometimes it’s only just for you. Best to get rid of the whole idea, then, isn’t it?”

“You could say that,” said Cleary. “Justice can be a useful thing when people agree about what it is, though.”

“Oh, sure, it’s useful to the people who agree about it—as long as they’re righted if they’ve been wronged, mind you. Otherwise I’m not so sure about justice.” Huffing out a sigh and looking around the room, Clarence withdrew from the conversation in his way. “Try one of these apples while I check on the press, will ya?”

Clarence walked past Cleary toward the rumbling machinery and tossed one of the apples he had been holding into his bin. Cleary caught it before it hit the bottom—he had learned to react quickly to falling apples, knowing how imperfect bruised skin looked at the market. He had never needed for the apples he ate to be perfect, but he knew that perfection was a guaranteed seller.

He had never seen this kind before. It was light as a dewdrop in his palm, and its skin was hard and uneven like a raw gemstone. Its colors dripped and blended over it precisely enough for someone to have spent hours painting it, yet obviously it could never have been a person’s work. The world brought things like this into existence without any effort, without agonizing over any part. This was born the perfect apple. Whether or not it became too bruised to be purchased, it would always be perfectly scarlet. Its spattering of gold and its faded wash of pink would always be perfect. These were colors that would never rot or be eaten, never be less scarlet or gold or pink. The human eye was all that turned them into colors, after all. In the apple’s world they were intentions. Perfect, invulnerable intentions without need of an eye to speculate on the quality of their goldness, or pinkness. Justice had been done to this apple, Cleary knew. He took a bite, and the skin released its sweet, coy fragrance for him. His teeth broke into crystalline strata of flesh, and when he pulled his mouth away the apple snapped at him. The milky bittersweet tang of lychee filled his body; a zest of cool peppermint ran through him, and warm cinnamon skittered into his open spaces. This was the flavor of scarlet and gold and pink, of raw gems and of morning dew.

Looking down into the bin before him, Cleary wondered why all the apples he packed weren’t so perfectly intentioned. Now and then he came across an Empire or a Gala that was different from the others—sometimes distinctly, sometimes subtly—but they never seemed to speak for themselves. It might have been merely because he saw so many of them each day, but Cleary felt that the apples he regularly handled were less self-assured. Galas could be impressively yellow, orange, and pink, and Empires could have skins as crisp as sheets of ice. Even the McIntosh guarded a tart, arousing perfume. None of these usual varieties, however, resided as confidently within the idea of an apple as the one Cleary had just tasted. He had seen the others in the grocery stores, and they all passed easily into the idea of groceries, into a basket or a box or a pile of foodstuffs that people either did or didn’t need. This new sort of apple, though, could never be another foodstuff. The purchase of an apple like this had to be a self-contained idea, an attempt to participate in a sense of appleness.

And then he heard soft music. A hum prickling outward from the apple’s skin and nibbling at his palm and the weak underbellies of his fingers with the brutal care of a witch’s chant: You can’t have it, Cleary.

So it was true. This fruit did have its magic.

His knuckles twitched; the apple should be throttled into silence. But he clenched his jaw over the pulp still in his mouth and soaked his gums in more acid, and his fingers remained a cradle. He wanted it—he had to have it.

Even magic could prattle on from time to time.

Another bite. A third, and Cleary closed his eyes. A fourth, and he was a child again.

His feet were bare, and the floor kept a chill in his legs. From a nearby room he could hear the muffled garbling of the evening news. Countertops walled him in on three sides. He was in the kitchen, and his mother was at the stove. Steam billowed over her shoulders as she stirred at four tall pots, and the end of her long wooden spoon kicked the air as she switched it between them. The air was gooey and sweet, yet sharply spiced.

“Could you open that drawer and hand me the other spoon?” His mother’s voice was young, drifting. “You know the one, right?”

Cleary stepped toward the counters and lifted a hand up to one of the drawers, and it scraped stubbornly as it slid out toward his head. There were knives in this drawer. Tiptoe fingers—the wooden spoon felt like elderly skin in his grip. Bringing it to his mother, he looked up at her in awe. There she stood, tall as the maples felled by summer storms, vapor curling like startled clouds around her head to escape out the open skylight and into the dark. She was looming over the pots. The egg-yolk light coming from the old sconce above them gave her the glow of a baby chick, and her arms seemed longer than ever as she commanded the stove like an engine. Dials had to be turned and buttons pressed, and all the while the contents of the steaming pots clanged with their need to be stirred or mashed.

She, however, controlled it all. Whenever he went anywhere with her, he felt as though she controlled it all.

“You’re gonna be sorry you said you hate apple butter.” She looked over her shoulder and grinned at Cleary. “I’ll bet you don’t even know what it is.”

From the other room, over the news, came his father’s voice. “What did you two decide to make in there?” he called out.

“Go tell your dad,” said Cleary’s mother. “He loves apple butter.”

She stuck her tongue out at Cleary, and with a bubbling laugh he turned to bound toward the sound of the television. As he neared it he could make out a stranger’s voice—“Don’t wait! Call now, and for only five payments of nineteen ninety-five it can all be yours! That’s right, only five payments of this one-time only price!”

Cleary had finished the apple and thrown its core into a nearby bucket, which, when full of such scraps, he would bring outside to the pigs. Though he knew Clarence hadn’t intended them for it, he stole over to the two baskets of perfect apples. He took one fruit from each, and he tossed them into the scrap bucket. His mother asked him frequently about his job, and even though he was sure that feeding the pigs was his favorite thing to do at the farm, he had only once mentioned to her that they had pigs at all. She knew what certain animals were to a farm, and Cleary worried that, at the mere mention of pigs, she would guess what he had had to do:

He pulled into the muddy front lot of the storehouse. Parked in front of the pigpen was an old brown truck with GOODY & GOULD ABBATOIR painted on its side in a faded dusting of white.

“Cleary!” he heard as he stepped out of his car. “Come on and give us a hand over here!”

Clarence was a third his usual size as he beckoned to Cleary, far off from beside the truck. Loren stood beside him, his breath creeping back over his slouched shoulders like the pale fingers of a woman. Tom was probably the figure in red, and Helen was likely just out of sight. Cleary walked toward the truck, and the frosted ground responded to his boots with shrill crackling.

He could see the rusted skin of the pigs as he came closer. They were massed before the open mesh doors of the truck’s trailer and a wooden ramp, stomping at the ground and jostling one another. Clarence and Loren bound the pigs in on one side with steel hurdles, and across from them Helen and Tom held steady their own segments. It was Delilah, though, who was crouching behind the animals, her arms stretched out wide as two buzzards. She howled and hollered obscene threats at the pigs, kicking the air with her boots or sliding from side to side when a pig got too close to her. Slowly, by ones and twos, the pigs resigned to climb into the truck. Their weight had to be acknowledged: For each entrance, the truck let out a tired groan and nodded its frame.

“There you go, you beautiful fucking pigs!” shouted Delilah. “Get the fuck in that truck, I know you can do it!”

Only rarely did Delilah come to the farm anymore; she was, as Clarence put it, “cultivating other options.” This meant she was pursuing a degree in computer science. She had once told Cleary that she intended to get a job in California. Naively, he asked if her brother would come to run the farm, then—she scoffed, told him that Loren couldn’t run a dishwasher.

“Go on and take Helen’s place, will ya, Cleary?” said Clarence. “I believe my darling has some syrup to which she should be attending.”

Cleary stepped over the two low wires that electrified the pigpen's borders. The fence was often incidental as the pen itself; txhe space was graciously large, spreading across most of the hillside before backing up against the maples. Though there were never enough pigs for any more than the topmost part of the pen to see use. The rest slowly returned itself to brambles, berry bushes, and the ever inevitable red dogwood. Even as Cleary crossed the shredded earth of the pigs’ territory, grasses grew that, in the summer, were little eyelets of wildflowers speckling the pigs’ divisions of mud, rotting scraps, and straw.

“Just hold it tight, now,” said Helen. “Runners can be pretty forceful.”

She stepped aside as Cleary wrapped his hands around the hurdle’s top rung. Cleary felt her squeeze his shoulder before she began the walk back to the storehouse—natural. Helen was very natural with tasks. She could take them into her body and let them crank her hand up onto Cleary’s shoulder or around the sticky lever of her syrup pump, and never would she need to feel a thing.

Maybe all it took for Helen and her family was knowledge: There would always be a runner. Somewhere in that drove of livestock there was an animal who knew. It didn’t know what pigs, livestock, or farms were, and it didn’t know what knowing was. It knew that it was something, though, and it could never stop knowing. That was its power. As the other pigs climbed up into the truck and the mass thinned out, the thought would be pounding through its bones: I’m something.

There—it sprang through the space between Delilah’s legs while its squeals shredded up the air. All the others had loaded themselves into the truck.

A man that had nearly escaped Cleary’s notice had followed them inside with a hurdle to hold them back from the open doors. The man had been leaning against the side of the truck through the corralling, his crusted jacket and pants nearly matching its shade of brown. He stood with his head turned down, and the frayed brim of his cap shaded his eyes. Yet Cleary could feel them. Those eyes recognized him, perhaps had known him in another age and certainly seen a million young men like him. They had gaped at Cleary for just an instant as the man shambled around the corner of the trailer, and he knew then that this man had always been with the truck. He was likely the one who painted the word ABATTOIR on its sides. He was its sentinel, programmed long ago to ensure the fulfillment of the truck’s functions, to carry on and on in spite of people like Cleary. He had always waited, hitched in the cab or latched to its side, his eyes flickering on and his cogs ticking into motion only for this moment of the runner. The world never changed for him. If he had a home or a family they were likely in an old chalet cuckoo clock, the doors of which forever opened periodically to drag him back inside.

“Get ready,” said Clarence.

Delilah and Loren had sprinted after the runner, their heavy boots drowning out the frantic beat of its hooves. Now there was only the sound of a machine—the metallic buzzing of the old truck and the eyes of the man inside it, the steamed hissing of the electric fence, the thudding of Loren and Delilah’s boots like pistons. The runner was only rounding the curve of a conveyor belt when it turned back toward the truck. It had stopped squealing. As it came closer, Cleary heard only a faint, embarrassing wheeze. It couldn’t be natural.

The hurdles clanged together like church bells, and at the sound Cleary felt pressure and steam begin to snake free from his joints.

Cleary’s mother would never have blamed or resented him if he had told her the story. Like him, she resented tasks rather than sensations, events rather than people. Still, he knew that she would shame him.

No—he too easily mistook the perfected intentions of her motherhood for shaming. She was better than Cleary in a way he felt he would never understand. As aloof as his envy tended to be, he cherished it. He kept her shame near to rebuff power—to ward off Cleary the Machine. It was she, and not Cleary, who had slipped the perfect apples into the pigs’ scrap bucket. She had worked in factories as a young woman. She knew about commerce and labor, slaughterhouses, grocery stores, even clockwork men and their old trucks. Yet none of it had smithed her organs into nuts and bolts or axles. She was a resilient fiber, protein immaculate. And yet she didn’t believe in magic. Somehow, somehow, Cleary too often hoped bitterly, this made him better in a way that she could not understand.

“How was that apple, soldier?” Clarence appeared behind the front counter, his eyes on a few sticky notes curling on its surface. The storehouse was no longer roaring, and the cold air was solidifying into the quiet. Clarence had turned off the press, shut down the grinder.

“Damn good,” said Cleary.

“Got a bit more of a kick than a Golden Delicious, doesn’t it?”

“Are we growing these?”

“We tried it once, last year. Thinking of trying it again.” He looked up from the sticky notes, planted his forearm on the counter and leaned forward all eyes. “Ever heard of Heirloom apples?”

“I think so.”

“Well do you know the story behind ‘em? Why you never see ‘em anymore?”


“Well, before the invention of a little thing called monoculture, people usually grew all sorts of unique kinds of food. Technicolor apples, potatoes, squash, tomatoes, you name it—though they’d all be names you’d never heard before. Back then this very farm was growing apples like Calville Blanc, Roxbury Russet, Spitzenburg… Anyway, in the nineteenth century, a big thing called the Industrial Revolution happened.” Clarence’s boots had thudded over to the bushel baskets by the door. Looking up from his bin, Cleary saw the vast blue back of Clarence’s jacket wrinkle as he bent over the baskets. Was he immune to perfection in his apples? “Let’s see… It was industry and wage labor and all that that kept a lot of people from growing their own food, I believe, so that cut down on the variety of cultivars around. From there it only took mass production to whittle the rest down to what was profitable. And just like that! There went the Heirlooms. For almost two centuries it’s been nothing but McIntosh, Red Delicious, Galas, Empires. They’re on their way back, though, those Heirlooms. So, as long as people think of them as worth the extra buck, we can afford to grow Heirlooms again.”

Cleary could hear his employer pawing at the new apples. Their perfect skins nudged against one another in glassy clinks, not dull scuffs. The sound was clear enough to be firm, but it was intangible. It was like children laughing, like an echo whose source you couldn’t quite place.

“The apple you tried was a hybrid of Heirlooms—made it up myself.”

“Really? What’s it called?”

“I’ll tell you what I’m thinking of calling it, but only if you keep it to yourself.”

“I promise.”

“Lorelilah. You know, after Loren and Delilah,” said Clarence. “Do you like the sound of that?”

“I do, yeah,” said Cleary. “But I won’t tell anyone.”

Clarence had stood upright. The apples had stopped their laughing; he slipped his hands into his pockets as he stared out the window.

“Attaboy. I’d be surprised if those darn kids liked the sound of it, but, you know—and don’t you take offense—I just don’t think young people are as good at remembering as us old folks are. Now, remembering where you put your boots, or what you had for breakfast yesterday—young people might be better at that. But plain, quality remembering? That’s what keeps us together, I think.” He turned to face Cleary, ambled forward to his bin and reached a hand down to push around the apples. “Anyway, the apples in those baskets are going to the farmer’s market this weekend. In a minute I’m gonna bring around a bin of ‘em from out back for you to shovel into the grinder. We’re gonna put out a ‘limited edition’ cider, so to speak. Sound good?”

“Yep, no problem.”

But a shy little ache in his chest said that it truly was a problem. He heard Cleary the Machine begin to repeat:

What does it matter if the fruit has its magic?

What does it matter if the fruit has its magic?

Cleary looked down into his bin as Clarence left. He had barely noticed that he was nearing its end. All that remained was a small slide of dark apples with waxy, taught skin in one corner, scattered scraps of twigs and leaves, and smears of apple flesh rotted to brown and orange pulp here and there. Cleary didn’t want to think these apples had had their character or their perfect intention bred out of them. At one point in the past, when they were only grown close to where their seeds had first been sown, they were probably as unique and unforgettable as the old names Clarence had uttered, as exotically familiar as Spitzenburgs and Roxbury Russets. It could have happened to any of them. As he grabbed the last of the apples from the bin, he heard the rough yowling of the forklift somewhere behind him. He waited for the groaning rhythm of the hoist as it lowered the forks, and for the splintering of the wooden bin as it settled against the concrete floor. Soon the grinder would begin to roar again, and the press would start its whine. One apple, two apple, three apple, four.

No more.

It could be that there were no perfect intentions. Nevertheless, Cleary dropped cold the last of the Empires he cradled. He watched the glass door grow closer and closer as he walked farther and farther from his place at the bin, and he was outside in the red and gold of autumn, his bootsteps suffocating the old lung packed beneath the parking lot’s dirt.

And he was at the pigpen. As still as in his father’s armchair, he watched the pigs and did not count them. “Succulent,” his father would have said; “piggies,” he would have called them.

He could set them free. Lead them down the road with a bucket of rotting scraps and hike them up into the woods somewhere. But that wasn’t like Cleary. And he realized that they would last nowhere. They might guzzle berries and roots on a hillside for a few days, but they would inevitably be found—coyotes, or other farmers, or a pack of vigilant townspeople brandishing fishing nets, ropes, “Pigs Lost” flyers.

He listened for another voice, a clue or an ultimatum. But not one would come, and he could do nothing. So he began to wonder which part of his body was most vulnerable: arteries behind the ankles, knees, in the wrists and elbows, yes, and the places where he wanted to be touched—his neck, deep between his legs, his temples, the mouldering recess of his tongue. Raw, wet, his dark muscle in flux; a more dripping and virile spring than he deserved: the tongue.

Yes—he heard it rising from below. A strange ringing like leaking fumes from an old behemoth, one that would soon be a hiss until it grew beyond its welcome to crackle and crackle and prove its purpose:

He eyed the wires of the electric fence. Two knives carved an angry banner through the world and trembled for him to love their edges.

Desmond S. Peeples is a writer and occasional performance artist based in Vermont. His work is either available or forthcoming in Big Bridge, Cultural Logic, and Goreyesque. He is the founding editor of Mount Island, an editorial assistant for Green Writers Press, and an associate literary agent with the Dede Cummings Agency; he has also performed as a musician and as a drag queen across the United States. Find him on Twitter @dspeeples. He likes very obscene jokes, but he's demure about it.