A fifth-generation, devoted, cider-maker in Wisconsin has her life upended with the arrival of single father looking for work and lodging with his young son in the new novel by the author of The Coincidence of Coconut Cake.
The Simplicity of Cider
Sanna Lund’s thoughts of apple blossoms and new cider blends stuttered to an end with the grunt of her dad’s snore. Einars rumbled from the squashy armchair in front of the huge fieldstone fireplace framed by large picture windows, afternoon sun blanketing him. The stones had come from their orchard, unearthed when the first generation of Lunds began planting the orchard four generations ago. The stones varied in color and shape, from light gray limestone to rusty red granite, each highlighted by the golden light. Above the inset wooden mantel hung a huge collage of watercolor paintings, comprised of six-inch squares, each showcasing a different variety of apple grown in the orchard set against a distinguishing hue.
Sanna closed the refrigerator and set on the kitchen counter the baggie of sticks she’d been retrieving and walked across the huge great room to where her dad slept. His long legs stretched out in front of him, like roots expanding their reach. Everything about him was stretched, like taffy pulled slightly too far. His head tilted back enough for his gaping mouth to emit another snort. An open shoe box full of weathered photos and yellowing paper sat on his lap, while he clutched a single photo to his chest.
An afternoon nap was a common enough scene in other homes, but Sanna couldn’t remember ever watching her father sleep. Einars was a man of action, always in the middle of three different chores at once, making it all seem effortless. Age spots dotted his face from too many years in the sun before sunscreen was as recommended as the proverbial apple, wrinkles traced exactly where his smile would be if he were awake, and fluttering eyelids hid his sparkling blue eyes. Dark smudges pooled under his pale eyelashes, evidence of the late-night pacing that had become a habit during the last year. Sanna shoved away her guilt that she might be partially to blame for that, deep into the mental cave normally reserved for what people thought of her, dawdling tourists, and small talk.
When he’d come in from the trees, he had told her he would start their dinner. That was forty-five minutes ago. Sanna had been so immersed in grafting old branches to new trees, she hadn’t noticed how long he’d been gone. If she hadn’t come in to retrieve the scions—the twigs from older trees she was hoping to graft—from the house fridge, she wouldn’t have found him dozing.
Thinking she should wake him, Sanna smiled down at the man who was her world. He’d taken care of her through colds, puberty, growing pains that would have knocked an elephant to its knees. He taught her how to climb a tree, determine the exact right day to pick an apple, drive a stick-shift truck through the bumpy aisles of an orchard, and dip crispy french fries into her chocolate shakes from Wilson’s. She pulled the picture he was gripping out of his long fingers and glanced at the faded image, then dropped it as soon as she saw what it was, not wanting to hold it even a second longer. The four smiling faces beaming at her fluttered into the battered box. Her father, her brother, Anders, herself, and the Egg Donor. Sanna wouldn’t even shorten it to the friendlier acronym, TED.
She’d often seen the box tucked under her dad’s bed, but she’d never been curious about the contents. Her dad had always respected her privacy and given her space, so she had always offered him the same courtesy. At that moment, though, destructive urges boiled inside her—shoving all else to the side. Merely throwing away the box of photos wasn’t permanent enough. It deserved a more dramatic demise. She wanted to drive it to Gills Rock and toss it into the Death’s Door waters, where it could live with all the other shipwrecks. That’s where that box belonged.
Rational thought prevailed—she didn’t snatch the box and run away to destroy it—but it did little to calm her roiling emotions. She gently lifted the box, but her careful movements caused her dad to twitch awake, his hands pulling the box back to his lap.
“I’ve got it,” he said, the words still mushy with sleep.
Sanna straightened and watched as her dad fumbled to cover the box and pull it close to his plaid-coated chest.
“Why are you wasting time with that, Dad? There’s nothing worth remembering in there.”
He blinked away the sleep still muffling his senses and covered the box protectively with his arms. Einars smiled that annoying grin of elders who know better.
“Happiness is always worth remembering, even when it was temporary.”
• • • • •
Back in her happy place, the barn, Sanna snapped one of the sticks she’d grabbed from the fridge and searched for any sign of green inside. Nothing—only dry, dead wood. She tossed the branch onto her cluttered stainless steel workbench already strewn with beakers, plastic tubing, her journal—tools of her woefully unsuccessful cider-making business. And now, she failed again to graft her beloved heirloom apple trees onto newer stock.
After waking her dad, she’d returned to the safety of her barn, but the pain welling inside her wouldn’t go back down. The barn, complete with the fresh sawdust scent of new construction, was built into a small hill across a gravel-covered parking area from their house. The bottom level was used as the farm stand during the fall and a garage during the winter, while her workspace and cidery comprised the second level. She could get to the bottom story two ways: by taking the spiral stairs in the corner or by exiting the garage door on the opposite wall and walking around the building and down the hill. She’d bounded up the spiral steps two at a time just now, her long legs and resentment carrying her even more briskly than usual. She hadn’t been prepared to see the Donor’s smiling face, though she knew enough to know preparation wouldn’t have helped. Her day had been perfectly scheduled and productive, everything as expected. Awake at six, breakfast by six thirty, in the trees by seven with a thermos of black tea and a packed lunch, then to the cidery after lunch for an afternoon of quiet, peaceful work. That’s where she’d been before she found her dad, in the content corner of her mind full of trees and flavors—when she was ripped out of it like a fish flopping on a hook.
At thirty-two, she knew she should be over the betrayal. And she wanted to forget about the Donor, but, even after all these years, she could never forgive her.
“Didn’t keep?” her dad said, and pointed to where she had flung the branch. He stood in the doorway of her second-story workspace, his lanky frame outlined by the warm June sunlight behind him. Einars wore his usual work jeans and a lightweight long-sleeve work shirt over a tee. The vitality that had been notably absent during his nap vibrated off him now.
“No,” she said. “Not the ones I had in the house, or the ones I stored out here. All dead wood.” She had hoped to graft these twigs onto the root stock she’d been saving, to see if she could foster new trees from the heirloom stock in the back of the orchard. “I was able to graft the Honeycrisps and Galas with sticks I harvested the same day. I don’t know what else to try.”
She threw the twig and a Ziploc full of dead sticks into the large garbage can, then leaned against the counter to face her dad. Her large workbench spanned an entire wall in the mostly empty main room of the orchard’s barn. Later in the season, she’d share the space with giant crates of apples for the visiting tourists shopping their farm stand on the lower level. This early in the season, though, the wooden crates were empty, leaving space for her towers of waiting carboys—the five-gallon glass jugs she used to make her hard cider. Adjacent to her workbench was a refrigerated room and walk-in freezer, where she stored the juice she had pressed during the previous season in neatly labeled freezer bags and five-gallon buckets. Still waiting along one of the walls was the much larger press and new tanks her father had purchased this year, silent judges of her failure. She’d been trying for two years to sell her small-batch hard cider, but only a few locals seemed interested. Instead, the cooler overflowed with her finished products, carefully sorted according to batch.
Einars plucked the broken twig out of the garbage with long, thin fingers speckled from sun and age. He’d be seventy soon, but he didn’t act like it. He could spray a row of trees, trim branches, and make a delicious apple dessert all before one in the afternoon. They worked hard, but Idun’s Orchard thrived under their care—perhaps not as well as when the Lund population topped their meager two, but well enough they could support themselves. It was a decent life.
“You kept it hydrated? But not too wet?” he asked.
Sanna stared back.
“I take that as a yes.” Einars let the twig drop. “Maybe we need some fresh blood around here. You can’t expect the trees to give their best for just the two of us.”
“Pa, we don’t need more people complicating our system. If it’s not broken and all that. Besides, the trees don’t know any better.”
Einars looked out the window behind the workbench at the orchard below them.
“You’d be surprised. They say plants respond to singing and the moods of their owners, why not trees?”
Sanna returned her grafting tools to their proper places and pulled out beakers and measuring cups.
“I’m not singing to the trees.”
Einars stretched his fingers a few times, like a pianist before a solo.
“I need to get the spraying done in the Earlies. Can you run to Shopko to pick up some toilet paper and ibuprofen—just get the store brand.”
Sanna played with her necklace, a flat wooden circle strung on a silver chain, the wood worn smooth from years of twisting it with her fingers. Her mind sought the solitary peace of work to pacify the shock and failure of the day.
“I can’t today, Pa.” She opened her journal to where she had left off. Maybe creating something new would ease the disappointment in her chest. “I need to blend a new cider. I’ll see you at dinner.”
She disappeared into the walk-in cooler to get the juices she would need. When she emerged, her dad still stood next to her bench, now with the bag of sticks in his hands, pulling each one out and inspecting it.
“What if we clipped fresh twigs and did the grafting now?” he asked, then dropped the sticks back in the bin.
“I tried that last year, and they didn’t take. That’s why I used clippings that had a full season of growth in them. I thought they might be more robust.”
Sanna set the frozen juice blocks on the counter, already considering her dad’s proposition.
“How did you graft them?”
“Let’s try the cleft graft on the understock you have, and a few side grafts onto some older trees. Maybe the scions want a more mature tree to grow with. What do you think?”
His idea could work—Sanna wanted to try it. She needed to know she could make more of those trees, that they wouldn’t die out under her watch after living for over a hundred years.
“What about the Earlies?”
“I can spray them tomorrow—this seems more important.”
That was good enough for her. She grabbed her grafting tools and led the way out of the barn, determined to be successful. She would discover the secret to grafting these finicky trees.