By Hannah Yuan; Edited by Allyson Tai
They say the human body is made up of millions of individual cells that communicate with each other by firing neurons and synapses, sparks and live-wire. When we age, they degenerate. The ends wither away and those once electric connections become muted and dulled with time.
The sweeping old apple tree holds secrets in its branches. Discoverable only to those who know where to look, it stands hidden in the middle of a small clearing through the hedges.
When the air turns sweet and the breeze carries a pleasant warmth, Marie knows to go looking. Luscious green apples droop from the tree, ripe and ready for picking. The Old Woman of the village leads the way, a wicker basket in hand to reap the fruits of their journey.
No one knows how the Old Woman came to be. Some say she is as old as the tree itself. All that is known is that she has no existing family, no ties to this earth except the weathered little cottage on the outskirts of Sault which she inhabits. The children in the village know to steer clear of her; they have heard all of the wild rumours. She’s part of a cult, she’s crazy, she kidnaps children who misbehave.
But Marie has only ever had fond memories with the Old Woman. Every summer, they will venture to the apple tree together, and the Old Woman will make apple crumble and watch over Marie whilst her parents are away. Always away, always travelling, her parents flit in and out of Marie’s life like blurry vignettes captured across time. But the Old Woman is always there. She does not speak much but Marie prefers the silence anyway. It comforts her, a quiet sort of calm that settles over her bones.
Today, the sun is bright and high in the sky.
Marie can feel sweat dripping down her nose and back but the Old Woman is in her usual attire, a long wool dress and shawl wrapped around her shoulders. The combination of her clothes and wrinkled skin give the Old Woman a musty, papery scent like an abandoned library filled with yellowed, dust-covered untouched books.
They reach the clearing and fill their wicker baskets up to the brim. Later, Marie will feast on apple crumble fresh from the oven and curl up by the crackling fire in the Old Woman’s cottage. As she sleeps, she will not see the Old Woman swaying in her rocking chair, carefully watching over her.
They say that a specific part of the brain is responsible for regulating emotion; the amygdala. It creates associations and intertwines memory and emotion, evoking similar reactions and feelings upon exposure to an event or moment in the past you’ve already experienced. If you are caught in a house fire, chances are that the smell of smoke will evoke fear in you for years to come.
Marie has been alive for eleven summers now and the Old Woman has a surprise in store. With some of the apples she has stored from last summer, the Old Woman is making a crumble.
But today, she wants Marie’s help.
She gestures with hand motions and expresses only the barest of instructions, yet Marie’s heart swells. She knows that other children in the village do this all the time with their mothers and grandmothers. But Marie’s mother is never around and her grandmother lives all the way in the heart of Paris, still busy and lively despite her waning age.
Flour, butter, cinnamon and sugar. Slowly but surely, pastry dough and sweet apple filling are created. Slowly but surely, the little cottage is filled to the brim with the delicious aroma of freshly baked goods.
Marie wishes she could stay in this moment forever. Surrounded by familiarity and warmth, an overwhelming wave of affection washes over her. In some ways, the Old Woman is the closest thing to family that she has.
They say that when women give birth, the first few days of skin-to-skin contact with their baby is crucial for developing an emotional connection. A specific chemical, oxytocin, is released and ties an invisible string between the mother and baby, tethering them for life.
Marie’s parents are home. Their modest house is filled with life now, and yet it still feels cold. Her parents pass through rooms like ghosts, wordless and expressionless. They make sure Marie is fed and in bed by a respectable hour but there is no tucking in, no bedtime stories, no kisses on foreheads.
That winter, Marie only sees the Old Woman in glimpses. When they pass her in town, Marie’s parents hurry past, dragging Marie along. Her mother tightens her grip on Marie’s shoulder until it hurts. When she asks questions, her mother says nothing, only gives her a warning look which says, Stay away.
But Marie doesn’t know how she can listen to someone who is never around, the invisible string gone slack, trailing away in the air.
They say that the organisation of the visual columns which allow you to see is not hard-wired, it depends on experience during development. Animals raised in a “vertical-only” environment will not be able to perceive horizontal objects. Children who have been showered with attention and kindness after being neglected for so long will not be able to see through the wool covering their eyes.
In the spring, blossoms bloom. Bursts of pink and white petals weave their way through the foliage of the apple tree.
Marie goes alone to the tree, wicker basket in hand, planning to collect fallen blossoms to brighten her home and gift her mother. Next summer, the apples will return. She hurries there before sundown.
The tree is generous today. Basket full, she is preparing to leave when a rustling of leaves makes her turn. The Old Woman emerges from behind the hedges. A peculiar look is painted across her face, but still Marie is at ease. The familiarity and comfort the woman brings is not yet dulled.
Only when her eyes flick to the ominous glint of an object in the Old Woman’s hand does Marie begin to panic. Her heart beats unevenly, her brain short-circuiting and confused. There isn’t an old neural pathway that can trigger an appropriate emotion for her to feel.
The Old Woman advances.
The last thing Marie remembers is seeing a flash of red and the sky on fire. Sundown has lit up the clouds in brilliant shades of orange and pink and purple.
And then she falls.
They say that when a human being dies, their body deteriorates quickly. Deprived of oxygen and essential nutrients carried by the blood, organs rot and skin shrivels. An unpleasant odour will surround the scene as decomposition begins, bacteria consume the body and noxious gases are released. A life snuffed out, burning embers floating away.
There is a rotting smell in the clearing. Decaying flowers from the spring litter the ground. Their pungent fumes mask the scent of blood and another living being decaying in the background.
The Old Woman is filling up her wicker basket as usual. Only today, there is another little girl with her. She has pale strawberry blond hair, bright blue eyes and a smattering of freckles over her nose. She is lonely and the Old Woman is kind. She clings to the Old Woman with adoration in her eyes.
The apple tree holds secrets in its branches, if only you look close enough. If only you claw through the wool covering your eyes.