Old Werrig’s orchard produced the fattest, juiciest fruit around, they told Jack, the new boy, walking past on their way to school. Plums the size of your fist, apples so tart and golden they were used as currency in the market. Time was, three of Johan Werrig’s Fairy Queen apples bought you a roast dinner at the Hart’s Last Stand on Kerryman Street.
Not anymore, though, not for a long time. Not since Mr. Werrig left. Or died. Or maybe just decided he didn’t want to talk to people anymore. There was often talk of scaling the tall knapped flint wall which ran around the orchard and sampling the fabled fruit, but no one ever did it. It was a thing to be talked about, not actually done.
Jack and Lenny looked up at the wall, one cool Friday afternoon on their way home.
“It’s not that tall,” said Jack. “Why does no one ever go in?”
Lenny shrugged. Jack had only been in Little Walsingham for a few weeks but he’d fast grown accustomed to Lenny, a boy of few words.
“And they don’t even know what happened to the old man?” Jack asked. Lenny shook his head, then looked up at the sky. Clouds were mustering, gathering their thoughts before loosing their contents on the village. Jack sighed but let himself be pulled away. Knapped flint wasn’t impossible to climb, but wet knapped flint was, or close to it. Tomorrow was another day.
Tomorrow was brilliantly sunny and the wall was already dry by the time Jack arrived. He hadn’t told Lenny he was going to do this today. Figured Lenny might not approve and besides, it was easier to do something the second time than the first. By the time he went and got an audience, he’d know the little tricks this wall held, the sticky out stones he’d find on his way up, and no doubt scrape half his legs on coming down.
The wall was taller than it looked, it seemed, and it took a good dozen sweating, scraping attempts before Jack finally straddled the mortared top and surveyed the land beyond. Getting down the other side seemed like a grand idea until he finally dropped onto the grass and realised he was going to have to climb the wall all over again to get out.
“There has to be a gate somewhere,” he murmured and turned away from the threat of more hard work. In truth, the orchard was far more interesting than the wall which surrounded it, not least because it was so unexpected.
The trees were bowed low under the weight of the fruit they held, a fact all the more astonishing as it was only April. Apples half the size of his head, plums as big as his fist, just like he’d been told. He plucked one, bit into it. The juice squirted all down his chin and the flavour had him reaching for another, then another. Cool and tart and rich, the flesh slid down his throat like the promise of summer. Munching on an apple, he went exploring.
It was amazing. There was no other word he could think of, although he kind of wanted to find one because ‘amazing’ just didn’t seem, well, amazing enough. There were grapefruit and pineapples and bananas here, and grapes on vines strung back and forth, masses and masses of every kind of fruit he’d ever heard of and plenty he hadn’t. It was rather strange that there was only one cherry tree, though.
It stood in the centre of the orchard, tall and wide and covered with huge, crimson cherries. Something made him leave it alone on his first turn of the grounds. It seemed almost regal, standing there alone, right in the middle of everything. And hadn’t they learnt in Classical Civilisations that crimson, or a kind of reddy purple, as Jack thought of it, was historically the colour of royalty? Maybe this was the King tree and it ruled over all the others and that was why there was only one of it.
He snorted and wandered towards the house. It seemed dead and empty. No one stirred inside. There wasn’t even a Sky dish on it, or a car in the drive. Maybe the guy really had died.
He turned back to the orchard and found himself at the King tree almost by accident. He noticed a bare stem, as though someone else had just plucked one of the fruits.
“Well, it would be rude not to, really,” he said, grinning. Reaching out, he picked a fat, juicy cherry.
It was dark when Jack’s mum knocked on the door of Lenny’s house. His mother answered. No, she hadn’t seen Jack today. She called Lenny who shook his head when asked. It was only when the police came the following morning that he remembered them talking about the orchard.
It was empty, though, when they went to look. The house was too. And all the trees bare, no fruit, no blossom, not even any leaves, like they had been ever since Johan Werrig’s disappearance eighty years previous. No sign of a missing boy, no indication he’d ever been there.
“It’s a silly local legend,” DS Donnelly told his younger colleague as they came away from the property. “The place was fabled for its fruit, people said there must have been fairies or witches involved or something. More like the guy just knew what he was doing. Apparently they all just died soon after he lef. It’s like they gave up or something.”
In the orchard, a faint breeze blew, carrying with it the sound of laughter and tiny silver bells and, just on the very edge of the air, desperate, terrified screams.