Wilom woke up earlier than he’d ever willingly woken up in his life to get to the orchard.
Marc was already up, drinking coffee from a mug. “My job starts early, too,” he told Wilom. “Coffee?”
Wilom hadn’t liked coffee, exactly, but it had certainly done the job of waking him up and that seemed more important just now. “Yes, absolutely, please. If there’s time. I need to go very soon.”
Marc grinned. From the machine on the kitchen bench, all copper tubes and steam, Marc produced another cup of coffee.
“Thanks,” Wilom said, filling his cup with milk.
“No problem. I know what mornings are like.”
Artom greeted Wilom at the farm gate. “Morning. Glad to see you came after all. Sorry about the short notice.”
“Don’t be. Glad I came past the farm when I did.”
“Come this way. I’ll get you a crate and give you the basics.”
Wilom picked a crate off the pile next to the farmhouse. In the orchard itself, a couple of boys — probably the farmer’s sons — were filling a crate with apples.
Or, at least, they had been instructed to fill a crate. Just at the moment, though, they were throwing rotten apples at each other.
“Jak! Rim! I thought I gave you boys clear instructions.”
Two rotten apples thudded onto the grass. “Sorry, Dad.”
“I’ll get you a ladder, too,” Artom said. “Just a minute. Boys, I want you both putting apples in that crate when I get back.”
After Artom was gone, the older one elbowed the younger one. “Rim, you were supposed to be on lookout.”
“You were throwing apples at me!”
“So? You were throwing them back.” He started to climb the ladder while Rim waited at the bottom.
“So why weren’t you looking out, too?” Rim whined.
“Because I said it was your job. Don’t just stand there, pass me the crate, and start looking for apples.”
“That’s not fair!”
“You’ll get in trouble,” Jak warned, and Rim, still mumbling to himself, began to pick up good apples from around the bases of the trees.
Artom arrived back with a ladder. “Here you go, Wilom,” he said. “See how Jak’s got the crate resting on the top platform while he picks?”
“Don’t worry, I have worked on farms before.”
Artom chuckled. “Sorry. You did mention; I remember. You’d just be surprised how many city kids take jobs like this. Leave the completely rotten ones. If they’re mostly good, or good enough for cider, at least, keep them. My wife and I are in the shed, sorting them out. If you’ve got any questions, just come on in, or I’ll be out every so often to collect your crates. At the end of the day, you get five cents for every crate, and if you get more than fifteen done, I’ll throw in a ten-cent bonus.”
“Alright. Thank you.”
Wilom put his ladder near a tree and started picking apples. After a while, he went for another crate. It was calming work, though by noon, his arms and back were starting to ache from constantly reaching up for apples, and his awkward position on the ladder. He walked around instead of sitting down for lunch, trying to stretch out his clenched muscles. Halfway through the afternoon, Artom came out with some cold drinks, which, despite the cool day, were very welcome. Then Wilom filled boxes for the rest of the afternoon.
The walk to Marc’s house helped his aching muscles, though no matter what he did, his shoulders wouldn’t get comfortable. But he’d gotten paid, and that was the main thing. He counted it out and did some quick calculations. If he earned this much every day, he’d have some left over after paying for his share of groceries. He could – and probably should – buy a thank-you gift for Cathlin and Marc.
Upon arriving at the house, Jilli was waiting for him.
“Come out the back,” she said, grabbing his hand. “I’m drawing a story!”
“Are you alright with that?” Cathlin asked quickly, before Jilli could drag him away.
“I’ll be fine,” Wilom said. “We’ll stay out of your hair so you and Marc can get dinner done. Oh, here’s what I owe for groceries.”
“Don’t worry this week. You paid in cans.”
“Well, alright. Let me pay in advance for next week, then.”
“OK. Jilli, Wilom’s been working hard, so just mind yourself, alright?”
“We’re just drawing, mama.”
“OK, as long as you’re just drawing, though.”
Out the back, Jilli showed Wilom a notebook. She’d drawn a picture on every page of about half the book. He started at the beginning, flipping through them.
“Not those ones!” Jilli put her hand over the pages.
“Oh, sorry.” Wilom gave her the book so she could find the one she wanted.
“Here,” she said.
“Is this the girl the story’s about?”
“Yep. And that’s her dog. It can talk, because it used to be her brother, but he turned into a dog one day.”
“Oh, no! Why?”
“He ate a poisoned orange.”
“Does she want him back as a boy again?”
“No, he says he likes being a dog.”
“Well, that’s alright, then. Why don’t you tell me the story?”
He didn’t follow the plot at all, but Jilli was having fun, and that seemed to be the main thing. She wasn’t even close to finished when Marc called them in for dinner.
“How was it?” Marc asked, once they were all settled around the table.
“I’ve spent worse days,” Wilom said.
“And your arms?”
“They’ve also spent worse days. But they’re not admitting it.”
“Hah! Ready to do it again tomorrow?”
“Please stop talking. Cathlin, could you pass the water jug, please? Thanks.”
Wilom stabbed a couple of carrots and shoved them in his mouth. Then, he said, “Sorry, but there’s a question I’ve been wanting to ask. If you don’t want to talk about it, it’s fine.”
“Oh?” Cathlin put her spoon down.
“All I heard about near the coast was how they were recruiting for the army, but I didn’t see any officers, no lines to sign up, nothing. A couple of posters, and that was all, and everyone says it’s the towns from the North that are signing up…”
Cathlin shrugged. “They’re recruiting, not conscripting.”
“Word here says that so many people are signing up from the little towns that they don’t need to recruit from the Capital,” Marc offered.
“That’s a little encouraging,” Wilom said.
Marc rested an arm on the table. “Oh?”
“Well, it seems like everyone thinks someone else is signing up, right? So they must not need new people for the army. If they don’t need people, that must mean things are going well, yes?”
Marc made a movement somewhere between a twitch and a shrug. “I suppose.”
“Was that wrong?”
“Oh, no — it’s a reasonable guess.”
“Sorry, I shouldn’t have said anything.”
“It’s just,” Marc said, “if you don’t mind my saying, it’s the way you talk about the War. You seem awfully interested, but you don’t seem like you’ve got friends or family in it.”
“No, I don’t. I guess I just worry about it.”
“Well, I can’t say I blame you.”
“But nothing. You just don’t talk about it like other people.”
“In what way?”
“You sound like a foreign traveller asking for news.”
Wilom had to concede the point, but wasn’t entirely sure how to respond to it. “I see.”
“No, I asked. I come from a little town on the coast. All I’ve ever heard of it are rumours and fifth-hand stories. You were right – I don’t know anyone who signed up. I guess it just doesn’t feel that … close.”
Marc nodded. “I didn’t mean any offense.”
“No, of course not.”
“Well, you must admit, near the coast, the war doesn’t affect people quite so much,” Cathlin said.
“Still, you said yourself there were rumours about jobs for all in the army from Central,” Marc said.
“Yes, it’s an odd pairing, isn’t it?” Wilom asked. “On one hand, everyone’s talking about it. On the other hand …”
Cathlin nodded. “I know what you mean.”
“Mama, what happens if the war comes here?” Jilli asked.
“We’ll move back to the coast, honey,” Cathlin said.
“Oh. But then we won’t have the shop.”
“That’s alright, we can have a shop anywhere.”
“But what if they make us fight?”
“They won’t make us fight.”
“But what if they do?”
“You’re too young, and I’m too old.”
“Yeah, but what if … what if it turns out we have fairy blood? And we’re the only ones who can save the country from certain destruction?”
“Oh, that’s different. If that’s the case, then I suppose we’ll have to do it,” Cathlin said.
“I wish I had fairy blood,” Wilom said. “It would have made so many things so much easier.”
“Don’t I know it,” Marc said. “I’d never have to clean house again.”
“No! You have to use fairy blood for saving the world and things! That’s what it’s there for. If you use it for things like cleaning house, the fairies come and take it off you, because you’re not using it properly.”
“Is that so? Well, looks like I’ll be sweeping floors for the rest of my life.”
“Oh, quiet. You know full well I did them this morning,” Cathlin said.
“Yes, but I cleaned the bathroom, so it all evens out.”
“Everyone finished?” Wilom asked. “I’ll wash up.”
The next morning, Wilom took himself out for coffee again. It was just before the café opened properly, so he tipped them extra for their trouble. He’d brought a tin mug for them to use, so he could drink it as he walked.
The gate guards expressed jealousy about his coffee as he handed his papers over and was marked off.
He was glad he’d left the River. This was a very nice way to spend a life.