Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 806
Here the poet introduces the ghost, a girl, caught in a pattern of waiting, standing by the road “each night” in the same white dress. Using figurative language to describe the dress as “embroidered with fire,” the poet suggests this is probably the same outfit the girl died in years ago.
These lines establish how long ago the fatal fire occurred, destroying the house in the orchard along with the girl, though there is no mention of her family. These lines also inform us that even after this long, the place is still abandoned; no one ever visits.
Here the poet describes the effects of the fire’s heat on the surrounding orchard. The branches were burned, though the trees didn’t die. Notice the similarity between the tree and the girl thus far in the poem: both show evidence of the fire, yet both still “survive,” the trees still standing in the orchard, the ghost still haunting the road.
Note how the tone of the speaker’s voice shifts here from third person description to second person direct address. But who is the “you” being spoken to? Since there’s only one person—the girl—introduced in the poem, we might conclude that we, the readers, are being directly spoken to, are being given instructions. This personal and immediate connection with the reader might help create a spookier feeling, as if we let the ghost right into our own car. Once she’s in the car with us, the ghost won’t tell us where to drive, and the poet suggests we “shouldn’t ask,” perhaps for fear of what the answer might be.
In these lines, the poet continues offering instructions in the event we meet this ghost. Using a disturbing and vivid image, Erdrich suggests the girl’s hair was burned in the fire, now resembling a “black nest.” Note how this comparison reminds us again of the trees in the orchard, where a real bird’s nest might be found. In line 14, the image implies the girl ghost is still crying after all these years, her tears like “agates,” which are colorful layered stones found abundantly in Minnesota, where the poet grew up.
Here the poet returns us again to the orchard after the fire. In these lines, she personifies the orchard, giving it human qualities, suggesting the trees were unhappy because no one showed up anymore to pick the fruit from their branches. Then, as if because of the lack of attention, the burned branches “cracked apart and fell.” Note, again, the similarities of emotion between the girl and the orchard, both lonely and waiting for someone to come back.
“Windfalls” are unpicked apples which fall to the ground near the end of the season, sometimes even at the slightest wind. At the literal level, these apples then begin to break down and ferment, much in the same way fermented grapes are used to make wine. The verb “sweetened” here might suggest something becoming better. Note here how the burned branches are now called “ruined arms,” once again blending the line between the natural and human realms. On a figurative level, the images in this stanza—forgotten apples becoming wine, the snow giving way to spring, new buds growing from “tattered wood”—perhaps all point to a sense of renewal, a larger cycle of nature, life emerging from what has passed away.
In this last four-line stanza, after such a close description of the orchard, the speaker suddenly reminds us of the girl ghost again, asking us questions perhaps she has been unable to answer for herself. With the repetition of the phrase “the child, the child,” the tone becomes suddenly insistent, echoing the persistence of the girl, who “in her need” waits every night for a car to jump into. It’s in these questions that the emotion of the poem, the extreme sense of loneliness, seems to focus itself most explicitly, the poet wondering if it is “so terrible” for the ghost to still be alone season after season, even when the flowers bloom. In this final image, Erdrich describes the “cold white blossoms” of the apple trees in the spring, as they “come to life and burn,” perhaps suggesting the bright flowers resemble tiny fires. Note, too, how this image ties together one of the poem’s central themes: fire and rebirth, “life and burn.” These last lines are phrased as questions, suggesting that the poet wonders if perhaps the ghost finds comfort in the new blossoms every season and the larger cycle of death and rebirth they represent. By ending the poem with these unanswered questions, the poet forces us to leave the poem without a set conclusion, instead asking each of us to think of our own answer.