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Over the years we have enjoyed attending some of the great festivals and celebrations that make the Southwest such fun in our wonderful fall weather. One that we try to make every few years is the Apple Festival in New Mexico.

More than once, though, when we've gone to Hillsboro, we seemed to wind up on a different mountain road - a shortcut, my husband always says - that takes us miles out of our way and ultimately leads us to someplace we hadn't expected, tired, hungry, thirsty and sniping at each other.

This year I was prepared for another shortcut, however, with a full coffee thermos, lots of water and snacks, and a philosophical attitude. So, as we jounced over increasingly rough, narrow mountain roads, with our destination seeming to recede further and further in the distance, each time he said, "I think it's just around this next bend," I sighed to myself and opened another bag of chips or took another handful of peanuts.

"There!" he hollered, pointing through the distant haze. "See! It's an apple orchard! I told you I knew where we were all along," he said, smiling triumphantly and pulling off the road beside a small grove of twisted trees and stopping the car.

"Where is everybody?" I asked. "I don't see any cars or any people, and usually there are crowds everywhere."

"Well, we're probably just on the outskirts. I imagine everything is just ahead around the next bend. It's probably better that we just park here and walk, rather than face all that traffic on those narrow streets."

"Look how odd the trees are," I commented.

"Oh, you know how stunted these old mountain trees sometimes are, from age and frost and neglect over the years. Maybe this is what's left of an abandoned farm," he speculated, looking around. "I think the town is that way, so we can take a shortcut through here," he said, making a path through the tall dried grass at the edge of the road.

Well, it was an apple orchard, all right, but not like any I had seen in the past. Quite different, frankly; what had been tall grass was succeeded by a layer of moss covering the ground under some decidedly strange apple trees. The fruit was large and colorful, but different, somehow ....

At that point, something moved just beyond the periphery of our vision. "Aha! See, there's somebody!" he said, peering through the branches.

We caught a glimpse of color among the stunted trees....

... and a partial view of someone standing on the other side of an old tree laden with apples.

"Look at her hat, hon," I cried, whispering excitedly. "It looks like a ...."

"Shhh!" he said, frowning and gesturing. "She'll hear you!"

"Well, hello, my dears," we heard, and then we stumbled into the presence of a remarkable little old lady, grinning at us and extending her arms in welcome. "You are here to buy my apples, I see," she said, pointing to the fruit on the scrawny limbs above our heads.

"Well, those are some apples, all right " my husband said, gazing around.

I just couldn't help it; I was so overcome at her hat, that I almost forgot to look at the apples! But then when I did, I noticed that they seemed to grow every which way, rather than just from stems as one would expect.

"Oh, yes," she said, winking. "These are not like any apples you've seen before, I expect. Good for what ails you. An apple a day keeps the doctor away, or something like that," she said, cackling gleefully and raising her basket.

I peered into her strange little basket at the apples, nestled among lush leaves and odd vinelike curlicues. "Well, they certainly are colorful," I said.

"Oh, my dears, you don't know the half of it, or my name isn't Adalberta, the Apple Seller! Here; try one," she said, handing each of us an apple.

We introduced ourselves and took a bite. And I tell you what! Those were the best apples we had ever tasted! Very homely and familiar and applelike, and yet somehow exotic at the same time. Suddenly, the gloomy day seemed much brighter, and we even felt lighter on our feet, as if we could just float away. Of course, we bought a bag full. I have a vague recollection of a long conversation, but for some reason I can't remember a thing we talked about.

As we left the orchard, I turned to wave goodbye, but didn't see Adalberta any longer, although I did spot something that I hadn't been aware of previously.

"Did you notice it before?" I asked.

"Notice what," my husband murmured as he started the car, reaching for another apple.

"A broom! I could swear I saw a broom leaning against one of those apple trees."

"Good grief! You do have an overactive imagination," he said, backing up and turning the car around. "What would a broom be doing in an orchard? Next you're going to tell me she was a witch and flew in on it!"

Well, no, of course not. Who believes in witches nowadays? But still, I know what I saw ....

It wasn't until the next morning over our breakfast coffee that we realized we never did make it into Hillsboro. We remember eating the most delicious apples we ever tasted and laughing uproariously at our own witticisms, but for some odd reason neither one of us can recall where we went or what we did after we left that orchard....


NOTES: The genesis for this setting was a McFarlane action figure of Ozzy Osbourne's Bark at the Moon album. I loved its twisted trees.

I removed the figure and saved him for another use.

Then I added apples made from a berry sprig that I found among early Christmas decorations.

Lastly, I brushed on a thin wash of glue here and there and sprinkled fine model railroad foam to suggest the moss that grows on and around old trees in the mountains.

The base was ready; next came the Apple Seller....

Adalberta began life as a rather wild-eyed dollar store purchase. Made of a rubbery light stuff almost like hardened Jello, her arms could be stretched out quite long.

She was all in black, except that her bloomers and stockings were also painted the same flesh color as her face, and looked a bit odd, even for a witch. At first, I was going to give her striped stockings, but didn't like the effect, so wound up adding a coat of purple to match the purple I had given her sleeves.

Next I looked closely at her face; she had good detailing but her mouth and teeth were the same flesh color, too. I used a dark red for the interior of her mouth and then lightly touched her teeth with white.

I wanted her to look like a witch, but more friendly, and I also wanted her eyes to look less like fried eggs, so redid them a bit, too. I also wanted to add a bit more color, so decided to cut off her hat and give her a real scarf, instead of the one that was painted on.

Oh, dear, this is rather unnerving. She has a hole in her head!

And strange little balls were tumbling out, which made me cringe! I quickly pushed them back inside and stuffed a piece of batting in the opening.

Another recent purchase at the dollar store was these striped Halloween socks. I decided to use one to cut her a scarf.

Testing first with a piece of paper towel, I made a pattern and cut out a small triangle. I glued the scarf in place, taking a stitch in front with needle and thread to hold it together. After I glued her hat back on, I cut some tufts from a fur scarf and glued them sparsely around her face to suggest her hair. Then I painted the hat buckle silver and decided that was enough.

The last thing I added was her basket, a wonderful whimsical creation that was a swap gift. Unfortunately, I don't recall who made it, but hope to find out one of these days so that I can give her credit.

Adalberta the Apple Seller had come alive for me.



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