They glimmered in the sunlight like stars from heaven. I was probably the only boy in the forest to see them. Only the elders knew where the tree grew, but I was lucky enough to have accidently stumbled on it. The tree itself wasn’t remarkable. It was the festive sparkles that dotted its low stooping branches that held my attention: Golden apples.
It had to be the most succulent fruit in the forest, but no one was allowed to eat them. The elders told everyone they were forbidden. I didn’t know why, but the elders had lived in the forest a long time, and no one questioned them. I thought it was because the apples would make a person sick, but they looked harmless as their skin winked brightly in the sunlight. I told myself that I should leave. There was no reason to stand there gaping at fruit I couldn’t eat, but they were so beautiful. Looking at them wasn’t forbidden.
“I see you are admiring my fruit.” I jumped at the voice, thinking one of the elders caught me so close to the apples. I whirled around. There was a man leaning lazily against a tree behind me. His dark hair was slicked back and smoothly fell to the nape of his neck. I’d never seen eyes like his before; they were as golden as the apples.
“Did you say ‘your tree?’” I asked. How could he own a tree? We forest dwellers didn’t own the trees. We gathered our food from them and lived among them, but none of the trees belonged to any one person.
“I did,” said the stranger stepping away from the tree. He strode toward me in slow, carless steps. He chuckled when he saw my puzzled expression. “Did you think a tree with such fine apples just made itself?”
“No…I mean yes.” I shook my head. “I mean, all the trees are like that—they just are. No one makes them.”
“Ah, but those are the ordinary kind of trees: the kind that produces only blue or orange or yellow fruit.” His stood beside me and swung an arm over my shoulder. “But a tree that produces golden fruit—only I know the secret to making those.” He tapped his temple.
That made sense. A special tree would be grown differently than ordinary ones.
“What does gold taste like?” I asked him.
“Why don’t you find out?” He spread the arm that wasn’t around my shoulder out in front of him, palm up, gesturing to the tree.
“I didn’t mean I wanted to,” I quickly stammered, slipping out from under his arm. “I couldn’t…”
The golden eyed man chuckled, “Don’t worry about me. I don’t mind if you take an apple from my tree.”
“Maybe you don’t but…” I started to explain, but the man continued as if he didn’t hear me.
“I planted it here so that its fruit may be generously shared with all those who live in the forest.” The man flung his hand out to the rows of trees as if a crowd were there.
“That’s very thoughtful of you, but I wasn’t asking to eat the fruit myself,” I explained. “I just wanted to know what it tastes like, that’s all.” The man’s eyebrow arched over his golden eye.
“Why not tasted it for yourself then if you’re so curious? I really don’t mind. They are free for the taking.”
“They might be free for the taking, but I’m not free to take them,” I said, trying to keep the disappointment out of my voice.
The man frowned. “What do you mean?”
“The elders—they told me not to.” I shrugged, feeling a little foolish that I didn’t have a better reason. It hardly seemed fair to tell him I wouldn’t eat his golden fruit just because some said I shouldn’t. How did they know it wasn’t safe?
“They told you specifically?” The man rubbed his chin. “Do you have some allergic reaction to apples?”
“No I don’t. And no not just me. Everyone. They told everyone in the forest not to go near them.”
The man’s shoulders drooped and he shook his head. “Again?” he muttered to himself, “It’s happened again.”
“What’s happened again?” I asked. He sighed and said, “This. All this.” He waved his hand through the air as if batting away a fly. I was confused.
“The work, the rumors, the waste,” he said, “This happens every time.” He let out a frustrated sigh and sat down under the tree with the golden fruit. “I only want to spread my gift for others to enjoy, but some old fools have to ruin it.” He looked up at me. “No offence to your elders, boy,” he said waving his hand. “They are only trying to keep those under them safe, I suppose. They go about it in an ignorant way,” he grumbled, “but that’s what they are trying to do.”
“This has happened before?” I asked choosing to ignore that he thought the elders were ignorant.
“In every forest I go to.”
“You’ve been to more than one forest?” I said, shocked. The elders said the other forests were dangerous.
“Of course,” he said as if my question were silly. “One with a gift such as I have shouldn’t stay in one place, hording all the golden apples to myself. I travel so that all may taste of my wonder.” He frowned. “But no one can taste if no one believes it is safe.
“Is it safe?”
The man looked appalled. “You think I would go from forest to forest growing trees that were not safe?”
“Well, no I guess not,” I back peddled. “I’m sure they’re safe. It’s just that…” I let my voice trail off, not wanting to offend him again by telling him that the elders thought they were dangerous.
“It’s just that these elders told you they weren’t safe,” he finished for me. I nodded reluctantly. “It isn’t surprising,” he told me sadly, “It’s happened again and again. My golden apples go untasted because someone spreads the rumor that they are poisonous or some foolish thing like that.”
“Don’t they know?” I asked, “Doesn’t anyone ever try them?” The man leaned his head back and laughed.
“Clever boy. That is precisely what I’ve always asked.” He looked at me with his strange golden eyes. “Why doesn’t anyone try them?” He looked at me for a moment, expectantly.
“I guess they’re afraid,” I said.
“Right. But what is there to be afraid of? This?” He reached up and pulled a shimmering apple from a low branch beside him. He tossed it in his hands, watching it go from one hand to the another. “Are they afraid of this shiny piece of fruit?” he asked, his eyes still focused on the moving apple. “Or, I wonder if they are afraid of what it might do to them.” The apple stopped. “Because it will you know. Do something to them.” His glimmering eyes left the apple and found mine. I swallowed. Was he saying they were poisonous?
His eyes left mine and the apple began to move between his hands again. I waited for him to explain, but he silently watched the glittering fruit as it bounced from one hand to the other.
“What would it do?” I blurted.
“This,” he held the shining apple between his thumb and finger, “holds a special power that no other fruit in this forest can give.” I looked at the glittering fruit. It was pretty and looked like it tasted good, but I was sure it didn’t have any power. It was just fruit. Wasn’t it?
“Why do you think the elders have forbidden it? Why is it, that every tree I grow in every forest is forbidden?” His golden eyes held mine, and I waited for the answer. “Because they don’t want to share the power! They want to keep it for themselves.” Was it true? The elders never did say what would happen if someone ate the golden fruit. Maybe it was because they didn’t want anyone to know what it did.
The man leaned his back against the tree and stretched his legs out in front of him, crossing them at his ankles. “One bite out of one of my golden apples can show you things that no one else can see.” He tossed the fruit in the air and caught it.
“Like what?” I knelt down beside him.
“The world, boy.” He spread his hand before him and slid it through the air. “The world…” He stared ahead for a moment as if looking at something I couldn’t see. Then in a sudden movement that made me jump, he turned his head to me and held the apple out to me. “The world could be yours. Only a single bite and you will see beyond this forest and into lands you’ve never visited.”
I stared at him, wide eyed. “I’ll see the other forests? I’ll see the places you’ve been to?” If the elders lied about the apples being dangerous, then maybe they lied about the other forests being dangerous too.
“You will see the other forest and beyond.” The apple sat glimmering in the palm of his hand. I reached out and picked it up. It was warm and smooth. I could see my reflection on its golden skin.
“Eat it, boy. Take a bite and see the world.” His golden eyes gleamed.
My teeth sank into gold.
It was sweet. And tart. It tasted like an ordinary apple, only its flavors were a little stronger. It was a little disappointing. I thought a golden apple would taste more exotic. I wondered if I would see the world now. I looked out at the forest, but it looked the same.
“Where are the other forests?” He didn’t answer me. Instead, he laughed. It started as a low chuckle, then grew louder.
I was tricked. The apples didn’t do anything. I looked down at the apple in my hand, ready to toss it. I stopped.
Inside the apple wasn’t gold, but black. It was so dark, I couldn’t even see the seeds. I wanted to throw it to the ground, but my hand seemed stuck. I couldn’t move it. The man was still laughing, as the blackness inside the apple began to change. Colors swirled into the dark of the apple until an image immerged. Slowly, image after image began to appear of other people from other forests. It wasn’t what I expected. They weren’t filled with smiling people and bright green grass and leaves peppered with a rainbow of fruit like my forest.
Branches stood bare against a bleak, pale sky that was neither dark nor light. The bark was moldy and black in patches. The few bits of fruit that hung on the sickly looking branches was shriveled and dry.
What was worse than the barren forests, were the people in them. As much as I wanted to turn away, I couldn’t. The apple had me under its spell. I saw people being beat, women screaming, men killing. There were people starving, children crying, and men maiming each other. I saw death and blood. I saw horror.
Finally the images stopped. The apple fell from my hand and rolled away in a mix of gold and black. I buried my eyes in the palms of my hands. I wanted to rub away the images, but they stayed in my head. I had a feeling that they would never be forgotten.
I opened my eyes and looked at the man. He was standing now, with a shoulder leaning against his tree of black apples.
“You tricked me!” I shouted. His mouth curved in a slow grin.
“It showed you just what I said it would didn’t it?” He cocked his head, still grinning. “Now you know what the elders know.”
Many times when we are young, we think that we want to know something or do something that will make us more “adult-like.” Once we get it, we wish we could go back to our cocoon of blissful ignorance.
Have you ever wished for something when you were a kid, then regretted getting/knowing it?
Comment and let me know!