The festive sparkles that dotted the low stooping branches had to be the most succulent fruit in the forest, but the elders forbid anyone from eating even a bite. I thought it was because the apples would make a person sick, but they looked harmless as their skin winked 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 and 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 to see 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?
“I did,” said the stranger stepping away from the tree. He strode toward me in slow, carless steps and chuckled when he saw my puzzled expression. “Did you think a tree with such fine apples just made itself?”
I shrugged. “No one makes the other trees.”
“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.
“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?”
“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. I seemed wrong to refuse his generosity.
The man’s shoulders drooped and he shook his head. “Again?” he muttered to himself.
“What’s happened again?” I asked.
“The work, the rumors, the waste.”
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 ignorant fools always find a way to ruin it.”
“This has happened before?” I asked.
“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.
“It’s happened again and again. My golden apples go un-tasted because someone spreads the rumor that they are poisonous or some foolish thing like that.”
“How do they know if they’re poisonous?” 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 wondered.” His strange golden eyes looked at me expectantly. “Why doesn’t anyone try them?”
“I guess they’re afraid,” I said.
“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 a 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. 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. “The world could be yours. Only a single bite and you will see beyond this forest and into lands you’ve never visited.”
The apple sat glimmering in the palm of his hand, offering the chance to see beyond this forest. 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.
It was a trick. 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. I moved to throw it again, 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. 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 were 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.
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.
The man was right. For a moment, the world was mine. And the elders were right. The apples were poisonous.