Warily, the man stretched forth his arm to pluck a golden apple. The tree’s branches sagged with the weight of its bounty, surely no one would miss just one. The apples glowed brightly from within, illuminating the tree against the black of the night sky.
He snapped the apple from the branch. The glow flickered and faded, then was extinguished as the apple withered and rotted. He plucked another apple and earned another handful of rot.
“Would you like an apple?” Only then did the man notice the woman sitting with her back against the tree. “Here, take three. I give them freely, with no expectation of return.” The apples continued to glow as she handed them to him. The tree, however, faded into the night and the woman along with it.
The man held his future in his hands. “With one I shall win love. With one I shall win riches. And the last I shall save against the day when love and riches are no longer mine.”
He hurried to the house of the woman he had loved only from afar. Until today he had never dared approach her. Until today he had nothing with which to win her.
His heart raced as she opened the door. He introduced himself. She smiled and said, “Yes, I know you. I see you every day as you return from the market. I’m glad you’ve finally stopped to speak with me.”
Her kindness was unexpected and unsettling. He struggled to deliver the speech he had rehearsed. “I’ve longed to speak with you before, but have feared that words would betray me. Instead of words, I bring you a marvel that is your equal.” He cradled a golden apple in his palm. “This wonder is worthy of you: most rare, most beautiful, most precious.”
She took the apple, which immediately withered in her hand. Staring at the rotted core, she quietly said, “Is this how you see me? Please leave.”
The next day the man nervously entered the Market of Wonders, a section of the marketplace reserved for the sale of the rare and mysterious. He spied The Merchant from afar and waited anxiously. The Merchant was unmistakable. Though no one knew his name, everyone knew of his adventures seeking, finding, and selling rarities.
The apple nearly slipped from the man’s hand as he stepped before The Merchant. “Sir, my humble apologies, but I am sure you will find what I have to offer worthy of your attention.” He presented the apple to The Merchant.
The Merchant eyed the glowing orb. “Remarkable!” he exclaimed. “This is indeed worthy of my attention. May I examine it more closely?”
“Certainly,” said the man and handed the apple to The Merchant. But in The Merchant’s hand the apple faded and withered.
“Guards! A swindler and a fraud!” cried The Merchant. The man fled the marketplace, knowing he could never return.
The man journeyed home, cursing the golden apples. He was in no mood for the beggar that sat near his door. Dirty and ragged, she stretched out her hand. “I need food,” she whispered. The man stared at the final apple. He recalled the words of the woman who had given him the apples.
“I give this apple freely, with no expectation of return,” he said as he gently wrapped the woman’s hand around the apple. In the woman’s hand the apple glowed more and more brightly. The man squinted to see the woman lift the apple to her mouth. She devoured it and its light devoured her. Then the light disappeared, and the woman along with it. A small glowing seed remained. It sank into the soil.
A tree grew. Marvelous golden apples grew from the tree. The man sat with his back against the tree and waited.
~Alan Bruggeman, Seattle, Washington