Consider the Apple
- And its many names
Akero: pale green strewn with white like light snow dusting leaves. Ambrosia. Annurca: the oldest, depicted in tiled frescoes beneath Herculaneum’s ashes. Arkansas Black hangs as coal in the trees. Ballyfatten, Belle de Boskoop, Bloody Ploughman. Carter’s Blue like the winter sky in cloud-heavy bloom. The spring-frog-skin green of a ripe Catshead. Chelmsford Wonder: the diffuse orange of chiffon scarves. Honeyed Elstar. In botany as on the stage, Falstaff proves a sturdy pollinator. What is it like to cultivate rich crops of Fortune? Goldspur, Greensleeves. Imagine orchards ruled by trees that bear Jupiter and King of the Pippins. The howl of wolves that is the sound Macoun. Two women who contain the oldest story of women: Maiden’s Blush and Mother. In cold mountains, the Northern Spy. A vault spilling Opals and Pink Pearls. Pound Sweet like a song of sex beneath low-hanging boughs or so quietly beside brandy bottles inside the wine cellar’s dark. Saturn in late fall, resolute and stern. Snow Apple. Winesap. And all of them a waterfall of blossoms in the spring.
- In the beginning
In the Garden of Eden, the snake curled around the tree tight as a new lover clasping his hands around your waist. Then it uncoiled and slid towards Eve like a whisper: Take, eat. Aren’t we glad that she did? Some sort of echo, a kind of omen. This fruit is the fruit of the body. If we were not cast out, how would we know Paradise had ever existed? The apple is only an excuse; it’s exile that brings knowledge. We are tempted and torn asunder and rent from what we love so that we understand we are separate: this is how we learn to recognize ourselves.
The Norsemen believed golden apples kept their gods young: Iounn was their appointed keeper. When trickster Loki lent her to a giant, the gods grew old and withered like rinds cast away. Freya, goddess of beauty, toothless; Thor, the god of strength, too weak to raise his mighty hammer. Loki donned a falcon skin to bring her back and Iounn was a nut he carried in his claws; the bereft giant pursued in the shape of an eagle. As the birds reached Asgard, the gods lit a bonfire and set the slow eagle aflame. Beside that kindling, Iounn gave the gods their youth again, the golden apples like little planets in each of their hands.
Druids called the apple sacred. The isle of apples—Avalon—was a summerland, a kind of heaven. Merlin, the king’s magician, cast his spells from inside the arched room of an apple grove guarded by birds. His gift blossomed inside him only after he ate an apple given to him by the Faerie Queen, but that kind of gift is a knife. To know the future is to grieve forever: you see the decay behind every kiss. Before the fall of Camelot and all those other betrayals (the King cuckolded; the bastard son plotting for his father’s throne), Merlin fell in love with his young apprentice Vivian. Her beauty was clouds, fog. She took his magic and locked him inside a tree deep in the forest, trapping her former mentor behind bark. Did he read auguries in pattern of wind-swept leaves or decipher prophecies the birds sing to foresee his own future? That kind of end anyone could see. Someone old and lonely; someone young who wants to learn everything.
Isaac Newton and the apple of gravity that never existed. William Tell and his crossbow and his son.
Johnny Appleseed wandering America scattering seeds that then grew into trees that were themselves fecund. Of course, this is sexual; seeding the earth.
Snow White and her stepmother’s malice: the apple that brought a glass-coffined sleep. This is everyone’s life: we wake up as the corpse-girl in the morning and go to bed terrified, seeing in the mirror the recognizable self slipping away.
- Today’s apples
Apple cold in my fridge as iced champagne. Gala: a chilled party.
Apple bitten into by a blond man walking past. So loud like crashing glass. Interrupting again the map my thoughts follow of someone I should not still miss.
- False Apples
Dogbane growing near the Dead Sea’s barren shoals is called Apple of Sodom. The tendrils leak a bitter milky sap and are adorned with green globes–beautiful, but hollow.
May Apple has other names: American Mandrake, Devil’s Apple, Wild Lemon or Duck’s Foot. A sweet fruit, but the leaves and roots contain poison.
You can find the Thorn-Apple by its rank odor: pungent, a reek redolent of rotting flesh. It grows wild at the margins of parking lots, rubbish heaps, anywhere ruined where things decay. If you cull the seeds and take them in sufficient quantity, they bring pupil dilation (the eyes’ doors flung open to bring in additional light), giddiness and delirium, but be careful: too many and death will be your harvest.
The Shining-Leaved Custard Apple’s wood is so soft it stoppers bottles like cork.
Some false apples are named for the animals that eat them: Elephant Apple, Monkey Apple, Kangaroo.
Apples as slang for barbiturates, downers. A bushel of apples means a handful of pills.
Malay Apple, Rose Apple, Star Apple of the West Indies.
Thin electronic Apple on which I type this as I sit at my desk.
- The apple in language
Apple for the teacher, apple of my eye, bad apple: these three phrases, shuffled into any order, contain all the love stories in the world.
- Ritual apples
A branch leads diviners to water; pliable wood that forks like rivers underground. Druidic poets and shamans carried a branch constellated with bells that chimed silver as snowfall to announce their presence to new towns as they wandered.
Two female skeletons were found in the Oseberg ship, a Viking burial mound in Norway. One wore a fine red dress and white veil; the other a blue dress with a blue veil. Surrounding them were buckets of apples.
An apple cut crosswise reveals a five-pointed star, the symbol of Freya, Norse goddess of love.
On Rosh Hashanah, you must eat apples dipped in honey for a sweet new year.
During Samhain, each women wrote her secret mark on a piece of fruit and then all apples were tumbled into a cauldron to float like round red galleons on a cold sea. Men bent down to bite. When a man pulled an apple held tight within his jaws from the tub, the woman whose apple he’d chosen became his bride. Another variant was to hang the apple from the ceiling on a string–Snap Apple: the men would leap and gnash their teeth. The first to bite down on the apple was the first to bed the woman who had inscribed her name on its skin.
Roman feasts began with an egg and finished with an apple: from alpha to omega, the beginning to the end. The egg is the tenderest new life; the apple the symbol of resurrection, the life eternal.
- Apples and the body
(a) As medicine
Rotten apples were used as a poultice by the Puritans to restore clear sight to sore eyes.
In Medieval Europe, an aphrodisiac salve was made of equal parts apple pulp, swine’s grease, and rosewater and then applied to the most sensitive skin.
An apple a day may keep the doctor away, but its seeds contain trace amounts of amygdalin, a compound of sugar and cyanide.
(b) Next to death, sex is the purest expression of the body
A Balzac story where a countess kept a bowl of apples by her bedside so that when she entertained a lover, she could eat one before kissing him awake. This seemed like the most seductive thing—like instructions for how to be an adult woman. Dappled apples piled in a blue bowl. The taste of apple in our mouths.
On the first day of winter, during Allantide in Cornwall, the unmarried place apples under their pillow to conjure dreams of their future spouse. In Poland, to obtain the same result you must sleep beneath an apple tree on New Year’s Eve. Imagine how cold you would be, blanketed under snow, dreaming of your future lover.
Peel an apple in one continuous ribbon. Throw the peel behind your left shoulder and you can read your future husband’s initials in the pattern it makes on the ground.
Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples; for I am sick with love (2:5). Song of Songs; the Song of Solomon
Danish folklore claims an apple will wither if placed in the same room as adulterers.
The snake that offered Eve the apple of temptation is so obvious in symbolism—the male body.
What it is to admit that you want things: to take the first bite.
Kate Angus is the author of So Late to the Party (Negative Capability Press, 2016), the Creative Writing Advisor for the Mayapple Center for Arts and Humanities at Sarah Lawrence College and a founding editor of Augury Books. Her poetry and nonfiction have appeared in The Atlantic online, The Washington Post, The Awl, Verse Daily, Best New Poets 2010, Best New Poets 2014, Gulf Coast, Subtropics, The Academy of American Poets’ “Poem a Day” and Tin House’s “Open Bar.” More information about Kate can be found at www.kateangus.org.
featured image via Korana Šegetalo Delić on Flickr.