The Apple Tree
Daniel's mother placed a plate of apple slices in front of him at their wooden table. Her chin resting on her folded hands, she sat across from her boy and watched him as he ate. He grinned at her between slices, and handed the plate back when he was finished. Rising from the table, she took the plate to the sink and washed it off with soap and steaming water, along with the remaining dishes from the day. When she was finished, her red hands dripping onto the floor, she stood watching through the window above the sink as Daniel played in the grass outside.
The next day, as she was slicing Daniel’s daily apple with her sharp paring knife, he asked her why she cuts his apple for him.
"It's for your own safety darling, wouldn't want to swallow a seed now would we?" She winked at him.
But he scrunched his nose and thought about it and asked, "What would happen?"
She crouched down next to him and looked him right in the eyes. With a grim and theatrical voice, she told him that the seed would sprout in his belly, take root, and grow into a great apple tree. His eyes got wide and he grabbed his belly as if he could feel the beginnings of a sprout. His mother chuckled as she placed the plate in front of him. He eyed them suspiciously, turning over each slice to inspect for seeds. He could see some indentations where the seeds used to be, but no seeds escaped his mother's eye. Satisfied, he began to eat.
A few months later, as Daniel ran into the kitchen, dirty and breathless from playing with neighborhood children outside, he looked to his mother for his favorite snack. She opened the drawer to grab her paring knife and Daniel interrupted, "Mother, Luke eats his apples whole. His mother doesn't cut them for him."
Their eyes met and Daniel held a look of defiance, which softened to a plea. She slowly let out her breath and placed the whole apple in his hands. It looked too large for his little fingers, his little palms, but she forced a smile and told him, "I suppose you are old enough now to eat an apple without your mommy cutting it for you. But be careful and take small bites." She winked and added, " And remember about the seeds."
He felt his stomach knot as he recalled her story, but he sat down, gathered the courage, and punctured his teeth through the shiny red skin. He pulled away his tiny bite and inspected the bright flesh beneath. He chewed, swallowed, and smiled at his mother. She nodded encouragingly. He continued to eat, getting carried away by how delicious the apple was. Next thing he knew, he was left with a core as he took his last bite and his teeth scraped against something hard. He pulled the apple away from his mouth to see a seed exposed. His heart skipped a beat.
Daniel ate his apples with increasing confidence. His mother watched him out of the corner of her eye as she puttered around the kitchen, wiping down counters and placing silverware in drawers. Her heart both swelled and ached at how quickly he was growing up. One day, as he was eating his apple, she glanced over to see his little throat contract, see him freeze, the color draining from his face. He had taken a particularly large bite, down to the very core of the apple. He slowly turned his head and looked fearfully at his mother. Tears welled up in his eyes and he ran to her, clutching her waist and sobbing.
"I swallowed a seed Mother," he squeaked, his eyes wide with fear. She patted his head and smoothed his hair and wiped his tears from his eyes. She smiled at him warmly and shook her head.
"It was just a story, darling. Nothing is going to happen. Your stomach knows what to do with seeds." Her words and her embrace calmed his fears, and he soon forgot all about it.
One morning soon after, Daniel came sleepily into the kitchen as his mother was making him breakfast. Bacon sizzled in the frying pan and bread was heating in the toaster. She was humming quietly to herself, moving efficiently from stove to sink, unaware that she wasn’t alone.
"Mother," Daniel said suddenly. Her spatula clattered against the kitchen floor, scattering scrambled egg.
"Goodness, darling, I didn't hear you come in," she said. She turned to look at him and frowned.
"My stomach feels funny," he whined. She knelt down and pressed her palm to his forehead.
"Well you don't have a temperature. Try to eat breakfast and see if you feel any better." She served his bacon and eggs and toast, and made him a mug of hot tea. He nibbled at the food, but could not eat more than a few bites. But he downed his tea greedily, and asked for water. She laid a tall glass in front of him and he gulped it down, wiping his mouth with his arm. "I feel a little better," he told her, "but my stomach feels heavy."
Through a chuckle his mother said, "Well of course it does, you just drank like a fish!"
But the heavy feeling in his stomach did not go away for the rest of the day, or the rest of the week, and it left him tired and sour. Day after day he continued to play outside with neighborhood children, but he kept one hand on his stomach. His appetite was minimal and he was constantly thirsty. His mother could not keep up with his demands for water. Finally, one morning, as she was making him a breakfast he would not eat, he walked into the kitchen, heavy with sleep, and asked his mother to look. He lifted his shirt and revealed a visible bulge in the skin of his belly. A tear fell down his cheek and he questioned his mother.
"Are you sure the seed has not sprouted in my belly, like you said?" Her hand reached slowly out and she ran her fingertips along his stomach. She pulled it back quickly at the hard, knotty feel of the bump. She could not take her eyes off it as she told him in a weak voice, "It was just a story. . . " She suddenly rose and grabbed the phone, dialing the doctor.
Daniel sat on the examination table with his legs dangling over the side. He swung them slowly, gazing around the room at the instrumentation and diagrams of tongues and tonsils hanging on the wall. His mother sat in the chair by the door, clutching her purse and biting her nails. There was a quiet knock at the door as it swung open and Dr. Moss entered the room confidently. "Well, well, let's see what's going on with you, Daniel. Why don't you show me this bump you're concerned about."
When Daniel lifted his shirt, his mother's mouth opened. The bump was larger, even since that morning. The doctor frowned and touched it, gently at first, and then began prodding it from different angles saying "hmm" the whole time. Daniel whimpered at some of the more vicious prods.
"Well, I'm concerned enough that we should take some x-rays. It seems to be sensitive to the touch and is quite hard. I don't want to jump to any conclusions just yet."
After the x-rays were performed, Daniel and his mother were led back to the exam room while the images were developed and analyzed. They waited and waited, Daniel fidgeting and complaining of thirst. His mother bit her bleeding nails and fetched Daniel water, asking all the nurses why it was taking so long. After nearly two hours, the doctor came back into the room carrying the X-ray images in a manila folder. He was pale and sweating. He wiped his forehead with the back of his hand before opening his mouth to speak.
At first the words caught in his throat and he just croaked. "I'm sorry I kept you waiting so long," he started, quietly, and then using the momentum of those first words, launched into the rest. His eyes were wide and jumpy as he spoke, avoiding eye contact with Daniel's mother. "I have never seen anything like this, and had to call several of my colleagues, as well as several research universities." His hand was shaking so hard that the x-rays were making little wobbling noises. "I don't know how else to say this, but there is some sort of sprout in your boy's belly. We've compared it to experimental x-rays done on different objects and it looks like a baby tree."
At the word tree, he locked eye's with Daniel's mother and held her gaze. She looked over at her son, who was staring at the doctor, his mouth open wide, his eyes wet. Daniel lifted his shirt slowly and gazed at the ever-growing bump under his skin. As he gently touched it, the doctor went paler still, and passed out cold.
Daniel bounced around from clinic to hospital to laboratory. He was submitted to a battery of tests, he was poked and prodded, his veins were tapped for blood. A short exploratory surgery was performed but was abandoned shortly after a small incision. As Dr. Moss explained to Daniel's mother, wringing his hands all the while, the roots of the sprouting tree had entwined themselves with several of Daniel's major arteries. The tree was growing rapidly, supplied by nutrients absorbed by the also-quickly-growing boy. He worried that if the tree died, Daniel would as well.
"So we need to nurture both the boy and the tree," He said, feigning expertise. "And we don't think there is anything else we can do at this point." His eyes were glued to the floor. "We just…we just don't know."
On the day they left the hospital for good, Daniel's mother grew frantic, hysterical. Her shrill voice bounced up and down every hall, pierced every corner, filled everyone with dread, patient and doctor alike. She shrieked at any nurse or doctor that crossed her path, "Why won't you do something for him! What are we supposed to do now? He's just a boy!" But everyone shied away in her wake. They blushed, they stammered, they buried their face in other patients' charts. None would help, none wanted responsibility for this child and his sapling.
A few mornings later, after Daniel finished his morning's pitcher of water, there was suddenly a creaking, a deep groaning, resonating from Daniel's abdomen. He coughed and arched his head forward, slowly opening his mouth as a thin branch with bright green leaves unraveled from his throat, stretching out to capture the morning rays of sun beaming through the windows. A trickle of crimson blood dripped from his mouth. His mother dropped the teapot she was carrying toward the table and let out a scream as it shattered on the floor. Daniel made a muffled noise from his throat that his mother could not understand.
Each following day saw new small branches popping out of his nose and mouth. Small protrusions spotted his skin, which began to take on the texture of bark, and his thirst continued to grow. His mother would stand on a step-stool and pour water past the thickening branch protruding from his throat, but he preferred that she fill up a shallow bucket that he could stand in with his bare feet. He would stay motionless in his tiny pool, finally relaxed, the water sloshing slightly at his subtle motions.
When branches began to sprout from his ears, Daniel lifted his feet out of the bucket and shuffled slowly to the door, leaving wet footprints on the kitchen floor. He continued into the backyard and walked around slowly for hours, feeling the soil with his toes for softness. When he was satisfied, he slowly scraped his feet into the ground, and then stood there for the rest of the afternoon. His mother watched from the window by the kitchen sink. She nervously washed the same dishes over and over, not sure what to do. Daniel stood perfectly still. His head was thrown back as if he were looking at an airplane overhead. The branch from his mouth stuck straight up into the air.
When it began to get dark, his mother leaned her head out the door and called him inside. He did not respond. She opened the creaky door further and in the fading light she saw his eyes dart to her and then back to the sky. "Daniel, darling, come on in, it's getting chilly out here." But he just groaned something unintelligible. She quickly put some shoes on and stepped outside into the dusk, anxiety growing in her belly. "If I have to, I'll carry you inside," she whispered to him as she approached.
She bent over and tried to put him on her shoulder, but he wouldn't budge. It was as if he were glued to the ground. Horrified, she knelt down to look at his feet. They were buried into the grass about an inch deep. She stumbled backwards and ran into the garage. She knocked tools about and finally came up with what she was looking for.
She ran back to Daniel, dropping to her knees and digging gently but frantically around his left foot with a small spade. When she got down a few inches, she sat back onto the grass and choked out a sob. Roots had broken through the skin at the bottom of his feet. Daniel made another muffled sound and his mother stood up quickly, putting her ear next to his mouth to hear. The only thing she was sure she heard was the word water, so she went into the kitchen and filled up the bucket he liked to stand in and came and poured the water at his feet. The corners of his mouth curled back in a smile and he sighed quietly.
From that point on, his mother could do nothing but keep him company and supply him with water. When it rained, his mother would sit outside next to him under an umbrella, watching him relish the saturated dirt that caressed what remained of his feet. Within weeks his roots had grown deep and he was more tree than boy. His skin turned entirely to bark and more branches sprouted, ripping through his back and stomach, amber blood seeping from the tears and hardening as sap. He had grown taller, and most of his face was obscured by green leaves. He spoke almost not at all, ceasing even to make grunts or mumbles, opting instead to speak the language of trees. His mother was at his side whenever she could be, outside of her job and her housework. She set a blanket down under the stars and read to him by candlelight before she went to bed. On mild nights she set up a small tent and slept under his branches.
The years passed this way and when he was ready, Daniel began to produce apples. His mother would climb up a small ladder and delicately pluck the ripe apples off of his branches. She would carry the bucket in and hum to herself while she made apple pie, apple cobbler, applesauce, apple cider. She often made so much that she would share with the neighbors, proudly telling them, "These are my son Daniel's apples."
There is little of the boy left. Where his face was is now a mound of knots and stumps that vaguely resemble facial features. Even so, he still has one eye that blinks and rolls, the last remnant of a boy turned tree. This is the eye that lets his mother know where his face is, so that every night, she can climb up, and kiss him goodnight.