Trees are wondrous things, from their strong trunks to their delicate leaves. They feed from the sun and feel its warm rays far longer than we humans do, pausing under their broad branches, perhaps to shelter from the rain; perhaps to listen to the rustling of the leaves, another language, just as expressive as our own. Sometimes we try to capture what the tree means to us in words; such things as from little acorns, great oaks grow, perhaps your dad has told you that; or let your roots grow deep so your leaves can dance in the sun is a favourite of your mum’s. Enchanting words, plucked from those enchanting trees.
But this story is about a different sort of tree; one whose fruit you should not pick and certainly not eat, however tempting it looks. This tree grows within the pages of fairy tale; it grew from a seed which should never have been sown, let alone been permitted to prosper: the seed of envy.
This story begins long ago and far away and this is how it starts: there was a beautiful girl, an envious queen and a rosy apple, poisoned to the core. And who had poisoned it? Well the jealous old queen of course. Tricking the girl with the luscious looking fruit, one bite was all it took for death to deal its blow. The lovely maiden was sealed in a glass casket where all could wonder at her eternal beauty; for although days and weeks then months and years passed, the young woman remained seemingly asleep while others stooped, greyed and passed away.
The queen thought she had had her cake, and eaten it too; still, she couldn’t stop herself from walking past the glass casket. Weekly, then daily, then twice a day: she would stop by and slowly a terrible realisation dawned on her: death had stolen none of the young maiden’s beauty; the only one robbed was her, of any sense of satisfaction.
Envy was like a worm burrowing silently, deep into a fruit. The worm of envy had eaten right to the core of the queen; its canker lived and flourished in her very heart. Yes, she had tricked the lovely young woman into taking the apple, had rejoiced when she bit, fell and was entombed. Her plan had worked but the beautiful girl had, nevertheless, cheated her of victory’s sweet taste; for although she breathed no more, the queen had not vanquished her beauty. No, it lived on, undefeated, in her smooth unlined skin and shining hair.
In her palace, the queen glanced into her beloved gilded mirror. In the past she had spied on the lovely young woman, sickened by her blossoming beauty which had surpassed her own. Now it was beloved no longer because its reflection reminded her of the maiden’s ultimate victory: she had cheated age and was a vision of youth eternal; while she, the worker-of-wonders, was powerless to halt the march of time across her face.
Deep within her the worm twisted, tying all her initial joy into knots. When she could bear it no longer, she plotted a second time. Creeping into the maiden’s house, she crawled on hands and knees across the carefully swept floor, until she found the apple, still perfectly preserved in its poisoned loveliness despite its one missing bite. Hiding it in the folds of her cloak, she slipped home to the palace garden.
Clearing brambles and nettles, hefting the spade herself, she dug a hole and buried the fruit- not to rid herself of the poisoned fruit, or the memory of her terrible actions- no, as she planted the fruit deep in the earth, she muttered a spell:
May all who sup, of the fruit from this tree, lose what rules them, indefinitely.
Shovelling the soil, she imagined the young woman losing not just her life, but beauty’s power finally weakening before losing its hold.
Every day, morning and night, rain or shine, the queen would hurry out to her garden. Standing over the soil, she would weep tears of envy, rage, but also hope: that her monstrous plan might bear fruit and succeed. And, slowly, more than the rain, more than the sun, the water from her eyes woke the apple’s seeds, for, like the queen, they had been waiting for the chance to work some fresh evil.
When the first shoot broke the soil, she wept tears of elation. The shoot strengthened into a sapling, grew thicker, hardier, branches casting shade; and one monumental spring day the apple tree, with its ebony bark, bore blossoms as white as snow. The queen had long since dried her tears, now she smiled a thin smile to see the blossoms tremble and tumble from the boughs; in their place, apples as red as blood. Her plan was bearing fruit; time would bring the harvest.
A prince from a neighbouring land rode by and was captivated by the maiden, so lovely even in death. Summoning his royal powers, he asked for the casket to be opened, which of course it duly was. With a jolt they raised they lid and the piece of apple, never swallowed, dislodged and the sleeper woke from her death-like slumber.
The queen rejoiced. She herself could hardly believe it, but she rubbed her hands and threw her head back, howling with delight. Here was her chance to do the job properly; this time beauty, along with life, would surrender to her magic powers.
Even news of a royal wedding in the neighbouring land could not dampen her bliss, and when a footman dressed in green velvet knocked at her door, delivering her invitation to the couple’s wedding, she smiled with awful pleasure.
We cordially request the pleasure of your company at our wedding feast.
Hurriedly she penned a reply:
I would be honoured to attend and will be happy to provide dessert.
She closed the door, picked up a basket, and went into her garden. The queen knew that revenge is a dish best served cold, even if her envy had been simmering ever since the girl had thwarted her first plan. As she plucked apple after apple from the tree, placing them carefully in her basket, she considered which dish would best deliver the revenge she had in mind; but from apple pie to crisp, no recipe seemed just right.
She rested the heavy basket on her kitchen table and picked up the paring knife: splitting the fruits, gouging out cores, wresting the pips from their snug beds, cutting slice after slice, white flesh rimmed with a deep blood red.
As she worked, she looked in her mirror, propped against her pots of spice: dried onion, powdered tears; and chilli: flakes to raise a fever. Mirror, mirror on the wall who’s the cleverest one of all? She crooned to herself. Her cold eyes stared back at her and inspiration struck: a tarte tatin it would be, that most lovely of apple puddings would be her foe’s downfall: her just desserts.
Carefully she placed the slices, arranging them in spirals before making the sauce: melting the sugar, cubing the butter, stirring until it oozed from the wooden spoon when she lifted it like threads of sticky honey. Finally, she brushed the apples, crowning the dish with its pastry hat, before popping it into the oven. Forty-five minutes to wait: after the long years of watching her rival triumph, in death as much as life, it was no time at all.
When it was bronzed and the kitchen was filled with the glorious scent of home baking, the queen turned the tarte onto its crystal platter, noting with satisfaction that the apples had darkened to amber: the poison to trap her fly. The sugars had seeped out a little and she had to resist the temptation to lick her fingers as she carried the sticky confection to the door.
The wedding feast was due to be celebrated the next day, but the Queen was not prepared to leave her plan a moment longer, summoning her coachman to bring her carriage immediately. Four beautiful black horses were harnessed, the carriage drew up to her door and the queen stepped lightly inside, resting her wedding gift- the lustrous dessert- on the crimson seat beside her. The coachman flicked his whip and the steeds sprang to a gallop. The queen settled herself back against the sumptuous cushions; the wheels of her plot were turning and she couldn’t have been happier.
From the carriage window she saw the palace come into sight. She had been expecting turrets and towers, imagining the lady would demand a home as lovely as herself. The reality was a surprise: her foe’s residence was more a house than a palace; it didn’t dominate the land, if anything it looked small- almost ordinary. The carriage drew to a halt, the door was opened and the queen almost forgot to pick up her terrible tarte in her shock and confusion. Steadying herself at the steps, she carefully alighted and made her way to the front door, cradling the dish carefully in the snug of her arm.
Before she had a chance to knock, the door was opened and the lovely young maiden- her foe- stood in the entrance, wearing an apron and a smile. The queen took two steps back in surprise but the bride seemed unphased, moving forward and taking the tarte from the visitor before it was even offered.
“So kind,” smiled the wife-to-be, “the footman gave me your reply, and how lucky that I just love apples.”
“A pleasure, my dear,” managed the queen, unsettled by the bride’s appearance: crumpled clothes, smudges on her cheeks from cooking, and was that a grey hair glistening in her ebony locks?
The woman noticed her puzzled stare but only laughed.
“Oh, you must excuse my appearance: I’m helping with the wedding feast, and since I woke from that long sleep, time seems to have been catching up with me a bit- busy working woman and all that!”
She took the queen’s elbow and guided her into the kitchen which was a busy chaos of platters and pots, tureens and tumblers. The bride cleared a space for the dessert and pulled two champagne flutes towards her.
“We must have a drink, a toast before tomorrow: we are neighbours now after all!”
The queen demurred: “Oh no, my dear, I’ve reached an age where I can’t touch a drop.”
The bride uncorked a green bottle and a scent, strangely familiar, filled the air.
“Well this can be drunk entirely guilt free: water, fruit and nothing else. I promise.” She said coyly. “Just a little taste now, on the eve of my special day.”
She pressed a glass into the queen’s protesting hands and took one herself. And somehow the queen couldn’t stop herself from raising it to her lips; like an invisible hand was lifting the glass too, and the queen was compelled to drink to the toast:
“May all who sup, of the fruit from this tree, lose what rules them, indefinitely.”
The queen had to swallow the sweet drink, managing to gasp fitfully through the bubbles: “but-how?”
“How did I know about your plan? Well I took the trouble of getting a mirror of my own; you could say that I learned from experience to keep both eyes peeled for trouble.”
And she crossed to a mirror, gilded and oddly familiar, which reflected a kitchen the queen knew all too well, for it was her own.
“When I saw you making your dessert and casting your spell, I thought it might be time to pay a visit to your tree and work a little magic of my own. I hope you don’t mind; there were so many apples, I didn’t think you’d miss a few.”
The queen couldn’t answer as the drink was working its magic. Deep inside, the worm of envy, which had burrowed so deep- a parasite within her so long- was writhing in agony. In its death throes it lashed and squirmed until, finally, it ruled over her no longer and was gone; finally, she was free. Standing before her now was a foe no longer, simply a woman- a neighbour- with wise words to impart:
“But perhaps, on reflection, it might be best if we both got rid of our mirrors, staring into them too much can be a damaging past-time, at any age!”
The queen looked at the bride with her crumpled clothes, smudged cheeks and one grey hair, recognising her for what she was: a fellow woman and a sister to embrace.
She crossed to the rubbish bin and tipped her tarte inside. Then she smiled, refilling both their glasses, and raised hers to the lovely bride.
“A toast to friendship: the most beautiful thing of all.”