Apples for the Future
by Jamie Lackey
My older brother Samuel stood in the center of town, beneath the spreading branches of our spirit tree. The limbs dipped low from the weight of the apples, and the leaves cast heavy shadows across his face. I stood with everyone else in a rough circle around him, clutching our father’s hand.
The village wise woman stepped forward and handed Samuel a short knife. He held it between his teeth and jumped for one of the lower branches. An apple tumbled down and landed at my feet.
Samuel scrambled up the tree, and selected one of the higher branches. He sliced it off cleanly with the knife. He climbed back down slowly, careful not to damage his prize.
We all stood in absolute silence, waiting. I held my breath.
Samuel carried it into the sunshine, then thrust the cut end of the branch into the ground. Nothing happened for a long moment, then the branch withered and crumpled to the ground.
Samuel’s shoulders slumped. Someone behind me sighed and swore. My father wiped away a single tear.
I picked up the apple at my feet.
Samuel skipped a flat rock across the lake. “I don’t think I can stay,” he said. “There’s this disappointment in everyone’s face when they look at me.”
“It’s not your fault that the spirit tree is sick,” I said.
“It’s bearing more apples than ever,” he said, sending another rock skipping across the water. “It doesn’t look sick.”
“You’re not the first one whose seedling died.” I picked up a rock and handed it to him. I was useless at skipping rocks, but I prided myself on finding the smoothest, flattest ones for him. “It’s been years since one grew.”
“But I’m our father’s son. People expected more of me. And I disappointed them.”
“It’ll disappoint them more if you leave.”
“But I won’t have to face them.”
Our mother had made the best apple pies, and I made one for Samuel before he left. I’d tried her recipe again and again, but no matter what I did, it never turned out quite right.
“It’s still good,” Samuel said, as he helped himself to a third slice.
“But it’s not the same.”
He patted my shoulder. “It doesn’t have to be.”
Seasons turned, and it was fall again. This year was my turn. In just a few hours, I would stand among my people as an adult. I stood on the lakeshore, turning a flat rock over and over in my hands.
I whipped it at the water, trying to mirror the flick of Samuel’s wrist.
The rock cut into the water like a knife and sank out of sight, leaving only ripples behind.
The town gathered around the spirit tree. This time, my father stood alone.
The wise woman handed me the knife. It was heavier than I’d expected.
“Go on, child,” she whispered. “Make your father proud.”
I reached up and picked an apple.
Trees that grew from seeds would bear different apples. Our spirit apples knew no equal. Any apple that grew from a seed would surely be inferior.
I cut the apple in half and tipped a seed into my palm.
The wise woman reached for my wrist, but my father spoke, his voice hard. “This is her moment. Don’t interfere.”
I knew that he wanted me to climb up into the tree, to cut a limb, to see if it grew. But he’d defend my decision to do otherwise. Just like he let Samuel leave.
I walked into the sunshine, plunged the knife into the ground, and dropped the seed in. I patted warm dirt over it and sat back.
A seedling erupted instantly. In moments, it was taller than me. I laid a hand against its smooth bark.
“It’s done,” my father said. “Let’s get home.”
The looks that everyone gave me weren’t disappointed. They ranged from wary to hopeful to angry. I ignored them all. I baked pie after pie until I found a recipe that I liked as much as I’d liked my mother’s.
It was different. But that was okay.
That fall, my apple tree bore fruit. The apples were smaller than the spirit apples, and a paler red. My fingers trembled as I picked the first one.
It was crisper than a spirit apple, and not as sweet. Tart juice dripped down my hand as I ate it. A slow grin spread across my face. I wondered how they’d taste in my pie.
The town gathered around the spirit tree. There was a festive spirit in the air, and the three children who were coming of age clustered together. “I bet my apples will be the sweetest,” my daughter whispered.
Her cousin rolled her eyes. “Well, maybe mine will be the biggest.”
The third child, the first of his family to come of age in our town, just laughed at them. “I’ll be happy as long as mine grows.”
I smiled as I handed my daughter the knife. The seeds always grew.