The Riddle Curse
The apple tree was very old. His roots were long and had roots of their own. Within the mile of his reach he knew most things. This hill, here, was covered by a bristly forest, and on its crown, where he stood, a wooden house, and beside the house a stone tower.
The moon rose. The stars turned baleful, promising tragedy.
At the foot of the tower where his mistress had her room was a private garden, small enough that her single apple tree could touch all the walls with his fingertips. Crocuses pushed up through the last of the snow under his limbs, in all except one spot of packed earth where the mistress would put her foot. For it was her own garden, and she could sit in her apple tree instead of a chair, if she chose.
She had not come tonight. He knew why. Hunched motionless in her private garden, he waited and listened. The crocuses at his feet pricked their ears.
From the tower window she cried out in pain. It had begun. Again she screamed, urged on by a murmuring soft voice. The apple tree clacked his knotted limbs against the walls, fingering the substanceless moonlight as if to climb it to her window.
The voices sank suddenly, one gasping with relief, the other in horror. Something flew through the night to fall wetly at the foot of the tree. A mewly crying rose in the garden. The last patch of snow melted, steamed.
Her maid set up a wailing. “Oh my poor lady!”
Hoarsely, she answered, “Where did you throw it? Where is my child?”
The maid retched. The mewing faded at the foot of the tree. Then:
“Lie down, lady!”
“Where is my child?”
“Lady, it wasn’t no babby,” sobbed the maid.
“O you gods!” she shrieked. “Then what?”
“A beast. A fox kit. I killed it—my lady!” The pleading voice faded, “You mustn’t rise—”
Never had he wished so hard for legs. Leaves aprickle, he quivered at every sound.
There came the clang and shiver of a lute dragging against a wall.
The door to the apple garden opened, slammed. The maid’s voice wailed faintly. The latch rattled.
Footsteps staggered toward the tree.
She had already been pregnant when she climbed his hill for the first time. It was on the first day of spring, when the grey geese fly home. He heard them calling against the wind, their voices pointing like signposts toward summer. She came alone. He stood stiff and helpless while she paced the meadow, circling him, raising the sap in him whenever she turned her face to him as she paced. He didn’t understand her plan then, or what she would do with him. He only knew he was in love, and that there was no hope.
Yet she liked this place. As she paced, she sang, “Husband, stay home, Cover our eggs at river bottom! Do not joust with the fishermen, lest you lose.”
Her sighs shook his spotted leaves. Her voice roused him like a march of ants up his core.
What joy, she spoke to him! She walked straight up and laid a hand on his trunk. “Do you bear any more, I wonder?” she said. The sap surged, unclotting the old passages, and burst out of the tingling tips of his long-brittle branches in a froth of leaf. When she raised her face he swooned, and there came a scent of apple-blossom.
The builders came the next day. Immobile so long, he couldn’t think where these men sprang from. It seemed to him they arrived like bees, by smell, and worked as he did for love of her.
Had she thought to cut him down? If so, she changed her mind. The house rose around him like the fulfillment of a vow. He stood safe in her regard, with the tower over his shoulder and the garden wall circling him. Over the garden door was written in bright nails studding a board, Let there be love between man and beast. Did she have him in mind? He rewarded her with apples, couched her on his trunk, carried her lute on the stump of an amputated limb, and heard her sorrows in the dark times when she hid her face from all but him. Her presence pulled on him so that, had he had a heart, it would have beat with her footfall. She would never leave him but once.
Now she shuffled into the garden. “Where?” she cried. “O God, why was I ever made?” Her loved foot warmed the earth, melting the hoarfrost, thawing the soil under it. His branches groaned. She leaned against the tree and his old trunk quivered, his sap thinning in its secret courses in sympathy with the blood running out of her body.
Her song rose in extremity. “The hook is strong under your jaw, stronger than marriage. How you are leaping, as you leapt once to win my favor!”
He heard her lute jangle. She wept. “Why do the terrible stories happen over and over? Why do I ever hope?” And bitterly, “Oh gods, to be cursed and alone!”
I’m here, oh, but I’m here, his heartwood cried, and of course she didn’t hear him.
Her song droned, the lutestrings clashed. “Your head sinks severed and bloody through the water—”
He squeezed out sweet gum, lacking tears.
There was a silence while she gathered rage. “My hatchlings feed and grow strong on father-flesh.”
Her voice broke. The lute clanked and swung on its stump. The wind sounded all its strings at once, a low, steady harping. Her foot met the old stepping place and he shivered under her weight. Blood trickled down his bark where she touched it. Between grunts her voice came, higher and higher. “But I burrow—into the mud—at river bottom.”
She panted. He heard the slither of her silk girdle over a bough. She gasped once. Over the voice of the wind came the drip of blood falling from branch to branch. He listened. For one long moment her weight left the bough, then wrenched to; and the tree also wrenched and jerked, jerked and shook, shook until the withered fruit rained down. Warmth pitter-pattered on his branches. A cloud caught the moon, darkening it.
He came to himself under the cloud-and-star-spattered heaven, a man at last, crouched naked, barefoot on the bloody frost, bandy-legged and hunchback, shivering and weeping uncontrollably, clutching to his breast the limp body of a bird. A lute hung at his humped shoulder. The dove in his hands wore a length of silk like a strangling scarf. Why was he holding it? He threw the repulsive thing from him.
There was a wall around him and a tower before him. Over the door, in bright nails studding a board, something was written, but he could not puzzle it out. At length he went indoors. The servants fled before him. Slowly, like a man waked bewildered before dawn, he dressed himself for travel.
My apples are sweet
Even in dead of winter
I am as faithful as the grey goose
What’s become of the winter lord?
He’s sawn up into a gibbet.
-from an old riddle
In this way the fox met the poet.