THE APPLE AND THE OAK
There is something infuriating about an Apple tree and it is likely that, given a choice, the old Oak would have ignored her completely. The fecundity of those short, gnarled branches spewing forth their sweet, sickly-smelling fruit year after year after year was an offense to the slow, measured gentility of the Oak; the calm, timely dropping of acorns; and the steady sureness of his long, surging breaths.
Yet the closest respectable Oak was over a mile away, and if he wanted any communication at all beyond the intermittent messages sent with the birds, the apple tree was the best available in the broad, grassy expanse of land broken only by shrubs and the occasional Pine—which was, of course, entirely out of the question. Evergreens, proud in their year-long foliage, were insufferable.
So, Apple it was, and Apple it remained.
At first, the Oak merely tolerated the young Apple’s insistent prattle as preferable to the endless swishing wind and skittering squirrels and myriads of scratching, boring insects. In time, though, he came to begrudgingly enjoy it, and to see something of the value of the Apple’s impulsive, tempestuous ways. He began to appreciate the joy contained in the exuberance. Their friendship grew and deepened and then—to the surprise of both of them—began to take on a richness that perhaps would not have been possible between just two Apples or two Oaks.
And so it happened that the Apple—racing through life at what had once seemed to the Oak so irresponsible a pace—grew older, faster than the Oak could quite comprehend. Inevitably, the Oak began to muse to himself on the nature of mortality and the separation it entailed, as year by year and season by season, the Apple produced fewer and fewer of her luscious, wet fruit. Her branches, always gnarled and bent, grew ever more crabbed, as rot invaded and death began to show itself, bit-by-bit, along her tired, mottled branches.
The Oak was hesitant to broach the subject to his smaller companion. One autumn month, however, when the end seemed dangerously near, he finally mustered the courage. When he spoke, it was with the same calm deliberation as ever, pacing his words over weeks. “You know,” he said, “a Cardinal once told me that death is a punishment. That if you die, it is because the Green Earth has seen how you have lived, and disapproved.”
He paused, as another week passed.
“And time was,” he continued, “I would have agreed, and thought this fading of your life a just and well-befitting thing, considering your ways. But now…?”
The question hung in the air for months, as the cold wind blew the last of both their leaves to the ground, and their sap slowed and settled into the shortness of the ever-coldening days. The Apple, who in her earlier years had been too full of the excitement and vigor of life to pause in such morbid contemplation, began at last to turn in upon herself. She grew quieter, even, than winter demanded. She was trying to think... fighting against the slowing of the times and careful, for once, to formulate just the right response to the question drifting, still, in the frosty air.
Then one day—a storm.
It was by no means the strongest storm either the Apple or the Oak had ever faced. Storms were wisps, barely registering in the long, pacing consciousness of trees. But this storm was different. It blew with steady insistence for a full week and the Apple, still lost in thought, barely managed to hold on by her roots. For the first time, she became unsure of the inevitability of herself. She wondered, as the storm raged, if this might be the end.
And then, on the storm’s final night, the impossible happened. The Oak began, in a grinding, tearing groan, to rend and bend and fall and then—in a fraction of a fraction of an instant—to crash to the ground in a thud that shook and loosened the Apple’s deepest roots. She felt the worms and grubs and insects in the ground below writhe their displeasure; but the Apple was not afraid, only... confused.
For the Oak, however, the terrible moment of realization was inescapable as he felt himself torn from his connection to the Good Earth, and then the slow rise of an ache that burned through every fiber and every cell. He was, like every tree before and since, alone in the long, slow time of death. From the Oak there broke unbidden a groan of such pain and inchoate anguish that the Apple was unable to gather any thoughts of any kind, nor to make any sense of what had occurred. Her confusion grew and grew as the Oaken death-cry rumbled through the air and soil and sky. For weeks this went on, and although the Oak’s cry grew softer and began to fade, the Apple’s confusion remained.
She had long found comfort in the Oak’s rumbling paternalism, an amusing steadiness anchoring her fiery demeanor. But now, that comfort was gone. She was alone, and the endless chittering of the shrubs and the steady buzz of the grass was no consolation. If the Cardinal had been right—if death was always, in fact, a punishment—then the Apple could not understand what the Oak might have done. He was alive... he was a friend... and he was gone. It made no sense, at all.
And then, spring came.
Steadily, inevitably, life began to burst forth until one day, the Apple felt a tickle at her roots. She heard, then, a strangely familiar voice—but younger, more foolish, more brazen—rising in her shade as an acorn, tossed by that final Fall, began to crack and break and release its green messenger toward the sky.
Although this did not replace the old Oak, or answer the Apple’s questions, she nonetheless chose to thrust up a root on either side, to protect the young tree from the whirling blades that scythed the grass so close. She spoke to it, then, in calming whispers, and told it of its place in the long, fibrous tapestry of life. She told it of the old Oak, and of the wisdom that surged with sap through Oaken wood.
The Apple continued to hold on for years. And the little Oak grew. And life, as ever, was there.