Long after the expulsion of humans, a flock of birds went winging through Eden, touching down here and there, picking and pecking wherever they chose. They settled on the Tree of Knowledge, where the boldest bird filled its beak with apple flesh and seeds. The flock flew off again, carefree and careless, darting close to the very edge of Eden, until at last the boldest strayed, for an instant, over the garden wall. The bird was at once buffeted by wind and pelted with hail. Cawing with fear, it dropped the apple flesh into the chaos of the outside world, where it sank deep into mud. The bird fled back to the perfumed trees and crystal springs of the garden where the inhabitants were innocent, the weather was predictable and nothing ever changed.
Down in the ooze the pips took root. It was bitterly cold, just the other side of the wall of Eden. The saplings that struggled up were twisted and half-starved, and their fruit soured by sadness: they were, after all, offspring of the Tree of Knowledge and they had suffered their own Fall. But Knowledge is also the Knowledge of What Might Be, and each seed carried within it a germ of hope: that from experience might come wisdom. The more stunted and wretched the little trees, the more mouth-puckering their fruit, the more they clung to life. Through thousands of years they seeded and multiplied, their twigs infested with mistletoe, their trunks bent, their bark sun-blistered. They were waiting for some sign that though Eden was lost, Knowledge had at least been gained; that people were sadder but wiser too, and so, in time, things might come round.
Down in the ooze the pips took root.
After many centuries a holy man and his servant passed a hedge full of crab apple trees. ‘The fruit of this tree is accursed,’ said the holy man, ‘having caused the downfall of our first parents. Hence its Latin name, Malus. Bad.’
The trees heard this and saw the look of blame cast upon them by both master and servant. Their apples grew a little sourer.
More time passed. A woman and her son came to the hedge one September when the crab trees were heavy with fruit.
‘Climb up there,’ said the woman. ‘Throw them down to me.’
‘They’re sour,’ said the boy.
His mother smiled. ‘Good things can be made from sour apples.’
The boy shinned up the tree and the apples began to sweeten a little.
The centuries flew by (though to the human beings, battling on, they seemed to crawl) and suddenly everything was evolution, evolution, evolution. No such thing, now, as a bad species: malus meant simply apple, and survival was the ultimate good.
‘Who has survived longer than we have?’ mused the crab apples, preparing for recognition. But humans, who craved sweetness without limit, were now busy breeding new varieties, johnny-come-lately fruit, and barely noticed their old companions. The crab apples faded into the uncultivated places, of interest only to unimportant people. There they continued their ancient cycle of blossom, fruit and death.
A couple sat under a flowering crab-apple tree.
‘I was wrong,’ said the man. The tree put forth a few more petals.
The woman said, ‘You were . . . but so was I,’ and the petals glittered in the spring sun.
The next time the woman came there she was alone. She sat beneath the tree and gazed over the fields. The crop had been poor and she had a child coming. After a while she noticed some crab apples lying in the grass nearby. She sighed: they were so small and sour.
The tree silently held out its branches.
‘Anything’s better than nothing,’ the woman thought. She filled her pockets with fruit and went home to make crab-apple jelly. As she stood over the pan, she felt something move in her for the first time. She put her hand on her belly, vowing she would never beat the child as she had been beaten. Her stove was smoky, her pan dented and her spoon bent, yet as she stirred and skimmed she was working a universal magic: the ancient art of bringing forth sweet out of sour, of reclaiming and redeeming, making good out of malus.
Once, before the Fall, apples were luscious as peaches. Some people think that in time we will all become wise, perfect solutions will be found to our problems and Eden will come again. On that day the crab apples will return to their original sweetness. Until then, as the patching up and struggling on continue, crab apples remain what they have been for so long: fruit of which something hopeful can be made, Trees of Knowledge.