Like the sweet apple which reddens upon the topmost bough,
Atop on the topmost twig — which the pluckers forgot, somehow —
Forgot it not, nay, but got it not, for none could get it ’til now.
–Sappho, translated by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
I’ll give my love an apple without a core
I’ll give my love a dwelling without a door
I’ll give my love a palace wherein she might be
That she might unlock it without a key…
–Traditional folk song
Remember the first, there in the dappled light: the bauble, hung like an ornament on the bough. Doesn’t it dazzle, all green with its tarnished navel? You draw your hand up through the leaves, grab the fruit without trepidation, with surety, firmness. It is the object of your desire, the aim of your id, treasure for the grasping.
Mine is a Pippin, plucked from a grizzled branch in the orchard. Its skin is tough and my teeth slide around on its surface before I can latch into it. The skin finally cracks, and my teeth shovel the flesh. The flavors are both sour and tannin. My mouth is one part juice, the other dry cotton. I enter its world.
How does it happen that apples imply worlds? That apples bode an inward passage to places not unlike the body? To eat of the apple is to break through the membrane of another dimension. Its skin resists penetration, then yields. It announces its surrender with a snap and plash, like a dive into water.
Jump then, take a bite. Consume this body, swallow its juices. Its pale flesh is a Host on your tongue; and profane, secular mysteries — not God — are decoded by your spit. “This,” offers the everyday world, “is my body: human, animal, mineral, elemental. Know me, enter the appellation of your hungers, know yourself.”
See the woman reaching for the fruit there in the Garden? See her soon-to-be-husband standing beside her, before the advent of appetite, naked, chaste, inert. This is the moment before Pandora’s figments are loosed upon the world. It is the moment before they say, “I do,” before the perfection of love is corrupted by its tasting; the moment before they are sent away like Odysseus to engage the world’s terrors, long before they find their way home.
This bliss, this pre-Fall love is as drab as a mealy winesap, its depth must be earned by flavor, by spice and suffering. All the stories tell us that. Whatever the consequence of wanting and of eating it, the apple is always meant to tantalize, always Aphrodite’s enigmatic offering, a female’s koan. Its arrival in a story portends that Love’s strict lessons will soon be instructed. The apple belongs to Love’s Teacher. Look at Her desk, littered with the gifts.
Our heroine’s eyes light up as she savors that first bite, as the juice drips down from chin to collar bone. “Here,” she purrs, prodding him with her treasure, “taste.” In the words of “TV Guide,” trouble (necessary, inevitable) ensues.
For all its dangling engorgement, its yielding rupture, its spilling juices, the apple is interchangeable with genitalia. And there, they’d have us believe, at the bull’s-eye, at the flowering and the fruit of our flesh, is the germ of our rift with God. That fruit, the story goes, is a revelation, first of nakedness, then of shame, and from there an avalanche of sexual misconduct. The Latin word for both “apple” and “bad,” malum, is evil in its rudiment, Eve’s fruit. One taste changes everything.
Another interpretation is that, at the very least, that morsel must have been some kind of antidote to aphasia. For when the proto-couple take the bite, they wake from dreaming. They now are set upon by a fever to name each posy and pooch, each emotion and molecule, and soon the garden looks a lot more meta- than physical. They carve their runes into stone, scribble their sonnets onto paper, digitalise their hypertexts onto the World Wide Web. They are primary subjects in a realm of now-distinct objects, and with each new word-tchotchke, the garden is further objectified. In no time they themselves are Other, self-conscious objects in a psychic Diaspora.
In either version, whether the knowledge is sexual or cognitive, the apple’s flavors swing wide the gate… and see? there you stand with juice on your lips, a weird terrain unfolding before you. The truth, it’s said, can set you free. But freedom also exacts a price, innocence can’t be recaptured, and exile, regardless the revelation, is the lonesome consequence. What a toll, after all, to grow up.
The apple then becomes an emblem of paradox, both sweet and sour. On one hand it is embodiment itself, the delightful world of crunch and infusion, a realm of floorboards, solid tabletops and known quantities; on the other, it hovers like a hologram beyond our grasp; if tasted, we wake to a whole new landscape… and where did the apple go? Fascination is forever goading us to reach, to clasp, to hold, to taste… but by definition it resists satiety — just as mystery continually evades discovery.
Christopher Columbus was said to have had his the-world-is-round moment when he compared the sails he saw on the western horizon to the silver back of a moth he watched ambling over the cusp of a sphere. I like to imagine that globe as an apple in his hand. Some variety like a Cortland or a Rome. I like to imagine he took a bite as he dreamed of his course due west of Gibraltar, before his encounter with the New World. Two centuries later, in the mere blinking of an eye, his inquiries reveal a world utterly changed. It’s doubtful Columbus would even have recognized it.
The year is 1666, and a traffic of ships is mapping arcs across the globe, navigating crossings to and from the Americas, steering by the stars. Their holds are loaded with slaves, zealots, immigrants; with explorers and colonizers; with exotic plunder and stowaway vermin. Look at the markets teaming with chocolate and tobacco; churches encrusted with gold! Look at these European tables now set for a king… tomatoes, squash, sugar and corn.
There is, however, a dark consequence to this age of exploration. Another round of plague is razing Europe. It has spread from ships to cities, and from cities to towns. In London over 75,000 have perished. The streets are stymied with rioting and rubble, with stench and fire.
But miles outside of London, on a tranquil lane, in a quiet garden under an evening sky, another man is in contemplation of an apple. The scene sounds bucolic, except that this young man has no desire to be here. London’s university is closed for the three years of this national disaster and, since he’s young and penniless, he has no choice but to return here, to live with his mother in his mother’s house.
There is no air in Mrs. Newton’s house, and no wind in Mrs. Newton’s garden, but within the stillness the universe is taking on a new shape. Isaac is tracing this new form within the recesses of her apple trees.
An apple is falling, and as it impacts the earth, dust shoots up like a bowl around it, then settles. To our young genius, it’s a conundrum.
Another apple succumbs, and another… Succumbs to what, Isaac wonders.
Suddenly his mind is reordered and refreshed. His thoughts are infused with the possibility of a different cosmos: The planet’s body has an irresistible command on the bodies of other things — man, apple, dust. Even objects further up are obedient to its authority, the topmost fruit of his mother’s orchard, the swallows in their evening sweep of the sky. The moon, as it happens, is also pulled towards this same dusty ground. The heavenly spheres are caught in attraction for one another — orbits, ellipses, the sun, the moon: The whole cosmos obeys the apple’s same M.O.
Nothing is falling really….
It looks more like Illinois than France, but France it is. Rose and I are driving over a rolling plain of wheat fields, under a stratum of troublesome clouds. We are following the rifts in that gray blanket, hoping to find a peephole to the sky, meandering the motorways northwest of Paris for a view of the total solar eclipse. We see an island of sun off the starboard side, and steer a course ever more northward.
Some minutes later we drop anchor at a sunny intersection between country lane and dirt road. We have charted our position to be in the line of totality, the area at which the moon’s shadow will cut a swath across Europe and the Middle East, and at which those in its umbra will witness the sun’s blot for several minutes. We park and appraise our surroundings. To our droit is a razored wheat field, perpendicular stalks-on-parade. To our gauche, a cornfield, A.K.A. green Alhambra, A.K.A., impromptu toilet. Right ahead is a small forest (good since we wanted to hear the birds’ hush at totality) and behind us a few miles to the south, the ribbon of motorway with its tributaries leading to small towns in the distance. The sky is widening and we call upon our inner pagans to improvise chants and keep the skies clear.
During the hours that we count down the eclipse, other cars pull off the road, each a respectable distance from ours. Many people set up telescopes, picnic lunches, and folding chairs.
A farmer in his tractor turns onto the dirt road, and approaches our car. We hold out our bottle of wine to him as he passes, flashing his tusky smile. He lets us know with a wave of his hand that he’ll forgo our offer and that we’re welcome in his field. Clouds of dust rise from the wheels of his trailer as he calls out something to us about the rat race in the city. He’s carting manure, seemingly unconcerned about the last astrophysical pageant to occur in this millennium. He has — if not seen it all before — then seen it previewed on CNN — besides, today’s a work day.
I am thinking about his double from the last millennium, a toothy Gaul hauling manure with his oxen. It is May 5th, 840, and, with no CNN, no worldwide heads-up, there are no folks staring skyward anticipating an eclipse. The day is like any other spring day. The bees are a-buzz, the birds are calling from the forest which, except for a few cultivated clearings of wheat, stretches as far as the eye can see. What did that farmer think — after a lifetime of everyday, every year rhythms — when the sun disappeared from the sky?
When I met Rose I hadn’t a clue that I’d be waking into a state of exile. I dreamed the same safe dream of a child, under the spell of my own design, a narcotic of life-as-I’ve always-wished-it-would-be. Call it innocence or stupor, a princess could spend her whole life asleep. And the cure? Wake up, grasp the hand of your beloved, and walk away from the castle of your childhood.
But it’s never as simple as a fairy tale. Not easy to walk away, not easy to stay awake, not easy to keep the beloved’s hand in one’s own. And of course, love too is bewitchment, a fantasia that knowledge can dispel at one tasting.
It is bitter knowledge, indeed, to discover that the beloved is a figment, dreamed out of our earliest, most infantile wish.
So who is that cantankerous, frustrating woman who continually holds out her hand? Can I know her as she desires to be known, stripped of my hallucinations, naked as the day? The hinterlands beyond the gate, it turns out, are chockablock with conflict, difficult to negotiate, hardly what I hoped. And once I have this knowledge, and suffer the ancient dismay, will I still — can I still — walk with her, in Grace? Do the revelations of intimacy banish one from the garden of desire?
Wanting implies loss. If we crave the cookie, it’s a sure bet we envision a world in limited supply. This is the nursery-old terror: to be denied. Thus we are gun-shy and trigger happy, poised for the next “Dear John.” One whiff of trouble and — poof! — our hands wrest a wiggle of smoke in the air.
What have we fallen into, but our own aloneness?
Such falling is hard — but how else could anything so priceless not also be expensive? How could anything so heart-felt not also put us at risk? Why wouldn’t the latest rebuke not mirror our very first?
One can only imagine what life had been like when Isaac was younger. His mother’s house, his mother’s garden, his mother’s misery. What kind of despair would make a mother give up her child? He must have heard witches pacing the ceiling, must have seen the walls fracture, and watched objects fly at tantrum velocity. She left Isaac in the care of her parents when he was a toddler. When they died he was returned to her, only to be farmed out to another foster home. Then back to her again; then off to another…. One can only speculate how — regardless of her own hardships — the tidal power of those vacillating commitments formed him: his renowned insecurity, his famous temper, his nervous breakdowns at 35, then at 50. Both precipitated by the possibilities of new love.
One can only imagine how on this quiet evening — as he listens to the thud of fruit on the ground, as he grapples with their plummet from every angle possible — his thoughts might also be influenced by the power of his own rage and ancient longing.
What is gravity, what is this behemoth force that keeps all things in its tether? Isn’t it as contentious, as quixotic as a mother’s love? Isn’t that pull as central to our notions of “up-ness,” “down-ness,” “here-ness,” and “there-ness”?
The sun, the earth, the moon, the human heart. Which force exacts the fiercest tug?
As the moon begins to occulate the sun, we climb onto the roof of our rental car to stand, back pressed to back, our eyes scouring the dome. All the things they tell you happen: It gets dimmer, the drone of insects and birds hushes, the stars reemerge and the ribbon of highway primps like gemstone gaudery. The light mutates into hues you thought impossible in the non-dreaming world — a ghostly spectrum fanning from violet to silver.
I look down at the stubble of wheat to my left — it is purple, flecked with gold. The former colonnade of corn to my right is now like a polarized photograph, in which the shadows of leaves are more livid that the leaves themselves. The air is still, expectant, cold; and her back is warm against mine.
My experience of the eclipse begins to gel into something I can only describe as “antithesis.” I had expected this moment to exact a sharp thrill, to be distilled into some preternatural laser. In fact, it is its opposite… it is soporific. I feel that, like the bees, like the birds, I am being called to bed. I find my thoughts unraveling, my perceptions slackening. I am under the spell of some cosmic Mesmer, and I struggle, if vainly, to hold reason together. This time-lapse evening, which falls so swiftly and without the home base of horizon, which spills sensations of dreamlife into waking, has the power to rend me as dazed as a dozing skylark. I try to imagine what this experience might be like for my serf at the advent of the first millennium, and I recognize how this twilight’s undertow has the power to invite panic in mid-day. Were I some snaggle-toothed farmer working his soil at the moment of totality, I would think I was dying…. Or that God was dying, or had given up, or had fallen into a behemoth slumber, and would never wake. As it is, even with my knowledge of planetary movement, my CNN preview, and Internet prep, I suspect something utterly subversive. I can’t shake the dread, primitive, existential. “What happens,” my circadian body demands, my medulla oblongata shrieks, “if it doesn’t reappear?”
In Greek the word eclipse means abandonment.
What would it be like, I wonder, if the duration of this eclipse were more than seven minutes? Like, say, seven hours? seven days? seven weeks? How would we endure the waiting?
The sun or the moon, a God, Spring, a groundhog, rainy weather…. and Love. How do we keep our faith?
Think of the Peruvian earthworks, their devotion aimed skyward, saying plainly, “We haven’t forgotten,” and “Welcome back!”
Stone circles, say, or almanacs, Spirituals, myths, legends, songs, vows…and marriage.
These seven minutes are beautiful, cold, counterintuitive. I feel her back against mine. I am blessed to share the cosmic scissure with her; to know the day returns even after such catastrophe. We are routinely visited by love, so we have no choice but to believe in the existence of the invisible, in things we can not see, nor touch. We have known abandonment, felt terror, survived the semi-dark.
This moment is the best way I can think of to describe our marriage.
Exile defines you. You feel as bruised and as dispatched as an apple fallen from a tree. You hope each nick won’t show too much; pray each bruise won’t rot you to the core.
Life instructs that all matter of things are taken away — a mommy’s love, or God’s; a garden, Spring, Haley’s Comet, or a groundhog — they’ll either return some day, or not….
But in the interim, Penelope, while you wait for the hyacinths to pop their heads, nail the calendar to the wall, set the photo by the bedside, touch the locket at your throat. The beloved will come back to you, remember? It won’t be long.
Birds sing in a different language, navigate according to different stars. The hemispheres are at headstands, day is night and night is day. The more we eat our apple, the more it disappears!
So say goodbye to Newton’s Eden. Goodbye to the stage where blood ‘n’ guts divas wail Wagnerian librettos, goodbye to solid landmarks, and full-bodied thrusts. Let your anchor levitate from the harbor of your psyche, take another bite, deconstruct the fruit.
We chew it down into smaller bits, and at each descending rung of scale our landscape transfigures. So long to the bantam realm of our cytospheres, our worker bee cells, bustling in their watery hives! Adieu to the molecular and the small fry. We are leaving life in all its corpuscular splendor, so say fare thee well to birth and death; behold a new shore.
Here is a galaxy of hyperkinetic motes, jots, dots, and bitty iotas, all seized with infinite and insensible energy. Particles zing in and out of our vision, propelled by alien, centrifugal laws. This is the real world of cold-blooded force and collision, so get used to it, forget compassion as it was ever described to you; dry your eyes, take a bite, look again.
After chewing it further, on yet closer inspection, those wee specks of matter aren’t even there. The new frontier of the sub-atomic is all dynamism, a netherworld of verbs without nouns. But see the trails of vapor those sly verbs leave behind? The footprints of the ghosts as they steal through the snow? Goodbye to sturdy frames of reference even, to metaphors and long-a-go floorboards, toodle-do.
Now you know the downward narrative, the paradox of the ever-reducible world, the infinite declensions of “To Be.” What truer underpinnings lie beneath this luscious dawn-to-dust? What lingers at the threshold of this next millennium? What visions, what flavors greet us there, just outside the gate?
Here are some apples for the picking:
Magritte’s is mid-air, obscuring a businessman’s face, insisting that mystery still hovers behind the persona of the everyday. This is pure Modernist allegory, an invitation to the enigma of ourselves. Matisse’s, by contrast, are shallow and golden delicious, too naked in the morning light, gay as breakfast brioche. Again by contrast, Cezanne’s fruit, like his beloved mountains, are heavy and dense as lead, weighted by temporal dimensions. Piccasso’s, too, exist in a different physics, refracting their tumescence, the very monument of rut.
Proust dried and stowed his in a drawer, to be later utilized for a whiff of inspiration. Thoreau’s were touted as virile, iconoclasts best enjoyed in the fresh air. Sappho used hers as bait to lure Aphrodite back to earth. Lorca’s slumbered in the bowl and dreamed dreams…
Malum Pumila Paradisiaca, sweet fruit of my desiring, object of my curiosity, fruit of knowledge, of evil, of exile, truest food; most tantalizing mystery, apple of my eye.
When I see her “I love you” on the page my heart leaps up. The words and letters look edible. And like food, they both soothe and quicken me. I read them aloud. The sounds vibrate in my mouth and throat. They fill my body. I read them to myself, and their phantom kinesthesia does the same. The sentence is round and whole and bright and good, cheerful and pleasing (never tiring) as a bauble on a sunlit bough. Oh, care for me, oh comfort me; feed me with your sweetmeat, keep the doctor away.
It is a holy triad, these words: Primary subject: moi. Most cherished, vital verb: love. Object of affection: thou.
A gestalt, a fullness, a closed system, radiant triumvirate.
Physicists tell us we can further penetrate this apple; and bite through the membrane of time. The apple’s “there-ness” (complete with “worm holes”) is a space inside space. Its “Is-ness” a time without time. What we end up with is a multi-dimensional knot of strings, which are really more like vibrations. But vibrations of what thing or what event? Are they flung from the cloak of a Ghost, cast from some surfaceless sea, plucked from cosmic frets? Rilke asked, “Upon what instrument are we two spanned/ And what musician holds us in his hand?/ Oh, sweetest song.”
I believe there is something like a current running below this dimension. I say “below” out of habit, the way one might speak of the directions of up and down, utterly defined by the custom of shoes planted on floor, of our earthcentrism, as one thinks of apples falling — rather than flying — toward the earth. But I mean to suggest something else altogether, to direct you toward a coexistant realm, the dregs and flotsam of which we behold as our universe.
There are times when I can almost feel the rush and muscle of this stream, though it has neither a bank nor a source nor a destination. It is not an event and has no duration, not a dot, not a line, not a sheet, not a block. It is, I suspect, something of this thing called “God,” and love is just one drop of it.
Do I know this for certain? Is it a fact? Can I feel it, touch it, smell it, taste it?
If love is the intangible, yet consummate verb — as we know in our hearts it is — then who is the object? And who is the subject?
What is the mysterious event called matter? Or its intangible animator: the spirit? What is this beating wet organ, the gory pump inside us? or its metaphysical spouse, also called “heart,” more like a wave than a particle? Why are we subject to the physics of our hunger? What are we made of anyhow?
Perhaps we are like the dreams out of which apples sleep, or the paintings that purport their voluble density, all rut, frivolity, enigma, fragrance.
We are figments of our own imagining, if such a paradox can be possible.
And so what can it mean as you stand before me, without a stitch, your birthday suit more real than anything I’ve ever known? What is this terrible gift you bring, all shiny and bright, ready to be tasted?
Bia Lowe is the author of two collections of essays, Wild Ride: Earthquakes, Sneezes, and Other Thrills, and Splendored Thing: Love, Roses, and Other Thorny Treasures, in which this essay appeared. Visit Bia's web page.