One bite is all it takes. That is — and always has been — the rule.
We discover the first girl in autumn. She’s tucked beneath the tallest tree in our orchard, dozing there like a ripened apple toppled to earth.
I’m five years old, and the world is still gossamer and strange, my fragile memories like a soft cake that’s not yet risen, so part of me is almost certain that finding a girl one morning, sleeping where she doesn’t belong, must be the most ordinary thing for those who have lived long enough.
I plod behind my father as he carries her to the barn. “What happened?”
“A witch, no doubt,” he says, but I don’t believe him, because he blames witches for everything. A thunderstorm on the day of harvest, dark spots on the flesh of Cortlands and Braeburns, a splinter in his palm from an apple crate—always the work of a spell, according to him. Yet this blighted land, faded and cruel, seems more like magic has forgotten us entirely. Of the whole village, only our orchard retains a speck of color, and with the crop waning, bushel by bushel, each year, even that won’t last.
My father places the girl in a pile of wilted straw, away from the wind and the sun, and she curls up, crumpled and lifeless, like an origami swan crushed beneath a heavy boot. In her knotted hand, she cradles a tiny red apple. There’s barely a blemish on the skin. A single taste bewitched her.
“I’ll go into the village.” My father shrugs on his seam-split jacket. “Whoever she is, her family’s probably looking for her.”
He hesitates, then adds, “You stay here.”
He says it as though I long to be near him, as though we’re a proper father and daughter, good and whole, not the broken pieces of something ugly and aching.
I stare at the straw and say nothing. Without so much as a nod goodbye, my father vanishes through the barn doors, and I watch his figure become smaller and smaller on the horizon, folding in on itself until he’s gone.
There’s one path to the village, and he never ventures off it. It’s safest that way. On the border to the north, the shadows of the forest murmur nonsense and stretch taut fingers toward the orchard. There are the trees here populated with blooms and apples, and the trees there that yield only gloom, and a line in between, our property line, that divides one from the other, shelter from the unknown.
“Ignore the forest,” my father always says. “Only decay lives there.”
As if decay doesn’t live here with us too, our conjoined twin that never rests.
When I’m sure my father won’t double back, I breathe deep and edge closer to the girl. She smells of lilacs and lilies, bouquets that no longer blossom on this land. For hours, I sit with her in silence, because I’ve got nothing to talk about, at least nothing this girl is probably eager to hear. She has plenty of problems of her own. She doesn’t need mine.
Though she has one problem I can help with. I ease the apple from her fingers and drop it in the pocket of my gingham apron. If it was indeed poisoned, there’s no reason for her to embrace it. I’ll keep it for her. I’ll protect her, the best I can. Too late is better than not at all.
A sliver of moon crests above us, and its meager light brings my father home. It brings someone else too. A young man arrayed in handsome silks and fine jewels, clearly a stranger to our province, since no one here can afford bread, much less such glittery baubles.
He kneels to the straw and inspects the girl’s face.
“She’s beautiful,” he says, and my flesh prickles as he forces his mouth over hers.
I part my lips to ask if he even knows her, if he ever saw her before this night, but I exhale instead and my words dissolve like a plume of smoke in the chilled air. It would do no good to speak. Little girls don’t earn the right to question the wisdom of men. We can smile and blush and nod our heads, but we can’t tell them no.
Eyes open, the girl gags, and I wonder whether it’s residual poison on her tongue or the taste of his kiss that nauseates her.
He drapes her, still groggy, over his shoulders and declares her his bride. The next day, they make it official at the sagging chapel in the town square.
We never learn where this prince came from. Even after the wedding, the girl’s family can’t pinpoint his kingdom on a map.
“It’s somewhere to the East,” they say, and that’s precise enough to satisfy them.
The villagers don’t search for the witch who soured the apple. They’re busy cooing over satin and white stallions, and tethering rusted tin to the tail-board of the royal carriage.
The young ladies cry because it’s all so romantic.
“I want an apple and a prince,” they say, and cool themselves with folded fans made of lace, torn and yellowed.
My father’s chest expands with feverish zeal like a hot air balloon inflating for exhibition, and I divine the thought turning over in his mind.
This will be wonderful for business.
After the ceremony’s over and the villagers scatter like dried rice, I remain on the road, my stomach cramping as though I’m the one who consumed poison.
The apple’s still in my apron. I take it home and hide it away.
One by one, the girls find their way to the orchard, and once they start arriving, they never stop, like the tide breaking over the shore.
My father makes quiet deals with the families.
“I’ll keep them safe,” he says, and the mothers and fathers agree, because they have nothing else. Their faces, all soiled and sunken, are hungry, a hunger that even a month of hearty meals wouldn’t satiate. This land has been barren so long that the desperation’s in their marrow, deeper than the salt beneath the earth, and they look to us and this orchard and our apples as if their daughters might earn a fate here that doesn’t mean starvation.
“How do you know the prince will come?” they ask.
My father flashes them a serpent’s smile. “Have faith,” he says. “Faith always discerns the believers.”
They pay their gold coins, often a lifelong savings, and in our cottage by candlelight, my father counts the money each night, pacing circles like a vulture that dines on the carrion of frail dreams.
By now, it’s been five years since the first girl, the one who went east and never returned. We never did find her kingdom, but her family claims they receive a letter each spring.
“She delivered an heir in December,” they say, but if you ask them, they can’t tell you the child’s name or whether it’s a boy or girl. They can’t tell you if the daughter’s happy in matrimony either, but that seems unimportant somehow. She married a prince. What more could a poor village girl desire?
Before the families leave their daughters to our care, they make special requests. They ask for glass coffins where the girls can slumber, but they forget there is no glassmaker in this town, no artisan of any kind. All we can offer is a pile of straw in our barn. A hideous option, but my father’s clever. He can spin even an unseemly truth into a gold-plated lie.
“It must be straw,” he says. “A prince won’t come otherwise.”
He never asks if they have hay fever. After they’re nestled in beds of fodder, the girls sniffle through hollow dreams, eyes swollen and red welts blossoming like rosebuds on their skin.
“No one will want to kiss them now,” I say, and my father hushes me.
Such talk is bad for business. And business is what keeps us alive, keeps porridge in our bowls, keeps the orchard thriving for the young ladies who wear their best dresses and lace tattered ribbons in their hair.
But a few don’t skip so merrily to the gallows.
“She’s nervous,” one mother says, dragging her heart-faced daughter behind her. “That won’t affect the magic, will it?”
My father regards the girl, who stares at her threadbare shoes. “Not in the case of such a deserving young princess,” he says.
At this, the mother brightens as though she always believed her progeny was royalty-in-waiting, and at last, someone outside the family has confirmed it.
The girl, however, does not brighten. Her skin blanches the color of bone, and when I peer into her face, it’s as though I’m looking through the muscle and sinew to see what’s beneath. She’s no more than fifteen. Some families hold on to their daughters longer, clutching them with gaunt hands, delaying the inevitable, always hoping a better option might materialize. But in this place where the land is stained gray and the wheat won’t flower again, there is nothing better, and the longer you wait, the more the girl loses that freshness in the cheeks.
My father makes a deal, a fair one he calls it, and the mother bids farewell to her child.
Except for this ritual, daughters are rarely allowed to be alone. “It’s unsafe,” the villagers say and keep them under brass lock and key. Not until after the price of their future is paid like a macabre dowry are they turned loose to pick the perfect apple.
Their first taste of freedom is their last.
Along the manicured trails of the orchard, I tread solemnly behind the girl. This is against the rules, and if my father catches me, my backside will meet a belt. I don’t care. Like a ghost, I always follow.
It’s only May, a time made for fragile blossoms, not fully bloomed fruit, but that doesn’t matter. The magic here grows stronger each season, and even in the biting cold of winter, these trees now flourish with ready apples in all varieties, including ones that never used to grow on this land. There’s no blush elsewhere in the village—our property has more than enough for everyone.
After the first girl, we were sure the nearby forest cursed our land, but we need no witchcraft to cast this spell. The apples do the work for us, the poison readymade and choosy. The men can eat any of the varieties—Jonagolds, Golden Delicious, Galas—no problem. It’s the girls who take one bite and slumber. They don’t get to savor the whole thing. What if the second taste is sweeter than the first? They’ll never know.
Sobbing, the reluctant girl closes her eyes, and fumbles blindly for a branch. She chooses her apple—her fate—and succumbs to the dirt. I collapse cross-legged beside her, and the tears streak down my face like wax from a flame. Though she can’t hear me, I tell her I’m sorry.
The apple, plump and rosy, droops from her fingers, and I pry it free and preserve it in my pocket.
When my father comes to claim her, his temporary property, I hide behind green leaves the shape of giant hands, always reaching to the sky. This is the edge of the world, and the dark forest unfurls beyond, calling in a voice sweet and clear as a cathedral bell. With fingers buried in both ears, I do my best not to listen. The forest is known for its tricks. That’s what the men from the village say. It devours the living like a blackened sea. It devoured my mother—or maybe my mother let herself be devoured, that honeyed evening the summer before the first girl came to us.
I never asked my father why she left. I didn’t have to. Her sobs like endless lullabies sang me to sleep in the cradle, and the constellation of bruises on the soft flesh of her arms told me what he did to her. What all men who spin golden lies are capable of doing.
Before dawn, a prince from the south arrives, wearing a black velvet cape and a string of blood-red garnets around his neck. He kisses the girl hard on the mouth, and I’m sure she’ll suffocate beneath his weight, but no, she struggles awake, her gaze fixed on the one who owns her now.
“My bride,” he says.
This is what they always call the girls. Not beloved or partner or lover, but bride. A word that implies something fleeting and young. How many days must be marked on a calendar for a girl to shift from bride to wife? What is the passage of time that transforms her from gleaming and new like a magpie’s treasure into old and frayed, a burden to be borne? There must be a moment in which this happens, a moment that cleaves the world in two. Does she feel the change stirring within her, a pregnant storm ready to unleash its havoc? Or does it happen without her knowledge, and she only sees it one morning in the way her prince no longer looks lovingly at the ripe features of her face?
This girl of fifteen does not smile at the altar or wave goodbye from the golden carriage. She simply stares at her shoes, no longer threadbare, but polished and silken, the footwear of royalty. She should be happy. That’s what the village believes. Even her family doesn’t see the shadow that falls over her eyes like a valance of wayward curls. They let her depart for a castle—a mirage in the distance—and they celebrate when she’s gone.
“Spring weddings are so lovely, don’t you think?” her mother says, red-faced and laughing, as she drinks the last goblet of mead from a dust-caked bottle the family kept for just this occasion.
All the villagers are here, the chortling fools, and because the enchantment my father sells like bone china is responsible for the marriage, he’s guest of honor. That makes me guest of honor too. Every boy asks me to dance, and every boy stomps off cursing when I shake my head, folding and unfolding my ragged hem. I have special clothes, an old dress of my mother’s, I’m supposed to wear on days like these, but I cling close to my gingham apron, and when I walk home after the revelry ends, alone since my father’s too drunk to stand, the apple feels a little heavier in my pocket.
The men who come to the orchard aren’t always princes. Some are dukes or counts or barons. The girls and their families rarely know the difference, so long as the groom has a title and a castle and land.
But sometimes he doesn’t have any of those things. There’s nothing to stop a pauper from waltzing through the door and kissing the first ruby lips he sees. Because who’s going to check his credentials? We can’t locate whole kingdoms, let alone account for exact wealth.
“It’s your orchard,” an angry family says to my father after the daughter is married off to an unemployed blacksmith from the village. “You shouldn’t have let that roustabout in here.”
“No refunds,” my father says.
Every morning, I visit the girls, their wilted bodies resting in neat rows. Not all of them are chosen. We now house a decade’s worth of would-be princesses. My father has to build a second, then a third barn to accommodate them. Arms crossed over their chests, they doze here, ageless—no laugh lines where they’ve smiled too long or stitches in their brow where they’ve frowned too deep. On their faces, there’s no roadmap of their lives, because their lives sputtered out too soon.
I say their names as I walk by. It’s the only way I can help the world remember. My father doesn’t care. He brushes the grime from the curves on their skin and calls it a job well done.
“It’s their own fault,” he says to me. “They had no faith a prince would appear, so none came for them. Silly girls.”
I suddenly wish for a glass coffin, so that I might shatter it and use the jagged shards to open my father’s chest and see if he does indeed have anything beating in the cavity where a heart should be. I bet he sports a hollow chasm, and if I screamed into it, my words would echo back to me. That’s all he can offer—emptiness. There’s certainly no love between us. My devotion, from daughter to father, dried up years ago like the wells in the village that surrender only sand and sorrow. I want to tell him so, tell him how much I hate him, but it’s fear that makes me reticent. All I’ve ever known is fear. Terror of the babbling forest. Dread of what my father would do to me if he could see inside my own heart, how he’d bruise my body like he did my mother’s.
I recite the girls’ names a little louder to steady myself.
When the day is over and my father retires to the cottage to count and recount his money, I check on the forsaken apples. They live in a splintered crate at the far rim of the property, no more than a yard from the mouth of the forest. It’s a good hiding place. Because of his superstitions, my father never ventures that far, always sending me to pull the weeds there.
The crate overflows with rinds and seeds and stems, and while mold should have long ago turned the pieces to dust, the apples are like the girls—decay never touches them.
On the eve of the year’s first snowfall, another daughter arrives. Her parents pay with their last silver coins, and my father releases her into the orchard. Stealthy as a mouse, I tag along a few steps behind, but she’s not like the others. She searches for no apple. Her eyes looking north, this girl wanders past the trees, past my crate, to the boundary of the here and there.
Faltering for a moment, she glances back at me, and I’m caught under the weight of her stare.
“Are you the one who collects the bodies?”
I fidget in the dirt and shake my head.
“Then why are you here?” she asks.
I have no reason to follow the girls. I can’t stop them, can’t help them, can’t do anything except watch like a strange voyeur as they wither and fall.
“I want to keep them safe,” I whisper. “I want them to find true love.”
“Love?” The girl tosses her head back and scoffs. “There’s none of that here. True love breaks the spell, remember? But look around. The spell is stronger than ever.”
She takes a step closer to the forest.
“Please don’t.” I drift toward her, my arm outstretched, frantic to catch her before she’s lost. “You can’t be sure what waits in there.”
“Sometimes that’s better,” she says. “It can be freeing.”
“It can mean death.”
“Maybe.” She smiles. “Maybe not.”
Like my mother before her, she marches into the trees and does not return. Breathless, I lean against the lowest bough and pray she’ll look back again. She never does. Her body dissolves like mist into the darkness.
But she’s not gone. I hear giggling just beyond our property line, and her final words stay with me, sinking into my skin like the sweet scent of rose oil.
For the first and only time, the family receives a refund, and I wonder if at last the wind is changing.
On my twentieth birthday, my father buys me a new dress for my walk in the orchard.
Though the apples have made us the richest family in the province, he’s a stingy man, and it’s the first gift he’s ever given me. While I’m not grateful, not really, it seems rude to disregard the gesture, so I thank him and don the billows of pink chiffon.
“Good luck,” he says before retiring to bed. “No doubt your prince will come soon.”
My prince. The man who will assume my father’s duties once my father is too old to tend the apples himself.
Evening settles softly on the orchard like black tar dripping from the sky, and I take my father’s candle to guide me. In the playful shadows, I choose my apple—an Empire, sharp and sweet. I thread it between my fingers, turning it over and over, as though I’ll be able to decipher its secrets if only I can see it from the proper angle. Yet there are no secrets here, none worth learning, so I tell myself it’s time. My lips move toward the skin. One bite would be enough to sleep deep and cold, like an infant dipped and drowning in black water. My eyes would close, and I could rest.
But it wouldn’t last. For once, I believe my father. I’m not the same as the girls left behind. I’ve seen how the village boys watch me, ravenous wolves sniffing for blood. There is only this orchard, and I am the one to inherit it. I’m already a princess here. And all the boys, licking the sharp points of their glistening teeth, are desperate to become my prince.
The apple sags in my grasp, and doubt, as old as childhood, creeps inside me like a scarab beetle burrowed beneath the flesh. This isn’t the only way. This can’t be the only way.
The bordering forest calls to me in a voice I recognize, the voice of my mother. My fear melts away, ice in a boiling pot, and the candle as my chaperon, I walk to the edge, a circus performer on a tightrope.
The apple crate lingers still at the border of the forest. With a careful hand, I lower the wick, and the remains of fortunes lost catch in an instant. Though the fire sears my flesh, I clasp the bitten apples and pitch them, one by one, into the treetops of the orchard. These trees are healthy and shouldn’t burn, but on this evening, that makes no difference. Every branch is aglow, burning my nose with an acrid scent, the smell of make-believe hope turning to ash.
All around me, my mother’s laughing, and the gentle lilt in her voice makes me laugh too, makes me scream out with joy, until my muscles quiver and knees buckle beneath me.
The flames graze the indigo sky, and the light must reach to the heavens, or at least to the village, because I can hear the boys, the greedy ones who were waiting for me to crumble, call out to their families and announce the orchard is burning. I can hear my father too. From the cottage door, he shrieks my name, the only name he remembers, and time slips away from me like grains of sand in an open palm. I must finish now, or I won’t finish at all.
This magic is strange. It wasn’t wrought by witches, not the kind with cauldrons and capes anyhow. This magic was ours. We longed to escape the colorless land, and the girls bore the weight of that longing. It was easy to shuck it off on them. Girls are always expected to carry an impossible burden in life, like a thousand bushels of apples strapped upon a single back.
In this way, those entombed in straw are my kin. Though not by blood, they are my sisters, and I love them. From the first to the last, I’ve always loved them. I might be the only one, but one is all it takes to break the spell.
I kiss my fingertips and hold my hand to the sky. The wind carries my love to them, their lips pursed like pale hourglasses. They rouse from heavy dreams, not just the girls here, but those from faraway and forgotten kingdoms too, the princesses and baronesses and countesses who no longer look down in silence and shame. They gaze now to the north, to the unknown, to the trees that cast shadows that aren’t so grim anymore.
My mother whispers my name, and smiling, I turn to the waiting forest.
One bite, and the darkness swallows me whole.
Gwendolyn Kiste is a speculative fiction writer based in Pennsylvania. Her work has appeared in Nightmare Magazine, Flash Fiction Online, LampLight, and Three-Lobed Burning Eye Magazine as well as Flame Tree Publishing’s Chilling Horror Short Stories anthology. She currently resides on an abandoned horse farm with her husband, two cats, and not nearly enough ghosts. You can find her online at www.gwendolynkiste.com and on Twitter (@GwendolynKiste).
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