Our valley was so long and wide it stretched from the inland mountains to the churning sea. In the valley there lived a lot of kings and queens and random royalty, all in towers built upon hills dotting the floor of the valley, and all caught up in their own little concerns.
In a tower built on top of a leafy hill lived a king (who didn’t really matter) and a queen (who did) with no progeny. The Queen looked out of her window at the orchard below and wept warm tears. “Why can’t I have children like the happy apple trees, so heavy with fruit?”
Then one day, full of wishing, the Queen’s tummy began to grow at last, but instead of a child, she gave birth to an apple. It must be said that this was the most beautiful apple in the world, so red and glossy. (But of course at the time there were only red apples in existence.) The Queen, for lack of a better idea, put it on a silver tray and set the tray on the balcony.
On another hill, not so far away and also in a nearby tower (this one armed with cannons), lived a king whose passion, to the exclusion of everything else, was hunting boars in the forest. Already on the wrong side of forty, Eberhard had never thought of getting married, and anyway what woman would have wanted to marry a solitary man who liked to hunt boars to the exclusion of everything else? (Yes, when you grow up, never ever marry such a man, dear.)
One fine morning, as the sun shone on the towers, the King opened his window and looked out, across to his neighbour’s balcony. There he saw a beautiful girl with cheeks as red as red can be. The stranger stood, washing her long hair in a silver basin. The King watched through a hastily found pair of binoculars and fell instantly in love. Unfortunately, as soon as she spotted the King watching her, the girl ran to the tray and jumped into the apple, disappearing inside.
All that day, the King could think of nothing else. It was a refreshing change from thinking about boars. So the very next morning, decked out in his finest clothes (the ones that smelled least like hunting), he went to the tower on top of the leafy hill and knocked on the heavy oaken door.
“Dearest neighbour,” he said to the Queen (whose name, by the way, was Sylvia), “I’ve seen the most beautiful apple in the world on your balcony. I would love to have it.”
“What a strange idea! I happen to be the mother of that apple.”
The King didn’t think it could be possible, but then again, girls don’t usually live inside apples either. “Dearest neighbour,” he said. “I shall take care of your daughter. The tray will be safe on my balcony, and I solemnly promise I shall never ever slice and eat your apple.”
The Queen considered the offer. Abiding by the rule of honest neighbourhood with the owner of a tower armed with cannons seemed the sensible thing to do. She entrusted the apple to King Eberhard.
The King went home, happy as a pup with a new bone, and put tray and apple on his balcony. Every morning, he watched the girl combing her hair under the sun. She never said a word, and when her hair was dry, she jumped back into the apple.
In one of the other towers, this one built atop a craggy hill, lived another queen, who called herself Maleen. Older, this one, not really lovely, nor very kind, but she was secretly in love with Eberhard. She didn’t even care about the boar hunting and the garments smelling like boar. Every day she spied on the King through his ever-open door, but one day the door remained closed. And Eberhard did the unthinkable: he didn’t leave his home for several days in a row, not even once to hunt. Because the balcony where the King was now spending his time was situated on the other side of the tower, Queen Maleen couldn’t see what was going on.
One day, two brothers who lived in a tower of steel on the other side of the valley declared war on Queen Sylvia and her husband (who still didn’t really matter). The brothers were mere dukes, but they wanted the beautiful orchards full of apple trees, now in blossom, all white like fluffy cotton candy. They thought victory would be swift, until Eberhard took up arms against them—after all, Sylvia was almost his mother-in-law. Alone in his control room, he busied himself with operating his cannons. (Yes, they were computer-assisted of course; hush now, this is my story and I will tell it as I wish.) He fired cannonballs all the way across the valley. The brothers riposted with their own artillery. Cannonballs as big as your head crisscrossed the sky.
Maleen seized the moment to sneak into her neighbour’s home. She ran upstairs and entered the room with the balcony. There she watched the apple girl combing her hair under the sun, oblivious to the battle raging outside. When the girl jumped into the apple, the older queen, green with jealousy, grabbed a knife from the table. The blade stabbed the apple, again and again and again. Blood spurted from the cuts, spraying the walls and pooling on the floor. The jealous woman rubbed her hands together in glee.
When victory was assured and a white flag flew from the dukes’ tower, Eberhard returned to his chamber. The apple lay in a sea of blood on the floor. The King cried, the ruined fruit pressed to his chest. The girl is surely dead, he thought.
As a last resort (and a first resort as well, you’re right), the King summoned a magician who lived in yet another tower, this one by the foaming sea, where he could harness the power of the storms to best advantage. The magician mixed two enchanted powders–one to cure apples and the other to heal girls–and instructed the King to spread the mixture on the cuts. This Eberhard did, and out of the apple came the girl, covered with surgical tape from head to toe.
The Princess Apple spoke for the first time. “That shrew sliced me all over. Can you believe that?”
The King went red in the face–it could only be that hag from the craggy tower. He blushed even more as he realised the Princess wore no clothes at all.
“I’m grateful for the healing,” said she. “I have lived for eighteen years inside an apple, and I am now a full-grown woman.” She paused.
The King was curious to learn what being a grown woman entailed. (Shhh, you’ll know soon enough, little one.)
She gazed boldly at him. “I can be yours, if you will have me.”
“Say! Of course I will!” He pulled her into his arms, surgical tape and all.
“Call me Red,” she murmured.
The next morning, the King’s cannons destroyed the jealous queen’s tower and Maleen was taken prisoner.
“Now I’ll flay her, just like a boar,” vowed Eberhard.
“Oh, no,” the girl-now-a-grown-woman said. “Such a gruesome act on the eve of our wedding would bring us bad luck.”
The King’s eyes narrowed, and wrinkles like goosefeet formed at the corners of his eyes. (It was one of his most charming features.) “But we can’t let a would-be murderer get away with it, my love.”
Red Apple smiled and said “Leave it to me,” then went to see the queen who had tried to kill her. Maleen brooded in an oubliette.
“Don’t worry,” said the Princess. “I’m here to make peace with you.”
The older woman rose and backed away to the farthest corner of the cell, for evil minds can only conceive evil deeds, and she could not imagine her rival doing anything short of horrible to avenge herself.
“I need a confidante. Let’s be friends.” Red Apple approached and extended a hand.
The older woman hesitated for a moment but then grabbed the tiny hand. And poof. She became a green apple.
Princess Red Apple palmed her forehead. “Oh, dear. I forgot to work the appropriate spell. I’m afraid you’re stuck in there. But I’m sure you’ll be a great listener.”
The wicked queen was never heard to speak since. Our Red Apple went back to the sitting room with the green apple in her pocket. The very next day she became queen.
And they lived happily ever after. (No, of course, the story isn’t finished yet.) After years of an intensely contented marriage, one day the Queen Red looked at the King in a certain manner–his clothes were all muddy from the latest ride across woods and marshes. She stood on top of her toes and kissed him tenderly.
And poof. The King became a yellow apple. She put the yellow apple on the tray, near to her own. Every morning, he springs out of the apple and goes out to hunt boars. (Oh, dear, a man can’t spend years just adoring a woman and admiring her while she combs her hair. It’s sad, I know, but c’est la vie.)
And that is why apples come in red, green or yellow, and that is also why green apples taste sour and tart, yellow apples are a just a bit wrinkly, and red apples are so glossy and beautiful they’re best on a tray rather than eaten.
(There, there … I told you the green one would taste acid, and you should have baked the yellow one with sugar and butter. Time to sleep, now. Jump into your apple.)
“The Colours of Apples” subverts the Italian folktale ‘The Apple Girl’ retold by Italo Calvino in Italian Folktales, published in 1956.