by Tina Connolly
The golden apples are round and smell of autumn. Sometimes the men throw yellow quince, hard as butternut squash, hard as stones. Sometimes they drop ruby-throated nectarines, and then she kicks them, steps on them, crushes them as she runs.
The men all know of her quest and they all try to distract her. No matter that she is as fleet as a doe. Even with their distractions she can outrun them all, those plodding men with their grasping hands and heavy tread, who will not cast aside their swords and armor and war medallions even for a foot race.
And so they cheat. And so she stops and examines each golden fruit they drop, to see if they have found what she wants. It is an odd thing she wants, and in the weeks before each race, where she chats with each new suitor and tells him of her quest, she mentions it. An apple of freedom, she says, and then they laugh at the idea, for in what way is she not free? But they have gone into the race forewarned.
The men find her substitutes. One tracks down a solid gold apple inscribed with Kalliste. When she scoops it up she understands that it is meant to tell how beautiful a woman is–or perhaps, how easily a woman is misled. It is an apple that has started wars. She runs to the cliffs and flings it into the sea, and she still wins the foot race.
Another throws a russet apple into her path. This man wears teeth around his neck that chatter as he labors past her. When she picks the apple up, her palm numbs and death coats her fingers like candle wax. She remembers a story of a girl who ate such an apple, and thereafter lay unmoving on her suitor’s glass bed, silent and perfect until the end of time. She will not bury this apple, afraid of what it might grow into. When she bests this man, she watches as the guards feed him this apple.
A third throws a golden-orange fruit, pebbled and shining like the sun. It is a miraculous tree indeed that fruits and blossoms at once, for a white blossom still hangs from a twig. When she smells it sunlit images flood her mind–a green tree growing from a fountain of youth; a fruit of immortality. It is the kindest gift so far, but immortality is not a word that tempts her, not when it comes with an equal yoke. She drops the fruit in the man’s path as she flies past him, hoping that this life might not be on her conscience after all.
She feels sorry for many of them, and encourages them to go home. But they do not, and then they cheat, which salves her conscience. It is not as if she has a choice in their deaths. Her father has made the rules and she is his. She runs when they wish to run, and her only choice is whether or not to lose. Her father tells her a good maiden would throw the race.
As the bodies pile up, she doubts more and more that the apple she dreams of exists. It seems unfair that men should be able to find apples of youth and life and knowledge, and the one thing only she wants is denied.
At last there is a man who seems kind. A man who talks intelligently of the world, who seems almost to understand when she explains yet again her foolish quest. This man refuses to cheat. He brings her a fruit the morning of the race and offers it to her on one knee. It is a pomegranate, rose and gold and thick-shelled, and he cracks it open, splays it into a diadem of ruby jewels.
“Milady,” he says, “I have asked councillors, I have asked explorers, I have asked the world. No one has heard of the apple you seek. They doubt its existence, for they all agree that no man is truly free. Therefore I have brought you the poor substitute of my love. If you eat of this love-apple twelve seeds you may choose to bind yourself to me as I am in my heart bound to you. We will leave this place together.”
As she takes the fruit, he bows and there is longing in his eyes. He readies himself for the race, and she half-smiles at his preparations, for he strips himself of all honor and wealth, and dresses himself in a thin shift like her.
She meets him at the starting line. She knows the tale of the girl who lost her winters to the underworld by eating six seeds. And she knows that while love might be a two-way bond, the rest of her life is ever one-way, as she is the apple and never the one who eats.
She holds out the fruit. “What if you choose to eat and bind yourself to me, as in my heart I might perhaps be bound to you?”
His eyes narrow and the whistle sounds and he runs. Runs the race, running to win her. In his shift he is fleet, but so is she, and her nails bite into the pomegranate, scattering the seeds into the dirt. Juice as red as blood stains the dirt.
They run towards the finish, but she is the doe, the whistle of wind, the girl in search of an apple, and she does not stop. She runs, leaving him behind. She runs until her feet are as red as the pomegranate and then she runs some more. Someday her soles will harden, until they are as tough as sun-yellowed quince. She is fleet, she is gold, she is cold as the ruby-throated dawn.
In the air she tastes the first apple blossoms of spring, drifting free on the wind.
Tina Connolly lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and young son, in a house that came with a dragon in the basement and blackberry vines in the attic. Her stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, Fantasy, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and the anthology Unplugged: Year’s Best Online SF 2008. Her debut fantasy novel IRONSKIN is forthcoming from Tor in October 2012, with a sequel in 2013. She is a frequent reader for Podcastle, and is narrating a 2012 flash podcasting venture called Toasted Cake. In the summer she works as a face painter, which means a glitter-filled house is an occupational hazard. Her website is tinaconnolly.com.