When the child was twelve, the apple tree in the backyard began to decline. The apples fell that autumn like any other year. They spread across the grass around the tree like a pebbly green sea, and when nobody was looking he picked them up and took bites out of them as they lay on the ground. Its leaves unfurled and deepened in the September sun that held out the last charms of sun-drenched summer before tucking them away with the receding heat. The apples were less that year. The child didn’t notice. He was too busy to snatch up more than one apple before he careened off through the woods, howling his strange song. He lingered on the edge of childhood that autumn, beginning to grow lanky but still clambering up trees and chasing imagined bandits and heroes. He didn’t climb the apple tree anymore. Now it was all the oaks and maples that boasted tall trunks, sturdy branches, and leaves that lost their green and gleamed with warmth instead. The child was proud that he could scamper up like a squirrel, clinging to the living wood and perching on a jut of branch too high to see.
The apples fell, and crowded on the ground, and rotted there to soft forgotten mounds of what once was crisp and sweet. The animals gouged chunks from the fallen fruit while the child fought villains too terrible to name in the clearings of the forest. He won the battle against the beasts who terrorized his kingdom. He scared himself on the highest creaking branch of the oldest swaying tree and clambered down again, sweating. He shot a scornful, guilty glance at a girl who smiled at him in the cafeteria. The child was less a child, and the apple tree died.
Its demise was slow, almost imperceptible. Its leaves fell and crumpled on the scattered apples instead of rusting red. The tree stood stark and empty in a forest of trees still bright with autumn plumage. Its green leaves and fruit moldered on the ground. In the winter, snow piled in glittering drifts in the forest, and the trees shuddered and shivered in the cold. Snow lined the branches of the apple tree and frost encased its twigs. Inside the dead white, the apple tree froze. Its wood dried and became brittle until the ravages of a blizzard cracked two branches. In December the child dragged a sled that was too small through the forest. He stopped in awe when he saw the apple tree. He gazed at the jagged pale stubs poking out from it, undignified and crude. The child picked up and tossed away the lost limbs that were beneath it. He reached a hand to the trunk, where the life of the tree was dying embers, but he moved his small warm hand away from the bark when he felt the cold grasping at him.
When the spring came, the snow shrank to wizened shreds on the dirt. The daffodils burst into color, banishing the cold. The child ran through puddles and cursed at his mud-spattered clothes. The apple tree still stood, but it had no life returning. Its wood was dry and its branches lit no leaves. While the child made new games in the chittering forest, the apple tree shriveled. The child became a hero and saved a kingdom. Sometimes he stopped to look curiously at the apple tree’s plain lines, the curves uninterrupted by green and the spiky wounds that would not heal.
In summer the forest was brilliant. The sun filled it with stained-glass leaves and light-spotted shadows. The animals whispered and cried out. The child sat in the crook of the old oak with a book, unmoving for hours. The apple tree stayed dead and cold at the edge of the woods.
When autumn came, the child was still less a child. He had less of the bright-edged certainty of a hero, and none of the duller calm that he thought must be coming. Sometimes he came to the forest and told himself stories, still. These were not described in sweeping gestures and wild rollicking. These stories crept out in murmurs. He sang less now and did not howl. In October the apple tree was white against the blood and flame of autumn. It heaved a sigh of twisted wood and relinquished the last threads of life. The not-child stayed a moment beside it, his hand warm on its creased surface, before he went on.