The Apple of Her Heart
by Tala Bar
Once there was a great, wise queen who, since her husband’s death, had ruled with a strong hand, installing peace and order.
The Queen had one daughter, the beautiful Princess Snow White. Like the ancient heroine, the princess’ complexion was as clear and white as snow, her hair and eyes were raven black and her lips as red as blood. Snow White had never known her father, who died when she was only three months old. Although the Queen had pointed to their newly-born, an only child, and asked him to stay home to enjoy his daughter, the King had gone to fight in one of the many wars, which had been taking place on the borders of his kingdom throughout his life, leaving Snow White fatherless. The Queen then made peace with all her neighbors, and dedicated her life to raising her daughter and managing the kingdom.
Snow White grew up to be a beautiful, clever girl, enchanting everyone around her; the nurses worshipped her and fulfilled all her wishes, and her girlfriends loved playing with her because she always had new interesting ideas for games. No one found any fault in her, except her mother the Queen. Only she, who was closer to Snow White more than anyone else, felt that in spite of her beauty and cleverness, the Princess had as cold a nature as the snow she was named after. It was true that she amused the ministers, who regarded her as a pretty toy; she showed kindness to her nurses and behaved as a true leader with her friends. Even the Queen could not complain about their personal relationships, because Snow White was submissive toward her mother, behaving as a true subject to the Queen. But she lacked warmth, or any feeling of affection. It was a sad fact which her mother had to acknowledge, that Snow White loved none of the people who were close to her, perhaps, the Queen reflected, not even herself.
* * *
As long as the Princess was a little girl, the Queen did not worry too much. ‘She’ll grow out of it,’ she thought. She still made an additional effort to pour on her daughter a double measure of love and warmth, as if she wanted to melt the ice and thaw the cool heart. To no avail. As Snow White grew up, the emotional barrier between her and her friends and attendants grew higher and higher, until they could no longer ignore it; one by one they removed themselves from her company to look for more satisfying connections. Gradually, Snow White’s girl friends matured, found mates and got married, and the nurses left to take care of other children.
The ministers began to see her with new eyes: she was no longer an amusing little girl, but a lovely, attractive young lady, and they paid her now a different kind of attention.
Young courtiers saw the Princess as a desirable image. They imagined themselves walking by her side, sunk deep in heartfelt conversation; they felt like touching her white hand, caressing her black hair, even catching a kiss from the red lips. But Snow White did not let anyone get so close to her, and the barrier around her remained high and stout. Young men could only look at her from afar, admiring her beauty not daring to approach her.
The Queen saw all that and grew even sadder. If the girl could not get close to anyone, how would she ever find a suitable mate to fall in love with, to marry and have children, and to carry on from her mother to rule over the land? The Queen reflected that she herself would soon arrive at an age when she would prefer to amuse herself with grandchildren and leave the business of the Kingdom to younger people. But how could this happen if Snow White let no one approach her?
In her mind, the Queen searched for means to change her daughter’s heart. She then remembered her own mother, who had been a wise woman with great powers, which some people would call supernatural. When she died, the old sorceress had left her daughter many books and articles of magic, which the Queen never bothered about. For herself, she had always preferred to deal with the world with earthly means, using both her rational and her emotional intelligence rather than the supernatural; but this, she felt, was becoming a problem which all her mundane wisdom could not help her solve. After much meditation, she decided with great trepidation that she had no other course to turn to but her mother’s wizardry.
Searching through the books, the Queen read about a number of simple means that could be used to soften a cold heart. Looking through her mother’s artifacts, she found one of these means, which was a magic comb, made of ivory and inlaid with colorful gems. Anyone wearing that comb would be filled with happiness, and his or her heart would be open toward all people. When Snow White’s eighteenth birthday arrived, the Queen invited princes from all her neighboring countries to a magnificent ball. With her own hand she combed her daughter’s hair, put the comb in it and kissed her head for luck; the ivory glowed on top of Snow White’s shiny black hair, the gems glittered like the stars at night. All the princes surrounding Snow White adored her, paid her untold compliments; every one of them tried to get her attention and invite her to dance. But Snow White retained her coolness, holding herself back from them all. The power of the happy comb had no effect over the princess’ cold heart, it did not manage to melt the ice that surrounded it. Long before the end of the ball it was clear to all her admirers, that no one could approach Snow White, no one could capture her heart.
Following the list of means she had read about in her late mother’s books, the sorrowing Queen resumed her search. Among the magical artifacts she then found a belt laced with threads of gold and silver; it was said that anyone wearing that belt would be suffused with the feeling of kindly warmth toward all people. For Snow White’s nineteenth birthday the Queen again invited the princes of all neighboring countries; with her own hands she helped her daughter to put on a magnificent light-blue dress, and encircled her slim waist with the gold and silver belt, which shone like a comet’s tail on the sky-like background. A wave of pleasant warmth was emitted from the Princess body, affecting the princes surrounding her; only her own heart was not affected, it remained as cold as ever and did not respond to their advances.
* * *
The Queen was desperate. She did not know what else she could do to arouse any sort of love in Snow White’s heart, because she no longer trusted her mother’s artifacts. During the days, she was still looking after her kingdom’s business; at night, though, she pondered again and again over the sorceress’ books, looking perhaps for a special potion, or powder, which would be effective in melting her daughter’s icy heart. The Princess twentieth birthday passed with no special notice, the party was prepared half-heartedly and was soon ended with Snow White retiring to her rooms, cold and unhappy.
At last, after many days of search, the Queen found a very old tome hidden under a pile of others, which she had not looked in before. The book’s formerly silver cover had tarnished black, its smooth white pages had turned brittle, looking dark gray from age and dust. She had to wear thick gloves to browse through those pages, because she was afraid they might be poisoned. In that book she read:
“In the thick of a forest growing at the top of a high mountain, among the thicket of trees and thorny shrubs surrounded by many bogs and pits, there grows an apple tree. Only one apple hangs on a branch of the tree among spiky boughs. This apple has the special character that it can melt any frozen heart and thaw the coldest of feelings. Only a person pure of heart can pick that apple, which would avoid the hand of any other. Though the apple can melt a frozen heart, it cannot soften a heart of stone. If a person whose heart had turned to stone eat the apple, he or she would die on the spot.”
When she finished reading, the Queen went back to read the last passage again. There it was. The difference between a cold heart and a heart of stone. How was it possible to tell between them? Still, she reflected, she was almost absolutely certain that Snow White’s heart was not made of stone. There must be a spark of life in it, a trace of fire buried somewhere under the layers of ice!
But if it was not there? She asked herself. In that case, was it not better for the Princess not to live at all than to live the way she did? The Queen had to make a decision, and, at last, she did. The next day she issued a declaration, which she sent throughout the Kingdom and the neighboring countries. It said:
“Any unmarried man who will get the magic apple, bring it to the Palace and give it to Princess Snow White to eat, will win her hand in marriage and rule with her over the kingdom.”
Below, particulars of the way to reach and get the apple were given, making clear the hardships and difficulties to be met on the way.
As there was no specification of the sort men who could take part in the competition and seek the Princess hand, it was a mixed crowd that showed up at the starting point. Many princes came, most of whom had met Snow White and coveted her beauty; many common men came, who had not known Snow White but coveted the kingship. There were also many adventurers, who were attracted neither by Snow White’s beauty nor by kingship, but felt it was an undertaking worth its effort.
The mountain was high, its slopes steep and rocky; climbing was hard and dangerous, demanding strength of body and tenacity of mind. Out of the hundreds of men starting on their climb, only twenty or thirty reached its top. Many stumbled and collapsed, unable to continue; some tumbled and rolled down to the abyss, others gave up half way, preferring to return to the comforts of their homes.
It may have surprised some people that neither the princes-lovers nor the ambitious for kingship were the best in overcoming the hardship. Most of those who had finally reached the wood on top of the mountain were the adventurers, whose sole interest was the undertaking itself. They climbed the mountain bravely and insistently, paying their whole attention to the task at hand. On the other hand, the ambitious and covetous, less experienced men who had no strength or stamina to deal with the obstacles, fell behind, hurt and exhausted, some of them even killed out of sheer carelessness and inattention.
Arriving at the peak, the climbers fell, panting and exhausted, among the trees, literally kissing the level ground under their feet before venturing further into the thicket. The forest was thick and dark, its ground wet and treacherous. As the seekers entered it, some of them soon lost their way, going round and round in circles never to find an opening out. Others stepped on the soft soil hidden under the carpet of grass or undergrowth, sinking into the marsh or falling into pits underneath it, with no one to save them. Some encountered and were devoured by fierce, strange beasts, against which even the best weapon was like straw. Very few of the men managed to overcome all obstacles and reach the apple tree, which stood in the heart of the forest. They stood wondering in front of it, staring at its large size and leafy cover, and the single fruit shining bright red from among the dark-green foliage. It seemed to be winking at them, as if beckoning each man to try and reach out for it. Some of them tried, unthinking, getting their hands scratched by unseen thorns and spikes. But the apple eluded them, slipping away only to wink at them again from a safe distance. They felt that the closer they got, the farther they were from their final goal. Although they had all been strong and enduring enough to reach the apple tree at the top of the mountain, none of them seemed pure enough of heart to be able to pick it.
Among the men standing around the apple tree was one who was neither a prince nor ambitious to become one, nor was he an adventurer. That man was a hunter who had been living for some years in a small wooden hut inside the forest. Having grown up in the city on the plain, he had become disillusioned with human society; forsaking both its benefits and harms, he had left it behind him to climb the mountain as a dare to himself. He had overcome all obstacles on the way, reached the forest where he found peace of mind. The man had taught himself the skills of a hunter, had learned all about edible plants, and was happy to live off the forest and consort with trees, rocks and animals. He knew all the roads and paths crossing it, and could tell with his eyes shut where every pit and bog was, easily finding his way around them.
The Hunter had long been familiar with the apple tree. He used to watch in wonder its bright red only fruit, amazed at its duration through all seasons of the year. The tree never changed its look, never shed its leaves in autumn and never blossomed in spring. Its only fruit always hung on its bough, swaying in the wind, winking with its bright red cheek. The thought of picking that miraculous fruit had never crossed the hunter’s mind; he would certainly regard it as sacrilege.
The Hunter’s life changed when one day he noticed from the top of the mountain the hundreds of people trying to climb it. It was a strange sight and he wondered about it. Very few people had ever tried to climb that mountain, and they would usually do it in small groups of three or five; no one except himself had ever reached its top, they would usually turn back halfway up. He was fairly upset when he noticed that some of the climbers had arrived at the forest; he was even more upset when he saw them venturing into it instead of turning to climb back down.
From inside the thicket the hunter watched the adventurers, who wandered through the forest as if searching for something. He saw those who fell into a bog or a pit, were pricked by poisoned thorns or devoured by a beast of prey. Once or twice he even tried to rescue some of them, but they paid him back with resentment and rejection, as if afraid of his being a competition in their quest. He then decided that quest was none of his business, and the quicker they left the forest the happier he would be. He then left them to their fate, but followed those few who had managed to escape by themselves until they reached the apple tree. Only when he was standing among them as they were trying to pick the single fruit, the Hunter heard with surprise and astonishment the details of their pursuit. Looking on in amazement, he saw them trying unsuccessfully to pick the apple. Gradually, this task was revealed as the hardest of all. The red, shining fruit slid agilely away, like a live creature, from the hands of the men who tried to catch it. Then, from a safe distance, it seemed to be smiling contemptibly at those who were so useless at accomplishing such a simple task.
When one by one the few men around the tree failed to grasp the apple, they noticed the one man who was standing on the side, watching them without trying his hand at the task. It seemed that, having failed in their undertaking, they had a growing need for at least one of them to be a winner; otherwise, they felt, all their combined effort was for nothing. They now combined together to urge the Hunter to try and pick the slippery fruit.
At first, the Hunter shook his head vigorously at their request. He was disinclined not only to destroy that wonder of the forest, but also to achieve that very goal the others were after. But when they would not let him alone he grew tired of their hustling; at last, he thought, what had he got to lose? If he failed, he would stay on living happily in the forest. And if he won he did not think there was any chance of that.
He approached the tree. Having seen how the others had failed, he tried to calculate his movements through the branches. Carefully, he thrust his arm in among the foliage. The branches moved, swaying lightly. A hash fell, all eyes glued to the Hunter’s hand. As it moved among the boughs, the moved away from it, letting it pass unharmed. The way was clear for the Hunter’s hand to reach the apple. He touched it with his fingers. Instead of slipping away, the apple slipped right into the Hunter’s palm. He grasped it, pulling his arm out. The men gasped. The shiny red fruit lay, smiling, inside the Hunter’s dark-skinned palm, as if it was particularly fitted for it. Joining together, the men virtually carried the reluctant Hunter through the forest, down the mountain and back to the Palace. All obstacles seemed to have vanished in face of their sacred purpose, until they came before the Queen.
The Queen was sitting on her throne, Princess Snow White by her side. Both looked at the Hunter with the apple in his hand, the former with her clear blue eyes, the latter with her deep black ones. The Hunter bowed before each, standing silent before the commanding figure of the Queen. His roving glance absorbed the splendor of the Reception Hall, his heart filled with mild contempt for the necessity of it. Then his wandering eyes fell on the Princess; his heart missed a beat and his face blanched like her own. Then the beating of his heart quickened, the blood rushed through his veins and his face reddened like her lips. Eternity passed before he turned back to the Queen, silently offering her apple.
The Queen took the fruit with a trembling hand and turned to her daughter: “Look, Snow White; this man has succeeded in the mission and got you that rare treat. Would you like him for a husband?”
Snow White turned her cool stare to the Hunter. He was a handsome man with a solid-looking well-proportioned figure, regular features, light brown, slightly disheveled hair and golden brown eyes. “He’s no better or worse than any of the others,” the Princess told her mother; “but if you want him for my husband, I shall obey you as always.”
The Queen gazed at the Hunter. She did not think any girl would refuse him; his golden eyes shone with kindness, his movements were strong and gentle at the same time, and the apple in his hand proved not only his skill but also the purity of his heart. She found no fault in him, even though he was no prince. She sighed. If she wanted her daughter to love, the girl would have to eat from the apple, otherwise she would never be happy. ‘And if her heart is of stone and she dies,’ the Queen reflected, ‘maybe it’s for the best, for she could never be happy.’ But she still hoped, against so many odds.
She got off the throne and signed to her daughter to follow her. The two of them went alone together to the Princess suite of rooms; the Queen did not want anyone to witness the immediate outcome of Snow White’s eating from the apple. Having closed the door, the mother gave the fruit to her daughter, saying, “You’d better try it, I don’t know what else we can do.”
Snow White, as usual, obeyed her mother. Taking the apple in her slender hand, she held it for a moment, looking at it coolly with her black eyes. Then, without hesitation, she bit into it. There was a pause, the world had stopped its breathing, when Snow White chewed at her bite; as she swallowed, her knees suddenly buckled, her body sagged and slipped to the carpeted floor. She lay motionless with eyes closed, her black hair spread around her white face; her red lips paled to the color of her cheeks and all life seemed to have left her body.
The Queen, alarmed, rushed back to the main hall, calling for help. The ministers peeped in, shook their head and called for the Palace doctor. The man came and checked Snow White’s vital signs; he found her still breathing, though shallowly, her pulse faint and slow. “She’s alive,” he said, “barely.”
“What’s to be done?” the Queen asked.
The physician shrugged. “As long as she breathes, there is hope. But I don’t know what I can do. She may rise out of it any moment, or...”
In the reception hall the Hunter was still standing, waiting. No one bothered about him, until the Queen came and told him there was an indefinite suspension in forming any relationship between him and the Princess.
“But I would be grateful if you stay in town. In case you have any difficulty, the Palace will supply all your needs.”
She turned and went back to her daughter’s rooms, and he left without a word to anyone.
* * *
Snow White was laid on her bed, all her bodily function suspended. The Queen appointed trained women to stand guard around the bed, and the room was kept dark but warm. The Queen then returned to her business of ruling the kingdom, but her heart was no longer in it. The strong mental connection between her and her daughter caused her to be unable to eat and drink, making her so weak there was fear for her life. She still had enough sense of responsibility not to allow herself to die, thus to leave both her daughter and the country to an unknown fate.
As time passed with no change, the Queen, always a woman of action, decided to take a fateful step. She called for the Hunter, inviting him when he came to the Palace’s private rooms. “You are the Princess’ destined husband, she said to him, and you should know everything.” She then took a deep breath and, as if plunging into deep water, explained quickly. “If the Princess heart had been made of stone, she would have died straightaway from eating the apple. If her heart had been just cool, she would have warmed up toward you. But she fell into a coma, which shows that has been too cold for too long a time to waken easily.”
She paused, enveloping him with her steady blue gaze. His own eyes, she noticed, had lost some of the golden glitter in them. What do you want me to do? he asked, whispering.
“Do you love my daughter?” she asked simply.
He sighed, closing his eyes. When he opened them again, he said quietly, “You know I do. I’ll do anything to help her, and you, Majesty.”
The Queen sighed in her turn. “I don’t know what to do about my daughter, but I wish you would take the throne and be King, until she wakes up.”
He thought for a moment. “I never bargained on being King,” he said at last, “but I would be anything for Snow White. Still, before deciding anything, I would like to see her.”
“Of course,” the Queen answered.
She rose and led the way to the Princess suite. She dismissed the guard before allowing the Hunter to approach her daughter’s couch. He stood for a moment, looking down at Snow White still figure, sadness pinching his heart at the paleness of her lips. How much he wanted to make them red again! As he was looking, they seemed to tremble, and he could not hold himself back. He bent and kissed Snow White’s lips.
The change was slow but evident. Slowly, the blood started flowing in the lax body; her lips turned from white to rose, from rose to deep pink, and her white cheeks assumed a glowing, rosy color which they had never had before. Snow White opened her eyes, and their blackness glittered with gold, answering the gold in the Hunter’s eyes. She looked up at the man who had kissed her, stretched her arms and caught him round the neck. He grasped her waist and raised her from the couch, and they united in a long kiss. The Queen looked on, astonished, her heart beating wildly.
When the lovers parted, Snow White went and hugged her mother in a way she had never done before. With her head on her mother’s shoulder, she shed the first tears that had ever flowed from her eyes. The Queen led her daughter from her rooms into the main hall, all the Palace attendants looking in amazement. From behind her tears Snow White’s smile shone at them, and they all cheered in joy.
The Princess married the Hunter, and the whole kingdom celebrated. The Queen had abdicated in favor of the young couple, preferring to spend the rest of her life in the company of the grandchildren, who soon started coming, filling the Palace and her heart with unusual merriment. The mother continued to act as a good advisor to her daughter and son-in-law, who had a great appreciation for her wisdom and understanding.
Copyright © 2005 by Bewildering Stories on behalf of the author