Long ago, in a land very far from here, there lived a prince and princess. They had a comfortable castle which, by magic, stayed clean and in good repair. The weather was mild, and a great variety of wild trees yielded all the food they wanted.
Many animals made their homes in the valley in which the castle lay, but the prince and the princess were the only people there. They couldn’t remember a time when it had been otherwise. They could not even remember having been children.
Each day passed much like the day before it. The prince and princess took walks, climbed trees, ate, and napped in the sun. When it rained, they stayed inside and played checkers. Over time, each won as often as the other, so the winner never got too excited and the loser was never too disappointed.
The prince was a tiny bit lazy and didn’t always want to walk as far as the princess did, so he’d settle himself under a tree while she continued on, and she’d bring him back sketches. Because she was such an exact copier, it was almost as if he’d seen the sights himself–a family of quail scurrying into the bushes, some gray clouds in the shape of an elephant.
One day the princess showed the prince a drawing unlike any she had made before. It was a picture of a huge tree with a thick, muscular trunk and waxy leaves so dark green they were almost black.
“What are these spots of red and blue near the top?” the prince asked. The vague smudges gave him a feeling he didn’t like in the bottom of his stomach. Never before had the princess painted something that was not clearly defined.
“Fruits, I guess,” the princess answered. “I couldn’t see them very well. But see these burls and branches? It’s a tree that could be climbed, I think, for all its size.”
“What for? We have enough trees easily climbed whose fruits we know.”
That evening the princess sat on the kitchen floor watching their dog with her litter. Five grunting, squirming puppies piled against their mother’s warm, moist belly in the unshaken belief that her flesh was one with theirs, that her life was their life. The princess understood their bliss because it was similar to the contentedness of her own existence. Yet she knew more of the world than the dogs ever would, and she wondered as she observed the tumbling puppies if there might be even more to know.
At breakfast the princess asked the prince, “Will you come to the tree with me today?”
The prince was often bored by the princess’s curiosity, mild as it was, so she only included him in it when she could not contain it.
“Is it far?”
“Only a little beyond where you stopped yesterday.”
The tree stood in the middle of a wide clearing at the top of a steep hill.
“You said it wasn’t far,” the prince complained, sitting down on a large root that had pushed up out of earth.
The tree was a type unfamiliar to the prince. This was not unusual, for every once in a while they’d discover some plant or animal they hadn’t seen before. He could tell there was something unique about this tree, however. It was not just its great size. There was some aura to this tree or perhaps to the hilltop, as there is in the air just before a thunderstorm breaks, and a damp odor, as of salted fish, hovered in its shade, though no water was nearby.
“There’s no windfall fruit anywhere on the ground,” came the princess’s voice from the other side of the trunk.
“I’m not sure there is any fruit,” the prince said, squinting up into the tree.
“Look,” the princess pointed, coming around to where he stood, “When the wind blows, there seem to be colors way up there.”
“Birds, perhaps, or flowers.”
“I want to go up.”
“The first foothold is too high.”
“Not if I stand on your shoulders.”
The prince got up and turned away. “Come find an easier tree.”
“You won’t help me?”
“But we’ve always helped each other.”
“We’ve always wanted the same things.”
The prince walked to the edge of the clearing where the path dipped down. The princess hesitated. She looked back at the majestic tree. Then she followed the prince home.
That night the princess dreamed about the tree. She was standing before it. The air around her was warm, as if the tree’s shade were giving off heat, and even though she trusted dreams, she knew that this was not possible.
A pig stepped out from behind the tree and stared at her with tiny, pale eyes. The sow was pinkish white and corpulent, with slightly swaying teats full of milk. White hairs stood stiffly away from her soft skin. Her snout was smooth and free of clinging dirt. She lifted this snout toward the princess and seemed to smile at her.
“You’ve come back,” said the pig. Her voice resonated from her head though her mouth did not open. “As you were meant to do.”
“I want to climb the tree.”
“You are not afraid?”
“What is that?”
“To be afraid is to want and not act, to ask and not listen to an answer.”
The princess considered a moment. “When I hunger, I eat. When I tire, I rest. When I see, I draw. I am not afraid.”
“You speak of simple things,” the pig said, “but you are the one nevertheless.”
The animal lowered her snout and started rooting in a thatch of sorrel growing at her feet.
“The way down will be more difficult than the way up,” said the pig, “because then you will know what you have to lose.”
When the princess told the prince of her dream, he said, “You can’t dream about something that didn’t happen.”
After lunch, she left him dozing on the riverbank and hiked to the tree alone. While she was circling the tree searching for any irregularity in the trunk that would allow her to begin her climb, a movement in the lower branches caught her eye. An albino anaconda spiraled slowly down the tree’s trunk. The afternoon sunlight, filtered by a few wispy clouds and the tree’s leaves, gave the snake’s body a rosy tint. It stopped with its head at the level of the princess’s knees and remained coiled around the tree like a liana.
“Sister Snake,” the princess said, “You are strong and I am light. Will you let me step upon you?”
She did not expect an answer. Even in that marvelous land, animals did not speak. But they did listen, and they responded by going or staying.
A ripple ran along the length of the thick body, but the snake stayed in place. Putting one foot on the snake’s lowest coil and stretching to grab with both hands onto the next coil, the princess ascended the snake like a ladder. Its skin was cool and slippery beneath her bare feet.
Soon she was off the snake, up a span of trunk, and into the lower branches of the tree. She looked down. The snake had slithered away. She had an unbroken view along the tall stem to the hard ground. The prince appeared at the base of the tree, waving his arms at her.
“Come down,” he yelled. “This tree is not for climbing.”
The princess looked above her. The top was far away. No fruits could be seen. Perhaps the prince was right.
The princess thought of the pig, who had called her “the one.” The prince would probably say it was foolish of her to set such store by a dream, yet just remembering the pig strengthened the princess’s desire to climb to the top of the tree. She believed that if she gave up now, the joy of climbing any tree would be denied to her forever.
The princess climbed on and on, staying close to the trunk where the branches were sturdiest. As she neared the top, the limbs were more slender. She had to plan each step. At last the princess’s head and shoulders pushed through a final layer of leaves, and she found herself in bright sunlight surveying the leafy dome of the tree’s crown.
To her great satisfaction she saw, glinting here and there among the greenery, fruits the size and shape of apples. Their skin was iridescent and shone blue-gold or red-gold. The princess snapped two fruits from their short stems. She took a deep bite of one.
The flesh was soft and light brown, like a bruised peach. She took more bites, and to her surprise, each bite had a taste different from the previous one. The first mouthful was honey-sweet, the second salty, the next as tart as lemon, and the next bitter. Then the bitterness was cleansed by the sweet taste again. The pit of the strange fruit was firmer than the flesh, but still soft, so the princess ate it, too.
As soon as she had swallowed the last bit, the princess felt a rumbling in her stomach. She began to sweat. The leaves whispered around her. The fruits glowed brightly, and a humming came from them as of hundreds of voices. Slowly, the humming grew louder, until the princess’s lungs vibrated with it.
The princess wished she were on the ground with the prince, or better still, far away from the hilltop and the tree. Now colors as well as sound pulsed out from the fruits.
“You have eaten well.” The humming had shaped itself into words, but the princess could not say she truly heard them. They were more like thoughts in her own mind. “Nothing shall be as it was. Look and see.”
The princess looked into the valley. She saw a wolf spring upon a fawn. The princess’s heart thudded with the fawn’s terror; her back stiffened with its desperate struggle; her legs felt its collapse; and in her mind the princess caught the fawn’s final image of a sad-eyed doe in a quiet thicket. At the same time, the princess also felt the wolf’s hunger in her belly and its ferocious strength in her arms. She tasted the first wonderful rush of blood from the fawn’s neck, the first quivering mouthful of hot meat.
She turned from this scene to the curving semi-circle of the horizon. Mountains edged the central section. She had never considered exploring them; they had always seemed merely a backdrop, as unattainable as the sky. Now she longed to visit them.
The princess looked down through the branches to the prince far below. He sat picking idly at some clover, his back against the trunk of the huge tree. A great tenderness for him swelled her throat. Tears formed. She had only before known tears when sand blew into her eyes.
She recalled all the times the prince had waited patiently under some tree for her when he would have been more comfortable at home. She thought of how he let her put her cold feet against him at night and how his body warmth carried her into sleep. She thought, too, of how he retrieved her drawings from the careless corners where she’d left them and hung them around the castle.
As she watched him, the princess felt a flutter in the hammock of muscles and flesh between her legs. Arching herself gently against the tree’s trunk, she closed her eyes and remembered the sheen of the prince’s skin under moonlight, the wash of small shadows over the sculpted hardness of his thighs, his arms, his torso. It was at the full moon that the prince would lay on top of her, and they would rock together. Now, in the tree, with no moon to signal her, the princess yearned for the prince.
Her body called her attention in other ways, too. It was heavy and tired from the long climb. She felt its fragility and recognized for the first time the danger of her situation. One misstep and she’d lay broken at the prince’s feet.
The humming had faded. The fruits hid again under the spatulate leaves. Nervously, the princess lowered one foot and groped for a place to put it. All the way down, the tree, which had seemed to embrace her on the way up, now seemed to test her. Slender twigs whipped her legs. Sharp-edged leaves scratched her face. Rough bark scraped her knees and the insides of her arms.
She was squeezing the second fruit so tightly her fingers made little indentations in it. Sticky juice bled over her hand. Small black flies bit her knuckles and the back of her hand, provoking itchy red welts.
The princess told herself the tree was the same, that it was something inside of her that had changed. Though she had no name for fear, she knew the stange feeling clutching her heart was the culprit that was making her descent so difficult. The feeling followed her every move like a new-hatched gosling doggedly trailing its mother.
Finally she was sliding down the last stretch of trunk. Here the bark was smoother. The prince reached up and lifted her down. The princess laughed with exhilaration to find herself on the ground again. She laughed also at the neat prince, who stood by awaiting her report, no trace of urgency in him.
“This is for you,” she said, offering him the fruit.
He took it gingerly between two fingertips.
“Have you had one?” he asked.
“Oh, yes,” she said. “That’s why you must have this one.”
“What do you mean?”
“I am different for having eaten the fruit.”
“You don’t look different.”
The prince glanced down at himself and shrugged. He examined the fruit and sniffed tentatively at it.
“Oh, don’t be so dull. Eat it.” The princess was seized with annoyance at the placid prince. She wanted to knock him to the ground and push the fruit into his mouth.
“I’m not hungry.”
“You don’t need to be hungry to eat this fruit,” the princess said angrily.
The prince arched his eyebrows.
“Of course I need to be hungry before I eat,” he said, amused.
The princess decided it was wiser to wait than to continue arguing. Inevitably, the prince would get hungry, and she would see that the precious fruit was close at hand when he did. She went with him to the river to bathe her scratches.
But at dinner, the prince said he wasn’t in the mood for fruit. In the morning, he got up early and breakfasted alone. By lunch, the fruit’s skin had darkened and shriveled, and it was emitting a faintly rotten odor.
“Throw that thing away,” the prince said when the princess offered it to him. He reached for a bunch of red grapes in the middle of the table.
The princess grabbed the grapes and hurled them out the open window. The prince stared down at the grapes splashed over the flagstones, then turned back to the table, as if dumbfounded that the grapes were not still there.
“Eat!” the princess ordered, slapping the unappetizing fruit into his hand.
“I do as I please!” he said. He set the fruit on the table and left.
Through the window, the princess could see him picking grapes in the arbor. Sunlight and shade mottled his figure as he walked languidly alongside the vine. She thought about how different his body was from hers and about how much that pleased her. She knew it pleased him, too, and that that pleasure was enough for him, along with the walks and the swims and the checker games. Once it had been enough for her, too.
It came to her that he would never eat the fruit she had labored to bring him. She felt painfully separated from the prince, who had been her lifelong companion. The princess took the forlorn fruit from the table and ate it herself.
In the garden, the princess came up behind the prince and tapped his elbow. He turned and smiled at her. He did not hold on to angers. She lifted her fingers to his dark curls and gently pulled his face to hers. She kissed him, sliding her tongue inside his mouth.
“How strangely you taste,” the prince said.
“From the fruit.”
“You ate it? Well, then, that’s done.”
The princess nodded. The prince, puzzled by the sadness in her expression, stroked her face gently.
“I want to go to the mountains,” she said.
“So far away?”
“We could carry food with us.”
“We’ve never had to carry food before.”
“The time has come to do things we have never done.”
The princess reclined on a cushiony patch of moss and beckoned to the prince. A bar of sunlight burnished the princess’s fair hair so that she seemed to be herself a source of light. He stretched out beside her. She kissed him slowly, again giving him her tongue. Again he tasted the lingering flavors of the troublesome fruit.
But all thoughts of the fruit and the princess’s odd behavior soon passed from his mind. He pulled her to him eagerly, craving to fill her every contour and crevice, feeling that he had not enough parts to his body to stroke against her and in her. Stunned by his own desires, he was about to apologize when he noticed that the princess was clambering over him with an energy even greater than his. This alarmed him slightly, but he could not maintain his alarm. He collapsed into his sensations.
Afterward, he was too embarrassed by what had happened to look her in the face.
“I’m still hungry,” he said, standing up. “Come help me find a honeycomb.”
The princess was saddened by the prince’s easy resumption of an ordinary day, but she made no protest. She saw that he could not want what she wanted, or not in the same ways, and she didn’t know how to explain herself to him.
In the weeks that followed, the princess did not mention the mountains again, but on their daily walks she coaxed the prince to venture farther and farther from home. They left familiar groves and traveled more deeply each day into the savannah that spread between the forest and the distant mountains.
When the heat of the day tired them, they tamped down the tall yellowed grass and sat to eat whatever small snack they’d brought with them.
Sometimes, they made love, while the grasses’ feathery seed-heads whispered above them. On those days, the princess tried to talk to the prince about the new things she had been feeling and thinking since her visit to the great tree, though she never told him that the fruit was what had brought these things to her notice. He’d listen in a drowsy sort of way, but he often forgot what she’d said from one session to the next.
“Do you like these expeditions?” she asked one afternoon.
“Sometimes,” he answered. “But we take them too often.”
“Don’t you like seeing new places? Isn’t it exciting?”
“Too much excitement isn’t good for us. Especially not for you,” the prince said. “It tips you into wanting more.”
“Well, of course,” the princess replied in irritation. “Life is short.”
“Why are you always saying things like that?”
“Because they’re true.”
The prince shrugged, not wishing to argue.
“Let’s go back,” he said.
“I’m going on,” the princess said.
Her voice was calm, but determined. Still, the prince couldn’t believe she’d go on if he didn’t accompany her. He began walking back the way they had come.
After a few yards, he turned around. The princess was standing where he had left her. They stared at each other for several minutes without speaking.
“Don’t worry, I’ll return,” she called and began to back away. “I hope.”
The prince could see she was crying. Her behavior was a complete mystery to him.
“Why are you doing this?” he shouted.
She pivoted and ran, as if she were being chased.
She stayed away for three days. She had been frightened at times and lonely, but she had also felt joy and peace. And she had taken pleasure even in the uncomfortable emotions because she came to see that they were as real and important to her well-being as food or water.
The prince had not fared as well. He was at loose ends the whole time she was away, and he did not sleep well. Though the princess went out on her own many times more, the prince never got used to it, and he never understood why she went. However, he persistently declined to go with her, holding to his opinion that too much excitement was not good.
The princess still brought home drawings, and though the prince insisted repeatedly that he preferred her pictures from “the old days,” he continued to frame them and hang them up around the castle, though he did tend to put them in rooms that were seldom used.
The princess’s new drawings were not strict representations. The prince could tell this even though he had not seen the real-life subjects. The colors were too vibrant and the juxtaposition of objects too unusual to be simply recorded sights. Once in a while he himself was included in a picture, always in a surprising way, such as flying over the treetops or blindfolded and purple-skinned. One time the prince asked the princess about her new style, and she said she drew how she felt about what she saw. He didn’t ask her about it again.
Finally, after many years, the princess died. She had told him this would happen to them both some day, but he had never been able to take hold of such an idea.
The prince walked alone where they had walked together and tried to remember everything she had ever said to him, but he couldn’t recall the parts he had not understood, and he feared they were the most important parts.
He took down all her drawings and spread them in the courtyard. He began moving them around, grouping them. When at last he saw all the trees together, and all the flowers together, and all the monkeys and lizards and hawks and other animals together, he noticed something startling.
The “old” pictures, which he had always said he preferred, paled in comparison to the pictures done after the princess had begun her solitary expeditions. Though the later pictures were, strictly speaking, inaccurate portraits, they gave a stronger impression of true, breathing life than the more careful earlier ones. There was a pineapple he wished to taste, a jaguar whose pelt he longed to touch, a pig he could almost smell.
The prince realized that, like the paintings, his own life had been livelier and bigger, though more difficult, too, after the princess changed. He wished he had tried harder to appreciate what she had offered him.
Gradually, the prince rehung the drawings. For his bedroom, he chose a picture of the full moon done in blues and grays and a strangely luminescent white.
It was one of the last drawings the princess had made. She’d said that while she worked on it, she felt as full as the moon and almost as ancient. When he looked at it, the prince, too, felt full and ancient; it made him happy to think he was sharing a feeling with the princess.
But the drawing made him feel something more. It reminded him of their early time together, and though he saw now that what had come after was more valuable, he still cherished the memory of the past’s sweet simplicity. He hoped the princess would not begrudge him that.
“The Tree” was published in the anthology, Paraspheres, Omindawn Publishing, Richmond, CA, 2006.