by M.D Schultz
Far away in a distant land is said to grow a fruit that grants everlasting life.
|Alma was a girl who sold flowers on the streets of the Venet kingdom, a land known for the everbloom tree, which is said to produce fruit so sweet that it grants everlasting life to any who taste it. It was a tree coveted by the royal family and one that many searched for, but few ever found. Yet, it was this tree that Alma stumbled upon one day in the forests where she picked the most colorful flowers. There, in a grove far from the busy streets of man, grew a gnarled black tree. One that had scales for bark and branches that twisted and spun around each other like snakes. Upon its winding trunk were deep scars that oozed a thick milky sap, and the few leaves that remained were dry and cracked. To the girl, it looked as though the tree was dying. However, dangling at the tallest branch was a red fruit so brilliant and smooth the sun sparkled off the surface like morning dew. There was no mistaking it; this was the fruit of the everbloom.
Alma wasted no time climbing the tree at its base. The deep indents in the wood were like stairs with many branches to grab hold of, but the unusual bark bit her palms and tore at her feet through worn-down shoes. By the time she made it to the top, her skirt was sticky with sap, hair tangled with twigs, and her hands and feet were red and scratched, but before the girl was her prize. Dangling a few inches away was the vibrant fruit with a scarlet color that sang as it swayed in the gentle winds. Stretching herself out as far as she could, Alma plucked the fruit from the branch, and the everbloom trembled. Then, with its final gift received, the bark became as soft as paper, and the tree broke apart, becoming ashes in the wind. Alma flung herself to the ground, landing on her back as she cradled the fruit in her arms like a newly born child. In seconds, a mound of black sand was all that remained of the gnarled tree. Nevertheless, in her hands was a succulent prize cold yet smooth and soft like velvet. Her mouth watered as she touched the surface of that delicate fruit smacking her lips. “I’ll just have one taste.” So she thought to herself but stopped short of biting into the softshell. It would be a terrible crime for her to taste the everbloom when there was another who needed the fruit’s magic more than she. So, Alma nestled the apple in a wicker basket and knitted a blanket of purple lilies to conceal its intoxicating nature.
Alma returned to the streets with the fruit of the everbloom, winding through the forests until her feet found cobblestone. Near the city's center stood a magnificent palace with a white tower decorated in gold and shimmering like a mirage. That was her destination, and so she walked through the busy streets with men and women who peddled goods and children who danced and played twirling about in ways that made Alma’s feet itch.
As she walked past a kindly man who peddled fish, he caught her hand, sneaking a glimpse of the scarlet fruit beneath the lily blanket.
“Young lady.” He said, breath stinking of salt and vinegar. “I will trade you one fish of your choice every day for all the days of your life if you give me a taste of that fruit.”
Behind the man was a treasure trove of fresh fish stacked on ice that smelled of the ocean. There were fish as big as Alma and some with scales that shone like rainbows after a storm. Still, the girl shook her head, apologizing to the man as she walked away, but she didn’t get far before another merchant, one clothed in finery and adorned with gaudy blue gems, stopped her.
“Young lady.” He said, putting his arm around her shoulders and guiding her to his stall. “Look, I have the finest gems in all the realm.” Upon those shelves were polished crystals so clear and smooth to make angels jealous. There were diamonds colored reds, blues and greens, and even polished glass shaped by the sea’s waves, truly art born of nature’s touch.
“Say the word, and I will make you a princess.” The man smiled fondly, patting her head. “All I ask is for one taste of that apple.” Then, reaching into the basket, his hands pulled back the flower blanket revealing the gift of the everbloom, but Alma pushed him away. Shaking her head with tears in her eyes, she ran from the merchant who called after her. Soon the crowds turned their attention, and an ocean of hands reached out to stop her.
“Young lady!” They called, but she would not listen, racing down the streets until a loose stone before the castle gates caught her shoe, and she stumbled to the ground. The red fruit of the everbloom rolled from the basket, resting at the feet of the royal gatekeeper. He was a bear of a man clad in golden metal and wearing an eagle-shaped helmet. His legs were like tree trunks, and his hands were thick with scars, each earned from a long history of service. Without hesitation, he helped Alma to her feet, tearing a bit of white cloth that hung from his armor to wipe the blood from her nose and tears from her eyes. There was a gentle precision to his movements and kindness that compelled even the strongest man to gather scattered lilies for a clumsy girl.
“Please, sir, for the queen.” She whimpered, holding out her basket and pointing at the scarlet fruit that he scooped into his hands like water from a barrel. The gatekeeper returned the everbloom's gift to Alma and then hoisted her into his arms as if a garden mouse. She yipped as the air rushed up to meet her, cheeks red as cherries.
Sitting in the crook of a bear’s arm, Alma was taken through the gates and past a mote filled with the purest water upon which light danced to music yet heard. Across the moat, they stood before the palace gates, which were like the mouth of a great whale taller than any man and large enough to swallow the sea. In a gilded hall where ten of the kingdom’s mightiest monarchs were crowned, it was beyond those mighty doors that she met the queen of the Venet Kingdom.
In Alma’s dreams, a queen was a regal figure who stood as tall as a mountain with a voice that commanded the heavens and sundered the earth. Yet, the woman who stood before her appeared no different than the young ladies who purchased flowers from her with dreams of handsome knights and flowing gowns. She wore no jewels, carried no scepter, and her regal garment was a dull white dress frayed at the edges. The queen didn’t even wear shoes, and upon her head was a tarnished silver circlet, the only indication of her mighty station.
“My lady, for your son.” Alma stepped forward when even the tallest dropped to their knees, offering a gift to a woman in need. The haggard queen, whose blonde hair was tied in knots and whose eyes were cracked red and face stained from tears, took the scarlet fruit into her hands. Then, Alma noticed something flash in the woman’s pale eyes that had been missing. A spark of light present in all who still look to the stars and dream, hope.
Together the queen and the orphan ascended five hundred stairs into the tallest tower of the palace where a young boy no older than Alma was bedridden attended by the kingdom’s finest physicians. Like his mother, he wore a simple white tunic but had skin as pale as moonlight, and his eyes were gray and dead looking. Upon his bed were a broken saddle and a lonely bow, remnants of a terrible accident that left him without the use of his legs. However, to Alma, it was the severance of his spirit that was the most tragic. For a young boy who once chased the winds with dreams of the great hunt, there was no fate worse, but his future was about to change.
The fruit of the everbloom did more than just restore the boy’s legs; it returned his will to live. With each bite, his pale skin became flush with color, and his eyes filled with a golden veil that pranced like a deer in a lush grove. When only the core of that fruit remained, he leaped from the bed and into his mother’s arms shedding such tears of joy that Alma too began to cry.
So moved was the queen by the young girl’s compassion that she offered her any boon within a royal’s power to grant. Sniffling, Alma pointed to the fruit’s core, still slick but rigid. “Can I have one of the seeds?” She asked.
With a smile like spring after a harsh winter, the queen took hold of the fruit’s pit, which was as rough and black as a chunk of coal. “Listen close to me, young lady.” she split the core open with a crack, and three red pellets no larger than a drop of water rolled into her palm. “Do you know why the everbloom is so hard to find?”
Alma shook her head, hair streaming back and forth like the ocean’s tide.
“It’s because no mortal has ever grown a fruit-bearing everbloom.” Then, taking hold of Alma’s hands, the queen poured the tiny red seeds into her open palms. “But I believe,” she said, stroking her cheek. “I believe you will succeed where many have failed.”
Alma left the palace with the queen’s kind words, skipping down the cobblestone streets and past the man wearing gaudy jewels and the one who smelled of salt and sea. She left thinking of the joy between mother and son and wanted to create a world where no parent had to watch their child suffer. To this end, the girl returned to the grove of the everbloom tree and buried red seeds beneath a mound of black soil rich with mulch and teeming with the life of a hundred critters that spun and skittered, tunneled and twirled.
Day after day, she returned to this spot, caring for the earth like mother and child. Alma dampened the soil using crystal-clear water from the palace moat and fertilized the ground with fish she bought from the pennies of her flower sales. Finally, after one week of care, a single sprout poked up from the soil as green as the forest and as fragile as blown glass. In her excitement, Alma built a wooden fence to protect the seedling from careless feet and hungry vermin.
By the time the cold winds came from the northern mountains, the everbloom had grown tall and true, its bark strong yet smooth and leaves a vibrant green with golden flowers that sparkled like any jewel. As the tree flourished, Alma pruned the branches and coated the bark in oils to keep pests at bay, and when winter came, she wrapped the base of the everbloom in linens to protect it from the cold.
By Alma’s tenth name day, when the white blanket of snow melted away and the rivers and streams swelled to burst, her everbloom was the tallest tree in the forest with bows that stretched high above the canopy. The tree burst forth with such color that the grove around it appeared dull in comparison. However, despite her best efforts, the queen’s warning about the everbloom proved correct. Although the branches were long and thick enough to support a bounty of food, the tree bore no fruit. Even so, Alma would not give up and instead sold the golden flowers making enough money to support her efforts. Day by day, she tended to the tree, and soon spring turned to summer and summer to fall, and the everbloom passed into dormancy until winter gave way to spring once more. Yet, to the girl’s dismay, the tree flush with green and gold was barren of the prize she sought.
Even disappointed, she worked so the tree would shine, hoping that one day she would find the fruit that healed a prince. However, when the cold mountain air returned, a terrible illness took hold of Alma, who collapsed in the grove before the everbloom.
With a burning fever and shaking hands, she was far too weak to return home. Had she been alone, her story would have ended, but concealed behind an ancient oak was a bear of a man who once carried an orphan to meet a queen. By royal decree, he had watched her in secret, not an assistant but a guardian angel fending away unseen danger. He carried the trembling girl to the palace once more in his arms, where she was dressed in a white gown and taken to the top of the tallest tower. There a court of physicians mixed remedies that were sweet, bitter, and sour, but the fever would not break, and days passed into months.
In Alma’s absence, the branches of the everbloom grew out of control, winding around each other like snakes as vermin gnawed at the roots and feasted on the leaves. When the bark peeled away, the sap underneath attracted a grizzled old bear that tore into the base to sharpen its claws on softwood. Then came the tiny creatures that nested in the scars building hollow galleries that weekend the tallest branches. When the winter months approached, a terrible storm called the eye of Cain brought winds that ripped through the forests like a flood. The tallest bows of the everbloom swayed and bent until, with a thunderous boom, the thickest branches tumbled to the ground leaving only a stump of a tree suffocated by tiny winding branches. Finally, the softwood warped and darkened black in the bitter chill of a long winter covered only by the barest patches of bark like the scales of a reptile.
By spring, when the winter chill retreated over the mountains, the fever that burned for a year had taken to Alma’s heart. Beyond the skills of even the most talented physicians, the sickly girl wasted away clawing at bed sheets with sweat beading across her cheeks. On her twelfth name day, she begged the young prince fair and strong to take her to see the everbloom one last time. Eager to pay a debt owed, he carried her with a bow in hand down from the highest tower and through the busy streets past the man with gaudy jewels and the one who smelled of salt and sea. As Alma clung to the prince’s back, the cool morning breeze felt refreshing across her brow, and her eyelids grew heavy as she became numb to the fever. By the time the young prince found the grove, Alma barely clung to consciousness, her fingers slipping away as she dangled over a cliff. He laid her in a bed of flowers just before the everbloom, and she gasped at what she saw.
There, in a grove far from the busy streets of man, grew a gnarled black tree. One that had scales for bark and branches that twisted and spun around each other like snakes. Upon its winding trunk were deep scars that oozed a thick milky sap, and the few leaves remaining were dry and cracked. Yet, there was a sickly branch bowed from the weight of a scarlet fruit upon which light danced, and the wind sang. Then, with a single twang of the prince’s bow, the fruit was shot free and rolled to the ground resting at Alma’s feet. Touching the soft velvet skin of the everbloom, she couldn’t hold back a gnawing hunger and so sank her teeth into the fruit, a succulent juice rushing into her mouth. It tasted of apples and honey but had the warmth of soup after a cold winter’s day. With each bite, Alma grew strong, and the fever was chased away like shadows in a sunrise as her eyes filled with golden light. And so it was that the fruit that had healed a prince now saved an orphan.
After that day, Alma’s legend would ascend taller than any tree, for she was the first to grow a fruit-bearing everbloom, and from a handful of seeds, she would grow many more. Hundreds of years later, the citizens of the Venet kingdom became the fairest of all mortal races, and the bards still sing of an orchard tended by a young girl in a dull white dress. A young girl who learned a valuable lesson. For the everbloom, strength earned by overcoming life’s adversities bears the sweetest fruit.