The apple sat on the table, shining in the sunlight, round and red and delectable.
“There,” a woman’s voice said, “eat it.”
A pair of hands sat, flat, on either side of the apple, thin, bony, man’s hands with dark hair and chipped fingernails. Leaf shadows flickered over his hands as the tree above them moved in a breeze. He hedged. “I don’t really understand how this is going to help me to escape guilt.”
“It’s a practical application of what we’ve been talking about!” The woman’s voice grew rich with a smile. She interlaced her hands on the table opposite from the man’s. Her hands were manicured, nails painted a matching apple-red. “The only way to prevent it from being rotten is to eat it.”
The man pulled his hands back from the table and raised his eyebrows. His face was thin and stretched with skin that looked like parchment and his hair hung in limp strands down his back.
She laughed at his expression. “I know it sounds crazy, but hear me out. You think its being rotten is wrong, that there’s something substandard about it. If you ate a rotten apple—a ‘bad’ apple—then it would make you sick.” She was leaning forward now, auburn hair falling down around her shoulders, a smile on her face. “But think for a moment; is it unnatural for an apple to rot?”
He frowned at the apple, and ran a hand through his hair. “I guess not.”
“So then can you say that it’s wrong for the apple to rot, if that’s a perfectly natural thing to happen to an apple?”
“Well I wasn’t—”
She reached forward and laid her hands over his, giving them a squeeze. “Just keep going with me for a minute. We’ve agreed that it’s natural for it to rot, correct?
“If it’s natural, then it’s correct. So who’s in the wrong about the apple?”
“Me, I guess. My ideas.” He was looking at her, rather than the apple, his eyes traveling from her long hair to her smiling face, to her low-cut blouse.
“So if you eat the apple and believe that the apple is everything it ought to be, then you will have made a step towards understanding the universe. And understanding yourself. There’s no need to label things ‘bad’ and ‘good,’ and no need to live with guilt about any of your life choices. We’re going to root that old thinking out of you.”
In the distance, the wheels of a cart creaked and grass began to whisper as someone walked through it, but neither man nor woman looked away from each other and the apple shining in between them.
A shadow fell over the apple and the man jerked his head up to look at the intruder. A farmer stood there, face lined with exposure to the weather, a smile in his grey eyes.
The farmer tipped his hat. “’Lo, ma’am, sir. Sorry to interrupt, but I saw you had one of my Romes, and I’m afraid that lot rotted unaccountably fast. I can pretty much guarantee that one’s completely wormy at the middle. I’m very sorry for the trouble, but I can give you a couple new ones if you want. Best ones of the season—was just about to take them off to the farmer’s market in town, but you can have one for free to make up for that rotter, there. It’s on me.”
He grinned affably at both of them and held out an apple to them. Greg stared at it, mouth slack, eyes round, and then darted a glance back at the woman. She wrinkled up her nose into a smile.
“I think we’re okay with this one.”
The farmer tilted his hat back and sucked in a breath. “Weellll, I’m afraid it’s not a maybe situation, see, my en-tire crop of Romes got worms. I can guarantee you that that beauty there is the wormiest apple I hope you’ve ever seen, ma’am. You get a bite into that thing, and unless you have a fondness for worms wriggling through your teeth, you’re going to be puking your guts out.”
The woman turned to Greg. “See what I mean, Greg? That’s the problem with the world. People don’t have enough faith. Think of how much this man has been wasting because he’s too small-minded to see the beauty and wholeness of this apple. Go ahead, take a bite.”
The farmer snorted like a horse and dropped his cart handle. “Beauty and wholeness? Do you not understand me? This. Thing. Is. Rotten!”
In one smooth motion his arm flashed out with a glitter of a knife in his hand, and chopped through the apple. The two apple pieces stuck for a moment, and then dropped open, rocking softly on the picnic table, revealing a mushy brown sludge protected by a thin sliver of healthy apple just underneath the skin. The mush stirred briefly as something dove deeper into its remaining apple slice. Greg swallowed, coughed, and his eyes slid involuntarily to the apple in the farmer’s hands.
But his therapist radiated angry heat. She sat up straight. “Look, I don’t know who you are, but I’m trying to help this man. And maybe you don’t care about freeing strangers from destructive thought patterns, but I do care!” Her voice broke, suddenly. “I really do! And—and you just come along and put your stupid apple above another person’s life! I know it may look stupid to you, but this is a really important step!” She flipped back around, avoiding Greg’s eyes, flushed red. “I’m sorry, excuse me, I’ll—” She got up and walked away, pulling out a handkerchief as she went and blowing her nose.
The farmer rested an elbow on the picnic table and watched her go, chewing on the inside of his lip meditatively. He pointed the tip of his knife at her retreating back and asked Greg, “You fond of that woman?”
But Greg’s face was white and his eyes glowed with nervous excitement. He barely even looked at the farmer as he got up off the picnic bench. “Dana! Dana, wait!”
He ran after her, caught up to her, took her hands in his. The farmer slid himself onto the picnic bench, pushed the rotten apple further away from him, and began carefully paring himself one of his healthy apples.
In a few moments, Greg escorted Dana back, his arm around her waist, bent towards her as she dabbed at her eyes with her tissue. She shot one angry glance at the farmer and sat down at the table. Greg went around to the opposite side, but reached for her hand and held it. She sniffed and would not look at the farmer, who offered a neat slice of crisp white and pink apple to Greg. Greg looked at his hands.
Dana said, “This is a private counseling session.”
“This private counseling session is smack dab in the middle of my cow field. I b’lieve I’ll attend.”
She wavered, stopped, and rapped out, “I’ll ask you not to make any comments during the session.”
The farmer tipped his chin in agreement. Then he casually rolled the apple he still held in his hand across the table. It bumped a foot or so and rocked to a stop next to the halves of the rotten apple.
“What’s that for?” Greg asked.
The farmer shrugged and leaned back against the tree again. “I don’t want to impose any morality on your apple, there, but should you maybe want to not blow chunks all over your lady friend, you eat my apple. If you want to spend the evening at the pot, eat her apple.”
Dana’s gaze was steely and she raised an eyebrow at Greg. He smiled and squeezed her hand again.
“I know. Don’t worry. I know.”
With that, he reached out and picked up the first half of the rotten apple. The skin squished in as he picked it up. He looked in Dana’s eyes, and, his voice steady, said, “I believe in the rightness of nature.” He took a bite. The apple glooped, wetly. He kept his eyes on her and said, “My ideas about right and wrong are wrong.” Something inside the apple crunched as he took another bite and a sheen of sweat broke out on his forehead.
Dana leaned forward. “Don’t lose focus, Greg.”
His smile was shaky. “Focus. Okay.” He shoved the entire half an apple in his mouth. Brown mush spilled out the sides of his mouth. He gagged, his eyes bulging, and then gulped it down. Tears shone in Dana’s eyes and she beamed at him. “Oh my gosh, you did it! You did it!”
The farmer got up. He picked up his own apple, nodded cordially to Dana, then to Greg, who appeared to also be fighting back tears—or something else. As the farmer left, he heard a rush of movement and the sound of someone puking up rotten apple under the tree. He shook his head and kept on walking.
Greg knelt under the tree for several minutes, wiping the vomit from his mouth. Dana walked over to stand behind him; he saw the tip of her candy red pumps out of the corner of his eye. But there was no happy comradeship in her voice anymore. She was distant and professional.
“We’ll that is disappointing, but we’ll just keep trying until you’re strong enough to eat a whole one.”
He kept his head down, not meeting her eyes, swabbing at his own vomit and trying not to let her see him gag again and again, spitting out the leftover bile. Furtively, he slid his eyes sideways. Out over the rolling grass, blurred by heatwaves and dust, the farmer was pulling his cart of fresh, sweet apples.