Essay

Fallen apples

Familial ties, fairytales and the forbidden fruit

‘THE APPLE DOESN’T fall far from the tree,’ said the woman from the abortion clinic on the other end of the phone. She repeated this proverb or idiom – with Turkish, Germanic and Russian origins – several times during our conversation.

I could not bring myself to agree or disagree with her insinuation, curled in my grandmother’s worn chintz recliner. The broken left arm of this enormous chair hung like a disfigured bird’s wing. Of all the reasons I was considering a termination, the genetic taint of a man who was emotionally unstable at best, physically violent at worst, was not one of them. Did this woman, I wonder now, also use this strained apple and tree analogy, implying nature trumps nurture, on traumatised rape victims? It does have a simple, appealing logic, even if its bucolic imagery – a fallen apple resting on a soft blanket of grass, protected by the leafy abundance of the mother tree – couldn’t be further from the reality of deciding to terminate a pregnancy.

In truth, apples are a poor poster-fruit for suggesting a child has inherited particular character traits, good or bad, from their parents. According to National Geographic, ‘apples are a victim of their own genetic creativity’. Botanists call this trait ‘extreme heterozygosity’ and it ‘ensures that an apple seed won’t be anything like its parents’. It’s also the reason why there is a cornucopia of apple varieties able to grow in variable climates around the world. William Mullan, documenter of apples weird and wonderful, writes in the foreword to his 2021 photographic book Odd Apples that the apple genome

has between 42,000 and 44,700 genes, over 14,000 more than the human genome, and the potential for different characteristic expressions are vast and molded by a variety of conditions – everything from the soil, climate, neighboring trees and environmental stress to pollinators and human intervention will shape the way an apple looks and tastes.

Given the volatility of the apple’s genome, grafting is the only way apple growers can propagate favourite varietals and ensure reproductive consistency. Grafting takes advantage of an apple tree’s ability to heal itself and involves taking a cutting from one tree and splicing it into another. The two parts, stump and branch, heal and meld together to form a single tree.

 

IT TOOK ME weeks to realise I was pregnant. I was halfway through QUT’s three-year intensive acting course, a selective conservatoire program that had a high attrition rate. From the original twenty in our year, there were eleven of us left, soon to be the graduating ten. In the early weeks of this pregnancy, still ignorant of the fact, I moved out of my apartment – the one I’d rented after leaving my husband – and into a share house with two female friends, Emily and Frankie, also second-year actors, my eight-year-old daughter in tow. This commodious and dishevelled old Queenslander on Wyndham Street was dubbed ‘carny central’ by Emily’s boyfriend Marcel, a gifted playwright, who soon moved in with us. As well as being a drop-in centre for actors and related types, we hosted many impromptu social gatherings and large, messy parties. Unconventional as it was, and shielded from its excesses, my daughter thrived in this environment. She remembers Frankie’s boyfriend, Jaya – now an award-winning poet and Cambridge scholar – interrupting her watching of The Simpsons to catch the six o’clock news. He would apologise profusely, irked that he’d broken a childhood promise to himself not to be ‘that adult’ who turned off The Simpsons.

As for my boyfriend, Nathan, I’d been with him on and off in a perpetual state of emotional seasickness for three years. He was MIA the weekend I needed his help to move. A small thing, perhaps forgivable if it weren’t part of a wider pattern of behaviour. The humiliating putdowns in front of other people, the way he would freeze me out for days at a time, refusing to answer my calls or texts. Frustrated and distraught, I once went to his apartment, a place I’d never been welcome, to demand he talk to me. When he wouldn’t open his door I took from the garden a small ceramic caterpillar with a dopey grin and pegged it, again and again, at his second-floor window. He ignored me.

It took little or nothing, an imagined infraction, to provoke these moods. Though he preferred ice-cold indifference as a punishment, he could also be volatile. The man I’d fallen pathetically in love with – the version of Nathan who was charming, funny, sexy as hell, all the adjectives – had become increasingly elusive, without ever disappearing entirely.

On Mother’s Day, a few weeks after the move, he took me and my daughter to Sandgate for fish and chips by the bay. I remember her chasing seagulls on this bright, cool day in late autumn. I’d told him I was pregnant a couple of days before. He hadn’t taken the news well but must have been in a more reasonable frame of mind to discuss it, though my memory of this day is fragmented and hazy. I’d decided to go through with it – that was the hormones talking, I was told later by the abortion counsellor on the phone.

Next, we were at the Eagle Street Markets in the city. The discussion had long surpassed reasonable and he stormed off with my keys, leaving me and my daughter stranded. In tears – hysterical, probably – I took her back to where we’d parked the car. He was in it, already driving. He stopped, barely, to let us in then threw a violent U-turn in the middle of a city street before speeding off, leaving skid marks on the road. I must have screamed at him to slow down. He slammed on the brakes, inches in front of a telegraph pole, and got out. I have no recollection of driving home.

Back at Wyndham Street there was a small cast and crew shooting a short film in the space beneath the house, which they’d transformed into an artist’s studio. Nathan’s motorcycle was in the driveway. He appeared an hour or so later, having walked from where he’d left us in the car. The yelling started in my bedroom. He would fucking leave when he found his keys. I was furious. He grabbed me and pulled me out to the lounge area – a big, open space in the middle of the house with pale pink walls – and threw me across the room. My daughter was watching from her bedroom door. He then slammed me down on the table and smacked me across the face. At some point he found his fucking keys. The shame was sick-making – those strangers beneath the house who heard everything and the terror and incomprehension on my daughter’s face. Frankie told me afterwards she’d grabbed a knife from the kitchen and had stood, shaking with rage, on the back stairs.

The following Sunday, sometime after midnight – he worked security at a city nightclub – I heard Nathan’s bike, exhaust pipes like heralding trumpets, coming up our street. I can still identify a Moto Guzzi just by the sound. I got up to let him in; this had to be the big apology. Without speaking, he pushed his way into my bedroom, dark but for a film of weak moonlight from the bay window. I followed and sat on the bed. He stood, a shadowed figure, helmet cradled beneath his arm as though what he had to say would only take a moment.

‘If you contact my mother and tell her you’re pregnant, I will kill your daughter. Do you hear me? I will kill her.’ The tirade that followed was steely and controlled but fuelled by malice so palpable he seemed to pulse with it.

I’d never met any of his family – he was all but estranged from them – let alone his mother, whom he hated. He demanded I have an abortion. He threatened to make my life hell if I didn’t. By the time he left I’d shrunk into a ball against the bedhead.

Despite the hard consonants – the ‘t’, the ‘n’ – threaten is an ambiguous and flaccid verb. Clouds threaten rain, but they don’t leave you paralysed with fear. The next morning, after a fitful night, instead of going to uni I made some phone calls from my grandmother’s broken recliner. First, I made enquiries about how to take out an AVO, then I rang my mum. Finally, I rang the abortion clinic to be informed that the apple does not fall far from the tree.

 

MY DAUGHTER, WHO is twenty-eight this year – the same age as me at the time of these events – is a writer with a remarkable gift for expansive, nuanced and imaginative storytelling. Like any parent, I take pleasure in sharing her achievements – publications, shortlists, big prize wins – on social media. You need not hide behind humble bragging or faux modesty when spruiking the accomplishments of your children. Without fail, my parental boast-posts attract comments about the apple not falling far from the tree. It’s meant as a compliment, so I can’t take too much umbrage, but it would be fraudulent to claim I have bestowed some magical gift on her by way of genetics. I have no such gift to give. My modest writing successes do not account for my daughter’s inexplicable talent or her uncanny ability to venture just beyond the literal to artfully destabilise the world as she sees it.

A few years ago she moved to Melbourne from Brisbane. We’re probably closer now than when we lived in the same city, and she is finding – has found – her feet as an adult. We talk on the phone often, subjects ranging across her friendships, her work, her cat, her writing, and she always asks, as though she thinks she’s taken up more of the conversation than she should, ‘But how are you?’

‘Busy,’ I usually reply. Much of our talk is about books: what we’re both reading; who’s been long- or shortlisted for various awards; writing we like or aren’t so enamoured with. She often asks about my friends, the ones she grew up around and remembers as young women – younger than she is now – full of creative promise and eager to live out their potential.

We rarely, if ever, talk about Nathan, though his presence hangs over those tender years of her childhood like smog. The damage is hard to ascertain. I wonder what she remembers or doesn’t, how much she knows, what she tells her therapist. For twenty years I’ve kept the worst of it from her, but children sense things even if they don’t have the words. Writing this story meant blasting away the smog, letting her see what lies beneath, or at least a portion of it. There was no way not to involve her in this process; this story is mine and it is hers, and I worried how she would receive it.

 

I HAVE A tattoo of a red apple on my left shoulder. The stem of this apple pokes through the bottom like a wooden stake. I also collect red apples – plastic, wood, ceramic, glass – and display them on my bookshelves. My daughter, a bookseller as well as a writer, contributed to this collection, gifting me a sleepy-faced plush apple that came with a children’s book they were promoting. Embedded as a motif in myths, legends and fairytales, the apple is emblematic of storytelling itself.

The Virago Press logo, for instance, is a red apple with a large bite taken out. Founded as a feminist press in 1973, Virago has been committed to championing women’s writing for almost fifty years. Chair of Virago Press, Lennie Goodings, writes in her 2020 memoir A Bite of the Apple: A Life with Books, Writers and Virago that they wanted ‘to bring women’s stories and issues into the mainstream’ and ‘to demonstrate a female literary tradition’. While modern dictionaries, including Macquarie, define a virago as ‘a turbulent, violent, or ill-tempered, scolding woman; a shrew’, the founders of Virago chose it for its other, older, meaning: ‘Provocative, a heroic war-like female.’ Goodings doesn’t mention the origins of the logo in her book, perhaps because the symbolism is obvious.

Visually, red apples bear similarities to the human heart. A polished red apple is supposedly the gift of choice for teachers from appreciative students – a tradition with Scandinavian origins dating back to the 1800s – and a marker of health, purported to keep the doctor away if consumed daily. They are symbols of beauty, sexuality and fertility. They can also be rotten to the core, signifying jealously, malice and temptation. I’ve always been drawn to this symbolic duality, which I’ll put down to being a Gemini, even though I think star signs are bunkum.

From the twelfth century in Western Europe, the apple, scientific name malus, became the forerunner for the unidentified forbidden fruit from the Garden of Eden, probably because its symbolism was already well established in Norse and Greek mythology, and the wordplay was irresistible: malus derives from the Latin word malum, which meant both evil or wrongdoing and fruit plucked from a tree. A golden apple, thrown at a wedding by Eris the goddess of discord and ambiguously intended for ‘the fairest’, incited the Trojan War. In Norse mythology, Idunn, the goddess of spring and rejuvenation, was custodian of the magic apple tree in Asgard, which the gods, such as Thor, ate to preserve their immortality and youthful complexions.

Classical European art really kickstarted the apple’s reputation as the fruit of knowledge, temptation, immortality and sin. Adam and Eve, a 1504 engraving by Albrecht Dürer, first depicted the Bible’s most famous couple, naked but for strategically placed leaves, either side of an apple tree. In 1524, this mise en scène was given the colour treatment by Lucas Cranach the Elder; the apple tree in his Adam and Eve explodes like fireworks, a riot of rubied apples and green leaves against a luminescent teal sky. In Titian’s Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (1550) the eye is drawn by Eve’s arm reaching up to pluck the apple, top centre of the painting, from the snake, disguised as a cherub and nestled in the branches of the tree. Rubens later copied Titian’s version in The Fall of Man (1628–29), adding a red parrot to this iconography of original sin. A mention of the Apple, with a capital A, in Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) cemented its fate: ‘To satisfie the sharp desire I had / Of tasting those fair Apples.’ It is almost comical how this fantastical moment, Eve’s capitulation to desire, would be used to justify patriarchal rule for millennia to come.

 

AT THE ABORTION clinic the next day the counsellor asked me the usual questions, including how far along I thought I was. I said about eight weeks, which she called ten, if taken from my last period. She ushered me into a room to have an ultrasound. The sonographer did some measurements and said I was, in fact, twelve weeks along, using their start point. If I waited so much as two days longer, it would be considered a mid-term abortion and would cost a lot more money.

I booked it in for the following day. It was never about getting rid of a bad apple but facing up to an untenable situation. It’s difficult to imagine what trajectory my life would have taken if I’d continued with the pregnancy; I’m sure I would have made it work, somehow, but I don’t regret it.

That should have been the end of my relationship with Nathan, but my resolve to keep him out of our life lasted about six weeks. I was that woman nobody ever imagines she’ll be unless she’s been there herself. At my invitation he came to a large house party we were throwing for a few of us in the acting course with June birthdays. Amid this ‘mysterious, morbid and macabre’ themed party, with its bountiful supply of fairy and tealights, polyester spider webbing, bulbs (cream chargers), booze, weed and ecstasy pills, we reconciled, me with a bloody slit painted across my throat in red nail polish.

With or without illicit drugs Nathan was a good crier, and abject remorse is a powerful aphrodisiac, as are the euphoric highs of being involved with a man of extremes. Extreme passion, extreme moods, extreme jealousy, extreme irrationality. To his credit, he made the effort to change and proved himself reliable, even thoughtful, in our final year together. Our relationship was never easy, but it was better, even good in patches.

When the share house dissolved on graduation, my daughter and I moved into Nathan’s cramped apartment. This fragile domestic arrangement was only intended to last a few months before I moved to Sydney, but it underlined what I’d known for some time: I didn’t want to do it anymore. He may have been more considerate, more boyfriend-like, but he was still secretive, paranoid and a brooder, and these traits were exacerbated by his severe depression, which worsened over the course of our relationship. There came a point where I couldn’t drag him from the pit anymore, if I ever could.

He was in my life for four to five years all up, but the half-life of that time has lingered indefinitely. I know this not because I think about him much, but because I often dream about him. In these dreams, he makes a dramatic re-entry in my life – one male friend used to call him the Phantom for his seeming ability to appear from nowhere – and I get drawn in again, forced to choose between him and my partner. I wake from these dreams relieved and disappointed, but mostly deeply grateful for the steady-as-she-goes relationship I have now.

 

MALUS DOMESTICA, THE common apple tree, was first cultivated in Central Asia in the Tian Shan mountains of current-day Kazakhstan, where its distant ancestor, the wild Malus sieversii, still grows. Genetically, it can be traced to the Silk Road, where seeds and cultivation practices spread via trade routes between East and West. The apple’s appearance in folklore and fairytales was only a matter of course. Many stories in the Arabian Nights feature apples, and the motif of the apple, according to Turkish academic Ahmet Emre Dağtaşoğlu in ‘The Motif of Apple in Different Cultures and its Usage in Anatolian Folk Songs’, was particularly prevalent in German folktales, and is a feature of ‘almost every folktale collected by the Brothers Grimm’. From this canon, ‘Snow White’ is the most well known, and its apple, mostly care of Disney, is the story’s most iconic motif, on a par with the magic mirror. Its prominence in Snow White’s story – and sexual innuendo, much like a baboon’s arse – arguably peaked in the 2001 video clip for ‘Sonne’ by German heavy-metal band Rammstein.

More surprising than the apple’s rise to symbolic dominance in this story of malignant jealousy is the replacement by the Grimm brothers of Snow White’s biological mother for a stepmother. In The Hard Facts of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales, Maria Tatar claims Wilhelm Grimm performed this switcheroo to make the stories more palatable for children. His habit, says Tatar, ‘of intensifying maternal malice’ is what led to this ‘substantive change in a number of tales’, as a wicked stepmother is ‘easier to tolerate’ than a cruel mother. In the first edition of the Grimm brothers’ Children’s and Household Tales, Snow White’s mother does not die but rather, consumed by vanity and jealousy, orders her pretty daughter to be murdered by the huntsman. She then devours what she believes are the girl’s lungs and liver. Never let a charming Disney movie stand in the way of a gruesome tale about a mother so monstrous she’s prepared to cannibalise her own child.

The apple’s role in aiding filicide in ‘Snow White’ has echoes of Eve, tempted by the snake, succumbing to her curiosity to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. In the original ‘Snow White’ the Evil Queen, disguised as an old woman, makes two attempts to kill Snow White before settling on the poisoned apple as her weapon of choice. First, she tries suffocating Snow White via a corset; next she tries a poisoned comb. After saving Snow White on both occasions, the seven dwarfs implore her not to open the door to anyone and be on her guard. When the old woman appears with a basket of apples, Snow White is wary but still gullible:

‘Are you afraid that it’s poisoned?’ asked the old woman. ‘Here, I’ll cut the apple in two. You eat the red part, I’ll eat the white.’
The apple had been made so craftily that only the red part of it had poison. Snow White felt a craving for the beautiful apple, and when she saw that the peasant woman was taking a bite, she could no longer resist. She put her hand out the window and took the poisoned half. But no sooner had she taken a bite than she fell to the ground dead.

Familiarity has rendered this scene almost unremarkable, the poisoned apple as no more than a means to an end. The apple though is not merely an enticing piece of fruit; symbolically, it is a transmitter of knowledge, and it is given by a mother to a child with ill intent. A maternal gift so corrupting, so damaging, it kills the younger woman.

 

IN 2008, FOUR years after our last contact, I found an email address online for one of Nathan’s brothers – the one he hated, vehemently. I wanted to know if his family had heard from him – none of them had, though his brother said they still received letters from debt collectors and the police still wanted to talk to him about an assault on a female several years ago. I knew something had happened when Nathan worked as a bouncer at Adrenalin – the nightclub where we met when I worked there as the ‘door bitch’ – but he was evasive about the details and gave me the impression that someone was ‘out to get him’. He changed his surname in an effort to dodge police, which, I see now, is not something an innocent person does. I do wonder what he did to that woman.

The hate was mutual. Nathan’s brother described him as a sociopath ‘with no empathy’ and ‘false empty charm’. He detailed Nathan’s history of violence, including throwing a hammer at his mother’s head and assaulting her, torturing animals, bashing other children, using weapons and lying to manipulate others. He once choked this brother and asked him how it felt to die. The only part that surprised me was the torturing of animals – that infamous early warning sign of a serial killer in training. Though Nathan professed not to like cats, he would pat and talk affectionately to my tuxedo cat Timmy (RIP) when he thought no one was looking. His favourite book was Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach – a 1970 self-help book with more than a whiff of cringe these days – that I think spoke to his feelings of being an outsider and to his sense of thwarted superiority.

‘Nathan,’ his brother finished, ‘is deadly, dark, irreparable and will always be unresolved with his existence.’ I don’t doubt Nathan was the villain his brother made him out to be, but – and at the risk of sounding defensive and even contradictory – he was more complex than that and capable of showing love, to me and my daughter. His brother asked if I wanted ‘to risk waking the sleeping demon’ by contacting him. I had no desire to do that; I just hoped to find out what became of him, the resolution to his story. I discovered recently he was arrested for drink-driving in 2010. Apart from the icy glare, his mugshot depicts a man I’d struggle to recognise on the street: long hair, double chin, angry red sores on his face. He looks miserable. Beyond this date there is no record of him. His existence on the internet is as insubstantial as a ghost. 

 

APPLES, FOR ALL their symbolic promiscuity – feminine beauty, perfection, sensuality, desire, fertility, health, curiosity, knowledge, temptation, deception, good and evil, even redemption – have never represented forgiveness. After reading the first draft of this essay, my daughter was furious with me and refused to speak to me for a time. There’s no way now I can take back the knowledge that I let my desire for a dangerous man put her safety and wellbeing at risk. I cried as I haven’t in years; there is no pain quite like knowing you’ve caused your child so much hurt. Time has cauterised the lived trauma of these events for me. I view them, and wrote about them here, with the cool distance of twenty years, as a lesson to be learnt from getting involved with a man like Nathan and staying with him long after the sirens had wailed. Assuming the same level of detachment in my daughter, however, was terribly ill-conceived. It was malevolent, even if unwittingly so, to ask her to revisit these events via this craftily written essay. She’s forgiven me, I think, but I don’t forgive myself.

The only meaningful apology I had was to bin the thing, which I was prepared to do. My daughter though is, above all, a writer, and didn’t want me to quash it. She urged me to finish this essay but to ‘do it properly’. As part of her critique, before putting me on ice, she admonished me for my lack of honesty about the process, the way I’d involved her – something I’ve tried to correct. She also had a question: what was my motivation in writing this?

I struggled with the answer, worried it wasn’t sufficient. The personal may be political, but does anybody really need another domestic abuse story? There are so many accounts in our collective conscious now about enraged, entitled men inflicting violence on women, usually (former) wives or partners and their children. Mine seems tame and unremarkable considering the bar that has been set by these men – you know the ones I mean, too many to list here – and the deadly harm they’ve inflicted on the women they believe have wronged them. I honestly can’t say if Nathan would have carried out his threat to kill my daughter. I never tested him, so I don’t know. Maybe we’re so inured to intimate partner violence and abuse that a story where a woman or child isn’t murdered only registers in a minor key. I chose to write mine anyway, and so here is another bobbing apple to add to the swelling tide of them. Perhaps cumulatively our many stories will one day create the political will needed to rein in this ongoing epidemic of patriarchal violence.

Beyond being a small act of solidarity, this was, I would say to my daughter, a reckoning with my own culpability where her wellbeing, both then and now, is concerned. A taking ownership of the ways in which I failed her. It did not turn out to be a place to graft her story to mine, as I originally thought it might – a metaphor perhaps too ripe for the plucking – but a relinquishing of the apple from the tree, an acceptance that my daughter needs to grow her own stories, different stories, from a place as far away from the mother tree as she needs, a place that may well be beyond my reach.

This piece is one of five winners of the 2022 Griffith Review Emerging Voices competition, supported by the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund.

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