The writing prompt for today’s story was: “All good myths begin with a red apple.”
Once upon a time in a small kingdom, there lived a prince. The kingdom possessed neither wealth nor great knowledge, and its people were not known for their beauty or skill. So, when the daughter of the wealthiest king in the land was offered in marriage to the prince of her choosing, the prince’s father sent him to ask for her hand so they might improve their standing in the world.
The prince set out, pondering as he traveled what he might offer to the woman he hoped to make his bride. They had nothing of value to give, and he knew that princes would be coming from near and far with gifts of splendid riches. As he walked, he chanced upon an old woman resting next to a stream and stopped to join her, enjoying a drink of the clear waters and a moment away from the hot sun and dusty road.
“Where are you headed, young man?” she asked.
“To win the hand of the princess… Though I have nothing to offer her except myself, and I am afraid that is precious little.”
The woman looked him over then leaned closer.
“There is a legend of an apple, beautiful beyond compare, that grows within the mountain beyond this forest. It is said that retrieving the apple gives its eater true enlightenment.”
“Within the mountain?” he asked doubtfully. “How could an apple grow inside a mountain?”
“Those who have seen it know, no one else.”
The prince pondered this for a moment, gazing thoughtfully into the stream. When he turned to ask the old woman how she knew this, she had vanished. Refusing to step before the princess empty-handed, the prince set off toward the distant mountain. When he reached its foot, he could see far above him a cave cut into the mountainside but saw no way up the sheer cliff. Still, he refused to turn back and slowly began to climb.
The rock crumbled and broke beneath his fingers and he bloodied his hands on the sharp stone, but every time he considered turning back, he looked up to find the cave slightly closer and pressed on. The sun fell in the sky, darkness came over the land, and the moon was high above when his bruised and calloused hands finally grasped the ledge at the mouth of the cave. Exhausted, he fell into a deep sleep, and when he awoke, the sun was rising, spilling its red light over the misty forest.
“I have never seen a view more breathtaking,” he marveled, the pain in his hands forgotten. “If not for the princess, this would be reward enough.”
But he could not forget his errand, and he plunged into the darkness of the cave. The light of the sun was soon left behind as the mountain swallowed him up, and he wandered, lost, guided only by his sore hands on the slick walls. The air became dense and musty, and his eyes ached from the blackness. He considered turning back, but each time, he could only wonder if the tree would be around the next curve and struggled onward instead.
At last, he came to a wall of broken stone where the ceiling of the cave had fallen, sealing the passage. He sagged to the floor, exhausted and wondering if he should finally give up. Days could have passed while he wandered in darkness, and he didn’t want to miss his opportunity to ask for the princess’s hand.
“But it could be there,” he said. “Right on the other side of this pile of stone.”
Determined not to go to her with no gift, he set to work moving aside the rocks, carrying each one away to clear the passage. They were heavy, and his back ached from the work, but as the stones moved aside, a ray of light shone through, and he rejoiced at the sight.
“I forgot how beautiful light was,” he wondered. “And the joy of clean air.”
With renewed vigor, he hauled away the stones until he was able to squeeze through and found himself in a cavern. At its center, bathed in light streaming down from cracks within the mountainside, stood an ancient tree. From its gnarled branches hung a single red apple, and at its base flowed a stream. The prince eagerly drank from it, washing the blood and dirt from himself before carefully picking the apple.
Certain that the princess would be pleased with his gift after all he had endured to retrieve it, he hurried back through the dark caves, down the cliff, and onward to the kingdom.
When he arrived, the castle was overflowing with princes there to present their tributes to the princess and ply for her hand. They presented her with gifts of gold and song and knowledge. One gave her a beautiful poem written by the finest writers in his kingdom, another an intricate gold statue shaped by the most talented craftsmen, and still another a treatise on wisdom written by the wisest philosophers. When it was his turn, he reverently placed the apple at her feet.
“My lady, I have traveled through hardship and suffering to bring you this.”
He told her the tale of his journey, of the beauty of a sunrise, and the joy of light.
“This is all you brought?” she asked when he had finished. “One apple?”
She kicked it away in disgust, seeing only fruit where he saw his toils, and instead chose to marry the man who had brought her dresses fashioned by the finest weavers. The prince took up the apple, carefully wiping the dust from it, and returned to his father’s kingdom. When he arrived, his father asked if he was successful in winning the princess’s hand.
“No, Father, but I brought something better.” He held forth the apple. “I climbed a cliff, wandered through darkness, and with the sweat of my brow retrieved this apple of enlightenment. Take it.”
His father sighed, patting his son’s shoulder with a shake of his head. The prince, dismayed by the poor reception of the gift he had toiled so hard for, decided to eat the apple himself so he might gain its enlightenment and see his foolishness as others did. But when it was gone and only the core remained, he felt no different.
“Perhaps the old woman was mistaken,” he sighed. “But I feel no poorer for having retrieved it.”
He planted the seeds, and from them grew a tall tree that produced many beautiful apples. Its children were cultivated into large orchards providing sustenance and shade to the kingdom. In the years that followed, whenever the prince looked at the tree, he remembered his journey and smiled.