The Apple Doesn't Fall from the Tree | Bailey Grey
Updated: Dec 27, 2020
(CW: child abuse, suicide attempt)
People generally imagine a picturesque scene — a perfect tree spawning an equally perfect apple, but there are a vast array of ailments that can befall an apple tree. Take burr knots for example. They are protrusions along the trunk or limbs that look tumor-like but are actually comprised of a cluster of small root initials. The beginnings of what could have become additional roots, if they were in fact subterranean.
Here’s how I imagine it happened: In a dusty Ohio town, around the late 70s, a boy sits outside. He is alone. His brother is spending the summer with their mother, and his father is not the type of man you want to be around. Maybe he swings in the playground and the chains let out a rusty squeal as he rocks himself back and forth, because even this safe area frowns upon any form of cradling. He knows he should head home and face the drunk man again.
That night his brother calls. He can hear the flea-ridden dogs yapping in the background as his brother says, "I'm staying here with mom." Their father explodes with rage. Only the boy is around to take the hits.
Summer begins to cool and the boy returns to school. The other children ask the boy, "Where's your brother?"
The boy recites what his father instructed him to: "He's dead."
The children mourn; the boy takes another blow.
My mother and I fight over the dishes. She leaves them piled high over the weekend I'm with my dad. When I return they are moldy and rank and from the porch, with cigarette smoke wafting into the kitchen, she says, "It's your turn".
It's a stupid thing to fight over, but this is a proxy war for everything that is pent up. My sisters and I struggle to make this hell-hole feel like home. I am angry for myself and on behalf of them. My little sister's room is so packed with my mother's stuff, the child is forced to sleep in the living room.
I'm still learning how to stand up for myself, so when I speak up my voice trembles with adrenaline and fear. She shouts back, puts out her cigarette, takes my phone, and slams doors on the way to her bedroom. The curtains are always drawn, so I am sobbing alone in the dark with the smell of dog piss, mold, and cigarettes. I step outside, shaking, and listen to my off-brand mp3 player to calm myself. I know I will be punished. More than just confiscating my phone. She knows how to skin me with her words, and I only know how to cry.
Later, my mother silently returns my phone with a tight look on her face. Then she leaves. I'm confused. Where are the words that make self-hate ache inside me like a rot?
The next day, she tells me I'll be living with my father. She read my text messages and discovered I am hurting myself. I am already covered in scars.
At my dad's house, there is so much space to move around, but it feels cold and impersonal like a hotel. I don't like his wife, a devout Christian who has never been poor. It is an alien world. I cannot fall asleep because I know my little sister is curled up on a flea-infested couch, attempting to do the same.
Though this cluster of would-be root is fairly benign by itself, it introduces a host of problems. The presence of a burr knot means the absence of sturdy, healthy wood and thus the tree is structurally weakened. A heavy load of fruit or a particularly strong gust of wind could topple the tree — split at the locus of the burr knot. Additionally, when a burr knot comes into contact with another knot, together they may restrict the flow of nutrients to sections of the tree. A burr knot can also be an entryway for infection and fungi.
Interestingly, the development of burr knots is not some sort of disease or parasite, though it was originally thought to be pathogenic. Instead, it is now classified as a disorder, and an apple tree can be genetically predisposed to it.
The boy grows taller. It's the 90s, and he is in jail for writing bad checks. The judge gives him a choice: do time, or join the military. Eventually, he is stationed in Italy with his wife and two toddlers. On the aircraft carrier and must spend six months at a time out at sea. He loads up bombs with smiley-face graffiti on them and watches them take off toward some conflict zone.
He returns home for a short time between tours. His wife grows colder and his two small children grow larger. He sees them gowned in his old Budweiser t-shirts, and each visit the girls are a little closer to fitting them. They learn to walk and talk. They lose teeth. And he watches the waves.
Another fact that may come to light, if one looked beyond the pleasing portrait of apples gently swaying on-limb, is that apple seeds themselves contain cyanide, albeit in small amounts. To be more precise, they contain a compound of sugar and cyanide, known as cyanogenic glycoside. And thus, every seedling starts with and grows from raw sustenance and poison.
The man finds me bleeding out from the wrist on the bathroom floor. His face distorts as he puts pressure on the wound and calls 9-1-1.
I sit cross-legged on the top bunk in a New Jersey jailhouse. I am sobbing over a letter. The man’s handwriting is almost my handwriting, and through the messy scrawl and blurry eyes I read his words:
When I was a kid I had so many plans about how I was going to succeed, not live in
crappy places, not have to move every three months, have a real family (a happy one at
that). Once when I was in a foster home, I thought I had discovered what a happy family
looked like. And I made that my goal.
Now I was in jail for several crimes, poor, and my pregnant girlfriend was about to be
I thought about the person I had become. I thought about how the man I admired most
had spent his life in the Army (my grandfather). I thought about your sister being born
and not having a home to come home to. I don’t know for sure what decisions I made
that took me away from my goals. But I was ashamed of myself. And I knew I did not
want my children to grow up in the same conditions I had.
It's somewhat ironic to use an apple for the metaphor, because apple trees rarely propagate desired traits such as sweetness and fruitfulness. Apple trees are known as extreme heterozygotes, meaning the potential variation in an apple tree's offspring is large. Though this is inconvenient for those that wish to consume the fruits, evolutionarily it is advantageous to be so heterozygous. This trait has allowed the apple tree to grow in wildly varying environments: all across the US, New Zealand, Central Asia, et cetera. Though many offspring die of dysfunction, some may adapt and survive.
The boy counts his rings: one, two, three wedding bands in a drawer. He goes to the airport, to anywhere but here. He will not return. Now, he turns 50 in a coastal city in Spain. He is with his girlfriend who has arranged a surprise visit: the boy's brother joins him. They laugh and drink, and the boy is happy with his family.
I sit alone in my new, empty apartment after another break-up. I call my father who is excited for me to have my own place.
And yet we do eat those sweet, perfect apples plucked from their crate at the grocery store. This is because of grafting, a horticultural technique in which the tissues of two or more plants are joined together to continue their growth. Often, to successfully graft a new tree, you must initially cut down the desired tree. But, by frankensteining portions together, humans are able to coax a tree into existence that produces the apples we've always wanted.
Bailey Grey (he/they) is a non-binary, neurodivergent software developer living in Virginia. His work has been published or is forthcoming in Sundog Lit, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Pithead Chapel, Empty Mirror, and elsewhere.