In this bizarre tale by the Hong Kong writer Xi Xi, a once banal, everyday fruit intoxicates the popular imagination of Fertile Soil Town.
“How come so many people are applying for travel documents?” an official from the Immigration Department asked.
“Thousands and thousands of ’em are turning up out of the blue—it’s really strange.” The official who processed paperwork inked stamp after stamp.
“If this were a bank, it’d be a run.” An achy-handed official signed certificate holders’ photographs over and over and over . . .
“Is our country hosting the world’s largest beer festival?” The consular official filled in numbers in the “Visas and Comments” section.
“Maybe everyone wants to have a white Christmas.” A flying eagle emblem landed on the lower left-hand corner of the fifteenth page of a hardcover booklet.
“The European consulates are swarming with people. Aren’t the Spanish Olympics over?” A stamp depicting the king’s profile was superimposed on top of another stamp.
“The tourism industry is booming!” The staff member from the travel agency’s ticketing department held the phone receiver and said, “I’m sorry, this month’s plane tickets are all sold out.”
“But why haven’t any of the usual tour groups been organized? Everyone’s setting off alone. Is this the age of traveling the world solo?” The young tour guide hadn’t led a group in half a month.
“Most of the people traveling alone aren’t young but middle-aged—there aren’t any elderly people or children, either. It’s really quite something.” The airport restaurant waiter was unexpectedly idle. The large air-conditioned eatery buzzed with a single fly.
“Business is going great. I never thought it’d be so good. People are turning up in droves to buy thick plush socks and gloves, along with those woolen caps that look like chimneys, the kind that only expose the eyes. What’s going on—is everyone planning to climb Mount Everest?” the owner of a small shop specializing in mountain-climbing supplies asked, rushing to wire an order for additional merchandise to replace what had been sold.
“My business is just as good. People sure love traveling in winter! They keep coming in to buy heavy-duty rainproof and windproof pop-up tents, down sleeping bags, camping knives, camping lights, cooking utensils, compasses, and maps. Folks today are full of get-up-and-go.” The manager of a sporting goods company pushed the latest novelty, a mountain-climbing motorcycle, into the display window. A jeep that could wade through water and trample duckweed was already parked at the store entrance.
“So then, what’s the reason that my business is doing so well? Everyone’s clamoring to order the most comfortable beds and bedding,” the agent from the furniture store said.
That particular summer, Fertile Soil Town was bustling like never before. As in previous years, when summer came around, it was customary for the town to hold a large-scale cultural festival that, in addition to a variety of drama, music, dance, painting, and sculpture exhibitions and performances, also featured a special contest. Due to boycotts and protests from women’s groups, the Miss Fertile Soil Town Pageant of yesteryear had been replaced by competitions such as Fertile Soil Town Soccer Player of the Year, Fertile Soil Town Model Youth of the Year, and the like, all of which made for exceptionally lively extravaganzas. This year broke relatively new ground: in honor of the first Internationalization Campaign, they decided to put on an Apple Pageant. Various groups would nominate the world’s most outstanding, most popular, most admired, and most praised apples of all time, and then a bronze statue would be erected in the square in front of City Hall to commemorate the winner.
Before summer had even arrived, the whole town was already brimming with excitement. Fruit stands made apples the star of their promotional campaigns. Cafés rolled out apple-themed meals. Coffee shops sold apple pies. Italian markets crafted specialty apple pizzas. Streets and alleys overflowed with apple cider, apple ice cream, apple candy, and apple yo-yos, along with apple-branded clothing, hats, scarves, swimsuits, and so on. Everyone sang songs about apples. All of the medical clinics gave out apples as a token of thanks to every single patient who came in for a consultation.
Before summer had even arrived, the contest nomination forms poured in to Fertile Soil Town’s Ministry of Culture, which then, after preliminary review, selected five finalists. One of the forms, submitted by the Fertile Soil Town Women’s Club, nominated the golden apple from Greek mythology. This apple, as everyone knows, was intended to be awarded to the fairest of all the Greek goddesses. Every goddess coveted the golden apple, but the judge, Paris, presented it to Aphrodite, as Aphrodite had promised him Helen’s hand in marriage. Helen, however, was already betrothed to Menelaus, but Paris didn’t care and abducted her, which resulted in a ten-year war in the city of Troy. There’s a famous poem by the Greek poet Homer that recounts this incident. As Helen was the most renowned beauty throughout history, there was profound meaning to the Women’s Club’s nomination.
The police force, Civil Aid Service, armed forces, and martial arts community jointly nominated William Tell’s apple because of his godlike marksmanship, which rivaled that of the famed Han dynasty general Li Guang: with the single shot of an arrow, Tell was able to split an apple on his son’s head exactly in two. Given this demonstration of abundant military skill and outstanding courage, William Tell naturally was an adored and venerated heroic figure.
The academic community nominated Newton’s apple. Academic circles seldom participated in these competitions—they kept their heads buried in work, rarely displaying any sort of romantic feelings. This year, however, they made an exception and put forth their own nomination, as Newton was a scientist whom they greatly revered. It was a tiny, tiny apple that led Newton to discover gravity.
Religious groups nominated the fruit from the Garden of Eden. After Eve ate this fruit, she was expelled from paradise, and henceforth, humans were born with original sin, paradise lost for all eternity. In the preliminary round, the jury hesitated when it came to Eden’s forbidden fruit, since no one could prove whether the forbidden fruit that Eve ate was actually an apple. Painters have flipped through countless catalogs, concluding that it was probably an apple, since many well-known paintings have clearly so depicted it, but scholars have had no luck in their various efforts to research, trace, and seek out its actual identity, since the Bible only refers to it as the forbidden fruit, and there is no evidence of the word “apple.” Perhaps this is why the forbidden fruit wasn’t the recipient of the Apple Award Grand Prize.
Educational circles nominated an apple from a fairy tale: the apple that Snow White ate, prepared just for her by the Wicked Queen. After eating it, Snow White fell into a deep slumber until a handsome prince came to save her, whereupon they lived happily ever after.
The whole town voted for the Apple Award. The entire population of five million, including the elderly, children, tourists, and green card holders, were all eligible to vote. In the end, the apple from “Snow White” was crowned the winner. People voiced numerous opinions about the Apple Pageant, and every day the newspapers published their critiques. Some said that while the golden apple itself was good, it led to war, and war was definitely not good—there wasn’t one person in Fertile Soil Town who welcomed it. Some found William Tell’s apple to be truly worrisome: it scared the living daylights out of mothers, as the whole thing was too close a call and simply came down to a stroke of luck. Some declared Newton’s apple to be pretty good but noted that gravity had already existed—Newton merely discovered it but didn’t actually invent it, so it didn’t seem to be that significant a contribution to humankind, unlike electric lights, rice cookers, televisions, and videogames, all of which were comparatively more useful.
People unanimously praised the apple from “Snow White.” What an extraordinary apple! they said. If you eat it, you can avoid all disasters, and when you wake up, you’ll meet a handsome prince and thereupon live happily ever after. Happily ever after was the life for which each Fertile Soil Town resident yearned.
Before long, statues of Snow White, the Seven Dwarfs, the Wicked Queen, the handsome prince, and the magic apple were unveiled in the square in front of City Hall. Everyone cheered, applauded, shot off fireworks, knocked back a few drinks, and feasted on apples: a wholly festive summer. Within a week, bookstores sold a million copies of children’s books, especially anything having to do with Snow White. Supermarkets sold out of applesauce. Young people all pinned apple brooches to their lapels. The elderly clutched their applewood canes. Women went out and about coiffed with apple hairdos sprayed red and green. Adults filled out membership forms to join the new Apple Club, an Apple MasterCard tucked in every pocket.
Only one person sat motionless beneath an apple tree, waiting to finally see an apple flying toward the sky, in order to confirm that the Earth had lost its gravitational pull.
“I’m sorry, we’re all out of storybooks about Snow White,” the children’s librarian told a group of adults waiting in line.
“We’ve sold out of every last book about witches,” the bookstore clerk called out from his perch on the highest rung of a steel ladder.
“Apple seeds? Apples aren’t houseplants—how about planting some other fruits and vegetables? We have seeds for tomatoes, chili peppers, Chinese okra, papayas, and peas, as well as sword beans, red beans, mung beans, and corn . . . ” the woman who owned the flower shop said.
“You’ve asked us to keep airing apple-themed programming, so today we’re going to teach you a few more apple recipes. Now we’re going to introduce apples with fish slices, apple-stuffed shrimp, and apple salad. Apples contain no fat and have natural sugar. Each apple has an average of only eighty calories . . . ” the guest host of the TV show said.
“These people never know how to address their envelopes clearly,” a young bespectacled employee in the mail-sorting office grumbled to a letter.
“There are still undeliverable letters without street names and house numbers?” A clerk who also wore glasses held up a piece of mail at nose level.
“Once again, someone’s written Fertile Soil Town as Floating Soil Town. They always write Fatal Soil Town, Floating Soil Town, Flying Soil Town, or Futile Soil Town, but can never leave well enough alone and write Fertile Soil Town.”
A Christmas card sent from the state of Illinois contained the following typewritten line: What? Is Floating Soil Town going to be swallowed up?
They all went out searching. I knew that they were looking for Snow White’s stepmother. They were on a quest to find that extraordinary apple. They wanted to eat the apple, and then they could lie down and sleep for a long, long time, and when they awoke, all of their nightmares would have vanished, and everyone would live happily ever after, forever and ever. Let’s go look for that extraordinary apple, they said. Let’s take a bite of that apple and go right to sleep, they said. Let’s sleep through all of the unpleasantness and our dire fate, they said. Let’s wake up to a beautiful country, where people can live and work in peace and harmony without a care in the world, they said.
So they all set off in search of the apple. Would they be able to find Snow White’s stepmother? Was she still alive? Did she still have that extraordinary apple? Was a happy country still waiting on the other side of sleep? I had my doubts, but they all went looking. They said, What choice do we have? There’s nothing we can do anymore except look for the apple. So they all went off to find the apple. And as for me, what was I to do? Merry Christmas.
蘋果 originally published in Plain Leaves Literature 素葉文學; reprinted in the author’s A Woman Like Me 像我這樣的一個女子. © 1982 Xi Xi. Translation © 2018 by Jennifer Feeley. All rights reserved.