My earliest memory is Baba holding me in her lap. She counts my fingers and says, “Green is opportunity, yellow is love, and red is death. We are the death workers, child, our color is red.”
That was the mantra of my childhood.
Green for opportunity, yellow for love, red for death. Ours is the color for death.
Baba is not my mother. My village believes that true parents will love a child too much to teach them the magic they will need to survive. I was given to Baba. Or maybe she picked me. I was never certain.
Baba is the only death worker in our village. She wears a deep red cloak to set her apart. When I was six she gave me a red cap to prove that one day I’d be like her. “When you’re older,” she would say, “you will wear a red cloak like me.”
It was an unfinished sentence. When I turned twelve she added the rest.
“If you survive.”
When we work with apples, Baba says, it’s not about using magic, it’s about bringing the magic out.
When I was a child she would send me into the forest wearing my red cap. “Come back when you’ve gathered enough apples.”
“Enough” always varied. At first I picked as many as I could carry, but that was wrong. Later I learned to pick only the apples that wanted to be picked.
“Yellow and red,” Baba says, picking up an apple. “What does it mean? Find the magic the apple contains, child.” She knocks on the apple three times.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
She holds the apple to her ear as if it whispers. She smiles, sharp-toothed and full of gaps, for Baba is not an attractive woman. Then she gives me the apple. “What is its magic?”
I do as Baba did.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
And then I listen.
The apple is mostly yellow with red streaks flaring down from the top. It’s only a dull red, though, a faded color, as if someone once tried to rub it out.
“To stop an unfaithful lover,” I pronounce.
“Good,” Baba says. Then she takes out a knife and cuts into my apple. I hold out my tongue and she places a thin white slice in my mouth.
In this way I learn the magic and develop an immunity to apples.
Baba knows death. With the right apple, she can cause a man to choke, or suffer from a nameless poison, or fall into a long, dreamless, endless sleep. And Baba always has the right apple.
“The women who wear green cloaks are loved,” she tells me, “the women who wear yellow are sought by everyone. But only the women who wear red are respected, child, never forget that. Only the women who wear red are feared.”
When I am thirteen, Baba holds out nine apple seeds and she places them one by one onto my outstretched tongue.
“You have nine seeds in your mouth,” she says. “At sunset you must still have nine seeds in your mouth. If you swallow or lose even one, a poison will seep into your gut and cause your stomach to explode.”
I suck on the seeds all day and I dare not open my mouth for anyone. I remain mute, silenced, a wooden doll.
At sunset I spit out the seeds, one by one, into Baba’s hand. The apple is still in me. It haunts me like a ghost.
“Green for opportunity, yellow for love, red for death. You will wear death.”
At fifteen I know apples to cause pregnancy and apples to prevent it. I know apples for heartbreak and apples for insatiability. At fifteen, I know more poisons than the apothecary, because all apples are poison.
At fifteen, I know what Baba’s apple orchard grows upon. The bones of my predecessors, little red-capped girls who failed to learn the right apple magic intertwine with the roots and become one with the magic.
I will learn the apple magic but I envy the bones. There is a longing in me for the earth of that apple orchard not even Baba knows about.
I have no name. Baba never gave me one.
I think she was tired of picking new names to call bones she buried in her apple orchard.
The villagers call me “Red Girl” and after a while I answered to Red.
At sixteen I know an ecstasy only apples can give me.
I work my first apple magic — I give a yellow apple to the tavern wench who wants to seduce the miller’s daughter. I writhe at night as the magic courses through my body, through my bones. I love the magic more than I love myself.
At seventeen, I work my first death magic. The wood-cutter murdered his daughter’s lover and she commissioned her revenge from me. The pleasure of that magic nearly causes me to faint. I know I am not strong enough for this magic. The obsession will break me. Still I will not stop, will not give up the color red.
At eighteen, Baba suspects my secret. She knows I’m not like the other girls. I am the best at apple-magic she’s ever seen. I respect the apples. But I love them too much.
“You must eat the apple, child,” she warns. “Only eat it.”
I had meant to eat the apple. I had every intention.
But when Baba prepares the red death apple, the bones in the orchard call to me more.
It’s my final test; survive, and I can wear a red cloak, just like Baba.
The apple is sweet, but tart.
I eat the apple; the apple devours me instead.
In my death throes I remember and I do not regret.
I am the apple magic now.
Michelle M. Denham has traveled across the country receiving various degrees in Literature. She currently steals time to write in between teaching English at the University of Arizona and working on her dissertation.