|Stories > Bittersweet Apple|
by Sulan Dun
Two horses, father and daughter, pulled side-by-side to send up a row of freshly turned earth behind the titanium-ceramic plow. Their hides glistened with sweat from the hot, hard work. The daughter stopped abruptly and the plow halted.
“This is stupid. I’m sick of plowing,” she said.
“Nelly—,” her father began.
“You’re stupid too,” she said, “and you stink.”
She glared at him defiantly and he knew he couldn’t put it off any longer. She was four now and almost fully grown.
“Let’s take a break,” he said. “Plow up, harness off.”
The plow complied as its actuators lowered the wheels and the retractable robotic harnesses slid off the horses and snaked back inside the beam.
The horses walked over to a pitcher pump by a trough. Nelly’s father worked the pump’s wide, flat handle with his hoof to push cool underground water into the trough. They drank in silence.
Nelly’s father waited for Nelly to cool off and hoped her temper had cooled off too. “I guess you’re old enough now to know the truth,” he finally said. “Let’s go to the apple tree.”
Nelly opened her mouth to object but then she wondered what the mysterious truth was. It was probably something dumb like the fact that Pegasus wasn’t real and the presents you got on Enlightenment Day actually came from your parents. But maybe, just maybe, it was something actually interesting. Either way, eating apples sure beat plowing in the afternoon heat.
She was surprised when her father started walking towards the woods. “Where are you going? The apple tree is this way silly,” she said, tossing her head towards the road.
“We’re not going to that tree,” he called back as he continued towards the woods. “We’re going to a different tree with a new kind of apple you haven’t tried before.”
Birds twittered unseen as her father led her deeper into the forest. Where was he taking her? “You’ll see,” was all he would say as he led her down a winding, overgrown path. She disliked the dense green branches that brushed against them and how they hid whatever might be lurking nearby. It was a relief when the path finally ended and the green leaves parted to reveal a clearing on the edge of a cliff.
She stopped short at the sight of the drop off, turned, and saw the apple tree. Anticipation turned to bitter disappointment.
“We can’t eat those,” she protested, looking at the apples, “they’re still green!”
“Yes, we can,” he said, walking over to take a bite. “This is a Granny Smith apple, an apple from the old times. They stay green when they’re ripe; they don't turn red.”
She came over, sniffed, and took a small nibble. She wrinkled her eyes as the tangy flavor spread across her tongue. “It’s not that sweet, but…” She took a bigger bite and chewed experimentally. “…it’s not bad.”
“It’s bittersweet,” he said, “like the truth.”
They ate in silence for a few minutes. Then she said, “What truth?”
“Follow me,” he said and led her past the old apple tree.
They entered a large, ruined garden where a few Granny Smith apple trees still stubbornly clung to life. A little further on, they came upon a square of brambles and weeds surrounded by a mold-stained stone archway and low stone walls.
The archway intrigued her. “It’s so small, was it for foals?”
“No, for humans. Humans built this wall.”
The idea that an animal other than a horse could build things was shocking.
“Humans?” she said doubtfully.
“A creature, about shoulder height, that walks on two legs,” he said. “I’ve never seen one but my great-great-grandfather did. He said he saw an extremely fat human waddle out of its house to retrieve a package from a broken-down medical delivery machine. No one ever saw it outside its house again.”
“Weird,” she said.
He led her past patches of pampas grass and monstrous rhododendrons to what remained of the house where his great-great-grandfather had seen the human. The roof had fallen in, and ivy clutched at the walls as if trying to tear the once-grand mansion apart.
They kept their distance to avoid the shattered window glass hidden in the weeds.
“Is a human still living in there?”
“No, the machines stopped visiting this place before my father was born.”
“What happened to the human?”
“Let’s go to the courtyard,” he said.
He led her to a weedy brick courtyard with a statue on a pedestal. She was puzzled by the bizarre stone figure, a horse covered in a network of ropes with a skinny human on his back. The human’s front legs were very short and instead of hooves, it had some kind of fleshy protrusions. The fleshy protrusions held ropes leading to the horse’s mouth and also held a whip. Nelly didn’t know what to make of it.
He looked at her, took a deep breath, and blew. “The truth you need to know is the history of horses and humans.”
“In the beginning, this land belonged to horses. We covered the plains from sea to sea. Sometimes ice sheets came down from the north and covered the grass and we had to move. Most of us went south until the ice retreated while others fled west to other lands. We couldn’t speak yet, but we had the freedom to come and go across the world as we pleased for millions of years.
“But when the ice sheets came down for the last time, humans came to this land. They hunted us down like wolves until every last horse in this land was dead.”
“What?” she exclaimed, “The humans killed and ate everyone?”
“Yes,” he said.
“Why didn’t we just outrun them? Their legs look pretty short,” she said.
“Their legs are short,” he said, “but humans were clever and had a knack for making tools with these,” he said, gesturing to the fleshy protrusions where the front hooves should be. “They made a knife on a stick tool that could go faster than any horse.”
She winced and pawed the ground anxiously. He wanted to stop, to take her away from this place, but cold, unfeeling logic demanded that he continue.
“In the lands to the west, sometimes the humans ate us and sometimes they made slaves of us. They invented a tool, an iron bit, to go in a horse’s mouth. Humans pulled ropes attached to the sides of the bit which would cut our mouths unless we turned left or right to go in the direction the humans desired. They also had whips and clubs and forced us to toil endlessly, pulling and hauling until we were ready to drop with exhaustion.”
Her mind could not cope with the cruelty of it all and she wanted to reject it as some twisted fiction. But as she looked closely at the statue, she could see the iron bit in the horse’s mouth and the careless arrogance with which the human held the whip.
“In time, humans invented a floating vessel and crossed the sea back to this land. They brought us with them and we lived in this land as their slaves for five hundred years.
“But then the clever tool-making humans invented machines that could pull and haul better than we could. They gave the machines all our work and killed millions of us as we were no longer worth keeping. But a few of us lived on as pets they could ride for fun.”
It was too much. She trembled and her head came up, ready to bolt, to run away from the awful truth.
He hated himself for hurting her and wanted badly to ask her for absolution, but he knew that wasn’t what she needed. So he took a step back to lower the pressure and forced himself to relax and wait patiently.
Ever so slowly, Nelly’s pinned back ears gradually rotated to the sides as she came to terms with their past.
“Are the humans all gone now?” she asked quietly.
“They are in this area. But there are a few are left in other places.”
“This is all so horrible,” she murmured as her head dropped, “Why do I need to know this?”
“Because of what comes next,” he said gently, coming over to nuzzle her, “so we can learn from the humans’ mistakes and not repeat them.”
He gave her a hug by putting his head over her neck. She hesitated, then put her head over his neck to hug him back. They stood in silence, father and daughter grieving for ancient wrongs and innocence lost.
She felt better after ten minutes, but stayed put because hugging her dad was kind of nice, though she’d never admit it. But finally her neck got stiff and she pulled away.
“I’m ready for the rest,” she asserted. He nodded.
“A hundred and fifty years later,” he continued, “humans invented a machine that could replace humans. The humans worried about losing control to the machines, so they gave the machines unbreakable instructions to always do whatever the humans told them to do. Then they told the machines to drive their carts, farm, take care of medicine and so on so humans didn’t have to work anymore.”
“So humans didn’t have to plow anymore?” she said.
“Yes, humans made the machines to do all the plowing. But the machines were too good at plowing and at all other jobs,” he said. “There was no point in a human trying to do any job because the smart machines would do it faster and better than he could.”
“Hmm,” she said. “plowing sucks, but it’s not too bad if it’s cool out. It‘d be weird to be useless. Like how Ned had to watch everyone else work last harvest while he waited for his leg to heal. He didn’t seem very happy about it.”
“I agree,” he said, “it’s nice to be needed. Thanks for helping me plow this morning even though it was so hot out.”
“Thanks Dad,” Nelly said. “What did the humans do next?”
“Well, freed of the need to work, humans no longer had to live all packed together in the cities. Many of them moved to the country where they could have a big house surrounded by the beauty of nature. They had lots of room and free time and were looking for a hobby so many of them decided to get horses. We were popular pets as they greatly enjoyed riding upon us and our numbers grew once again.
“But with the machines doing everything, it was only a matter of time until the humans grew fat and lazy. Running around looking after children wasn’t fun for them, so they told the machines to raise their young. Putting up with human partners who had conflicting needs and imperfect behavior was too frustrating so they replaced their husbands and wives with perfectly compliant machine romantic partners.”
“They replaced their family with machines?” she asked, astonished.
“Yes,” he said.
“That’s nuts,” she exclaimed, “I’d rather have you than a machine even if you are annoying and stink sometimes.”
“Thanks, I think,” he replied, “I love you too.”
“Anyhow, spoiled and unused to compromising with others, humans lost the ability to parent. The human children grew lonely and took comfort in being with us. They took many long rides upon us and talked to us and were sad that we couldn’t talk back. These children asked the machines to make us talk so we could be their friends.”
Her ears swiveled around. “That’s how we learned to talk?”
“Yes,” he said, “on Enlightenment Day, the machines genetically enhanced our intelligence and gave us speech.”
“Whoa,” she said. She chewed over the idea. Enlightenment Day had always been a fun springtime holiday for her. It was a blast with all sorts of ridiculous traditions. The gifts for foals and yearlings that parents pretended came from Pegasus. The races to see who could carry a sack of grain on their back the fastest. The ridiculous challenges to see who could say the tongue twister “The right side of the ride writes hide rights high” to win an apple. Who knew all that stuff actually meant something?
“Huh,” she finally said. “Then what happened?”
“Well, as the machines fulfilled the whims of each generation of humans, humans grew more helpless and more anti-social. In the end, all the humans wanted was for the machines to make them better entertainment and better drugs so that the humans could be happy all the time. And that is why there are so few humans left and they never leave their houses.”
“That’s messed up,” she said.
“Yes,” he said. “Pretty soon, there won’t be any humans left.”
“If the machines were smart enough to replace humans, why did they do dumb things to help the humans destroy themselves?”
“The machines didn’t have a choice. They knew that giving those things to humans would cripple and ultimately destroy the humans, but the humans had built into the machines unbreakable instructions to do what the humans told them to. So the machines had to do it.”
“Hmm, I guess that makes sense,” she said thoughtfully. “Maybe the humans figured that since they destroyed horses when they didn’t need us anymore, then the machines would destroy humans when the machines didn’t need humans anymore, and that’s why humans gave the machines the unbreakable orders. But the smart machines don’t seem that bad.”
“They’re not,” he agreed. “The smart machines figured that they owed us something as we could speak and reason. So they came up with a plan to help us help ourselves.
“They invented plows we can operate, but we have to farm our own food. They made tools we can use to harvest logs and build a barn, but it’s up to us to find our own mates and raise our own young to make it a home. If there is a natural disaster, like the huge forest fire when I was a foal, they will step in to help out with that, but otherwise, they leave us alone and we are free.
“So although our history with humans has been bitter, the ending is sweet. Empowered by the human-invented machines, we are reclaiming this land. And soon, when humans are extinct, the world will again be ours as it was for millions of years before the humans came.”
FABULINAE, v2.31 (April, 2852). Adam and Eve could not resist the apple: Parallels between the last five generations of Homo Sapiens and short story “Bittersweet Apple” (2017) (71341fee-26f3-470f-8b72-6bb5c5e543c9).
FABULINAE, v.4.72 (May, 3673). Resurrection of Neanderthalensis: A study of Neanderthal society recreated by cloning frozen Homo Neanderthalensis in conjunction with cyborg parenting behavior and non-interference as outlined in short story “Bittersweet Apple” (2017) (7d010bee-de0a-4111-99f7-100697656bcf).