New Account Registration re-enabled - apparently the extension we use for ReCaptcha service had a configuration change and to utilize the more secure form it needed different parameters. We did not notice this when it occurred. Sorry folks!
Jeremiah ran down the dusty path following the yells of his friends, "Wait up!" he yelled feeling out of breath already. None of the other boys stopped, though. Summer had come after a long, dusty spring and they were all racing as fast as they could to the swimming hole. Jeremiah was just too slow.
Panting, he stopped and leaned against a tree. "Come' on, guys!" he wailed, but there was no answer. The older boys were too far away to hear him.
"Need some help?" asked a nearby voice.
Jeremiah looked up and saw a scruffy looking man laying against a tree. He wore clothes that showed a lot of wear, but were in good repair and reasonably clean. Oddly, he wore a pot on his head and his half closed eyes were focused not on Jeremiah, but the ground. There was something else about the man, something strange, that the boy couldn't put a finger on. "No, I'm just tired," said the boy.
The man didn't move much, just motioned for the boy to sit, "Take a load off, then. There's enough trees for everyone."
Jeremiah sat down and looked oddly at the man. He wasn't sure what to make of him, but he looked like a man on a long journey. There was a lot of that, even in the center of Missouri, ever since the War between the States had ended just before Jeremiah was born. Even ten years later, there were a lot of jobs to be had rebuilding the South. "What's your name, mister?"
"Johnny," he said simply without moving much.
"Just coming though town?" he asked.
The man raised an eyebrow. "Sorta. I'm going west."
That piqued Jeremiahs interest. He'd never met anyone going west before. "Oh? Why?" The man smiled a little and pointed a finger upward. The boy followed the gaze and laid his eyes on the huge tree above. The strong branches were filled with giant red fruit, bigger than his fist!
"What are those?" he asked in wonder, not questioning how the tree had arrived there so fast.
The man smiled and stood for the first time. "It's an apple seed tree," he said with a wink. "It grows apple seeds. Want to try one?"
The boy stared at the heavy red fruit that seemed to call to him and nodded slowly. The scruffy man looked at each piece with great deliberation before reaching up and plucking a practically ripe one. "Here you go," he said after rubbing it to a glossy shine on his shirt.
Jeremiah looked at it and smelled the faint, but sweet aroma for a moment before he plunged his teeth through the thick skin. The juice poured onto his tongue and the crisp fruit crunched as he chewed. He let out a delighted laugh as he bit into it again, and again. "This is tasty!" he exclaimed between bites.
Johnny just smiled and looked around the tree more. "I know, that's why I plant them wherever I go. I've grown apple seed trees all over the place," he picked a small fruit himself and bit into it, then turned to face the boy. "You see, this is a special tree."
The boy took another bite of the apple then looked at the man. His jaw dropped open and the bite fell to the forest floor. "What...?" he asked. Where Johnny had been a moment before there stood something that wasn't possible. He still wore the mans scruffy clothes and the pot was still on his head, but now two very horse-like ears poked out from either side of the pot, his face was longer than it should be, and his body was covered in a soft chestnut hair with a white star between his eyes. "What are you?" he finally asked in wonder.
Johnny let out a whinny, then tossed the boy another apple. "Its all part of the fun!" he said like a child. "Haven't you ever wanted to run and play like the horses do? To spend a spring day in the sun instead of in school? That's why I do it." He pointed at the boy, "You can feel it now, can't you?" he asked.
The boy looked at himself fearfully expecting to see the same changes on his own body, but his skin was still clear and ears round. He stood up to run away from the strange man when he realized, though, that he just wanted to run. Not away, just run. He just wanted to be free, to graze the days away. He felt a hunger for it, a calling.
He looked at the new apple in his hand, and he chomped into it.
There was no pain as his ears perked up, and he only felt warm in the summer sun as his skin grew a coat of fur that had large splotches of brown and white. He nickered in delight as he saw it, a sight that only moments before would have chilled him to the bone. He ran from the tree, not in fear but in joy, jumping higher than he ever had and rolling in the green meadow nearby. He nibbled on the dandelions and tasted their sweet milk with a new tongue. It felt so good!
All too soon the feeling faded a little, then a lot. As he rolled in the grass, he realized that his arm was slowly getting naked, his fur was going away. Fearing now that he might lose what he had so recently feared, he ran back to the tree. Johnny was still sitting there, pot lowered over his eyes. His own body was still as much horse as man. "Have fun?" he asked.
The boy nodded, "Yeah, but it's going away!" he wailed.
Johnny didn't even stand, but just pointed up, "Eat more of it and it won't go away as fast. The more you eat, the longer it stays."
The boy didn't have to be told twice. He jumped up and grabbed the first piece that he could find, a thick and juicy one that tasted even better than the first two. In mere moments, he could see his painted coat growing again, feel the energy and delight filling his body. He almost ran away, but remembered what Johnny had said. He grabbed another one and gobbled it up. He almost laughed, feeling his jaw move a little different than it had when he was just a boy.
He was about to leave when Johnny pushed himself to his knees and knelt next to him. "Are you just going to have the two?" he asked. "You could be like that forever if you wanted."
The boy looked excited, but interested, "Really? How?" He had visions of spending weeks and months in the meadow, just running and jumping and playing with his friends.
Johnny pulled another apple off the tree. "One more and it's forever. Endless sunny days, no school," he said with a wink, "and no more work."
Jeremiah didn't have to think about it much, he grabbed the apple from Johnny and took the biggest bit out of it that he could. He cored the apple in seconds, feeling the great chunks of fruit slide down his throat.
He felt a little funny for a second, then off balance. He tried to ask Johnny for help, but fell forward onto his hands. He could feel the seams and buttons of his clothes stretch and break and the sprout at his backside grow into a full tail.
Johnny pulled the torn bits of clothes off the foal and smiled, "Oh, you look wonderful," he said in a kind voice. He nuzzled the colt on the nose and rubbed him between the ears. "You'll never be happier."
Jeremiah was confused, though. He didn't want to be a horse! He wanted just to run in the meadows, but he couldn't go home like this! He trembled under the embrace of the horse man.
"Oh my," he said quietly, "You didn't realize this would happen, did you?" When Jeremiah shook his head vigorously, he stood up and started looking at the tree. "Don't worry, all is not lost." He looked from apple to apple, trying to find a specific one. "Ah hah!" he exclaimed suddenly, reaching up and pulling down an apple smaller than the rest and still green. "This one will do it!" He rubbed it on his shirt and presented it to the colt. "A green apple will undo what has been done. You can be a boy again with just one bite."
The colt hesitated a moment. He wasn't sure if to trust Johnny, but he didn't want to be a colt the rest of his life either! The apple smelled so good too.
Slowly, he reached his lips out and took the apple, chewing the unripe fruit slowly and carefully. He swallowed with as much deliberation, then stood and waited.
Johnny didn't wait, but carefully gathered his few positions. He reached into a small sack and pulled out a length of rope that he tied around the unresisting colt. He fed him a couple more apples then led him down the trail. They passed the swimming hole unseen, and though the town without much notice. It wasn't until they reached the next town that Johnny walked to the largest stables and found the owner.
The man looked warily at the scruffy stranger who wore a pot on his head, but came out anyway to see the colt he had for sale. "I wouldn't sell him," he explained, "but I need the money for my travels."
The man nodded understandingly and looked approvingly at the colt, who looked like he would make a fine stallion someday. The small animal had the core of a strong horse underneath, the kind that would be able to pull a coach all day. He stood calmly at the strangers side and nibbled on a bit of unfamiliar fruit. "What's his name?" he asked as he checked the teeth.
Johnny smiled, "Appleseed."