The Golden Apple

From Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s incomplete The Golden Apple. This and, though less openly than the title would suggest, his Tale of the 672nd Night both meld pieces of fin-de-siecle culture with Arabian Nights atmosphere.

Because of the great heat, the rug dealer’s wife spent the afternoon of the following day in a room partly sunken into the ground in the section of the house facing the garden. But her child—a seven-year-old girl who was oddly small and delicate for her age, like a doll, only with eyes which occasionally flared up with great expressiveness—stole away from her mother by slipping quietly behind a curtain, and went up to a large, unused room on the top floor. There the girl found an old, partly clouded mirror and looked into it. First she smiled at her reflection, then she knitted her brow and showed the mirror her small gleaming teeth. For a moment she let her face sag in a limp expression of utter fatigue; then she contorted her soft features and stared at herself with wide eyes and maliciously curled lips. After a while she set the mirror aside and went to one of the curtained windows. She put her head out and immediately had to close her eyes, for it was painfully hot outside. She remained in this position—body and hands in the dim room, head and unseeing eyes bathed in the heat—for a long time. Many thoughts welled up in her. She wanted to picture a great many nice things, things that had happened to her with other children, animals, and adults. But a heavy feeling of powerlessness stopped her. Something stood between her and these things like a glass wall. As she reluctantly and unhappily pulled her head back into the room and for a moment was close to sullen, angry tears, the wind moved the portiere at the door slightly, and to the child it was as if a gentle, barely perceptible hint of the smell of the golden apple had wafted in. This was an actual golden apple that her father had brought her mother as a gift from a great journey many years previously. It was filled with infinitely finely branching golden foliage in which lingered an elusive scent recalling nothing on earth. The child had seen the apple seldom during her life, and then always by the uncertain light of a candle, when her mother had brought it out only to lock it up again in the dark chest. But its obscure scent, which did not weaken over the years, emerged in a cloud each time and an immense dream settled over the child’s mind. The golden apple was of a piece with the most miraculous things in fairy tales; the talking bird, the dancing water, and the singing tree were linked to the child’s life via subterranean passages that ran here and there in dark caves and among the swaying transparent abodes of the queen of the sea.

The well in one corner of the courtyard was also connected to these passages. It was said to be dry, and buckets went up and down now only in a different, bigger well. The old one was covered by a stone lid on which knelt a stone figure, not unlike a naked man, but on all fours in the posture of an animal. The dry well that this enigmatic creature was guarding was certainly no ordinary one. Toward evening, if you put your ear to the stone lid, you could hear a sudden rustling underneath and bodies moving off to a great depth. But in front of the house was a great flat stone into which an iron ring was set and which had to be another entrance to this mysterious world, if you could only lift it.

The child went slowly down the stairs, where two glowing spots projected out of the wall toward her like the eyes of a basilisk. These were two screws in the metal latch of the large chest, partly set into the wall, in which the golden apple was locked. The mild, light-saturated, pale-blue sky looked down from high overhead into the dim stairwell through an oval opening with a grating in a honeycomb pattern. But a brilliant beam of light penetrated at one place in the screen, cut through the bluish quivering air, and landed on the copper latch, making two screwheads glow and sparkle like living eyes.

The child knew that there was a secret handle with which you could open the chest from the side, to reach in without lifting the heavy lid. She tried to budge the shining latch, then the next one, and then the others which lay in darkness. Finally one yielded, and, more miraculously than the emerald doors of an enchanted cave, the hidden side doors of the chest slid apart. With her head the child controlled the outpouring of golden and multicolored fabrics, but her hands rummaged through soft piles of linen, past smooth cool amber spheres and painfully hard carved and metal objects, down to the bottom, where the apple was, and brought it out. Thinking of nothing but this piece of good fortune, she hurriedly closed the doors again; the latch snapped into place.

For a long time the child stood motionless, and the elusive fragrance rose from the apple in grave puffs like the breaths of a sleeping sorcerer and darkened her mind with an awareness of infinite power and size. But gradually she became tired of standing that way and it occurred to her that mere possession of the apple was not what was important about it, that it was something like a magic lamp or the rings given by fairies, something that had power over other things. And then she saw herself clearly, as in a mirror, climbing down the steps into that mysterious world, in her hand the apple, soft honey-colored light and inner certainty radiating from it as from a magic lamp. She quickly slipped out into the street, which was empty and silent, bathed in heat. She stood over the flat stone, bent down to it, touched the iron ring with the apple, turned the apple three times to the left in her small hands, and let it roll away on the stone; the stone did not tremble, and the ring lay in its notch without moving. She had the nightmare conviction that the apple’s power had failed. Everything seemed darker to her, and a mass of noxious thoughts welled up in her, thoughts whose meaning she barely understood and which yet had an agonizing and oppressive power. She had to think of her mother and father. It was incomprehensible to her how such people could bear their lives, with so many, many years going by and nothing in them that seemed to her to make life worth living. She did not understand how it was possible to stand such dreadful boredom. She was overcome with a kind of pity, and great despondency. She looked at the apple, and it struck her as smaller and more ordinary. Its weight seemed to her to be that of a stone, whereas earlier it had had the mysterious weight of something supernatural. She decided to go and give the apple to two little girls with whom she often played, roll it in front of the two of them as though it were nothing special at all, nothing odder than a ball of colorful stone. As she made this resolution, she thought the apple must feel its import. For she had not yet stopped caring about it; the gesture of contempt that she wanted to produce still masked a somber mix of horror, sorrow, and love. She had again picked it up from the ground to execute this plan when she heard the steps of a man approaching her. He was well dressed, with two great, excessively thin wirehaired dogs leaping around him. This young man was the chief farrier to the King. He was the son of a black man and a Syrian woman and had risen to his present high position only through a series of strange strokes of luck. His stride as he approached rocked slightly like the gait of lions and panthers. He wore an emerald-green upper garment whose red-edged slashes allowed the fine white shirt to shine through. A gold chain set with amethyst was wound around his snow-white turban. Tucked into his scaled belt was a short, wide dagger, and next to it a leather whip whose handle was tipped with a golden snake entwined around a large amethyst. Beneath the belt was a red leather apron hanging to the knee. Light-yellow boots banded in metallic green came up almost to the hollow of the knee. The sleeves of the shirt were wide, but tightly encircled over the knuckles by a gold band interwoven with black blossoms so that the large handsome hands emerged from a narrow bell, shining out like yellowish semiprecious stones.

The King’s farrier was in a cheerful mood. A steady smile was on his strong, full lips; the upper one was lifted to reveal a dazzling flash of teeth. His cheerfulness had several causes. Only that morning, the King had made him a present of these two beautiful and extremely rare dogs as a token of his special favor; the King himself had received them from a Kurdish prince along with other dogs and long-haired goats.

The farrier let the dogs bound ahead of him, pulled them back from their racing with a short, piercing whistle, and their bodies, all wildness and yet all obedience, filled him with the joy of new ownership. He felt in these fiery limbs that danced around him, fast as the wind, something of the light, hot power that he himself carried in his blood, and when he met a poor misshapen dwarf under a half-shaded colonnade, a wretched creature with an aged, oversized child’s head set deeply between hunched shoulders, he became conscious of his own finely made shoulders and all the joints in his body, as when he slid naked through a wonderful bath of utterly mild and extra-buoyant water. Whenever the hot wind moved the curtain of one of the rare windows overlooking the street, he thought he saw the hand of a woman who had emerged from the mysterious shade of the curtained room to throw him flowers or a letter.

Suddenly he saw ahead of him the little girl, who lifted the golden apple in a beseeching gesture and then pointed down to the flat stone, as if she wished to persuade the man to open up this passage for her and was promising him the apple as a reward. For an instant the child seemed to him like a messenger of love, and the stone with the ring like a trapdoor. He was glad to try his strength on something, so he took hold of the rusty ring with his handsome powerful hand that sprang from a narrow bell of gold-and-black fabric, and in a few seconds had lifted the heavy slab, every muscle of his powerful body stretched tight as a bowstring under the fine colorful clothes. The child faced the gaping deep shaft filled with cold air and, far below, a meager trickling of water. A second look seemed to show animals scurrying here and there on the vertical, darkness-draped walls. A third revealed the mouth of another shaft going off to the side at a considerable depth, a perpendicular subterranean passage. The farrier felt at the end of his strength and let the heavy stone back down into its seat. With both hands he reached for the child, in whose eyes hung some of the deep darkness and mystery she had drunk in, and lifted her high into the hot, brilliant air. As he was letting her down again, he felt the child’s hand on his chest and a hard object slipping into a fold of his garment. But only once he had turned the corner did he reach in and discover that it was the golden apple, from which streamed a rare and potent odor, an amalgam of extraordinary sweetness and painful yearning.

When the stone had again closed off the way to that secret world, the little girl stood before it like the sea king’s daughter after being expelled from her home. She decided to bear her banishment with courage and not rest until she had found a way back into her father’s kingdom. Her trading the apple for a look into the depths seemed to her to be just the beginning of a series of wonderful adventures, and, no longer frightened by the dreariness and incomprehensibility of her true surroundings—meaningful only if she thought of them as exile—she went back inside.

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