Once, there was a boy who lived in a cottage beside the forest with his mother and father.
One day, the boy, who hadn't had anything to eat for many hours, was very hungry. His mother, as usual, was in the kitchen cooking and his father, as usual, was in the forest chopping wood.
'Can't I have some food?' the boy asked his mother.
'No, you can't,' she said, 'you must wait until your grandparents are here. It's not so long, and then there will be cake and bread and butter and jam and everything you could want.'
But the little boy was very hungry, and there right in front of him on the table was a bowl of apples, shining red and green.
'No, you can't,' said his mother, 'those are for your grandfather, who doesn't always like to have cake.'
'But he won't eat all of them,' said the boy. 'Can't I have just half of one?'
'No, you can't,' said his mother.
But the little boy was so hungry that when his mother turned her back to put the cake in the oven, he reached up, grabbed one of the apples from the bowl, and ran from the kitchen as fast as he could.
Now, his mother knew exactly how many apples there had been in the bowl, thirteen, for she had bought them that very afternoon, from an old woman who came by. But when she had tried to pay her, the old woman had said the money wasn't enough. And the mother had said she wouldn't pay more, because she could just as well go into the forest and pick them herself. So the old woman, who was really a witch, had taken the money, but had secretly put a curse upon the thirteenth apple.
Yet the witch wasn't completely heartless. She saw that the family were poor and lived in a small cottage. So she didn't curse the whole thirteenth apple, but only one of its three little pips.
And it so happened that of all the apples in the bowl, the one the little boy had stolen was the thirteenth.
When his mother counted only twelve apples left, she ran out of the kitchen and shouted after her son – for she didn't want him to grow up to be a thief, like his grandfather, her own father.
'Come back! Come back!' she shouted.
But the little boy was very afraid he was going to be punished, so he ran away from her and deep into the forest.
As he was running through the forest, the boy heard the sound of an axe. And when he came within sight of the clearing, he saw his father chopping down a tall tree. Although he tried to hide, his father saw him.
'Come here! Come here!' his father shouted.
But the boy ran away from him, too, for he still had the stolen apple in his hand. And in his fear, the little boy lost his way – and found himself alone as evening came.
'At least I've got the apple,' he thought, and he sat down and took a big bite out of it. The boy bit so deep into the apple that his teeth reached its core, and in its core were three pips, two brown and one black. He chewed the mouthful, juice running down his chin. And without knowing it, the boy swallowed the black pip from the thirteenth apple. He ate all the rest of the fruit and threw away the core.
Well, by now the forest and the day were starting to get dark, and even though the boy knew he was certain to be punished when he got home, and wouldn't be allowed any cake or bread and butter, he didn't want to be all alone in the forest at night because the forest wasn't just any forest it was a haunted forest.
So the young boy tried to find his way back to the path that would take him home. But as he walked he started to feel a pain in his stomach. At first he thought it was because he had eaten the delicious apple too fast, like his mother had many many times warned him no to.
The forest was now gray with dusk and he could hear strange noises coming from behind trees or perhaps inside trees, he couldn't tell. And that was why the forest was haunted.
He hoped and hoped to hear the sound of his father's axe chopping down a final tree, but by now it was so dark he knew his father must have gone home.
Still he couldn't find the right path, or any path at all, and still the pain got worse, and still the noises got louder.
Eventually, the pain became so bad, the boy had to lie down, despite how scary the forest was becoming, all around and around him.
He knew he couldn't stay there, so he got up and carried onwards.
He stumbled on into a part of the forest where the trees didn't grow quite so close together, in fact they seemed almost regularly spaced, but the pain again got too much for him, and again he fell to the ground.
He clutched his tummy tight, and as he did so he felt something sticking out of his tummy button, something that had never been there before.
He undid the buttons of his shirt and looked at his tummy button. But that wasn't what he saw. What he saw was a little green shoot. It looked, he thought, very like – though it couldn't have been – one of the buds on an appletree, where the flowers burst out in spring and the apple grows in summer and ripens in autumn. And as he watched, the shoot grew slightly longer.
It was now almost night but a full moon was coming out and by the light of it the boy would see the beginnings of a twig coming out of his tummy button – for this was the witch's curse working on the person who ate the black pip of the thirteenth apple.
He was very afraid, and tried to grab it and snap it off. But this hurt even more than if it had been one of his own fingers he was bending back.
In a panic, the boy tried to stand up, but he found he couldn't because he was stuck to the ground.
He felt with his hands behind his back, and was horrified to find roots there, growing down into the thick soil of the forest floor.
Through that long and terrible night, the little boy felt the appletree growing. And not all the roots went into the earth, some of them grew into his legs, some into his arms and some into his head. He could feel them, spreading and growing and then starting to suck – for of course, like all trees this appletree wanted to suck the goodness from what it was planted in.
Slowly, the boy was sucked away until all that was left of him were his clothes buried beneath the roots of a fine young appletree.
Suddenly, the moon came out from behind a cloud. In the moonlight, the boy who was a tree or the tree who was a boy saw that where he'd come to rest was an orchard. There were dozens of appletrees, and he was right in the middle of them.
At first his father had thought it would teach his son a lesson to go hungry for a bit and spend the night in the forest, but then his mother could take it no longer and accompanied by his grandmother and grandfather they all of them took flaming torches and set out into the forest.
They went up and down, far and wide, calling his name, but nowhere could they find him.
It was long after midnight when they finally came to the orchard.
They shouted the boy's name as they approached, and he heard them and tried to shout back, but as he was now a mouthless tree he made no sound, except for a gentle creaking.
All four of them came and stood right beneath his branches, so that the flames of their torches burnt his leaves horribly.
'I think he's lost forever,' said his grandfather.
'No,' said his grandmother, 'we're sure to find him if we look tomorrow.'
'I think he may never come back,' said his father.
'No,' said his mother, 'he will return when he gets hungry.'
And so they left to go back to their cottage, which wasn't so far away – and inside his trunk the boy was screaming and screaming for them to look up at him and see who he really was, but all they heard was a gentle creaking.
Now, a year and a day came to pass, and in all that time the tree-boy saw neither his mother nor his father His mother hated the idea of apples, because it was a stolen apple that had stolen their boy. His father hated the forest, because it was into the forest that their boy had disappeared.
It was autumn and the boy-tree's branches were hung with shiny ripe fruit.
And then, one afternoon, the old woman who was a witch came to the orchard with her two big wicker baskets – she was looking for the very best apples to pick and sell to the people who lived next to the forest but were afraid ever to set foot in it.
When she came to the boy-tree, she saw his were by far the biggest, shiniest apples, and she went round and round him, seven times seven, picking until none were left. There were thirteen times thirteen apples, which filled her baskets completely (for they were enchanted baskets and could hold many more apples than normal).
Well, the witch took these apples to the houses of the village, and of course in the end she came to the cottage where the woman lived whose apples she had cursed a year and a day before.
Now the witch thought about going past this cottage for she didn't expect a very warm reception, but curiosity got the better of her, for she wanted to know whether anyone in the cottage had eaten the thirteenth apple, eaten the black pip. She looked all around the cottage, but couldn't see a new appletree there.
She knocked on the door and the father answered. He looked old and sad and weary.
'Would you like to buy my lovely apples?' said the witch.
'No,' said the father, and began to close the door.
But the mother stopped him. She ran forwards and reminded him how much her son had wanted an apple on the day he disappeared.
'Perhaps,' she said, 'if we buy all these apples, he will smell them from the forest and come home.'
The father argued against this but in the end was persuaded. 'How much for all your apples?' he asked the witch.
Now by her magic, the witch knew exactly how much money the couple had saved, and so she said that amount, minus one penny.
The father became very angry and wanted to shut the door but still the mother insisted they buy all the apples.
Eventually, again, the father was persuaded. He went and pulled up the floorboard, took out their small money bag and poured out all but a penny of their money into the witch's gnarled hands.
The witch, on seeing this goodness, regretted the curse she had placed on the apple a year and a day before – and so, she placed a blessing on the final apple, and she handed this one very particularly to the mother.
'This,' she said, 'is the nicest, roundest, shiniest of them all. Why don't you eat it? All of it?'
And when they had shut the door, the mother did. Crying, she ate the blessed apple, pips and all.
Now this apple had three pips, and the pips began to grow inside her – they grew and they grew but they were not trees, they were little boys. And nine months later they were born.
Nine years passed and the boys grew up, as little boys do, with joy and difficulty. Their grandparents both died. Their mother and father were even older. She could no longer cook so well and he could no longer fell trees, so they decided to make their living by picking apples from the orchard in the forest and selling them to the people in the village.
All summer they wove baskets to carry the apples in, and then one autumn day they carried them through the forest to the orchard.
The three little boys weren't scared at all, although their mother had never let them go into the forest before, as it had taken her first and still best-loved son.
When they got to the orchard, the five of them began picking apples. They started at one end and got closer and closer to tree-boy, who was their son, who was their brother.
What they hadn't seen was the witch, picking apples from trees at the other end of the orchard.
The boy who was a tree saw them all approaching, for he stood between them and her.
Eventually, the witch spotted the family and the family spotted the witch but they went on picking.
In the end, the only tree with any apples left on it was the boy-tree, and the witch and the family stood upon either side of it. The only sound was a gentle creaking.
'This is your tree,' said the mother. 'It has the loveliest apples on it, and you picked them for us ten years ago. You have picked them for us every year since. You may have them now.'
So the witch picked three apples off the tree who was a boy and gave them to the three boys who had been pips.
'Eat,' she said.
And they did. Each of them took a huge bite. But the apple tasted bitter to them, and so they spat it out, onto the forest floor.
'They're horrible,' the boys said.
'Eat,' said the witch.
'Eat,' said their mother.
So they took another huge bite each. And the apple tasted even more bitter, and so they spat it out again, onto the forest floor.
'Eat,' said the witch.
'Eat,' said their mother.
'Eat,' said their father.
So they took another huge bite each. And the apple tasted the most bitter of all, so they spat it out yet again, onto the forest floor.
And suddenly, when the last of the apple was spat out, their older brother was standing there before them, no longer a tree but a strong and handsome young man, just as his father had once been.
The mother and father recognised who he was and ran to embrace him. As they did so, the witch crept away, never to be seen again.
And when the mother and father turned around, to introduce their first son to his three younger brothers, they saw in their place nine new appletrees heavy with sweet apples.