Deadly Nightshade

Lynne Sharon Schwartz

     NO QUESTION THAT she was brave. But it had to be something more than bravery. Nothing so stark as hunger-there were easier ways to satisfy hunger. Curiosity, surely. How could she help but be tantalized by something both beautiful and forbidden? Beyond curiosity: youthful defiance, that acute lust to court danger. It might even have been despair, not giving a damn anymore what happened-let it kill me or cure me of this misery. Love misery, it must have been. Why else would she choose the love apple, smooth and luscious-looking, red as the heart's blood? It's safe to say "she" rather than "he," although like everything else about her, that too is unknown. But a woman is more likely to seek adventure or death through something as humble as a fruit.

     No one in living memory had eaten it and there must be a good reason, the elders warned. Never mind the old sailors who returned from voyages over the horizon with stories of natives who ate the fruit and thrived. Everyone knew sailors made up tall tales. They brought home seeds too, and though the vines those seeds bore were good to look at, danger often lurked behind pretty surfaces. The fruit would kill.

     She went alone to the edge of town where the woods began, grabbed one off the vine before she could stop herself, bit in swiftly, expecting bitterness and startled by sweetness, then ate all the way through the soft wet pulp, the juice dripping down her palm. And waited for the griping pains, the vertigo, the dimming in the eyes, the convulsions and hallucinations.

     The first hour of anticipation was the worst. What would it be like when night came and pain clenched her in the dark? Would she fall into a swoon, never to wake, or die screaming in remorse? She thought of what she would leave behind, family, friends, most of all the one who tormented her by his restless leaving and returning. The pain and dizziness didn't come, but that hardly eased the terror. It might be a slow poison, more excruciating than the quick kind. She waited alone in the woods so no one would witness her suffering. As night fell she drifted toward sleep, first fighting it then yielding, her last slippery thought being, This might be my last thought.

     Light surprised her awake, light and hunger. She leaped to her feet in triumph and relief, then shrank back. Too soon to rejoice. It might be an extremely slow poison.

      She gave it almost a whole day to do its work. As the uneventful hours passed she grew more confident and more reckless. She ate a second one, and waited, until at last eagerness sent her racing back to town. By the time she reached the square her cheeks were flushed with excitement, nearly as red as the fruits that filled her basket. Breathlessly, she told what she had done. Look! she cried. Here! Eat! But people being what they are, they didn't rush to take what she offered. Some didn't believe her, suspected her of a malevolent urge to poison the lot of them. She'd always been eccentric, they muttered, always needed to go her own way. They didn't even trust when she ate one in full view. She really didn't want another just then. She was worn out. The strain of teasing death had wearied her and all she wanted was to eat something familiar, something like bread, and lie down. But she couldn't show any reluctance or weariness; they would think the fruit had sapped her strength. She knew it wasn't the fruit. It was the historic moment, and historic moments are exhausting. But she ate it anyway, just to show the stodgy cowards. And it was good, the best so far.

     Finally a loyal friend ate one in solidarity, then another stepped forward, and another, a small plucky group. For the next few days the talk was of nothing else; the town was tense, waiting for the dire results that never came. And so before long, as might be expected, a good number of the townspeople began sampling the fruits, some cautiously, a mere morsel or a few drops of the juice added to a stew, others exuberantly eating them raw and whole. They were a great success. How could they not be? We all know, thanks to the forgotten woman, what a fresh tomato tastes like. Even now, it's the rare person who doesn't like tomatoes. There were a few holdouts, naturally, the sort who would never eat what their grandparents had warned them not to eat: Woe to those who turned their back on the old wisdom. Sooner or later you'll be sick, they taunted the tomato eaters. The poison will do its work in its own good time. In fact for years to come, whenever the tomato eaters fell ill with some ordinary transient illness or exhibited any peculiar behavior, those die-hards would shake their heads with satisfaction and blame it on eating tomatoes.

     But for the most part people welcomed the succulent fruit and felt lucky to be alive in the dawn of the tomato-eating age. Think of the numberless maligned tomatoes left to rot on the vine, they marveled. And innocent all the while. What pleasures untasted, what hungers unappeased. People were grateful, and for a time the woman was known and revered far and wide for her brave deed. But since the drama of her deed was so quickly over and its results so benign, unlike the drama of the invention of gunpowder or the colonizing of a new land, her fame soon declined. Tomatoes were sliced, chopped, crushed, stewed, fried, turned into sauce, and in no time at all incredulous children would laugh to hear that the versatile, ubiquitous tomato had once inspired dread, and that the ordinary woman whom they saw every day had shown unprecedented courage in eating one. Thus her name and origins and circumstances are lost to us. We can only imagine them.

     What was it like for her, this Prometheus of the vegetable world? At first the excitement attending her act distracted her from her misery, if it was misery. No doubt she was courted by many. Even the one who had caused her misery was all too willing now to have her, heroine that she was, but she no longer needed him. The first bloom of excitement bedazed all other feelings, and when that passed, she found her despair had passed as well, the not caring what became of herself that had driven her to begin with. Had she been shrewd she might have used her fame, at the most propitious moment of its brief arc, to attract a wealthy and powerful husband. But she was not shrewd, only daring and passionate. She remained in the town where she was born, and the only significant change was her knowledge that life can come up with something new even when it seems most depleted.

      And yet she suffered ever after from a vague disappointment. It had nothing to do with her faded renown, nor with tomatoes themselves ceasing to tantalize her. She had known all along it was the act, not the fruit or the fame, that mattered. She had known, even as she sank her teeth into it, that no tomato would ever again taste as good as the one she ate in the town square, in front of all the people, after her night alone in the woods. The disappointment rose from something less tangible. Life could bring the vastly unexpected, and yet it did not. Nothing she did in later years came close to the elation of that single act of abandon. She was a daring woman who found no more opportunities for daring, or for the kind of daring peculiar to her, which was biting into the perilous unknown and letting it travel through her. She wished there were other fruits to be braved, but there were none.

      It was a different sort of person who ate the first artichoke, a spirit not so much daring and impulsive as patient and ingenious. But that is another story.


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