It used to be that in the village of Arbor, women were not born but plucked like fruit from the Great Tree to ripen into wives. On the last day of the harvest season, the villagers strung ribbons and bells from tall ladders. At noon, the young men of Arbor climbed the chiming ladders and picked a she-fruit from The Tree. Each man, when he reached a certain age, was permitted one fruit, instructed by the elders on how to tend to it, then spent the following days and weeks praying for a wife to burst from the fruit and be his.
Occasionally, the fruit did not turn into a wife; it grew tight and brown and hard. For the man who plucked it, his fate was sealed. He would have no wife for as long as he lived; he would grow old and die alone. Artur Ellis feared he was one of these men. As autumn deepened into winter and then lifted into spring, his she-fruit had shriveled from the size of a melon to that of a fist, a thin film of white mold growing along its wrinkled skin. While his age-mates trotted through the village with comely, soft-spoken wives, Artur was alone.
Artur pleaded with the elders but they would not let him choose a new fruit. “Yours still might grow into a wife,” they said, but Artur had never seen a she-fruit take more than a few weeks to ripen, certainly not one that looked as dead as his.
Artur wondered what had done wrong. He kept it comfortable and warm and sang it lullabies when the night was darkest. He begged the fruit to grow, to become healthy, to ripen into a tender and beautiful woman who would bear him sons who would, in turn, pluck their own wives from The Tree. He whispered sweet nothings to the dried-up fruit, every gentle word he had ever heard, coaxing it like he would a wild animal. He did not understand why some wives blossomed while his died. Was it something he did? Had he merely picked a bad fruit and ill luck had sealed his fate?
It wasn’t fair, Artur decided. He wanted a wife more than many of the men who had one. He deserved a wife. So on a warm night in early spring, Artur snuck from his cottage and crept down the road to the Great Tree and, by the light of the milky moon, snatched a she-fruit from the lowest branch. It wasn’t harvest season, but The Tree was already filled with she-fruits. The one Artur picked was heavy as a pitcher of water, so large he had to carry it with both hands. He held it to his chest, the shadowy arms of the Great Tree stretching above him in every direction. The twigs curled like gnarled fingers snatching at the she-fruit throbbing against his skin, like it already had a heartbeat, as he hurried away.
After a few weeks, the new fruit was bigger than his old fruit, which he hid in a cupboard so no one suspected his theft. The stolen fruit grew quickly, its skin turning from pale green to a rich, vivid orange. It smelled of honeysuckle and Artur’s mouth watered. He thrilled at the tales his age-mates told of their wedding nights, when the soft, golden-haired wives came eagerly to their new husbands to be tasted, their supple, rounded arms holding them tight.
At last, when his stolen she-fruit was the size of a bale of hay, Artur took his best bone knife and sliced into the thick skin. The flesh of the fruit split easily, white and pliant, and the scent of summer filled the cottage. He peeled long stretches of rind from the she-fruit, until finally, ambered and sticky as a fly in sap, his wife was before him, curled into a ball, long dark hair plastered to her skin. She was naked, freshly born.
Slowly, she lifted her head. Her eyes opened, the green of new leaves. “Who are you?” she asked.
“I’m your husband,” Artur replied.
“No, you’re not.” She unfolded her body from its position. She was long-legged, thin and sharp of face, both thinner and sharper than Artur preferred in women, if he was honest.
“I plucked you from the Great Tree,” he said, trying to stay calm. He didn’t want to argue with his new wife, not so soon after she emerged from the fruit.
The young woman shook her head. “No. I’m out of season.” She tried to stand, but toppled, weak and uncoordinated as a fawn. Her sticky skin collected the dirt from the floor, muddying her arm. She tried to brush herself clean, but her hand came away dirty as well.
Artur lifted her in his arms, hesitant of the syrupy juice on her skin. He laid her on his bed, on the finest quilt he owned, and raised her hand to his lips. She tasted of lemons and peaches, sour and sweet at once. Her hand trembled as he licked the juice from each of her fingers. His tongue explored her knuckles, her palm, luxurious and slow. She tried to pull away, but he held fast.
“Don’t do this,” she said.
But Artur sucked the sweetness from her skin, licking the soft flesh of her pale wrist, the inside of her elbow. Each inch of her tasted slightly different. The valley between her breasts was floral, but behind her knee, she tasted more like an orange. She clenched her legs together, and he had to work them open with both hands. He felt a twist somewhere in his guts, a seedling of doubt. This wasn’t in the stories the other men told. No one had spoken of an unwilling wife. He smothered the sensation in his stomach; this was how it was always done. It was a husband’s duty to savor his bride, and he did so, though she cried salty tears as he cleaned her with his wet mouth.
Her name was Merwyn, and she was not a good wife. She didn’t cook or clean, and she spent her days gazing out the slits in the shutters. Why couldn’t she be like the other wives, who walked hand-in-hand with their husbands, negotiating prices for wheat and cooking warm suppers?
“Why are you like this?” Artur shouted one night, having come home to find every dish he owned dirtied and stacked on the table, the bed an unmade crumple of quilts. “You are the worst wife in all of Arbor.”
“And you,” she said with such venom that spit sprayed from her mouth, “you are the worst husband to ever pluck a woman from The Tree. No man should ever be allowed to pick a wife again.”
Artur deflated and sank to his knees. “I didn’t want to spend my life alone,” he said, and his throat seized as though he was about to cry.
His wife examined him like a wad of dung on her boot. “You should not have done what you did. You should not have plucked me early.”
Artur nodded in agreement. He had broken the one rule of the Great Tree. Of course, his stolen bride would harbor resentment. “I’m so sorry.” He clutched at her skirts, and Merwyn stepped to the side, so only the filthy hem slipped through his fingers. “When my first fruit didn’t ripen, I didn’t think there was another way.”
“You had another wife before me?”
“I had a fruit. It didn’t become a wife.”
“Show me.” Her tone softened slightly. She seemed curious.
Artur went to the kitchen and pulled the wrinkled she-fruit from the cabinet. It looked even worse than before, like a dried fig, brown and small. It smelled faintly of rot.
“Give her to me,” Merwyn said. “Please.” Her voice tipped like she was asking a question. She sounded like a real wife.
Artur handed her the fruit. For the first time, Merwyn smiled.
After that night, Merwyn began to change. She accompanied him out into the village, let him lead her by the arm. She barely flinched at his touch. The other men in the village praised her beauty and Artur’s luck. She was so much darker than the other wives—all of golden hair and soft with curves. Artur suspected that her coloring came from being plucked out of harvest, but no one seemed suspicious. The men of the village were simply happy for him. “I never thought your she-fruit would ripen,” a friend confessed. “Thank the gods I was wrong.”
But the oddest change in Merwyn was her fascination with the old she-fruit, the first one Artur had picked. She sat with it in her lap, slept with it pressed between her breasts. She petted the skin of it, spoke to it as she went about her chores. She told it secrets that she did not allow Artur to overhear.
And the old she-fruit began to respond in a way it had never done for Artur. The fuzz of mold retreated; the skin regained a healthy shine. It swelled swiftly. One day, coming home from the fields, Artur found the rind of she-fruit curled and empty on the dirt floor and Merwyn cleaning a yellow-haired girl with a sponge and a bucket of water.
“Her name is Agnesse,” Merwyn informed him, and the two wives slept in his bed that night, leaving no room for him.
No man was supposed to have two wives. It was why men were allowed only one she-fruit, whether it ripened or not, to prevent the exact situation in which Artur Ellis found himself. Agnesse would simply have to stay in the cottage, hidden, until he could concoct a solution.
“What happens if the elders find out about her?” Merwyn asked.
Artur hesitated. Most likely, he would be banished from Arbor, but he had no idea what would happen to the wives themselves. They couldn’t be reassigned to other husbands, and they couldn’t remain unwed.
“You’ll be sent away,” he lied.
Agnesse held fast to Merwyn’s hand. “No!” she exclaimed, genuinely horrified. Agnesse seemed sweet and kind, the opposite of Merwyn’s tartness. The right kind of wife. He felt the tickle of a fantasy. Perhaps someone would find out, and maybe Merwyn would be banished, and he could live the rest of his life here with Agnesse. But no, he told himself, that kind of scenario didn’t seem likely at all.
Deeply set in anxiety, Artur drank at the tavern until late in the evening.
“You don’t want a wife, do you?” he asked his age-mate Tristen, whose she-fruit hadn’t ripened.
“Are you offering yours?” Tristen laughed and tipped the rest of his ale into his wide mouth. The tavern was mostly empty, with only a few young men who didn’t yet have wives and a few older men who had grown tired of theirs.
“No,” Artur said, dejected. Of course, he couldn’t just give away one of his wives. Someone was bound to find out. “But your fruit hasn’t grown.”
Tristen shrugged. “Never really wanted a wife.”
Artur found it hard to believe. Why would a man not want a wife? When he arrived home to see his Merwyn and Agnesse, curled together in bed, nothing but skin separating their hearts, it seemed that even his wife had found a wife. He lay upon the rug and felt even lonelier than he had before.
Agnesse’s hair stretched from her crown to the tips of her fingers, and Merwyn brushed it with an ivory comb. The two wives whispered together, Agnesse’s soft, round face close to Merwyn’s strong, angular one. They were so different. Artur had the suspicion that, if Merwyn hadn’t been there to corrupt her, Agnesse would have been the perfect wife.
“Your hair is so beautiful,” Artur said, reaching out to stroke it. It was softer than velvet.
“Please don’t touch me.” She stepped behind Merwyn, who glared at him in a way he had never thought wives could glare.
Artur left the cabin, though it was not a day he had to work the fields. He went to the tavern until dark.
The next day, Agnesse’s hair was shorn as short as a man’s. Few of the other wives ever cut their hair and certainly not without permission from their husbands. Artur felt like she had somehow disobeyed him. He watched the happy, docile wives of the other villagers, wishing his were more like them.
Many drinks later, Artur stumbled down the cobbled road. In the center of town was the Great Tree, thick as a wagon wheel and tall as the clouds. The Tree blocked the stars with its twisting branches and heavy green she-fruits hung just out of reach.
“Curse you!” he shouted at The Tree, the drink fumbling his tongue. “Curse your damnable harvest.”
The Tree stood, adamant. In the knots and swirls of bark, it seemed as though eyes gazed out, blank and unashamed.
Artur kicked at a root, but it did not budge. His biggest toe throbbed, and he hobbled home. Again, he slept on the rug at the foot of the bed.
The morning was overbright and loud. The sounds of his wives felt as raucous as the town market. He held the blanket over his eyes, the only blanket not commandeered by Merwyn and Agnesse. “What in the names of the gods,” he said, rising from the rug.
Merwyn looked over at him. She stood in the doorway, talking to the butcher’s wife. “Good, you’re awake.”
Artur looked around. His cabin was filled with baskets, buckets, and a wheelbarrow. There was hardly space to move about. Agnesse stood in the kitchen, stacking a set of wide wooden bowls. The butcher’s wife handed Merwyn a metal tub and whispered something in her ear. She left swiftly. “What’s going on?” He tried not to shout but he was in a sour mood. “She saw Agnesse!”
Merwyn looked as though she was about to shout back, but Agnesse laid a hand on her forearm. “It’s all right, dear husband,” Agnesse said. “We’ll have everything out of here tomorrow.”
Agnesse was such a good wife, thought Artur. “But the butcher’s wife saw you.”
“She won’t tell the elders.” Agnesse smiled at him.
“Please be more careful. I don’t want anything to happen to you.” He said this looking pointedly at Agnesse, not Merwyn.
“I’ll take care of her, don’t worry.” Merwyn placed a smack of a kiss on Agnesse’s cheek.
Who was she to protect Agnesse? She was just a wife. “You wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for me,” he said.
“I don’t want to be here,” she said.
Artur left in a huff.
Merwyn and Agnesse did not wake Artur the next day, but the village’s uproar did. He shuffled to his window and opened the shutters a crack, careful not to let in light and wake his sleeping wives. Their arms tangled around each other in his bed, their connection evident even in the dark.
Many people had gathered in the street, heading toward the center of town. “Have you seen?” The miller asked the blacksmith loud enough for Artur to overhear. “The Great Tree?”
The miller hurried down the street, the blacksmith not far behind. Artur could see a crowd moving in the direction of The Tree. He fumbled with his dressing robe in the dark and slipped out the door, bare feet cold on the cobblestones.
The people were gathered at the base of the Great Tree, just like at the plucking festival, except, instead of laughter and joyous exclamations, the men were shouting, angry, and shaking their fists. The women leaned into each other, eyes wide.
Above them, the arching, massive branches of the Great Tree, green with leaves and moss, was barren. Not even the smallest she-fruit hid in the foliage.
“How will we get wives now?” a man cried out.
The women exchanged glances and secrets, their hands shielding their words. The men exchanged threats.
“Whoever did this—”
“When I catch the culprit—”
Eventually, the crowd dispersed, loud and confused. Artur stood until the last villager had left. He had a bad feeling in his gut. Merwyn. If it hadn’t been for her, everything would have stayed the same. There would be a wife to harvest for every man. He cursed her under his breath, then returned to his cottage, feet bloody and sore.
In his home, Artur did not have two wives waiting for him, but seven, no, eight. They congested his small cottage, some partially dressed and most of them still sticky. Their rinds lay on the floor, filling the space with the pungent scent of citrus, nearly overpowering. They were dark as Merwyn, not a golden head among them. They chattered like a flock of crows, but they stopped speaking as he entered. Now that the day’s light filled the cottage, he could see more fruit of various sizes, stacked on every surface, piled in the corners. They filled the baskets, the wheelbarrow, even a small cart. The fruit were in various stages of ripeness, some hard and green like limes, others plumper than pumpkins.
“It was you!” Artur shouted at Merwyn. “You picked all the she-fruit.”
“What if it was?” Merwyn stood tall against him, nose to nose. “Why should anyone be able to pick a wife from The Tree? Why should any woman be forced to become a wife?”
“That is the way things are done,” he shouted. The silence and the scent of the room deepened to a nauseating sweetness. A headache twinged at his temples.
Merwyn, her green eyes narrowed, growled. A feral look crossed her face and for a moment he felt fear, fear of a wife, which was ludicrous. His fear turned to anger, the kind of hot fury that seeps as tears from one’s eyes, wet and flushed. “You are the worst wife. I wish I could be rid of you,” he said.
Merwyn smiled, not in mirth but in triumph. “Good. Then I’ll no longer bother you. I am no longer your wife.”
A murmur spread through the wives in the cottage, excited, even delighted. Another woman burst from a fruit, naked. She unfolded her long limbs and stood behind Agnesse. She seemed to understand precisely what was going on, perhaps more so than Artur himself.
“We’re leaving,” Merwyn said. “Come, my sweets. We’re off.”
A wife clapped, others giggled. They tore the sheets from Artur’s bed and wrapped themselves. Some dressed in Artur’s own clothes; others knotted the fine quilt over their sticky breasts. They hoisted fruit-filled bushels to their hips and carried trays balanced high with she-fruit. Merwyn led them out the door, sparing but a glance at Artur, her eyes a blade.
Agnesse passed, and she smelled like spring itself. Then she slipped outside, joining the beautiful, laughing parade.
Other women from the village spied the wives of Artur Ellis as they walked out of town. Some grabbed shawls and baskets of bread and joined them, bidding their husbands goodbye with a wave or a blown kiss. Some stayed by the side of those men who had plucked them, but many women drifted into the streets, then away with the crowd.
Artur watched them leave until the wives turned a corner on the path away from town. He returned to his cottage. It was empty of fruit and women. It suddenly seemed very large and very lonely. It was only then that he realized what he had done, why Merwyn hated him, and no wife could love him. He had made so many mistakes. He put his head in his hands and wept.
The Great Tree remained barren and never grew another she-fruit. Over-plucked, the elders said, but Artur knew it was his fault for what he had done to Merwyn. The seasons passed without more wives, and though husbands died, Artur Ellis never found another woman who would agree to be his.
And that is why, in the village of Arbor, women are no longer plucked from the Great Tree. Without wives, the town withered and died, but stories are often told of the women who walked away, who settled in other villages and spread through the land. They are said to be the boldest and bravest of all women, dark of hair and sharp of tongue, but if one ever loves you, they say you can taste sweetness in her mouth and smell the scent of citrus long after she has left the room.