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This article is taken from PN Review 59, Volume 14 Number 3, January - February 1988.

Apocrypha John Burnside

In the old religion, the year was conceived as a fruit, and November was the season of its decay. Part of the fruit was eaten, part of it melted into the soil with leaves and water and animal bones, but the seed remained, and the future was already contained within it. So November is the first month of the year, a beginning in an ending. It is also the month when story telling begins, stories from memory, or from old hearsay, fanciful tales invented on the spur of the moment, the free play of words. There lived a people possessed by language: they made no distinctions between fiction and fact; everything was history that could be well told.

There was a story that was only to be spoken near a burning fire: a transformation myth that was itself continually transformed in the telling. In one version, a woman is changed secretly into a black apple by her rival. The people of the house know nothing of this; they mourn her as one of their dead for a year and a day, as custom dictates. But on the last day of the weeping a man comes to the door and asks for food. He is usually depicted as an old man, or a beggar; sometimes he is mad. And because it is forbidden to refuse a stranger's request during the period of mourning, he is given the black apple. The stranger eats the apple and is immediately transformed ...


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