The old apple tree stood alone where the orchard sloped to meet the road. Tess called it her tree because its wide-spreading branches were low enough for her to reach, and with only a little 'huffing' and 'puffing' she could swing onto a forked limb that made a convenient seat. There was just room enough to perch comfortably with a book, and lost among the leaves, she could forget everything for a while — unless Mother saw her and called her to help with the dishes.
Being up there was like going through a magic door into another world. In Spring there were clouds of pinky-white blossoms all around her; the air was honey-sweet, and Tess loved the hum of the bees as they went from flower to flower. Later the little green apples would bob up and down as she climbed to her favorite seat. She wished they didn't take so long to get ripe, but the end of July had a way of coming sooner than she expected, and then there was crisp juicy fruit to be had by stretching out her hand.
The apple tree was a good place for thinking. Tess wondered about so many things. For instance: why did apples always come to the apple tree? Supposing something got mixed up sometime, and peaches or pears came instead! And what really made the blossoms come; and why were they tipped with pink? What happened during all those days when the apples were growing larger and larger and turning from sour green things into the best fruit in the world? Once in a while she asked those questions of grown-up people. She supposed the answers must be right because the grown-ups seemed to be satisfied with them, but she couldn't understand very well. She was sure there must be other reasons.
One afternoon in early August Tess stood in the shade of the tree and wished she could get up among the cool leaves without having to climb. It was a very warm day, and even the tempting fruit didn't seem worth a 'huff or a 'puff.' There were windfalls at the foot of the tree, but they were warm from the morning sun, and after biting into one she tossed it away. Looking up among the branches again she spied a rosy-cheeked apple almost within reach. "That's queer," she thought. "Why didn't I see that one before?" Standing on tip-toe she caught at the apple and brought it down. It looked delicious, and she was about ready to take a big bite when it bounced from her hand and rolled down the bank to the road.
Tess scrambled after the apple, forgetful of the heat. She was just catching up with it when it slipped over the edge of the road and into the field beyond. It was a broad field, reaching to a dark wood, where she never went alone. Again she put out her hand to snatch the apple before it should go any farther, but it acted as if bewitched. Every time she tried to pick it up, away it bounced again, and always nearer to the wood.
At last, deep within the shadow of the tall trees, the apple came to a stop. Tess had made so many efforts to pick it up that now she only stood and stared at it. Then, as she looked, her eyes grew round with wonder: the apple was starting to spin like a pin-wheel. Faster and faster it went until it looked like a ball of light. Suddenly it burst, and where it had been was an elf-like creature dressed in green, and wearing an apple-blossom for a cap.
The elf looked at her in a friendly way and grinned. "So you wanted me enough to come here?" he asked.
"I — I — I didn't know it was you. I — mean" Tess stammered, "I didn't know it wasn't a real apple. And I don't know who you are!"
"You wanted me, though," the elf insisted, "or you wouldn't have seen that apple. You know, it wasn't there the first time you looked."
"I wondered about that," Tess admitted, "but you — I mean the apple, looked so nice and juicy, I guess I didn't stop to think very much."
"Are you sorry I fooled you?"
"No-o-o!" She dug her toe in the cool moss that carpeted the ground. Then taking courage she asked, "Won't you tell me who you are?"
"Can't you guess?" The elf was teasing now, and Tess couldn't decide whether she liked him or not. "You've wanted to know about me lots and lots of times" he continued, and looked at her with a twinkling kind of smile.
"O — h!" An idea had come to Tess. "Do you help the apples to get ripe?"
The elf nodded, and motioned for her to sit down on a mossy stump near him. When she had done so he somersaulted onto a hazel twig that brought him just on a level with her shoulder. "Now," he declared with evident satisfaction, "we can talk without breaking our necks — at least I can, and you won't find it so hard on your eyes."
Tess thanked him, but didn't know what to say next.
The elf seemed to read her mind. After staring at her a few moments he said, "What's the matter, have you lost your tongue? What about all those questions you wanted answered?"
She pulled at her hair in embarrassment, and then said timidly, "Mr. Elf, there's a new question I would like to ask first."
The elf nodded, "Go ahead," he said, "and you may call me Pips if you like."
"Thank you, that's very kind of you. But what a funny name! Why do they call you Pips?"
"Well, a pip is a seed, you know," Tess nodded, though she hadn't been sure, "and seeds are very important things. Everything has to be a seed of some kind first; and whatever it turns out to be later, the pattern is all tucked away in that particular kind of seed to begin with."
"Oh! Now I know, Mr. — Pips, that's why apples always come on the apple tree, isn't it?"
"Right you are," the elf agreed. "So, as I am in charge of the fellows who help to look after the seeds, they call me Pips."
"There are more of you?"
"Bless you, yes! One of us couldn't possibly look after everything. Why, you couldn't begin to count all the little people who are busy helping to make things grow. But, before we get started on that, you said you had a particular question."
"O, yes, I almost forgot! Why did you have to bring me way out here, Pips, in order to talk to me?"
"That," said the elf, "is a more important question than you may have guessed. I brought you out here because I had to find out whether you really wanted answers to your questions, or were only asking for the fun of it. You see, if you cared enough about that apple to forget what a warm day it is, and to forget that you don't like to come into the wood alone — even though you're perfectly safe in this part of it — why, I could be reasonably certain that you wanted the answers to those questions. Now do you understand?" Tess nodded. "Besides," the elf went on, "did you know that the apple is a symbol?"
"A what?" she asked, shaking her head.
The elf pondered for a moment. "It's this way," he said. "It stands for something else; it has another meaning than that of just being a fruit. Sometimes it's supposed to mean temptation — being urged to do something you shouldn't do. But there's another side to it. Long, long ago, by eating an apple people could know things they didn't know before. They had to pay for it, of course — go through troubles of one kind or another. But it was usually worth it because they found out lots of things they never would have learned otherwise."
Tess clapped her hands, "And that's why you turned into a magic apple, isn't it?"
The elf hopped to her shoulder and tweaked her ear. It felt like a bit of grass tickling her, and she giggled, but she knew that Pips had been pleased at what she said.
"Well, where do we go from there?" he asked.
"You were telling me about the little people who help with the seeds and things. You stopped to find out what my first question was. Please tell me more about them."
"Let me see." Pips thought for a moment. "You know, Tess, that's a pretty big order. The little people are everywhere, in everything. They help to keep things going — on the earth, in the clouds, deep down in the ocean: everywhere. Did you ever hear the grownups speak of the 'Laws of Nature'?"
"Yes. Daddy talked about them when he was trying to explain about the apples always coming on apple trees, but somehow I didn't understand as well as when you said that everything was tucked in each kind of seed to begin with. Only — who tucked it in in the first place?"
"That's part of our job. You see — taking your friend the apple tree as an example — every Spring it has blossoms, and when they go the apples begin to come, and all those apples have seeds. Now the blossoms and fruit and seeds don't come from just anywhere; they're all part of the life of that tree. They have the same things in them that the tree has, only in smaller packages. It's so with every kind of seed — the same with the sunflowers you planted in your garden, and the giant pines that grow from tiny nuts."
"And you and your friends help to see that all the blossoms and seeds get just what belongs to them?"
"That's the idea. Keeps us busy, too. We all have our jobs and stick to them. Why, no apple-tree elf would think of interfering with the work of a pine elf, or the other way round, either. Everything goes along in such an orderly way that human beings have noticed it, and call the way we work a 'Law of Nature.'"
"Is there one of the little people helping everything to grow?" Tess was thinking about humans as well as trees, and remembering that sometimes when she was trying to study her lessons it almost seemed as if a little elf were on her shoulder helping her. Of course that didn't happen very often. Mostly it was as if some imp wanted her to play instead.
There was a sound of silvery laughter, and Tess turned to see Pips rocking the hazel twig in his merriment. "There are both kinds," he chuckled, answering her unspoken thought, and there are more than you would ever dream of. They come where they're wanted — I mean the good or bad kind — so in the end you get what you ask for. I told you the little people are everywhere and in everything. Whether it's the outside of you that's growing or the inside, there are plenty of us at work. Look there!" Pips was pointing to a tall pine tree. "Wait a second," he added, "I forgot something. Close your eyes." Tess did so, and felt a cool breeze on her lids. "Now, open them!"
"Oh! Where am I?" she exclaimed.
"Right where you were. Now watch that pine tree and see what happens."
Tess looked, and blinked, and then looked again to be sure that her eyes weren't fooling her. She could see the outline of the great tree with its sweeping boughs and feathery needles, but everything else was changed. Before, in the shade of the wood it had seemed dark and gloomy; now it was bright and shining, and tiny lights were moving all over and through it. The lights came from the little people who were busy here and there — countless numbers of them. Some were dressed in green like the tufts of pine needles they were caring for; others wore brown; and all of them glowed like fire-flies.
"What makes them shine so?" Tess asked.
"We all have a light of some kind, you know: I mean humans, animals, trees, birds. Most of the time it can't be seen for one reason or another. Some lights aren't very pretty, either, if what they belong to isn't nice, or is grumpy and out of sorts. The reason those pine elves are so bright is that they're doing a good job. That tree shows it, too."
"Would it be the elves' fault if the tree got sick?"
"Partly. You see, those elves share in the life of that tree; they belong there, just as the fellows I work with belong to different apple trees. If we do our job well, the trees we care for are strong and healthy. The tree is our home — whatever happens to it happens to us. It's a kind of give and take."
"I wish I could look at some other tree the way I did the pine," Tess sighed.
"You've seen enough for one time." A feather-light touch brushed her eyelids, and once more the giant pine was the way she first saw it. No, it would never be quite the same again. She turned to Pips — "Please — "
The elf shook his head. "No more questions today. Besides, someone is calling you."
Tess heard the voice then, very faintly — her mother calling from the house. "Coming," she answered sleepily, and tried to get up from the stump where she had been sitting. Rubbing her eyes she looked around. This wasn't the wood! How did she get back under the apple tree? She couldn't figure that out. But one thing was certain: she had an apple in her hand — bigger and better than any she had ever seen on the old tree. She looked up among the leaves. Was her elf there, perhaps? She blew a kiss, just in case — then raced for the house.
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The more we give to others the more are we increased. — Lao-Tze