by David O’Boyle (2021)
Its smooth and knobby bark, jutting out every few feet like rugged farmhouse steps, made for an easy climb up the trunk of the finest fruit tree in the grove. Deprived of food and drink on a journey gone too far, I was desperate to end hunger and dehydration.
I bit into the first yellow fruit in reach. And kept on biting, until only the rind remained. Seeking more citrus delight, I dropped the pit on the ground and grabbed for more. I did not have to grab far. A tiny bud flowered and fruited in the place I picked, instantly growing in size.
Sweeter, I thought as I had another mouthful and dropped the rest to the ground.
Another fruit, another mouthful. Sweeter again. And changing color too. Orange replaced bright yellow. Red replaced orange. In a less pleasing, ominous manner, color change also occurred on the ground below. Black soil leaked from underneath the half-eaten rinds, browning the grass that held them. A faint but growing smell of sulfur emanated upward. Flower wilted. All the bramble died. A buck, with antlers the envy of the orchard, stomped its hoofs and charged the trunk of the tree. Squirrels scratched at the bark with fury. Birds shredded canopy leaves with their talons.
I kept eating, mindful that I may need to dodge a tanager or two. That danger was of far less concern than what stood in a pocket of sunlight on the easternmost side of the grove. Massive and motionless he stood, commanding the horizon like a church steeple in a tiny New England town.
The giant waved his huge hand. At once, all the animals ended their assault on the tree. Some laid down and died amongst the blackened soil and decaying, half-eaten rinds. Others retreated into the wood.
Leaving the two of us alone.
For a minute, maybe an hour, we stared in silence. A snap of his fingers brought back the noise. It also caused the leaves fall. The remaining fruit on the tree browned. Then it fell too.
Some, however, did not fall very far. Sacrificing the soles of his feet to a surface that heated up to lava, the giant caught them in his rucksack. When it was filled to the brim, he buckled the sack and threw it beyond the lava’s reach. A few indiscernible incantations followed, at the end of which the area around the tree transformed from lava, to mud, to muddy water.
The giant jumped into the muddy water and disappeared. The tree started to shake. Then it shot down underwater like a fishing float. I jumped off just before its descent, swimming to solid ground in the warm, but not burning, muddy water.
The giant, breaching like a sperm whale, soon followed. Water turned back into mud. When he fully surfaced, mud turned back into land. Water dripped from his half-burnt beard onto his hands, which cradled the fruit tree. Careful to keep it still, the giant bent down and stuck his steam shovel hands into the ground, pulled out a fresh fistful of dirt, and sprinkled it onto the fruit tree. There, between his arms, it began to disappear into nothingness. When it was fully gone, he retrieved his rucksack full of shriveled fruit and returned to the woods.
For how long I do not know- long enough for my tongue to turn to sandpaper and my legs to mush. But for the bits of water that collected in his footprints, I would not have made it to the rocky promontory where he was waiting.
“Who are you?” I said in despair, wondering whether dehydration or his massive fist would end me.
“The Orchardkeeper,” the giant said.
“I believe you have my fruit,” I said, mustering up some final bits of courage.
Disgusted, the Orchardkeeper threw the rucksack into the sea.
“Why!?” My dry throat made the question almost unpronounceable. The swirling briny wind made it almost inaudible. But he heard.
“Fruit trees die of depression when they cannot satisfy the cravings of their consumers. It’s a blight that endangers the entire orchard. I gave it mercy,” the Orchardkeeper said.
“It didn’t look like mercy,” I said. “It looked like murder.”
The angry surf blasted against the rocks as soon as I said it, soaking me in saltwater. “Only to those who are not Orchardkeepers,” the Orchardkeeper said.
“What makes you the Orchardkeeper?” I asked.
“The fact that my tears can turn magma to muddy water. Now go. Fetch your fruit. It floats on the waves below. Soon it will be fertilized by its father, the sea. If you wish, these offspring can replace their mother. They have that potential. The orchard can be rebuilt.”
“The cliff is high. The rocky precipice is slippery. Also, I cannot swim. Orchardkeeper, if I go…will I die?”
“You will die either way. The question is how you choose to live.”