I'm dying," my father said and my heart pounded.
I’ve been surrounded by death all my life. I’m tired of it. I gathered him close to offer solace. His thin lips parted, he sucked breath into his mouth and said, “I need you to go to the old homestead."
“I don’t know where it is." I’d heard of my parents first home, but had never seen it.
There’s a tree in the middle of the garden. It should have long pods hanging from the branches. Bring me back three seeds from one ofthem. When you return, ifI’m dead, place them in my mouth before you bury me. Try to return before that.
P.S. Do not eat of the tree.
Dusk approached as I drove along the Spanish fence. Golden sunlight tipped the stucco peaks that rose in a wall hands had formed so many years ago. Tapered shadows from spear- points on top of the wall stretched eastwards, and the illusion of dangerous teeth was not lost. I drove along that fence for a long time. When I turned north, following the wall, gates rose before me, tall cast-iron spikes that topped an intricate weaving of black petals and geometric designs. Time had done its work. Thorny brambles and rosebushes climbed the gate and transformed it into a barricade that only the most determined could pass. I was determined. My father’s wishes would be obeyed.
I took in a deep breath and walked around the back. I wrapped my hands onto twisted spokes and shook the gate. It rattled loudly, but the earth held fast against the roots of shrubs that had grown against it. I put weight into my hands and pushed hard.
The ground did not give, but from within the garden, I heard the cackle of a murder of crows. Their combined wings thrummed on the air and I was afraid.
I fell back. My bottom bumped against the Buick and at that moment, the gates creaked open.
A slender gardener stood before me, a shovel in his hand, a threadbare baseball cap perched on the back of his head. The fine creases of his pointed face had filled with sweat and soil, and the knees of his well-worn dungarees were stiff with dried mud. He raised a grey eyebrow and approached. “Why have you come?"
Perspiration and hard work had lent him a particular reek. “I’m sorry to disturb you," I stammered. “I didn’t know anyone was here."
“I’m always here," he said. “You are not welcome." He moved to leave and I hurried to speak.
“My parents lived here long ago."
The gardener spun towards me and peered into my face.
“Your parents? Are they well? You must be Seth." His shovel had disappeared and he braced me by the shoulders.
Maybe he braced himself. I couldn’t tear my gaze from his. I stood spellbound as he asked, “How are Adam and Eve?"
I had to answer. “Mom died years ago. I believe these are Dad’s end-of days. He’s sent me here for something."
“He could not come himself." It was more a statement than a question, but I answered anyway. “No, he’s dying."
“He needs the seeds then." Everyone knew about the seeds but me. I was alone, felt more confused than my age should allow but would not admit to this naivete.
“Yes, he needs them now. The tree is past its bloom?"
“As he knew it would be. Come." He turned and slid through a break in the greenery. I followed, and after I passed through, the hedges closed with a soft shushing. I glanced back and could not see where we’d just been.
Before me, the garden spread out in a jungled disarray, trees and plants and grasses and vegetables randomly placed. Rabbits and deer peered through the few branches that showed the last bit of the newly passed day. If the gardener was always here, he must have relaxed often.
“I don’t relax," the gardener said. “I work steadily, but your vision may not be the same as mine."
Before I could think, before I could decide not to react, (he’d read my mind, his vision seemed to be disordered), he stopped in front of an ancient tree. Its roots split the ground, twisting up in angular bends, nearly touching the laden branches that folded towards the earth. Large leaves rustled softly in the night air, and teased and danced over pendulous seedpods.
I stopped and stared. An aroma rose from the tree, fragrant, like Mom’s chicken soup when I had the flu. I breathed in the heady scent and knew nothing else. My father’s illness was gone. The task before me disappeared. I knew nothing but the smell, as satisfying as the back of my first girlfriend’s neck. Her skin was soft, velvet petals warmed by an ocean breeze. She sang to me at night, her voice spiced and slurred by the ginger wine we drank.
“You need to harvest the seeds now." The gardener’s voice pulled at me and I shook my head.
Father would be dead soon. “Yes …"
“Don’t worry about the smell. Don’t think of it at all. I’ll talk you through this. Try not to breathe."
Don’t breathe? Was he crazy?" I needed air, and this air was delightful. I filled my lungs. Sandalwood and myrrh, with an under note of eucalyptus. She used to touch my hand gently, and then pull at my smallest finger when she wanted to get nuzzled.
“Seth, don’t do this." The gardener moved between the tree and me. He grabbed my forearm and pulled me away.
“I should have warned you, you cannot know." He chaffed at my wrists. My head began to clear.
“I’ve got to get back. My father."
“Listen Seth, you must resist. You don’t know the power of this place, that tree; you must hold fast and think only of your task."
“The seeds. I need the seeds." I looked at the tree. Its leaves trembled and gestured. If I squinted my eyes, they seemed to beckon me towards them. Hands reached out, hands that belonged to diaphanous women with long sinuous legs and translucent bodies. They wanted me to tell them stories. They wanted me to make love to them and …
“Don’t focus on the tree, Seth; just think of your father. Think of your mother. Think of your country -- whatever you need to distract you from the temptations, but don’t think of the tree."
"My father is dying." I spoke the obvious, as though it had never been said, and the words cut into my passion, dripped acid into my burgeoning lust. “What’s happening to me?"
“You prove your humanity." That was no kind of answer, but it was the only one offered.
The gardener nudged me towards the tree. “Don’t think, just take any seedpod.
Don’t think, don’t feel, just do. Act blindly and believe that you will do well."
I closed my eyes, did not breathe, and stumbled forward. My father had asked; that’s all I needed to know. I loved him, I would love him forever, and his time, nearly over, had been well spent with me. I raised my arms, and turned my hands upwards. I took another tentative step.
A warm, softly molded curve fell onto my palms. When I lowered my hands, the pod came with them. It felt hot and soft, and heavier than its size suggested. Like her breast. Under the desirous, eager flesh of the fruit, my fingers sensed a heartbeat. I wondered what it would taste like. My mouth needed to taste it. I began to shake.
My hand, cradling the succulent pod, lifted slowly towards my opened mouth. Drool collected under my tongue, and as I readied my teeth to bite, the gardener clamped wiry fingers around my wrists and hollered, “No!" I looked at him and froze. His eyes blazed, a bead of sweat collected on the tip of his sharp nose and fell.
“Has your father not warned you?"
Dazed, I recited, “Do not eat of the tree…"
The gardener turned, and with my wrist in his hand, led me to a small moonlit meadow in the center of the garden. A tall stone table stood under a pomegranate tree. Lichen crawled up over its legs and along the sides, but none grew on the top, where an obsidian bowl lay inverted over the matching handle of a long blade.
“Drop it in here," he said as he righted the bowl. “It’s only the fruit, not the seeds, that must worry you."
I let the pod slip from my hand. It fell with a thunk that echoed off the blackened trees and collected in the surrounding foliage, whistling around me, like the whine a wetted finger makes on a crystal glass.
The fruit itself absorbed silver moonlight and cast off bright reds and golds and heat. But I no longer needed to take it in me. My thoughts cleared as I stared at it and I spoke, not moving my gaze from the swirling colors.
“You need to cut the fruit and remove the seeds for Adam," the gardener said. “Try not to touch it. As you’ve seen, this is mighty powerful stuff."
“Yes," I answered, “But…"
“Don’t talk now. Just cut and then pocket the three seeds."
I cast my eyes to this slender, soil encrusted man, but he stopped me. “We can talk later." And he moved away.
I took the knife into my hand. It was heavy, but well made and balanced. I poked the pod and the whistling ceased.
The fruit shrank into itself with an outburst of gas, then split open. The flesh dissolved into smoke, and the smoke drifted off.
Six seeds remained in the bowl. I plucked three, the fattest ones, put them in my shirt pocket, and faced the gardener.
“Now we can talk," he said, and smiled. He brushed detritus from his hands and offered one to me. “It’s about time I introduced myself. I’m Michael."
We sat on fallen logs, under the cold night air. I made a fire. He roasted ears of white corn and sweet potatoes among the coals. His mood had lightened. A smile played over his lips. His dark eyes captured the firelight and glowed. He told me of my parents when they were young -- my father, vibrant and strong -- a master of his universe, and my mother - so beautiful, with a surety that she was the most perfect woman in the world.
I looked to the space between my feet when he asked me how she died. “In silence," I replied. “As she grew to do everything." I paused, and then before he could ask, continued. “She was not happy. One day she lay down, and she never got up again."
“I’m sorry to hear that, but I’m not surprised. She paid for her actions and we will leave it at that."
His determined silence confused me. I asked for clarity, but he merely shook his head. Cicadas clattered in the distance suddenly, and I asked, “Michael, can you tell me what happened at the tree?"
He laughed. “Only what you already know, I suppose." The gardener stretched for a slender stick and nudged it at the snapping coals. “Your father asked for seeds from the tree. I’ve waited here forever; I knew he’d need them. Knew you’d need help too, and here you are and there are the seeds. What else is there?"
“Why did I feel that way? I didn’t act right, couldn’t think right."
“It’s the nature of that tree - it searches out your secret desires to know, and it feeds on that want. That’s why I won’t touch it. I couldn’t resist." Michael paused and stared to the west. “But you must leave now." He stood, and I stood too. We walked toward the overgrown front gate. “Your father waits."
“Why does he want them? What are these seeds?"
“He can tell you that better than I." The gardener passed in front of me and spread his hands wide. The shrubbery opened before him. He jerked the heavy iron gate open, and as I drove off, Michael watched, stepped back, and the gate closed.
Night had passed while I’d been in the garden. I felt I hadn’t been behind those walls for that long. The sun had risen, and the colors of the sky had faded to those middle-of-the-day blues and whites. That’s all I knew.
Everything else was a jumble of remembered sensation and concern. The seeds weighed heavily in my pocket as I drove home. I thought of Father’s note. Miles passed, the sun moved westward, I had the seeds in my pocket. The honk of an oncoming car snapped me back to attention and I realized I’d been drifting. I tried to focus. My heart pounded and blood felt hot in my veins. I needed to have been home weeks ago, I thought, and then laughed. I’d just left yesterday. Surely all was fine.
Surely it was.
Still, I raced home. It took forever and no time at all to come home. Maybe the night of conversation with the gardener, or lack of sleep played with me, but I felt weary and out-of-sorts when I arrived. I tired to pull myself together, to calm down. I noted that the grass needed trimming, checked and emptied the mailbox, and entered, just as though I’d never been sent on that quest. Just as if my father had asked me to look for the telephone bill. I entered his room, letters in my hand, and said, “Dad, here’s a note from our governor. He wants our votes next month."
My father lay on the bed, his hands folded over his chest, his head tipped back flat on the mattress, no pillow nestled his shiny crown. Light through the window glistened on the stubble that had grown on his bony jaw and chin. He didn’t move. He didn’t breathe.
I rushed to his side, took his cold wrist in my hand and searched for his pulse, but knew, the moment I felt his flesh, that he was gone. My body slumped over his. I circled his thin shoulders with my arms, clasped his body to my chest, and wept.
When my pain eased, tears had plastered the scant hairs on his head to the skin that stretched over his scalp. I wondered when he’d died, how long he’d lain alone on his bed, while I’d ventured into his past, while I’d entertained false dreams and had spoken with the gardener. I laid him back on the bedding, kissed his forehead, and told him that I loved him.
I remembered the seeds. My hand slid into my pocket and felt for them. Smooth. Warm. Were they vibrating against the tips of my fingers or was I shaking? I took them out of my pocket, stared at the three of them for a while and then said, “What the hell."
Two of them I shoved under his tongue, right before I called the coroner. The other I tossed out the window. Maybe it would grow for me. That fruit, it smelled so …