The Tree of Many Fruits (Part 2 of 2)
We sat in the house, surrounding the low table, with the purse and its contents strewn, shining, tempting.
“This is a lot of money,” Johesh said.
“A fortune,” said Redro, with his eyes agleam.
And they were right. The coin-count was two-hundred and six royal halmuts. That was a fortune all right. This was more money than a man like myself could ever see in his lifetime. This sort of money would buy the village, would buy a foreign lordship in a place where my common roots weren’t known, and where fine silks and generosity with silver would make up for my accent. This was lifechanging, and so their eyebrows were raised when I told my family I thought I should refuse.
Redro stared incredulously. Johesh frowned, and Elswiddith echoed his frown. Kasilla’s mouth was a circle of surprise. Even Haldif creased her brow in doubt.
“Look,” I told them, “I know this is a grand offer, but I think the tree is worth more. Not in coin, but in something more… intrinsic. This is dragon-touched, and lovely, the fruit we get is the best I’ve ever eaten. And what if this is just the beginning? Who knows what more this tree might grow? It could have magical properties, it could heal us and protect us, or … who knows what else.”
“More so than all that gold?” Redro queried.
“You’re greedy,” my son accused.
“Not greedy. But I think this tree has more value than money.”
Redro snorted, “It all comes down to money.”
Elswiddith ran her fingers along his arm: “You’ll be richer than you’ll ever need to be.”
And no doubt you want a share. I was sure I saw greed in the eyes of my family – they would rise along with me, and they’d spend that gold, and Elswiddith would go about wearing silks, while Redro rode a fine horse, and all of them would sit down at the end of the day to a dinner of roasted venison and old brandy.
Kasilla said, “Consider what future it could buy your grandchildren.”
And, of course, she was right. But there was something… something I couldn’t put my finger on. I felt as if the tree belonged to me, on a deeper than material level, and that no matter what was offered me, I’d be a fool to give it up.
Elswiddith was practical: “You assume there is even a choice.”
“If you’re saying…”
“Well, you know I am. If he can’t take your tree by persuasion or purchase, why do you think he won’t take it by the sword?”
“Not all men are bandits.”
“If he wasn’t a bandit. Or his father was no bandit. Or his grandfather. If it wasn’t for that, do you think he’d have even stood there with the means to offer us this wealth?”
And she was right. Even Haldif was nodding. And still, I would not relent.
I slept uneasily. The gold had been returned, but the decision still weighed heavy. I didn’t like to be at odds with my family, or to have even Haldif viewing me with doubt. That was something I wasn’t accustomed to. She hadn’t gainsaid me, and she hadn’t spoken against me, but her quiet uncertainty had followed me around the house all evening. And as she lay beside me, beneath the shelter of my arm, it seemed to me that she was stiff and cold, not the soft, yielding woman I was used to.
And so I slept poorly.
And so I was awakened in the middle of the night. It was the depth of night, at its darkest, but a light came through the shutters. A clear, golden firelight. And as I slid out of bed and went over to the window, I saw shapes. There were men and horses, and two lanterns being held. They surrounded my tree, and the shoulders of two of them undulated with digging.
I woke Haldif.
“… stealing…?” she whispered.
“I think so.”
“Is it he?”
“I don’t know.”
We should have taken the money. Though she’d not say so aloud.
I dressed hurriedly and ran outside. It was just as I’d anticipated. Two men, with Cumberwell’s colours on their back, were digging up the tree. There was a wagon ready to carry it away. Among the silhouettes I knew one of them for Cumberwell. His sword was at his side and I should have been afraid. But there was fire in me right in that moment – seeing the way the fruit had fallen to the ground, seeing leaves and small branches treated roughly and discarded in the dirt.
I walked right up to his lordship. “Are you mad? What are you doing?”
“Taking what I’ve purchased.”
“You have no right! I returned the gold.”
“This is not a matter to be argued over.”
“It is! It is indeed. And this is madness what you’re doing here. The tree will die uprooted, you’ll carry it home to find it dead and useless. You are murdering it” – and those very words - without thinking, without intending – were the ones I used, “order your men to put away their spades. This isn’t honourable.”
Noblemen are swayed by talk of honour, or so the telling goes. Lord Cumberwell seemed unmoved though. He looked at me coldly: “I have made a purchase. I have the papers signed and in my hands.”
“Well, I have not signed papers.”
“Nor have you.”
And then I understood. There was Redro, standing back amongst the shadowy figures; but as soon as I knew to look for my son-in-law, I found him. The velvet-trimmed purse hung at his side, heavy with coins, and he had swordsmen at his back. He didn’t look at me, but I saw his fingers stray towards the gold.
“See,” Cumberwell said to me, “there is no dishonour, I have paid for what I’m taking.”
“It wasn’t his to sell.”
“Is he not your direct blood, via the marriage bed?”
The argument was sound. Even if he’d not been a lord there was law to back him up as well as blades. And I looked past the other men to Redro: “Does Kasilla know you do this?”
“And she’s agreed?”
“Kasilla is my wife.”
“But not my child! Not now. I renounce her, and you through her, do you hear me?”
I hadn’t noticed Haldif come out of the door behind me. I didn’t notice her until she slid her arms into the small of my back. She pressed her cheek against my shoulder. She was silent, but her body spoke to me: it is done. There is nothing you can do.
Cumberwell loaded my enchanted fruit tree into his wagon, and he signalled his men to ride away.
I went inside without looking at Redro, but throwing my hatred behind me as I went. I woke the next morning to a pile of gold pieces left on my doorstep. There were exactly one hundred, and I carried them inside. I was not such a man as could afford to lose so much for simply my pride.
As the days passed, I could not hold onto my fury towards Kasilla. When she came to me with spiced cakes and tears in her eyes, I couldn’t help but remember that she was my daughter, one of only two of my children still living close by. I had wanted to bar her from my door, deny her my hearth, but my heart wouldn’t have it. She was my daughter, and Haldif was her mother. I couldn’t do it.
She sat at my low table, head in her hands, spilling tears. She was sorry for what Redro had done, and she was sorry she’d gone along with it, but for the sake of her family and her marriage bed she’d seen no other way. She believed that I was stubborn, and that Redro had done what was best for all of us. She was sorry that it had all been carried out against my wishes.
“Ah,” I tried to comfort her, “it is hard. Caught between love of your father and your husband. That much I can understand.” But I wouldn’t tell her I believed she had done right, nor that I thought her husband had. And I would speak to Redro again, I would speak civilly, but there would never again be warmth between us. Even though I bought pigs and a milk-cow at market, and fine woollen cloth for Haldif. Even though I searched Jostwaithe enquiring of suitable apprenticeships for my grandsons, marriages for my granddaughters, still I remembered my tree, and the fruit it had grown, and what might have been if Redro had not taken the lord’s offer against my will.
Johesh believed he could find me another. If there’d been one such tree out there, why shouldn’t there be more? And so, he’d go out, before the fieldwork and after, scouring the roadside, searching the treeline. “It was after a storm,” I told him, and wish every day of my life that I hadn’t, “It was a big storm, no ordinary, and it was no ordinary treasure I encountered.”
Such a storm came. The clouds all darkened red and purple.
As we sheltered in the house, feeling the walls shake with the battering rainfall, the fire flared and the walls textured with unnatural movement. I felt my skin prickle as if rubbed with nettles, and I knew a dragon had passed overhead.
The next day, Johesh rigged a cart, he took his eldest boy, and Elswiddith, and they headed out onto the road. I begged him against it: “The roads are treacherous after such a storm. You don’t know what you’ll find.”
“Maybe what you want so badly.”
“Or maybe nothing. It’s a fool’s errand.” And the tree was not worth my son, nor his family; and yet those particular words I couldn’t quite bring myself to say.
Night fell, and Johesh hadn’t returned.
Haldif reassured me, “He went too far to turn back and be home by nightfall, you know as well as I do, he has taken a room in Jostwaithe. Elswiddith is with him, she’d be hungry to try the newest fashions, and visit the night theatre, and take the boy. You forget, we are people of substance now.”
But my foreboding lived inside me. There was a dark thing coiled in my belly, and nothing in the world would settle it. I told myself that I should have forbade Johesh to go out that day. I was a foolish old man, addled and obsessed. My bed felt like poison to me, and so I sat much of the night by the hole my tree had been uprooted from, wondering if it had been cursed after all.
In the morning, when there was no sign of my son, I insisted that a search be mounted. I learnt that day that I had become something other than I was. I was no longer one of them, but above them. My neighbours didn’t question me, they took my gold and abandoned all else to help find my son. But they offered me no comfort or kindness, no reassurance that all would be well. This would be the new way, I understood, now that I owned a stash of gold, and could go about dressed so well.
At this time, it mattered little. All that mattered as finding Johesh alive and well. We would scour every road in this land, pick the forest apart tree by tree if that was what was needed.
Ah, this scene. This bitter moment on the road between home and Jostwaithe. This scene we came across on the road, where there was blood spilt, dark and thick, strewn across the mud and gravel. And amongst the blood: limbs, scraps of clothing, hair. I found what remained of my son, his arms and legs torn off him, his wretched torso shredded and naked, his mouth open in a perpetual scream. And I found his lady beside him, her guts ripped open, and a tightly woven yellow dress died orange with her blood. Half her face had been torn away, and her legs gnawed on, revealing the bone. I hoped to find my grandson still alive, but his body too was found not far away, beneath the trees, all torn up and bloodied, his chest reduced to kindling.
Such a sight! I have never seen such awfulness before, and in the same breath, the same moment: my own family. I tried to spare Haldif the pain of it, but she was beside me when we struck this and she saw the full scene with me. And she fell on her knees, keening, weeping, rocking back and forth as any mother would. She wailed to the skies: “What have you done to them? What have you done to them?”
It was agreed that the Pack had done their work here. Wolves, enspelled with dragon- touch, whose fur was inky black and whose eyes were shades of violet and scarlet, wolves the size of horses. This fury seemed like their work. And since no man was fool enough – not even I – to mount an expedition to hunt such things, there was nothing to be done except to gather their remains and carry them back into the village for burial.
I stood in the little wooden-tipped graveyard, silent; as my neighbours, in pools of two or three, drifted away from the scene. Only Haldif stayed beside me, and Kasilla, and Redro – who I found myself determined to blame. Haldif had cried her tears on the bloodied road, and now she was dry-eyed and distant. I wasn’t sure if she blamed Redro or me, or if she blamed no-one and suffered this cruelty as just the fist of fate slamming into her poor flesh. There was a rich sunset, still stained by the lingering presence of dragons.
What have dragons ever done for us?
And Johesh was gone. This grave. This little marker in the ground. This was all there was of him, all that was left. Tiny. Insufficient. And the loss was a gaping hole inside me. The loss was a broken promise; it was the universe turned sour and upside-down.
“Come away,” Haldif whispered, “All is done.”
“How can we ever go on with life?”
“We will, you know we will. There is Kasilla. There are the children.”
“The winter might take them. Or a poisoned mushroom. Or a summer plague.”
“So it might. Or it might take us. But we can’t wait for it now, can we?”
Haldif: always wise, even if her wisdom had a sting in the tail.
A year came and went. A dragonstorm raged in the skies. It, like all things, passed by in the end. I aged. I let the years catch up with me.
But on a spring morning Kasilla came to our house, something bundled in her apron pocket. She was flushed and looked earnest.
I sat her down while Haldif poured a soft ale.
“What brings you, child.”
Kasilla took a breath, “I have something for you. I’m not sure if I should give it to you.”
“It is because of all that happened, last year.”
“I’ve long since forgiven you that. Even Redro, as much as I can.” What loss a tree, even an enchanted one, against the loss of a loved son?
She said, “On that day, when I learned what Redro would do, I came to your garden, after sunset, and I took a cutting from that tree. I grew it in secret, and now,” she took the bundle from her apron pocket and unwound it to show a twig, but flowering, and with roots hanging plentifully off its end. “This will grow,” she told me, “you know it will, as strong and precious as the last one. But I don’t know now, do you want it?”
I stared at it long and hard.
“It wasn’t the tree that took Johesh from you, but I can see how you might feel it was.”
What I felt was a fluttering sensation beneath my skin. This fledgling seemed perfect. It was delicate and true-coloured, with soft bark and silky leaves, a mottled pattern that reminded me of the moon. But would I dare?
“It’s up to you,” Kasilla told me.
And I looked to Haldif for an answer.
She rested her hands on my shoulders, two warm patches, my anchor. She leaned over, letting her ash-brown hair fall in front of my face and pool on my forearm. She gave me her uplifting smile: “Come out with me. Let us plant it while the sun is up.”
And as the snows came, a few weeks later, my new tree bore all the world’s fruits.
Picture credit/discredit: author's own work