–Written By Justin Tuts
My eyes flitted erratically to the areas the light refused to reach with the feverish swiftness of a man hellbent on paranoia. Searching the narrow street in the spaces between the streetlamps and into the doorways of vacated storefronts for anything that could tell me where the voice had originated from. The shadows danced as I quickened my pace, flickering in the light as if they were reaching out to grab me and take me hostage.
My blood froze as my ears picked up their deep vibrations. Bewildered, I turned; anxious to find the voice of this mysterious person and perhaps confront them. Demand an answer to the question that had been inching its way up my throat like bile. No one was there.
The voice came smooth and deep, as if formed by velvet and refined in the depths of Hades; right next to my ear, “I’m right here.” I jumped, my skin rippling with goose flesh as I turned in a flurry, ready to fight or flee.
He stood meer feet away from me, a tall and broad man in a nicely pressed pinstripe suit, a blood red handkerchief sat folded delicately in his pocket, it matched the tie that dangled from around his neck. He stood their, hands tucked behind his back, like a curator of a museum, eager to show his collection.
He chuckled and bowed. It wasn’t a deep bow, but one that showed a certain amount of arrogant respect. As if to say ‘I know I’m the boss here, but I want you to feel special.’ He straightened and slid his eyes over my person studiously, as though trying to decide if I was another relic to add to his menagerie.
“The stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God. Leviticus 19:34” He flashed a dazzling white smile, his eyes betraying the eagerness he had hidden from his voice.
I looked at him, the fear waning momentarily as bafflement took over. “Huh?”
He let forth another one of those deep and condescending chuckles, “Leviticus states we should treat strangers as if they were family, are you not a man of God? Come on Jonathan, you were raised catholic, correct? Tsk-tsk-tsk, you should know your important Bible quotes young man.”
The fear struck deeper than it had before, inlaying in my nerves and running hot through my blood, “Listen man, I don’t know how you know my -”
“Name? Simple, I know lots of things, and I know what you need. You live your life in squalor, the mundanity of everyday life is plaguing your very core. You wake up to work a job you hate and don’t leave the office until its -” he paused, gesturing to the quiet and still darkness around him, “this.”
I wanted to run, I should have run, but my pride was holding me in place as the rage bubbled and boiled within me, “Listen asshole, I don’t know who you think you are, but you know nothing of me. I’m -”
“Working your way up? Going to reach the top someday? Come on Jonathan, you know better than that, you tell these lies to yourself as a means of rationalization. You struggle in vain to attempt to grant your life some small semblance of purpose in your mediocre life. You don’t understand the grand scale of things and your insignificant effect on the progress of mankind as a whole. You live your life questioning your very meaning and can’t even think up a consequential reason as to not off yourself. How many nights do you lay awake in bed, unable to pass into the realm of subconscious due to the lack of control you have, even on your own life? Two, three? I think it’s more than that, perhaps six or seven. You want to be great, to do magnificent things, but you fall short in every conceivable way. I’ve seen it many times before Johnathan. If you assist me in just a small way, I can help you.”
My mind tried feebly to wrap around the idea that this man this stranger had just surmised the entirety of my existence in a matter of minutes. My mouth hung agape, staring at the man as he simply smiled at me once more, returning his hands to their position behind his back. I tried to formulate an argument, but found myself unable, my mouth was dry, parched as if I had been the one talking.
I hoarsely managed, in a small and shaky voice, “uh, what – uh, what is it that you, um, want?”
He grinned like a child who just got their way as he brought a single gloved hand out from behind his back and dipped it into his suit jacket. He kept it in their momentarily as he dug around in the pocket within. He produced a small black almond-shaped object. It was blacker than anything I had ever seen, in fact it appeared to suck in the light around it, it felt hungry. He held it out on his flat palm and I simply stared at it not particularly anxious to touch the decrepit thing.
Another one of those low chuckles escaped his lips “I want you to take this… seed, and plant it somewhere, anywhere of your choosing. And take care of it, nourish it. Allow it to grow and prosper. When it grows to a size where it can be maintained by the roots that hold it steady, and the fruit it bears ripen, you must eat one, but only one. For they contain your desires and will grant the wish you hold steady within your heart. This will allow you to experience a higher level of existence upon this mortal coil and rise to the top amongst your peers.”
Without thinking I reached out and plucked the seed from his outstretched hand, holding it close to myself immediately. I would not let this opportunity pass me by, I would get the life I deserve. The stranger smiled, his eyes showing a sign of relief mixed with something I couldn’t put my finger on. He turned on his heel and began to walk away while whistling to himself.
Before I could stop myself I called out “Wait! You said I had to do something for you! What is it?”
He didn’t stop moving as he raised one hand over his head in a wave-like motion, “doesn’t matter kid, you wouldn’t gain anything by knowing it”
And with that, the stranger was gone, fading into the ethereal darkness that had enveloped the desolate road that fateful night. His final words echoing in my head like the fabled whispers of ghosts, repeating and turning as I stared longingly at the black seed that now occupied my open palm. I clutched it and walked the rest of the way home.
Home was an apartment that bordered one of the less friendly neighborhoods in town. The kind that frequented break ins and bar fights, late night shootings and STD fueled hook ups. Even though the building was decrepit and withering, I tried my hardest to make my apartment feel like a home. I welcomed its subtle flaws with open arms from the front door that creaked noisily when opened to the bathroom sink that was barely holding on at this point. You wouldn’t know it from the outside, but it was my sanctuary, a place away from the woes of the world; to spend my sleepless nights reflecting over the days events and the tasks of tomorrow.
I planted the seed in a small ceramic planter and placed it by the window that overlooked the street and the stripclub across the road. Never being a natural at caring for plants myself, it had never occurred to me to ask about germination practices or growth phases, watering procedures, max size, soil type or anything even remotely relating to care for the plant that had come into my possession.
After weeks of fearing I’d killed the thing, the first stem and leaf sprouted from the soil. A backwards-folding black leaf, no larger than a quarter stood on a single pin-sized stem. It’s edges were hemmed with a delicate gold that contrasted the fringes of darkness that emanated from the leaf. I looked as amazing as it looked ominous, and as I stood there, eyes transfixed on the clay-potted stalk, I felt both immense fear and resounding joy. My heart leaped while my palms sweat, my mouth was dry and my eyes were wide. I wanted to run at the same time as scream with insurmountable fear. In that moment, unable to determine the correct way to deal with two very conflicting emotions, I did what any sane man would do. I drank.
The rye hit my lips in a familiar burn, scorching my throat as it worked its way down my esophagus. It didn’t take long after I set my ice-filled tumbler down that the warmth spread through my chest and into my veins, blurring the emotions bubbling within me. I sat on my dilapidated couch for a while, enjoying the buzz and absence of coherent thoughts as I stared into the blank television in front of me.
After some time, the buzz started to fade. Not wanting to linger on the thoughts that led me to drink in the first place, I stood and maneuvered myself to the counter; mind set on refiling my tumbler. I glanced over to the plant to see it had grown significantly more in the time that had passed since I last saw it; the stalk now supporting several more of the dark leaves. I frowned and downed the glass once more, reminding myself that I couldn’t expect anything less from a plant that would make all my dreams come true.
I was meandering around the thought when I heard a creak coming from somewhere in the apartment. It was one I recognized; as I’d heard it every day. The front door. I turned slowly and frowned, noticing that my body had started to feel quite heavy. I wasn’t drunk by any means, but I could feel myself fading as though someone – or something – had slipped something into my drink. I stumbled to the counter as a figure entered the room; eyes wild. He stared past me and initially, I couldn’t make out exactly what had been the object that drew such a malicious stare. In hindsight, however, I realized that he had been staring at the plant the same way I had. Eyes transfixed on the black and gold leaves, he started moving.
By this point, although blatantly aware of the amount of danger I was in, my body continued to become rife with the weight of several men. My eyelids began to droop as I slid down the counter. As the weight became too much to handle I fell, my body shaking with fear as the final wave of unconsciousness crashed over me, plunging me into a world of oceanic blackness. There was a small sound coming somewhere from the waking world, penetrating the depths of the darkness; barely reaching me.
Somewhere, a man was screaming.
I awoke on the kitchen floor; stiff and in pain. I’d rolled onto my side at some point, this much was made clear to me by the pain shooting from my shoulder down my arm and the pins and needles that prickled at my fingertips. I scowled as I made my way onto unsteady legs, my muscles screamed their protests as I managed my way to the fridge.
At this point, the final moments of the last time I was awake were but wisps in my head, like the remnants of a dream you’re aware you had, but can’t remember the details. Everything’s fuzzy, but when you mentally probe the thought appears as elusive as always, like poking a cloud with a stick and expecting it not to go right through. It wasn’t until I poured myself a glass of water that reality snapped back into place. For as I looked up from my glass, I saw the plant.
Although small in the day prior, it had now grown exponentially. Blackened bark lined the base of the small tree, almost like it was scorched in a wildfire. Dark, twisted and mangled branches jutted out indiscriminately; each one tipped with a multitude of leaves. Although it remained in the ceramic pot I had placed it in, the roots had grown out of it, snaking down the sides and across the countertop, as if in search of additional nutrients.
The tree itself seemed to be brimming with life and not from its sudden onset growth spurt. No, the treem appeared to be shaking, not in violent epileptic seizures, but small pulsating vibrations. The rattling allowed the leaves to catch glints of light and reflect them around the room, each one shining dazzlingly, alluringly. I must have stared at the tree for hours, completely enthralled by the enigmatic presence of it. I appeared to be inviting me in. Come here, feed me, love me, what else do you need but us?
I took a hesitant step towards it, every fiber of my being felt as though it needed to be near the damn tree, this Idol of growth and prosperity. Another step. My mind snapped to a realization, what had happened to the man that was in my apartment last night? He’d been walking towards me when I passed out and I’d heard screams, could that have been him?
As the questions flooded my mind the fog that covered the dreamlike memories began to fade and I found myself staring at the tree with morbid curiosity. Perhaps it found its food. The stranger had said ‘When it grows to a size where it can be maintained by the roots that hold it steady, and the fruit it bears ripen, you must eat one, but only one.’ Did that mean it would bear fruit some time soon? Would I finally be able to break free of these chains that have bonded me to an unforgiving world?
The tree stood proudly atop the counter. I’d brought several friends over to show them the exotic plant, they’d never left. As the tree grows so does my desire, the desire to see this to the end, to grab the fruit it bears and the life I could lead. This quintessential being of self sustaining magnificence would surely grant my every desire. I thought of all the good that could be done with it, and all the payback I could get. I spent hours daily basking in its presence, staring into the abyss each leaf contained. I began to wish there were more of them, more trees, more voids, more people need to experience what I’m experiencing. I’d thought.
I was wrong. I was so wrong.
As the week drew to a close, I took note of several pomegranate-looking fruit hanging on the branches of the tree, each one ripening at a quickened pace. I plucked them and tore one open, revealing small golden dew-like droplets within, each pulsating and undulating with a metallic shimmer. There were little swirls of blackness in the droplets as well, flitting around within as they chased each other. I lifted the fruit to my mouth and licked the dew off it.
It tasted like heaven. The flavour filled my mouth with memories of everything good that had ever happened in my life. It showed me everything I’d ever wished for, everything I’d ever wanted. It showed me the happiest moments of my life, staring at the tree as it grew; spreading its vast network of roots across my living space. It reminded me of how I wanted more, needed more. I needed more trees, more trees meant more happiness, more happiness meant more trees.
I stared in wonderment as the other fruit broke open in front of my eyes, each one filled with the black seeds the stranger offered. They spilled out of the sides of the fruit, piling on the floor and the counter around them. I began to pick them up with fervor, stuffing them into pockets and dishes, anything that I could hold them in. I rushed over to the sink and got to work.
I hurriedly planted them, anxious to get more trees growing, I stuck some in cups, some in bowls. Each one got a small amount of water added to them. They began sprouting and growing almost immediately, turning my living room and kitchen into a jungle. I smiled to myself. Until the first one lashed out a root that took off my leg.
I fell to the ground screaming, pulled out of whatever twisted euphoric hallucination I was living. The trees snapped and writhed hungrily each one sending tendrils of roots after me, I clawed my way into my room and slammed the door.
Here I reside, afraid to move or do anything other than wait out the monstrous plants that threaten to break in at any moment. As the world fades to black, I’m afraid that it won’t take long until I become food for the horde.