Monday, March 9, 2020

The Tree Planter by Spencer Sekulin

Kusuma is alone in a nightmarish world in which she is hunted by fleshers, until she meets a world-wise companion; by Spencer Sekulin.

Kusuma cowered in the ruins as the fleshers ghosted past.

Their footsteps were silent, as if even the ground was recoiling in fear. Guns and masks and jagged blades gleamed in the veiled sunset, as did lambent, feral eyes. Kusuma held her breath and tried not to make a sound as they stalked by, but her heart was beating so hard she could hear it.

They would eat her if they found her.

Fleshers were demons disguised in people's skin. Real people weren't evil. Kusuma had known no one but her parents, and they were as kind and gentle as flowers - at least, she thought flowers were like that. She'd never seen one before. The world was all dust and grey, nothing like the stories she'd been told - stories of lush meadows with dew-jeweled flowers. Kusuma focused on those stories now, in hopes of keeping her heart from racing faster. It felt as if it was about to jump out of her mouth and pulsate on the ground.

The fleshers carried on down the road, their caravan of trucks bringing up the rear. Skulls and bones festooned their machines like garlands, and the faces of their prey were dried and patched to their clothes. The stench they carried was so heavy Kusuma chose to bury her nose in the fetid earth instead. Even when they were gone, she still counted to a hundred before daring to move. Her cramped muscles hurt so much she covered her mouth to stifle a gasp, but she had to hurry. Night was falling, and there were worse things than fleshers after dusk.

It was hard getting home when every shadow scared her. She felt tired, hungry, and thirsty, but worse was the tightening fear in her chest. All her nine years she'd lived in the ruins bordering the valley, where the walls protected them from the storms, her weak lungs keeping her from helping Mom and Dad. This time they'd gone to scavenge the valley. Days had passed since then. She'd never been alone for so long.

I hate you, she told her lungs, even as she sucked in breath after breath.

She wished she could have gone with them.

"I wonder where they are," Kusuma whispered as she approached her home, chest burning. They were alright. They always came back. It was just a long trip, that's all, a long trip finding nice things to bring home. Maybe Dad would bring toys like last time. Kusuma smiled and touched the slingshot tucked in her pocket. She loved pretending to shoot fleshers with it. It let her be a heroine like the ones in the stories Mom told, even though her lungs didn't agree. She wanted to be strong. She wanted to shine a light in a world of darkness.

Darkness greeted her in the hut she called home. She sat down on the old mattress and stared at the fake flowers she'd fashioned out of paper and scrap metal. Her stomach growled, but there was no food to appease it, and little water. She would have to wait until morning to go searching.

They'll be back by then. I know they will.

Kusuma turned on the oil lamp and tried to bury herself in her favorite story book, Vasilisa the Beautiful, but it was not the same without Mom reading it. Without her voice, it was just words on a page, poisoned by the sounds of the night - distant gunshots, howls, and wind moaning through corrugated metal. All her life she'd lived with those sounds, yet only now did they terrify her. She hugged the book to her chest and tried to sleep, failing to hold back her tears, but just like Mom and Dad, sleep never came.



Kusuma woke with a gasp.

She didn't remember falling asleep, nor did she recall any dreams, but the cold sweat and the tightness in her chest told her otherwise. She wheezed and felt her heart throb like a drum. The nightmares she didn't remember were the worst. They returned in fragments at random, and she knew this one would terrorize her today.

The fabric door rustled, and Kusuma whirled, heart swelling.

"Mom? Dad?"

Kusuma blinked. No one was there. Just the wind. A lump formed in her throat, but she remembered her slingshot and the storybooks and resolved to be brave. Until they returned, she had to be brave. She made a bold pose, but it shattered when her stomach growled. She winced and managed a sheepish smile.

"I should go out," she told herself, trying to match her mother's diplomatic tone. They'd be proud if she found food for herself. Kusuma smiled, and with a spring in her little step she donned her tattered cloak and went outside.

The heat covered her in sweat almost at once. The sky was its usual pale haze, the sun hidden like a lamp behind a gossamer veil. In the distance she saw the mountainous clouds of electric storms ravaging the lowlands, but she knew they were far away. Slingshot gripped tight, Kusuma began searching.

There wasn't an inch of the ruins she didn't know. Once she'd found a hatch to a collapsed shelter with a stockpile of food and other things. What if there were was another? What if she found it? "They'll be happy," she said, feeling butterflies. It had been so long since she'd seen Mom or Dad smile for real - they always smiled for her, but never for themselves. The last year had been hard. "It'll be good, they'll be able to stay, and maybe..." Kusuma grinned. "Maybe I'll find flowers. I'm sure someone would keep some around. Maybe someone buried some flowers for us to find too. The person who buried those things must have been nice... I'm sure he had flowers, nice people like flowers..."

Kusuma went along with a stick, tapping at the ground between the ruined walls, straining her ears for a hollow strike. I found the last one just over here, she thought, staring at the ground. Maybe if I go a little -

A hissing sound made her look up.

A gnarled figure stood in the alley between the walls, its head tilted to the side. A cluster of severed heads dangled from its left hand, each held by the hair, and its face was nothing but a leather mask etched with slashes of red and black.

A flesher! Kusuma gasped, and then stared at the heads. One had blonde hair, braided and long, just like -

A gust of wind howled down the alley, kicking dust into Kusuma's face. In her tears she barely saw the flesher dash towards her, but she heard its guttural scream and saw a flash of gold hair as it tossed the severed heads aside. She'd imagined this moment a thousand times, envisioning herself courageously facing down the monster - and now she realized the girl in that dream wasn't her. She didn't use her slingshot. She didn't stand firm. The flesher drew its wicked, serrated blade, and Kusuma instead imagined her head amongst the others.

She turned and ran.

Heavy clouds veiled the sun, turning the ruins dark. Kusuma heard the flesher just behind her, its erratic ramblings muffled by its mask. It slashed at the air and howled, and other howls answered it. She was being hunted by a pack.

Kusuma flitted between the walls and piles of debris, using every shortcut she could find. Cuts and bruises soon covered her arms and legs, but she barely felt them, adrenaline burning through her like liquid fire. Faster! She had to run faster! She tumbled over a low wall and struck her knee on a stone, but she kept going, even as she felt the hot wetness of blood go down her leg. The flesher burst around a corner in front of her and threw something, and she barely dodged to the side, hearing it whoosh past her head and ping off a wall behind her. She tried to run faster, but she couldn't suck in her wheezing breaths fast enough. Her lungs screamed.

If any bad things come, she recalled Dad saying, run and hide as fast as you can. We'll protect you.

Now she had nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, and no one to protect her.

Kusuma glanced over her shoulder and saw three fleshers instead of one. She gasped - only to twist her ankle and fall headlong over a ridge. She struck her face on something hard and rolled until she reached flat ground. Stars and spots danced in her eyes as she stared at the grey sky. I'm going to die. Dazed, she rolled on to her side - and froze.

A man wearing a long dusty overcoat and a wide-brimmed hat knelt two meters away, his back to her. The scrape of blades drew her attention the other way. The trio of fleshers halted at the edge of the clearing, followed by five more. All eyes were on the man.

The lead flesher, evident by the number of faces patched to its trench coat, stepped forward and hissed an exasperated breath. Kusuma saw the gun in its hand and knew it would use it. She glanced back and forth, and then scrambled for her life, astonished that the fleshers would let her go. But instead of fleeing she hid in her best spot, from where she'd watched the fleshers the night before.

The stranger was a person. An actual person! His bearded face was hard to see, but the way he gently worked at the earth reminded her of Mom. He was digging. Is he the one who buried those things? Kusuma clenched her teeth when he completely ignored the fleshers. Run! They'll hurt you! Oh please turn around! Please! The thought of him dying made her throat tight, yet she was too afraid to cry out.

The leader studied the man for what felt to Kusuma like an eternity, and then, to her surprise, backed away and left. The others followed like a bunch of scolded children. Kusuma couldn't believe her eyes. Why did they run? She watched him for a while. At first she didn't want to leave her hiding place, but her mind burned with curiosity. She had to know.

First she stood at the edge of the clearing, sure to be facing the stranger from the front. He didn't lift his head. Next she took a few steps forward, then backward, hugging herself with doubt. Still he ignored her. Was he deaf? Blind? Why didn't he notice her? It took an hour of fruitless prodding for Kusuma to build up enough courage to speak.

"Umm," she said, recalling Mom's lessons on manners. "Umm, excuse me?"

Only a meter separated them, yet he still ignored her.

Kusuma's face burned. "Excuse me! S-Sir?"

The stranger stopped what he was doing. A leathery voice drifted from his beard.

"Hmm?"

He talked! Kusuma felt a rush of elation and cocked her head. "What are you doing?"

The man resumed his work. "Planting."

"What's that?"

"Making things grow."

"Grow?" Kusuma gasped. "Like flowers?"

He nodded.

Kusuma felt her heart race. "Really?"

"Really."

Her thoughts soared. "Are you planting a rose? Mom always talks about roses! They're red and smell nice and have little spikes to protect them."

The man shook his head. "This here's an apple tree. But it'll have flowers too. They blossom, little white flowers, and turn into apples."

"Apples?"

"Something you eat. They taste very good."

Kusuma felt her stomach growl. "I... I would like some," she said shyly. "When will they be ready?"

The man looked up, his hazel eyes taking her in for the first time. Then he broke into a fit of laughter. Kusuma blushed.

"W-What's so funny?"

The man wiped his eyes. "Child, you'll be waiting many a month before this tree bears fruit. I dare say you'll outgrow it by then!"

Kusuma crossed her arms. "How long?"

"Years."

"Years?" Kusuma pouted and sat down, drawing her knees to her chest. "That's too long."

The Tree Planter looked at her again. His bushy beard moved as he sighed. "Here, come here. I have something for you."

Kusuma blinked. "Really?"

"I may be a sinner, but I'm not a liar."

The Tree Planter reached into his massive backpack and retrieved a small pouch. He dumped its contents into Kusuma's hand. They were small, dark things, shriveled and sweet-smelling.

"Are these apples?"

"No," he said with a chuckle. "They're dried grapes. Grew them myself."

Kusuma tried one and chewed carefully. The flavor almost knocked her over. Again the man laughed.

"Clearly you've not had fruit before! Go on, eat the rest. I've plenty to spare."

Kusuma needed no encouragement. She ate half before she remembered. Stopping, she closed the rest in her hand and stared into the distance. "I should save the rest. Mom and Dad will be back soon. They'll love these..."

The Tree Planter grunted. "Aye, no doubt they will. You're a good child, sharing like that."

He went on planting more trees, digging hole after hole and working delicately with the seeds and soil. Each tree took him a long time to plant. Kusuma watched, head still spinning from the grapes.

"Does it always take so long?"

The Tree Planter shook his head. "Not in good places, but this earth isn't the kindest, so I did a few things to make it better. This is a decent spot though. The walls will protect it from that wind."

Kusuma frowned. She'd never thought the ruins would be a place where things could grow. Instead she'd imagined some distant land, beyond all the haze and ruin, not here. Something about that made her smile. The Tree Planter didn't seem to mind her watching, so she remained beside him the whole afternoon, peeking over his shoulder or kneeling opposite him whenever he plopped the tiny seeds into the earth. But then evening came, and she felt her heart ache.

"Have you seen them?"

"Have I seen them?" he repeated, brow furrowed.

"My parents. They left, but they're not back." Kusuma pointed to the valley. Then she remembered: the flesher, the severed heads, the braided golden hair, its lustrous sheen in the gloom. Just like...

Mom.

The next thing Kusuma knew she was vomiting. After losing what little she had in her stomach, she fell, but the Tree Planter caught her. She buried her face in his shoulder and cried.

"There, there, little one," he said, patting her on the back. "There, there. Crying is alright. It's alright to cry. Even the sky does it. I'll keep an eye out till you're done."

It felt like a lifetime had passed before Kusuma ran out of tears. She numbly followed the Tree Planter's directions and sat down in the small hovel he'd made from a tarp and wooden planks, where he fed her some broth and had her lay down. All the while his leathery voice soothed her. When she could barely keep her eyes open, he tucked her in and took a seat at the entrance.

"Rest easy, little one," he said. "I'll be your guardian tonight."

Kusuma shivered, but something in his voice touched her, even as sleep dragged her down. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small tube, which he put to his lips. It made the loveliest sounds she'd ever heard.

Birds, she thought. That's what birds must sound like...

Then Kusuma closed her eyes, carried into dreams of dried grapes and apple trees.



Kusuma woke up, and for the first time in her life wished she was dead.

Only the Tree Planter made her question that wish. Once again he worked in the walled yard, and once again she observed. He talked very little, and she said nothing at all. Whenever she opened her mouth a sob threatened to escape, so she set her jaw and tried not to cry, focusing on the seeds and toil of the Tree Planter. But there was no blanking out that festering truth. Mom and Dad were dead, and now she was alone.

Upon planting the fiftieth seed the man stopped and shared a quiet lunch with her, and afterwards packed his things. He left a small bag beside her and stood up, hefting his massive pack over his shoulders.

"I'll be going along now," he said, looking to the sky. "The day's fair. I left you a few things to get you going again. Farewell, little one." He smiled and, with a small wave, started walking.

Kusuma stared after him in a daze - and then realized he was leaving forever. Her chest suddenly burned. Was that her heart breaking? Why wasn't it already broken? She thought she'd cry, and surprised herself when she didn't. She bolted to her feet.

"Wait!"

The Tree Planter turned, his eyes hard. Kusuma swallowed her fear.

"I'll help you! I'll plant seeds, I'll make them grow! I can! I know I can!" She blinked away tears. "I'm alone... I don't want to be alone..."

"You don't know what you're asking for."

"Please!"

The man grunted. "Can you dig? You don't look very strong."

"I am strong! I am!" Kusuma flexed her arms, feeling the tiny bulges under her skin. The Tree Planter smirked.

"Those would be plenty muscles for a mouse, but you're not a mouse. I bet my shovel weighs more than you do."

"I'll get stronger!"

His smile remained, but the laughing wrinkles around his eyes disappeared.

"Have you any clue what it's like beyond this place? It's no place for a child."

"Please!" Kusuma cried. "Mom and Dad took care of me, but they went away... and now they're gone and... I can't be alone, my lungs... I'm..." A sob escaped her lips. "I'm weak..."

"Aye, that you are," he murmured, crossing his arms. "You can't defend yourself, can you?"

The slingshot! Kusuma pulled it out and brandished it with as much flare as she could, and the Tree Planter blinked as if he couldn't believe his eyes. Then he burst into another fit of deep, earth-trembling laughter. Kusuma cracked a nervous smile. It disappeared when the man stopped and glared.

"You'd be as good as dead with that!" he growled. "You've seen those monsters, you know what they do. They're just a drop in a bucket compared to what's out there. You stand no chance." He shook his head. "No, you've better chances here. This spot is fair, and those monsters won't return. They don't like the ground I've worked. Doesn't agree with them."

"But -"

"No buts. This is the only way."

Kusuma wilted as the Tree Planter started walking again. She looked down, lips trembling, and sobbed. What could she do on her own? The mournful wind moaned overhead, and she remembered Mom and the stories. Her throat tightened. No! She ran again, this time skirting around and standing in his way. He opened his mouth, but she didn't give him the chance.

"I want to see those trees grow!" she cried. "And I won't if I'm left alone. I'll die. You know I will!"

For the first time the Tree Planter looked uncomfortable.

"Please," she said. "Teach me! Show me! I'll do anything! Just help me be strong, so I can see what an apple tree looks like... and taste apples and... and..." Kusuma faltered and wheezed for breath. The Tree Planter studied her.

"What's your name?"

Kusuma blinked and looked up.

"Kusuma."

The Tree Planter's eyes glinted. "A fitting name," he murmured. He stepped forward, imposing, and she stumbled back. But instead of pushing past her he went to one knee and clasped her shoulder. The laughing wrinkles returned to his eyes. "Even if I forced my way past, you'd follow me, wouldn't you?"

Kusuma managed a brave nod.

"Do you understand what you're asking of me?"

Again she nodded. "I won't be a bother. I'll learn, and help!"

He eyed her for another moment.

"You'll have to walk long days and nights, weak lungs or not."

"I will."

"There'll be fights. You'll have to fight."

"Yes."

"Even kill if you must?"

Kusuma bit the inside of her mouth and nodded.

"Sleep in the rain, in the wind, in the storms, eat whatever you can get, whenever you can get it, as if each bite were your last?"

Another nod. The easiest yet.

"And above all, listen to me and do as I say, and do right by the seeds and the earth?

"Yes! I will!"

The Tree Planter's beard shifted. "It'll hurt. There'll be days when you'll wish you stayed here, and days you wished you were dead. Are you prepared for that?"

There was no going back. Kusuma nodded vigorously.

The man snorted. "You're too agreeable. But only when it suits you, I suppose..." He nodded at last. "Alright, Kusuma."

Hearing him speak her name felt weird, but it was a good feeling, one that made her smile as she started walking beside him - until she remembered home. The fake flowers and story books were still there. She couldn't leave them behind. When she told the Tree Planter this, he merely grunted and leaned against the wall. She eyed him suspiciously.

"You'll wait for me, right?"

He smiled. "Only if you hurry."

Kusuma flew through the ruins and gathered everything she could into a bag. With a smile she started back - only to have something massive step in her path. She fell backwards and gasped at the looming monster. It wasn't a flesher. Its gnarled and twisted proportions were far worse, and its face, half metal, was a thing of nightmares. It made no preamble. It shot forward, crude blade swinging. Kusuma rolled aside, feeling the blade whoosh past her ear, and then picked up her bag in time to use it as a shield. The blade sliced halfway through before stopping. The creature hissed and threw it aside, bag and all, and grabbed her by the neck. Its stabbing voice rattled from its long, twisted mouth.

"You smell like him," it hissed. "Where is he?"

Kusuma kicked and screamed. Her neck felt like it was being split in two. The monster let out a hissing cough, a malicious laughter.

"Perhaps your screams will draw him, you -"

A deafening noise filled the air, and suddenly Kusuma felt the ground beneath her and nothing around her throat. She was free. When she opened her eyes she saw the monster sagging against the wall, one arm blown off and oozing black fluid, its elongated mouth letting out a stream of piercing, incomprehensible sounds. The Tree Planter stood opposite it, his lever-action shotgun hissing smoke.

"Kusuma, get down."

Kusuma ducked, and three more shots split the air, silencing the monster. She cowered on the ground, wishing she could burrow into a hole, until she felt a strong hand pull her up.

"A taste of the world beyond," he muttered.

The Tree Planter walked past her and examined the monster. Kusuma looked at her feet and sobbed.

"No crying now. You're stronger than that."

No, I'm weak. I almost died. Kusuma kept looking down, afraid to look up. But then she felt the man put something on her head. It was his big hat. She looked up in awe and saw his beard undulate with a smile.

"Could you take care of my hat for a while? It's lucky, and it'll keep the sun off that pale face of yours."

Kusuma nodded, and touched the hat to pull it tighter over her head. It was so wide and floppy it almost made her giggle. Meanwhile the man grabbed her torn bag and emptied it into his. Then he took her hand. They were off.

They left the ruins behind and entered a land of rolling hills all barren and dry. Kusuma couldn't stop rubbing at her throat, or hearing the sound of that monster's screams.

"Why was it after you?" she said at last, afraid.

"Some things don't want the world to get better. They only stand to lose by any good taking root."

"Why?" Kusuma asked, finding it hard to see with the floppy hat in the way.

"Some things are a mystery unless you stand in the other's shoes."

Hours of silent walking passed. Kusuma did her best to look strong and brave, but her legs ached and her lungs burned. Soon each step was hard. She began to fall behind.

"Hurry up," the man growled, his impatience growing.

I'm trying, Kusuma thought. She clutched her tight chest and wheezed, looking at the ground and focusing on putting one foot forward after the other. Each step felt like walking in the stream by the ruins, the current fighting her every move. Things started to blur, and the ground seemed closer. She didn't realize she was falling until everything came to a jarring halt.

When Kusuma opened her eyes again she felt herself bobbing up and down. It was hard to keep her eyes open, but she saw the Tree Planter's face above, his beard compressed in a solemn frown.

He was carrying her.



The days didn't get easier.

It was just as the Tree Planter had said. The world beyond was dark and filled with scary things, and there were no walls or crafty places to hide. Being so exposed made Kusuma tremble at every distant sound, but she refused to let regret seep into her thoughts. She wanted to be like the Tree Planter, needed to be like him. That kept her going even when she silently cried herself to sleep.

At last, after a week of walking, they arrived at the mountains. There her illness flared up again. The Tree Planter carried her up the slopes, and together they walked down a trail on the other side. There, hidden between the great hills, lay a vale filled with skeletal things.

"What are those?" Kusuma asked, keeping close.

"Trees. They're dead though. Died many years ago."

"Oh..."

They stopped in a clearing in the middle of the vale. The Tree Planter dropped his bag to the earth.

"Here we are."

Kusuma looked at him, not quite sure what he meant, but before she could speak he tossed something at her. She caught it - a hand trowel. The Tree Planter nodded.

"Start digging."

"Pardon?"

He smirked. "You wanted me to teach you. This is your first lesson."

Kusuma stared at him, then at the trowel, and finally at the ground at her feet. My first lesson. She gripped the trowel tight and plunged it into the cold, dry earth.

It turned out digging a hole was the easiest step. From there the Tree Planter took her through a whirlwind of lessons, teaching her about soil and watering and fertilizing. He showed her his tools and seeds, so many it made her head spin. At last she received her first seed - a small thing that made her little hands look huge. Her throat tightened.

"Is... Is...?"

The Tree Planter laughed. "A marigold seed. Your first flower, if you raise it well."

Kusuma cradled the little seed as she knelt over the hole.

My first flower.

She smiled and got to work. Meanwhile the Tree Planter, having set up their shelter in the hollow of an enormous oak, took out his flute and played while broth simmered over the fire.



Kusuma took care of the patch of earth, watering it from the nearby creek. The days and nights flew by. The weather had been fair - but not for long. Soon the winds came, bringing frigid rain and hammering storms. Kusuma hid in the hollow during the worst of it, but she still did her best to shelter her patch, afraid it would get too wet or too cold or too battered. Weeks passed like this, and the world seemed to want her to fail - all but the Tree Planter, who supervised her with his patient gaze.

"I wish the storms would go away!" she said one night. "They'll hurt the seed. You said yourself they might!"

"Don't hate nature for being harsh," he said. "The world has suffered, and it has every right to be angry. But it isn't. Nature is unquarrelsome. It only does what it does because that's how things are." He held out his hand, catching the frigid rain. "None of this is an affront to you. It's merely existence."

At last Kusuma gave up trying to protect it. The wind kept covering the patch with debris, and no matter how hard she tried she couldn't keep up. The dead trees fell here and there, cracking and groaning. Even the little stream, once crystal, became muddy and languid. Everything seemed to be suffering, and Kusuma felt the same way. It was as she'd been warned. The world was cruel and painful.

"How much longer?"

The Tree Planter shrugged. "It'll come when it's ready, and not a moment sooner."

He busied her with other tasks, teaching her to hunt and cook and how to use his various weapons. But every day that passed without a flower pushing through that earth felt like a stab in the heart, and by the end of the month she couldn't stand it. The Tree Planter was trying to distract her. Why would he do that? The next morning she ran out to the spot and searched, desperate to see something, anything, of her dream. But that's all it was. The earth was still a dead carpet of dust and twigs.

Where is it? Why hasn't it grown?

Kusuma clenched her teeth. She'd promised herself she would do it for Mom and Dad. Promised! Why couldn't she ever be anything more than a sick, useless child? They were dead because of that. Because of her! They would never be proud, not like this. Kusuma felt her throat tighten as she knelt on the cold earth. Tears filled her eyes.

"Kusuma," the Tree Planter said. "Crying won't speed it along. Only time -"

"It's not working!" Kusuma sobbed and stared at the ground. "It'll never grow. It's been a month and nothing's happened..."

The man remained unfazed. "Then wait a little longer."

"No!" Kusuma whirled on him. "It's dead, isn't it? It's all dead! The earth is dead and nothing will grow anymore! It was all just a stupid dream!"

"Kusuma..."

"You lied to me! You don't make things grow, do you? You just lie! Lie! Lie! Lie!!! You walk around and pretend! Liar!" She turned her back on him, fists clenched. She could barely see through her tears. "I wish I never met you. I wish the fleshers got you while you were planting that stupid dead apple tree!"

The Tree Planter said nothing. She didn't care if that hurt his feelings. She would never see a flower, never taste an apple, and never keep her promise.

It's not fair!

Screaming, Kusuma picked up her trowel and flung it straight up, getting it caught in the dead branches overhead. She kicked at the dead leaves and twigs on the patch, tore at the dead earth, at the dead world itself. She hated it. She hated all of it! Life was meaningless. She ground her teeth and stomped at the very same earth she'd tenderly cared for. How could she be so naïve? Stupid! She was angry at herself, at the world, at the Tree Planter, and everything else she could think up. Just when she'd thought her heart couldn't break any further. All she'd wanted was a flower.

"Kusuma, stop it," the man said at last.

Kusuma ignored him and kicked again - only to have her other foot slip out from under her. She fell flat on her back and gasped as the air flew from her lungs, but she didn't try to get up. Even when she finished gagging, she remained on her back, staring at the dead sky. The Tree Planter's words echoed in her head.

There'll be days when you'll wish you stayed here, and days you wished you were dead.

Kusuma let the tears blur everything. I want to die, she thought. I don't want this anymore...

Do you really believe that? Mom's voice said in her mind.

Kusuma blinked, and then caught a glimpse of color in the corner of her eye. She turned and stared, blinking away her tears, convinced she was fooling herself. But the color remained. It was one she'd never seen before, yet she knew its name by heart.

Green...

A little bulb lay just beneath the surface. Kusuma gasped.

"It's growing..."

She crawled closer and touched it. It was there. It was real. A quivering smile tugged at her lips.

"It's growing!"

The Tree Planter crouched next to her. "Aye, that's a little marigold there. Damn lucky you didn't hurt it. Hotheaded little thing to survive in this earth. It's a lot like you."

"It's alive," she said, tears filling her eyes again. "I made it grow!"

"Yes you did," he said, clasping her shoulder. "You took good care of it. You're a good planter."

Kusuma felt her face flush. She smiled, and then yelped when the trowel fell from the branches and embedded itself upright a few inches away. The next thing she knew she was laughing, and the Tree Planter joined her, smiling ear to ear as tears glittered on his eyelids.

The marigold glowed like a smile of its own.



Kusuma couldn't believe her eyes.

The marigold had bloomed. She'd never seen so much color! And the smell, the smell! She laughed and danced around it while the Tree Planter played his flute, and for the rest of the day sat beside it, marveling at its beauty and smiling until her face ached.

I did it, she thought. I made it grow. And look how it bloomed! It's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen. So beautiful...

That little marigold was enough to offset all the ruin in the world.

From then on the lessons continued. The Tree Planter taught her how to find the best soil, how to till it, how to nurture it, and how to plant things less hearty than marigolds. The more she learned the more she grew to love and respect the Tree Planter, whose patience reminded her of her father.

A week after the bloom came the rain. Kusuma sat beside the Tree Planter beneath their tarp, watching the marigold standing firm in the downpour.

"I wish they were here," she whispered.

"We wish for a lot of things," he said softly. "But wishing ain't much good. Only hard work and patience make things grow. Like your marigold. All that hard toil to get it to sprout, all the more to keep it well. This world is cruel to them. It's cruel to everyone." He poured her some of the tea he'd boiled. "The trick is not letting its cruelty make you cruel too. That's too easy. People are easy to trick into darkness. Like those ones you call fleshers."

"They're not people," she murmured, staring into the steaming cup. "People are nice. Like you." She shivered despite the warmth in her hands. "Those things aren't."

"Kusuma," he said. "They're as people as you and I. Just lost."

Kusuma felt a tingle go down her spine. She hugged her legs tight, not sure what to believe anymore. She tried not to think about it and instead stared at the marigold. "Mom always talked about flowers. She told me stories of gardens and meadows all filled with colors and smells..." A tear ran down her face. "I wanted to see them so badly, but I wanted them to see it too."

The Tree Planter took her hand. "They can see it just as well as you and I. All life returns to the earth, when it passes, and becomes part of it again. They're here with us, in the earth and in the air, in the rain and in the wind. They've gone home to the earth that made them, and you've made a flower from that same earth." His face wrinkled kindly. "I bet they even helped this little one grow."

Kusuma wiped away her tears. "Really?"

He smiled. "Really. And they're grateful for it, that you made something so beautiful for them."

For them... Kusuma sobbed and nodded. "I'll make more," she said, looking at the flower again. "I'll make a garden just for them!"

The Tree Planter gave a hearty laugh. "I know you will. It's in your name, after all."

"My what?"

"Your name," he said. "When you told me your name I realized it was meant to be. Your name means something."

It does? Kusuma leaned forward. "What does it mean? Oh please, tell me what it means!"

Eyes twinkling, the man pointed at the hearty marigold. "It means flower."

The rush of emotions surprised Kusuma. She fought back her tears, but smiled too, and her chest felt warm. It hurt so much, yet at the same time she couldn't escape the joy. Just knowing they'd given her such a name was one of the greatest gifts of all, and it swept her along. She jumped to her feet and danced in the rain, her dark hair glistening, her bright eyes filled with joy. The Tree Planter laughed and clapped, and the little marigold seemed to shine all the brighter. And this time, as Kusuma spun in the glittering drops of moonlit rain, her lungs remained strong.



Kusuma knew that the marigold would die. Flowers were as transient as they were beautiful. The Tree Planter had taught her this well in advance, but he also said there was a way to keep it with her always. And so, when it began to wilt, she tenderly cut the flower and followed his instructions. She hung it upside down by a piece of string and let it dry, and in a week its colors settled into vintage hues.

"Now it'll last a long time," the man said as he examined it. He then reached over and smiled. "Don't move, I have an idea."

Kusuma remained still as he placed the dried flower in her hair, affixing it to the long black strands with string. Kusuma touched it and felt her throat tighten. Just like Vasilisa. Her eyes watered, but she stopped herself. No more crying. She had no more reasons to cry. Instead she smiled. "Thank you."

The Tree Planter was already busying himself with packing. "You're welcome."

She sat there for a moment, remembering the months gone by. "And thank you... for saving me."

The man stopped what he was doing. In his hands were the fake flowers she'd made long ago. Then he slowly put them into the bag, nodding to himself and blinking a little faster. "You saved yourself," he murmured at last. "I had little to do with it."

Kusuma bit her lip. She felt ashamed for not asking sooner. "Do you... have a name too?"

"Where I came from no one had names. It was a dark place."

Kusuma managed a smile. "I've always thought of you as the Tree Planter."

He froze again, and though he kept his back to her, she heard a shuddering sigh.

"Aye," he whispered. "I like the sound of that."

Soon they were ready, and with the sun at its apex in the veiled sky, they set out. But before they crested the hill and left it behind forever, Kusuma took a moment to look back at the clearing. Watch over me, she thought, touching the flower in her hair. The vale's peaceful silence answered her back. Then she carried on, a determined smile on her face, leaving a clearing of sprouting marigolds in her wake.



The days of travel were no longer painful, and the dangers scared Kusuma less than before. She felt stronger and more certain about everything. No longer did she feel lonely.

They wandered through the wasteland together, over the barren earth and through deserted ruins, and everywhere they went they sowed new life. Kusuma cherished the gift she was giving to these dead places. Each seed she put in the earth made her feel a little closer to her parents. They were in every seed, in every bud, and in every flower.

Once in a while they came across patches of live, green plants, or little saplings nestled away from the winds. Each time the Tree Planter would laugh and speak with a twinkle in his eye. "These ones I planted last year," he said about a particular cluster of oleanders, whose purple and white flowers were in bloom. "I knew I could count on them. They've grown well."

Kusuma smiled at this. She wanted to be able to say the same thing one day. She thought about it as they lay beneath the sky one night, finding that her mind could wander freely, no longer plagued by nightmares. Was this what it meant to be strong? Her lungs had troubled her only a little over the last few months. Every day of travel and planting seemed to make them stronger.

You always told me I was capable of much more than I thought, Mom, Dad, she thought. You said I'd find out one day, that I was as pretty and heroic as Vasilisa the Beautiful, that dreams come true. A lump formed in her throat. I'm sorry for not believing you.

Kusuma let the memories wash over her. They didn't hurt any longer. She dreamt of meeting them again, one day, in the shade of an apple tree.



A twig snapped in the night.

Kusuma woke with a start, but the Tree Planter was already up. He stopped her with one hand while the other brandished his shotgun.

"What is it?"

"Company," he murmured, face hidden in the dark.

A minute passed, and then movement came. Their hovel had an impassable wall on one side and a steep slope on the other, but the Tree Planter seemed worried. He cursed and told her to stay hidden beneath the tarp.

"What's going on?" she whispered.

"Some old acquaintances of yours," he said. "Though they were wise enough not to attack before, they no doubt think different now. Must have more numbers." An odd smile played across his face. "Cowards."

Before Kusuma could say anything further the man pulled out a device and pointed it to the sky. A dazzling ball of light shot from it and filled the night, illuminating the hillside and the shadows ranged across it - twenty in all. Kusuma's heart skipped a beat when she recognized the flesher standing in the wavering light. She flinched when the Tree Planter fired a shot in the air. The fleshers didn't retreat. They shot forward, their serrated blades rasping from their sheaths and their guns clacking. Kusuma covered her eyes as gunshots and screams filled the air.

Kusuma felt a lump form in her throat as the violence went on. It almost choked her. The Tree Planter, against so many! She needed to help! She needed to do something! Yet to her own disgust she felt fear more than courage, and then bitterness. All she could do was tremble and hide.

Another broken promise.

The gunshots stopped, and Kusuma heard the Tree Planter draw the long machete he kept on his hip. Metal clashed on metal, and bodies hit the ground and rolled down the hill one by one. She clenched her teeth.

What's wrong with me?

When she finally opened her eyes she saw him still there. His swift hand made his blade blur in the gloom. Each time a flesher came at him he dodged and delivered a killing blow. As she stared she remembered his words. These were people. Like him. Like her. She almost covered her eyes again, but then she saw him stumble. Two fleshers charged him at once. He managed to correct himself in time to skewer the first, but the second slashed him across the chest. They fell in a struggling heap.

When the leader stepped out of the shadows, blade in hand, Kusuma felt her lungs begin to burn. He loomed over the two grappling combatants. The Tree Planter was choking the other, but the leader gave him no chance. He lifted his blade to hack them both apart.

"No!"

Kusuma didn't think. All she knew was that her body was moving. Her left hand pulled out the old slingshot while her right grabbed the nearest rock. She burst to her feet screaming, and that made the flesher pause. Their eyes met, and she could see the humanity in them - the anger, the hate, and the fear. Then she let her rock fly and struck him square in the throat. Something cracked, and he doubled over, clutching at his neck, but he was quick to jump at her in rage. She tried to ready another rock, but he swatted the slingshot from her hand and kicked her down, hissing like a snake.

"No!" she cried, trying to get away. "No! Help me! Help!"

The flesher grabbed her by the throat and stabbed at her. She squirmed to the side, the blade sinking into the earth, and then kicked him in the face. The blow knocked his mask aside, revealing the human face behind it. He was gurgling blood.

"I'm gonna kill you!" he rasped, yanking his blade out and readying another strike.

Kusuma couldn't breathe. Her lungs felt like they would explode. She saw the faces patched to his coat, all stretched and gruesome. The thought that two of them could be Mom and Dad took what little breath she had left. Darkness filled her vision, and when she awoke she felt someone grabbing her. She screamed and fought to get away.

"Stop it!"

She kept thrashing and clawing at the strong arms that held her.

"Kusuma!"

Kusuma opened her eyes and saw the Tree Planter staring back at her.

"Kusuma..." he whispered again.

It was the first time she'd heard his voice shake. She stared at his bruised face and gentle eyes, and then glanced at the body beside them and its cloak of faces. Before she knew it she was crying. She buried herself in the Tree Planter's chest and cried harder than she ever had in her life.

"You were very brave," he said gently, patting her back. "Very brave. You saved my life. Thank you."

Kusuma sniffed and nodded.

"And I take back what I said about that toy of yours. It's a fierce weapon indeed! And you a fierce maiden!"

Again Kusuma nodded, this time trying thank him. The man chuckled.

"I'm glad you're alright too." He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her tight. His voice shook as the breaking moonlight danced off the old wedding band on his finger. "I'm so glad... my child..."



"Have you got the shovel?"

"Yes, right here!"

Kusuma climbed her way up the slope to the spot the Tree Planter had chosen. She got digging right away, ignoring the heat. The passage of days, months, and years had been a blur, and she'd grown with them, now only half a head shorter than her mentor. She felt strong, and whenever she saw her reflection she knew she was beautiful - and knew that she didn't want to be anyone but herself. Her little hand trowel dangled from her belt, but she favored the big shovel now to clear away all the bad earth. She could dig for hours like this, and even run with a full pack without tiring. It was almost as if her lungs had never been weak, that it had all been a dream. But she would always remember where she came from.

She would always remember Kusuma, the little girl who'd dreamt of being everything she was now.

They traveled as they always did, the Tree Planter and his apprentice. They braved the storms and the winds and the creatures of the wastes, all the while leaving behind glimpses of a better world. Kusuma knew she was happy. She was strong and brave, like Vasilisa the Beautiful, like her parents, like her mentor. She had bloomed into a wonderful rose, thorns and all.

But as her strength grew, the Tree Planter's waned. It was now she who did most of the digging, and she who carried the biggest pack. The walks were shorter, the nights longer, and the resting hours filled with reminiscing the years gone by. The Tree Planter got sick more often than he used to, and he was beginning to forget things. His dark beard had grown white, and his kind face had grown kinder with the deep furrows of time. Kusuma likened this change to a sort of blooming. She'd never seen anyone grow old, but the way the man changed struck her as beautiful. In his growing frailty was a tenderness and wisdom that touched her heart every time he spoke her name.

"Kusuma," he said one time, as they walked together through the shroud of night. "Have I more white hairs than grey?"

She grinned and nodded. "More than ever. You're as white as the whitest camellia, and prettier than one too."

The old planter laughed. "You do me too much credit. There's not much pretty about age."

"You're wrong," she said, still smiling. She reached up and touched the dried marigold that still shone in her hair. "Even an old flower's beautiful. Aren't you more than a marigold?"

That got another chuckle from him, but this time he said nothing for a while.

"I can't be in bloom forever," he said at last, his voice almost a whisper.

"I'll take care of you," Kusuma replied. "Like you took care of me."

"Wouldn't that be a sight..." He looked at the night sky as if he could see its hidden stars. "Thank you Kusuma, thank you."

The walks became shorter still. Kusuma fashioned him a walking stick out of a dead oak branch. Still the walks shortened. She helped him to bed every night, and helped him rise every morning, the man whose hazel eyes were always filled with laughter. She wished things wouldn't change, that their journey could go on forever. But life was change. She'd learned that from every seed she planted.

Finally, the day arrived.

It was a calm, temperate morning, one of the rare ones where the hazy sky cleared enough to turn a faint shade of blue. The sun was bright and kind, and even the barren countryside looked cheerful. Kusuma knelt beside the Tree Planter, holding his hands as he lay on his back beneath the tarp. She remembered how big and strong those hands had been. Yet now they were shriveled and frail, trembling with the weariness of time and bulging with sluggish veins. She held them in her own, which were smooth and warm and with a grip like steel, and whispered to the man whose name she had chosen.

"You can sleep longer if you like. We don't need to go far today. I can plant here, we don't have to leave at all. We can stay."

The Tree Planter coughed. Kusuma leaned forward and tried to smile.

"I'll get you some water and make a good broth, just like you taught me."

But as she moved to do so she felt his grip tighten, and this time his gentle voice reached her ears.

"Kusuma..."

She settled down again. "Yes? I'm here. I'm right here."

He let out a tired breath, his hazel eyes staring past her. "Will you make the world green and beautiful, Kusuma?"

"Of course I will," she said, holding his hand tighter. "And so will you."

"I'm afraid I can't," he whispered.

Kusuma blinked a few times, her smile wavering. "What are you saying? Of course you will. We'll be together for a little longer still. There's still so much I want to learn from you."

The Tree Planter chuckled. "I've taught you everything in this old head of mine. You're now a planter yourself, and a better one than I, I reckon."

"Don't say that. You're still better than I am. It's all because of you, all of it."

They were each silent for a moment, a gentle breeze dancing around them. Kusuma bit the inside of her mouth. She'd known this was coming, for the lives of humans were like the lives of flowers - short and brilliant. Yet it took all her strength to say the words.

"You're dying, aren't you?"

The Tree Planter nodded. "I am..."

She blinked rapidly. "Can I make you better? We have herbs. I can try - "

"No..." the man whispered, his white beard moving faintly. "I am wilting, and that's alright. It's the natural way of things. I'm glad to have lived long enough to experience it. It's a beautiful thing to be able to wilt, to have bloomed at all, to have lived..."

"But..." Kusuma paused, biting her lip again. Her hands were shaking. "I don't want you to die."

"That's not a decision you get to make. You can plant a seed, but it's up to the seed to choose to live - and up to the flower to bloom or wilt, in the end. It's all up to nature. To our mother's hand."

Kusuma felt the familiar pangs of fear. "But what will I do without you?"

"What you've always done," he said with a smile. "Carry on my work. Carry on your dream. You don't need me by your side to do it."

"But I..." Kusuma shuddered. "I don't want to be alone."

"You're not alone." He touched the ground. "Feel the earth beneath you. There's life in it - the life of everyone who came before you. Where there's earth, I will be also."

Kusuma could no longer blink back her tears. She nodded, her lips trembling, and then pulled him into an embrace. How she wanted to thank him at that moment, to say how grateful she was for all that he'd done for her. But all she could do was cry. And as she held the Tree Planter she felt his arms wrap around her, gently, those arms that had once carried her. She closed her eyes and buried her face in his chest.

"There, there, Kusuma," he whispered. "There, there. Crying is alright. It's alright to cry..." She felt his tears on her neck. "I will miss you."

"I'll miss you too."

"But remember, I'm not going far."

"Into the earth. Like Mom and Dad."

"Yes," he whispered. "I'm going to them, and we'll talk all about you, and when you plant flowers we'll help them grow big and strong. I'll be in every bloom you bring to life, Kusuma, my little flower."

Kusuma sobbed and looked him in the eyes, realizing only then that he was blind. But those hazel eyes were still filled with all the memories they'd shared. Recalling the first time she'd seen them, as a scared little girl amidst the ruins, brought a trembling smile to her face.

"Thank you," she said. "Thank you... for everything..."

A weak smile shifted his beard, but his sightless eyes were bright with joy and laughter still. "I would do it all again for you. You made it all worth it, the best seed planted in my life."

Upon whispering those words he reached towards her with a shaking hand. He touched her face, running his leathery fingers along it with as much care as he would a newly bloomed rose.

"Ah," he whispered, exhaling through his smile, "there's the most beautiful flower of all..."

Kusuma felt his hand fall away. She caught him and held him close. When at last her tears ran dry she laid him down and closed his eyelids and kissed him on the forehead. Then she sat there, alone in the breeze, staring thoughtfully upon the horizon.

"The most beautiful flower of all, huh?" she whispered. She glanced down at the Tree Planter and knew by the shape of his beard that he was smiling. She returned it. "You do me too much credit too."

A day later she stood on the same hill, shovel in hand, dark hair blowing in the wind. She patted down the freshly turned earth, mindful of the seeds she'd planted with it, and then stared at it for a long while. When she finally turned away the sun had fallen near the horizon. Thunder rolled in the coming dark. Casting about a resolute gaze, Kusuma shouldered her bag and set out.



The ruins were quiet and swept with sand, the wind whispering overhead in a dull sky.

Footfalls broke the stillness. Into the yard stepped a young woman garbed in a dusty long coat and a floppy hat, a lever-action shotgun cradled in her arms. Kusuma. She stopped abruptly and pulled off her goggles. Emerald eyes widened.

The skeletons of dead apple trees filled the yard, but through them she could see a hint of green. Striding forward, she gently pressed her way between them. At last Kusuma arrived at the center. There, basking in the glow of the veiled sun, was a lone apple tree laden with little red fruit. She stared at it for one of the longest moments of her life, the whole world reduced to that tree and the memories it carried.

She was a few inches taller than it.

"You were right," she whispered, touching the marigold on her chest. "You were always right..."

She put down her pack and slowly approached the tree. The feeling of an apple in her hand made her mind swim with memories, and the taste, when she bit into it, made her heart ache. It tasted better than all those years of imagining.

Kusuma looked at the tree once more, remembering the day she'd stumbled into her new life. She could almost hear the old man laughing, and she laughed too, but soon tears were rolling down her cheeks and wetting the earth at her feet. With a hard swallow she reached out and rested her palm against its trunk, feeling its texture, its life.

"How long it's been since you planted that seed..."

The loneliness Kusuma feared didn't come. No, she could feel them there - in the bark, in the rustle of leaves, in the lingering scent of fruit, in the earth beneath her feet. Closing her eyes, she whispered to them, and serenely waited in the long silence that followed. Then, smiling to herself, she sat against the tree and took out her flute.

In the shade of the apple tree, Kusuma began to play.

10 comments:

  1. It's hard, in a short story especially, to deliver a message of hardship and unkind truths. This story manages that, partly by the nature of the Tree Planter and his hope-filled occupation and also through by Kusuma's deeply-borne, indefatigable survival instincts.

    My favourite line is, "For the first time the Tree Planter looked uncomfortable." All that humanity bundled into nine words, 14 syllables. Like the DNA contained in an apple seed.

    Thanks for bringing us this lovely story.

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    1. Hello Mitchell,

      Thank you for your thoughts, I am very glad you enjoyed it! Take care.

      Regards,
      Spencer

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  2. Well written kinda mythical story, allegorical in its message and theme. Reminds me of the story of Johnny Appleseed, but speculative fiction style. The character of Kusuma a great role model.

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    Replies
    1. Hello Harris,

      Thank you, I appreciate your feedback!

      Regards,
      Spencer

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  3. I loved reading about this world and especially about Kusuma. I was so worried about her being alone and I hope she finds someone to be her apprentice in the future. Maybe a sequel would be needed for that.

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    1. Hello Billy.

      I'm glad you enjoyed it! I didn't consider a sequel, but now you put the thought in my head, and I'm sure it'll grow there over time. Ideas tend to incubate and surprise I find. Thanks!

      Regards.
      Spencer

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  4. I can't express how much I liked this story. Everything fit so well. I found myself certain about what was going to happen next, but wanted to read how each event was portrayed. Great story, well-written. Thanks for letting experience it.

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    1. Hello James,

      Thank you, I'm very happy it was enjoyable and worth your time to read. Cheers!

      Regards,
      Spencer

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  5. Wonderful, emotional story. Kusuma learns to find meaning and purpose while accepting the circumstances of her existence. A very powerful message of hope, much appreciated and needed today more than ever.

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    Replies
    1. Hello Ron,

      Thank you, I appreciate your thoughts. Your comment reminded me of Viktor Frankl, whose work I have recently read. Meaning and purpose can indeed make all the difference in the world, even in the worst of circumstances. Thanks, and take care.

      Regards,
      Spencer

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