Elder Berries

The tree was gnarled and twisted, its paper-thin bark hung from the branches as the dead skin would hang from a deer's antlers, bloody and red. The bark shivered in the ocean breeze and the branches swung slowly, like a sea-fan bending and bowing in the salt-water currents that swept around the tiny island. The other trees around it were small, and sculpted by the wind into short, thick, aerofoil shapes that tapered in the direction of the prevailing gusts. But not the tree; no, it had grown in defiance of the wind, ignoring the movement of the atmosphere as if it did not acknowledge its power here. The tree was a power in its own right, and forced its branches high into the air and basking in the brilliant pacific sun.

The man lay in the sun for many hours before his eyes cracked their salt crystal shell and stared into the blue, cloudless, sky. After a while he blinked, and rolled over in the crystal white sand till he lay face down. Like his far distant ancestors, he propped himself up on his elbows and laboriously dragged his body into the shade of the tree. Above him, the bark shivered, and silver leaves rustled, casting dappled light down onto the ground beneath. The man closed his eyes and nestled his head between the welcoming roots where he drifted into a strange sleep.

The remnants of a storm clipped the edge of the island, washing the salt from the silent mans skin and clothes. He sheltered and shivered beneath the tree, until the rain passed, then ventured out to explore his new home. A brackish stream welled up at the centre of the island, driven by some unknown geological force far beneath. He drank heartily from the shallow, clear, pool; relishing the mineral richness. Down on the beach he discovered boxes that had come ashore during the night, brought by the currents and pushed up onto the shore by the storm. They contained clothes, some food and a precious flare gun. He brought them all back to the tree, and counted his prizes.

Soon, thoughts of a fire came to the mans mind, and he collected the strips of fallen bark from beneath the tree as kindling, and fallen branches of the antler-like wood as fuel. One of the boxes provided a flint and steel, and within moments the paper-like bark caught alight. For a brief moment the man found his nostrils filled with the sweet smell of the vaporising sap, and his thoughts were filled with memories of far away purveyors of toffee and sugared mice, and the odour of hot sugar that emanated from secretive back rooms where fantastic confections were created. Blinking slowly in the dimming light, his new reality came flooding in and he looked up at the great tree.

Kneeling before the tree in the morning light, almost as if worshipping it, the man took his newfound pocket knife and cut a slim channel in the trunk of the tree, Blood red, sweet smelling sap slowly oozed from the cut before ceasing as the flow ceased. He touched a finger-tip to the clear, viscous, fluid and showed it to the rising sun where it glistened and shone in the dawning light. Remembering his schooling, he rubbed a tiny amount of the sap on the inside of his gum. Beside him a tin cup of water was ready from the stream in case he needed to wash it out quickly. His mouth was suddenly overwhelmed with the sweet taste of the sugar sap, and he looked up at the tree in awe as the cloying sugar filled his mouth with pleasure. And there, on the branches he saw the first berry buds, and the tree shivered in anticipation even though the man felt no breeze cross the island.

The man held a berry in his hand. Trepidation held his thoughts as he compared the small red berry with that of a rosehip. It was approximately the same size, although slightly rounder. The tree had provided the berries over a matter of days, and one or two had fallen from the branches, indicating their ripeness. And so the berry was perched in the palm of his hand, beckoning him to taste its flesh. He picked it up between his left thumb and fore-finger. The skin felt slightly rubbery as he gently squeezed it. Suddenly the skin ruptured and the salty ocean breeze wafted the sugar sweet smell of the juice across his face. Inside the bright red skin, the flesh was a pale pink colour, and a clear, sticky, juice ran down the back of his thumb before dripping from his wrist. He dabbed his right finger in the juice and tested it against his gums expecting the tell-tale tingle that indicated a potential poison. Again, he was surprised by the caramel thick sugariness of the juice, and so, tentatively, he bit a small amount of the flesh after waiting the obligatory five minutes or so. The texture was that of a peach, but the taste was that of sickly sweet Devon fudge. After days of savoury fish, and meagre rations from his beach-combed boxes, the fruit was a dessert to savour. After the single berry, he looked up at the tree and commenced picking some more; collecting them in the wide leaf of a palm tree from the other end of the island. Soon he had too many to count, and sat in the shade of the tree eating the berries, spitting the seeds and sipping brackish water as the morning slowly turned into the afternoon. Shelter would be needed now, and the lee of the tree would be ideal. And so, with the sun winding its way across the sky to dip once more beneath the rim of the ocean, the man set about building a shelter with driftwood and ingenuity.

The man noticed the change on the fourteenth day. He was unable to get sunburnt, and his skin had gradually attained a silvery glisten. Immediately upon noticing, his Christian upbringing called upon God to save his soul, and yet he found solace in the shade of the tree and bliss in the consumption of its berries. The tree produced fresh berries every other day, ensuring a near continuous supply of the wonderful sweetness. And so the man swam during the day, revelling in a new-found speed and grace, and ate the fresh berries in the evening as he watched the milky-way come down out of the blue sky and be reflected upon the ocean of stars beneath him.

The rock said the day was the twentieth of his exile. It was then, as the full moon waxed high above him that he sensed another presence on the island. Quietly he crept from his shelter in the lee of the tree, and saw the silver-white beach stretch before him. One by one, platinum scaled people walked up onto the land from the ocean; their skins reflecting the moonlight in a myriad of rainbow colours. Dark lateral lines ran down either side of their nakedness. The men were broad shouldered and the women were lithe and shapely. They stopped on the beach, and split into two groups, men in one, women in the other. The men grouped into a circle, and sat down facing away from one another, while the women walked up the beach towards the tree that presided over the island. Dutifully they began to gather the berries, one woman would cup her hands as another picked and placed them. Eventually one woman remained and the others each tipped some of their berries into her waiting hands. The man was fascinated by their huge, unblinking eyes as they wound their way down to the beach and the waiting men. The women knelt before each man, and both commenced eating the berries whole. Above the beach, the man heard the echoed crunching of the seeds inside each of the berries. Then, in complete silence the women laid down with the men and their bodies entwined. Beneath the full moon the circle of bodies flashed silver as they pressed themselves urgently against one another.

The man started as he heard movement behind him. In the reflected lunar light the last woman stood above him. She knelt on the ground, bowing her head, and proffered the berries to him. When he didn't move, she looked up and her large, fish like eyes, stared into the remains of the man's soul and he felt the last vestiges of what made him human, flee. He picked a berry from her hands and bit down, through the flesh, to crush the seed within. Suddenly his mind was filled with memories that were not his to begin with. Memories of far ancient times, when ice stretched far across the world, and ancient cities of weird creatures held court. She took a berry, and proffered them to him again. He took another, and he learnt of the cycles of the universe, of the many spheres of thought and wonder that held sway in the cosmos; of elder Gods and their battles, of being set adrift on the great currents between the stars, and of washing up on the shores of a distant world where they were imprisoned or exiled.

And so they ate the berries, and he learnt the final truth of the tree that was not and they laid their bodies together beneath the setting moon and the ancient branches. And while his memories rang of human-kind, his mind was now with the ones from the deep and he knew that the ancient cities beneath the waves were preparing to welcome another to their throng.