I. - Strange Trees
In the woods there was a tree that would send you to sleep. We learnt to cultivate it—my mother's family—to crossbreed it with oaks so the trunks grow strong and knotted. The original still collects animal skeletons in its stump. When it was alive it gaped at you with sagging lips—above the hollow were knots like wrinkled eyelids.
A mimeograph of it hangs in the front hall; my grandfather is the boy inside. His back faces the camera and his shoulders are slumped—he dreams. Eventually he hung a sign from his neck that said Don't Move Me when his dreams got too lovely. The tree grew tendrils around him; they couldn't move him; when he died and the tree started drinking nutrients from him they cut it down.
I never slept in our trees. I like the sort of dreams that haunt my shadows and make me grateful to be awake in the sunshine.
The trees grow black fruit—good for making pies. If you eat it raw you spit out seeds like caviar. The juice is purple and stains your teeth. That night you'll dream of rot and sharp angles, abandoned things, the growth of mold on concepts. We'll sell you a basket of wood cheap but don't burn it indoors—use it for carpentry. It makes lovely, dozy tool sheds and doghouses, where the sun waltzes in through the window glass and settles sleepily on the floor. We don't like storing it because if there's ever a spark we'll burn to death in our sleep.
The trees' thirst is never slaked. We must grow them in black soil the consistency of feather-down that drips cold rainwater down your fingers when you hold it. I grew up in a valley, between two low-lying weather fronts, where the rain came in drops the size of marbles. Look at how pale I am—there's barely any sun. The light here is watery, malnourished.
I was out in the orchard harvesting, plastic bag over my head, when a prince showed up to buy fruit. I came back to the house to find him sitting on the front porch, picking out jangly notes on a loose-stringed guitar. Every few bars he would stop to flip his hair back over the crown of his head with his fret hand because otherwise it hung in front of his eyes and dripped. He had holes in the knees of his jeans and grime on his t-shirt.
"Hello," I told him.
He looked up and smiled—he thought rakishly—and his teeth were white like milk. Not ivory like everybody else's. "Hi," he said. "I'd like to buy some of your fruit."
I put the basket down next to my feet and my hands in my pockets. "There's a release form with a zero-indemnity clause. No cursing, sorcery, revenge, drug addicts or mental patients."
He ran his pick down the strings and his guitar made a noise like sprlanng. "You know you have a bag on your head?"
"Yeah, it keeps water from getting down my neck."
"Why are you standing out in the rain still?"
"It's just water," I said.
"Sure, I'll sign a release form." He put the pick in his watch pocket and stood up.
I hooked the fruit basket on my elbow and went past him to the doorstep. He stayed well back, trying to be unthreatening, but couldn't quite stand still— the rubber soles of his shoes squeaked when he shifted his weight. I don't worry about strange people; people don't frighten me. I have something far more frightening that protects me from people.
I keep the keys in my coat pocket; they're heavy enough to make a hole after weeks of being dropped in the same place a few times every day. I've replaced the pocket lining two or three times. The master keyring is black iron, a hundred years old, and the keys are longer than my fingers; when I unlocked the door it sounded like someone was shaking a jar full of coins.
"Come in," I said. The entryway was dark and cold. The farmhouse always smells empty—it did even when I was young and there were ten brothers and sisters running around.
He followed me inside and wiped his feet on the doormat. I don't know why he had to look at his shoes as he did it.
I closed the door and locked it behind us, then hung up my coat. He looked at me and said, "You put the plastic bag on your hatstand."
"Come into the kitchen," I said.
He leaned his guitar against the wall. When he sat at the kitchen table, he slumped against his elbows, heels tucked into the crossbar of the chair. I pulled a blank release form out of the box on the counter and put it in front of him. He rested his chin on the back of his hands to look at it.
"Title, name, reason for purchase, amount by weight, desired product, and country of export," I said. "Then initial here and here."
He leaned close to the paper and wrote in slow, curly script. "Want some tea? I can make sleepy or regular," I said.
"Regular, unless I can crash on your floor," he said. I gave him sleep tea.
I had peeled and rinsed the entire basket of fruit by the time he was done writing. He leaned back in his chair, slowly, and moved the pen around the surface of the table like someone in a daydream, with his forefinger.
When I picked up the form I noticed right away. "Third son?" I said.
"Yeah," he said. "Doing that thing."
He'd signed it H.R.H. Prince John, Duke of. "Duke of what?" I asked.
"Threads and patches," he said. "Songs and snatches."
"There's a sofa in the sitting room you can use for a nap, Prince John."
"I'm actually Jack. Who are you?"
"Eleanor." I sat across from him and drank tea. "Tired yet?"
He blinked slowly—one eye then the other, like a rolling sea. "Really strong. Yeah."
I soaked the fruit in sugar syrup and swept the hall while he slept. I opened a window to let out the cloying smell that settled over the kitchen like a scented blanket, and a breeze sharp with composting loam and wet leaves tumbled in. After about an hour—when I was sure he'd dropped down to dream sleep—I went into the sitting room to listen, but he didn't say anything. I expected him to fling his arm around or fuss with his legs, but he never moved. Princes were usually more nervous than this: high-strung, like lapdogs.
Just before dawn, after the rain stopped and the air was brittle and frigid, he said, "You should come with me, Eleanor." He still hadn't moved. "Don't you sleep?"
"Not until I have to," I said. "I read your 'reason for purchase'. What's this about the princess being pregnant?"
"I'm seeking my fortune," said Jack, "and she's offering one. She hasn't slept for months."
"I can't provide her with fruit," I said. "I don't know how it'll affect her pregnancy. It's a gamble."
"Bring your zero-indemnity form."
"Not worth it."
"I'll give you half," said Jack.
I thought about it.
"If I can get someone to look after the orchard while I'm gone, and if you sign another contract that specifies exactly half of whatever reward you get is mine," I said, "I'll come with you."
He pulled the blanket up to his ears. "Okay," he said.
I went back to the kitchen to boil the fruit. I'd just poured the finished preserves into jars when Jack slunk in, guitar in hand, plunking out a chord progression. He sat on top of the kitchen table and folded his legs.
Her name is Eleanor,/ She's such a bore./ Can't dream anymore,/ My Eleanor.
I started slicing a loaf of bread.
My Eleanor,/ Worth dying for,/ Worth sacrifice./ I'll pay any price/ For Eleanor.
"Made that up just now?" I said.
"I won't finance your trip, so I'm glad you know how to busk."
"That's how I got here," said Jack. "Are you making me breakfast, or do I fend for myself?"
"I wrote my brother a letter this morning while you were still asleep." I put the bread slices in the oven to toast. "If you want to stay and help me until he arrives to look after the farm, I'll keep you in food and shelter."
"No problem." Plunk plunk plunk.
Breakfast was toast and egg. Jack didn't put his guitar down to stop eating; he reached around it awkwardly to get his toast and played with eggy fingers.
I locked up the farmhouse while I went to post the letter. Jack said he might take a walk around the forest.
"You'll die," I told him. "The forest is hungry."
I must climb out of the valley and walk through a few acres of pasture to send mail. At the valley's crest, I can see hills rolling away from me on either side until the mist claims them from view. I know that beyond the hills are mountains, though I've never seen them—the mist has always been there. Often the letters I bring to the postbox are damp and a little rumpled from their trip inside my breast pocket; the trip is forty minutes each way at a good pace. Sometimes I'll take my bicycle, but I prefer to walk when I'm alone.
The road that leads to the postbox is lined with hedgerows. I walk right down the middle—things live in there that I've never seen. On dark days the branches twist toward the sky: leaves unfold, kept in reserve until they're needed. They look like a boy who's stuck his finger in a socket, or an old man gone insane from alcohol and cold, lonely nights sleeping under the stars; when the sun comes back, they're once again perfectly square. Today storm clouds chased each other across the sky, and the hedges reached for me with arthritic hands.
Out of the corner of my eye, something bloomed. I looked away, at the road—where pebbles skittered over each other like fat in a pan. The thing vanished, sucked back into the shadows. I kept walking but the road took turns I didn't remember and the flower kept pace with me, blooming and crumpling every few steps. I breathed in air that smelled of nothing I can describe, and turned to the hedge. It had put forth a rose.
I picked it—thorns clasped my fingers. Its petals were made of living water; when I brushed them with the palm of my other hand they rippled. I felt desperate to drop the rose, but its thorns had hooked my skin.
Oh, years it's been—so when there was a soft movement over my shoulder I shut my eyes. I've had my entire life to practice. I cut off slicking panic at its source and I thought, step forward, and the daydream flapped away on velvet wings. When I opened my eyes I was standing on the road, nearly at the post box, a handful of hedge leaves scattered over my boot toes.
By the time I was back at the farmhouse, it was raining again—fat, cold drops that hit you in the face like an insult—and Jack was asleep on the porch swing. He sighed as I climbed up the front steps.
"I feel drugged," he said.
"You were," I replied, shaking the keys in the lock. "If you sleep normally the tea can be overwhelming."
He grinned and stood up, guitar in hand. "I can sleep on my feet if I need to."
We went inside. "You're going to be groggy until tomorrow morning, then," I said. "You can still help me prepare the fruit."
He put his guitar down and followed me to the kitchen.
There's no way to transport fresh fruit for any longer than a day without it bruising, and it will take less than a week to rot. For export, my parents would normally prepare essential oil from the rind, or perhaps a packet of boiled sweets. The tea I'd given Jack we sold for everyday sleeplessness—it was floral, bought in, with a few of our dried seeds scattered in the mix. More difficult cases received jam or chutney.
But my mother had told me about an order filled in her childhood, a bedtime story, like it never really happened at all, so despite it being true I grew up believing it the way children believe myths—deeply, in some essential way that dispenses with the details. The customer, said my mother, was an emperor from far across the seas, who suffered from melancholy and wished to have one perfect night of dreams. My uncle travelled for weeks to deliver the order: a whole glacé fruit, the best of the crop, stored in a box that my grandfather had made for it from our wood. As the story goes, the emperor ate the fruit and slept for an entire turn of the clock, sundown to sundown—and when he woke he composed an epic manuscript spanning thousands of folio pages, of heroes and monsters and thrashing seas that spit out boats like orange pips.
My grandmother had written her recipe in the back of our family recipe book, and I'd read it over and over as a child; it was grandiose and intricate despite only needing sugar and water, and took over a month to complete. I know it by heart—but I opened the recipe book on the kitchen table like a ritual.
I showed it to Jack. "Will this be enough?"
He moved his fingers over the page, delicately, resting them just under my grandmother's illustration of the fruit as it cured in sugar. "This is beautiful."
"Just a moment," I said, and left him reading.
Upstairs, in the first drawer of my vanity, is the box. Over the years the wood has turned black under its varnish and the velvet inside paled. It's round, the size of a small apple, and closes with a silver lock. On top of it is a loop; you string your belt through it to keep the fruit safe without having to hold the box in your hand. I keep nothing in it, but I'll sometimes smooth my fingertips over the carvings, for comfort.
I brought the box down to Jack. "You roll the fruit in sugar, then wrap it in wax paper, then in cotton. Finally, it goes in here."
He picked up the box and yawned—and put it down again quickly. "What is that?"
"It's made from our wood," I said. "My grandfather fell asleep twelve times carving it."
"You can hold it without feeling sleepy?"
"I'm going to go outside and pick a fruit," I said. "You can mix the syrup while I'm gone."
He nodded. "What do I do?"
I set him up with a saucepan and a sack of sugar. "This is my mother's jam spoon," I said. "The recipe will tell you how much sugar to use in the first solution. Stir it until it's dissolved. When you're done you can wash the breakfast dishes."
He smiled. "Easy."
Our trees produce fruit in cycles, year-round. At least one is always fruiting, but it's a taxing endeavour, and they might at best bring forth ten fruits in a three-month season. I knew the tree to check first: it was our oldest, and the most potent—a sapling of the very first, the only full-blood tree in the orchard. I had seen globes swelling on its lower branches—glossy, purple like the depths of a winter sky or the folded shadows of a royal robe. They weren't quite ripe yet—and for this recipe, they shouldn't be.
I gathered all the fruit within reach; it barely filled a quarter of my basket. There might be some on higher branches, but that I would harvest in two or three days, when it was ready to drop. When I couldn't find any more, I sat just outside the tree's canopy and watched the birds in its upper branches mutter crossly at each other. The grass made a lovely cushion—we keep it lush and long to soften falls, heaven forbid, from higher branches—and I leaned back into it, getting grass seed all over my coat and in my hair.
It began to rain. I fell asleep, and dreamed.