An easy cinch of gentle breezes caressed the skin of his face. The color of the fields, boundless fields, rolling in smoothly greening dales, climbed the short side of a range of mountains solely in sight, but for a valley. It was like Vermont, Vermont in the fall, Vermont, in heaven. The limbs of acrobatic trees willowed in a sudden blanch of red, yellow, and orange deign, and were photographed en masse as a budding delight of manifold lakes and ponds, mirroring the image, duplicating it. The denizens of the inhabited brook ways, autumn in all, were hundreds of thousands of apples, gathered in chummy coteries, like the Girl Scouts, and silently twittering with the hope of notice amidst the gaggle of harvest hues, as they may have something to say, for instance, in the graduating heights, they were not just a freshet, or a fruit cocktail. Aji said, wistfully, “People always like to call this Orison, but it isn’t.”
He was beguiled by the scent of apples. Aji closed the hatch on the transparent glass yacht-ish pod they used for dijection, set carefully, tentatively, in a landing on the open tarmac of fresh grass. He studied the habits of this great orchard immediately. She said, obliquely, “I wanted you to see it.” The warmth of these lands was visceral, and induced memories of days from his childhood, day trips to the Green Mountain State. The environs were tempered at seventy degrees, and the level of oxygen adequate to leave the respirators in the “glass canoe,” the pod, the LifeRaft®. It was provided by Nature in a different manner than Earth, where the Sun infuses rays into the soil; these swaths of light were from Hya, an ancient star, and formed huge basins of air, and spread heat to the orchards by the wind.
They strolled the grass. Aji grasped his forearm with her hand, worried he may tread in the wrong place. He was unusually aware of his footprints. “Stay in the brown gravel,” she advised, implying there was science to it. “And don’t step on anything.” The gales teemed with leaves wrapping against his legs. He stood fast, and gazed at the landscape, not moving, but relieved of any worry of committing an act prohibited by this new, unknown environment. “Better,” Aji said. “This is my place, my refuge, yes.” The fruit was spry, and solid to touch, most of it still attached to a vine, and vines moreover stretching in the fields like down wires. The bark of the sponsor trees, – the branches, the tree trunks, the canopies, – were young and old, both strong as high school wrestlers, within the watchful eye of ages; the soil was muddy, but complex, with the rigorous feel of the guidance of a vast system of taproots, a lumbar highway, a breed so close-knit even an Ilex, say, a holly tree, could never grow.
The rustling sound of the windswept arms of trees was a chorus of variegated whistles through the branches, the only noise in his ears, the quietus, the whistling, to complement hundreds of square of miles. He asked finally, “Where are we?” She replied peaceably, and leisurely, imbibing the alternate reality. Aji said, “This is the vale of the Apple Trees.”
He commented, “I’m becoming a pantheist, I think.”
“Maybe a Tao,” Aji laughed.
He didn’t recall telling her the story of the Miller hourglass, but he was not sure. She added, “Of course, you’d have to become an apple tree. Not a hack-berry. Not a sugar maple.”
“I’ll probably commune with the root system,” he japed. She nodded slowly.
Aji said there weren’t any exceptions to the government of apple trees on this planet in Hydra, the Vale of the Apple Trees. He watched the trees performing their welcomes, bemused. “Apples, apples. More apples.”
There was a parietal quality to the atmosphere, as yet undetected by science; Aji quipped that nobody had expended the greatest effort to discover it. She was refreshed in the bounty of this vale, which the vale did apparently not seem to mind, and reluctant to issue any theory: Nature simply did not allow anything else to grow. He was puzzled. Nature has a normal state of common paradox. She sensed his curiosity, and allayed, “It’s not easy to be equivocal about it. Nature does not allow any rivalry, basically. You can be more daring, and Nature may allow that for a moment, as admiration, you know, – but it then, almost imperceptibly, it will try to explain why it isn’t possible. Anything milling around for too long is streamed somewhere else. The short, young timber, like you, for instance, is completely safe. But it fells all soaring trees.”
He stepped to one of the apples in the grass, which was split into two parts. “Bad luck?”
She responded, “No, the core has the seeds.”
Aji, walking, said, “The guise of Nature is a paradox, but it’s less cavil, more of an allegory, more like the Ponds, or the Elysian fields.” The Ponds were once equally bountiful, and were now impossible to approach. The vale was not unique, she said. Denmark, on Earth, possessed similarly vast lands of tulips growing singularly, and in never-ending rows, and the field is devoted to incubating the flower. The landscape, the Vale of the Apple Trees, in Hydra, was actually a continent, and it comprised two-thirds of the whole surface, with a number of irrigating seas, but surprisingly contained not any more than one countless, sovereign form of life – the aqueum, the apple tree.
There were more vales in Hydra, the cluster was uniquely rich of them, and Aji said continents were ardent for a single botanic species, and how it was a phenomenon; wild barley grew in one orb’s inestimable fields, near Jupiter’s moon, İo; another moon in Sombrero cultivated priceless salts alone in dark, gray dusts; many planets fostered certain precious minerals; a pulsar became a wholly-crystallized diamond; another situated honey bees, and their sovereign share. Only the Ponds, and its shifting destiny, seemed to belie the mystery of Nature’s patience.
They entered the pod, and Aji focused on normal operations. She said, “Anyway, we can’t land on the Ponds at all, anymore. Just a decade ago, we used to go there constantly. The Ponds had just about everything. No exclusive breeds. It was like Wal-Mart. Ah, the Ponds. They used say, ‘If you can’t find it anywhere else, it’s probably on The Ponds.’ I miss it.”
“What happened?” he asked.
“The Ponds won’t let us land. The atmosphere. It’s a shadow dance.”
“Won’t let us how?”
“There was some sort of hole in the atmosphere, and a strange new layer emerged through the hole,” said Aji. “Now we just glide along the outer atmosphere, and ‘bounce,’ as the saying goes. Best we can do. No entry. We don’t know why yet.”
He clicked the seat belt, in the LifeRaft® passenger chair behind her. “Any guess?”
“Well,” Aji said/ “They mined the Ponds hugely for a century. It’s like the bees. They’ll let you take most of their honey, but not their own share. They did the work, yes? The atmosphere of the Ponds reached a critical mass, some type of a chemical mass, and was too depleted to function the same way. Now it won’t let anything through the gravity, until it recovers. It probably wouldn’t be safe. But it formed an abyss. The maglevs glide to a different path, and shunt, like they’re like surfing in the curl of a wave. Right out. You go where it wants you to go.”
They hovered in the LifeRaft® beneath the outer atmosphere of the vale, and traversed for nautical miles. “It’s the only one like it, this one, as far as we know, – the Vale of the Apple Trees, – but it’s just one of many in a native state,” she said. “We’ve found planets in some dijections with just giraffes, corn, wildebeests, you name it. It’s difficult to grasp. There’s a type of bacterium that exists, and it propagates. It reproduces, because the ecology is conducive to its DNA.”
He mulled, “Do they stay segregated?”
“Oh no, they integrate, this is just one phase,” said Aji. “That’s history. More profound than it seems, to say. One mystery is how. What’s interesting is we find these vales in our dijections, but at strange points of time, and space. It implies incubation, like a nursery. It’s a common anomaly, if you will. We’ll visit another one, the barley orb. Ale.”
He sat alertly in the rocking chair. He could be more daring. He could venture to the kitchen. He did, pouring black coffee into a mug. No sweat. The plan was to add a version of Half-and-Half, to top the coffee with whipped cream, maybe a red grape, and then douse it with Grand Marnier. He loved orange Cognac, he even liked its name, saying it’s name, which was Marnier, not Mariner. He tried carefully to avoid the medical concern, mixing it with his dozen new prescriptions, resolving Grand Marnier wasn’t exactly Jagermeister, that happier was important, too, and he cantored “Gram-an-Yeah!” He settled at the kitchen table, hardly able to suppress a dimming view of the mix, and decided this time he just didn’t care. Secularly, science could keep him alive, but was it worth it? The path never led anywhere fortunately. He knew that. Gram-an-yeah. He drew a pencil from the fold of a pad of yellow legal paper. How ever groggy, he had to “find it.” He jotted the word, giraffes. Coda. Edens, and no ginger trees. Dijection. He wanted a map of U.T., the universe in Real Time. He put the pencil aside, enthralled to watch it rolling away towards the oak napkin holder.
He placed the Irish coffee, in something of new, and dizzy stupor, upon a wicker coaster on a rattan side table next to the rocking in the Florida room. Groggy. He looked for the blue ghosts. His yard hosted squadrons of the brown Phausis reticulata, borne of the beetle, Coleoptera (not Cleopatra), who were always wont to bar-hop in search of lady phausis, search-lighting to their peril with dazzling blue lights. They also liked to camp in bunches around his fire escape in Coney Island, that is, the firefly; the special-op genus is found in the east part of the United States; and “blue ghosts,” as they are called, emit a blue light on blues’ nights. A fallacy, in actuality. The Purkinje Effect maintains the blue light of fireflies, the “blue ghosts,” was neither ultraviolet, nor infrared, and the blue tone of the “cold light” is actually just as green as regular fireflies, alas, blue only to the human eye, which tends to default to the blue scale. They were bounding, bouncing, against his Florida room screen, not unlike maglevs at The Ponds, and glowering blue light in their search for romance, and he waved at them, suffice to say there were no lady fireflies indoors. He had more affinity for the holly trees, the sensible Ilex, in the scarce woodlands of New York City. He knew lady ghosts eat their beau.
And he knew a single holly leaf, within the martse of gravity, Earth, and not Grand Marnier, somewhere in New York City, probably in Central Park, an Aquifoliaceae was beginning a new, and solitary journey. He penciled a koan about this fictive holly leaf, and the Ilex, and The Ponds, generally, as much as to see if he could; he wrote: The waving veins of a/ winter berry; – holly / blooms red, before the snow.
The ghastly swelling was Edema. He likened it, in this adagio, to “elephantiasis.” He was grateful he could not recall using it as a derogatory phrase in his childhood days. He was, in his grandmother’s idiom, a “regular guy” in school; this recuperation from a traumatic illness – when the body embarks upon a brave, new world, gingerly-engineered by pharmaceuticals – demands all hands on deck, and every tiny grace. Edema chums with heart failure. It is not “elephantiasis,” or lymphatic filariasis, but it is a close friend, and a neighbor. He became suddenly heftier by a temporary forty pounds of fluid, the uncut rivers to a grave; a heart functioning with less efficiency is dreadfully inefficient, and does much less in much more time. Recovery meant his medication, and he, literally, had to swim for dry land, and the proverbial foggy shore. A shadow dance; it was an elegant, and inelegant contest with Death. Waves of fluid were overrunning his veins, and overwhelmed his ankles to unhealthy, murky depths. He no longer saw his ankles, thankfully; the puffy skin grew in ululating folds around them, his ankles, and his toes, and if it were possible to see his ankles, if he twisted and bent at an awkward angle with his bulging abdomen, it was even worse; new layers of folding, bloated epidermis piled upon another, and broke wide scabs of earlier scar tissue, because, the size of these waves, these layers, was too large to blend into the joints. His belly enlarged, of course, and absorbed a fair share of the yea forty pounds of water. He was hefty. The heart was not promptly-refining the flow of blood, and other fluid oozed through the veins, like floodwater from a river bank. His genitals and bladder flooded, and tripled in size. He was drowning; alone, in his body, a quiet sea. The condition was unfit for the trappings of fashion, and also personal regard. He went back to the emergency room about it; the general rule was to go to the ER, if you added three-to-five pounds of weight in a day; hell, this was forty! Their consensus was medication needed time to work.
Misfortune was not a passing squall. He chose the grand oak rocker in his Florida room as a complement to a new Recovery Camp; one triumph was taping television shows on a DVR. He doze for minutes routinely, but often hit the back of his head on the headboard of the rocking chair, and awoke. More frustrating, he injured his woeful, scabbed heels against the sharp, curved runners of the rocker, and it caused more blotches. He meant to sand those edges; it was such a nice oak chair.
It was a shadow dance. It was musing sleeplessly in mortal pain, a pain he could neither find nor place nor define. Was it shock? Maybe. If he could define it, he would certainly feel better. Was it the thin air? He situated the recovery camp in the bath room. He could gaze at the outdoors through a bathroom window, which was glazed in a privacy gray. He noticed a broad streak from a futile effort to clear it with glass cleaner. A tree waved frantically in the tropical wind.
He had built a warren, for a war, a war raging in his body between the forces of death, and modern chemistry; and it was ravaging him like a tired city, bombed from the air; his forces, the medications, were stealthy ninja, the enemy, spritely viruses, like Comanche in the woods, and lousy weather. The brain was hapless; it was too soon to tell; a shadow dance. All of it was all far too dull. It was far too murky. He should still stay alert. This was a shadow dance, a rundown in baseball with death at first base, and death at second base; he was the runner. The shadow dance. He could pass out, and why not? He was already prone to the toidy. He could try to pass out. The daze did not make him nauseous. Gym shorts covered his knees. The hamper was a table in front of him. He had stocked everything he could possibly need for the being time, and buried his head in a makeshift ball of towels. Ready for anything. Ready to go. Ready to vomit. Could he could vomit? No. Different time, different place. Get with the program. What was the program? The hamper towels were inches from his nose; everything was anything but well. Sleep was urgent, and he summoned every energy to sleep, but this kept him awake. Alert. Right. The Shadow Dance. He’d have to pass out. He closed the bathroom door. To keep death in the kitchen.
He used his foot to sift through apples lying on the ground, until Aji objected, “They don’t like that.”
“They? The apples?”
She smiled ineffably. “Exactly. This vale is an incubator. The seeds will grow into trees, and so on, and so on. Doesn’t it make sense?”
“I guess it’s ecology.”
She said, “We could go to The Market?”
“It’s a famous part of Hydra, the great Galaxy,” Aji said. “They have endless vegetation from all of the other planets, and the moons, wherever the climate suits their growth. Arugula, borrage, bok choy, dill. How about cat sear? That’s a flat weed.”
“N-not just now.”
They took a last glimpse at the Vale of the Apple Trees, and neither tried to conceal their wonder at the remnant grandeur in their eyes. “Something else?” Aji remarked.
He asked, “Can we take, say, a bushel?”
Aji was disquieted. “No!”
“Why?” he chuckled. “Why not?”
Aji said, “These are rose apples.”
A drop of water. A closed door. The fortified room. Flowery wallpaper. He had things to do, important things; this did not stop, and wait. But no. A shadow dance. The medications were winning the silent war, of course. Matter of time. Matter of time. Hope was a breath in the twilight. There was beauty in the vales of Hydra. “There is beauty is what is left undone.” Mort. Whatever.
The camp. Complete. Fresh towels. Five towels made a pillow. Pill box. Pills for every day of the week. TP. Gauze. (Gauze?) A case of lemon-lime unCola. Potato chips. A stack of face cloths. A dozen partly-read New Yorkers. A travel case. Razors. Shaving cream. Everything. Tissue. Ashtrays. Five packs of cigarettes, new in a neat pile. Some extra clothes. The Go-Bag, of course. And a radio. A weather radio. Clock. Everything. Paper, pens, pencils, a sharpener. Batteries.
He could forage, if necessary, build a larger trench. The light in the bathroom was extra bright. He flexed his muscles to sleep. No luck. And thin air. He buried his face angrily in the towels. The shadow dance. He craned his neck to see the tree. “Fireflies?” ◊
¤ JUKE BOX ¤ Theme: “Sacrifice,” ELTON JOHN | playlist, “Flea Markets, Nos. 1-50,” a myopic vaile (No. 27)
“The Echo By Seas” is one of three works from The Echo By Seas; & Other Stories by Soda Tom.
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Created by Soda Tom