Alan San Juan
Sometimes the most important help is the kind we don't even know we need.
I first saw the man as a swirl of dust in the distance. It was the third year of Famine in my sun- drenched speck of a village, and my thin, malnourished face, grown prematurely old with hunger, lit up at the prospect of the coming of a visitor. News from the sprinkling of other villages that ringed the long-abandoned derelict city of Sydney had dried up as quickly as the village crops that now lay despondently under the hot sun. It was a time of quiet dying, both for Man and for those creatures and plants that were under his sway.
The man noticed me by the side of the road, and veered sharply to stand silently over this gaunt girl-child. Crouching swiftly, he offered me a strip of dried fruit, and as I tore hungrily into the fruit, removed the wide-brimmed hat that had covered his face in shadows. Dark eyes peered out of surfaces like polished mahogany, and the stranger's hands reached out from within the dark cloak that enfolded him to grasp me firmly by the shoulders.
The man smiled, and with that quickly took my hand in his, and together we strolled casually towards the waiting village. From afar, I could barely make out the inhabitants as they stood in disordered ranks to greet the arrival of this newcomer, this foreigner from some distant land. I was jealous of losing him. He was my find and they had no right to take him away, but he smiled at me again as if he understood.
His smile withered as we passed by the meager plot of land that held the village's crop plants, whose desiccated bodies were strewn over the hard-packed earth, promising certain death for everyone in the starving village. The stranger sat on his heels and gazed solemnly around him, and then with surprising nonchalance plucked some shriveled leaves from a nearby toppled corn plant and proceeded to devour them with barely concealed gusto.
"There is nothing left to work with," he said to me after chewing awhile. Pulling me close he whispered, "Jangan kuatir, little one, there is nothing to be worried about. But be sure to plant the seed with the lurid red stripes away from the village, where it cannot easily be discovered."
With those mysterious words he was pulled away from me, and into the arms of the waiting Elders, who ushered him hastily into the village meeting hall. I was left outside in the deepening twilight, along with the other children. Rising voices came from the house, the excited babble of the adults as they questioned the stranger. I jostled through the throng of children that had quickly coated the two open windows to catch a glimpse of our visitor. In the center of the room stood the stranger, his sinewy arms tracing odd figures in the air as he answered their questions in a soft, melodious voice that easily reached our straining ears. He frequently lapsed into his native tongue, a curiously soothing language that fit incongruously with the harsher sounds of our own jargon, but he spoke enough English for us to understand what he had to say.
He had come in search of villages like ours, pockets of humanity that escaped the swath of death that had laid waste to human civilization. In lilting speech he gave us news from the far north: countless empty villages, silent and forbidding; mass graves filled with tangled skeletons, hunger etched in their contortions; highways clogged with the metal carcasses of rotting automobiles and trucks, mute testimony to the final desperate rush to escape the dying cities; and everywhere, the silence of the desert, the absence of life. He had traveled even farther north than anyone had thought possible, and in the growing lines and shadows of his face we saw reflected glimpses of the Hell that he had witnessed: the impenetrable icy wastes of Mongolia and the Russian far east, whose inhabitants now lay preserved within vast snow catacombs; the desolation of eastern China, and the beggar armies that swarmed amidst the radioactive rubble in search of food; the surging ocean where once had basked the islands of Japan. When the stranger spoke of his homeland, deep in the rain forests of Irian Jaya, a growing restlessness seemed to fill the crowd, and they edged closer. With tears in his dark eyes, he cried for the teeming multitudes in crowded Java and Sumatra, as the radioactive winds edged ever closer from devastated Taiwan and Guangzhou; with a hoarseness in his voice, he sketched the final desperate plan of their besieged leaders and innovators, a mass migration of unprecedented proportions away from the radioactive inferno that raged in the North and into the vast and empty spaces of Southern Australia.
"I am the way," the stranger told them calmly, as growls of anger and resentment bubbled from the assembled crowd, their age-old fears of northern invasion confirmed. "Within me are the seeds of a future prosperity: retroviruses to tailor your crops and ensure bountiful harvests; micro-organisms to rapidly decay and remove the toxic wastes and harmful legacies of times past; nanomachines that will turn your desert world into a paradise for your people and mine."
"I am a library," he cried, as the enraged crowd surged forward and back again -- laser lights reflected from a wavy-edged keris that the stranger had swiftly drawn from nowhere, pools of blood forming around the still forms of two of the villagers -- then forward one last time to tear the cloaked invader apart.
They buried him in the corn patch, away from the communal burial plot. Guilt bent them at the waist, and they cast frequent furtive glances at the mound of earth that marked his passing.
In a week they found a small sprout where only heaped dirt used to be, its unfurled green leaves solemnly tracking the sun. In two weeks, the plant had transformed itself into a man-high tree, and around it tiny blades of grass poked out shyly as if reluctant to mar the desert scenery. In three weeks, the tree had given rise to a towering colossus, and from its flowers had borne sweet, delicious, life-giving red fruits.
The village rejoiced, and planted the glossy black seeds that riddled the red fruits, and watched as new trees grew to encircle the tiny village. The memory of the stranger slowly faded in these bountiful and heady times, and I sometimes wondered as I sat beneath the shadow of a fruit-laden tree whether I had simply imagined his coming. I became content and settled into the daily routines of village life, until I found a marble-sized seed tucked away securely within the fleshy confines of a fruit that I had been eating -- a seed whose glossy black coat was interrupted by fiery streaks of red.
I carefully planted this one seed far away from the growing village, on the banks of one of the many streams that had suddenly and mysteriously sprung up from the desert soil. I tended to its needs and watched as it germinated and produced a beautiful and vigorous sapling, its smooth and rounded trunk ebony dark and polished as the seed from which it had come. I took long afternoon naps under its canopy of silver-tinged leaves, and climbed the highest branches to spy on the other village children as they played in the distance.
It was while clambering toward the upper reaches of the tree one sunny afternoon that I felt a slight tremor. I quickly dropped to the ground and watched in amazement as a widening vertical crack wound its way from the ground and up the side of the now-massive trunk. Hollow knocking sounds grew in volume from deep within the tree, and a series of agonized shudders wracked the ailing plant as its trunk was neatly split in half. Whereas a normal tree would contain solid heartwood, this plant of mine had none, and from the dimly lit recesses of its interior emerged a pair of dark eyes set in surfaces of polished mahogany.
The stranger stepped out into the sunlight, a faint smile lighting the shadowed contours of a face hidden beneath a wide-brimmed hat. Hands reached out from within the dark cloak that enfolded him to grasp me firmly by the shoulders. Lips moved in the canyons of his face and a slight breeze carried his whisperings and told me of things to come.
"I am finished here," he sang to me, and I wept silently that something which I had lost, then found, was soon to leave me behind once again. "Jangan kuatir, little one. My people will soon come. I have other villages to visit, other miracles to perform."
"I will give you a gift," he said, and kissed me softly, his tongue lingering on mine, nanoware bridging the chasm and infiltrating me. A last murmur and he turned his back to me, his cloak a refuge from prying eyes, his hat shelter from the sweltering desert sun. I saw him last as a swirl of dust in the distance. "Sampai bertemu lagi," he had murmured in his native tongue, and I had understood.
I tell this to you now, my daughter, just as my mother had told me then, and her mother before that. The exact history of Man's Second Flowering has been lost forever in the dim corridors of time, but our family's sacred duty as Mediators between the natives of this region and the people from the archipelago has survived the passing decades. We cannot fail in our mission if we hope to avoid a second -- and final -- nuclear holocaust.
I remember him clearly, my daughter, just as my mother did, and her mother before that. He is encrypted in our genetic code, a resident in the neural nets of our brains. I look in a mirror, and see glimmers of his dark eyes. I see you, and glimpse cut surfaces of polished mahogany.
Alan San Juan (email@example.com) is currently finishing his MBA at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. He puts his previous training in molecular biology to good use by wantonly splicing together genetic material from his geranium and various brands of yogurt in the hope of someday creating the world's first slimmed-down potted plant.
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 7, Number 5 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1997 Alan San Juan.