On a random Tuesday, the wife decided that we needed to look at a house that was for sale, so I rode along as we cruised through middle-classed suburban homes that became older as we progressed. Old architectural styles marked the years like rings on a tree. Finally we stopped in front of one, with a disinterested looking middle-aged man who watered the lawn with a hand-held sprayer. Coming to a stop, I released the seatbelt, it’s whizz and snap as it sprung to it’s resting spot spurred me outside into to the warm spring afternoon.
I waved my hand to the man who nodded to me and dropped the hose, and headed inside through the garage, past a well maintained 1949 Buick Roadmaster, beckoning me as he went.
I could not help but notice the tree that stood on the yard as I passed by. What’s unusual about that is that I had somehow managed to completely miss it. Despite being spring, it’s branches held fruit that despite my best efforts, I could not identify. Then it hit me, the scent was as if I were being caressed by sensual hands made of warm sunlight. I detoured briefly and plucked one from it’s boughs and found that it’s skin was faintly furry, like a peach, but softer than velvet. I rubbed it against my shirt to polish away the fuzz, and take a bite, but was pulled from my reverie by the home owner clearing his throat.
I blinked my eyes, the spell broken. With an embarrassed grin, I followed him inside. The house, on the inside was one part faux log cabin and one part experimental art, with unusual carvings scrolling around the room in the rounded surfaces of the logs that formed the walls. My wife took to the carvings with interest, which seemed unusual to me because she was usually a philistine about such things. I glanced at the flyer for the house that I printed and failed to identify anything in the pictures.
“Ah. Well.” The home owner began. “Since you saw the tree, I suppose I should give you a little explanation.”
Glancing back at the fruit in my hand, I took a bite. The homeowner reached out to stop me, but was too slow.
The flavor struck me like a double shot of whiskey. The good stuff too. I felt a warm glow glow into my stomach. I had never tasted anything like it before, it’s flavor somehow complex and simple at the same time. I knew I was hooked in a very real way.
The man continued, “I’m the custodian of that tree. And like you, I ate that fruit.” His eyes flicked to the fruit that now dripped nectar down my hand into the floor, then back to me. “You’re addicted to the fruit, as I’m sure you realize by now. So I’ll get down to brass tacks here. You’re buying the house, and I’m finally going to be free.”
I started to argue the point, but in my heart I knew he was right. However, I felt as if I were missing something important. Ah!
“How are you getting free of it? Is there some sort of drug?” I asked.
“Yes and no. After a while the strength of the addiction weakens, and then something can be done about it.”
“How long is a while?”
“For me? Thirty years. I got suckered into eating the fruit three decades ago.”
I was floored. He must have been a child when he got addicted.
“But today, I found my replacement, and my cure is en route.” He smiled.
A knock on the door rang out.
“That must be him now.” He dashed to the door and opened it eagerly.
“Ah! It’s been a while, come in!” He ushered in an ancient looking Asian man dressed in casual clothes and a slightly worn looking tweed jacket.
The new man looked at me, appraisingly, “Is this the new caretaker?”
“Yes! After all this time, yes!”
The old man glanced at the gnawed-on fruit I held, and back at me, almost pityingly. “It would seem so.” He pulled a metal flask from inside his jacket and handed it to the waiting hands of the home owner, who shakily opened it and began gulping its contents with gusto.
A startling transformation took hold of him, his hair began streaking, until all of his hair was a uniform grey, and his skin lost its luster as it sagged and became liver-spotted and wrinkled with age. The once middle-aged man was now fully in the golden years of his life.
“Well, you’re free to go. Enjoy what life you have left.”
“Damn right.” The man took a briefcase from behind one of the couches, a hat from the rack by the door, and left without another word, into the garage, where his equally ancient car rumbled into life, and was heard crunching away on the gravel driveway.
“Well,” The old Asian man said, “Let’s get you up to speed.”
He sat on a couch, and gestured for me to join him.
All of this was taking its toll on me, and I sat across from him, for the stability of it, if nothing else.
“My name is Hyunsung Kwok. You can just call me Kwok. I am a merchant-mage. It’s been my business to buy the fruit from that tree from its caretaker for many years now.”
I managed to blurt out what I had hoped was a reasonable question, but as my head was now spinning, I expect was somewhat less so. I can’t even remember what it was, because I swung my head about, to see my wife silently poking around the room, completely oblivious to what had just happened, or the exchange of people in the room.
“Ah, your wife, I suppose? She won’t see or remember any of this.”
A sound, a very minute sound, suddenly came to my attention, despite the overwhelming situation that had presented itself to me. I noticed that small black, shiny beetles had crawled out from under furniture and were swarming about.
“Mr, …ah, what was your name?” The old man prompted.
“Good. Mr. Gonzalez. The old caretaker’s magic left with him, and the tree needs protecting.” He pulled a large book from within his coat, although how it managed to fit there was a mystery.
“Magic?” I managed to say.
“Yes. And this book will teach you all you need to know in order to take care of the tree and property.”
“Oh, and before I forget…” He pulled out a thick envelope from his jacket, “Your payment for this years harvest.”
Kwok stood and straightened his jacket, “Some advice. Don’t stray too far from the house for very long. The tree needs you nearby. oh, a few hours here and there are fine. You can still go shopping, and to the movies, but the longer you’re gone, the tree will make you feel anxious, and it will get worse as time goes by. It would be very bad to ignore it. So don’t.”
“What about my wife?”
Kwok glanced to her. “She cant see the tree. Don’t let her eat the fruit. It will end badly.”
Looking back in my direction, he pointed to the book that now sat on the couch. “Start reading. Take it seriously. This is your life now. Once the tree chooses a new caretaker, I can free you.”
He opened the door and left just as suddenly as he had arrived.
“Hey, do you think we can haggle the owner down on the price?” My wife asked, sitting on the couch.
I watched in horror as the beetles that were now everywhere began crawling up her legs.
“I know we can, and in fact, I did. Go home and get your stuff, we’re going to give this place a spring cleaning.” I stroked her gently, trying to knock the beetles off of her without drawing attention to them.
“Great! I have a good feeling about this place.” She kissed me and left to complete her mission.
I sat there, and opened the book that Kwok had left for me.
“I’m glad one of us does.”