The Tree of Life
In a time in the not-too-too-distant future, when the world had exhausted most of the easily gotten oil, after the various states and countries have imploded, cities had transformed into something different, people had dispersed from their former ways of life to meet the new challenges facing them. Seeker was one of those people, creating a new life by scavenging the vast junkies of the past industrial petroleum age. There were many hazards to this way of life–not the least of which were remnants of toxic soups, radiation from forgotten stockpiles, and people who had temporarily misplaced the lessons of the past-- operating in what essentially amounted to a No Person Zone.
The Marauders. Dressed in black, red strips of cloth tied on their left arms. Silver medallions hung about their necks. Masks of Red Devils covered their faces. Five in number, ranging in height and build, and dangerous. Armed with homemade knives and clubs, they were lethal, or at least, their reputations were lethal. Seeker had many of the confrontations in the past. Always tricky. Could be simply passing through. Could be collecting road tariffs for the local District. Could be pissed off and looking for a good fight. Seeker sighed. This was his least favorite part of his job. He pulled his hat down, lowered his head, and continued moving, his pace slow and deliberate. No fear. Ten feet away they tighten up their line. Crap. Seekers stopped. He unhooked himself from his cart. His hands dropped to his side.
“Tax” said the one with a gold braid about his headpiece.
“This is a free road. Has been for quite some time. Step aside.”
Seeker sighed. He was on the way home. He didn’t have time for this.
“Step aside. Now”
The men stood silently. Impasse. Great. Seeker began to breath, deep and slow. One, two, step, left heel kicks out at a thigh. A figure collapses backwards. Step to the left, left back knuckle, step right back knuckle to the face. An arm punches out, Seeker intercepts, slides an arm under the attackers arm, and pushes off. Another figure goes flying. Seeker spins, an elbow catching his attacker in the chest. A foot lands in Seeker’s back, propelling him forward. Rather than fight the energy, Seeker allowed himself to crumple, rolled forward. He rolled back up to his feet, spun around sitting on his back foot. The kick was coming in high, Seeker was now under the leg, he pushed up off his leg and caught him under his leg pushing up. The marauder was launched way up and off his feet. One left. They faced each other. The Marauder simply shrugged.
“Maurice, you know I’m in a hurry to get home!” Seeker grabbed a bag out of his cart. He tossed it to Maurice. Maurice laughed. He removed his mask, and untied the bag. He ran his hand into the black beans, enjoying the clicking sound they made. He brought a handful to his nose. He inhaled deeply. Joy? Rapture? Seeker hooked himself back to the cart. “Next time guys. Gotta go.” Moving past the fallen warriors, Seeker set a fast pace towards his beloved mountains.
Seeker had a secret though, one he protected at great cost. If there was one vice, or pleasure that everyone enjoyed, it was coffee. Unfortunately, when the great diesel driven cargo ships ran aground, their fuel and steel more valuable than their cargo, the coffee trade ground to a halt. Seeker though, always seemed to have a ready supply of beans. They were roasted too. They always seemed fresh. Seeker tried to be sly about it, never paying out too much, pretending to have much less than he really did. He feigned great complicated stories of how he came into the beans. Despite this, he was attracting attention. He knew this, and began to alter his paths, looking cagily about him. He would take long circuitous routes back to the village he called home. Well, not really home. He lived apart from them; he would pretend it was where he lived to throw off any trackers.
It was several days before he arrived at the collection of hill houses. A wooden framework thatched with soil placed over the structure; they looked like a collection of hills. Hills with ventilation and light shafts. Hills with smoke vents. Hills with cleverly disguised shafts and doors. Several were much bigger than the others. Long houses were several families lived. These ringed the clearing, the village circle. It was there that people met and congregated, did there morning exercises, and generally enjoyed each others company. The other hills were specialty huts, storage or simply houses for those who preferred to live alone.
It was with one of these lumps that Seeker needed to visit, but first he needed to stop at his domicile. His was much simpler, set several hundred yards away from the main village. A simple wickiup, made from large slabs of bark over a frame work of poles. It looked like a large pile of debris, and he planned it that way. No people here, no siree. He moved the woven door that plugged the entrance, crawling in on his hands and knees. In the fire pit he placed his tinder and small sticks. Deftly producing his flint and steel, he struck a few practiced blows. Showers of sparks illuminated his space briefly. Third strike and the tinder caught. He fed the fire, until a nice friendly fire warmed his wickiup, small flames licking upward. Placing small clay stones in the fire, he pull out a set of stones. A primitive mortar and pestle. Dropping a small handful of black beans in, he proceeded to pound with great enthusiasm. Presently a powder replaced his beans. From a stomach bladder canteen he poured water into a watertight basket bowl. Into another basket he poured his powder. Scooping up the clay stones, now quite hot, and dropped them into his water basket. They hissed and sputtered, and soon his water was boiling. Only three stones. He carefully poured the water into his powder, having set a small wooden cup underneath. Operation done, he placed the baskets to the side, hoisted his wooden cup, saluted the Powers That Be, and drank his first sip of that mountain grown goodness in four months. Ahhh. He drank his cup down quickly, heaving a great sigh. “Good to the last drop, my man” he sighed. “Richness worth a second cup.” Seeker threw another handful of beans into the mortar.
Of all the people he feared would discover his Secret, it was the People in Green that he feared the most. Memories, cultural memories, memories from the old days. The Oily days of Yore his people called them. Memories culled from gossip, campfires, wandering singers, even from the nightmares that plagued the people nowadays. The People in Green would come and take your stuff away, horn in on you, crowd you, never leave you alone until they get what they want. Dirty, vile people, Seeker thought.
He lifted a weather beaten hand to the rough hewn door. His hand was encased in a cracked leather glove of uncertain origin. A soft rhythm echoed through the door. The door itself was inserted into what seemed to be a small hill, in reality a dome house buried in dirt. Small difference, but the villagers worked hard on that distinction. A voice, quiet and muffled: “Somewhere”.
Seeker cleared his dusty throat, “The Bridge.”
Various metallic clunkings answered him. The door soundlessly drifted open. A soft glow from the low ceiling threw shadows about the hollow in the hill, much stuff crammed in a small space. Clearly the shop of mechanic of some sort. “What did he call it,” thought Seeker, “thermoelectric lamp?” A small scrunched up figure was settling back into a spot at a tiny wood bench stacked with various projects here, there, and everywhere. On the curved wall a set of letters, simply: “Waste Not, Want Not”. The Credo.
Seeker hooked a thumb into his basket strap, shrugging off his load. The tinkle of his hidden treasures shifting around. The figure at the bench hesitated slightly, listening it seemed.
“Anything useful this time?” the voice, quiet, deliberate. Seeker untied the cord that held the top to his basket pack. He pulled out a handful of what appeared to be long rubber strips, black.
“Bought these from another Scav. Probably from an intact warehouse. Still pliable.”
The figure glanced back. “Nice. In the box, please.” Seeker dug deeper. Colored, curved, round, red, yellow, most likely plastic of some sort. Seeker chuckled. “Woulda thought this stuff had disintegrated into dust long ago.” The figure shrugged. “Right conditions. Protected. Last forever, right?” Seeker dumped these into the box as well. The real treasure lay deeper. Seeker dug deep and pulled out a gleaming spool of copper wire. Electrical wire. His host fell off the bench; the bench clattered on the stone floor. Seeker smiled. “Have I your attention now, Tinker?” “Gimme!” cried Tinker. He grabbed the spool, eyes ablaze. “Oh yes you do, me matey! Must have cost a fortune!” Seeker smiled grimly. “Two bags. Each.” He reached into his bag and pulled out five more spools. “Oh my, what I can do with these! Well done! Very well done, indeed!” Tinker scampered to his bench to marvel at his treasures.
Good enough, thought Seeker. He dumped the rest of his minor treasures into a basket by the door. “Use Wisely. I suspect it will be a long Age before we see the likes of that again.” “Ah yes yes, of course.” Tinker had become engrossed in his new found opportunity, rearranging the projects on his bench. The smile had begun to fade from Seekers lips. He pulled a stool out from under a table. Upon sitting slid a small flask from his under his cloak. He took a pull, shifting uncomfortably on the stool. “The Scavs want more. Prices are going up.” Silence. “Supplies are getting tight.” Silence “I think most of the useful stuff has been salvaged.” more rummaging at the bench. “I think we are at Peak Junk,” Seeker said, dryly. A small giggle from Tinker. “Ha, you don’t say.” Seeker took another pull. “Seeing more patrols. Districts are forming.” Seeker allowed for a slight pause.
“I think the Crisis is past.”
“The Net has said as much these past months.”
Seeker glanced at the big wooden box on the floor, with wooden knobs and a wooden disk in the middle with numbers etched on the edge. A metal post ran from the box to the roof. The Net. Tinker could fiddle with the dial, and pick up voices from all over the country. Some nights, people with strange speech filled the room. Tinker would switch from his microphone to a different device, one that made a series of beeps and blips. Amazing.
“The Council of Grandmothers has met. It has been decided that the time has come to start rebuilding. For people to come out, and contribute their skills.” Seeker sucked in a breath. Hope. It had been so long. His heart had been aching whenever he past by the ruined land, destroyed towns, junk cars everywhere, dilapidated buildings, the toxic “NO GO” zones. What hurt most were the dead forests, brown sticks by the thousands, the cleared forests destroyed by the desperate clawing of a diseased and dying civilization. Seeker shuddered at the memory. “The first priority will be to begin the Healing. The Council is calling for volunteers.” Seeker smiling broadly now. He couldn’t believe his ears. He had not thought the time had come! Seeker began making plans in his head. Collect samples, travel to meet with the local council, pots! He would need lots of pots!
“Oh and by the way, someone is here for your beans. From up North.”
“Starback, Tarbuck, something or other.” Tinker shrugged.
The Old Man of the village was the venerated seer of the people, the Grand Viser, High Master of Ceremonies. An eccentric figure, with his long white beard, peaked hat, long brown robe with a blue and yellow plaid mantle about his shoulders. Some believed the image of the Ancient Seer of Merlin was invoked, and not merely impious. People were allowed their opinions. While the people relied on Tinker for their technical needs, it was the Old Man who supplied their more esoteric wants.
This was the figure that Seeker first saw when he ran pell-mell into the village circle. The Old Man was gripping his staff, gently swaying. The other villages stood around chatting ,in good spirits, having just finished their morning exercises. The whole scene, enshrouded in the morning mist, was one of calm and spirit, people at one with Nature. Into this ran Seeker, eyes bloodshot and bulging, screaming “NO NO NO!” The crowd parted like the Red Sea, with the Old Man, standing like a druidic Moses, pointing down the parting. There she was, standing next to her cargo bike, green tunic beneath her cloak. The People in Green. Evil. Must be stopped. Protect the Secret! Seeker gave a strangled cry as he flew at the Women in Green.
“No!” he shrieked. “Evil! Corporate greed Monger! Get your filthy green apron off this mountain! No Starbackers! No Starbackers here, I tell you!”
She was so startled she backpedaled several steps, almost falling back over her bike and trailer. Seeker was about rush in when a loud “Thwack!” blasted through his skull, his body crumpling to the ground. Old Man stood behind him with his staff still vibrating from the impact.
“I must apologize. He hasn’t been right in his head since the regression therapy,” Old Man shrugged. “Come, let us go to The Caves.”
It must be said that having sense knocked into one’s head is not always a figure of speech. Upon Seekers recovery, Monika (for that was her name) explained that in the Oil Age of Yore, Starbucks was quite the Corporate Conglomerate. When the Oil and Steel became more valuable than cargo, all the great cargo ships were run aground, drained, and cut up for scrap. International Trade, for all practical purposes, ground to a halt. This included coffee beans. People tried to grow them in hot houses and whatnot, but the end was always failure. Corporate kept this information under its hat, and decided to give the employees a once-in-a-lifetime offer to buy the company. Faced with the realization of the truth, the employees made the quite so drastic decision to end the company, and reform as a cooperative. Without beans, or even tea, they focused on coffee and tea substitutes, as did everyone else who didn’t have easy access to the coffee and bean plantations. This went on for quite some time. People in time, forgot what the original flavors were like, forgot what the fuss was about over caffeine. People, in time, had other things to worry about. Then the beans showed up. At first people weren’t sure what to do with them. Books were found. Old people consulted. The people at the Starbucks heard about these beans, and realized they had the opportunity to fulfill their original mission, a purveyor of fine coffee beans. A gift to the newly emerging Civilization.
The Caves, which Seeker was desperate to protect, provided the perfect habitat. Moist, warm, shady. Springs opened up here and there. Numerous shafts and cracks provided light. In the main grotto was where Seeker’s Secret grew. Seeker, or his ancestor, had painstakingly hauled in dirt for the fertile beans. The bush grew, grew quite well. Cuttings had been taken, beans planted, flowers cross pollinated. Over time the bush grew into a magnificent specimen. Bright red berry clustered shimmered among the vibrant green leaves. Now it was no longer a bush, really, a tree. A mighty tree flourishing in the belly of the Earth.
Monika and Seeker drew close, gazing rapturously at the Tree.
“Ahh,” said The Old Man. “You can look, but you cannot eat of the fruit of this tree. For as you know, this tree is the Tree of Life”
It was then Seeker realized why he had been named Seeker, and what he now had to look forward to. The Crisis was over. Now The Task had begun. He was going to need a lot of pots. And some help. Actually, a great deal of help.