Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Planter of Oaks

This is a story I began to visualize about five years ago.  I sketched out (literally drew pictures of) some of the scenes described below.  (I later mailed those sketches to a friend.  I wonder if she still has them?)  The main scene comes from a story I read in an old copy of The Whole Earth Catalogue.  The overseers grew from an old Doctor Who monster - from the John Pertwee days, I think:  big sunflower-headed things that were handing out flowers to people, and everyone assumed they were members of some sort of cult in costume, but actually they were mechanical constructs and the flowers were poisonous and would kill the recipients at some point.

So I took the story of an old Frenchman replanting an oak forest , acorn by acorn, and twisted it by asking:  what if he isn't doing it because he wants to do it, but because he's being forced to do it?  Here's one version of the story.

The procedure was routine by now, a mechanical reflex:  Use the pointed rod to drill a hole in the ground about three inches deep.  Take one of the acorns from the bucket on his hip and drop it in the hole. Press the soil down with his foot.  Take one pace and repeat the process.

James had been at this for - weeks?  Months?  It was hard to remember.  He just knew that it had to be done.  Not every acorn would become an oak.  Some would never germinate.  Some would be found and eaten by animals.  Some would germinate and be shaded out by other plants, maybe even by competing seedlings.  Some would become oaks.  He would never see that day, but someday this would be a forest again.

He looked up.  He was in the back yard of a house.  The house was still in good shape, though he could see spots where neglect was leading to decay.  Something was growing from a crack in the foundation.  In a few decades, the oaks that he was planting would shatter that foundation, whatever was left of it.

There was a swing set in the yard.  The sliding board was rusted, and one of the swings had broken off on one side.  No kids had played on that swing set for years now.

Kids.  Baby goats.  Frolicking.  The sheep's in the meadow, the cow's in the corn.  The buzzing came into his head, and then the noise like someone cracking their knuckles underwater.  The overseer must be near.

And it was.  It hung in the air thirty feet behind him, looking like a madhouse version of a scarecrow.  The huge yellow smiley face bobbed like a big mylar balloon sold at a dollar store.  The robes rippled and shimmered, revealing no shape beneath them.  Puppets, they had to be.  But no time for such thinking now.  Now James had to return to his task.

It was three years, or maybe five, since they had come.  No.  Five since the war, the war to end all wars, and everything else.  Nobody knew the true extent of the war because the global communication system had been one of the first casualties.  No email, no text messaging, no cell phones.  The Internet went down.  Television went dark.  Radio went silent.  The mail stopped getting delivered.  And soon every device that relied on electronics stopped working.

Maybe it was just a local thing, or so folks had thought at first.  But there was no easy way to find out.  You couldn't call anyone, or send a text or an email.  You couldn't even hop in a car and drive to the next city over to see how things were there.  Walking became the primary way of getting from here to there.  But over there, wherever there was, the story was the same.  Nobody knew anything more than you did, in most cases.  After a week or so people began to drift into town from farther afield, people who had been walking for days.  Some of their stories sounded unbelievable.  Some of them didn't have coherent stories to tell.  Some of them were just sick.

It was bad enough getting by without electricity, or water coming from the taps, or food coming to the supermarket, or any sort of trade and barter system except what people were making up as they went along.  But the hospitals were effectively gone, along with any of their patients who had depended on electronics of any sort for survival.  Soon afterwards anyone who had depended on electricity for, say, refrigerated medicine or a steady oxygen supply was also dead, or soon to die.  Anyone dependent on any sort of medication would be in the same situation soon.  There were no more supplies coming from anywhere.   But when contagious diseases started being spread from town to town, city to city, things got dramatically worse.  Some places tried to seal themselves off from outsiders.  Sometimes this worked.  Most of the time it didn't.

James had had a house then.  He had worked out of town, in a job that he drove to every weekday, but he had a house where he lived with his wife Lori and their two happy baby goats bounding across the hills clonk CLONK and he loved them and tried to get by and take care of them drill the hole, drop the acorn, press it down and for two years he had kept them alive through force of will and brutal, horrible things that he did not regret move one pace and drill the next hole and then the overseer came, big smiley-face balloon hanging over billowing robes filling the doorway one day and saying nothing and then cLOnk the kids were dead and they took Lori away drop the acorn, press it down, move one pace and then they took him away and put him to work work work rebuilding the world or planting a forest or atoning for humanity's sins.

The overseer was next to him now.  It never made a sound, and he didn't know if it could.  Some people he had worked with said they talked, some of them at least, playing snippets of recorded conversations from TV shows and movies and songs and commercials.  He heard once that they could be killed.  Someone said he had lured one into a mine, deep underground, and they reached a point where the overseer just fell from the air.  And the big smiley-face head was a mylar dollar store balloon, and the robes were empty and felt like polyester.  The guy who did it told his story to others and then he disappeared.  The people he told the story to disappeared, too, but not before they spread the word.

His head buzzed again.  The sun was setting.  Time to stop.  He didn't want to go on, anyway.  The floating abomination wanted him to go into a house, he knew.  Not the house he was near, with an intact roof and some glass in the windows.  The house it was urging him toward was half-wrecked, and looked like it had been burned.  But there would be food there, and water, and a place to rest.  And in the morning it would be time to start again, unless the overseer decided differently.


hedera said...

We are awfully vulnerable, aren't we??

joy said...

Great short SF story, DB! It's been....decades(?!?!) since I read any SF, but this has me yearning for the old Asimov SF Mag from the late 70s. I let that subscription lapse when the dark cyber-crap stories became the norm.