A long white beard with short pink arms handed me a book in a park downtown. “Special,” it said, tapping my right hand holding the book. It came from under a rock, the beard. No eyes, no face, that I saw, only small hands and a dry mouth. “Special,” it said again, and two black pebbles peeked between the white hair staring at me. “For you,” pointing at the book. I tried to give it back. “The last. Keep safe, keep hidden.” It rubbed a thumb on the cover and up to my elbow; then disappeared.
The book followed me home. I tried leaving it under the beard’s rock, but it always found itself under my arm.
Reading. I didn’t. Too much time sitting, and staring; a movie can do it in an hour and half just as well. Better even.
I didn’t know what to do with the book. I tried throwing it away, but like the rock, it stuck to my fingers. No words on the cover; for all I knew it could have been a guide to Sasquatch hunting grounds in the Great Northwestern Coastal Forests.
A month before the first time I opened it. Nothing. A different language, Russian. Or German. Pages of jumbled nonsense.
On my desk the book wrapped in gray furry layers. My computer kept clean. Just throw it out. I can’t, it won’t go. Burn it. No fireplace, no yard, too much smoke and mess. Give it away. To who? Does it matter? I guess not, but who wants it? Not you, that’s what matters, just drop it off somewhere. No. Then burn it, put that energy back in the system.
Weeks irritated me; what to do with the book. I wanted it gone. The only book in the apartment, I wanted it gone.
On the back patio I kept a small garden box, self-sustaining when and what I could. Winter and Spring still fought for seasonal dominance. Waiting, the soil. Purpose. I buried the book in the wet empty soil. Out of sight.
Two weeks and tiny green breeched drying dirt. A few leaves, and skinny stem, breaking monotonous brown. I thought nothing of it. Not a weed, only like it was; I figured something residual from previous seasons. Sunflowers perhaps, impossible to get rid of once planted. I grew them for my mother.
Another week and the sprout grew over a foot and looked more like an Aspin than sunflower. Stem, or trunk, faded from its original green to a pale white.
By May it was clear: a tree. Three feet and unfolding branches. Thin, but strong. White bark, but not an Aspin like I thought; a tree I did not know. Searched the library for days, flipping page after page, thousands of images and horticultural theory. So many similar, but nothing. The beard, little hands holding out that book.
“No,” I told myself.
August came. Hot. I’d decided that year not to plant, just me and the tree; it took my attention, needed particular care. It flowered in hot summer weather, large green pods spun tight, nurturing something. Weeks waiting for blooms to open.
Evening. September slept close by, August heat exhausted. While pruning, the bulbous pod burst. A small leather pouch dropped on the dirt. I set the pruners down. Stared. “That can’t be.” Already the book sank into the soil. I snatched it before the earth devoured it. Dirt crumbs speckled my feet, dusted off the new book, and folded back the dark worn leather cover. Nothing on the first page but veins like leaves. Thick yellow and brown and green stretching over the whole of it sticking out from and burying into the paper, a river of watery blood written in Brail. I smelled it; warm bread and honey. I turned the page. One sentence in black: IT STARTS WITH A SEED. True. The smell hung under my nose, tickling my nostrils when I turned the pages. Next, two sentences: INFINITE SEEDS SPOKEN EVERY DAY. SOME SMALL, UNDERHEARD BUT STILL GOOD; STILL STRONG. Bread and honey. The sun dropped over the roof and behind the city. I took the book inside. I read. Each page, a little more. Of worlds and times, of things I knew nothing. Words at first, but then whole sentences, pages, ideas and concepts, strange languages and thinking.
I woke next morning smelling like honey. The book open on the floor, facedown at my feet. I rubbed my face, looked to the book, then out at the tree. Another pod. Overnight. Bigger. Darker.
Outside, I pulled open the thick protective shell of green holding tight another book. Heavier. Thicker than the first. I opened to smell, without looking: Pomegranate and lime. Back to the couch I read this new fruit plucked from this tree I don’t understand, from the growth of this book I wanted nothing to do with to rid the image of that small beard and hands.
Winter came, the tree continued dropping books. All sizes and lengths, on all subjects from history to science to philosophy to poetry to fiction to words I cannot categorize. I had to buy a bookshelf to store them all.
I read each one.
Next Spring came and the tree blossomed. Dozens. Heavy and fat with pages. So many I couldn’t read them all anymore, me too slow for their enlarged sentences. But each I cared for, kept clean, kept safe, catalogued on now two shelves.
The tree’s second Winter I saw the beard again. Brought the fifth book of Winter from the tree in and found him standing in front of my bookshelves, little hands reading the spines reachable. He said nothing until each book he touched. After he turned and on tiptoe reached his fingers to the book in my arms; a smiled, the only skin I saw besides his skinny arms.
“This book good,” he said.
“I haven’t read it yet.”
“Outside book; is good.”
“The tree you mean, yes.”
“Tree? I know book. Deep roots, many veins, many words. Grows strong, good soil.” I nodded, the little beard squatting in front of the tree now, outside. The backdoor left open.
“Yes,” he said, “good book.”
Jon Alston has an MA in Creative Writing. Good for him. He writes things from time to time, and sometimes people publish them. Good for him. On occasion, he will photograph things (or people), and maybe write about them; sometimes there is money exchanged for his services. Good for him. He is married and has two children of both genders. Way to reproduce. He is the Executive Editor and founder of From Sac, a literary journal for Northern California. How about that? Currently he teaches English at Brigham Young University, Idaho among the frozen potato fields and Mormons. Good for you, Jon.