Wednesday, April 1, 2015

"Black Tree" (Part 1)

        A cool, westerly breeze joined a quake of thunder in announcing the arrival of storm clouds. The gray mass had already stretched its tendrils over the village of Kosmos and was now creeping towards the morning sun. Nora’s blonde hair tickled her nose after a small gust knocked a few locks loose from their place behind her ear. She wedged them back and continued up the stairs to the village courtyard. She kept her leather satchel pressed against her flank while she watched the storm clouds challenge the sun. The sunlight eventually faded into cold purple as the storm’s gray shroud advanced on the rays. 
        She arrived at the top of the stairs to see the familiar sight of the leafless tree peering at her from the center of the courtyard. It was a monstrous tree from hell, hideous and glorified. Due to its position in the courtyard, the highest location in Kosmos, it beckoned all wandering eyes to heed it. Its rotund trunk twisted to lofty heights, dispersing its limbs and branches with the ambition of a monument. Its fruit and bark were black because it fed on the filth of the villagers, like compost.
        The villagers’ filth stained Kosmos--the streets, buildings, furniture, and especially their clothing. Every morning the black liquid would ooze out of them like sweat, leaving drops and streaks on everything they touched. Once it dried into dust, they would gather it into leather satchels and bring it to the tree because that’s what kept them safe from the Breathers, who thrived on the fruit. They were the monsters that lurked beyond the walls of the village; every night they crept over the village walls to satisfy their hunger.
        Nora wasn’t a rebel, but her dreams were restless. The walls of Kosmos were built high enough to only allow a view of the sky; no treelike or distant horizon was ever seen. The walls prevented most dreamers from dreaming of life beyond the walls, but they didn't stop Nora. She kept her dreams to herself, like a good citizen, and silently performed the filth ritual with her head down and mouth shut. 
        As Nora crossed the courtyard, a string of lightning weaseled overhead, followed by a few pops and cracks of thunder. It gave her an excuse to look at something other than the spindly giant, whose presence tightened her chest with each step she took towards it. Still a ways from the behemoth, she prepared her satchel, unlatching it, so she could spend as little time in its presence as possible. She eyed the filth heaps left from the other villagers, and kept her gaze on them until she was close enough to contribute her pile to theirs.
        She held her satchel out from her chest and turned it over. The dried filth rustled against the leather and streamed onto the sacred ground. As her dust joined the rest, a plume erupted into her face, causing her to drop the satchel. She covered her mouth and swatted the dust cloud from her face, but she stopped when she felt a stream of liquid run down her swatting arm. 
        It was the black liquid, seeping out of the pores on her arm. With a quivering hand, she brushed it off with repetitive strokes, but it kept bubbling out.
        “You’ve always been one to put on a show,” a young man said behind her, “but climbing up here just to squeeze out a few drops is a bit much.” 
        “Shut up, Lukis, it just happened.”
        He reached down and picked up one of the tree’s fruit, which had fallen from ripeness, and studied it. “Have you ever wanted to taste the fruit?”
        “Come on...” Nora said to herself, ignoring him; her quivering redoubled. “Why won’t it stop?”
        He squeezed the fruit, letting the black juice drain from his clenched fist. “Look, Nora, I know we disagree on many matters,” he threw the fruit down and turned to her, “but because you’re my sister, I need to tell you.”
        “What is it now?” she asked, still focused on her arm.
        He looked up at the tree. “Freedom is upon us.”
        Nora remained focused on her arm. She took a long breath, sighed, and gently massaged it one more time, and waited. The black streams gradually subsided. “Lukis, not here.” She paused to be sure her arm was done dripping before grabbing her satchel and walking away. 
        Lukis trotted up to her side, with his head leaning forward for her to see. “Pretty soon everyone will see the truth,” he said. “Ivan says the Breathers--”
        “I don’t want to talk about him. He’s reckless.” She examined her arm again, which was red from the rubbing. Another rumble of thunder tickled her feet as she walked across the courtyard.
        “The filth, the tree, the Breathers--it’s all a conspiracy.”
        “Not so loud, Lukis.”
        They descended the stairs without speaking, passing a few other villagers with satchels like Nora’s.
        “I don’t care who hears me,” Lukis whispered as they neared another villager. “We’ll be free from this dump. But as I was saying, Ivan has this idea--”
        “I told you already; enough of him.”
        “The tree is the real reason we sweat black,” Lukis said.     
        They came to the bottom of the stairs and turned left, towards their home. A man wearing a crimson colored cloak and carrying a spear in his right hand--a Kosmos official--was patrolling nearby. He was heading towards them, with his eyes scanning the street.
        “The tree is the problem,” he said, glancing at the official, then raised his voice, “cut it down and we’re all free.”
        Nora groaned through clenched her teeth to warn him. She resisted the impulse to smack him, which would rouse a ruckus.
        “The Breathers will lose their hold on us,” Lukis said.
        The official looked at him with his long, skinny eyebrows furrowed. He held out his free hand in a signal to halt. “You, there. What did you say?”
        Lukis stepped up to him, but Nora grabbed his arm.
        “The Breathers...” Lukis said in a lighter tone.
        “What about them?” Being taller than Lukis, the official peered down at him with a frown. 
        Lukis mirrored the frown, a clear challenge to the official’s authority.
        “Hm?” The official stepped closer, bringing his left hand to rest on the hilt of his sword, which was previously concealed underneath his cloak.
        A flicker of lightning stretched over the sky, and the thunder cracked only a moment after.
        The official looked to the sky with a slow lift of his chin. “Storm’s coming,” he said.
        “Yes, sir, there is,” Lukis said in a deep tone.
        The official looked back at him and repositioned his hand on the sword’s hilt, as if to unsheathe it.
        Nora tugged at Lukis’ arm. “Let’s go.”
        Lukis kept staring at the official for a moment, but then he lowered his eyes with a sigh.
        “I advise you to keep quiet about our lords,” the official said, with his hand still fixed on the sword hilt. “You wouldn’t want others to get the wrong impression.”
        “Come on,” Nora tugged at Lukis again; this time he followed. When they were out of the official’s earshot, she leaned over. “Fool!”
        “He’s the fool, working for them.”
        “You’re welcoming death, with antics like that.”
        “They deserve it. They deserve what’s coming...the storm.”
        Nora looked up at the clouds. “What about it?” 
        “No, not that storm; the storm. The one that will free us.”
        Nora shook her head and quickened her pace towards home.
        The easterly sun was now buried under the gray sky. The breeze had also quickened, throwing light debris and clouds of dried villager filth along the street.
        They were only a few houses away from their home when a man ran out from behind a building and stumbled into the street. They both recognized him, but Nora was the one who cringed.
        “Ivan!” Lukis said with a smile, which fell to a frown when he saw Ivan’s wide eyes. “What’s wrong?” 
        Ivan trotted up to them. “They’re coming,” Ivan said; his voice was hoarse from exertion.
        “Who?” Lukis asked.     
        “The Breathers!” 
        “But it’s daytime!” Lukis said with a puzzled frown. 
        “No, Lukis, they found out.” he grabbed both of his shoulders, “they found out about our plan.”
        Nora sprinted for their house.
        “Nora!” Lukis yelled, running after her.
        “You’re the death of us!” She yelled back. “Both of you!”
        “You need to stay with us!” Lukis yelled, closing in on her.
        “Stay away from me!” She kept running without looking back. 
        Lukis reached out and grabbed Nora, then threw her to the ground. “Trust us!”
        “Pah!” She smacked his leg, but he didn’t flinch or budge.       
        “Nora, you must come with us,” Lukis said. 
        “You’re a fool, Lukis,” she said through her teeth.
        Ivan ran up and, with Lukis’ help, pulled Nora to her feet. She squirmed and kicked, but their grip was too strong. 
        “Calm down and they won’t suspect us,” Ivan said in her ear. 
        She glared at Lukis. “What about Mom and Dad? Have you forgotten about them?”        “They should be safe,” he said.
        Should?” She leapt at him, but Ivan restrained her. After a few more swings at him, she sighed, slumped her shoulders and dropped to her knees.
        They pulled her to her feet again and were able to escort her down the street and into an alley without another protest. Lukis stopped at a root cellar, which was nestled against the foundation of the building on the left. He unlatched the metal lock and swung open the double wooden doors. 
        “Let’s go,” he said.
        “No!” Nora screamed. “Not in there!”
        “Silence,” Ivan said, “you can’t let them know where we are.”
        “You’re with us now, Nora,” Lukis said.
        “Guards!” She yelled, “Gua--”
        Ivan clenched her mouth shut. “You’ll get us killed!”
        “Nora, inside,” Lukis pointed into the cavernous cellar.
        She dropped to her knees again. “Leave me here,” she said.
        “No,” Ivan said, “you’ll understand soon, just trust us.” 
        He tried lifting her up again, but she writhed free of his grip and laid herself on the ground. Lukis stepped up to her and helped Ivan drag her to the cellar. He hopped down into it and then dragged Nora in behind him, where she laid motionless on the floor in a defeated heap.
        “You’re safe here, Nora.” He said, then turned around and used his hand to feel his way along the cool, moist wall of dirt. “Ivan, where’s the lantern?” he asked without looking back. “And did you fill it with oil?”
        The shelter went dark as the wooden doors slammed shut behind them. 
        “Ivan?” Lukis asked. “You in here?”
        The metal lock rustled into place on the other side, sealing them inside. 
        “Sorry, brother,” Ivan said, his voice came from the other side of the doors.
        “Ivan!” Lukis yelled, leaping at the doors, pounding it. “What are you doing!”
        Ivan’s only response was his wet footfalls fading from earshot.
        “Nice friend, that Ivan,” Nora said, still laying on the ground.
        Lukis pounded again, harder and louder. He went to hit it again, but stopped and exhaled. “I don’t understand.”
        A thunder clap rumbled the wooden doors, and raindrops were soon pattering outside.
        “Ivan!” Lukis resumed pounding.
        “Lukis, no!” Nora said. “You’ll attract attention.”
        “Oh, so now you’re concerned about that?” He pounded harder.
        He lifted his fist to pound again but stopped when he heard wet footsteps outside the door. Lukis stepped back, grabbing Nora’s arm, who then grabbed his. The metal lock rustled again, and the door swung open. 
        Three Breathers stood in the alley, towering above them in black cloaks. Their pale, wrinkled faces peered out from their hoods with the semblance of eels.
        The one in the middle, presumably the leader, flicked its right hand, long and gnarled, as a signal to the other two. Without hesitation, they leapt into the cellar, grabbed Nora and Lukis, and heaved them onto their shoulders. They kicked and pounded, but the fiends held them tight. 
        The captors exited the cellar and strode into the downpour outside. They followed the leader into the street and towards the stairway that climbed to the black tree.
        A moan rose over the sound of the rain and wind, then slowly drowned them with its demanding pitches. The ground vibrated with each pang. As if the storm had a breaking heart, the reverberating moans fluctuated with sobs of passion--or anger. 
        “What is it?” The Breather carrying Nora asked in a hoarse hiss.
        “The tree calls,” the leader said, turning to its comrade, “It demands their black sacrifice.” It looked at Nora, then smiled. “Their lives.”

To Be Continued...