It all started here, but feel free to begin wherever you like.
Reed shifted uncomfortably in the saddle as Anna slipped down and led her horse on foot. They had to pass through the town proper to get to her house at the end of the street, which meant that everyone was watching them. He could not sit tall while under their stares, which came from the windows high up to the humans lurking in the alleys down between the tall buildings.
He could hear their whispers, but wished he could not. What he heard was not welcoming. They did not know what he was or where he had come from. He had hoped perhaps someone besides this young woman would know of his kind. To be seen as an alien disturbed him greatly. One of the townspeople said he was wearing a costume. He didn't know that word. He began to realize how little he did understand about the human race. He felt more alone here than he had at the village, even though he was completely surrounded. Maybe this hadn't been a good idea after all, good soil or not.
Human vehicles, which he had only heard vague descriptions of before passed them swiftly, some pulled by teams of horses and others moving under an unseen energy, rumbling like dragons, even spewing out steam. Something here smelled burnt and smokey and he looked up. Most of the buildings had smoke rising out of them through tall, bricked columns. He had heard the humans lived with fire in their homes, but he hadn't really believed it until now. Were they not afraid of it slipping out of their control and consuming their town? Fires were used by his people, but in moderation and certainly with respect. But it seemed to be everywhere here, even in the burning oil lamps along the street magnified through what he knew to be glass, another strange human material.
They were interesting creatures, but he wasn't sure how comfortable he was among them. He was no scholar and felt he had too much to learn. Besides the fact they distrusted him. He would stay here just long enough to recover and investigate the soil quality. Then he would move on. This was his final decision.
She walked him around the building she had indicated as hers, without stopping. He had assumed she was going inside.
"I thought this was your home?"
"It is," she said, "But you said you needed soil. I got plenty out back."
As soon as they turned the corner he saw what she meant. He couldn't help but marvel at human creativity. Before him was a building that was constructed almost entirely of glass. Condensation glistened from every pane and he saw that it must be fertile because nearly everything inside, although blurred by the mist and fogged up panes, was green with vitality.
"Do you like it? My father designed it. He called it a greenhouse."
"A fitting name," Reed said.
He looked up as they came closer and saw a metal box with flat, rounded blades. They were spinning, blowing out air.
"What are those?"
"Fans. They're part of the cooling system. It's not too hot right now, but in the summer they run full blast to keep the inside temperature at just the right level."
She smiled. "You haven't even seen the inside yet," She said as she unlocked the door with a brass skeleton key, opening it wide. He could smell so many wonderful scents, it was like home had been, during spring. He leaned forward and went too far, tumbling forward. She caught him and laughed. "Hold on a second, your foot is caught!"
After untangling him from the saddle, she helped him up and let him lean on her as they slowly walked inside.
Inside the greenhouse was even better. His feet gently splashed through puddles of more mineral water, chilled, but not freezing. His feet absorbed the puddles as he walked through them, appearing to evaporate behind them as they walked. The air was warm but not hot and dry like the desert had been. Here it was blissfully humid, almost like it was just about to rain. Surrounding him on all sides were plants of so many kinds, flowers, herbs, even saplings of trees and lush bushes. There were even clay pots suspended from the ceiling, raining down ivy, cascading spider plants, sprouting vivid purple petunias. He smiled. It was the first time he had in a long time.
Anna led him to a long workbench in the back and eased him down into a wooden chair that rocked back and forth. As his skin contacted the surface, he realized it had been treated with something so it did not absorb water, so it was wet with dew. He leaned into it, his skin absorbing every last drop.
"Wait here, I'll fix you a pot of soil." Anna said as she disappeared down an aisle.
He lost sight of her in the thick foliage. He still wasn't feeling well, but his spirit was beginning to heal. This place was doing wonders for him and he had only been here a few minutes at the most. He closed his eyes and let the chair rock. What an odd but wonderful place.
Soon Anna returned with a large pot in her arms, waddling carefully so as not to trip on any of the plants. She squatted slowly and set it down, wiping the sweat off her brow as it clanked on the ground. Reed looked into the pot and saw it was half-full of soil, rich in color and texture.
"Here," she pushed it closer to him, "Fresh as you can get."
He lifted his legs, carefully placing them into the pot. He leaned forward and let them sink into the soil. He took a deep breath and stretched. His roots extended deep into the pot, multiplying and spreading. It was good. How long had it been since he had absorbed the nutrients from soil this fertile? He could feel strength returning to his body, a rising tingle of energy that rose in him like a pitcher being filled. He stood up, could feel Anna's hands reaching to steady him. He took her hands in his and squeezed them gently. How could he thank her? The soil was so good that tears came to his eyes and he began to weep. If only he could have brought Willowbark here. And Waterlily, Dogwood, all the others. But such thoughts were only in vain. They were all gone now. He could not bring them back from death.
"Are you okay?" she asked, interrupting his thoughts.
"Yes," he said, "Forgive me. It is good. Thank you, Anna."
"You're welcome." She was smiling at him again. "Do you need anything else, Mr. Reed?"
He shook his head. A few of the dried leaves fluttered to the ground, as new ones grew in their place. He touched them gently with his fingertips. He would live after all.
"I should let you rest. If you need more water, that watering can on the counter is full. I have some things to take care of, but I'll come check on you later, alright?"
He nodded and watched her go. Such kindness. He had to find some way to repay her. He swore to himself that he would find a way. He would not leave until an equivilent exchange was found. Such was the way of his people. Balance was a rudimentary element of Nature itself.
He did not know how much time passed as he stood in the good soil. This was eternal summer. He basked in it in only the way that plants could. He stretched and grew, drenched in the filtered sunlight. He breathed deeply. The air here was so humid and full of life. He could feel the strength returning to him, his limbs bulking, shedding off the frail, brittleness the desert sun and winter winds had beaten him down to. During his meditative state his senses heightened and he found he could hear not only the beetles, flies and other insects buzzing about but the sounds of the town beyond and the humans within it. He focused on the humans and heard one group getting louder. Glass broke as the greenhouse shook violently.
The sound pierced his ears and his eyes opened immediately, his head turning in the direction.
"There it is!" A man pointed at him through the broken glass door, a fire burning in his hand. He came barreling inside, tripping over some of the plants. A few more men followed after him.
Reed retracted his roots and stepped out of the earthen pot. He was no longer wobbly. He stood tall. The man backed off a little, holding out the flame towards him. Reed did not flinch.
"I said get out of my garden!"
The heavy bucket of water collided with the side of the man's head, splashing everywhere, dousing the torch's flame as he fell to the ground. Anna was standing there, her eyes full of fear. One of the man's friends helped him up but the other two grabbed onto her hands, wrestling the bucket from her.
Reed whipped his arms toward them, growing and extending as they wrapped around their necks tightly. He constricted, and they choked.
"Release her. Now."
They hesitated but as he tightened his hold, they did so and he released them.
"I do not wish you harm," he said.
"Yeah right!" One of them said. But they did not attack again, retreating, knocking over many of the potted plants as they scrambled out the broken door.
"Freak! Get outta town!"
"Reed." She was scared. "I'm so sorry, are you okay?"
"I should leave." He walked towards the broken glass door.
She caught his arm, holding it tightly. He stopped. "Don't, please."
He turned toward her and gestured at the mess the men had left in their wake. "I am not welcome here."
"I need your help."
He was quiet for a moment. He did owe her, if nothing else than for freely giving him the rich soil. Not for his life, which he did not feel had much value anymore.
"What can I do, that this miraculous soil cannot?" he said, scooping some into his hand, holding it out to her.
"That's just it," she said, touching the soil, "I can't figure out why this is the only good soil. We heard from all over during the harvest this year. The ground is barren and cracked all over the place. No crops are growing anywhere but here in our town. If it goes on like this soon everything will die. Plants, animals, humans, it doesn't matter.
"Perhaps this is the way of things," he said, but not unkindly.
"No, this isn't natural. I know there's someone causing it."
"How do you know this?"
"Because after the harvest a man came into town. He was claiming he had the solution to our problem. A way to fertilize the soil. He didn't know we were spared from the calamity. So when he saw that we still had things growing he was shocked. The Sheriff was suspicious of him and ran him out of town. We all got to thinking this guy might be involved somehow.
"So one day him and his deputy went to talk to the other towns to investigate. But they never came back. We haven't heard from any of the towns. Now even the mail coach doesn't come anymore which means no more medical supplies coming in either when someone gets sick.
"To make matters worse, outta the blue last week a bunch of these rough-necks show up. Those fellows that attacked are in the gang. Now they've practically taken over town. Everyone's been ignoring them, hoping they're gonna move on, but I know better. They're here for a reason - and I think it's all connected somehow."
"I was investigating it all myself when I found you. I had heard your people had magical powers and were kind to all living things. I thought maybe, if I helped you, you could help us in return..."
Reed had been silent for a long time, letting her speak her mind. He stared at the soil in his hand, trying to take it all in. He didn't understand everything, but he had to agree that something was going on, and it was not natural. Even so, he felt a pang of regret in his heart. He squeezed the dirt in his fist. What did it matter? Even if he solved this problem, it wouldn't bring any of them back.
"How can I help your people," he said finally, looking into her eyes, "when I could not even save my own kind?"
"What do you mean?"
"I am the last of the Xylem."
This simple admission hurt him deeply, more so because he knew now that it was a fact. He had torn open a wound that had not healed in his heart, tears pouring down his face. He felt the loneliness of it all wash over him again.
She was silent, but her eyes said more than her lips ever could. Tears trickled down her cheeks as she first held onto his hand and then suddenly embraced him. He dropped the soil to the ground. It had been too long since he had felt such compassion.
Unlike before, when he had been by himself, he did not feel bitter. The pain was fresh and hurt him, but it was softened by her kindness and he found that when he was done, it was as if some of the loneliness had drained out of him. It was almost like they had split his pain between them.
"I will not let you suffer my fate," he said at last. "As long as I am still standing your people shall not die."
Continue on to Part 3?