James and John looked over the carcass of the tree. Its legend went back generations. Only one branch had any life on it these days. One leaf, and one tentacled piece of fruit.
The tree sat in the middle of a field and the weight of the sky pressing down on it seemed to flatten its twisted blackened trunk. It hadn’t always been so. The tree used to be a brilliant green, frocked with glossy leaves, which grew as long spiraling blades. It wasn’t until James and John’s father had come running home as a child with one of the leaves that people realized anything was happening. The vigil started then; and the truth came. Each year during the summer solstice, the tree shed one of its leaves.
“We’ve done spent enough time observing the damned thing,” James said. He was the younger of the two brothers.
John pinched his lips together, and skewed his mouth to one side. “Well, we’d best save the fruit.”
James nodded. According to the almanacs and myths, the fruit-a bright yellow citrus oddity closely resembling a grapefruit, with the exception of the fat appendages extruding from it-was the very same fruit that had always been there. For generations.
The last leaf broke away from the branch. A sound like thunder broke the sky, and when the leaf landed, the ground shuddered.
James rushed up to the branch, but it was John who grabbed the fruit and twisted it loose. It followed him easy, an Excalibur to his Arthur.
They wrapped a chain around the trunk and pulled it down with the tractor. They dragged the whole carcass to the house, hardly concerned with the gash it drew in the earth.
John had kept the fruit cradled in his hand the whole time. When they reached the house, he moved like a sleepwalker to the kitchen, not minding to turn off the tractor.
The linoleum was crinkled near the door like dried mud. The plywood cabinets were warped, and the veneer around the knobs and the edges was worn to nothing. Black mold slicked the edges of the sink. Coffee stains and burn marks blemished the laminate countertops.
John set the fruit down there and knelt on the floor. His nose was flush with the counter, and he watched as the fruit deflated. It lost its plump rigidity. Its skin shrank, grew opaque and dusty. It even wrinkled in some places.
He jerked at the sound of James’ voice.
“You should eat it.”
John nodded. His hands curled over the ledge of the counter, and he hauled himself to standing. Picking up the fruit, he contemplated it. Then he bit.
The flavor accosted him first. Putrid bitterness, sharp and bright, flooded his tongue, and made his teeth hurt. Next came washes of rotting sweetness and dull metal. Grimacing, John forced his jaw to work on the flesh in his mouth, forced his throat to swallow it. His brain screamed for him to stop, but his thoughts spasmed. Parts of them repeated, retreated and returned, order rearranged. His thoughts were out of his control, though his body still moved on its own. It still chewed and consumed the fruit.
John’s senses screamed like a torn muscle. They were pulled out of their normal, everyday limits. Pulled into something more. His eyes began to twitch, and vibrated back and forth in his skull, as if he was reading a book at the speed of sound.
“Reading,” he said. He turned to his brother, who watched with wide eyes and a pale face.
He took the last bite, chewed and swallowed. “Transmitting.”
The juice clung sticky to his chin. Beyond that, John could feel the juice lysing the membranes of his skin cells, and denaturing the instructions written inside of them, altering the instructions. The juice and his skin acted one on the other.
Data streamed through him. A beginning. A star. A cluster of stars and the birth of a planetary body. The first, second and third waves of life. And more until them, the makers of the fruit. He had a notion of hope, of failure, of secrets, but the everything of them dribbled through his mind like a melting painting.
He stared at the seed nested between the tips of his thumb and forefinger. It was all that was left of the fruit. “I ate it too late,” he finally said.
(Apologies, I know it’s a tad longer than 500 words.)