“Gran?” The voice was Wisteria’s, still thin but on the cusp of full bloom. Violet petals crowned the young rabbit’s head in a wreath, and a single vine curled around her waist. She had one of her bracelets in her paws, fidgeting with it while she stood in the doorway, her ears flat against her head. “I think it’s harvest time in the final grove.”
I nodded, more to myself than to her. I’d felt the same heaviness in the dampening air, caught the sweet scent on the late winter breeze, just on the edge of turning sour. The spring planting had been months back, and high summer was several weeks ago. The fields had been plowed, and the trees in the orchard were covered in fruit. Honeycrisp’s new baby was due any day now. Rose and Thistle had been making eyes at each other, and if Trumpet had a say with either — or both — there’d be a bushel of kids come next summer. I smiled at the thought. Rose’s pale-red coat reminded me so much of my Berry’s, back in his heyday, and Thistle’s dark eyes had the same storms in them that Briar’s did. The thought of them together brought a smile to my muzzle. I could still recall Briar’s thick musk heavy in my nose while Berry pressed against my back—
“Gran?” Wisteria’s voice, and the clack of her bracelets, brought me back to the present. She stood, bouncing nervously on the balls of her feet, paws clasped together in front of her. “I said—”
“I heard, child,” I called back, rocking forward in my chair to give me a bit of leverage. “Harvest time in the final grove. How do you figure?”
“The almanacs say it’s a week after the first cold rain.” Wisteria kept glancing down the hall as she talked, like she expected to be smacked for bringing up the almanacs. “Honeycrisp says it’s at least another month, though, that last week’s rain wasn’t cold enough.”
I snorted, ears flat against my head. “I don’t think I asked Honeycrisp to be my apprentice, did I?”
“Well… no….” Wisteria’s voice trailed off as she talked. “She’s really smart, though, and she’s learned a lot.”
“At my age, ‘hard-working’ and ‘dedicated’ mean a lot more than ‘smart.’ I waved a paw dismissively towards the window. “So, what’s Honeycrisp think ‘cold’ means?” I pushed off the floor with both feet, leaning back to try to swing myself forwards onto my legs, but my arms just didn’t want to cooperate today.
“She says—” Wisteria bit her lip and stepped into the room, lowering her voice as she walked. Her bare feet whispered against the hardwood floors as she moved, echoed in the rafters of the house. Some of the floorboards had come from Jonathan, some from Bartlett. Most of the beams and joists came from the final grove, mostly branches but a few thick supports from those who chose to serve the warren even in the Ever After. Every creak and rustle within these walls sounded familiar, almost every generation helping maintain the old building. Briar provided one of her bangles; I could see it in the grain as the young rabbit approached. “She says cold means below ten degrees, and nothing this week’s been below twelve.”
I bit the inside of my cheek in frustration. “Tell me, did you feel a chill when it rained last month, middle of summer?” I motioned towards my rocker. “Come and help an old woman, child.” Wisteria hopped closer and took hold of my paw and shoulder, avoiding the hole in my wrist. She leaned and I slid out of the chair onto my feet, sending the thick woven blanket under which I’d been sitting to the floor. Unbidden, memories of Briar’s and Berry’s branches intertwined with mine, holding me stable, rose in my mind, and the tears quickly followed.
Wisteria squeezed my shoulder and leaned in close. “Gran? Are you okay?”
“Just missing my root and branch,” I muttered as I wiped at my eyes. Tears and memories could wait. “Pass me my cane. You didn’t answer my question, child.”
The young rabbit shook her head and fetched my heavy wooden cane. “No, gran. I’d say all the rains last month were warm. Last week’s was the first time I felt chilly after the rain. Plus—” She stopped again, fidgeting with the bracelet at her wrist.
I waited a moment, then rolled my paw at her. “Go on, Wisteria. I’m not Honeycrisp; I won’t bite, ‘less you ask me.”
Wisteria made a face. “No! That’s… you’re my grandmother. And besides, I prefer boys.”
I cackled at that and started shuffling towards the door. “Can’t help you none there! I left that business to Berry. What about Trumpet?”
Wisteria rolled her eyes. “Trumpet prefers boys, too. He’s probably going to ask Seki for a dance at the Days of Plenty.”
Inside, I tucked Wisteria’s observations to the side, filing with all the other cuttings I’d taken about the health of the warren. “Got your roots in a tangle for anyone, then?”
“Gran!” Wisteria groaned and shook her head. “We were talking about harvesting the final grove, not my love life.”
“We can do both,” I insisted. “You stopped right as you were going to say something, and down in my…” I stopped. I didn’t have roots, and saying ‘down in my roots’ felt like blasphemy. “Well, deep down inside, it felt important.”
The young rabbit reached up and tugged at the vine that crept out from behind her ear and encircled her head. The flowers the dripped from it rustled as she shifted it against her pelt. “It’s nothing, gran, really. Please, let it go.”
I frowned but shrugged. “Alright, then. So, harvest time. What do we do?”
Wisteria twisted her paws in front of her as we walked. “The almanac says—”
Gingerly, I put a paw on her shoulder. Her fur was warm to the touch, or maybe mine was cold. Everything felt cold these days. “I know what’s in the books, child. I helped write them. What do you think?”
Wisteria fell silent, her head bowed as we shuffled outside together. The building, like every other on the main strip, was covered in vines; they wrapped around the pillars and entwined around the fences, making the village feel like it had been there for centuries. Most of those we passed did their best not to let their gazes linger, but a few couldn’t help but stare as I passed. Look at Seedless Grandmother Beverly and her young apprentice. We took the fastest path off of the main road and out the fields, rows upon rows of grains and cereals. No machine had touched this soil in generations; the ground had been all been tilled by paw. I’d done my time out here, as had Wisteria. Even Honeycrisp had spent time planting and harvesting, even if she resented it. She’d probably leave the warren some day. “You didn’t answer me again, child,” I said as we passed through the far fence, into the orchards.
“No, gran,” Wisteria replied. Her voice carried hints of sourness and a little bitter. “Truth is, I don’t know what to do. You’ve always just done it.”
I sighed. “I know, Wisteria, and I shouldn’t, and I can’t. Just, I’ve waited too long to show you, and time’s wasting. So, if you want to watch, you can watch, but try to stay back, okay?”
The orchards were next, vast fields of tall trees, brimming with fruit. Here and there, we ran into others working among the trees, hauling down a late harvest, trimming branches and painting cuts with creosote. They bowed their heads when we passed, and a few tapped their chests when we mentioned we were heading to the final grove. Most glanced towards my neck and wrists, then quickly away, excusing themselves to return to work. Between Wisteria and I, we mostly walked in silence. At times I stumbled, but she was there to catch me, just like Briar back in the day. That threatened to derail me into thoughts of the pair of them again, but we had work to do.
As we rounded the last hill and passed through the gates of the final grove, a chill passed through me that even the loss of the seed couldn’t explain. In small groups, pairs and trios, the trees that had once been the founders of the warren grew closer together, day by day, year by year, their roots and branches intertwined. The sweet scent, present all the way up at the warren, was overpowering here. I knelt as I passed beneath the ornately-carved arch at the entrance to the final grove. I balanced my cane on my knees, and Wisteria dropped to the ground beside me, bowing her head to touch the dusty ground. “Sorry we’re late,” I said as loudly as I could. My throat was dry, not just from walking. “I’ll be coming around soon.”
I stood again, and Wisteria stood next to me, dusting off her dress. “It’s so quiet here,” she whispered.
I smiled and shook my head, then brushed my fingers against the vine growing from beneath Wisteria’s ear. “Feel the ground, child.”
Wisteria blinked, then closed her eyes and knelt again, putting one paw on the ground. The vine at her temple curled this way and that as she extended herself into the ground, the seed inside her seeking out its own. Moments later, she gasped, but she stayed locked in place. “Gran? What is—”
I put a paw on her shoulder. “They’re all here. When we first came to this forgotten valley, the endless bounty of fruit and vegetables had seemed like paradise. Then the land grew attached to us as we had to the land, and soon, every last one of us had sprouted vines. Soon after, the touch of metal burned inside like ice, but what we’d lost in technology, we’d gained in the ability to talk to the earth, and each other through it.”
“It’s beautiful,” she whispered, her voice distant. Her eyes were open, but she wasn’t looking at me; she was staring at the visions the seed growing inside her was bringing from the grove. Visions of all the towards forebears, of Jonathan and what remained of Bartlett, of Corinth and Beauregard. Of Clematis and Hyacinth and everyone in the warren that had come before, four generations that had stayed in this secret valley and accepted the price of staying. Of Briar and Berry, standing beside each other, one branch raised to the sky, one branch curled inward, Berry’s other curled around Briar’s trunk, positioned such that a third might join them, stepping into Briar’s embrace and holding Berry, roots and branches intertwining. “It’s… it’s too much, Gran, I— I can’t. I—”
“Wisteria, listen to me.” I put a cold paw on my granddaughter’s shoulder and squeezed as tightly as I could. “Time will come when it’ll be your turn here, but you’re young yet. You can stand up, Wisteria. For sun’s sake, get up!” I pushed, and the young rabbit jerked upright, snapping her paws off the earth. “It’s not your time yet,” I snapped. “You’ve got too much life left in you.”
“They miss you.” Her words caught the ragged edge of every hole and pulled right down into the dusty soil. “They don’t blame you but they miss you.”
“I—” I couldn’t stop the tears this time. “I miss them too, but there’s work to be done. Grab some baskets, follow me.” Wisteria scampered over to the shed by the gate, and returned with two woven baskets. We then started to make our way up and down the rows. “Be on the lookout, dreamfruit’s hard to spot.”
Wisteria’s ears perked. “Dreamfruit?”
I nodded. “They feed on the emotions of their host, making wine of the happiest thoughts and bitter draughts from nightmares. The fruit gives visions to those that eat it, and the seeds—” I stopped and smiled, then tapped Wisteria’s chest. “That’s how you can feel the soil, the plants, and everything around. Those who eat one will never truly die, as long as their bodies continue to grow here.” I motioned towards what was left of Bartlett, half of one leg in the ground. “He gave of himself to patch a hole in the main house, after a fire.”
My granddaughter paused a moment, looking towards the incomplete trio near the front of the gate. “Are those—”
“Briar and Berry, yes,” I said with a tight nod. “My beloved mates.”
“So… when are you joining them, gran?”
The icicle in my chest sunk deeper into my heart. “I don’t think I can, child.”
That made Wisteria’s ears flatten. “But… they miss you.”
The icicle twisted. I drew in a deep breath and let it out. “I miss them terribly, child.”
I held up a paw. “We had an early frost some time back, and somebody had to go get help. Metal burns the seed, and anyone bearing one. It’s part of the price we pay for staying here. I made the trip as fast as I could, but my seed didn’t survive the trip back.” I gave my best smile, the one I shared with Briar and Berry each on the days of their final planting. “Everyone said I was lucky to survive, and I got the supplies we needed, but I’ve known what a trade-off I was making.”
Wisteria put her paw on my shoulder. “Why didn’t you ever take another seed?”
I shrugged. “We’ve never had extra; the community always grew just what it needed. How many do you see so far?”
Wisteria looked around. “None yet.”
“Some years, there won’t be any. Others, we’ll get three or four. We had a dozen the year after the early frost, but never so many since.” I sighed, the chill settling in beneath my skin. “Somebody had to stick around and make sure the community would continue.”
“Don’t ‘gran’ me, child,” I snapped, not turning my head. “You still need my help.”
“I wouldn’t need your help if you’d show me what to do!” The young rabbit bit back, stamping one foot in front of me, making the flowers at her forehead dance. “Your family is waiting for you and you’re staying here martyring yourself because you’re afraid we’ll all die without you.”
“I’m staying here because you almost did die without me,” I said quietly. “I’m tired, Wisteria; I’d like to go back.”
Wisteria tossed her bucket to the dusty ground, ignoring all the embracing trees, and folded her arms. “Not until we finish the harvest. You said it was time.”
“You said it was time, Wisteria. I asked how you knew and you never answered.”
Wisteria looked back up towards the old house, the first building my father built, from the wood of my great-grandfather and his friends and family. “There’s a smell in the air, sweet, almost sickly, like a ripeness that covers the whole valley. Honeycrisp said it was gross when I mentioned it to her.”
I nodded. “That’s the scent of a dream, ready to be born. Honeycrisp’s going to have a baby soon; there’s probably a single fruit around here.” I closed my eyes and pulled up the card with the information in my mind. “Look for pale-yellow skin, shading to red near the top. It’ll be at about eye-level; they grow from the chests of ancestor-trees. You’ll need to pull carefully so the flesh doesn’t split; the skin is very thin and bruises easily. Use a ceramic blade to cut the stem free; metal will damage the fruit and hurt whomever you’re harvesting. It should smell like pineapple and peach, with hints of cinnamon and vanilla. If it’s musky at all, we won’t want to feed it to the baby; it’s only good for feverwine.”
My apprentice nodded again. “You wait here; I’ll go look.” I closed my eyes and leaned on my cane, letting the cold wind trail through my skin. Briar’s and Berry’s trees weren’t so far that I couldn’t totter over and hug them, tell them I missed them. It had been so long since I’d seen them, held them, talked to them. I was afraid. Afraid to admit why I hadn’t come back. Afraid to lose them forever. Afraid to leave them forever. Whoever eats of these fruit will never die, my grandfather said. Our roots and branches remain forever intertwined.
I was going to die one day, my vines withered, my branches broken, my roots cut. I was going to die and leave Berry and Briar alone forever. The pain of the trip was never far below the surface; one thought and it was there again. Every touch of metal burned like ice as I crawled into the ancient, rusted vehicle. The blankets dulled the ache, the gloves and layers of clothing tamping a burning frost down to a faint sting, but it all still hurt, moment after moment after blasted moment. Thoughts of Berry and Briar starving, of the warren withering and dying in the frost, drove me through the darkness and the pain, to return to the civilization we’d abandoned so many generations ago seeking help. Then, laden with supplies, I had to vanish back into the wilderness, even as I could feel the seed inside me dying, the chill settling into my trunk as the blight spread within. I had to return to a world I could no longer inhabit, even as I knew I was saving it for everyone else. And my reward would be to disappear into the Ever After, not even leaving behind a tree of my own.
“Gran? Gran, wake up. I found it.” Wisteria’s voice shook me awake. I looked down, and in the basket she held in front of her sat a single oversized dreamfruit, its pale-golden flesh quivering in the fading sunlight. “I checked the whole orchard; there was only the one. We should get back. It’s getting late. You said it’s for Honeycrisp’s child?”
I nodded again. “She should be ready to deliver any day now.”
Wisteria frowned. “Once we’re back, I’ll go get her; you can tell her yourself.”
The walk back up the hill to the old house went faster than the walk down. We had the dreamfruit to carry, and we had a final task before us when we got home, but I quizzed her on the walk of what she’d learned, what she’d studied. The touch of the final grove had been powerful for her. Before if she didn’t know, she might’ve guessed, and defaulted to the almanacs. Now, she said she didn’t know, or she told me how she’d find out. She had questions she hadn’t asked before. For the first time, she showed an interest in learning. In hindsight, I wished I’d shown her that years ago, but I’d forgotten myself in the wake of that early frost.
Once in my room, Wisteria set the basket beside me. “I’ll fetch Honeycrisp,” she said as I pulled the blankets back over my legs to ward off some of the chill. I nodded and tried not to stare and the golden fruit. Half an hour later, she returned, Honeycrisp behind her. She was a willow of a rabbit, tall and sinewy, with ears that lopped and a slouch in her spine; she kept the vines that pierced her skin trimmed, and the flower at her ear was furled, its petals tightly twisted in on themselves. In the lamplight, her fur was a pale daisy yellow, but I knew by sun it was tan. She folded her arms across her chest as she entered, resting her paws on her swollen belly. “Grandmother Beverly,” she said tightly. “It’s late and I’m trying to rest; what can I do for you?”
“Honeycrisp, I’ll cut to the root.” I motioned to the basket. “I went down the final grove today, and there was but one dreamfruit to harvest. You’re due to seed soon, and this won’t keep. I’d like you to have it, for your sprout.”
Honeycrisp followed my arm down to the dreamfruit, then looked back to me and shook her head. “With all due respect, Grandmother Beverly, I can’t.”
I narrowed my eyes at that. “Maybe you can’t, but they should, shouldn’t they?”
Honeycrisp frowned. “Good Earth willing, Grandmother Beverly, I’ll be taking my child out of the valley after he’s born. I saw what happened to you.” Her face twisted in the lamplight, and a sob cracked her voice. “I don’t want that happening to my child.”
I picked through my words carefully. “What happened to me was unfortunate, but necessary. Somebody had to act, for the good of the village.”
“I don’t want that to be my child!” she repeated, her voice rising in a wail. “I want them to grow up some place with modern medicine, and internet, and technology! Some place with a future!”
I closed my eyes. Honeycrisp was one of the people for whom I was going to disappear. “I’m sorry you feel that way about this place, but if that’s how you feel, I can’t stop you from making that choice. I wish you’d like your child make the choice themself, but you do what you must.”
“I will!” Honeycrisp’s voice cracked, then broke. “As soon as I’ve given birth and we’re fit to travel, I’m leaving! My child deserves a future, not this place!”
“You said that, Honeycrisp.” I closed my eyes. “I’m very tired, and so must you be. Good night.”
Wisteria hustled the other rabbit out after that, returning some time later and kneeling next to my chair. “I’m sorry, gran,” she said softly once she’d returned. “You didn’t deserve that. I expected she was feeling that way, but I didn’t think she’d go off on you like that.”
“It’s fine, Wisteria.” I smiled despite the creeping cold. “I’m relieved, really.”
Wisteria’s ears perked at that. “Relieved? Why?”
I rocked forward and grabbed at the basket. “It means people who want to leave feel free to leave. So I don’t have to care if they feel welcome or not. You smelled it was time for the harvest, didn’t you?”
“I said as much, gran. Why?”
“That means I don’t have to stay either. Pass me the basket.” Wisteria helped me get the dreamfruit into my lap; its pale golden flesh glimmered in the lamplight. “I don’t know how long it will take to grow, but we’ve never had extra. Tell Berry and Briar… no, I’ll tell them myself soon enough.” The first bite of dreamfruit flesh was impossibly sweet and delicate, melting on the tongue, juicy and just at the peak of ripeness. Somewhere in the middle of the meal, I felt something small and hard between my teeth, and I swallowed. Unbidden, I saw the trio of trees complete, each embracing the next, reaching together towards the sky, their roots and branches forever intertwined.