Shepherd’s Derelict: A Novel
She squeezed his hand again and, like thick liquid slipping through a bottle neck, Hector felt himself, or what he thought of as self, slip from his head, hang up momentarily in his throat, then slide down his arm and into his hand. The soft, beeping darkness of the room, the eyes of the old woman, the footsteps in the corridor disappeared, and he became, instead, the inside of an acorn.
He fell into the hard roundness of it for only a moment, then the texture fuzzed, grew soft, and tendrils, tiny tap roots, reached from the seed, deep into the old woman, into the empty body of Hector Gonzales, into a past as the body of the Grandmother Oak, into each limb and leaf and cell and fiber of the tree. With a shock of complete understanding, Hector became the body of the great tree. Time passed, turning backwards, counted in storms and wasps and bird nests and coyotes and full moons in the thousands, until the mighty tree was, itself, merely another, older acorn, and then another tree. The pace accelerated, so that the seasons were merely flickers of the light, going back and further back in time, seed to tree, seed to tree, until they were no longer oak, but some other ancient thing, and different creatures lumbered around its trunk. Giant sloths, saber tooths. And then further back, further, past triceratops and all of reptiles as a whole, past amphibians and dry land and the dream of dry land, the pace so fast he thought the lining of his cells might burst. Ahhhhhh the deep inhalations of CO2, the greening of algae on the water, the sunlight, the first photosynthesis. For a brief pause he hovered here, a few nascent green cells bobbing the waves of a vast water world paradise. Then forward again, an infinity of life, to roots, unfathomable and connected, tapping the mycelia, connected to all the children, over time, of that first greening on the waters, to the deep breathing massive consciousness of it all, as it was now, tangled and surging, but riddled with great aching bald spots and rot.
With an abrupt jolt, his consciousness landed back in the body of Hector Gonzales. He could feel the chest heaving, tears on the cheeks.
“You know this, my son.” The words were not spoken by the old woman, but were a resonance, like a memory of someone haven spoken inside of his body. The vibration of the words thrummed through his human body, and through the consciousness of the thousands upon thousands of ancestors, from oak down to that first cell, like a spinning kaleidoscope.
Hector sighed and opened his eyes.
How could he possibly contain it?
The old woman’s eyes were still on him, but had grown dull and soft, and the hazy white blindness had returned.
“You won’t contain thish, Hectorgonshales.” She patted his hand. “You will not contain it. It is good. And now, it ish done.” She took a strained breath, her tiny chest puffing up the white sheet, then exhaled, and her out breath was the rattle of wind on dry leaves, the surge of storm across a forest, the dropping of branches and seeds and squirrel nests. One exhale of a vast knowingness.
And then she was gone.
The dry hand over Hectors emptied of life. The blind eyes had half-closed, and the muscles of the face had slumped over bone, no longer seeming human, but like a face you might imagine in the rocks or in the bark of a tree.
The machines in the room flared to life, beeping and screeching, and then footsteps and bodies and a sudden flurry of movement around the old woman, and Hector backed away from the room. There was nothing here for him. All that she had been, and all those before, were inside him. The eons and the multitudes.
He wandered to the front desk, but Daphne was gone, replaced by a stern-faced blonde. Disappointed, he left through the same double doors, an entirely different man—and was he, truly, still just a man? —than the one who had entered. Night had fallen some time ago, but the air in the parking lot was still hot, radiating the scent of asphalt and old weeds. He had not noticed before, in his haste, the unkempt hospital grounds. Thistle and small seedlings cracked the pavement, not just at the edges, but in a crisscrossed network of cracks, shoved up by the winding lumps of tree roots. The neatly trimmed oleanders that had been there since his birth in this same hospital had swelled and overflowed their beds, and the sycamore trees had been allowed to buckle the sidewalks with their roots, their mighty branches surging into the open air. He sat for a while, staring out at the windshield, wondering what had happened to his town, everything crumbling since his childhood, wondering if he cared, and watching the occasional headlights flare along the road. He searched for a sensation of being Hector, of being a self, but found only a vague remembrance, like a story someone had told him. The war had already hollowed him, and now that hazy membrane of who he had been stretched thinner and thinner, farther apart, while something immense grew inside the balloon skin of his old self.
And yet…he felt more himself than he ever had been.
Hector’s stomach growled—such a mundane thing compared to the miracle unfolding inside him—but he couldn’t deny it, he was starving. He hadn’t eaten since lunch, so he pulled out of the parking lot, headed toward McDonalds out of habit. Driving past a bus stop, he recognized the young woman lit in a pool of streetlight. He stopped the truck and backed up, rolled down the passenger window and leaned across, but she had drawn back to the shadows on the far side of the bus stop.
“Hey, Daphne. It’s me, Hector, from the hospital.”
She came forward, peered into the car. “Sorry. A girl has to watch out for the big bad wolf.”
“Hey,” he said. And because the truth seemed easiest, “I am glad to see you again.”
She tipped her head at him, as if surprised at herself. “I’m glad to see you too.”
Car lights approached in the lane behind him, and the hunger in his belly ached.
“I’m gonna go grab something to eat. Want to join me?”
“Yeah.” She pulled the door open and hopped inside with a cautious smile. “I know I’m not supposed to get in cars with strangers, but something tells me you’re okay, Hector.”
“I don’t know that I’m okay, but I’m safe, so you don’t need to worry.” He took his foot off the break and turned toward the McDonalds.
“How’s your grandma?”
“She died.” He said it in a matter of fact tone, feeling no sorrow, just that great sweep of connectedness and time.
“Oh no! Oh, Hector, I am so sorry. How terrible to find her again and then lose her right away.”
Daphne touched his arm, and Hector nearly swerved onto the sidewalk. The touch—fingers on his forearm—had burst into his body with a flash of instantaneous knowledge of things he should not know about her, from the tiniest tree-dwelling ancestor to the banana she had eaten for breakfast, everything all at once about every cell of Daphne’s body. He sucked in a sharp gasp of air. So much. So much…knowing.
“Sorry.” She removed her hand. The sensation diminished, and Hector remembered the road, cleared his throat. His mind felt like it might explode.
“No, it’s okay. I’m just…I dunno, a little jumpy. Yeah, Grandma…” She hadn’t been his grandma, and also, she hadn’t really—not in the expected way—gone. He could feel her even now, one of so many, branching out inside him. But he couldn’t say that. “Yeah, it’s hard. It’s been a weird, hard day.”
“I wish I could say something to make it better, but I know I can’t.” She reached out again, but seemed to think better of it and folded her hands into her lap.
“It’s okay, you know. Really. It was…maybe she just came back to say goodbye.”
Their route took them back the way Hector had come into town, and twice he had to pull into the other lane to miss shrubs growing out of the pavement.
“What’s going on in this town? Seems like things are falling apart since I left.”
“Things’ve been crazy since the fire. That’s taken up everyone’s energy.” Daphne clutched the door handle as Hector swerved again. “But I guess it’s gotten a lot worse. I hadn’t noticed before. We’re all just so…distracted, I guess.”
Hector pulled into the drive through and ordered burgers, fries, and shakes for them both, then circled the truck and parked facing the brick wall of the restaurant.
“I hope you don’t mind.” He rolled down a window. “I just couldn’t stand to be inside anymore.”
“No, I like this a lot better. All those fluorescent lights.” Daphne divided the food and handed Hector his burger. His stomach growled again, and she laughed. “Better hurry. That sounds serious.”
He was starving. He couldn’t remember, even overseas, feeling a hunger as strong as what he felt now, as if his fingers might reach out and claw sustenance from the bricks of the building, but the burger, the one he’d been fantasizing about shoving in his mouth just a few minutes earlier, just lay in his hand, a lump of unappetizing goo.
Daphne bit into hers. “Oh! So good. Thank you. I know we’re not supposed to, but I just love a Big Mac.”
Tentatively, Hector took a bite, then spit it into his hand.
“This tastes terrible!” Bleach and death.
“What? There’s nothing wrong with mine.”
He dipped his finger in the sauce and licked it. Wiped his tongue with the napkin.
“No, it’s really bad.”
“Here. Try a fry. Maybe they spilled something on your burger.”
He took the flaccid strip of something vaguely related to potatoes, sniffing it first, but the flavor was unbearable. Not just a bad taste, but like something that might burn his insides. He tried to wash it away with a swig of the milk shake, but that was worse, because he swallowed. Congealed chemicals and the sorrows of ten million bovines. Hector jumped out of the truck, hacking up the swallow of shake behind the tailgate. Bawling veal calves. Cattle prods. Ancestral dreaming of the primordial steppe. Too much knowing.
Daphne had gotten out of the truck and stood nearby, hands clasped in front of her.
“Are you okay?”
“I’m sorry. That’s embarrassing. But the food…I can’t eat it.”
“Mine is okay. You want to try some of mine? You’re…hey, you’re shaking. Are you sure you’re okay?”
“No. I mean, I’m fine. Maybe…I guess I’m more upset than I realized, about my grandma.” He smiled, trying to reassure her. “I was like this as a little boy. Always threw up before I cried.” That much, at least, was true. He preferred telling her true things, he realized.
“I bet you were an adorable little boy.” Daphne’s eyes widened, as if she hadn’t meant to say that. She looked away. Something burst open in Hector’s chest. He needed to take her to her home before whatever was happening to him exploded outward.
His stomach growled again. “So…I think Mickey D’s isn’t gonna work for me tonight. How about if you finish yours, and then I can drive you home?”
Stepping toward the cab, Hector tripped on a crack in the asphalt where a clump of star thistle had taken root but righted himself before he fell. He was certain he hadn’t seen that when he pulled in. He opened the door for Daphne, and she pulled the plastic sacks of acorns onto the seat, making room for her feet before she got in.
“Oh, hey.” He tried to take them from her. “Those are in your way. Let me put them be—”
“No. No, they don’t bother me at all.”
When Hector climbed in behind the wheel, she held one of the oak seeds up to the flickering parking lot light. “I never noticed how beautiful an acorn is before. See all the different browns, how they kind of make stripes if you look really close? It’s really amazing. Is that weird?”
A thousand oak lives inside his body gave a great kaleidoscopic spin of the wheel, and he shook his head.
“No. No weird at all.”
“How can a whole tree be stored in such a little box? Like, it just knows everything it needs to do to become an oak, all in this little seed. Whole generations of people lived off these things. Can you imagine? Food, lying all over the ground for anyone to take.” She cupped the seed in the palm of her hand and stroked it with a forefinger.
“Speaking of food,” Hector said. “Yours is getting cold.”
A little absently, Daphne nodded. “Yeah, that’s fine.” She pulled the rough cup off of the acorn. “How come we don’t eat them anymore?”
“I think they are too much work because off the tann—”
Without any warning, Daphne popped the acorn into her mouth and swallowed, wincing at when the lump hit the center of her chest.
“Hey! What’re you—”
Daphne gulped her milkshake and waved him off in an “I’m fine” gesture.
“Why DID you do that?” He knew, of course, like he suddenly knew so many things, but a normal person would ask.
“I don’t know. It was a…a feeling. Like, if I swallowed that little acorn, I could have it with me forever. Like, well…this sounds crazy. Like it was a baby, and it needed me to—” Her eyebrows shot up, and she gave a little gasp. “Oh!”
She shook her head, waved him away, and stared blankly at the bug-riddled windshield, the cracked bricks of the wall beyond.
Prepared, this time, for what would happen, Hector took her hand as the old woman in the hospital had taken his, and Daphne sat back, her head falling against the head rest. “Ohhhhhh!” As if they had been grafted together, the separation dissolved, and Hector followed the sparks of her thoughts leaping from neuron to neuron, the slosh of blood in her veins, and those other, brand new cells, never before seen in the history of the world, the green cells, the children—still very few—hungry for sunlight, flowing in line with the cells of human blood.
How long they sat that way, Hector did not know, but when Daphne opened her eyes again the lights of the McDonalds had been turned off, the parking lot abandoned to the song of crickets.
“I know,” he said “We’re nothing. And yet—”
“We’re EVERYTHING. All at once!” She laughed.
He nodded. “Everything, all at once.”
“Everything!” She shouted out the passenger window. “All at once!” She turned to him, crackling with excitement. “I feel like I want to dance, or run, or shake people, or scream. I want SO MUCH, but I don’t know what I want!”
Hector started the truck, laughing. “We’re hungry.”
“Yeah…” Daphne looked puzzled. “I just ate half a Big Mac, and I’m starving. Like, capital ‘S’ starving.”
“Let’s try downtown. Maybe something’s still open.” Hector ran through a list—burritos, fried chicken, Denny’s pancakes—of all the things that might still be available, but it all sounded terrible. Hector pulled out onto the road. He’d know it when he saw it.
The way they had come was nearly impassable. Willows and cottonwood seedlings had torn the pavement to bits and raked against the bottom of the truck as he drove, threatening to break the oil pan,
“Ok. This is weird.” He turned off on a residential street, the pavement clear, and pulled to the side of the road next to a manicured front lawn and an ancient sycamore tree. He got out and walked a few steps back to the main road. Daphne joined him. “It wasn’t like this before, was it? And I didn’t notice somehow?”
Daphne shook her head. “No, I mean, there were a few weeds and stuff, but…not like this.” She leaned over and stared, grabbed his arm. “Hector…I know this seems crazy, but can you see them…growing?”
He directed his attention to a young willow that had erupted from a crack in the center of the four-lane road. He counted the off-shooting branches, then focused on the top. And there, just…there, he saw it. A quiver, then a little pop, as two leaves unfolded, then extended on tiny branches, farther from the small trunk. The branches below moved outward, and upward, and buds on those branches also broke open.
He stepped back “You are NOT imagining anything.”
He turned back toward the truck, and the sidewalk, from where they now stood to the vehicle, had mossed over, and was growing weeds through the cracks. Just several inches long, but he was certain it had been clear a moment earlier.
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About the Author
A.G. Bennett lives with her wife and family of elderly four-footeds in the woods of Wisconsin. She has worked on a crab tender off the Pribilof Islands, as a Hardee’s line cook, a dishwasher, a waitress, a roofer, and as a glorified toilet cleaner in a ranger’s uniform. She has published several children’s picture books under another name.