by Therese Arkenberg
Xanathan Kurtler didn’t die because of greed. Not his own, anyway. It wasn’t greed that made him plant those trees.
I know that’s how the rest of them tell it. I’m not the rest of them, and I’m the one you asked to tell the story.
I met him traveling through what had been until recently Tuscroean country. The reason I was traveling isn’t important. If I told you everything I did in those days, I’d just give you ideas, and this isn’t a story about me, anyway. This was just after the War of Ekandrian Expansion—and I’m showing my age, telling you that—and by then the land was mostly inhabited by settlers.
Sparsely inhabited, though. There was no village in miles as far as I could tell, but because the land around was so quiet I didn’t fear the prospect of spending the night under the stars, alone. In fact, I was sort of warming to it. I was young in those days, and thought that adventure was a thing you should seek out sometime.
So I was kind of let down when I saw the fire. If it was friendly, there went my plans for sleeping out alone—and then there was also the possibility that it wasn’t. Now, I sure loved living, but by that time I was tired. So I crept closer and was disappointed, but not too much, when I saw above the firelight a good-sized, sandy bucket hat.
The man beneath the hat was the same sandy color: sandy tanned skin, sandy yellow-brown eyes, sandy hair going snowy. Only his teeth weren’t sand-colored; in fact, they nearly threw my reflection back at me when he smiled.
“Hello there,” he said. “Didn’t expect to see a young person here. Particularly not an Ekandrian one.”
“Seen many Tuscroes?” My fingers were looped in my sash, where I carried a light lady’s pistol and a small knife. I noticed the sandy man was unarmed.
He shook his head. “Haven’t seen, but they’re out there. And when you’re hearing footsteps beyond your firelight, well, Tuscroe’s far more likely than any white girl.”
“Sorry if I scared you.”
“You didn’t scare me, miss. Maybe startled a little bit. Nothing a youngster need apologize for. Here, sit down. “
I sat. “You’re camped pretty far back from the road, sir.” He was. I didn’t mention that before? Way far back. I can’t guess, maybe a hundred feet, or a hundred and fifty.
“I wanted to sleep among the trees.” He gestured around us with a smile.
His fire was in the trees, right enough, but it wasn’t a forest like you’re probably thinking. I’d had been able to seen his fire from the road, despite the distance, because the trees were too small and slender to block it. And they were spaced out in a way that wasn’t natural. There wasn’t any undergrowth, just some grass and a few weeds—goosefoot, plantain, dandelion. It looked a lot like an orchard.
“I’m Xanathan Kurtler,” the sandy man said. “Most people call me Xanny, or sometimes Xan.”
In those days saying what your friends called you was an invitation to do the same, so I said, “Hello, Xan. I’m Andra Nattinsen.” I looked around. “Say, what kind of—”
“These are Orel trees,” he said. “I planted them myself.”
Yes, that’s what he said!
I was about as surprised as you are now—actually, more, because I had never heard the tale of Xanathan Goldenseed before. I just walked right into it.
He laughed at the look on my face. “They really are. Go on, look them over.”
I rose and went to one of the trees. I knew something of apple trees—we’d started the Nattinsen orchard recently. The Orels looked pretty similar, and if they were as they appeared, they were young. Maybe five years old. It was late summer and there, weighing down the branches, peeking through the dark green, tiny leaves, were some of the first fruit.
All made of gold. It shone a deep yellow-orange in the light of the fire, a little darker than Xan’s sandy-amber eyes.
“Pick one if you want,” he said. “I planted them, so I guess they’re mine to give if they’re anybody’s.”
So I picked one. It twisted from the stem easily, almost slid off. It was cool, about the size of an apple, and very heavy.
“Wouldn’t want to bite one of those.” Xan chuckled at his own joke.
I smiled and shook my head. “Guess not. But it’s very pretty. Thank you.” I sat back down across the fire from him and polished the fruit on my skirt. An Orel, I guess you’d call it; I’ve never told this story before so I never thought of it. “I didn’t know Orel trees were real.”
“They almost weren’t,” he said. “I spent seven years searching, and by the time I found one on the shores of the Middle Sea, it was nearly the last Orel tree alive.”
“What happened to the rest?”
“There never were many. They don’t die easily—I’ve heard that once you plant one, leave it alone and it’ll live near forever. So it’s planting them that’s the trouble.”
“How is that?”
“Well, first you need seeds. They aren’t in those.” He nodded to the Orel in my hand. “After all, how would you get seeds from a golden fruit?”
And I asked what you just did. “How do you get them, then?”
“You chop down an Orel tree.” He sighed. “You cut it and the sap bleeds out. As it does it puddles like boiled maple sapsyrup, turns into tiny golden grains...those are the seeds. To get them, you have to kill the tree.”
“That doesn’t sound natural.”
“It isn’t. Nothing about Orels is natural.”
The fire crackled. I looked around the orchard. “So you planted all these?”
“For the gold?”
“Mostly because they’re beautiful. But also for the gold.”
“You want to become rich?”
“Not at all.” Xan shook his head grimly. “No, I don’t want to become rich in the least. But I want more gold in the world. Look.” He gestured at the trees. “I’ve planted orchards like this all across the West. They’re all open, unguarded. I don’t care if people take golden fruit by the bucketful. In fact, I want them to take it.”
“So everyone can have gold?”
His head bobbed. “Yes. Free for all.”
“But...” I frowned. “Say someone was poor, with no money, and picked one of these—” I hefted the Orel—“and took it to the store in town. But why should the shopkeeper give him anything, when he can walk out here and pick a fruit himself?”
“There’s no reason he should,” Xan said. “No reason at all. By putting out gold like this, I’m making it utterly worthless. Oh, it’ll still be pretty, good for jewelry, but no path to wealth. That’s what I’m hoping for—though I pity the poor man in your example.”
I looked down at my Orel and felt a sudden urge to throw it away. It wasn’t that I hated Xan’s idea, not exactly, it was just so strange. “But without using gold, how will people buy anything?”
“You’re a city girl, aren’t you?”
“I am not!”
He stared at me patiently.
“I...all right. Maybe I’m from a pretty large town.”
“People don’t always use gold out here. And they didn’t in the old days. People bartered useful things instead of giving each other yellow metal.”
“But...” Finally I shrugged. “All right. I see how that could work.”
“A lot of people don’t.” He looked into the depths of the fire, cooling now from pale blue to dull orange. “I have nothing against trade, see. I know it’s important. I don’t have anything against a person wanting to be well-off, wealthy even. But when people get a lot, they want more. And when they get greedy they get mean.
“Think of all the violence, the robbery, the highway murders—all over something as useless as gold!” He laughed in a funny way that didn’t sound quite happy, maybe amused, maybe even that nasty kind of amused people call cynical—but I don’t think Xan was like that. “I think it would be a great thing if by planting these orchards, I wound up making apples more valuable than Orels. Apples, at least, you can eat.”
I rolled the fruit in my hands. “That sounds pretty ambitious.”
“Isn’t it?” He seemed to take it as a compliment.
“Yeah, it’s—” I broke off, yawning. “Sorry.”
“No trouble, no trouble. Probably I should be apologizing for keeping you up this late, talking on and on like I do.”
“It was interesting talk.” But I couldn’t help yawning again.
“That’s all right. You get some sleep, now.” He lay back himself and folded his arms beneath his head. His hat fell half-off. “I might not be here when you get up.”
He wasn’t. The fire was smoking itself out when I woke, and his place beside it was empty. But as I rose and started crossing the orchard towards the road, I caught sight of him wandering through the trees.
“Decided to stay after all?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Never can tell myself what I’ll do from one day to another. I figured on leaving today, maybe going west, but this morning I saw the sun on the Orels and thought...hell...maybe I’d stay.”
No, I don’t think he was foolish, making that decision. Remember, he didn’t know what would happen. I didn’t either, or I’d have told him not to stay.
“Well, good day to you,” I said.
“Morning, Andra.” He tipped his sandy hat. Last I saw of him, he stood with his hands in his pockets, watching the Orel boughs rock in the breeze.
I had the golden fruit he gave me in my pocket, still. I touched it now and then as I walked. It was warm from being close to my body, and for a moment it felt alive. Just an illusion, though. On the tree they grew as if living, but once you pick an Orel, it’s dead. Dead gold.
I had slept well, and the morning was fresh and clear, the kind of morning you expect good things to happen on. When I reached a town after about two hours of walking, I just laughed. It seemed just like Xan to sleep outside even when a roof was only hours away.
There was a tavern, and since I hadn’t eaten breakfast I went in to grab a bite. I paid for my hash in coin, as any ready traveler does, but it felt almost wrong putting down gold after my talk with Xan the night before.
Something must have shown on my face, because a young man at a table near mine said, “Anything wrong, miss?”
I shrugged. “You meet funny people on the road, sometimes.”
“What sort of funny?” He was sitting with a bundle of his friends, and at his question they all sat up a little straighter. A good town, I thought, eager to defend a young woman from trouble.
“Nothing improper,” I said. “Just strange. I stopped last night at the fire of a man named Xanathan Kurtler—”
“Old Goldenseed?” The young man whooped. “Spending the night out with his orchard?”
“Wish I knew where he got the seeds,” another muttered. “Nice-looking, they were—maybe real gold. Seems a pity he buried them.”
“I dug around the orchard, back five years ago,” the young man said. “Found nothing. And every time I passed by there since then—just trees.”
“When was the last time you passed by?” I said.
“Before last winter.” He scratched an ear. “That road doesn’t lead to much, I hardly take it often. Why do you ask?”
I took the Orel from my pocket and held it up for them to see.
No, Xanathan Goldenseed didn’t die because of avarice. I guess you could say he died because of high spirits, eagerness to share a discovery.
I was young then.
Before I blinked, the men were crowded around my table. One of them whistled a word in surprise that wasn’t proper for a lady’s ears.
“The old man’s for real,” the young man whispered. “I’ll be...”
“The trees are all full of these,” I said, turning the Orel over in my hand.
“What’s he gonna do with all that gold?”
I shrugged. “He let me have this. Said he wanted everyone to have gold. So that...it wasn’t worth anything anymore. If gold grows on trees, he thinks, it won’t be worth fighting over, or...”
They didn’t seem to be listening to me.
“Dad’s orchard had six hundred bushels this year. If they were gold...”
“Set like Ekandria’s kings.” The man who spoke leaned over my shoulder, closer to the Orel. From his breath, he’d been drinking something strong, and far too much of it for this time of the morning.
“I don’t think...” I started, but I couldn’t continue with all of them staring at me. They looked like hungry men staring down a full meal, and though I knew I wasn’t the meal in question, my gut couldn’t tell the difference just then. It twisted in knots as my mouth went dry.
“You think Goldenseed’s still there?” the young man asked.
“Always wanted to speak with the old loon,” he said. The other men nodded.
“He’d give you gold if you ask for it,” I said. “Just ask. He’d be glad to offer it.” I was going to add something like There’s no need for... but I wasn’t sure they were planning something there was no need for.
They just didn’t look like men getting ready to ask politely.
“How much would he give?”
“I don’t know. Probably lots,” I said.
“I think you should go have a talk with him, Tomael,” one of the young man’s friends’ told him. “We all could go.”
Someone clapped a hand on my shoulder. “Don’t worry, miss. We’re just curious. Sounds like something to see.”
“Yeah,” I croaked.
“So let’s go see!”
They crowded back around their old table, just long enough to take up their coats and hats and lay down the coins for their drink—which they did with a too-cheerful laugh. I tried to finish my hash, but couldn’t swallow.
The tavern-keeper reemerged from the kitchen at the sound of the door opening and closing. She looked at their plates, some still half-full. The beer mugs were all empty.
“I never,” she said. “What’s go them up and running?”
“I do-don’t know,” I stammered. I gave up and pushed the hash away. “I, um, I have to go.”
She said something I didn’t quite catch, because the door was already closing behind me. I looked up the street in the direction I had come from this morning. No sign of the men. Cowardly, I was glad. I didn’t want to see them, or have them see me. But I did follow them.
I had some thought of warning Xan, if I could find a way to reach him before them, but I never did. The road was bordered by fences when it passed tilled land, and tangles of forest where it didn’t, and either way I couldn’t get off it to pass the men by without being seen. Truth be told, I couldn’t even keep up with them. My insides hadn’t untangled enough for me to breathe.
The Orel orchard was easier to spot in daylight, with the trees spaced evenly and dotted with spots of golden shine. I couldn’t see anybody from the road, but I did hear raised voices. Not quite angry, but the tone a person has when they don’t get the answer they want, and want to see if asking louder will bring more success.
Of course, it was one of the men asking, and Xanathan Kurtler not answering the way he wanted. I knew that even before I followed the sound of voices to them. Xan was surrounded, standing with sandy cap doffed, rubbing a hand through his snowy hair.
“Now, you can take some, I’m not saying anything against that. But you can’t just clean out the orchard—”
“Don’t you have other orchards, old man?”
“Plenty. I’m not worried about you taking these for my own good. But you’ve got to share alike. I didn’t plant this orchard just for you, see—”
“What I see,” the young man said, shoving his way forward, “is that you’re being miserly, Goldenseed. Let us have this crop, right? You can always grow more.”
I should have stopped forward then, told them to leave him alone. Maybe they’d have listened out of respect for a young woman. They weren’t angry-crazy, just crazy with thoughts of gold. See, maybe Xan could have done something—or he could’ve not done something, could’ve shut up and let them take the gold, just this one crop, there would be others—but bless him, he kept talking.
“Don’t you see? You take all the gold into your own hands, and there’s no point in having an orchard here like this. You don’t need that much. Just a little, and—”
An ox-built young man pulled something from under his coat. A hatchet, a little tool hatchet farm workers sometimes carried in those days, good for chopping through pickets or cutting things loose in an emergency, but to my eyes it was big as a Tuscaroe’s battleaxe.
Xan stepped back. “This isn’t worth a fight.”
A man removed his hat and started filling it with Orels.
Xan nodded. “Fine, good. Just no more than—”
“Shut up,” the man with the hatchet growled.
Xanathan Goldenseed stared him down. “Now see here, boy. I’m letting you have your gold, the least you could do is show some respect. There’s no need for violence as well as greed. It’s just some asinine little fruit, it’s not worth turning into a fool brute for—”
The man threw the hatchet.
Poor Xan. If he had just shut up—what he had to say wasn’t all that important—things might have been okay.
The hatchet flew at him, and he couldn’t duck fast enough, and he wound up pinned by an arm to the Orel tree behind him and his red blood mixed with the golden sap pouring down.
My God, that tree was full of gold.
I’ll say the men went wild after that, because in truth I don’t remember the details. They stripped the trees of fruit, and the man grabbed his hatchet with barely a look at Xan and started chopping the bark from another tree.
Xan slid to the ground.
Finally, I came forward. I ran to him, and knelt down and tried to use pressure to stop the bleeding, but all I really did was mop up blood.
It seemed like such a small cut. It just wouldn’t stop bleeding.
The golden sap pooled around us, and then the pools began to curdle, until most of the puddles had sort of dried into little bright nuggets.
Xan’s eyes flickered open. “Andra...”
“Those are the seeds, aren’t they?” I grabbed up a handful. I wanted so badly to hold them; I’m not sure why, but maybe it was because they were like Xan to me, and Xan was slipping away.
“Good,” he whispered. “Take them.”
I slipped the seeds in my pocket. With my other hand I pressed my handkerchief harder against his shoulder. “Xan, I’m sorry...”
“Huh? It’s all right. You’re all right, Andra...not like them...not...”
He never knew I was the one who said the things that led to his death. It really was my fault. The boys were greedy, and he should have shut his mouth, but that doesn’t excuse me. I should have known better.
I was holding him when he died, bled to death. I don’t want to talk about it. I never saw a man die before then, and it’s a terrible piece of business I don’t like to remember. Anyway, if I told you details you’d just remember those, and that’s not what this story is about.
He died while the young men were destroying his orchard, plucking fruit and chopping into trees. One stopped and stared at me, and then the others followed. I shrank back and reached for my lady’s pistol. For a moment their expressions said they wanted to do murder, and then they looked at Xan and realized they already had.
“Oh God!” the man with the hatchet cried. “Is he—I didn’t mean—”
“Damn loon,” the young man said. “It was just a scratch, wasn’t it? He shouldn’t have—”
“Now look here, miss,” another one said, pointing at me. “This was an accident, hear?”
“An accident,” the hatchet-man said miserably.
“I hear,” I said. “Now go away. Leave us alone.”
They nearly ran. It wasn’t because of all five feet of me or all five inches of my pistol, but because of what they’d done. They hadn’t meant to do wrong, much less to do murder. Maybe it was hunger for the gold, or anger when Xan called them brutes, or all that and something else, something buried and dark that everyone has—I’ll stop in a moment, because I’m not a philosopher, but I felt it too for a moment, when I wanted to take my little pistol and shoot them as they ran away.
I don’t want to, can’t, think that it was all about the gold.
I had to leave Xan there. I didn’t have the tools or strength to bury him. But before I left, I straightened out his clothes, and in his pants pocket I slipped the Orel he had given me.
I don’t know if his dream would have worked, even if he’d lived. He couldn’t watch over every orchard all the time, and word’s been that many of them were picked clean, then chopped down when someone realized the sap inside was golden, too. There was no one to stop them, and no reason to wait and let someone else take the gold instead. It was every man for himself, and I’ve heard it was terrible.
I’ve preferred barter since then, and I don’t travel anymore. So all I know is what I’ve heard, and lately I’ve heard that Xanathan Kurtler deserved to die, that he was a rotten miser who would’ve used his wealth for wicked purposes.
Strange purposes, maybe, impractical, but not wicked. He meant so well, and if it’s anybody’s fault he died, it’s mine.
I planted the golden seeds. There was only one sprout, the one that grew into the tree out there. I put the walls in the garden when it was about five years old.
Yes, when they came out. Do you want one? Well, I don’t see the harm in it. Just one, mind.
There’s no harm in a little gold, provided you don’t value it too much.