Original Fiction, free story: The Blood Orange Tree

This is a shortened and revised version of my first anthology piece, published originally by editor Lee Martindale and Meisha Merlin in 2000. It’s an urban fantasy near-future piece that may or may not eventually become a novel. Yes, it’s in first person, and the narrator never gives her name (Rebecca impressed me mightily, in my early teen years.) No, the narrator is not me. (She’s a far better painter than I am.) But February is the time of year when I first wrote this story down. It’s when central Arizona is mild and forgiving to everyone but allergy sufferers, and when citrus blossom, jasmine, and acacia perfume the air.

The reprint market for such things is very scarce if one is not a ‘name’ author, so I decided to re-release this slightly different version as a thank you gift for my readers.

1911 Faberge Easter Egg 'Orange Tree' - the original inspiration for this story. Courtesy of Forbes.com http://www.forbes.com/2004/01/09/cx_pm_0108fabergelander.html
1911 Faberge Easter Egg ‘Orange Tree’ – the original inspiration for this story. Courtesy of Forbes.com
http://www.forbes.com/2004/01/09/cx_pm_0108fabergelander.html

If you enjoy ‘The Blood Orange Tree’, track down the anthology here or here. It’s worth your time.

The Blood Orange Tree, by Crane Hana (approx. 3600 words)

Who runs out of gasoline three days in a row in the same place, in the Arizona desert?

The first morning I drove on, and felt guilty the rest of the day. The second morning I imagined a murderer’s van lurking behind the mesquite groves just off the highway. The third morning, I saw the same weary young figure trudging past the same milepost, a gasoline can banging his knees as he walked. How would I feel in his place? I stopped on the shoulder, and rolled down my window as I watched him hurry to meet the car. “Where are you headed?”

He glanced toward the south. “Into the city.”

“Car break down?”

“Motorcycle. A few miles back.” He waved his free hand toward the northwest. “Thanks for stopping, lady.”

When kids his age said ‘lady’ it meant ‘forty-something fat bitch’. His ‘lady’ was different enough that I said, “Join me and Gray Mare, then.”

He bent to look through the window. “You have a horse?”

“The Saab.” I patted the dashboard. “From a Tolkien story, with an old gray mare of uncommon good sense.”

“Ah,” he said. “Sympathetic magic.”

I reminded him about the seatbelt. He fumbled with the catch, and jumped at the Mare’s stuttering engine. I smiled. He turned to look out the window.

Jackrabbits and mourning doves watched us pass. A hawk soared high enough to be gilt by dawn-light. The boy frowned at the hawk.

When the road let me, I glanced at him. Eighteen, I thought, maybe nineteen. Thin, tall, colt-knobby at the joints. Bronze-red hair curled against high cheekbones and olive skin. Jeans dark and crisp, a clean gray T-shirt, a storm-blue jacket with the sheen of silk. He didn’t smell of three days in the desert, or even an hour. I didn’t think the jacket hid a gun.

On the floor, the gasoline can rocked. Red-orange dust stained the boy’s jeans. I saw the other side of the can, its metal a pitted lacework of rust.

The Mare jittered over the center line.

He looked at me, then at the can. “Ah. I needed a lure. I don’t mean to hurt you.”

My knuckles whitened on the steering wheel. I kept my voice light. “You’ve been here three days. What do you want?”

“Help me. Before sunrise. Please.”

A juvenile detention center, heralded by Do Not Stop For Hitchhikers signs, lay not too many miles eastward. More sunlit hawks wheeled over a salt flat ahead. “What happens at sunrise?”

“To you? Nothing. Will you take me into the city?”

I glanced east. The first sliver of sunlight pierced a gap in the mountains. Half a mile before us, mirages rippled golden above asphalt.

“Please?” he whispered again, staring ahead, his fingers clenching the seatbelt.

“All right.” Why not? “To the city.”

Peach-golden light spilled across the desert and into my car. The boy cast a watery shadow against torn upholstery. He forced one hand against his lips. A hawk dipped by my side window, pacing the car, its wingtip almost brushing the glass. Over the Mare’s engine, I heard the hawk’s scream recede into distance.

Sunlight. The hawk was gone. When I glanced over, the boy’s shadow was solid as mine. His smile was unsteady, his gray eyes bright. “Thank you,” he said.

“You’re welcome. Just send some luck my way.”

“On my honor, I will.”

Such words. Prep school? Royalty?

“So,” I said, “Your motorcycle ran out of gas three mornings in a row.”

“And somebody stole my real gas can today, about ten miles before that town –”

“Wickenburg. Better make it twenty miles. I live ten miles north of it.”

“Twenty, then.”

“Why are you afraid of dawn? Why are you here?”

“Oranges.”

“Oranges?”

“My father owns an experimental nursery in, er, Nevada. Hybridizing plants to arid regions. Grafting delicate strains to strong stock. He sent me down to look at an odd old variety he wants, growing at a private ranch. I’ll try to buy some cuttings. Our orchards are dying out. This hybrid might save them.”

The mile markers surged by. I began to wonder about our game. “I know legends about oranges.”

He humored me. “Really?”

“The golden apples of the Hesperides. One of Hercules’ tasks, I think. A 17th Century Dutchman said they were oranges. Maybe the Hebrew’s Tree of Knowledge was an orange tree. Or was it apricot? And I read a fantasy book once, long ago, that said every thirteenth fruit of the orange tree held a wish. They were only folktales, but beautiful.”

“You’re a scholar?”

“Hardly. My family lived in a good part of Phoenix. The houses seemed to come with their own transplanted English gardens. Whoever designed ours was a citrus addict. He’d left his books in the attic.”

His regal voice sharpened. “Do you own them still?”

“My mother sold them in an estate sale years ago. To help me pay for art school. For all the good it did us, we should have kept the books and the house.”

“I smelled orchards blooming before dawn. I thought the city was magical at night, from up in the mountains,” the boy said. “A lake of stars.”

“Most of the orchards are pastel subdivisions by now. It’s only February. Right now, you smell the old orange trees in yards and along the freeways. The green doesn’t really belong here. Like the swimming pools and golf courses. Phoenix is as much a mirage as Vegas.”

“Vegas?”

“Never mind.” I wondered where he really lived.

“I wish you could see it through my eyes, lady.”

“I can’t see around the past.”

“What past?” His hand flattened on my forehead.

“Oh,” I said.

The Arizona Tourism Board must marshal legions of photographers on mornings like this, I thought. Twenty miles away, skyscrapers rose like crystal blocks. Surreal mountains ringed the city, speared up through it in seven-hundred-foot-high scarps of russet and amber sandstone. Golf courses and swimming pools were beryls and sapphires set in a misty golden valley. The abomination was beautiful because it had no right to exist, an ephemeral kingdom made as much of illusion as water and steel.

“Treasure it. It cannot last,” he whispered. His fingertips left my skin, but some of the sudden magic stayed. “I know deserts. This one waits below the surface. The desert says people lived here long ago, and it did the same to them. Who were they?”

“Hohokam,” I dredged up high-school memories. “Native Americans. Canal-builders. Some of the new canals follow the old channels. The first people are long gone. Maybe some of the nearby tribes are descendants. I don’t know.”

The boy nodded. “Whoever rebuilt those canals made the same bargain as before, probably unwitting. The desert’s magic, in exchange for desolation later. Whatever lives and grows here has the power to defy time and entropy, at least for a while.”

“This is just Phoenix.”

“This is Phoenix, lady. A city twice-risen from sand, called after the Benu, the Firebird? There is great power in names. Anything can happen here, while the city stands and water flows through it.”

“You’re nuts.”

“You’re blind.”

“Perhaps, but I’m the driver.”

“Then watch where you’re going.”

The surviving citrus orchards yielded to pink-walled, fake-adobe subdivisions and seedy strip malls. The painterly part of my brain stopped its habitual self-doubt long enough to piece together a sketch. Under a hot white noon sky, three orange-tree dryads danced in a desert full of shattered glass and metal. Their bodies were lush, heavy, relics of a beauty centuries out of style. I had never thought of myself as beautiful – but the dryads were. I tried to analyze the imagery. A manifesto railing against over-development? A 20th century take on Classicism? A size-wise fairy tale?

The vision refused explanation.

“Where are we going?” asked my passenger, pulling me out of the reverie in time to realize I’d been pacing traffic at an effortless seventy miles per hour, instead of my normal plodding fifty-five.

“I work downtown. Where do you need to be?”

“Are you an artist there?”

“I wish. I don’t even know what art is, anymore. Did you know, there’s a guy in London who makes art from dead sharks and cows in formaldehyde tanks?”

He made a disgusted noise. “We have people like that. Are they valued here?”

“Enough to be famous for a while. The recession hit even him in the end, I guess. My day-job is desk jockey for an information security company. I keep telling myself I’m only waiting for the big break. Let’s worry about your future, first. The bus connections aren’t the best. But they’ll get you close to your orange tree. Do you know the address?”

“Bus?” he asked.

I was late to work, giving him cash to buy an all-day transit pass and a map. I blamed traffic, and planned another painting during my breaks: in brown-purple dusk, a scene of tropical fish swimming between wire fences and cacti. I imagined city lights blooming down in a valley, like lost Atlantis in an undersea rift.

Like the dryads it refused agenda, craving only existence.

I pushed my last sketch aside and concentrated on work. Downtown Phoenix intruded through the window. By late afternoon, an unfamiliar city rebuilt itself outside the office window: all angles, color-washed planes, clean lines that echoed back to a 1920’s ideal of glorified technology and a bright future.

So many ideas. Could I paint even one of them? Trying would cost me nothing but the old watercolor paints slowly drying in their tubes. Blank paper waited in my tiny studio, a dozen white-shuttered windows that didn’t need reasons or markets or clients to exist.

I walked outside to the Mare.

Go home right now, sang the sun and the wind in the green palm-fronds, and you can paint whatever you want as long as you live.

I saw the boy leaning against my car, his head bent over his hands. The lines of his body, outlined by red-orange sunlight, almost made me reach for the little sketchbook in my purse.

“Any luck?”

He looked up, face set in a scowl. “No. I need your help again.”

The muse’s moment began to ebb. I might still paint. If I got in the Mare without involving myself again. The orange-tree dryads, the desert reef, and the crystal towers begged me to drive away.

“The owner wasn’t cooperative,” he snarled. He tossed away the object in his hands, a dead brown twig shedding desiccated leaves. “He wanted things I didn’t have. Credit cards, check guarantee cards, my father’s tax number, references. And he wouldn’t take what I had for payment! All for a wretched, half-dead tree that no one will be able to save in a year!”

My moment of perfect creativity fled. “What did you try to give him? Not the gasoline can, I hope.”

He upended a fist-sized green suede bag on the Mare’s hood. I winced at the noise, then forgot to breathe. Finger-long bars of gold, chased with wavy interlocking designs, clanged against old steel. Polished nuggets caught the sun, flaring Gulf-stream blue, dark carmine, jungle-green. A perfect spectrum sprayed across pitted paint, from a water-clear stone the diameter of my thumb.

The boy glared at the trove. “He said I was probably a thief. Then he threw me out. Threatened to call the police. So I found you again.”

I leaned back against my car. “How on earth?” Did I really want to know how he found me, in all of central Phoenix? “What now?”

“You helped me once.” He scooped up a handful of gems and gold. “You’re poor, but you know this city. You can turn this dross into useful coin. It’s yours.”

“If I can get you back to that ranch tonight.”

“Yes.”

If I couldn’t paint, I thought, I might as well try being rich and talentless.

#

We idled along quiet drives curtained in the deep greens made possible by water and money. I saw too many short-sale signs in front of the sprawling houses on this rich street. “We may be just in time,” I said. “Your farmer might sell to a real-estate investor, if he’s not losing his property to a bank.”

“Would the new owners keep the orchard?”

“Maybe some of the younger, prettier trees.”

We drove past the orchard and its high iron gates. While my passenger chewed his fingernails, I parked half a block away. “No for-sale sign,” I said. “He’s fighting the tide and staying. That means he’ll have security.”

“I’ll get you out of it.”

“I suppose you’ll flash gold in front of the guards?”

“No guards. Just sizzling wires and tiny lights.”

“Electronics, then,” I sighed.

“I didn’t come this far to let a fence stop me.”

And I hadn’t come this far to stay with the Mare.

The boy ghosted to the main gate. I expected him to have tools. Then again, remembering the golden bars, I wasn’t startled when he simply raised a hand to the iron. Something crackled. I smelled acrid smoke. The gate swung open. All the nearby crickets stopped chirping.

“Come on,” he whispered. “I’ll need your help inside.”

I followed him, my sensible heels catching on twigs but making little sound. Black shapes loomed ten or fifteen feet from the floor of the night, making the orchard an alien labyrinth. Peacocks shrieked in the distance. Tree branches drooped, offering leafy boughs and thorns, sweet fruit and rancid windfalls, the scent shifting between early blossoms and winter decay.

Coppery sodium-vapor light, reflected from ragged clouds overhead, limned a clearing occupied by one weathered shed and a tree. I saw the root stock, its few crooked stems carrying stunted, nearly-fossilized brown globes. From that dreary nest lifted a smooth gray trunk shrouded in waxy leaves, fruited in golden constellations.

The main tree, the scion. A dwarf Yggdrasil? A Tsarina’s Faberge toy? It should flourish jade leaves and moonstone blossoms, its silver trunk springing from a golden urn in a museum.

The next glance showed me brown-edged and yellowed leaves. The tree was dying, certainly distressed.

“What now?” I whispered.

“Start the count. You pick where.”

I considered one heavy fruit among many. An orange. Unmysterious. I could buy its cousin at any grocery. But I remembered childhood and hand-colored books: Eve’s apple, Hellenic myths, Arabian Nights tales of forbidden orchards.

Another dour medieval legend surfaced: “I can’t,” I said. “Women supposedly blighted orange trees with a single touch.”

“Are you a virgin, then?”

“Watch your mouth! I went to college.”

“And you remember it?”

“Sadly, yes.”

“We’ll risk it. Have you gloves?”

I saw his grin, in the copper light. “Gloves, he wants,” I told the tree. “We’ll need a lawyer if we get caught.”

“For an orange or two? From necromancers who put pickled animals on pedestals? What a world you live in. Choose, lady.”

I pointed into the dark green void at one fruit. No different than its fellows. Merely the first my eyes found. “That one.”

He pointed from that to the next, whispering each number until – “Thirteen!” He snapped the last orange from its twig with a tiny snick. He tucked the fruit into his jacket. Then he reached up and snagged my orange. “Here. They’re blood oranges. You can’t find them often in the markets you frequent, I’d guess. Your wage.” The easy arrogance in his voice stung me, did not sting me at all. The strong, clean citrus smell was worth that much.

A tardy alarm shrilled near the main house. We’d left the gate open. A sensor woke. Lights stuttered on. Peacocks wailed. I heard a man’s voice raised in question.

We ran. Like Cinderella, I lost a shoe on the way. The boy darted through the gate. As I passed, it brushed my arm and bestowed a kissing shock. But the Mare waited, her ignition blessedly loyal. While flashlights still stabbed through the dark orchard, we rocketed away, laughing like fools.

No one followed us. I stopped near an all-night taqueria. Untrimmed palm trees edged the street, their papery brown fronds creaking in a light breeze. In the parking lot, half a dozen members of a local low-rider club whooped and made their cars buck to music.

The boy dug out a gem-hilted knife from his jacket. He began to peel his prize in neat cuts quartering the ruddy skin.

“What about your father?”

“He wanted the cuttings to renew our orchards. He said the ripe fruit was useless unless it had grown from our soil. I don’t see why. One orange might spawn more trees from its seeds than one cutting.”

“No,” I said, remembering the citrus addict’s books. “Cross-pollination. The tree bloomed in that orchard with other oranges. There are still thousands of citrus trees in this valley. God knows what you’d get from the seeds. Only a cutting would grow true to the strain.”

His knife trembled across the orange’s pitted skin, stopped in mid-cut. He looked back at me, then out across the city. He smiled.

“No.” I made it final by turning off the Mare’s engine. “We are not going back.”

“I’m not, either. Going back, I mean. To my land.”

“Your land.”

My companion shrugged. “I thought I had failed. But if I stay here, I haven’t. It would be my life to return without the cuttings. And I do not think I would like my life much, if they took root in our soil.” His eyes held an ageless fear. “Our soil – changes things. Sometimes not for the better. But this orange? This is for me.”

“All this for an orange?”

He gave me the knife hilt-first in a courtly flourish. “For this orange, yes. Try yours.”

I took the knife. Held my wage untouched in my hand, and watched him.

He peeled thirteen sections away from the pith. The boy bit into the first wedge, trailing white membranes from the nipped edge. The dark-red, shredded pulp vesicles looked more like organ meat than fruit. “Not hungry?” he teased.

I felt like a drunk teenager on a dangerous dare. One wish. Love or talent? Or wealth, which might buy facsimiles of both? A better life, certainly. It wouldn’t be wrong to eat this orange. Only wasteful. I might never paint again. But I’d never forget how I’d felt, in that sunset moment when I could paint whatever I chose. And let lapse the gift to help a stranger.

“I’ll keep it.” I handed back the knife. “How is yours?”

“Beautiful.”

In the brief, silken silence I remembered the day’s embryonic pictures. If I reached for them, they’d vanish.

Remembering them was torment. Forgetting them, unthinkable.

The boy tucked twelve orange segments into his jacket, then opened the car door.

“Where are you going?”

“To find real magic. The kind you have, lady. There’s more power here than in any place I know, and I want it. Thank you for showing it to me.” He leaned over and kissed me briefly on the lips. The scent of the orchard rose from his hair and skin.

“How will you get back to – to Nevada?” I asked, as the secondhand taste of the wishing-orange stung my lips, the tip of my tongue.

“Who cares? I’d rather see this world first.” He set the treasure bag on the passenger’s seat. Then he walked away from the Mare.

“Wait!”

Some of the low-riders looked over and laughed, not cruelly, at a plain middle-aged woman calling after some jail-bait hustler. The boy didn’t look back. The palm-fronds closed behind him.

“You can’t survive here,” I began. “Oh, hell.” How would I even report him to the police?

Who’d believe me? I looked at the top half of my face in the rear-view mirror. A data-entry clerk. A non-entity who thought she was an artist. Whose paintings died stillborn between mind and paper.

I still smelled him and the orange.

Who started trends, I wondered, warming my orange in my hands. The wise, the powerful, the unconventional, the fearless, and the frightening. Maybe I should be grateful, for being last compared to a pickled shark. But today I’d seen dreams that deserved to be painted, whether I sold them or not.

“I can try,” I said to the orange.

A Cadillac backfired, in tempo to a loud Latino cover of a Duran Duran song I hadn’t heard in years. I jumped, then laughed, and wiped two decades of useless tears from my eyes. When I looked up again, I saw neon signs, glossy automobiles, and jeans-clad dancers. Women laughing. Men making love to women in a roundabout way, their cars dancing like courting birds of paradise. I saw joy. And I saw, finally, how to paint it.

I felt the muse’s moment stretch into a minute, then eternity.

#

After learning how to transmute otherworldly gold and gems into actual money, I gave the Mare a new engine.

I work in the same adobe studio under a grove of feathery mesquite trees atop a low red hill, ten miles north of Wickenburg.

I don’t know if I have the thirteenth orange. If the boy cheated himself, while the real magic sleeps above my worktable. I stuck cloves into the orange, knotted it into a tether of silk ribbon. The scent is still strong enough to flavor the entire studio with lush night and wheeling stars. It astonishes visitors.

When I paint, one window looks south over the desert, to the mountains and mirages of Phoenix. The other gives me pure north light, and a view down a winding dirt road toward the highway to Nevada.

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