Shepherd’s Derelict: A Novel
“Is…is it us?” Hector asked. He thought back to the hospital shrubs, the thistle he’d tripped on in the parking lot. “Are we doing this, do you think?”
“We have to be, Hector. Can’t you feel it?” Daphne kneeled down on the sidewalk and put her hand on a crack. “You can do it, little darling.” She whispered to the pavement. “Mama knows…” A tiny tendril leapt from the crack and sprouted a joyful set of leaves from its top. Daphne sat back and laughed. “Yes! Hector, it’s us!”
What a strange girl, Hector thought. But also, I could fall in love with her.
He sat down beside Daphne, put his palms on the warm concrete, and felt what she meant: below his hands, under just a few inches of cement and spreading out for acres, countless seeds—thistle, willow, sycamore, alder, birch, all the wild grasses of the Vina plains—were rousing themselves from deep sleep. Lichens spread out across the surface of the pavement, like nursemaids, taking the concrete apart, bit by microscopic bit, making nutrients for their younger, more dramatic cousins with leaves and stems and roots.
His stomach growled, and Daphne’s answered. She laughed.
“We have to get something to eat.”
“I know, right? Here we are in the middle of some kind of miracle, and I’ve never been so hungry in my damn life.”
“Hector, what are we going to do? I think I’ll die if I don’t eat again soon, and everything sounds terrible.”
His stomach ached. He shifted onto the grass to make room while she stood. His palm rested on a hard root of the sycamore tree, and an image pulsed in his mind.
“Could we take our shoes off for a minute?” he said. “I have an idea.”
“Yes! My feet are killing me. I worked a double shift. Just for a minute, then we’ll go get food?”
“Yeah. Just a few seconds. I want to try something.”
His running shoes, normally so comfortable, had been paining him for some time, Hector realized, and the cool air was a delight once he tugged his toes free of shoes and socks. His feet, dimly lit by the streetlight, seemed…bigger, almost muscular. Next to him, Daphne poked at her big toe with a curious finger.
“Hector, are your feet growing? ‘Cause mine seem really…weird.”
“I was just about to call you Frodo.”
“Okay, well your feet are very pretty. And mine…” He looked closer. The big toe on his right foot seemed weirdly long relative to the others. “Actually, yeah. Something’s up.” He scooted higher on the lawn so he could rest his feet in the grass. They felt hot, or something similar, and if he could just cool them in the for a minute… “Oh man, Daphne. You have try this! Here, sit next to me!”
She scrambled up next to Hector and copied his example, gave a little squeal when her toes touched the earth.
“Can you feel it?” She whispered.
“Yeah…” They stopped talking and just sat together, in the middle of a stranger’s yard, unheeding of the motion-sensor light that had flicked on over the garage.
They were changing. Hector wondered at Daphne, who must be experiencing the same transformations inside her body but didn’t seem to question it—so different from his experience with women. He himself had nothing to lose—no people, no family, no place to call his own—and the knowledge from the acorn seemed to have wiped away the everyday concerns that had lived in in the body of Hector Gonzales. The new thing taking root had longer vision. Perhaps it was the same for Daphne?
The hunger that had been squeezing his stomach all night now flowed down his ankles to his toes, and he dug them in, deeper and deeper, feeling the connections growing—heels, toes, branches of toes, deeper into the place where the hunger was met with the wisdom of soil, of ants and beetles, and fungus and all the things crawling beneath. The roots of the great sycamore pulsed toward them, sending a sweet nectar, as it was also doing for its own seedlings, spread out and springing to life over an entire city block. The surge of pleasure in Hector’s body was almost sexual in the full-body intensity of it, pulsing through him in waves, releasing the hunger and feeding each of the cells—the old and the new—but also more than physical, that same knowing as before. Again, that movement through time, back, and then forward, he’d experienced in the hospital room. But also different—the story of sycamore rather than oak. In his imagination he felt his neck stretching, arms branching, reaching tall over head to embrace the whole of the sky, like a basket of stars.
He was aware of Daphne beside him, mouth open in wonder, and through the Earth between them he could feel her experience, on a parallel path, nearly as well as he felt his own. And then, utterly filled, reveling in a new certainty that he’d never go hungry again, he laid back on the grass and fell into a deep sleep.
He awoke to the thwup thwup of a helicopter somewhere above the trees, Daphne snuggled into his arms, and the song of a mockingbird, high on a branch, singing to a rising sun. He sat up, trying not to jostle Daphne, but she shifted and looked up at him. Her eyes, sleepy, dark with a tinge of green, were the most beautiful he had ever seen, Hector was certain. He pulled a leaf from her tousled hair. She looked wild.
“Mmmmph,” she said. “I don’t remember falling asleep. Where are we?”
“Yeah, last I remember was us sitting in the lawn…” He looked around but couldn’t see the lawn and the houses. They lay on a grassy mat just the size of two bodies, but around them branches of every possible sort had woven into a tight nest around them. Distantly, a siren wailed. “Where are we?”
“I think…I think we’re in the same place as last night.” Daphne plucked the flower from a delicate blooming currant bush. “Hector, did we do this?”
Daphne leaned in then and kissed him, right on the lips, surprising Hector.
“I meant to do that last night,” she said. “But I forgot.”
Pleasure flushed from his toes to his hair. “I hope you’ll do it again.”
“I will,” she said, smiling and running a thumb over his lower lip. “But later.” She stood up, brushing herself off, and it seemed to Hector that the low hanging tangle of branches made room for her. “My shift starts at ten, so…” But then she looked a bit disoriented, at Hector, at the tangle of green around them. “I think…I think I should find all this strange. I think I should be worried, or confused, or shocked. I think that, but I don’t feel that. Everything just makes sense.”
He stood with her and tried to orient himself. A uniform tangle of shrubs had grown all around them, but if he closed his eyes and breathed, breathed through his feet, he could feel the direction of the truck.
“C’mon.” He took Daphne’s hand. “Let’s get cleaned up somewhere, and I’ll drive you to work.”
They moved forward, and the wall of shrubbery shifted, making room. Daphne followed a few steps, but then stopped.
“Hector, why would I go to work?”
He turned to look at her, and she continued.
“I don’t…I don’t need anything, anymore. Can’t you feel it? I don’t need a roof, or food, or things…”
He paused, considered. “Yeah. I hadn’t thought about it yet, but…yeah. Those things don’t make sense. But I think I’d like…I’d like to get the acorns out of the truck and go for a walk.”
They stepped forward again, and the tunnel of green opened into a dappled morning forest. Hector was surprised to see a woman in a nightgown and slippers. Why was she wandering the woods dressed like that? But then he saw that she shuffled between the trunks of sycamore trees, one of which seemed to have thrust up right through the center of a house. Her movement was odd, like cheap animation, as if she traveled too far in space to account for the speed of her legs. The house behind her had exploded outward, and already the stucco chunks were being swallowed by the climbing roots of other trees. All lay covered in moss, which lent a queer muffling effect to what should have been noise and chaos. A fire engine lay on its side nearby, swarmed by a rowdy gang of scrub alder seedlings. A fire crew worked furiously at a water main that had been tapped by thirsty willows. Groups of people, dressed mostly in night wear, huddled together, drew apart, gestured wildly at the trees that had sprung up all around them. But, again, their movement was strange, as if watching a film that had been slightly sped up. Mallards quacked from a swimming pool that had sprung cattails overnight, and a red winged blackbird swayed on one of the shoots, trilling its territorial call.
Hector and Daphne took a few more steps through the forest in wonderment.
A middle-aged man in boxer shorts and flip flops sat stunned against a crumbling wall. He looked up as they neared, and Hector felt a surge of feeling for the man, the pain and shock in his eyes. Pain, Hector realized, brought on by a lack of understanding.
“What will we do?” Said the man. “All gone…everything all gone.”
Hector reached into his pocket, found one of the acorns he had saved, and took a knee before him.
“Here…This will help.” He took the man’s limp hand and wrapped it around the oak seed. The man’s hand tightened, and a spark of curiosity lit on his face. He held the acorn up to the light.
“Thank you,” he said. Then, as Hector knew he would, the man brought the acorn to his lips.
They walked on.
A few other people wandered aimlessly in the woods, but did not notice Hector and Daphne, distracted as they were by the devastation of their neighborhood. They found Hector’s truck tilted at an angle and high centered by the knob of an oak root. The truck bed was a small forest of seedlings.
Brand new, Hector had spent all his savings on that truck just a few days earlier, and vaguely, he remembered that Hector Gonzales—as was—would have been upset. Today, breathing in the fresh clean air of a newly sprung forest, with Daphne by his side, he found that it didn’t matter.
The trees ended abruptly on the other side of the vehicle. Standing in the shadows, Daphne and Hector looked out at a regular suburban neighborhood where a nervous crowd had gathered and several police cars parked at angles, lights flashing. Officers had positioned themselves between the crowd and the forest, though they needn’t have bothered; no one was trying to get in. An officer, spotting them, jogged toward them, and they emerged onto the street.
“What’s happening?” asked Hector. Though he knew very well what was happening, he hoped to get the scope of it. “We just woke up.”
“No idea.” The officer was young and blonde, seemed a little hopped up, excited by the drama. He moved so quickly that Hector had half expected his voice to be on helium. “Started at Gabriel Mission last night, and just marched through town. A whole forest just grew overnight, and it’s spreading faster than we can assess the damage.”
“Gabriel Mission?” asked Daphne. “I work at the hospital. Is everyone okay?”
The officer shook his head. “I mean, they got the patients out, transferred them to other facilities, but…no. The hospital is gone. Poof. The trees tore it apart all night, and now there’s nothing left. Crazytown.” Then he seemed to remember himself. “That is to say, sorry about your job, ma’am.”
Daphne sat down on a curb of the sidewalk, seemingly stunned, or maybe just remembering that she was supposed to act stunned, and Hector watched a trail of lichen blossom from where she sat, back toward the forest. Behind them, their footsteps were greening on the asphalt, though the officer had not yet noticed.
“You folks okay? There’s an ambulance over there behind the squad cars, and the red cross is trying to get something set up for everyone, soon as they find a new location.”
“We’re good.” Hector took Daphne’s hand and helped her to her feet. “We’re just gonna go get a few of our things and go stay with relatives, I think.”
The officer nodded. “Be quick. We don’t know how dangerous this stuff is yet. Could be some kind of Russian or Chinese bioweapon, for all we know.”
“Will do, officer.”
The man nodded and made to turn away, when Hector thought again.
“Hey, we found something in there.”
He handed an acorn to the officer, who took it, then blinked at the seed resting on his open palm. The officer said nothing for a long time, then spoke in a kind of daze. “Did you ever think about what a miracle an acorn is?”
“Yeah man,” said Hector, smiling. “I think about that a lot lately. Here…” He handed the last three acorns from his pocket over to the policeman. “Here are some more for your friends.”
“Hey, thanks…” He put the extras in the pocket of his uniform shirt, still distracted by the first acorn that he held to the light. “I wonder why we don’t eat these anymore.”
“Isn’t that funny?” said Daphne. “Maybe you should give one of those to your chief. I bet he’d be curious too.”
“I bet he would.” The officer turned from them, but as he jogged away Hector watched him put the acorn in his mouth.
Hector turned back toward the ruined truck, Daphne at his side.
“What do you want to do?” he asked her.
“Well, I’m not going to work today, that’s one thing.”
“No, I mean, in general…” Hector gestured at the forest, and the crowd of curious onlookers out on the street. “I mean, we did this. Can we even stop doing this?”
Daphne leaned against the jigsaw puzzle bark of a young sycamore.
“C’mere,” she said, pulling Hector in close to stand next to her, back against the bark. She placed his hand flat against the skin of the tree, her own hand over his. He felt the life of the tree. His own flesh and blood, leaf and limb. “Look up there.” He did. Up in the canopy, birds and insects swooped through the branches, birdsong trilling in every direction. “Now look out there.” She pointed out to the frightened crowd, the tidy street. “Think about it, Hector. Think about the idiotic mass of humanity burning itself up into nothing.” Flashes of yesterday’s news pulsed in his mind, mixed with memories of Afghanistan. Bodies, tanks, explosions. The whole of Paradise, all of his family up in smoke. Daphne gave his hand a squeeze, as if she knew the contents of his mind. Perhaps she did. “What do you want to do?”
Hector pushed off the tree trunk and made his way to the passenger side of the truck where, with some effort, he was able to wiggle his arm in through the window and retrieve the two plastic shopping sacks of acorns and his backpack. He ran his hands through the acorns—so many, but not nearly enough—then carefully poured them into the pack and slung the straps over his shoulders. He thought about the canyon, and the valley of the oak, of all the other acorns that must be nestled in the grass.
“I’d like to go for a walk,” he said. “A really long walk.”
“Yeah.” Daphne nodded. “I’d like that too.”
I gave up on work for the afternoon—the deadline was blown so badly now that one day couldn’t make a difference—and took a shower, hoping to scrub away some of the anxieties about Pops. I dressed, pulling an old sweatshirt over my head, then swiped steam away from the...
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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.