The Last Cherry Orchard
Bastian sat heavily in the angle formed by tree trunk and crust. He pushed a hand through the topsoil, and cried at the unnatural chemical balance revealed in the narrow, pigmented furrows. His index finger curled around a root and lifted it to the surface; it glistened, its dominant element unused to light and immune to oxidation. Bastian pressed his head against the solid pillar at his back. There was no give. These trees, planted by a nameless ancestor on the whim of a romantic emperor, were now hardened to nature.
Bastian watched the sun’s leading edge appear on a cloudless horizon. The first rays rippled over the wasted meadows and quiet seas that surrounded the last cherry orchard. Their energy curled the meagre covering of grass (un-watered for several days now), as they would soon curl the hairs on Bastian’s bare legs. Nearby, in the tool hut, hung the ungainly suit and suffocating helmet that he had worn without fail for thirty years. Not today. He wanted this.
The romantic emperor’s descendants had not shared the founder’s vision, but for a millennium they ensured the orchard’s survival with allowances and exemptions. These policies maintained a bustling paradise of fragrant aromas, hovering cargo ships and healthy trade. With the onset of political decline and a change in tastes, the fruit was no longer collected.
Bastian’s great-great-grandfather had no choice but to plough it back into the land. This unnatural cycle resulted in unusual concentrations of trace titanium, such that the xylem developed a metal lining and the wood beneath the bark became permanently altered.
When the garden planet’s orbital shield was finally removed by a bankrupt minor emperor desperate for resources, atmospheric conditions forced further adaptation: copper half-shells began to grow from buds adjacent to each succulent cherry, protecting them from the sun’s unfiltered power.
The rising sun touched Bastian’s dirty feet. For a minute, the heat was pleasant. A light breeze passed through the orchard. Bastian held the root between finger and thumb. He sensed a trembling. They knew. Eyeless and nerveless, the trees knew that their keeper and carer had omitted to activate the wall on the windward hill.
A century ago the victors of the last war returned with deliberate vengeance to destroy the romantic line’s cultural legacy. The land, razed of great temples, forests and cities, offered no impediment to the winds that built naturally over the continental plain. The effects of the resulting sirocco began to be felt in the surviving orchard (which the soldiers had overlooked, so insignificant had it become). In late afternoon, without fail, a tight column of air leapt from the mainland to the fruiterers’ archipelago. The trees on the perimeter bowed to its force, and their bark was peeled away.
Bastian’s father successfully reduced the wind’s peak intensity by building a wall of many sections mounted on hydraulic pivots which turned to face the blast when the hour came. Come the evening, each section would rotate to admit the trailing winds that carried essential moisture.
Today the sirocco would skim the sea, hop the isthmus, hug the hills and pass between the wall’s oblivious sections without pause. It would hit the orchard and carry away the bark and leaves desiccated blanched by a day under the sun. Only the gleaming, metallic skeletons, suddenly revealed, would remain.
The root stopped trembling. Bastian felt sure the trees shared his vision. It was time to stop pretending. Gnarled and grey, their fruit had become tough of late. Flashes of titanium showed where birds had pecked at weak spots.
His thighs burned now. Bastian knew his own dehydrated mass would join the detritus. When the orchard of wire was discovered hundreds or thousands of years from now, they would not know his name.
He lifted his face to the strengthening rays and let them sink in.
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