Johnny bit down on his belt as he pulled the shards of glass from his foot. The thin, jagged pieces came out slowly but finally, he exhaled as the last chunk of glass clattered to the ground. He was slumped back down into the alley and wiped away the tears before someone saw him. He had a reputation to keep up, after all.
His feet were a patchwork of scars from similar incidents and Johnny liked to joke with people that eventually his feet were going to just become as tough as leather shoes. Hadn’t happened yet though. It started to rain in the alley and he welcomed it as the stink of the nearby dumpster was covered with the fresh smell of water falling. He pulled his tattered cloth bag closer to him, to keep the amount of water going in there to a minimum. He didn’t want the seeds to get ruined.
For decades he had crossed the country planting. He remembered his first forest. Oh, what a joy that was. He could still smell the loamy earth and the pride he felt as the various trees and flowers he had planted the spring before came to life. His feet were cooled by the earth and he could flex his toes to dig into the rich, dark soil. Animals were plentiful and while he didn’t eat flesh, he still enjoyed following them down their many paths. Their dens became little hidden markers, reminding him of generations past and generations yet to come.
He had delighted in planting fruit for settlers still figuring out how to survive in this harsh landscape. Nothing filled his heart with joy like the squeals of a child who had discovered a berry bush or had lept up and grabbed a Pawpaw from a waiting tree. This land had everything they needed if they were willing to look around and forget their previous expectations. He still remembered fondly the many tribes he came across, how they showed him where things grew but more importantly, how to plant things to live together. It was foolish to force things together. Better to let nature do what it wanted to do naturally.
For years he crossed this nation but time had not been kind to her. The forests became quieter and quieter as more animals disappeared. His eyes still filled with tears when he thinks back to the young buffalo he saw crying for its mother before a man dressed in a suit and hat shot it. Johnny had gotten used to people killing for meat, but killing for pleasure was alien to him. At first, he tried to show these people the error of their ways, taking them into nature and showing them there was no need. After a while, he came to see that surviving wasn’t their goal. Progress was.
Progress covered the land first with trails, which were peaceful and quiet. Then with railroads, filling the air with deep black smoke and the scream of whistles. These things were disruptions but he thought, well, they needed progress. He didn’t know why but these people with their hard eyes and tight mouths seemed to leave a mark on the earth regardless of whether that mark seemed to bring them any joy. As things got easier and easier for them, he hoped they would give up their wicked and cruel ways and find joy in that natural beauty that remained. They had a wealth of riches all around them but seemed blind to all of it.
Forests that once had taken days to cross soon became graveyards, stumps as far as the eye could see. He tried to replace them, his bags bulging with seeds he had salvaged. It even became a game for a time as he forced himself not to think of all the destruction. They were simply providing him a chance to make even more beautiful forests. He shook his head as the rain continued to pour down on the skinny man wearing overalls and a rough burlap sack, feet bare and dark on the street. People walked by and looked at him, but nobody said anything. The time of people asking him if he needed a meal or some shoes were long past. Now everybody acted like they couldn’t see him.
As the rain let up he pulled a small tin from his bag and started to roll a cigarette. The trick was to keep the paper as tight as possible. He hadn’t always smoked, in fact when he was younger he would have thought it terrible and unclean. It didn’t matter anymore though. It was like the first time he saw a landfill and his brain strained to even understand the scope of the waste. They had made so much and used so little of it, getting a small slice of joy out of a thing and then discarding it. These new people didn’t even seem to enjoy the progress. They simply needed to be seen, needed to be remembered. The cruel irony was that he probably knew them best of all and hated them so.
Some of the people he had met over the years asked him about death. He lit the cigarette with a match in the shelter of a dumpster and inhaled deeply. He’d never wondered why death didn’t come for him. Maybe that is why she never had. He remembered watching some of the old tribes in the middle of the country during death. They dug a deep champer, then placed a wooden cover over the grave to keep animals out. It was a bittersweet time for these people, for they thought the dead were on their way to a place beyond a great river where they would not need to suffer anymore. He recalled sitting there and watching them playing the games the dead loved the most and smiling. When he died, he hoped someone would play games he liked.
These people were all gone though, wiped out in horrible plagues. As he had with the burrows, he had marked these villages in his mind and was overjoyed to see them. Time passed and there were fewer and fewer, finally almost none at all. He had searched for years to see where the survivors had gone, unable to believe that such a proud and practical people had simply disappeared. Eventually, he found their distant descendants and wept at what they had lost. There had been so much to go around for all the people.
Next to Johnny on the ground was an old gunpowder horn. He had received it many years before and had used it to warn people of fires and floods. The sound of it used to make people rush to their doorways, grabbing the most important things to them as they did. He would watch as bibles and children were carried away, leaving the rest of the things to be consumed. While he felt sorrow for what these people had lost, he also thought in his less charitable moments that it was good for them. That loss of these things freed them from the things. It didn’t seem to make them happier but the accumulation of the items also didn’t seem to bring any joy.
Now the sound did nothing. His face fell remembering blowing it before a giant fire swept through the West. He had walked through the night to get to the first town, blowing and blowing thinking at first they hadn’t heard him. Finally a man in a strange military uniform, the army perhaps, appeared and told him to stop it. He was bothering people. He tried to tell the man what was happened, what he needed to do but the man didn’t pay attention to him. He told Johnny to stop loitering, which was a strange concept to him. Making it a crime to stand around and do nothing seemed laughable. His childhood was just people standing around talking and doing nothing, telling each other tales.
There weren’t any tales now. Nobody seemed to talk to each other at all. Johnny was no fool, he understood that technology existed. He had watched the cycle time after time after time. The technology appeared and at first, it seemed to be a wonder that solved all problems. Then after a while, the downsides appeared but by that point, people had gotten too used to the technology. When electric lights appeared across the nation he was amazed as night transformed into day. But then he saw the immense amount of destruction to get the coal to burn it to make this miracle and all appreciation for it disappeared. It was no longer a wonder but a cruel joke.
As for him, he had no use for such things. His bag and clothes had been patched over the years but were still mostly the same. He had very little, which protected him from the violence that had grown. People would punch and hit him and he would simply wait until it was over, picking up the seeds they had knocked out of the bag and continuing on his way. He felt bad for these desperate men and women, fear in their eyes as they tore through his things looking for valuables or currency. He knew they weren’t the ones who were doing the harm, just bystanders to it.
He finally stood up and stretched out his back. He felt the muscles loosen and knew deep in his heart that his time was finally coming to an end soon. He didn’t know when but he knew that finally Death had noticed him and would be coming to pick him up. He didn’t mind if he was being honest. It had been a long time in the making and nobody would miss him when he was gone.
He wondered which Death would come for him. He had met many of the Old Ones in his time. The hills would speak to him, the deep depths forming a voice that would try to entice him or trick him. He wanted nothing at first, which makes a man impossible to trick. He remembered one mountain in the deep south that he would pass. At first, the voice was weak, a small tiny thing in the darkness. His heart was guarded by joy and love though and he paid no mind to it.
Time had made him less kind and he knew it. He had been transformed from a child that used to believe that things would work out to an adult that knew with the same amount of confidence that it would not. His heart had been shrunk and while it was their fault, it was also his. He had watched them march into the deep earth and come up sick, terribly sick. He had peered into their windows as they mourned ones consumed by the earth as it collapsed back into its pure shape and some tiny part of him felt joy.
He had stopped even trying to warn them when he felt things happening. He used the excuse that nobody seemed to listen to him, but in his heart, he knew he didn’t care. He had watched floods wash away their towns and fires reduce everything to ash and that dark part of his heart grew. They wouldn’t listen to him so maybe they would listen to this. But it seemed even these warnings fell on deaf ears. Towns were rebuilt in the exact same places, which he thought was bold even for them. It seemed beyond hopeful, almost defiant.
As his heart had grown colder the voice in the desert had grown stronger. It had a name, Átahsaia. Finally, he agreed to meet him and was led to a cave. Inside was filled with the shape of a man many times too large. Its face was shrouded in darkness but its eyes shone bright and white in the dim cave. He made an offer to Johnny, speaking not in the new tongues but in the old forms, reminding Johnny of those people who had come before and were now gone. He asked Johnny to continue to plant but these seeds would not simply produce more plants to feed their endless hunger.
Its massive hand stretched out and placed a small pile of seeds on the ground. They were black and round, without any seams or breaks. These seeds would make things whole again, the thing promised. Johnny knew better than to believe such a creature. Lies were its air and his heart was no longer guarded by love and hope. Truly honest people are immune to lies, but the people who are most vulnerable to them were those who lied to themselves. It rendered that inner voice useless since you had long since silenced it to believe your own stories.
It sensed his reluctance and asked him to just try one. He would take and plant one seed and see for himself if what had been promised was true. Staring at the people walking by the front of the alley he knew he never would have considered such a thing as a child. But he took the seed and went to his original forest. It had been destroyed, replaced by a town that looked like every other town he crossed. So much energy had been invested in making places that looked and sounded the same.
He planted the seed and waited, sitting on the ground where he had spent countless hours watching with delight as his own forest had grown and matured. The seed sprouted within hours, a thin vine that crawled across the ground. He sensed its roots spreading far and wide, feeding deeply when it came across the graveyard. It took them and turned them into more roots, more sap and more vines. It didn’t take long for this little plant to find the water they used.
Unlike the rivers and streams, which had long ago become clogged and choked with chemicals and plastics, these pipes were full of clean and fresh water that went right into their homes. He felt as the vines slowly pumped this tube full of itself. They couldn’t taste it and it didn’t affect the other creatures that sipped from the runoff of what had once been free for all to have. However, when they drank it they started to die slowly. It started to eat them.
He sat still as a hill, smoking all his tobacco and watching as they all got sick. They started to move slowly, closing their doors and their shades then never coming out. He felt the town empty, with people from far away coming and barricading it off, placing warning signs on the road. Still, he sat quietly, the thin tall shirtless man watching as animals slowly, cautiously returned to the town.
The joy his heart fell at this filled him with shame. He hadn’t wanted them to die like this. If they had only just stopped, only just taken what they needed and no more. Clearly, they couldn’t stop. He knew that now. He would have to stop them for their own good. They were killing themselves in the pursuit of more and, as he had many years ago, he would have to show them a different way of surviving.
The vines eventually consumed all of them and started to wither and die, but not before giant pods appeared filled with seeds. He stared at them and debated with himself for many sunrises and sunsets. He would reach out to them and stop. How could he even consider such a thing? How could he not? What other choice did he even have? Eventually, he took the pods, broke them open and started to harvest the seeds. They fell out willingly as if they’d been waiting for this inevitable conclusion.
He had been planting these dark seeds everywhere he had once planted flowers and berries and trees. The darkness and silence behind him seemed to suggest it was working, but he had no desire to watch them die. Despite his hard heart he still did not delight in cruelty. He noticed with joy as the endless strings of lights going down the roads thinned, then finally stopped. He walked and planted, scooping the earth and placing the small seed, then moving to the next place.
He started to walk again, leaving the alley and going to the thin strips of green that still existed in this maze of concrete and glass. The vines seemed able to survive anywhere, grasping and clawing their way to find the dead things which seemed to feed it. He scooped, planted and covered, then started to walk West. He had much more to plant. As he walked, he took his horn and threw it in the lake that had once been full of life and now was mostly empty and choked. No need to give warnings anymore, he said to himself quietly in the night.