Blood Orange

There are three kinds of people in Losite: locals who know nothing, who spend their lives working for the orchard, baking goods or plucking fruits to sell to visitors at the market; the visitors who have heard of the orchard’s produce or of the mysterious tree living in its very center; and those like me, who already know of this tree, who share its secrets between eager mouths and eager ears, the enticing promise of what just one of its round fruits can give to those the tree finds deserving of its knowledge, its power.

Blood oranges hang from its thick, sturdy limbs. Wine-red leaves decorate the tops of the fruits’ flawless flesh. Even those who know of the gift the tree gives, those who seek to pluck just one orange from a branch, don’t know as much about the tree as they may think. Those who talk of it, spreading whispers of what may be the tree’s purpose, of what may be the source behind the gifts it deals out, merely hope and wish, wonder and question. They never get close to the answer, not unless the tree decides to show them, and even then, they will never have the chance to share their knowledge with the world. It’s a small sacrifice the tree knows must be done, to keep control of that which is forbidden.

The tree never divulges its nature to anyone, at least not to anyone worth worrying about anymore. Perhaps there could be a person who might understand the origin of the tree’s gifts– someone who spent their whole life plagued by its mystery, who spent countless hours and years learning whatever they could about it. Such a person could be the best candidate to learn the tree’s dark secret. Such a person may already exist, waiting for the right time to reveal all. The rewards for patience are always so sweet.

I’d know, after all. The reward I’ve received is so much better than anything else the world could offer me. The gifts the universe dishes out aren’t terribly picky about who takes them. Anyone can learn from the world, taking in the knowledge it gives; but when it comes to this tree, no one but myself could understand what I’ve been shown.

Hundreds of lives revolve entirely around the orchard and its flora. If it weren’t for the tourism the tree brings, the town would be nothing. There would be no need for the visitor car lot next to the orchard or the farmer’s market where the townspeople share the products of their hard work. The citizens of Losite live their lives simply. The tree is of no concern to them. They mill about their little world, as do citizens in any sleepy small town, their days repetitive, working, socializing, sleeping, eating, working, rinse, repeat. The locals do not harvest from the blood orange tree, only from the rows of normal fruit trees that circle around the orchard’s center. It’s been this way for countless generations, long before any tourists came to visit this town. To the citizens of Losite, the blood orange tree is no more noteworthy than a bush growing at the side of a dirt road. To them, nothing is abnormal about this isolated town, not even when the occasional group of four visitors could’ve sworn they were a group of five. Maybe they just miscounted themselves. The odd farmer disappearing every once and a while is easy enough to wipe from memory. People can’t just disappear from existence without a trace, no friends or family remembering who they were– right?

I suppose I’m lucky then, not to have been born with the same acceptance for simplicity as the rest of them. That tree is anything but simple. The locals never see past their rose-colored lenses. If I had been anything like them, I wouldn’t have been able to learn what I have; I would never have been able to leave when I did, and I most certainly wouldn’t be able to tell you what I know.

Each week, a few dozen visitors come to Losite, driving their cars down dirt roads as they pass by the houses decorated with plants and woodwork animals on rustic patios and lawns. Some visitors come for the fruit, grown from the many trees filling the sections of curving rows around the blood orange tree. One hundred acres of fertile soil and perfect climate would be a waste for just one tree to take up, so over the centuries, many sources of produce have been planted and tended as the town formed.

Visitors can spend their entire time walking the market, trying out every variation of a pie and cobbler imaginable before, eventually, they tour the expansive orchard that produced all they saw in that market. Some come for the orchard itself, fascinated by its operations and efficiency. They often wonder what could possibly cause these fruits to be so much better than what they can get back home; perhaps the valley’s isolation makes its products a cut above the rest, easy for the citizens to change and improve upon? Others are content to roam through the endless rows, the peace and serenity of isolation a comfort for many. Regardless of their purpose, everyone eventually comes across the center clearing, the tree its bullseye. Their feet seem to wander there at some point, like a subconscious tugging.

When visitors enter that clearing, they cannot help but stare in silent awe at the blood orange tree. For those who come to see the tree specifically, no road-trip photograph from friends or family could do this tree justice. Even the citizens, if they ever broke their monotony to be curious about the tree, could not stop their jaws from dropping in pure amazement. The tree’s towering body and nearly-black bark would take hold of their attention immediately. Some compare its structure to the Angel Oak up in North Carolina, but with a sinister, corrupted twist to its appearance. Shadows hang over the tree from its thick canopy of leaves, in contrast to those bright rows of fruit trees the average visitor might spend their visit meandering through.

The surprise of the tree’s appearance quickly washes away once the visitor is in the clearing and is replaced by a sense of peace or confidence, as if the tree itself were relaxing the atmosphere of the center clearing. Some visitors feel tranquil around the tree. Others feel so moved by its powerful presence that a weight seems to lift from their very soul– grief, torturous frustrations, the mundane stressors of their daily lives are whisked away during this moment shared with the tree. No two people have the same exact feeling or uplifted emotional state from the tree, even if they come across it together. The only thing they might share is the feeling and belief that the tree is helping them, that it knows just what they need to feel at peace, or joyous, or safe for once in their life. It’s as if the tree knows exactly what they need to feel comfortable around it.

Such a sense of comfort makes it easy to accept the tree’s odd looks, and the ominous circle of speckled, dark grass– just a hint of a darker shade than what would be natural–extending in a 10-foot radius from the center of the tree’s trunk. Garnet-red specks of perfectly circular spots decorate each blade of grass, like little polka-dots, giving the tree’s presence a splash of color. The grass never grows and never moves, and even the tree’s longest branches never grow beyond the edge of this grass circle; instead the branches curl up or down as if blocked by a wall.

The average visitor might watch a sparrow land at the edge of the circle but never cross it, or they might notice the odd crow that decides to land on the ominous tree’s branch for a moment before flying off again. If this visitor didn’t feel so at peace, so protected, they might see the birds’ behaviors as odd. They might notice that only the birds with forms as dark as the tree itself would seem to be willing to cross the circle of grass– that a bird with even a single colored feather would avoid crossing that threshold with all of their being. Even if a visitor who did not notice the birds would not be able to shake the surreal sensations permeating the clearing. They couldn’t help but feel as if they were in their own little moment with the tree, in possession of their own small fragment of the universe, as if the world itself had paused in its turning to allow each person to enjoy their moment with the tree.

Caught up in the appearance and feeling of the tree, visitors might barely even notice the blood oranges hanging from those thick branches, peppered throughout, both high in the sky and low to the ground; yet none grow from the branches near the edge of the circle. Those perfect rinds with not a scratch or cut across their surface rarely ever entice these visitors’ attentions. To them, the fruits seem almost an afterthought– they focus instead on the tree’s appearance, rather than the relatively normal-looking fruit it bears. It is the tree, its gnarled roots and expansive canopy, its thick leaves blocking all light from the sun glowing above– that is what interests these visitors. Not the fruits, not the gifts they know nothing about. Rather, these visitors are content with snapping a photo or posing with the tree in the background. They get their memento and finally tear themselves away from the tree, and they leave Losite, right after stopping at the market once more for treats to eat on the drive back home.

Later, they may notice how the tree’s bark in the photo seems to lack any injuries or imperfections. They may slowly recall how the branches and leaves refused to rustle or sway, even when a gust of wind cut through. They cannot help but talk happily of the tree, even so. They recommend others visit it for a day, to feel the energy of that clearing, to have all their problems whisked away from their minds, even for a moment, and of course to try the delectable goods of the market while there. Some visitors may return to see the tree once more. But most stay content with their one visit, as if the tree’s simple novelty loses its hold once they’ve laid their eyes upon it.

Perhaps, though, you’re the kind of person who isn’t as easily satisfied as those tourists. Maybe the mysteries of the universe call out to you, and you cannot help but find yourself entranced by the existence of this tree and its mysteries. There are many like you, like me, who come across the tree, trailing eyes full of wonder across the rinds of those blood oranges– unblemished, unharmed, more perfect than any natural fruit in this world. There are some who have heard of the gift those fruits bear– hanging, never rotting, never moving, waiting patiently to be plucked by ones such as us.

We are the kind of people who come to Losite as hunters, eager to meet the tree and take its fruit for ourselves. Our eagerness is often our downfall, however; not many hunters take the time to listen to the tree. They’re all too eager to take the fruit they think they deserve. The tree never likes it when those hunters, haughty and overconfident, run across the dark circle of grass, hoping to grab hold of an orange, yanking it free for their taking. The tree never lets them get very far. No one can take an orange without the tree’s permission. No one.

If you want to take hold of what the tree has to offer, of the little string of the universe you can pluck from its branches, don’t allow yourself to get swept up in the excitement as those hunters do. They are as foolish as the occasional ignorant visitor who becomes a bit too entranced by the tree when left alone with it; they step across that grass circle as the invisible pull of desire grows strong in their mind. Being, like them, an unthinking animal will never get you what you seek, although the tree benefits from such brash behaviors. Learn from the mistakes of those who fail. That’s how our society evolves– we learn from the sacrifices of others, so we do not end up like them.

You may ask, as I pondered once upon a time, what is the difference between hunters who fail and those that succeed? How can one be allowed to approach the tree, to step across its barrier of grass, to find the orange that calls to them so strongly, they must pluck such a treat ever so gently from the tree’s branches? Observation, patience, and a willingness to relinquish oneself to the unknown- these will be your friends in this endeavor. The birds in the clearing fly about, showing who or what the tree wants near, but some hunters get a sense of what they need to do from the tree itself. It’s never direct– the tree doesn’t give handouts to anyone or anything–but hunters who are patient, who watch the birds circle and caw at the sky, who watch the sunlight glowing behind the tree but never penetrating its dark shadows– they find a sudden thought growing in their mind. That thought becomes an idea, then an overwhelming realization, as the hunter scrambles for the materials needed to appease the tree and get the gift they’ve come so far to obtain.

You see, if you wish to take from the tree, you need to dress in mourner’s clothing. Black fabrics, darkened veils– no splash of color, no embroidered pattern, no sparkling jewelry, bracelets, necklaces, nothing. Anything not matching the dark coloration and obscure form of the tree will leave it unhappy. The tree wishes only to share with those who will use its gift well, and maybe the tree is a bit selfish, only seeing potential in those who are like it, those who can observe enough, deduce enough, listen enough to be able to cross that grass circle, make it to the tree’s ancient trunk, and survive.

With those fabrics obscuring the body, the successful hunters will cross the grass, approach the trunk, and be surrounded by the inky shadows the leaves cast quickly over them. The tree no longer fuels its aura of safety; it knows these hunters look beyond the appearances that others focus on. The successful hunters feel no danger from the tree, not when they’ve come this far. They know they can take their time to find just the right orange. Circling around the trunk, eyes running over each rind giving glints of orange color even in the impenetrable shadows– the successful hunters are allowed to gloat, to feel victorious, to relish their success. Being able to stand within the circle is a victory in itself. Some may even climb to grab hold of the orange they know must be for them– it taunts them so! A hunter who has made it this far knows exactly what awaits. Or at least, they know enough about the benefits to ignore the cost.

Even the most stoic hunter cannot hide the intense sense of victory when they feel their hands wrapped around their orange, pulling so carefully and gently to remove it from those branches that never sway. The hunter can’t stop the crazed smile growing across their face as they retreat, stepping outside the tree’s canopy to observe the sun’s light shining on the treasure in their grasp. They know the victory that they have achieved, and as they begin to peel the thick rind to reach the sweet fruit inside, they cannot stop the ravenous hunger for the sweetness of the gift they have retrieved.

Little specks of water splash onto the tips of their fingers as they dig their nails into the rind, circling, circling, peeling, peeling, thirsting, thirsting, for the first taste of the flesh they slowly reveal. Hyper-fixated on their goal of retrieving their gift, they do not notice as the birds watch from their perches, awaiting the hunter’s fate. All the birds can see is the blood red flesh revealing itself with each bit of rind shucked off its body and fallen to the ground; all the birds can hear is the quiet tearing of the rind, split and ripped from the fruit body it was grown to protect; all the birds can smell is the fresh liveliness of the citrus. The hunter’s mouth drools for a taste of it. Hunters with a keen enough nose may pick up that meaty, almost iron-like scent just under the cleansing freshness, the minuscule notes of something spice-like, an earthy base that only adds depth to the unnatural iron notes of the orange. Regardless of what the hunter smells, once that rind has been removed and the red flesh underneath has been revealed, no amount of self-control or discipline can hold the hunter back from prying open those slices, fingers slicking with beads of red juice dripping from the fruit’s torn-open body. The hunter’s fingers move as if working on animal instinct, halving the orange, taking a slice from the fruit, holding it up to their face to see the prize.

The hunter’s life is forever changed the moment they sink their teeth into that first bite, the moment they start licking those juices from their fingers. If they lick just a bit of juice, they may not recognize the little whispers of incomprehensible knowledge tickling at the edges of their consciousness; if they take a bite, however, the volume of the whispers is more noticeable. Regardless of where their devouring starts, once they begin, they do not allow themselves to stop. Their lust for the orange and its gift of knowledge is too great to break away from—they would not have come all this way, put in all this effort, just to walk away from the gift they hunted.

With each bite of the flesh, gnashing teeth spilling the juice into their mouths and down their throats, those whispers at the edge of consciousness grow more numerous, as if each bite holds another fraction of a whole that has yet to be revealed. Those whispers are incomprehensible, little words said too quietly or too jumbled together with others to make sense. Another bite makes them louder, more noticeable, or perhaps adds new voices to the fray. The hunter cannot even tell if these voices are speaking a recognizable language, but they can tell that the voices add pressure to their mind, growing with each drop of juice, each bit of flesh consumed. Another slice down, rivulets of blood-red juice sliding down their chin, down their neck– the hunter cares not anymore, a deep hunger driving to consume more, more, more. The voices become shouts, screams, senses of urgency and calm, victory and failure, safety and danger– the hunter’s brain throbs with the calls of a thousand souls, tugging their wrinkled brain in different directions. Each little piece of the orange consumed adds dissonance to the collective growth in the hunter’s mind, whispers and shouting commands cutting through any semblance of thought or understanding.

If a hunter braves these building pressures, not allowing their sanity to become cracked and broken as they eat the final slice of the orange, after every last piece of red fruit flesh has been consumed, those voices reach an orchestra of dissonance, peaking in such intensity that the hunter may fear their eardrums will burst. As quickly as that dissonance reaches a boiling point, incoherent voices screaming and commanding and begging in languages both unknown and unreal reach a harmonious unity. A gentle humming within the hunter’s mind settles softly over their consciousness. The voices’ harmonious vibrations soon give way to a sudden sense of understanding, a bit of the world revealed for them to understand. Those voices lack any true language, however, and the information bequeathed is never received through speech. It would be more accurate to say these voices leave an impression on the mind, a flood, a thousand images and sensory experiences.

The hunter gains the theory needed to understand whatever concept the voices have taught them, along with the skill needed to utilize what they know, and the experience gained is as if they had known this information since birth. This sensation of knowledge feels like a wave falling over the hunter’s consciousness, as they take their new expertise and fit it into what they have already learned. The hunter feels clear-headed, oddly enough, as if it’s natural for them to take in and understand what they have been given. No sooner is the sense of clarity felt, but the hunter feels a shift in view of the world, and a growing sensation of mental hunger. Now that they have been given the gift of knowledge, the successful hunter cannot shake away their deep desire to take in more. The orange, as great a gift as it is, always plants the seeds of growth and achievement into the minds of those that feast on its flesh. The hunter cannot help but seek out the next source to feast upon. These hunters leave the orchard, passing by uninterested workers and other visitors, making a beeline for their vehicles. Concentration and critical thought is etched deep within their facial expressions the entire walk back. They drive out of that small town, down that 50-mile dirt road until they hit the asphalt of a freeway once more, and find themselves turning not towards their home and friends, but always in a different direction. A direction that, to them, will lead to new knowledge and new experiences for their hungry minds to feast upon.

The paths of knowledge that successful hunters take are always different. They may be satisfied with exploring new lands, never staying put in one place for long, seeking new environments and people, new mysteries of the ecological world for them to observe and learn. Some may find themselves joining a community in a new city or town, maybe a group of free thinkers who feed off innovation and reject the acceptance of normality that the average citizen lives with. Others may stay isolated, experimenting with their theories, their exciting concepts, their thrilling imaginings, their newfound love for science, or music, or art. Regardless of the path these hunters take, they always have that thirst to grow and learn more, to never be stagnant and accepting of the bare minimum. They want to accomplish more, understand more, become more. That is the hunger the blood oranges set deep within their minds, a deeply-rooting drive they can never ignore. The hunt for knowledge is almost an addiction; the mere thought of not pursuing knowledge and understanding would send these hunters into a panic, if it ever were to cross their mind.

I know I have never entertained the thought of stagnation, to give up on my own path. Even if I wished to do so, even if I allowed myself to, I know the tree would not allow it. The tree gives hunters those oranges so they may grow their own knowledge, so they may walk their own path in their pursuit of knowledge. The tree recognizes that these hunters are as hungry for knowledge as it is itself, similar in purpose. The tree is more than willing to help those who are similar. The only creatures it knows are worthy of having even a sliver of its power are those who are willing to risk for the sake of learning, discovering, growing beyond everything they thought they would be. Such sacrifice is commendable, and must be rewarded with something equally great.

While most who get an orange lead the rest of their lives with a hunger for more, some hunters are not so lucky. Some brave the circle and find their orange, taking slices from it and drinking the juice of what feels like the blood of a god. They hear those voices swelling up within their mind, like any other hunter. But their minds are a bit too weak to be able to handle the growing machinations of those incoherent voices. Some part of them deep down resists the pressure filling their mind; they refuse to relinquish to those voices trying so hard to fill the hunter’s existence with overwhelming power and knowledge. The voices cannot stop their raging, and the gift the hunter came for cannot truly become theirs unless the hunter accepts all of it, consumes all of it, and for a brief moment: experiences all of it.

For these few hunters whose minds are too weak to take another bite of the orange, to lick another drop of red juice from their stained fingers, the voices grow angry and resentful at the wasted effort. The blood orange falls from the hunter’s hands to the red-speckled grass. These hunters are too absorbed in the war within their minds to notice the black tendril growing from the blackening grass beneath them, quietly wrapping around the orange and taking it back to its source. These hunters’ minds become a hunting ground, as those violent shouts and unintelligible roarings quickly consume every ounce of strength they once held. Their minds can no longer be considered their own as they claw at their own flesh in madness, overwhelming pain and pressure building.

Such a terrifying sensation it is for them to lose control over something so personal as their own minds, they can only think of how much they wish to lop off their own heads, just so they can remember what silence was. Their senses on fire, light no longer processed by their eyes, ears ringing from the slightest sound, tongues tainted with an overwhelming flavor of blood, their maddened minds make them gnaw on their own lips like a rabid beast. Nothing can save such hunters from their weak minds, too weak for gift the tree has offered to them. In their haze of insanity, gibberish spews from their bloody mouths as the only focus they can hold is the obliteration of their senses, of their connections to the outside world being wrested from their reality, and of the deep, draining pain in their mind that races down their brain stem, echoing in their spine and nerves. They can no longer recognize the outside world; they cannot really recognize themselves anymore in their personal, broken universe. The tree knows this mad hunter cannot benefit from the gift it has offered, so it disposes of these mad hunters, just as it does those others who cross the grass circle without proper preparations.

More tendrils of black ichor rise up from the circle of now blackened grass, waving as if to greet the physical world. They are quick to wrap around the ankle, legs, then up to the arms and torso of yet another victim of the tree. No sooner is the final tendril done wrapping its length around the neck of that poor, poor soul, than they are yanked underground by an ungodly strength that could be compared to nothing in the natural world. The tendrils are gone; the grass returns to its normal colors and speckles, and no hunter remains to give any evidence of what has happened. The mad hunter is as unworthy as any other fool who rushes across that barrier of grass, swiftly held by those tendrils and pulled into the earth.

They belong to the tree at that point, and the tree has plans for even the most unworthy of souls. As quickly as they came to the clearing, those fools find themselves gone from the world. They will never return home, never return to their lives, to their families or friends or those smiling faces in the Losite farmer’s market.

Such a person, whether hunter or visitor, is gone from existence. Their memories are purged from the minds of those who knew them, their existence erased from the world they grew up in. In all aspects of the physical world the individual is forgotten, not even a photo of them being able to spark memories in those that used to know them.

They are gone, remembered by no one, no matter what.

As is with the remnant of every victim of the tree, their voice joins the others in tortured madness. Some scream from the madness gained when they failed to finish their orange; others scream from their soul missing intrinsic aspects of itself; whatever fuels their madness, their voices join in the fray that makes up their existence now. Everything is stripped from them but the smallest sliver of their humanity, the only thing left that the tree has no use for. These broken souls of hundreds of thousands of victims carry on the rest of existence crying out to be whole– to be human again. Anything, anything at all would be better than the hell that is theirs, the blood orange tree and its world of souls trapped within its own plane of purgatory. These souls clamor for escape as their wisdom pumps through the tree’s veins, a fuel for its nature; its roots drip with their silent cries. The oranges contain their life experiences and knowledge ripped right from their souls.

The blood orange tree is rooted deep, where it sprouted when the world first grew life. It is precise and meticulous; it has had to be, after all, to continue its machinations, to survive and thrive.

If you heed my words, if you should find yourself wearing those obscuring black fabrics, with no embellishments or shine, no color or frills, nothing that would draw attention from the tree, if you should find yourself passing those darkened red specks along those blades of grass under your feet, when you are within those shadows, know that there is no turning back. You have made your decision, and the tree despises those that are uncertain. Only those resolute in their path will follow it and succeed.

You may wish to receive a gift yourself. I know of this allure, of this tugging that draws your attention to that little town, to the tree that could give you all your mind wishes to feast upon. The tree can open your eyes to so much, but it may take away just as much in exchange. Let the tree choose your fate. It knows what is best for your soul.