Frunk Tilberscruddy was out of lemons. Several times this morning he had despaired about a lack of citrus to curl his gums. He’d thrice wrenched around his purple hiker’s bag, but all that grazed his fingers were a large sack of coins and a bushel of crushed bananas the same colour as his pack. He concluded that starting that day, the eighty-fifth of his journey, he’d have to search for more.
Frunk had been wandering for the past twelve weeks. He’d left his Fairton Valley house in a hurry, although any urgency had crumbled into the dust that had invaded his purple hiker’s boots and sanded his toes. But through all his confusion and fruitless exploration, he held onto a slip of paper his late great uncle Trunk had left to him. He pulled it from his bag in lieu of a lemon.
The Flask of Piskabelli (to kill all wounds)
Frunk was confused. He didn’t like riddles, especially ones that sent him on a twelve-week quest for a thing he didn’t want, to kill the things he wore with pride − two scars that ran down his left cheek.
Frunk looked up from the paper to admire the meadow he’d found himself in and was convinced of the place’s hoaxery. As he walked past a pond with even rocks as a beach, he fiddled with fronds of high grass which grew in waves. One step, stems sprawled leafy digits to tickle his chin, and the next, they hardly rose past the soles of his boots.
He walked on, to the line of lemon trees on the other side, each bent with fruit for a village. Their leaves twitched in winds too high to feel. Frunk’s mouth drooped and he staggered towards them. Rocks grew to brush his knees and rake his calves until he fell, lemonless teeth first, through a high thorn bush into what we posthumously named Espest Road.
Sand stuck in his scars, dust filtered his view. He tried to blink away moted pigeons, swirling beneath his eyelids as fog and black mist. His head lifted on its own and jerked to the gate on his left, but it looked like a wall of vines with all those birds in his eyes. Frunk stood cross-legged and unstable, eyelids wide to drip all the sand out. He glared at the gate until he could see its gatelihood. It wasn’t very well made. Usually, he thought, gates were supposed to keep things out, have metal cross-sections built to deter, or at least spikes around the top to preclude an afternoon climber. Don’t misunderstand, this one had those, but differently. It rose barely four inches from the sand, and had no obvious way of opening. As Frunk approached, he laughed, alone on Espest Road.
Frunk stepped over the gate and wandered down the street. Around him was still forest − he hadn’t gotten to us and the good bits yet − but the lemon trees he spied from the meadow had evaded him. He supposed that in his tumble, they’d fled. He knew how lemon trees were easily frightened. He swore to a beetle that passed minutes later that he’d be back soon to harvest a good day’s worth of fruit.
As Frunk’s thirst grew, so did the familiar shadows of night’s creeping hands. He hated this part, but eighty-five times he’d survived without attack.
‘Could this gate lead somewhere please?’ Frunk asked the woods.
Frunk wondered if he was apt for wizardry, or if in his fatigue, he’d missed the small entrance hut of our town as it wound down the path towards him. He hobbled to an oval window covered in honey − for the flies. A man smiled at him from inside.
‘Hello,’ said the man. ‘Were you looking for Palate Village, or did we find you?’
‘I guess you found me,’ said Frunk, gulping air like a tunnel eats light. ‘I’m looking for lemons or the Flask of Piskabelli.’
‘Well, you’re in luck, sir. This is Piskabelli Village,’ replied the man.
‘This village has many names?’
‘Alright,’ said Frunk, lids too heavy and bag too light to be confused. ‘If you could supply food and drink, that would be well enough.’
‘Absolutely,’ said the man. ‘The main village is down the road around the second bend.’ He leaned out of the hut and pointed. ‘If you need any help, come back here. My name is Dreef, nice to meet you.’
‘Yes, yes. Thank you.’ As Frunk turned and began his walk past the two bends, he remembered and called back ‘Why is the gate so low? Aren’t you trying to keep people from getting in?’
‘Why would we want that? I’ll see you soon,’ yelled Dreef.
‘See you inside, I suppose.’ He hoped he wouldn’t and kicked a rock, irked by Dreef’s dysfunction.
It was a further hike than Dreef had warned. Frunk walked for what he calculated was two hours before he rounded the second bend and disrupted a wholesome scene. Seven wooden houses and one he assumed was the town hall lined a circle. Children played with porcelain vases and occasionally stopped to wipe them free of dust. Their parents watched from porches and rocking chairs, whittling. They were all whittling; not whittling anything in particular, they just liked to whittle. A few old women were gathered by the oak doors of the big building on the far side of the circle, watching one lecture.
In the middle of the village, a few feet off centre, I observed him and the rest. I’ve tried endlessly to find a name for myself, but still cling to my title as The Enormous Lemon Tree in the Centre of Piskabelli Village.
Frunk approached me, as many do, and a young boy stopped rolling in the dust with his vase. When Frunk got to the real gate that surrounded my lower trunky area, he reached a hand through, fingers grasping at my fruit like the laughing tongue of one honey bear last summer before it decided better.
‘No No No No No,’ screeched the young boy, his pitch higher than the veiny tip of my up-most leaf.
‘Alright, alright, calm yourself,’ Frunk shushed the boy. ‘I had no intention of disgracing tradition, or anything.’
‘No that’s not…’ the boy continued. ‘No I’m afraid it’s…’ said the boy as the herd of old women snailed closer. ‘No No No. It isn’t right,’ said the boy, his voice clogged with dust and dry tears. One woman lifted him from his armpits and dragged him wailing to a nearby house where flies waited on strips of gold syrup. His feet trailed worm prints in the sand.
‘I’m terribly sorry,’ said Frunk to the group. ‘I didn’t realise this was something of importance. Religious, is it? Of elder distinguishment? Does the fruit have magical properties?’ Frunk turned back to the tree and stared at one plump lemon like ferns ogle the sun.
‘Welcome. Could we get you anything? Apples, bananas, peaches?’ The lecturer pushed past a woman with a wrinkled blue beret and two others with noses bent in opposite directions. ‘Come this way,’ she said. The group led Frunk through the circle and up the steps of our town hall.
‘Why can’t I have a lemon?’ asked Frunk when the doors closed and he could no longer smell my sap. The lecturer lit six candles on a pine table that hadn’t moved since everyone fell into this town. She sat at the head on a wooden chair with grain like marble. The others followed.
‘Well, really no reason,’ said one, three seats down. ‘Pass the guava?’ Down the table came a tray of green sauced fruit, six inches high with toothpicks jutting from every crevice. ‘Delightful, thank you.’
A man to his left continued, ‘We don’t really care about the tree.’
‘That boy you met is my son,’ said a third. ‘He just really doesn’t like when people stand on his lilies.’
‘His lilies,’ Frunk repeated and lifted his boot. Three squashed flowers lined the soles. ‘Oh, I’m so sorry. Can I apologise to the boy? I didn’t mean to crush his flowers.’ He paused. ‘But does that mean I can have a lemon?’
‘If you want,’ replied the lecturer. ‘We only eat the fallen ones, although they rarely fall.’ She gaped her lips and shoved three slices of papaya between her teeth. With a crooked pinky, she tugged out the picks.
‘Why? It’s just fruit.’
‘About a hundred years ago, after they built that,’ the lecturer pointed to one column in the corner, ‘and the first house and this chair, a few realised they’d never touched one particular tree. There was never anything wro— Sorry, dear, what’s this? Is this a new recipe?’ The lecturer pointed to a plate that had appeared beside others on the table. Someone shouted unintelligibles from beyond columns somewhere to the left. ‘Anyways— Wow, that is delicious, isn’t it? Right, the lemons. There was never anything of note about that tree, but no one had ever touched it. One day, someone decided to build a fence around it so people didn’t accidentally pluck fruit. No one wanted to be the first. What if something just terrible happened? Like, what if it wasn’t a tree at all, but some wounded lizard with scales that bark, or what if it put a curse on you, or killed us all?’
‘So you don’t touch it because you think it’s a disguised lizard?’
‘No,’ said the third one. ‘It’s just a regular tree. I quite agree, these apples are fantastic today. Great job Dreef,’ she called. Dreef ranted for several minutes either in a tongue Frunk didn’t understand, or from behind so many doors that speech became a river of silent letters. ‘Anyways,’ continued the third woman, ‘Probably it’s just fine. I don’t want to be the first, though. I mean,’ she licked iridescent flowers from her plate and coughed, ‘if you want to take that fruit, I wouldn’t complain.’
‘You’re an explorer,’ said the lecturer. ‘If I’ve gathered right from those purple garbs.’
‘Yes,’ said the explorer, ‘but I simply search for the Flask of Piskabelli.’
The table’s collective jaw stopped grating. They all yelled ‘Not the one that—’
‘Yes, yes the one that (kills all wounds),’ cried Frunk.
The lecturer hushed leaping eyes of the others. ‘We’ve had something by that name for many decades, but first it’s time for sleep. We’ll supply you with the flask and coins for your way tomorrow.’
Frunk’s tongue failed to swallow and excitement climbed his spine in sparks. ‘I just need the flask,’ said Frunk. His words split by desperate breaths. ‘I have plenty of funds for my return home. I need the flask though. And you have it. I need the flask.’
‘You can stay in the hay behind my house,’ said one who had ignored him until then. ‘It’s closest to the lemon tree, in case you get hungry.’ Everyone laughed except Frunk.
‘And what happens if I do?’ Frunk asked.
‘You eat a lemon, probably,’ they said.
That night, Frunk slept on a partially dried hump of grass, disturbed by an occasional roosting cricket or lady beetle that found comfort in the crook of his arm. Every hour, he woke from malic dreams with sour lips that yearned for lemons. By what he assumed was early morning from the waking indigestion of a pig next door, Frunk decided that any fate the tree could muster would be superior to a life among the noises of his bed. He brushed some drowsing things from his face, snorted a couple of fleas from his nostril hairs and picked up his bag.
‘Why did I come on this journey?’ Frunk muttered and started for the tree. ‘For my dead relative? Tradition? I barely knew him and when I did, all he…’ his speech fell asleep. He kicked sand over a pair of forgotten vases in the front yard, jealous of his slumbering voice. Shadows followed him to the fence and watched as he trickled fingers and then a wrist and then a forearm beyond the iron. As his nail scraped the pores of my ripest lemon, his world fell blank.
Frunk Tilberscruddy woke on a path of dust posthumously named Espest Road. He could recall only his name, and a peculiar urge to find lemons.
As he stood, he brushed earthy dandruff from his cheek and hopped the gate. Sentinel bugs leaked white blood, impaled on the barrier’s miniature barbs. Frunk wandered down the road. He passed an abandoned hut he didn’t remember and checked the inside for some guide or vendor, but only syrup and swimming flies inhabited it. When the town finally showed its houses above the trees, he stopped at a patch where the sand was disrupted. A coin watched him from under a pile of fallen leaves, each a different hue of dusty gold. Frunk retrieved the coin, but grew dizzy on the ascent and stumbled past the village line.
A young boy shouted to his parents, who dragged him to the hall, careful to avoid the boy’s lilies and me − The Enormous Lemon Tree in the Centre of the Village. When Frunk could see without the table in front of him turning like the umbra of a hasty sundial, a lecturer spoke.
‘Welcome. Could we get you anything? Apples, bananas, peaches?’
‘Can I have a lemon?’ croaked Frunk.
But Frunk never plucked. Instead, he built a house here, fit for parties and friends. He built a pasture in the back. We’ve told him pigs would be best, but he’s always had an odd fear of them. He keeps chickens and winds bracelets from dried lilies. Last year, a dog wandered into his house. They’re good together. They needed this.
I kept watch on the gate, although it yielded no new ones. Pollination healed our crops and strengthened my fruit, although no one dared taste. The lecturer and Frunk sewed a new line of grapes for wine, which attracted bees and wasps to kill wounds left by the flies.
Occasionally, they ran out of things to talk about. It was a small town. Everyone knew everything. That only ever lasted for a few days, though. I always coaxed them back together with budding branches and fallen fruit. Through all their petty dysfunction, their new recipes and old ideas, they stayed with me.
For six years, Frunk has lived where I can see him. It was Eden.
But last week, our economy sagged. It started with Dreef, weeks behind on his usage payments, and spread like roots through everyone. No one could pay for anyone else’s goods. The crops have shrunk, and the flies came back. Everyone was isolated. I despised autonomy. No, we can’t have that. That would be the end of our village. Maybe people would leave, and I’d still be here. They can’t leave me here. I can’t have that.
One day after the summer festival, someone wandered past the gate. Dreef was applying whittled sticks to his hut when he arrived. The explorer had covered himself in pollen from a nearby huckle tree.
‘Why are you covered in pollen from the huckle tree outside?’ asked Dreef.
‘There aren’t any bears here. But there’s a village past the second bend if you need shelter.’
‘I search for The Lost Stone of Montchalska,’ the explorer announced and coughed.
Dreef gasped. ‘This is Montchalska Village.’
‘Finally,’ muttered the explorer and turned. ‘Do you have any limes? A strange desire has befallen me.’
‘Montchalska Village is past the second bend,’ said Dreef. ‘I’ll see you soon.’
The trek was longer than Dreef had suggested. But when the second bend untied the explorer’s already shattered boots, Frunk appeared, carrying sacks of lemons to his house, third from the second on the left. His beard dripped almost three inches from his chin. Frunk blinked a slight drop of recognition from his eye and said, ‘Hello, are you new?’
‘Is this Montchalska Village?’
‘Of course. Are you an explorer?’
The explorer pushed through Frunk’s fruit sacks and found purpose in the nine steps towards me − The Enormous Lime Tree in the Centre of Montchalska Village.
‘No No No,’ yelled Frunk as the explorer reached through the fence, fingers stretched past the limits of tired knuckles and broken skin. It gloomed Frunk to see this naive new one. ‘Talk to us first,’ said Frunk. ‘Maybe we can help before regret stains our sand.’ A vase rolled into the explorer’s shadow. ‘The town hall is just up ahead. I promise we can help.’
Explorer stole his hand back, shook his head and pressed his boot on the vase. The two held eyes. Frunk’s lip twitched, covering the battle between an army of tears and his will that raged in the base of his throat. A crack, the size of the split which showed last week in Frunk’s basement, separated their ears. Frunk sniffed and dropped his lemons. The two made towards the town hall. The screams of a boy who’d lost his youth caught in my leaves behind the two explorers. Someone had crushed his vase.
A group of elderly citizens were crowded around a wooden wheelchair with grain like marble. A lecturer hadn’t moved from its taunting grasp.
‘We have a new one,’ said Frunk as he heaved up the steps, followed by the dragging eyes of his explorer. The group’s conversation dulled to a thrilled rumble. One with a tattered beret sneezed. Everyone else sneezed in response.
‘Were you looking for us, or did we find you?’ asked the lecturer.
‘I’m not looking—’ the new one’s nostrils gaped attempting to hush the burning pins which begged to coax a sniffle. ‘I’m not looking for hospitality,’ said the explorer with a conquered nose. ‘I just need resources and information. What do you know about The Lost Stone of Montchalska?’
The group drew stunned air.
‘What do you know of it?’ repeated the explorer.
‘It’s here,’ said the lecturer. ‘We never knew what it was, but it’s here.’
‘Give it to me and I’ll be going.’
‘We will, but you must be hungry,’ said one with a twisted nose.
‘Let us give you food and money,’ said one from the back, who lacked height necessary to view the scene.
‘No, no,’ replied the explorer. ‘I have plenty of those. Although, I could go for a lime.’
Lecturer wheeled beneath the explorer and with aid from a trembling hand, craned eyes up. In fewer words and passing fruit than Frunk was subjected to, the lecturer explained me. With words of superstition, the explorer’s forehead creased. Lecturer coughed, ‘it’s a normal tree, we think. But no one wants to be the first.’
‘That’s silly,’ said the explorer. ‘It’s just a tree.’
‘If you’re looking for resistance, you will find none but the sand that swarms your boots.’
The explorer scoffed, sending dry breath among the crowd. I agree. That speech was a tad too frilly. Everyone turned as the explorer walked back down the steps of our village hall. Frunk looked to the lecturer who winked. As the explorer approached me, the group inched behind. A few and Frunk grabbed tools and whittled lengths of wood.
The explorer pinched a hand through the real gate and the others crept in to watch. The explorer stretched an index finger and a nail grazed my ripest lime. Frunk hit the explorer on the head with a slab of infested oak. Lady beetles flew off and the others joined. The explorer’s world fell blank. Frunk took the bag and its wealth. That would keep my residents with me a while longer.
Two citizens dragged the explorer through a path of dust posthumously named Espest Road. The explorer was left to sleep outside the village gate.
As was planned.
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