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Rules of the Orchard

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Still life by Dmitri Annenkov. Source:

The story I'm about to tell you is absolutely true. A few years back I knew somebody named Jacob. We lost touch, and now I wouldn't know his full name to look him up. But he was one of the most serious, grounded, level-headed people I ever knew. And one day he told me an incredible story. It happened to his Aunt Lizzy. I think she was his aunt. Or she was his stepmother. At any rate she was an older female relation he was very close with and trusted completely. And she told him an incredible story that the whole family knew was true.

It starts with her car breaking down. I don't know what year this happened in or what part of the country, but it was the middle of nowhere and before people carried cell phones. She was stranded on a little country road with absolutely no traffic besides her, and the closest city on the map was miles and miles away. But she saw something and walked toward it. After a little hike in the blazing sun, she found herself surrounded by friendly people in some kind of orchard. It was big, like a miniature town. It could almost have been a tourist attraction. But the only thing leading to it was a little dirt path, and there couldn't have been more than a dozen or two buildings.

The people seemed friendly. They were country folk in simple clothes, but not the kind of rednecks that would make you uncomfortable. So she ran into people picking fruit. You see, that was all anybody was doing. All she saw going on was people picking fruit and peeling fruit and preparing fruit and planting fruit trees and pruning fruit trees. It was that or they were taking a break to eat fruit, or they were feeding fruit to animals.

The orchard had all kinds of fruit. Anything that grew around those parts, plus something she'd never seen before. It was red and kind of long and curved. Mostly an oval. And on the inside it was red too, and it had these strange silver seeds. She said they were littler than the seeds in a musk melon but they weren't tiny like kiwi seeds. I remember that part. I suppose that makes them the size of cucumber seeds. I don't know. But they were silver and gleamed in the sun like little trinkets.

So at some point she saw the strange fruit, which is important later, but her purpose there was to use the phone. Somebody pointed out the closest building with a phone. So she went there, made a little pleasant conversation with the old lady who ran the store, bought a couple bucks' worth of stuff to be polite, then asked to use the phone. No, first she asked to use the bathroom. I'm getting ahead of myself.

She walked into a little room that was barely more than a closet and had no light except from outside through frosted glass. But it had plumbing. There was a sink with faucets that worked. But there was no toilet. It was just a sink, mirror, maybe a wastebasket, and a patch of fancy-looking carpet, and that was it. She felt too awkward to complain or ask what the deal was. So she just washed her hands and fixed up the mirror and came out of the bathroom with a smile on her face and a bladder that was still full.

This story's going somewhere. Honest.

Another strange thing was the phone. It wasn't dead, but it didn't work either. I can't remember if she was trying to call a tow truck or a friend or what, but their number didn't work. The shopkeeper made a call to prove that it worked, but, wherever Lizzy wanted to call, the call would just bounce around through the wires. You know, like there would be funny noises, then the dial tone would start humming in her ear again.

She didn't know what to do, and was getting pretty frustrated. The fact that the old shopkeeper was so cheerful and unconcerned made it worse. When Lizzy said who it was that she couldn't get ahold of, the old lady said, "Maybe he isn't real." She didn't know what to say to that, and so she said nothing. She got directions to one of the very few buildings that had a phone, then left the store with her bag of fruit.

She headed toward "the backup generator shack" or whatever it was that she was told to go to make a call, but what she really wanted at that moment was a bathroom. On her hike across the village she ran across a group of workers coming in with baskets of fresh-picked fruit. They'd obviously just come back from a long stretch of work, and they were splitting up, boys and girls, to head to a pair of doors on the outside of one of the bigger buildings. The markings were a little weird. A drop of water painted over one door, two drops over the other. But it didn't take a genius to tell what those doors led to. So Lizzy casually slipped into the ladies' room with all the country girls. That was when the local customs really took a strange turn.

It was pretty much like any public restroom, with sinks, stalls, overhead lighting, a changing table for babies, and a big garbage bin. But when she peeked into one of the stalls there was no toilet. Just a funny green carpet square. She walked down the length of the room, and every open stall was the same. One was being used, but all the rest were totally empty.

This is the sort of conversation that followed. "Excuse me," Lizzy said to a young lady about her age who was wearing a cute old-fashioned dress. White and blue, with ribbons and a big bow in her brown hair. Right out of a Norman Rockwell painting. "Where can I go to use the toilet?"

"I'm sorry, ma'am," this girl said. "I think the words in my parts are a little different from the ones where you grew up. Please excuse me if I have to ask what you mean to ask."

"I'm sorry. I just need a bathroom, and this room just seems to be for washing up.

The girl cocked her head in confusion. "You need to take a bath?" she asked.

"No, I thought this was a restroom, but it doesn't look like any restroom I've ever seen." By this time Lizzy was getting pretty impatient. Bending the knees, moving the legs around, pressing her purse to her body, and all that. "If you could direct me to the nearest restroom," she said to the confused country girl, "I'd be very grateful."

"I still don't catch your meaning about restrooms and bathrooms. But this here is a wetting room, and any ladies or little girls are welcome to use it if they're feeling the need." She gestured to one of the empty stalls. "Don't be bashful."

Lizzy didn't know what to think or say. She hadn't grasped the situation yet, but you probably have. She paused like a deer in the headlights. As this little conversation was going on, some of those girls were walking into the stalls and closing the doors.

Lizzy took notice of the one stall, the one that had been closed when she came in. A teenage girl strolled out, dropped something green into the bin, and looked herself over in the mirror. That was when Lizzy noticed it was odd that there were full-length mirrors between sinks instead of little mirrors above them. Well, this freckled little redhead in the overalls didn't show any sign of self-consciousness or shame even though she had a sizable wet spot on the back of her overalls. Right on the seat, and not the sort of spot you get from sweating. But she just dabbed it casually with a funny green towel or tissue as she looked at herself in the mirror, and in moments it was dry as a bone.

Then Lizzy finally said something to the sweet-looking country lady she'd just been talking to. She sputtered something like "Where I come from, a bathroom doesn't look like this."

"Where do you come from?" she asked. And when Lizzy answered, she just got more confused. The redhead was listening now, and so was some other girl who was waiting impatiently because there were more girls in the room than stalls. Lizzy kept telling her about cities and highways that were nearby, but the girl kept asking about orchards and things like watering holes and farm property lines. When Lizzy said it was out past the prairie, all three of the girls giggled. Then the one she'd been talking to started talking to her real condescendingly, like Lizzy'd just said Santa brought her on his sleigh.

"There's nothing past the prairie," she said. "The fields are where everything is. There isn't anything else."

The tone was getting nastier, and Lizzy was about ready to leave, relieved or not. But she stuck around. I don't know why. But it just got worse.

The next thing that happened was a girl finishing with her business. Lizzy was just now realizing what was done in those stalls, I think. This girl also had a wad of something green that she put into the big trash bin before she washed her hands, and the impatient girl motioned to the one in the dress, the one Lizzy'd been talking to, that she could use it now. "You were here first," she might have said to her.

"You may use it," the other girl said. "I'm going to try to clear up this poor missy's confusion." So the girl who'd been waiting and dancing ran to the empty stall and closed the door, and the other girl lifted up her sky-blue dress, as if in a curtsey, but lifted it high enough to show her undies. And she kept it raised like that so Lizzy could see, all while the other girls smirked. They could have left, but they could tell that Lizzy was somebody out of the ordinary, and were watching her learn. When the hem of the girl's dress was lifted, Lizzy's eyes almost popped out. This girl, this young woman, was wearing a diaper.

It was an odd-looking diaper, to be sure. It had a color and texture almost like it was made out of lawnmower clippings. But it was obviously a diaper. Then the girl made a face, parting her lips a little and closing her eyes, and Lizzy heard hissing. The girl sighed unabashedly as she relieved herself into her funny green diaper.

"I didn't know you had these customs here," Lizzy said. She was still trying to be polite, but she was pretty freaked out. "Do all you workers have to wear these garments?"

"We all do. Everybody living at this orchard and every other one I've known."

"Then why do you have rooms?"

"Were you raised in a root cellar?!?" the redhead asked with a laugh.

"Some of us would like privacy in case of any leakage or noise," the first girl explained. "Especially us women. The way I was brought up, it's not ladylike to ease your body's discomforts when there are folks around who can see and hear you. Or smell. And, since any lady or fellow needs privacy to change into a clean pair of underthings, it's not so much trouble to wait until you're someplace private before you wet them. But I suppose different parts have their own ways of handling business. Now that there are empty stalls, why don't you make yourself comfortable?"

Not sure what to do, Lizzy walked into one. As she stepped onto the carpet, she realized it was some type of grass. She could have closed the door and squatted over the grass, but she wasn't comfortable with any of this. So she paused and turned around, not sure what to do. There were half a dozen girls watching now. They looked as baffled as she felt.

"Don't be shy," the one in the dress said. "If there's anything about this here wetting room that's puzzling you, you just go right ahead and ask. We're all friends in this orchard."

"Where can I find toilets? I really want to use one. I don't have a diaper."

"We seem to be the same size. It'd be my pleasure to help you out with one from my sack."

"I don't just need a change, I don't have one on now."

One of the girls who was bolder than the first one walked up to Lizzy and pulled down her slacks. "She's not teasing," she said. "She's got no diaper at all."

"All her clothes are crazier than anything I've seen," another girl said.

"So you really are an outsider?" the one in the dress asked.

But before Lizzy could answer, she produced a thorn. I don't know where she'd been keeping it. But it was a couple inches long, and this girl stuck it into Lizzy's bare arm with all the nonchalance of a nurse taking somebody's temperature. Then she inspected the blood on the thorn, like it was a litmus strip.

"Outsider," she said, with real menace in her voice this time.

Lizzy had hardly gotten her undies out of sight when she started running out of the bathroom. The wetting room, rather. She'd had enough.

She headed for the generator building she'd been told about, sneaking because she thought those crazy girls might want to track her down. At first it didn't look like she was followed. But when she saw that sweet girl with the dress and bow talking to a rugged man chopping wood, she knew she was in as big trouble as she'd thought. The girl spotted Lizzy from a distance, pointed her out to this scary-looking man with an axe, and that was enough for her. She ran, and once she thought she was out of sight, she ducked into the nearest building.

Inside was a lady dressed in white, with curly auburn hair and gentle features. "Good afternoon," she said. "The doctor is out, but I'll help you best I can. What seems to be the trouble?"

Lizzy tried to explain that there were people after her. People who probably needed to see a doctor themselves. But this nurse just didn't get that this was her hiding spot. She kept asking Lizzy about her health. She was real nice and friendly, but pretty misguided. The more Lizzy denied that anything was wrong, the surer the nurse was that she had a problem she was uncomfortable talking about.

The nurse practically tore her clothes off to examine her. For a simple lady of medicine in an old-fashioned little rustic village, she sure didn't have any qualms with stripping a patient down to her bra and panties within five minutes of her walking in the door.

"The problem is clear," the nurse said after examining her in way too intimate a fashion. "Your life is depleted. Drained away, almost. You came to me just in time."

Lizzy protested this and demanded explanations so she could protest those too. It seems this nurse talked about "life" like it was a juice running through people's veins. She seemed to think Lizzy had something akin to anemia.

"You need to take in as much life as possible," the nurse said. "But first we have to deal with the cause of your deficiency. I figure there's a toxin of some sort in your entrails that's been leeching the life right out of you like lime. Now you just lay back and relax and I'll take care of it right away.

The nurse busied herself with a tableful of metal junk that looked like torture devices from the Middle Ages. Lizzy huddled and shivered and squeezed her legs tight in fear of the terrible operation that awaited her. But she was even more afraid of the sinister girl and axe-carrying man outside, so she stayed there on the table in the doctor's office while the nurse rattled around her contraptions.

The nurse finally came back brandishing something the size of a curling iron that came to a point at the end. "This will purge your belly of all the bad chemicals in no time," she said with a smile.

Lizzy had had enough. She jumped into her slacks and threw on her shirt. She buttoned it at lightning speed as the nurse protested that this was the only way to get well. "There's no need to be scared of the treatment," she insisted. "I give myself one every day."

It was just then when the axe man got wise to Lizzy's hiding place. He burst in the door, with that creepy young lady watching from a few paces back.

"The outsiders are real," the axe man said. "Give her to me and the leaders will decide how to keep the orchard safe."

But the nurse said, "You can't take this woman. She's my patient. She must be treated."

Lizzy had no choice. "I'm ready for the treatment, ma'am," she said to the nurse. "Please help me feel better."

The nurse went into lecture mode to the axe man. "See? This poor little lady is ill, not dangerous."

He left the two to their privacy, but didn't look too happy having to do it. Lizzy dropped her slacks, bent over, and winced as she prepared to receive her medicine.

Then the doctor walked in. He was a skinny man with a mustache and a nervous way of going about things. He quickly started scolding the nurse for her poor diagnosis. "Every day you want to prescribe a purge to some poor lad or missy," he said. "You should know it's not the solution to every ailment under the Sun."

The nurse said something like, "Well, it never hurts to clean yourself out real proper, and it can do a heap of good." But in the end she put away her giant tube like a disappointed child setting aside a toy.

The doctor inspected Lizzy. She hoped he would want a urine sample, since her body was really eager to provide one, but he never brought it up. He did bring up her fidgeting, which forced her to return to the oddly contentious topic of bathrooms.

She asked where she could find a toilet, bedpan, or anything that could remedy her pressing issue.

"Don't you have a sanitary garment?" the doctor asked. Like everyone else in the orchard, he stared at her white cotton panties like they were the nosecone from a crashed U.F.O. I don't know why Jacob felt the need to mention what kind of underwear his aunt, or whoever she was, was wearing on this occasion, but he did, and I'm sure he got the detail straight from the source.

"No. I don't use them. I come from a city where all adults are expected to use toilets."

The doctor froze when he heard this, and dropped his stethoscope. The nurse gasped, but he quieted her before she could say what was on her mind. He recomposed himself, picked up the tool, and returned to his task as if nothing has happened.

His conclusion was the same as the nurse: Lizzy's life was ebbing away. She had still been carrying the bag of the strange red fruit with the silver seeds when she came to the doctor's office, so he told her to eat all of them to replenish her life. I'm not sure when, but some townsfolk came in to watch. Some had things like knives and pitchforks. "Outsider," they kept saying. The doctor said there was nothing bad about Lizzy so long as she could be treated and made to be normal. The first step was her eating that fruit.

Lizzy didn't want any of this nonsense, so the fruit had to be forced into her mouth while her arms were held behind her back. All she could do was chew fast enough that she didn't choke. It tasted nasty and metallic. She'd swallowed a couple of those deformed apples before they started coming back up. Pretty soon red mush was all over the floor, and there was no sense in giving this a second try. This caused murmurs that there was something unnatural about her body.

The old lady from the fruit shop came with a big jug of red juice. The twinkle of silver seeds at the bottom showed what sort of juice it was. As Lizzy spat out vomit and saliva, she tried to clamp her jaws shut tight. But the nurse had metal forceps and a funnel. Lizzy put up as big a fight as she could, but the axe man tied her arms and legs so tightly that he might as well have amputated them. Through group effort, they emptied that whole giant bottle into the poor girl's stomach.

She spasmed violently. Uncontrollably. She flooded that floor with regurgitated juice. The doctor thought some of this fruit was staying down, but everybody else was restless and wanted the stranger to be treated, one way or another.

The nurse brought a tube out and filled it up with red apple sauce. Lizzy's vomit-stained slacks were pulled down once more, and the onlookers wondered at the sight of her panties as they were pulled out of the way. When she was bent over the chair and ready to receive the red fruit through a different route, a messenger arrived.

"The leaders have decided. If a body will not receive life, it must join the soil."

Before the doctor and nurse could protest, Lizzy was carried away naked, and the whole group proceeded to the heart of the orchard. Through all of this, Lizzy had been too stubborn to wet herself. I guess to her it was that much more humiliating than throwing up and getting stripped naked.

At the center of this quaint little village, in a circular clearing, stood the biggest tree Lizzy had ever seen. It was a hundred feet tall. At least. It must have been. It absolutely dwarfed the other fruit trees in the orchard. Around it were much smaller trees, about four feet tall, misshapen and deformed. There were also stumps that had been carved out like chairs. This tree and its mighty roots were where the people were dumping all the dirty green diapers. Squares of sod, like the ones in every toilet stall, had been transplanted there, and there were other squares cut out. Animal dung was being dumped. It was all being absorbed by the giant tree, and from the tree's branches grew the strange red fruit.

"Prepare a seat!" someone shouted. Some of the townsfolk sounded shocked and disgusted by those words, but others cheered. After a little talking, some children were selected. Two of each sex. They pricked their fingers with little thorns and squeezed tiny bits of blood onto one of those dead stumps. Then they shamelessly dropped trousers, raised skirts, pulled off diapers, and showered the stump with different offerings. Bits of green suddenly sprung up from the stump like magic.

But the people still didn't think it was ready for Lizzy to sit there. The girl from before, the one in the blue and white dress, had the satisfaction of remedying that. She reached under her dress and undid her diaper. She looked like she'd been waiting for this. And soon it looked like she'd been drinking gallons of water in preparation. She crouched over that carved stump, careful to keep some distance between her bottom and the wood, and assaulted it with a loud and powerful torrent. She smiled to Lizzy as she did this. This was when the seat was really quickened. Shoots shot up out of the dead-looking wood like snakes. By the time the girl's stream was finished and she was replacing her diaper, the seat looked more like a predatory animal than the stump of a tree.

Lizzy's heart had been throbbing faster and faster, and I'm sure her bladder was doing some throbbing of its own. The state of her mind and body went from bad to worse the moment she had a good look at the tree.

It was a brain. The stout tree trunk came up a ways before bulging outward into a globular mass, with the rough bark forming into furrows and ridges. It even had lobes, and there was a strange twisted sense to its whole makeup. Giant limbs sprouted from the deepest gaps, and from there it divided into branches and leaves and fruit like a normal tree, so the big wrinkly core was almost masked. But the worst fright was yet to come.

As Lizzy was carried up to the stump by two men, all of the small trees began to move. They stayed fastened at the roots, but their middle parts turned slightly and their bulbous tops twisted even further. It was then that Lizzy noticed that each one had the silhouette of a human being. They were turning their heads to watch her with eyeballs that peeked out from the grooves of the bark. She realized in horror that, once she sat on the seat, she would become one of them.


Digital painting by Eric Lacombe. Source:

That did it. A sudden release of muscle tension left Lizzy trying to grab herself out of instinct, but her hands were still tied behind her. She squirmed and twisted and tried to fight it, tried to maintain her last shred of dignity, but the spurts became a drizzle and the drizzle became a waterfall. Since she was being carried with her back to the sky, it all flowed straight down, but soon there was enough pressure to make it an arc. I'm not kidding, Jacob remembered all these details from Aunt Lizzy's story. She gave up and just let it flow, and she ended up going for even longer than the girl who prepared the seat. The men carrying her didn't know what to do. They just stared at their sacrificial victim as she sighed and the sod below her hissed.

When at last she was drained, the screaming began. But the screams weren't coming from the villagers. It was the trees. And the brain tree let out a roar.

"Poison!" the man who used to have the axe shouted in surprise, and he dropped the end of Lizzy he was carrying. She hit her head on a rock-hard root of the massive tree as her legs continued to point skyward, supported by a very surprised man. Then he let go too.

Between the knock on the head, the dehydration, the exhaustion, and the fear, everything started to go black for Lizzy. She could still hear the cries of the trees, and even the shouting and bickering of the townsfolk. They muttered about how there was nothing to eat or drink outside the prairie that wasn't poison.

"Get her away!" was the last thing she heard before she blacked out completely.

When she woke she was in a strange man's jeep wearing only a towel. He said he was driving by when he saw her passed out next to her car, her clothes covered with vomit. Heat stroke, no doubt. He got her car towed to the nearest town, paid for a room for her to rest in, then disappeared without even telling Lizzy his name. There was nothing wrong with her, and her trip continued uneventfully.

And that's the story of the little orchard village with the strange customs. I may have gotten a few parts mixed around or filled in a blank or two, but it is a true story, as true as any you'll hear.

I don't mean it's Lizzy's true account of a dream she had. That town and its horrible trees are as real as this clipboard and tape recorder. Nobody in the family could find that place again, and most of them didn't want to, but it was there that day. And we know this because of what happened a day or two later. Lizzy used the toilet, and her stool had silver seeds in it.

Written by Floyd Pinkerton (Lee Sherman)

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