When they got to the top of the steps, a small clearing surrounded by unbelievably huge trees came into view. They had to be at least thirty to forty feet in diameter! The first twenty feet of the main trunk was bare of any branches. The rest of the way up, branches as thick as Skyler’s waist spread out in every direction.
Sŭchō led Skyler along a well-worn dirt path which gently wound its way through the giant trees. They appeared to be moving deeper into the forest. As the canopy became denser, Skyler noticed that the Sun was having a hard time getting all the way down to the forest floor.
The path looked like it would never end but as they rounded a sharp bend, Skyler’s jaw dropped. Much like the story of Shangri La, the path opened up and standing in front of them was one of the most beautiful things Skyler had ever seen. A giant tree with a trunk the size of a small house stood in the middle of a small clearing. Much like an admiring crowd gives way to their Queen, the surrounding trees seemed to bend their trunks in such a way that the entire opening was bathed in sunlight.
“Wow!” He followed the trunk upwards only to see it disappear into its far away crown.
“It’s amazing!” Looking back down he noticed the tree was surrounded by beautiful garden. It was filled with all kinds of plants and flowers. An abundance of bees and butterflies busily made their way to and from a stunning array of multicolored petals.
Standing amongst the foliage were intricately carved stones. Skyler remembered seeing Sŭchō carving one of them on the beach.
“Sŭchō, I saw you working on something like those stones when we flew over the beach. Did you make all these?” He walked up to one that reminded him of a roaring lion and ran his hand over the stone head. “Is this what you do? Are you a sculptor?”
“Actually, a rock gardener.”
“A rock gardener? I’ve never heard of that before.”
“That’s because it’s a very old vocation, not many people do it anymore.”
Taking a closer look, he noticed that most of the sculptures resembled lions. “These all look like lions to me, but they don’t look carved that much. It’s as if the stone started out looking this way. How do you do it?”
Sŭchō went over to one of the sculptures and ran her hands over it. “First, I find a piece of rock, it might not be much yet, but I can see the possibilities. So, I chisel the rock to enlarge a hole or even make a new hole then shape it a bit, not finish it, but just shape it. Then, when I think it’s ready, I place the rock on the beach where the water can wash over it with the incoming and outgoing tide.”
“Wow, that’s got to take while, to wear away the rock, I mean.”
“Exactly, after about ten or twenty years, once the rough edges have become smooth, it becomes a finished object which I place in my garden.”
“That’s a long time to wait for a finished piece.”
“It is, and some rock gardeners don’t even get to see the end result. A mother or father may put a rock on a beach with the intentions of it becoming a finished sculpture after they’re gone. Their children will determine when it’s done and place it in their garden.”
Skyler stood up. “It’s beautiful.”
“Thank you. There’s a couple of smaller pieces you might like inside.”
“Inside?” he looked at the tree and pointed at it. “Inside there?”
“Sure.” Following a narrow path through the garden, Sŭchō led him around to the other side of the tree and up to a heavy looking wooden door. She pushed down on the latch and it opened with little effort. She motioned to Skyler to go in.
On his way past the door, Skyler noticed scratch marks by the latch. He went inside and stood in the middle of a huge circular room. “Man, I thought this tree looked like the size of a house, but I didn’t think it actually was a house!” He swung his bag off his shoulder and set it on the floor. A staircase, attached to the side of the tree, wound its way up to a second-floor loft. On the far side sat a large cast iron stove which looked to be a source of heat as well as a means of cooking. A kettle sat on top, near the back of the stove. He could tell something in it was boiling because thin wisps of steam wound their way up to the ceiling.
Sŭchō went to a cabinet and pulled out two cups. “Would you like a cup of tea?”
“Um, yes, please.” He looked around as Sŭchō tended to the tea. He liked it in here, it felt all warm and cozy. Oil lamps attached to the walls and set on tables filled the interior with light. To one side was a large bookshelf which was full to overflowing with all sizes of books. Skyler walked over and did a quick scan. Low and behold, resting on one of the shelves was a well-worn copy of A Keepers Guide to Capturing and Releasing Forgotten Beasts.
“Would you like sugar and or milk?”
Skyler turned from the bookcase and answered, “Both, please.” He walked over to her and looked around the large room. “I’m curious, how does the tree survive with so much of it removed?”
She stirred the tea and said, “The walls are still quite thick which means it’s still plenty strong enough to support the rest of the tree. Also, the xylem, you know what that is, right?”
“Tube like cells that allow water from the roots to flow to the leaves.”
Impressed, she handed him the steaming teacup. “Exactly. The xylem in this type of tree have an unusually large diameter making them extraordinarily strong. They are also plentiful, allowing an adequate flow of water up to the crown.”
Skyler took the cup in both hands and blew across the top of it. “From the outside, this type of tree looks familiar, I’ve seen pictures of them before, somewhere.”
“They’re similar to the baobab tree that’s found in parts of Africa, but much larger and more numerous.”
“Right, now I remember.” He raised the cup to his mouth and took a tentative sip. “Wow, this is delicious. Is this one of your family’s recipes made from the plants grown in the garden?”
“Uh, no, it’s called British Blend by Tetley. I got it from a Piggly Wiggly in Elberta, Alabama.”
Skyler laughed, almost choking on his tea. “You walked into a store and bought it?”
She smiled. “Why wouldn’t I?”
“Well, I’m pretty sure I would’ve heard somewhere about an ape walking into a Piggly Wiggly to buy a box of tea.”
Sŭchō walked over to his bag in the middle of the floor, picked it up and placed it by a small table that sat under a large window. She pulled out a chair from under the table and sat down. “That’s exactly why I stayed outside while a friend, who looked more indigenous, went in.”
“I see.” He walked over and sat in the seat across from her.
“However, that proved to be a bit of a mistake. My friend, Mrs. Privet, happens to be, how does she put it? Oh yeah, vertically challenged, that’s it. Well, she hates to be reminded about it and, unfortunately, the person at the register chose to greet her with the words Hello there little darling.
“Uh, oh. What happened?”
“Well, let’s just say she’s not allowed in any Piggly Wigglys in Alabama anymore!”
Skyler laughed and took another sip of tea. He felt himself very at ease around Sŭchō. He placed his cup on the table.
Sŭchō grabbed a couple of coasters from the center of the table and slid one across to him and put the other by her.
He grabbed his cup and quickly lifted it. “Sorry.” He slid the coaster that was shaped like the state of California and had Redwood State Park written on it under the cup. “Um, I’ve been meaning to ask you a question.”
“Well, when I stepped through the gate… you know what they are, right?”
“I sure do.”
“Okay, when I stepped through the gate, I had no idea where it led to and from the looks of everything around here, I don’t think I’m not on the same planet.”
“Then, where am I? What’s the name of this planet?”
“There you go with names again. This planet doesn’t have a name. This tree doesn’t have a name, the plants surrounding it don’t have names, the rocks don’t have names, nothing has a name. Everything is just here; everyone knows it for what it is without having to name it.”
Skyler shrugged his shoulders and continued, “Sorry…it’s what I’m used to, I guess. I mean, if someone asks, it’s a lot easier to say, I’m from Earth than to say something like, I’m from the third planet from that bright star, how do you do?
“I agree, but I believe naming something implies a sort of power over it. You’re telling it what its name should be. That’s pretty rude, don’t you think?”
“But you have a name. Does that mean your parents disrespected you?”
“No, because, as you said, that’s what everyone does when you’re from where I’m from.”
“And where’s that?”
She put her cup down, stuck out her hand and said, “The third planet from that bright star, how do you do?”
Skyler’s mouth dropped open. “Wait, what? No way!”
“What do you mean?”
He sat up. “Uh, hello, I think I would know if apes like you were living side by side with humans like me!”
Sŭchō sipped her tea. “I never said I was there the same time as you.”
He sat back again. “Oh, yeah, I didn’t think about that. So, when were you on the planet?”
“At about the same time the first humans were there.”
“Wait, hold on a minute, you just said you bought the tea from a store…”
“I went back to visit.”
“That doesn’t make any sense! How could you be there at the same as the first humans then come back to do some grocery shopping? Do you know how old that would make you?”
“Don’t you know it’s not polite to ask a woman her age?”
“Sure, under normal circumstances but (he looked around) I don’t think I’ve been in anything normal since I almost died on the moon. Oh, wait a minute, I mean the lifeless rock orbiting the third rock from the sun.”
She put her cup down and got up out of her chair. “It’s good to see you can maintain a sense of humor about things. I guess it’s time for a little history lesson.” She walked over to the bookshelf Skyler had been looking at earlier and pulled out a large book from the middle shelf. Even from where he was sitting, Skyler could see that it looked old. It had a tattered leather cover and was thick with crinkly and yellowed looking pages. Even though it looked heavy, Sŭchō picked it up as if it were light as a feather. She came over, sat in her chair, and placed the book in her lap. She lifted open the cover, closed her eyes, then whispered something to herself as she ran her hand over the first page. He could see a quick smile come and go on her face.
She said, “Scooch on over next to, I want to show you something.”
Skyler got up and slid his chair next to hers.
She placed her hands flat on the same page and looked at him. “Look into my eyes.”
He did as she asked and immediately felt something pass through him. He couldn’t explain what it was, but he suddenly had a sense of a connection to Sŭchō as well as to the book.
He smiled without really knowing why.
Sŭchō smiled back and said, “You felt it.”
“Yeah, I did. Was that you? What was that?”
“Confirmation? Of what?”
“You’ll see.” She tilted the book up and ran her fingers over the top of the pages, found the spot she wanted, then opened the book, laying it across her lap again. Skyler noticed a large four-leaf clover, pressed flat with age, marked the page she had chosen.
She smoothed the page and said, “This is a very ancient book. Its been handed down for centuries and I’ve been given the task to make sure it stays safe and up-to-date.”
“What’s in it?”
“It contains a list of all the Keepers, starting from the very first to the present. On each page is inscribed a family tree listing the names and whereabouts of each member of that family.”
Skyler pointed to the book. “You mean everyone listed in there is a Keeper?”
“Of one sort or another.”
He was confused. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Well, the original Keepers of a planet are special. They’re considered pure because they’re direct descendants of the first Keepers. Also, each of their offspring is also pure. However, that gene pool can become mixed as Keepers mingle with the population of the planet they’re assigned to.”
“They’re allowed to do that, mingle, I mean?”
“You have to understand something, the Keepers on a planet are usually there for a really long time, generations of Keepers can exist on one planet. Inevitably, cross over with the other inhabitants usually takes place. It’s only natural and an accepted practice.”
“I see.” He thought for a second. “Can the, uh, mingled population become Keepers as well? Does the gene get passed to them and to their families?”
“Sometimes, but they don’t necessarily have the same level of ability and the Keeper gene can skip generations so it not always guaranteed that the offspring will be a Keeper.”
Skyler found that he had been drawn to the front of his chair. He pushed himself back and said, “Ya know, I think I remember my grandmother talking about this sort of stuff.”
“Ahh, your grandmother, she’s fantastic. Always on the go, one of the best Keepers around.”
“My grandmother? You sure you have the right person because I would never think of my grandmother as having get up and go except if she was getting up from her chair and going to the refrigerator.”
“Well she has every right to…”
“Wait, you know her?”
“Yes, of course. Pure Keepers always keep in touch.”
Skyler scrunched up his face, “I knew my grandmother was old, but just how old is she?”
“Here, let me show you.” She slid the book over so he could get a better view. She pointed her finger at a spot near the middle of the page. “See? Right here.”
Skyler looked at where she was pointing and sure enough, written in a delicate print, in the middle of a hand drawn tree was his grandmother’s name! He leaned in closer and squinted. “How come I don’t recognize any of the other names branching out from hers?” He looked up at Sŭchō. “Shouldn’t I see my parent’s names as well as me and my sister?”
“They’re there.” She reached over and folded out the page, increasing the size of the tree.
“This doesn’t make any sense! How can her name be here (he pointed at her name then slid it over to the other page where he could make out his mother and father’s names) but we’re all the way over here? Shouldn’t we be together? And who are all these other people branching off from her?”
She slid the book back over onto her lap. “I think I need to explain a couple of things about Keepers. It’ll help you understand. You know how if you travel to a Black Hole, because of the affects of its gravity, the perception of time is altered. For every hour you spend there, years could have gone by on Earth.”
“Yeah, we studied that at the Merchant Marines Academy.”
“Well, what you don’t know is that time can work the other way as well. You could leave Earth through a thread and spend years on a different planet, but when you return, you might have been gone for only a week. This would explain how your grandmother and myself are very old but don’t look it. That and the fact our bodies age at a different rate than everyone else’s.”
“I understand what you’re saying, but why didn’t my mom and dad mention this? I mean, wouldn’t they have told me if they had been away to a different planet.”
“Well, your mom and dad aren’t pure Keepers, but your grandmother is. As are you.”
He laughed. “Me? No way! That’s why I left home?” He got up and paced the room. “I can’t do any of that Keeper stuff! I’m a disappointment to all of them. That’s why my parents split up, because of me.” Skyler looked away.
“I’m sorry but I don’t know anything about that part, but I do know you’re a Keeper and a pure one.”
Becoming frustrated, Skyler said, “Oh yeah? And how do you know that? I told you I don’t talk to animals and they don’t talk to me!”
“Hold on a second, don’t get so upset. Let me show you. Look, see here? There’s a capital P next to your grandmother’s name.”
Skyler leaned over to take a closer look. “Yeah, so.”
“The P marks a pure Keeper.” She moved her finger to the open page, scanned it briefly, then pointed at his name. “Look, see? Right here, you’re marked with a P as well.”
He leaned in to look, saw the P next to his name, then leaned back. “I see what it says, but I know it’s not true.”
Sŭchō sighed. “Your sisters both have P’s as well. See, right…”
“Um, you mean sister, not sisters.” He sat back in his chair. “See, the book can’t even get that right!”
“It’s correct, Michele and…”
Skyler leaned in again. He eyes grew wide as he shouted. “YUKI?”