The Seed Keeper

by 小川 幸生 Yukimi Ogawa
(Japan)

The seed keeper waited. Only she didn’t know how long she had yet to wait.

She was released from her little shrine when the world died, when the shrine was crushed flat by the lethal storm. She looked up. She could see, beyond the smoke and ashes and dust, that the last rain was coming. She looked down. Earth only looked like scars and bruises; every surface was a stinking mess, of corpses of every life that had inhabited her, of lava rocks that were immediately cooled down by the waves from the sea. She imagined remnants of her village and its people crumpled under the layers of filth. She looked away, and decided to search for her kin, the flame keeper.

His mountain was still visible there, to her relief, in spite of the scale of its explosion, which could have sacrificed the mountain itself. But when she reached there, she found his altar, too, had been destroyed, though not as bad as her shrine. She now looked around at the human corpses, covering the stairs to the collapsed altar, of those who might have come to beg for his mercy. No one seemed alive.

She looked up. As if it were answering, the sky started spitting onto her face.

The flame keeper—whom she had feared and secretly loved—decided when to set the volcano free, and now was gone with all the vapor the lava had caused. The water keeper, her sweet cousin, released the tide that had craved to permeate and claim the whole surface of the world. And when the tide retreated, he, too, was gone as the mud from the seas turned to sand.

The seed keeper returned to the site where her shrine used to stand. She started digging into the ground, where it had been the center of the site. She dug deeper and deeper, until she found a sleek, tiered box lacquered in black and gold. She then lifted the lid to reveal the first tier, which was divided into numerous tiny squares, each holding one seed.

She now lifted the first tier and saw yet another tier which in turn yielded more of those tiny squares. Then another; endless repetition of square chambers. Each seed chamber was carpeted with a tiny piece of fabric, of different colors and textures. This way the seed keeper would know what seed each square held. Humans of different colors; fish of seas and rivers; plants that bear fruits and plants that do not—seed of every living kin. They need to wait until the right time comes for them to grow.

And it was her job. To wait until the time comes, to grow and harvest them.

Only she didn’t know how long.

She spent days and nights that followed counting the seeds one by one. She would lift the lid, pick up a seed, and feel the fabric. When she was done with one tier, she’d place the tier on the ground and go on to the next. She repeated this every day, until she could no longer remember how many times she had counted the seeds. And she never remembered how many seeds there were, after all. What she did was waiting, not counting.

More frequently than any other she would touch humans’ fabric, especially her people’s, even when she was not counting. She loved how the fabric felt: infinitely smooth, with occasional hints of irritation. And it smelt good. It smelt like the village itself, the one she had been protecting for thousands of years, soil and crops and herbs and sweat all mingled. But the seed itself looked just the same as the others.

She picked up a seed, the fabric under it whitish yellow in color, soft and wooly at the touch. So this is dandelion. She liked dandelion, the village girls had often made a crown for her with the flowers. She put the seed back in its chamber.
Then she picked up another seed. This one’s fabric had multiple colors carelessly mixed, and the texture was soft but somehow rough. Amaryllis, she mused. She had never seen amaryllis.

Why did she have to wait for something she hadn’t even seen?

Almost reflexively she popped the seed into her mouth.

She munched on it, surprised how good it tasted. She hadn’t eaten anything since the end of the world. Not that she needed food, but she had always enjoyed eating the offerings from the village people.

She swallowed, wondering if all the seeds tasted the same.

But no, it’s a sin. Bad one. She sprung to her feet, suddenly aware of what she had done. There would be no amaryllis forever. She had never seen amaryllis, and now, she would never, ever do. She hit her chest hard, to see if she could spit a piece, but it didn’t work. She touched the amaryllis fabric once again, terrified, with her hands shaking for the first time ever.

For a long, long time she remained there motionless. Eventually she overcame the feeling, and started justifying herself, that it was just a flower after all, the planet would hardly notice anything is missing. And there’s nobody to punish her, anyway. So she started drifting around, trying to find anything distracting. She found and pocketed a few pieces of lava rocks, and did some simple juggling, like the little village girls who used to sit on the steps to the shrine’s main building, singing old rhymes. She ran up a hill, and came back rolling down, covered with volcano ashes; she had seen the village boys do this in the snow. She even ate a lump of ash, which looked a little like rice balls that the village people used to make for her. It tasted terrible.

The seed keeper went back to her site.

The tiered box was there just as she had left it. As soon as she caught sight of the seeds again her mouth watered. She spat to get rid of the sandy taste of the ashes, then crouched over the box. And started going through the seeds.

Humans. She couldn’t possibly choose them. They needed her, and that’s why she needed them.

Plants. The humans need them. But do they need them all…?

Animals. Perhaps humans don’t mind her eating some of them, those that might do harm to the humans… But still, they have their own rolls to fulfill…

Or do they?

The back of her eyes started to ache, so she looked up at the sky. Before the end of the world there were greens to rest her eyes on all around her site. She wouldn’t choose trees that spread their branches, she decided, so that they would canopy her world with their leaves again. She thought of the branches swaying lightly in a breeze, and humans, animals, insects and everything resting in and under them. Maybe she only needed her people. And only her people’s plants and animals, and the flame keeper and the water keeper. Only enough to rebuild her realm. Enough to return to her ordinary, peaceful life…

She fell asleep, and dreamed of life with nothing but amaryllis.

Then she imposed upon herself a rule of her own.

The seed keeper turned the tiers upside down to drop all the seeds onto the ground. She enjoyed the sound of the seeds clinking against each other. When it was done, she took some time enjoying burying her hands in the seeds. She wanted even to sleep in them, but feared crushing them with her weight. Then, like a child playing with sand, she started building a mountain with the seeds. She was disappointed when she couldn’t mock the flame keeper’s mountain, and out of frustration she destroyed her seed mountain. Then she built it again.
When she could wait no longer, she looked up.

There was nothing to wrap her dead world now, and only the space was there. She lay beside the seed mountain and waited. And finally found what she had been waiting for.

Above her, a star died.

The seed keeper stared at the explosion with relish; she hadn’t found anything beautiful since… since when? When the explosion ended and she could find nothing left of the old star, she sat up to face the seed mountain. With the seeds out of the box she could no longer tell what seed each of them was. She wouldn’t have to feel tormented trying to choose which seed she could sacrifice. But maybe she should have put her people aside. Maybe she should have left her zelkova trees out of the mountain…

She picked up a seed on top of the mountain, and popped it into her mouth. She thought it tasted slightly different from the previous one, but perhaps it was just her imagination. Even between these two seeds, so much time had passed, and she wasn’t sure if she remembered the previous one’s taste correctly.

After chewing for a long, long time she swallowed. Then she lay on her back again, waiting for another star to die. When not enough stars died, she decided to include stars being born. But still, that wasn’t enough.

So she waited.

Stars died. Stars arose.

Time passed, slow like no one could ever imagine, and still the seed keeper sat alone. Now in front of her only one seed remained. She wondered what this seed was for, and knew she couldn’t eat this one, but still, that she had nothing more to eat put her on the edge of sanity.

Not that sanity mattered now.

The tiers of the lacquered box were now only ruins, but somehow the fabric remained. They were scattered all over around where the seed keeper waited, shimmering as the only colors on this planet. She had looked up, wondering what she would decide to do if another star died, when she realized something was wrong with her eyes: a haze interfered with her sight. At first she thought she was finally going blind, but when it slowly moved, she knew it was a cloud.

A wind blew, carrying the fabric pieces away, high into the sky.

She knew her waiting was now over. The seed keeper closed her hands around the last seed, and wept, relieved she hadn’t been waiting for nothing, sorry she had consumed all but one seed. She dug again into the soil where the lacquered box had been, placed the seed in the hole and put the soil back into the hole, onto the seed. And again, she waited.

Soon, very soon in her current of time, she saw the first sign of the sprout. First life, first real color. She poured all her strength onto the sprout and, as if responding to her, the sprout grew, into the air now thickening, into the sky now pale blue. Soon it grew to the height of the seed keeper. She touched the bud. It opened, and transformed into the shape it was destined to take…

The moment she saw the new-born seed keeper, the old seed keeper choked. A spasm shook her. Her knees surrendered first, then did all her limbs. Her hair turned gray, color drained from her eyes. She collapsed, gaped, stared into the eyes of the new seed keeper, who was now towering over her, looking down.

Soon the eyes only wobbled.

She felt her body decompose. She wasn’t conscious enough even to wonder what she would become. She transformed, and then, the old seed keeper vanished.

The new seed keeper looked blankly down at the remains of the dead seed keeper. Only a tiny mountain lay there, made of countless seeds.

There cannot be two seed keepers, the new seed keeper muttered, but there was no one to hear it.

Sensing its own recovery, the earth started moving. The seed keeper looked up at the sky just for once. Another wind blew, and carried the fabric pieces back down. They landed, one by one, on the seed mountain, to tell her the names of the things she would have to cultivate. Her gaze followed, and soon she started absorbing the names. There was no need to learn what name belonged to each seed; they would soon grow, and she would soon know.

She never looked up again.

The seed keeper waited for the wind to settle.


Yukimi Ogawa was born in a very small town in the metropolitan area of Japan, and is currently nestled in a fairly small town in Tokyo. She writes in English in the morning and speaks Japanese by day, but never speaks English. Her story can be found in an Escape Collective Publishing anthology Orbital Hearts.


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