The Seed Keeper

by 小川 幸生 Yuki­mi Ogawa

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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