A GREAT GLOWING TREE LOOMED ACROSS THE FIELD. Its elven light cast a bluish glow in the otherwise dark space that was this open country. As Eliza drew closer, she saw the haze of light was actually dozens of large orbs hung among the ancient oak’s countless curving limbs. It was just a decoration. Her breath fogged the chilled windshield as she exhaled.
The car rumbled along. Pavement had yielded to gravel more than a mile back. She checked her phone again. The green path on her map continued, oblivious to the celestial tree and the winding back road. She would arrive soon.
She made a fist to dig her nails into her palm. The panicked monologue stopped. She waited, breathless from the new pain in her hand, until she could only hear rocks crunching beneath her rolling tires. It was quiet again. The car rumbled forward.
The tree vanished as the road dipped low. It blossomed back to life as she rounded the last bend. A two-story whitewashed farmhouse camped beside the field where the tree lived. Eliza had not noticed it before and wasn’t sure that it had even been there. Of course it had. The tree distracted her. Most things distracted her these days.
She parked alongside the road. More cars than she could count filled the house’s gravel lot, the grass around it, and halfway down what she guessed was Dr. Behema’s long, lonely driveway. A lot of people were here. She made a gentle fist in anticipation of an outburst that never came. Being here felt different from thinking about being here. A lot of people were interested in Dr. Behema’s invitation. She wasn’t a lone idiot, at least.
The air outside the car was brisk. The defogger’s musky warmth still filled her nose. Even this far north, it shouldn’t be this cold in August. A storm system must be settling in over them. She sighed. The rain might help with the heat during her longer afternoon runs. The morning runs were cool enough. She wrapped her arms across her chest and headed to the house.
The tree’s bioluminescent glow called to her. She stopped twice to look at, the first time almost running into a Jeep’s oversized bumper and the second time actually running into a portly older man wearing a wine-colored cardigan draped over thin shoulders. She was jealous. He, at least, had checked the weather before heading to the country. She was wearing the only decent blouse that she owned.
It was woefully inadequate for anything except the summer heat. The silky emerald fabric complemented her olive skin, or so her mom had said. Eliza didn’t consider those things often. She knew she was a plain woman, despite her auspicious heritage. The daughter of a handsome Irish-American man and a Latina-Sioux woman should have been beautiful, she thought, as she picked at the blouse. The man seemed to notice. He slipped the handwoven sweater from his shoulders and offered it to her. Eliza started to balk, felt goosebumps crawl across her shaking fingers, and accepted. She draped it around her shoulders.
“Th... th… thank you. Unseasonably col... ugh. It’s cold.”
Eliza liked his new smile. His teeth were weathered by decades of black coffee and strong tobacco and he smiled with his entire face. She tried to return the smile but found her teeth were still chattering.
“Hmm, yes. Our climate is increasingly erratic, though perhaps for reasons beyond our current understanding. Let us head inside. My party is about to begin.”
Eliza stopped walking.
“Your pa… party? You’re Doc… Doc… Behema?”
“Philip Behema, yes. And you are Doctor Eliza Reyes.”
He had turned to face her, now oblivious to the chill that crawled into her bones. Teal light glinted from his round glasses while he waited for her next question. She followed the light on his face back to the tree.
“Not… not doctor. You did the tree?”
“My wife, yes.” His crackling voice trailed. “Her grandmother planted the tree almost a hundred years ago. My wife grew up playing among its limbs. She wanted everyone who came here to see the tree how she did.”
Eliza glanced at the man. He was looking into his hand, a thumb rolling a golden ring around his finger. He still wore the ring. She would try to remember that he was a human, too, despite her misgivings.
“It’s beautiful. I watched it for many miles.”
“Let’s go inside. You are the final guest. I feared, perhaps, you would not come.”
They slipped between cars to reach the whitewashed porch and the blazing red front door. His wife had an eye for the vibrant. What did this mean about the man she had married? Eliza found her attention drifting back to the glowing tree, beautiful, haunting, until she thought of an anglerfish luring its prey in the black depths of the cold ocean. The tree lost some luster. They were only electric light, after all.
“Doctor Behema,” she gripped the door handle before he could. “Why are we here? Your invitation, it… it…”
She wrapped the cardigan tighter.
“I don’t understand.”
“There are many things you do not understand, Eliza. Certainly, you have questions. Helena informed me how little she had taught you about our world before she opted for a Magellanic retirement. You are my guest this evening in part so that you have the opportunity to ask me these questions.”
Eliza hadn’t heard someone else mention Helena Haim’s name in many months. She had refused to think it, much less discuss it with other people, and now this man was her employer, sight unseen, on the word of the woman who left her behind. Her cheeks burned as though he had slapped her.
“Helena left a lot of things… unsaid. I’m not here to discuss her tonight, though. Your invitation was strange. I didn’t really understand…”
He held up a thin hand.
“Then why did you come?”
Eliza cocked her head. Hadn’t she just told him that?
“Precisely.” His pleasant smile shifted to a grin she did not like.
“Come inside. You will learn much tonight that will lay the foundations for long hours and fine palaver. This is the completion of your education, Eliza. As Helena intended.”
He opened the door. Her rattled mind hardly noticed his hand on her shoulders, easing her inside. Light and warmth overwhelmed her. She tried to dig her fingernails into her palm but the traitorous hand would not respond. More than a hundred people lingered in the antique space too small to comfortably hold so many. People filled the double-wide doorway from the kitchen to the living room. More people perched on the staircase above the living room, peering through and leaning over the railing. Yet more people camped near that room’s blazing fireplace. They filled the couches, the chairs, the free space on the wall, and worst of all, Eliza’s scattershot attention.
She tried to process them. Several looked like identical siblings or maybe even twins. It was so hard to tell when they were older. Twins had a habit of either mirroring each other for life or diverging as soon as they were able. These all obviously chose the former. A pair built more like Egyptian cat gods carved from black basalt than actual people lingered near the door. One of them turned to her as she stared. The woman was gorgeously inhuman, no, superhuman in her symmetric physique. Loose robes of woven gold and purple so rich that it looked black draped her carved form. Her shaved head looked as smooth as marble. Eliza looked again and saw the woman was actually bald. She looked away.
A trio of pygmies seated on the staircase let their legs dangle through the railing while they stared at the fire. They did not notice her. The tiny humans showed none of the telltale signs of being either dwarf or midget. All looked older than she was. Two were dressed in jeans and loose t-shirts while the third only wore what looked like leather shorts. All were such a deep tan that she realized it must be genetic. Their eyes never left the fire.
A mammoth stood in the door to a long hallway. He, though Eliza was not certain the figure was male or that it even mattered, filled the entire frame. She wondered why he chose to stand in the confined space until she realized he had braced himself against the frame as a support. It was his own way of resting. She felt a twinge of sympathy for the loaded leather couches and then for the gargantuan man. He was the largest person she had ever seen, in real life or in media, larger even than the Icelandic powerlifters with names like Thorsson and Eriksson and Bjornsson she glimpsed while skimming channels in her insomniac pre-dawn hours. He smiled when they made eye contact. She managed to smile back.
“Welcome one and all to our home.” Behema’s voice broke her inspection.
There were so many more unique people in the room. She tried to note them all for later questions. How had he found this many outliers of the human race?
His otherwise steady voice faltered again as it had outside. Eliza noticed he was playing with his wedding band again. How long ago had his wife died? She had not bothered to research her new employer before accepting. There had been nowhere else to go.
“For many of you, it is a long and I suspect uncomfortable journey. For all of you, it is a gift of your time, to me, for tonight. So I say thank you and welcome. All are welcome for as long as you like. The farmhouse offers more comforts than you may initially suspect. I hope to repay your gift.”
No one moved as he spoke. Eliza had expected a cheer, or a round of applause, or whatever thing normal people did in situations like these. She didn’t know. In looking at the room again, she guessed they might not know either. Her eyes skipped back to Behema. His voice was more hypnotic than the luminous oak outside. The man had a talent for theatrics. Another thing to remember. The fire crackled, filling the extended silences between his words.
“Many of you know each other. All of you know me, save a few whom I met just this evening. We have no common purpose beyond my relationship with you. You came for my sake, or the sake of the person who shared my invitation. You came,” he paused, lulling the hundred-strong crowd’s focus deeper, “to hear the story of Hyun Minseok. It is a story you each will recognize as rhyming with yourown. Please, bring our guest.”
The mammoth in the doorway disappeared into the darkness behind him. A withered woman backed out of a door in that hallway, bringing a wheelchair covered in a blanket with her. She struggled to pivot in the hallway. The mammoth eased her aside, lifted the wheelchair a few inches from the floor, and spun it so that she could move again. The woman patted his arm and pushed the wheelchair into the room.
She claimed Behema’s place in the room’s center, hobbling around the chair to adjust the blankets. As she did, wisps of hair so white that they were almost clear appeared near the chair’s headrest. A few more adjustments and a mummy was visible beneath the patchwork blanket.
It was a man. Cackling whistles from the pygmies broke the crowd’s unspoken vow of attentive silence. Soon more voices filled the room than Eliza could process. She caught snippets of what sounded like hushed Mandarin, what was definitely Russian, several voices that sounded like distant cousins of Spanish, and a cacophony of English that made her native tongue sound more alien than any of the others. Someone’s voice rumbled in a bass too deep for her to understand.
Hyun Minseok’s attendant shuffled back to the mammoth man. She draped his forearm, larger than most of her body, across her shoulder. Behema kneeled beside the wheelchair. He began whispering into where Eliza thought an ear must be. Didn’t men’s ears grow for the rest of their life? If so, she thought Hyun Minseok’s should be as large as his head. He looked as shriveled and blackened as the mummies that archaeologists pulled from the pyramids.
His folded eyelids crept open as Behema spoke with him. The eyes behind them belonged to another lifetime. They were shining gold buttons on his papyrus face, glinting in the firelight as they darted to the room’s occupants. He blinked several times, each faster than the last, as though he was waking up from a long nap and had just remembered where he was. Or who he was, Eliza thought. Behema rose.
“There are few instructions for this evening. You may come and go as you please. I ask for no confidentiality, no secrecy, no allegiance except this. Hyun Minseok is a treasure to this world. Today is his 200th birthday and our raison d'être for this event. I ask only that you pay close attention. Let him tell his full story. His English is adequate to the task. I would not risk eroding his meaning with my poor translation. He risked much to travel here and as much to spend his energies sharing his story.”
Behema paused a moment for someone to object. Eliza found her hand clenching and unclenching, aching to rise into the air to ask a question. She shoved it into her jeans pocket.
“Wonderful.” He placed his hand on the ancient man’s spiny knuckles. “Please begin.”