The Benjamin Tree

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“Oh, the tree comes with the apartment,” the Estate Agent mentioned waving at it as they moved through the lounge area, “The previous owner considers it part of 307’s furnishings.”

The tree was small–head-height–and had a trunk that was made up of what looked like thick, gray, twirling vines that held a clump of large, bright-green, oblong leaves. It sat in a knee-high pot decorated with intricate carvings and strange oriental-looking letters cut finely into it.

“It’s called a Benjamin Tree,” he said, “It’s the official tree of Bangkok, actually.”

“Oh,” the Estate Agent paused in her sales pitch, “I thought it was a Weeping Fig?”

“Yes,” he nodded before moving on with her, “That’s another name for it. I prefer the former name. Say, why is the previous owner selling here? Ocean View seems so quaint.”

“Oh, he used to work at the docks. Import-export or something, I believe. He won the lottery last week so he is returning to his family in New York,” the Estate Agent said, “It’s a pity the money doesn’t ever stay in Blackpool Bay, really. We could use it here. Why are you moving all the way out here?”

The furnished apartment was not massive. They had walked through most of it and were standing back in the lounge by now. It had a window that overlooked the gray ocean with the dingy docks below. He could see a twitchy-looking man loading what looked like diving gear into a small fishing boat and he watched intently for a moment wondering what this man was doing.

“I’m a writer,” he muttered back and then turned and faced the Estate Agent, “I’m a writer and I need a place to disappear to and write. This one looks perfect. The Benajim Tree can stay.”

***

A year and a bit later, he was sipping his morning coffee and staring out of the lounge window. The local morning newspaper lay on his lap. The ocean in Blackpool Bay never changed; it was always gray and stormy with dark, distrusting waters under a brooding near-storm sky. It all just reflected this town’s forgotten place and constantly surprising secrets.

They had even tried to build a highway through the mountains to connect Blackpool Bay to civilization, but a worker had died under questionable circumstances and the funders had pulled out.

The writing had gone brilliantly and his new book had only just been published. He remained here, though, as he liked the solitude of the place. Although he considered himself a city person, something about Blackpool Bay made it hard to leave.

Perhaps born out curiosity or a little boredom, he had begun researching the previous owner. Talking to the neighbors he had found a full name and the Internet had provided the rest: born in New York, Nathan Midlane had moved out to Blackpool Bay for work and then won the lottery and moved back.

It was a simple story, but the newspaper in his lap told a darker ending than he would have expected. He would never have guessed that Nathan Midlane’s story was a tragedy but the newspaper loudly declared it: “Blackpool Bay Man Wins Lottery & Dies“.

It had happened a week ago but only been reported here this morning. Time moved differently out here in Blackpool Bay. The line in the story that surprised him was the opening line: “Another former-resident in Apartment 307, Ocean View, has met a tragic end…

He found himself looking at the Benjamin Tree deep in thought. The spidery oriental writing on its pot looked faintly sinister. He wondered when Nathan Midlane had acquired the thing? He wondered from whom he had done so? He wondered what the strange language or symbols on its pot meant?

Just then his phone rang. He snapped out of it and finished his coffee. It was now cold but he gulped it down, stood up and walked across to his phone.

“Hello?” he answered, not looking at who was calling.

“How’s the writing?” his Agent’s familiar voice crackled on the other side of the line. It sounded really far away. The reception was not great out here in Blackpool Bay and it just added to this place’s isolation. Sometimes the phones all just went dead and no one knew why.

“Uh, it’s fine, I suppose,” he mumbled, unsure how to respond, “What else is up?”

“That’s not why I am calling,” his Agent started talking, the sheer excitement audible in his faint, crackling voice, “Some major blogger read your book. She wrote about it and tweeted. A bunch more picked up on this and did the same. It’s trending. Your book is trending. They love it. They all love it! Your book is now front shelf and ranked in top ten on Amazon. Go check it out! Rolling Stones want an interview and the BBC has asked for a quote…”

***

He put down the phone and leaned back on the couch in Apartment 307, Ocean View. Even the name had started sounding ominous to him. The twisted trunk of the Benjamin Tree in its sinister pot cover with spidery runes looked back at him. The ocean remained gray under the foreboding sky.

All the rest was silence. It was so quiet out here. It was like man and the entirety of his little civilization was just a brief flicker of light in a cosmic darkness that reached across time and space in crushing size and scope and, far out here, Blackpool Bay was surrounded by endless amounts of it…

While his book continued to reach highs out there in the world, he felt a million miles away from it. Perhaps he was a million miles away living out here in eerie Blackpool Bay.

But none of this consumed his thoughts these days. He had been investigating Apartment 307, Ocean View. He had been digging for the truth and it was far darker than he had ever imagined.

He had reached out to the journalist at the local paper. The journalist had sent him a number of other clippings going back some years.

A couple year ago, before Nathan Midlane had moved into Apartment 307, the previous owners–a certain, Miley and Marc Cohen–had died shortly after moving into a fancy house in Main Road here. Speaking to some locals down at the pub, the best he could piece together was that the Cohens had made a large amount of money from investments. Unfortunately, a strange fire in their new house in Main Road had seen them burnt to death. Strangely, most of the house had escaped unscathed.

Before the Cohen’s, though, a lesser known, Catherine McDougle, had lived a quiet, spinster life here for many decades. Little seemed to be known about her, except that she had died shortly after moving to live with family in Washington. She was old and the coroner had ruled her death natural, or so the article had claimed.

Upon her death, though, to the Blackpool Bay residents’ surprise, McDougle’s fortune had been donated to the Masonic Museum in London. It had been the largest public donation ever on record. The Museum had gone on record thanking her for it. Everyone was flabbergasted at the fortune McDougle had quietly amassed while living in the modest Apartment 307, Ocean View.

He could not find any older records of any earlier owners of Apartment 307, Ocean View. But what he did find in one of the earliest articles of McDougle was quite disturbing: “We will all fondly remember McDougle. My personal memory will always be her sitting in her favorite seat next to her special Weeping Fig tree and recounting her days in the Society abroad where she collected many such wonders…

He had sat upright when he had read that. He found himself looking more and more at the inconspicuous Benjamin Tree and its sinister pot that quietly stood in the corner of his modest lounge.

***

“So you can interpret it then?” he asked, trying to sound calm, but instead a near-feverish eagerness came through in his voice, “Can you understand it then?”

An old, scholarly Chinese man was in Apartment 307, Ocean View, and looking at the Benjamin Tree. More specifically, the man was bending down and attempting to read the spidery runes cut finely into its pot.

“The writing is a version of Archaic Mandarin from the First or Second Imperial Dynasty. Yes, probably from the Han Dynasty. It is strangely phrased with ambiguity,” the scholar paused, chuckling to himself, “It is actually quite witty if I am correct.”

With that, the scholar stood up and turned to him. He felt his heart pounding and his palms sweaty. Within his clenched fists at his side, he dug his nails into his palms. It was all he could do to stay calm. Outside the gray, foreboding sky and its ominous clouds seemed to be holding their breath as they peered inside the gloomy Apartment 307.

“Could–could you please,” he took a deep breath and tried to continue calmly, “please tell me what you read?”

The scholar smiled and motioned at the pot and its twisted, green Benjamin Tree.

“Old Chinese folktales talk of a Money Tree,” the scholar began slowly, picking up the pace as he spoke, the tree and its pot just sat there listening, “Literally, a tree on which money grows. A woodcutter once tricked a village into cutting down a tree that he wanted. He did this by sticking money on it. But, once the tree had been cut down and taken back to the village, it had regrown, twisting its hacked stem back and pushing out its sickly green leaves. The woodcutter had been angry and had tried to cut down the tree but the villages–still believing the tree to magical–attacked and killed the woodcutter. The village was prosperous for years thereafter, until a stranger had stolen it in the night. Shortly after then, a plague had wiped out all the villagers. It is said that this Money Tree brought luck to those that had it and misfortune to those that lost it.”

The scholar finished his tale with a smile, seeming quite satisfied with himself.

“Yes,” he said abruptly, feeling anger and frustration rising inside himself, “But what does the writing say?”

The scholar nodded and pointed at the pot again, moving his finger as he read it out loud.

“I believe that this is an old Hang Dynasty artifact–probably worth a tidy sum of money!–but it seems to keep referencing the Money Tree folktale with a simple palindrome that repeats across the design here and here and over there too. It simply says: ‘Dead lucky or lucky dead‘.”

Far away, he could almost hear the noise of civilization and his book shooting up the rankings with the steady clink of money flowing in. And, trapped all the way out in Blackpool Bay that distant metallic sound just sounded like chains being tightened around him. One by one, inch by inch and moment by moment, he was suffocating in Apartment 307, Ocean View.

The Benjamin Tree in its sinister pot with spidery runes carried on standing there. It was taunting him, its prisoner, and just daring him to leave…

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