June 13th, 2007


The Money Tree

"But money doesn't just grow on trees!" Elias protested, struggling in the arms of the treasury goons. "It's impossible!"

"I notice that impossibility didn't stop you from harvesting and spending a few tens of thousands," purred the agent, walking around the tree. Its trunk was about ten inches in diameter, with a rough shaggy brown bark and long graceful branches. Clusters of almost perfectly round leaves framed pear-shaped fruiting bodies, and peeking out of the mostly-closed calyx tubes were the rectangular corners of something papery. The agent reached up and tugged one object loose.

In his hand lay a rough approximation of a one hundred dollar bill, about three quarters actual size. The face of Benjamin Franklin was somehow skewed, and the ink was too dark, but the likeness of a $100 note was unmistakeable. The agent rolled the object in his hands to crush it, and a wet greenish stain pooled in his palms. He smelled it.

"Should be ripe in another month or so," he commented. Elias nodded sadly.

"The crop came up well just in time for Christmas," the farmer mourned. "It was like a blessing from the Lord."

"Your blessing has been a curse to me, sir," the agent scolded. "I've had all sorts of trouble tracking down the serial numbers on your money. Unregistered; certainly not ours -- and yet the bills are perfect counterfeits."

Elias shook his head. "I don't know how it happened," he said wonderingly. "My daughter found the tree growing out of her compost heap, so she transplanted it here where it could get more light. It's grown fast and well, but it only started yielding money three years ago."

The agent nodded. "Money trees take time to mature," he said matter-of-factly.

Elias started. "It doesn't make any sense!" he wailed. "Money doesn't come from trees, it comes from mints!"

"Have you ever actually seen the inside of a mint?" asked the agent with a hint of a smile.

"Why, I have," answered Elias. "I took my family to Denver one summer. We got a tour of the mint."

"Lots of impressive machines? very clean, very tidy?" asked the agent.

"Yep, it was about like that."

"All a sham," breezed the agent. "The machinery in the Denver mint is just for show. That facility just serves as a warehousing unit for the crop that is grown and harvested in three large groves in Nebraska, each operating under the cover of nuclear missile silo installations. We rotate between ones, fives and twenties for the majority of the plantings, but we scatter in the larger bills and some of the banking notes to keep the soil healthy."

The farmer's eyes bulged and his mouth worked. "That's crazy talk," he mumbled. "How could you get a plant to grow cash?"

"Through centuries and centuries of work by the world's best Botanists," answered the agent smoothly. "You know, when people first started printing paper money, they discovered a hard truth: if one person can make it, another clever person can figure out how to forge it. But a living organism -- that's something else entirely. We tell people that the 'special paper' used in dollar bills can't be duplicated, and that's because it isn't manufactured at all!"

The agent took a pair of clippers and began to expertly prune the suckers growing out of the trunk. "It all started back in China, thousands of years ago," he lectured. "Shang Dynasty. The emperor's gardeners figured out a way to get a lilac tree's blossoms to show a crude silhouette of his favorite concubine's head. The emperor thought: if I could just take this to another level, get it to make something sturdy enough to use as currency, then my financial worries would be over! Well, it took quite a while for them to get it right -- Han Dynasty, in fact -- but eventually they made it work."

The agent sighed. "Of course, there have been a few hiccups along the way," he confided. "The Great Depression, for instance. Had nothing to do with stock markets; we had a leaf blight and lost several years of crop in a row. And in World War II the money trees escaped out into the general public, leading to runaway inflation of the Deutschmark. Terrible situation. Of course, now thanks to genetic engineering we can get individual plants to show their own serial numbers and everything, so that trouble's gone away."

The agent fixed Elias with a steely eye. "Except for you and your tree, that is," he puzzled. "Money trees are mules -- they mostly don't seed, so they can't spread around. We control the reproducing plants tightly in self-contained biodomes. So how did a live seed wind up in your compost heap, I wonder? Hmmm?"

Elias swallowed. "I don't have any idea?"

The agent cocked his head. "And where's this daughter of yours, anyway? The girl with the green thumb who successfully transplanted the sapling? That's horribly difficult to do, by the way; money trees are very finicky, and they die when things aren't just right. She must be a hell of a gardener -- or know exactly what she's doing. Where can I find her?"

Elias glanced at his shoes. "I expect she'll be digging down by the creek," he muttered.

"Digging?" Suspicion creased the agent's face. "Digging for what?"

Elias looked up, defeated. "Dimes."