Formation of the Island of Botanica
The rising tide swallowed many islands as the third millennium closed. By then, humankind had returned to basic survival. Hand to mouth subsistence farming. The Spikes epidemic, which took ninety percent of the population in the years between 2107 and 2212, had died with its last victim, but the rise of the animals and insects made human life precarious. Plant life was at risk through disease and the needs of the food chain. Plagues of locusts, intent on survival, roared through food crops. Domesticated cattle chewed grass to the ground and tore out the roots with their flat teeth.
In some areas volcanic mud spewed for centuries, and in others new land masses were thrown up by the shifting plates.
In 2519 a group of scientists, the last existing perhaps, set sail for what they had identified as the highest point in the Pacific, an island perhaps five hundred years old and approximately 800,000 km², the size of Turkey, filled with a legendary, ancient Tree. They were botanists and plant biologists and they took with them a Noah’s Ark of seeds. They did not bother with animals, wanting to avoid the virulent nature of breeding and the future temptation to farm animals for food. Spikes had come from abusive animal consumption and other manipulations.
The island of Botanica was only sparsely inhabited; most of the area’s people believing it to be filled with spirits.
The cause of fear was the massive Tree which almost filled the island. Such a monstrous thing in nature must have grown on the spirits of man; most people would not step foot on the land, or even sail close to shore.
Rainfall was adequate on the island and the Tree itself grew year by year.
The inhabitants were an undeveloped, disparate group living at far extremes in small communities. With the Tree filling most of the island, there was no cross-country travel and very little circumnavigation.
When the colonists arrived, life changed.
Laburnum OMBU Aloes
The community of Ombu awoke to the sound of Leaffall. The soft early fall of leaves meant soon the Tree would let enough light through to dapple the sand and it would be time to choose the teachers.
Lillah’s father began the selection process, collecting seawater in a large, leaf-lined wooden bowl. He covered this tightly with more leaves and tied it securely with a strong strip of bark. He placed the bowl in the roots, where the water drew strength from the Tree for ten days, after which enough sweet water had formed to wash the faces of the ten young women seeking testing.
Lillah collected the bowl then took it to the nine other girls up for selection. They sat in the moonlight and bathed each other’s faces. The water would keep their skin honest, and in the morning, when they faced the fathers, only truth would be shown.
“This is nice,” Lillah said. “You’re gentle.”
Melia laughed. “Lillah likes a woman’s touch. She’s going to be disappointed at the touch of a man.”
The girls laughed, teasing and poking each other. Melia jumped up and spoke in a deep voice. “Are there any girls here who can match my virility? Any of you?”
“Oh, Melia,” Thea said. “You will have some fun if they send you.”
“They might send us all. You never know with the fathers.”
“What are you saying about the fathers?” Melia’s mother, Cynthia, came upon them. “The fathers are having a good rest in readiness for tomorrow. You would be sensible to do the same. Have you washed your faces?”
The girls nodded. Melia’s mother’s croaky voice made them listen, feel lucky. In her home Order of Parana, young people burned throats with an ember. When she whispered, the croakiness was not so awful, so she mostly whispered.
Whispering can be very strong.
“And the sap is prepared for the morning? Softening?”
Melia gave her mother a hug. “We are ready, as every group has been ready before us. We’ll be fine. We are magnificent.”
The girls giggled again and Melia’s mother shook her head. “Bed, girls,” she said. She was far more restrained than once she was. When she had first arrived she had been wilder. Life had tamed her. People said she had watched her own brother die in a terrible way. Sea monster? Deep black hole? Ghost cave? And that she had never recovered from this tragedy.
Lillah walked to her father’s home, feeling her skin tingle on her cheeks. Living arrangements were fluid in the Order of Ombu. Lillah, Melia and Thea shared a house sometimes. Lillah otherwise shared a house with her father, or Logan and Magnolia. Melia shared with three, four, or five other young women. Thea lived with her brother Dickson and some of the young men. They treated her like a boy. But beds could shift. Lillah could wake to find Agara sleeping on the floor, or one of the children.
Lillah had moved in with her friends two years earlier, when she was nineteen. It seemed time to give her father space, and it was important to know the girls she would hopefully become teachers with; know what they were like to live with, so there would be less of a transition.
The sunlight dappled through. It was a wonderful time of year. Everyone was warmer without the constant shadow of the Tree. And with the shadow not constant, it seemed to the people that the sentinel nature of the Tree was at rest.
This enlivened the people. The sun on them in the daytime, the Treeshadow lessened. It seemed a good time for the teachers to be chosen and the school to leave. Time for the people to make their own decisions, not led by the nature of the Tree. Sometimes, in the wet season, water seeped up through the sand as far up as the roots of the Tree. Salty water, no good for growing food. Light bounced off the water and made the undergrowth seem brighter. Sand soft and warm and the sap running smooth from the Trunk, uncut, flowing uncalled for but precious down the Trunk.
Myrist, Lillah’s father, speaking loudly over Leaffall, said, “Good you are here. Stay the night. I’ll feed you and you will be full of energy for tomorrow. Though I may not be able to attend with you. I may not be able to watch the testing.”
Lillah put her arm around him. “You have to be there! I will lose belief in myself otherwise.”
“It will depend on Magnolia, Lillah. Her pains are starting to come through and if she is ready to give child tomorrow, I will be with her.”
“I will be with her, too.”
He shook his head. “No, Lillah. You will not be needed then. Afterwards, yes. But selection is all that matters to you tomorrow. You glow. You are beautiful,” her father said.
Lillah felt beautiful and capable of all things. “I hope they will choose me for my looks, then. Is my dress finished?”
“A new dress is not going to get you a job as a teacher.” Her father sounded tired: a deep bone weariness that seemed to come across men once their children were grown. His words were interrupted by a rain of leaves on the roof. The leaves had been dropping for six days now, and were stored to be used as plates, climbing shoes, buckets, spades, funnels, hats.
Lillah’s father was right: the dress would not sway any opinions, not at this stage.
Lillah felt she had a good chance. She had passed the learning tests easily.
For the emotion test the fathers presented the girls with options. They told a story and the girls had to describe how the characters would be feeling.
“There was once an old woman who greatly treasured her shell collection. She would spend all day polishing and sorting it. She did not allow her husband to touch it. How do you think he felt?”
There was no correct answer, merely to have empathy for the man. So, bored, lonely, envious and annoyed were all acceptable. Lillah said, “Happy that his wife was happy,” and was smiled at as an idealist.
It was much easier when the story was about the emotions of a child, because they had been children, could remember something of it. They had never been old.
Physically Lillah was as strong as or stronger than any of the others except Thea. She had always been a good eater and liked to be solid in her size. She had deep, secure, emotional ties. She loved her father, her brother and her brother’s wife, Magnolia, and she would love their baby when it came. Fortunately there was no boy she pined for.
Unlike two of the eligible girls, she had not fallen in love with a local boy.
Such a thing was doomed to failure. There could be no issue from the marriage. There had been babies born this way in the past. It was something Lillah remembered well from school: the preserved bodies of terribly deformed babies.
The physical tests were joyful: running, climbing, spinning. The monkeys leapt with them, screeching, getting caught under their feet. Erica hated them because they made her sneeze, and the crawling creatures on their skin she hated too.
Agara was the greatest at the water test. She loved to swim, and the salt didn’t hurt her eyes. She could find the seaweed for their facial masks, the right kind that didn’t cause burns, and she could dive down for it without a care. She liked to float on the water, letting herself drift, but others called her back, “Agara, you are going out too far.” Agara’s father worried more than most. He didn’t care what any other girl did: only his own child was important.
He was a newcomer, having appeared near the ghost cave when he was fifteen. No family, no background. But it didn’t matter. He was considered a gift for the new blood he brought. There were some who believed he came from the ghosts and would not go near him: Lillah did not like to get too close. She thought that sometimes she could see a mist around his shoulders, as if his Tree-ghosts were gathered there, talking to him.
They were tested on their cleverness, too, to see how they remembered their family background. Rham, one of the students, outdid the lot of them, muttering answers from behind a rock.
“Quiet, Rham! Let them do it themselves!”
Agara spoke a poem of the names in her lineage, making the past come to life. If selected, she would be given the Gift Poem to memorise.
Lillah talked of numbers, of how many in this Order and that, how many people would exist soon. Magnolia had helped her with this in the last weeks.
In the morning, the fathers gathered for the Talkings, where they would take each girl separately and ask many questions. Or none. Thea, Melia and Lillah waited in the small house they shared. Thea sat by the window, watching some children playing in the Tree roots and the women making the clay pots Ombu was famous for. Lillah and the others helped make the pots, too, when they weren’t taking the time to be tested.
“I wonder if they’ll listen to us. Like us.”
Melia snorted. “Thea, why are you thinking about this? We are in charge. It doesn’t matter if they like us or not. Why don’t you go and ask Dickson if he really intends to surprise us all when we leave. Try to find out what he is going to do.”
Thea stood, nodding. “I can try. He likes me.”
“You’re his sister, Thea. Again, it doesn’t matter if he likes you or not.”
As Thea left, Melia rolled her eyes. “Part of me is hoping she is not selected for the school. Some time away from her would do me good.”
“Who would you use as a slave then?” Lillah asked, smiling. She followed after Thea, knowing she needed to counteract her friend’s cruel words.
“You’re the only one who cares about me, Lillah,” Thea said. “What will I do when you hate me like everyone else does?”
“I’ll never hate you.”
Thea had never been popular, but a tragic event a year earlier meant people distrusted her as well. Two children had drowned while in her care, and some said she did very little to save them.
Lillah’s brother Logan poked his head in the door. “What are you doing here? Is it Magnolia?” Lillah asked, instantly alert. She placed a bowl of fruit on the table, taking a piece to eat.
Logan’s brow furrowed at his wife’s name. “She’s very tired. She says she feels hot. She’s ready for the baby to come. She’s rambling about making pots and how she is letting us down.”
“Who’s with her?”
“Our father, and the Birthman. They aren’t worried. They say she’ll be fine.” Logan sat on her bed.
“Get off my sulu,” she said, pulling the long piece of patterned material, which she’d laid out on the bed, from under him. He moved to the table, sitting with his face in his hands. She wrapped her sulu around her waist, tucking the ends in and rolling the top down to keep it in place. She squatted to check there was room for movement.
“I still don’t know if I’m ready to be a father.”
Lillah threw her head back and laughed. Her soft dark hair tickled her back. She liked the feeling, liked to laugh that way. “It’s too late to change your mind. You can’t send a baby back.” Logan looked very young, sitting at the table where they had whispered so many secrets, won and lost so many games. “You’ll be a wonderful father. And I love Magnolia. She’s a great woman. I’m glad she chose us.”
Logan blinked. “Me. She chose me.” Lillah, dressed now, took another sulu and draped it around her brother’s neck. She pulled him close and kissed him gently on the mouth.
“Of course she did. She only had eyes for you.”
The school system worked so well, she thought. Young women as teachers, walking around the Tree with their young charges. Five years, the walk took. They stopped in every community along the way, learning about the people, the food, the habits.
The young women sought partners along the way, engaged physically with any man they found attractive, until one man, one community, called too strongly for them to continue. The teacher would stay with that community, adopt it, and another young woman would take her place.
“You were both so beautiful to watch. I want that, too, Logan. That wonder you felt when you first saw each other.”
“We still feel it. It hasn’t faded. I wish that for you as well,” Logan said. “That’s what I came to say.”
“And to escape the hard work! Get back to Magnolia. They need you.”
The girls met to flatten their hair with the sap of the Tree. Lillah hated the smell of it and the feel of it. The hardness of it hurt her head. But this was meant to make them equal, to ensure one with beautiful hair did not influence the fathers. Those with ugly hair should have just as much of a chance at this stage. Of course, once the physical testing began, that could change.
Lillah sat next to Erica, who had thin, frizzy hair, which she kept tied back with thick grey twine. It irritated her face, wispy bits blowing into her eyes, feathery ends tickling her cheeks. They all sat in a circle on the beach. The sand was soft and warm and she could have easily slept. It was not like here everywhere, and Lillah had a moment of doubt about the journey. Should she leave? Or should she stay, where the sand was soft and warm?
At the end of the seawalk waited the fathers. They would decide between them who should go. Lillah was frightened of them: she knew they saw right to her soul, and would see her lying by the blackening of her blood. Not that I’ve lied. Just that perhaps I smile more on the outside than the inside, she thought.
She watched as Melia skipped back up the seawalk. She was gratified to see a tinge to Melia’s face; reddened from too much sun, or from the questions the fathers had asked. Lillah and Melia were great friends and great rivals.
“How was it?” Erica asked as Melia stepped off the seawalk. For a moment she didn’t speak, just stood clenching her toes in the sand.
“Hot,” she said. She shook her head at further requests for information and sat in the circle again.
“Lillah. You’re next,” Aquifolia said. Aquifolia had no children of her own, so she had found a new position for herself, organising the teacher trials. She rarely took a lover. Her hair was like straw, her legs thick and pale like a root too soon exposed. She made it clear that she had sacrificed herself. Given her life so the girls would have an easy preparation for school is what she said, but truly she had only given up what she would never have. In the four Orders she had visited before stopping at Lillah’s, she had found no affection. She was not happy. Lillah and Melia had discussed her choices. She’d stayed in Ombu for one man, Gutt, who had failed to impregnate her and then drowned. She frightened the other men and they wanted nothing to do with her.
Melia said, “In so many ways I pity her. She can’t have children. She has no family.”
“At least she is free to grow herself, do this job, become stronger. We will be mothers and not much else,” Lillah said.
Melia shook her head. “You have a foolish view of being a mother. It expands you; it doesn’t contract or confine you. Perhaps you should stay behind, if that’s the way you feel. Don’t go to school at all.”
Lillah jumped up and ran to the seawalk. “I want this, I want this,” she said. She wanted to go to school, she had to go. She rested a plate of sweets on her hip. She hoped they wouldn’t get too sandy and regretted running out of the house, too lazy to find a cover for the food. She couldn’t bounce lightly for fear of spilling it. Lillah was proud of her sweets knowledge. There was magic in her fingertips: she could roll a ball so perfect diners couldn’t bear to bite.
“You should calm down,” Erica said. “They don’t like agitated teachers.”
“Thank you for your advice, Erica. Of course you’re right.” Lillah couldn’t stand being told what to do by Erica, who was as serious as she was beautiful. Melia and Lillah sometimes tried to tease her, but she had so little laughter in her it was not worth the effort.
She walked out onto the rough boards of the seawalk. She walked gently, toe to heel, knowing this was the way to avoid splinters. Her feet were tough from rock-walking, Tree-climbing, sea-walking, but even so, she would return to her place in the circle with at least a few sharp pieces of wood to remove.
The fathers sat fanning themselves at the end of the seawalk.
Melia’s mother Cynthia sat watching on the shore, her feet thrust into the water. She had always been adventurous, from the moment she arrived in the Order. She had come from a place where the land stretched only a kilometre from beach to Trunk. The population was low and the people conservative, as if their small living space meant smaller minds. She always said her Order was dead; she had no intention of going back, neither would any other woman chosen as a teacher. Cynthia knew of just two teachers from other Orders who had chosen to stay in Parana but she guessed they would leave with homelust once their children were raised. The young women would leave as they always had. Only the males would stay, standing hopelessly looking up the beach for a mate.
The sun was strong out on the water and Lillah walked slowly, loving the warmth of it. It was so good to be warm. On days when most of the work was done, everybody liked to parade on the seawalk, sitting down, snoozing, catching up on some of the sunlight they missed under the Canopy.
Her feet felt sharp pains as splinters worked their way into her heels.
“Come on, Lillah, there are other girls to talk to,” Melia’s father called. “Let’s speed it up, please.”
I know that, I’ve just been sitting in a circle pretending to wish them luck for an hour, Lillah thought. She forced a smile on her face and knelt down before the fathers. “Hello,” she said. The sun was in her eyes and she had to squint. She could feel the heat of it burning her, and knew she would look red for the physical judging in the evening. Lillah cursed herself for leaving her hat behind. She couldn’t hold her plate of sweets and keep her hat safe from the wind, and she had chosen the sweets. Perhaps not such a good idea.
Suddenly, from land, came a terrible cry. Lillah instantly thought of someone crushed, trapped beneath a massive fallen Limb and legs crushed to jelly.
“It must be Magnolia,” Thea’s father said. “It’s time.” Lillah jumped up in shock. Her plate of sweets fell to the seawalk and shattered.
“Is she all right?” Lillah asked, realising as she spoke they couldn’t possibly know.
“You run to find out, Lillah. Then come back to tell us.” Lillah nodded and ran, not caring about the splinters now. She could work them out later with a long, thin bone needle, line them up like a score to show Magnolia how much she cared.
Lillah ran past the spectators, the pot makers and the young women waiting their turn. “What is it, Lillah? What did they say?” she heard Erica call.
“Nothing yet, it’s Magnolia,” she shouted over her shoulder as she ran.
“I’ll come with you,” Melia said.
The shriek rang out again. Lillah felt her stomach clench and her legs falter. She did not want to see this. She did not like blood or pain. She had seen a man crushed by a Tree Limb, once, speared through the belly and anchored across the legs. The screams Lillah heard now equalled those of Araucari when that Tree Limb fell. This was worse, in fact. There was something very animalistic about it. Monkey-like.
Lillah and Melia ran.
As they approached Logan’s house, Lillah stopped. She did not want to see. She wanted to go back to her interview, make them love her. Let them choose her as Number One, exclaim over her bonsai, score her highly for it and say how clever she was, how like the Tree it was. Let them lick their fingers to savour the last taste of her sweets. Let them say, “Lillah, we are unanimous in our decision.”
The wails were much louder, now. Lillah could not imagine how her sister-in-law, a slight woman with delicate fingers, could make such a noise.
Lillah and Melia entered the house. It was smaller than their own, but much neater. Magnolia had been nesting in the six days before. Every surface sparkled. Everything had a place.
“Oh, my, is she all right? Where’s the Birthman? Can’t he help?”
Lillah felt tears forming in her eyes. “Magnolia,” she said. She knew she had to face this or run away forever. She stepped forward to the front door and pushed it open. She felt as if a wave of heat, miasmic heat, came pouring out. She choked.
Melia said, “I don’t think they need me. I’ll tell the others you’ll be along.”
Lillah heard “Nononononon”, and she ran then, knocking over a jug and ignoring the smash and the mess.
“Logan?” she called. “Magnolia?”
Her father opened the door to the bedroom and stepped out. Lillah gasped at his exhausted face, his slumped shoulders.
“Lillah,” he said. “Your interview.”
“They said I could come to find out about Magnolia. Is she okay? What’s happened?”
Her father leaned one hand high on the door frame then rested his head against his straightened arm. “It’s okay, Lillah. She’s exhausted, but I think we’re nearly there. We are into the second day. I wish I could take over for her. You want to take the suffering of the children.”
“You look exhausted yourself. Can’t you call someone to help?” Her father shook his head weakly. “The Birthman is here. He’s doing all he can.” He stood back and opened the door wide, so Lillah could see inside.
“I’m trapped, I’m caged,” Magnolia wailed. Her eyes flicked open suddenly and Lillah jumped back. She thought Magnolia was going to sit up, point a finger, say “It is your fault”, then collapse back on the bed.
“You’re not trapped,” Lillah said from the doorway, braving her sister-in-law.
“I’m trapped. There’s no place to go but forward.”
Lillah’s father nodded. “Women always say strange things when they’re in labour. Don’t they?” He looked at the Birthman.
“The funniest things, some of them. Scream abuse at their men. Some of the things you hear! It’s like they’ve been saving it up for their entire life, to spew out when no one will blame them.”
Lillah stepped away and her father said, “Come on, we’ll go out for a few blinks.”
In the kitchen, Melia brewed tea. Lillah leaned forward and kissed her father. “I only hope I find a father-in-law as loving and accepting as you are to Magnolia. I wish I could stay here. Can’t they send a husband to me? I don’t mind waiting.”
Tears came to Myrist’s eyes. “You would not miss this journey for all the Bark on the Tree. It is a wonderful time. The learning, the joy. The hard work, too, they tell me, but the joy of guiding the children through their education…”
“I barely remember my teachers,” Lillah said. The fresh water boiled, and they knocked at the bedroom door once, then again when there was no response.
“Magnolia? Logan?” she called quietly.
“Come in,” Logan said. Lillah opened the door and entered, her father so close behind she could feel his heart beat.
There was blood in the room. The smell of it hung heavy, and the smell of waste, too. Magnolia lay slumped on the bed. The Birthman, Pittos, looked exhausted. He washed his hands, dried them on his apron. He was a very large man who almost filled the room. Lillah and the other children had loved him when they were little. Even as a young man he could carry six of them; one on his shoulders, one on his back, one under each arm and one clinging to each leg. He would stomp about, roaring and spinning like a giant salmon trying to shake off lice. When Rhizo had arrived, one of four teachers escorting ten children, she was light, like cobwebs, and she giggled like bird call. He fell in love with her and courted her with songs and playfulness. She fell in love with his joy of children.
Overcoming his tiredness, he smiled brightly at Lillah and Myrist as they entered the room.
“Myrist, I think we should change the sheets. Freshen up.” Lillah’s father nodded. Lillah helped change the blood-stained sheets while Logan held Magnolia, who was panting so quickly Lillah wondered she didn’t faint.
“We’re getting there, darling,” the Birthman said. He stroked Magnolia’s brow. ”Some way to go, but we’re getting there.”
Magnolia opened her eyes wide as a new contraction rose within her. She rolled over onto her hands and knees and threw her head back. She roared. Logan rubbed her back, stroked her forehead.
“Is this normal?” he said. “Is she okay?” The Birthman nodded. “It’s long, but she’s fine, and so is the baby. We just need patience.” He dipped a cloth into a bowl of dark-tinted water and gave it to Magnolia to suck. “This will help with the pain.”
Magnolia sank back on her bed, eyes closed, then another contraction took her.
“Wonderful. That’s just wonderful,” Pittos said. He looked between Magnolia’s legs and said, “This is good. That pain moved things along.”
Logan sat, straight-backed, on the bed. Lillah could tell, even in these circumstances, he was presenting a face: a stoic, strong, loving face. He was that way; stoic, strong and loving, but he wanted everyone to know it, to think it of him.
Things moved quickly, then. Lillah kept back, watching Magnolia’s face, knowing it was her but not recognising her at the same time.
There was a cry, a baby’s cry and Pittos held a pink baby boy. He cleaned the child very carefully, with a soft, oiled cloth, smoothing him, cooing to him, creating a space of calm.
Somehow people crowded into the room, as if they sensed the moment had come. Someone said to Magnolia, “Don’t be disappointed it’s a boy. More people have boys than girls, you know. You’re normal.”
Magnolia smiled. “Thanks.” She saw Lillah stick her tongue out behind the woman’s back and laughed. “I’ll try to be happy.”
“Do all these people need to be here?” Lillah said. The Birthman looked up, shook his head.
“Right, everybody, please, out,” Lillah said. She pushed Morace, Pittos’ red-headed son, roughly in the back. He clung to his father’s legs, but Pittos shook him off. “We need firewood and food, we need the news spread, we need clean clothes and we need space. You’ve all been wonderful but it’s time to go.” Lillah had no idea if any of this was true but it didn’t matter. The people nodded.
“Okay, Teacher,” someone said, and they all laughed. Good to laugh when the danger is over.
Excerpted from Walking the Tree by Kaaron Warren. Copyright © 2010 by Kaaron Warren. Excerpted by permission of Angry Robot, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.