Sarah Spellings & The Followers of The Grove

Flowers to Fruit

The boy held an index finger to his lips.

Sarah nodded curtly; they all wanted to escape detection by the men in the clearing, who were clearly flummoxed as to which direction their quarry had taken. The bigger of the two, a fiery redhead with close-trimmed beard and moustache, removed a radio phone from the breast pocket of his jacket. From her perch, Sarah interpreted a pantomime: he tried to use the phone, failed, and cursed the device. The second man had curly black hair and a deep brown complexion. He yawned, unwrapped a snack, and dropped the plastic package where he stood. In the tree, the blonde boy make a strangled sound of disgust.

Without warning, the man with the phone shouted.

“RUMPUS! Here, Rumpus! Come here, boy!”

Sarah’s reaction was swift. Staying low, she reached into the bucket and grasped Rumpus firmly by the scruff of his neck. The dog whined softly, and the man bellowed again, his baritone echoing.

“Rumpus, RUMPUS!”

The little dog shook, but Sarah gripped hard, and Rumpus stayed quiet. At last the giant men gave up and retreated, re-entering the forest where they had emerged. The occupants of the tree lay quiet for several minutes. Sarah, still holding Rumpus, finally broke the silence.

“Dig in my pack for a package of dried meat,” she whispered. Curiosity about the boy would have to wait; she had to make sure Rumpus wouldn’t bark, and give them away. Levvy rummaged, and passed Sarah a shred of jerky from a waxed paper bundle. Sarah gave Rumpus the treat, lifted him out of the bucket, and released him.

“You’re a very good dog,” murmured Sarah.

“Why do you waste food?”

The boy had descended quietly from branches to platform. His sudden appearance startled Sarah. He taller than either girl, and thin without being skinny. Every part of him was freckled. Even his ears, sticking out from shoulder-length bright yellow hair, were spattered with freckles. His unusual clothing seemed to be made of animal skins, and was secured with ties and belts instead of zippers or snaps. Several lightweight white pouches hung from his belt. Wooden knife handles protruded from long pockets sewn into his pants, and his feet were sheathed in leather moccasins. Sarah’s eye was drawn to a gold hexagonal talisman, hanging from a length of hemp string tied around his neck.

“It’s not waste. It’s training,” Sarah answered. The boy was odd-looking, but handsome too, with a kind sparkle in his blue eyes. “Now he’ll be more likely to be quiet when I hold him, because he’ll remember this treat.”

“Who are you?” Levvy asked abruptly.

“My name is Quinn Braxt,” said the boy, “and where I come from, we don’t share our provisions with animals. Animals can look after themselves.”

“Really,” Levvy pursed her lips. “So where, exactly, are you from?”

“Not here,” Quinn said shiftily.

“I’m Levvy Dwight, and this is Sarah Spellings. If you’re not from here, why are you in this forest—were you caught in the storm last night?”

“I live outside. Storms don’t catch me anywhere. I can always find shelter.”

“You don’t have a home?” Sarah stared at Quinn. “You’re just living in the woods?”

“I’m at home in nature.”

“I’ve heard of people like you,” said Levvy. “What do you eat? Do you break into homes and steal food?”

In a smooth motion Quinn leapt, and landed directly in front of Levvy, his pale eyes flashing with anger. “How dare you?” he hissed, lean muscles tense with hostility.

Levvy backed away, as far as the tree platform would allow.

Sarah raised her palms, gesturing for calm. “She didn’t mean to insult you. It was an innocent question. There are people around here who break into homes and steal food. So back off—uh, what did you say your name was?”

Slowly and reluctantly, the strange boy relaxed. He stepped away from Levvy, but remained wary and suspicious. “It’s Quinn,” he said. “First name Quinn, last name Braxt, and we do not steal. I was told stealing is common here. Where I’m from, stealing is one of the greatest dishonours possible. Thieves cannot see the abundance surrounding them. There’s no need to steal—all around us, the earth provides.” He lifted his chin proudly.

“Okay, sorry,” said Levvy earnestly.

Sarah’s stomach rumbled a protest. “Speaking of food, I’m hungry. Might as well eat what we brought. Once those big guys have cleared off, we can go home…”

Her voice trailed off. Home was gone, washed over a cliff and smashed in a ravine. Sarah pictured Sammy’s small dirt-smudged face, and her father’s kind eyes, wrinkled at the corners. She swallowed hard, trying to compose herself.

“The gardens are probably ruined,” said Levvy sadly. “Last time a severe storm struck in spring everything washed away, and we had to start again from seed.”

“How will we cross the ravine?” Sarah asked, her brow creasing. “I got across last night, but the water looks way higher and faster today. I don’t know how those two—”

“I can’t think when I’m hungry,” Levvy interrupted. She opened her backpack, and held out a paper bag of dried tomatoes and crispbread.

“Blessings,” said Sarah and Quinn in unison.

A corner of Quinn’s mouth jerked in amusement, and he winked at Sarah. Flustered, she took a bite of crispbread. Wherever Quinn was from, it couldn’t be far away, because they shared the custom of saying blessings before a meal. They ate in silence, glancing warily at the clearing between bites. Rumpus whimpered, and sniffed the edges of the platform.

“Your animal is uneasy,” said Quinn.

“I guess we can’t stay up here forever,” said Sarah. Wary of causing further offence, she asked Quinn what she thought was a polite question. “Did you build this platform—is this where you live?”

For a moment, Quinn looked shocked, and then a grin spread across his face, and he silent-laughed, holding his sides and convulsing until his face was red. Levvy and Sarah exchanged a confused glance.

Still chuckling, Quinn gradually regained composure. “No, I don’t live in the open on a simple plank,” he said. “I have built a temporary shelter nearby, and you two are welcome as my guests.”

Sarah was about to accept when Levvy cut in.

“Thanks, but we have to get back to Wailsmouth Street. The storm separated us from our families, and they’ll be wondering where we are.”

With a rush of guilt, Sarah pictured her father and Sammy, buried in mud at the bottom of the ravine. Reliving the memory of her house sailing over the cliff, she broke out in a nervous sweat. What was she thinking? She had to go home, or where home used to be.

“But then again, I didn’t like the look of those men,” said Levvy, carefully folding up the empty paper bag. “So maybe we should hang out here for awhile. If we go back now, we’re going to run into them. Better missing and free, than missing and caught by those gorillas.”

What should they do? Sarah hated being apart from her family, but her guts were telling her to stay hidden in the trees. Gazing around the forest, a little flame of rebellion burned in her belly. The forest at last—what harm could there be in exploring, before heading back to responsibilities? She shouldered her backpack, put Rumpus in the bucket, and lowered him to the ground. He scampered gratefully in circles while she and Levvy used ropes to climb down. Quinn, agile as a monkey, balanced on the trunk and simply ran down the tree.

“Impressive,” said Levvy.

Ignoring the compliment, Quinn pointed west. “My shelter’s this way.”

“Just a minute,” said Sarah.

The plant in the bucket looked wilted and worse for wear. Why had she uprooted it? Sarah lifted the strawberry plant gently, and felt tingling in her palms. Stems straightened, and became green and turgid. Delicate white flowers folded in on themselves. To her dismay, Sarah’s hands buzzed with radiant energy, and flowers became tight little bundles then swelled into perfect, heart-shaped strawberries. Levvy and Quinn, deep in conversation, didn’t hear Sarah’s gasp of disbelief; the plant was thick with plump strawberries, ripened to a deep, juicy crimson. Hiding her astonishment she bent over, and placed the plant in the scuff where she’d torn it from the earth. She spread roots carefully and tamped soil, tenderly fixing the plant in place, then deftly harvested the berries.

“Hey,” Sarah said, trying to sound nonchalant, “look what I found.” She held out cupped hands, her fingers grimy and red juice staining her palms.

“Blessings,” Levvy chirped. Helping herself to three fat berries, she popped them in her mouth with relish.

“It’s too early for strawberries,” said Quinn, frowning. “They only just flowered this week.”

“Well these ones are ready. Obviously,” said Sarah haughtily. “Do you want some? One of the best sources of vitamin C around here, and a crucial crop, my father says.”

Quinn looked from Sarah to the berries, and back again.

“Go on,” Sarah urged.

“Blessings,” Quinn muttered, taking his share.

Sarah ate the remaining berries, her heart pounding. They were delicious. Juice trickled from a corner of her mouth, and she wiped it away self-consciously. Quinn’s forehead was still furrowed with suspicion, but he turned, and beckoned for them to follow. As they walked, Levvy sketched a rough map, mumbling to herself about pace length and compass points.

Sarah’s mind reeled. The strawberry plant should have been suffering from its rough treatment. How had it gone from flowering to fruiting in seconds? Why had her hands felt so hot and strange as the plant matured? And the biggest mystery—why had she uprooted the plant in the first place? Their situation had been dire, hunted by Mister Nickel’s burly friends, hiding a stolen dog. Harvesting a plant had been a foolish waste of time—so why on earth had she done it?

A quarter hour passed. Walking among stately trees, Sarah found she couldn’t dwell on the magical strawberry plant. Firs soared; their tops seemed to skewer the sky. Dark swamps of yellow skunk cabbage burped rich, organic smells. She heard rustling in the undergrowth, and glimpsed rodents, snakes, and birds. For years Sarah had been confined to her house and the neighbourhood’s shabby streets. Before her mother’s death there had been trips and holidays; she had fond, fuzzy memories of sand pressing pleasantly between her toes, and the lap of waves on a shore. A spirit of adventure woke in her blood, and pulsed through her body. They came to a bright grove and Quinn halted, raising a hand for silence. Framing his mouth with his hands, he produced a haunting bird call. When a few moments passed without a response, he lowered his hands, and appeared satisfied.

“It’s safe,” said Quinn. “Go ahead up.”

Sarah and Levvy looked around at broad cedars, prickly Douglas firs, and pale green Western hemlocks. No ropes dangled invitingly, and Sarah couldn’t see a platform.

“Sorry—go up where?” Levvy asked, scratching her toque.

Quinn seemed puzzled. Then his jaw dropped, and his eyes widened.”How could I completely forget?” he exclaimed. “I apologize. Naturally, you can’t see the ladder. Wait here for a few minutes. I won’t be long—there’s something I need to retrieve.”

He darted behind a tree, and disappeared.

“Great,” Levvy said, “he’s gone. Good thing I was charting out the territory. Don’t worry Sarah, I can get us back to the ravine.”

“Looking for someone?”

Rumpus barked sharply, and fell into a low growl. Sarah and Levvy turned around slowly to see who had spoken. Standing in the hollowed-out shell of a cedar tree was a short, bearded man. A mass of tangled hair mingled with a wild, messy beard and moustache. Bits of cedar, burrs, and twigs clung to his shabby clothes. A pair of bent glasses sat on the bridge of his bumpy, misshapen nose. He held two baskets, one in each hand, full to their brims with mushrooms. He was rotund; his stomach jutted as if a pillow were stuffed under his burlap tunic.

Sarah gaped, speechless.

“Hmm. Well then, perhaps you are looking for me,” said the man cheerfully. He placed his baskets on the ground and ambled toward them, one grubby hand outstretched.

“Spex Gribble,” he said. “Enchanted, my dears.”

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