Sarah Spellings & The Followers of The Grove

Photograph and Phantoms

Levvy was wrapped in a musty blanket, sitting on a wooden stool in Spex Gribble’s tiny, warm home. Sarah was guilt-ridden for doubting Levvy’s visions. She and Quinn had devoured a sumptuous meal; Levvy, shaken and uneasy, had only picked at her plate. Inside, the house was cramped. They were squeezed around a tree stump table covered in burlap. Pots, pans, and utensils hung on twigs from a ceiling of branches. Utensils and bric-a-brac were nestled in cubbyholes, carved into the sturdy logs supporting the roof. Spex’s bed was a hammock, slung away in a corner. A carefully chosen rock wall had a basin-shaped hollow that served as a kitchen sink; notches and crevasses held cups and plates. Night had fallen. A dozen beeswax candles in glass jars illuminated the hut, hanging overhead and tucked on ledges. Snails clung to the moist, mossy rock wall. For the first time since the storm Sarah felt safe, except for the lingering uneasiness at being separated from her father and Sammy.

Spex had fussed over Levvy like an eccentric uncle. “You must have taken quite a turn, my dear,” he had said. “Let us fortify ourselves, and hear the particulars of your clairvoyance afterward.” They had held hands for a chorus of blessings, and feasted. Now the dishes were cleared away, and Rumpus was vigorously licking a bowl of leftovers by the door. Spex cleared his throat.

“Now Levvy, it is time for an account of your extrasensory experience.” Candlelight flickered in the lenses of Spex’s glasses. His beard was full of crumbs.

Levvy snugged the blanket around her shoulders. “The glare of sun on the pond blinded me, so I stopped to rub my eyes. When I opened them again, I was in a crowded clearing. Everyone was angry and shouting. They lit torches, and ran through the forest, until they came to a place full of treehouses.” Levvy shuddered.

“Go on, my dear,” said Spex, patting Levvy’s shoulder.

“The angry crowd lit the trees on fire, and cut down rope bridges. People tried to escape the smoke and flames by climbing higher,” Levvy paused.

“Then what?” Quinn demanded, gripping the burlap tablecloth.

“Then you guys called my name, and the vision ended.”

Spex nodded sagely. Metal rattled on stone as Rumpus greedily licked his bowl clean.

“If your vision is real, it isn’t an imminent threat,” Quinn said smugly.

“What do you mean, if? I can see the future—I’ve predicted things before. I knew the big storm was coming, right Sarah?”

“She went to the forest before the storm hit,” Sarah said weakly. “So she must have known it was coming.”

“Anyone can see storm clouds on the horizon,” said Quinn.

“It wasn’t a normal storm,” Levvy fumed.

“Quinn, I see no grounds to disbelieve this young woman,” Spex said, peering over his spectacles. “I should think someone with your background and experience would recognize the hallmarks of an Oracle.”

At this, Quinn squirmed, and glanced nervously at Sarah. So far, he had evaded all questions about where he was from. He clutched the gold talisman around his neck.

“Who were these angry attackers?” Quinn countered sullenly.

“How am I supposed to know?” Levvy asked. “Look, every vision I’ve ever had has come true. I saw the ruin of Highbury Avenue two nights before it happened, and I told my parents, but they didn’t believe me. I wanted them to warn everyone, and they laughed at me. People died.” Levvy breathed the last words in a horrified whisper, as if she were partly responsible.

Would her mother still be alive, Sarah wondered, if Levvy had warned her family? Maybe Victoria Spellings would have hurried to a hospital, and survived. Sarah pushed the thought away; she couldn’t get her mother back.

“We’re safe, at least for now,” said Quinn, folding his arms on his chest.

“My goodness.” Spex waggled his bushy eyebrows, and placed his hands on the shelf of his rotund belly. “What makes you so certain?”

Quinn leaned forward. His hair gleamed in the candlelight. “Levvy saw lots of treehouses—a whole grove—but there’s only one treehouse right now. So her vision can’t come true until we’ve built a grove.”

Sarah and Levvy exchanged a look of surprise.

“Who’s building a grove?” Levvy asked. “You and Spex?”

“You, me, Spex, all of us,” said Quinn. “I came here to help people build groves, and learn how to protect them with hunaja. I mean, where else will you live? Not your old neighbourhood, that’s for sure. Trust me, supporters of Parleyment will keep harassing you, and reducing your freedom. Groves are the way of the future.”

Levvy rolled her eyes, and shook her head. Sarah was surprised and incredulous at Quinn’s boast, but she also imagined how wonderful it would be to wake up in a treehouse, drink rainwater from barrel, and spend all day breathing the forest air. Could they really build golden rope bridges and ladders? For a moment, Sarah’ spirit soared—then it came crashing down. The Spellings family was a tight-knit triumvirate; her father wouldn’t want to live in the trees, and they had to take care of Sammy.

“My family lives on Wailsmouth Street,” Sarah said glumly.

“Oh, we can collect them later,” said Quinn, with a casual wave of his hand.

“My parents could come,” said Levvy eagerly. “They’re really good at gardening.”

Spex harrumphed. “Children, be careful. People don’t fall neatly into two camps. If you want to build a new society, you must include everyone. Quinn, I must caution you against making enemies of those who think differently than you do. Not all Parleyment supporters are selfish despots.”

“How can you say that?” Sarah asked. “Someone like you would never support Parleyment.” Spex seemed like he’d sprung from the rainforest like a mushroom; he couldn’t want a return to trucks, armies, and packaged food factories.

“Appearances can be deceiving,” said Spex.

Grunting with effort, Spex rose from the table, wobbled to a dark corner, and rummaged. A clatter of miscellaneous objects fell to the floor. He returned carrying a small metal box, closed with a padlock. Reaching into the neck of his shirt, he extracted a tarnished silver key hanging from a chain. Spex inserted the key into the padlock and jiggled, but it wouldn’t turn. He chose a small glass bottle of oil from his kitchen shelves, and carefully dabbed a few drops into the lock. Clink-clink! The lock relented, and the metal box opened with a creak. He browsed through the contents, selected a faded, dog-eared photograph, and handed it to Sarah.

Sarah held the photo near a glass candle jar. It was an image of a short, clean-shaven man, wearing a suit and tie, and carrying a briefcase. She shrugged, and handed the photograph to Levvy.

“Looks like a shorter version of Mister Nickel,” said Levvy.

Quinn snatched the picture, squinted at it, and looked up in astonishment. “It’s you,” he said.

“I don’t believe it,” Levvy exclaimed, grabbing the photo from Quinn.

Spex waggled a finger. “You see? One never knows. As a young man, I believed money was everything, and I wanted to make as much of it as I could. As you can see, my priorities have changed. Anyone can change—people aren’t all one way, or another.”

“What happened? I mean, how did you go from this,” Levvy pointed at the photograph, “to this?” She gestured around Spex’s abode.

“It’s a long and complicated tale, one I shan’t tell tonight.” Spex delicately plucked the picture from Levvy’s hand, placed it in the metal box, and clicked the padlock in place. “What an interesting soirée. However, it is time you returned to the treehouse for the night. The moon is new, so your return journey will be slowed by darkness.”

They thanked Spex for food and hospitality, and set out in the inky forest. Rumpus scampered ahead, Quinn was sure-footed, and Levvy’s courage drove her onward, but Sarah stumbled along in the rear, cautious and uncertain in the shadows. She lost sight of her friends, and her heart fluttered with panic. Jogging to catch up, she tripped on a tree root, and sprawled out on wet, uneven ground. Wincing, she pushed herself up to sitting. Her left hand stung; she put the fleshy part of her thumb to her lips and tasted blood. Rumpus raced to her side, and licked her cheek in sympathy.

“Sarah—are you okay?” Levvy emerged from the night.

“Scraped my hand,” Sarah mumbled, embarrassed.

“Quinn’s way ahead of us. I was trying to catch up, but I think we might be lost.”

Sarah’s left hand had grazed the ground, but her right hand also felt strange; both her palms were hot and buzzing. Warm tingling spread to her fingertips and up her forearms. It felt the same as when she’d held the strawberry plant. She stood up slowly, extended her palms in the direction of the treehouse—and two rows of milky white, miniature ghosts appeared. The ghosts uncoiled and undulated, like pale cobras rising from the forest floor. Sarah raised her arms, and the pallid snakes grew into snow-white orchids, blooming from chalky, colourless stalks. Levvy gasped, and ahead of them, Quinn cried out in surprise.

Levvy bent over, and touched a white blossom gently. “Cephelanthera austiniae,” she whispered, “phantom orchids.”

Like runway lights on an airport landing strip, the orchids marked a clear path forward. Weak and dazed, Sarah lowered her arms, and walked between the phantom blooms. Levvy stayed beside her, and Rumpus trotted at their heels. Not far along the strange path, they met up with Quinn.

“How did you do that?” Quinn demanded.

“I didn’t do anything. Those things just grew.”

“I saw you,” Quinn insisted. “You made these flowers grow.”

Flabbergasted, Sarah shook her head. “That’s impossible. I don’t even know what they are.”

“She’s too young,” Quinn muttered. “She can’t be the one.”

“Too young for what?” asked Levvy. “Quinn, what’s going on?”

Rumpus snarled. Sarah squinted down the phantom-orchid path, which ended at the cedar where Quinn had built his treehouse. A dozen people were clustered around the trunk, murmuring in hushed tones.

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