Sarah Spellings & The Followers of The Grove

Sassamatta, Coquihalla, Burnubbee

Levvy flashed Sarah a skeptical look. “Yeah, um, Quinn? When implies you’re from another time. So just an expression, right?”

“I’ll explain later,” Quinn said. He watched Laxgi swoop between trees, and plunged after her.

“We were too quick to trust him,” Levvy said, glaring at Quinn’s back. “The earthquakes and storms unhinged plenty of people. With his weird clothes and intense moods, he could be mentally unbalanced.”

“Possible, I guess,” said Sarah. “But he seems okay. He’s kind, and generous. Maybe he’s in a cult or something, and hunaja really is a drug?”

Levvy gave a noncommittal grunt.

“Spex trusts him,” Sarah said.

“His explanation better be good,” said Levvy.

Sarah was jumpy. She startled at small noises, the pop of a rock underfoot, the sudden mocking caw of a crow. Murdock zoomed in Sarah’s peripheral vision, bicycling on a rocky ridge, high above the campers as they trekked through the woods. Rumpus ran ahead and doubled back, sniffing the air, alert for danger. Nervous chatter fell away, and they trooped onward in silence. The rhythm of footfalls was meditative; Sarah found herself reflecting on all that had transpired since the storm.

The strawberries and orchids were coincidences, she decided. A mysterious surge of plant energy had caused the strawberries to ripen, just as she happened to be holding them. As for the orchids, she had read about mushrooms that grew overnight. Some nocturnal flowers, Levvy claimed, were from the same botanical family as mushrooms. The phantom orchids were some kind of fluke biological event. The timing was remarkable, but not magical. And of course her hands had tingled—she had scraped them sliding into the ravine, and when she fell in the forest.

Next, Sarah considered nature-loving Spex Gribble, who had once worked for Parleyment. Her father was right; there was hope for everyone. Tony Spellings pitied Violet Smacker, and disliked Ichamus Nickel. But he also understood the yearning for old conveniences. Standing in line for rations, Sarah had often overheard adults reminisce about the leisurely world of the past, with its grocery stores, freeways, restaurants, and cinemas.

In the evening they arrived at a small freshwater lake. The orange setting sun sparkled on choppy, dark blue water. Quinn led them to a small glade, a grassy clearing amid soaring maples and stately cedars. Standing around a pitiful, smoky campfire, they shared a cold, unsatisfactory meal of dried apricots and stale bread crusts. A small group of volunteers, led by a disgruntled Tomin, set up a makeshift tarpaulin shelter.

“We passed a dozen better campsites than this,” Tomin grumbled.

“None so close to a lake, or so protected,” Quinn countered.

“Whatever,” said Tomin. “It took too long to get here. Now we have to set up, and everyone’s exhausted.”

They huddled under a meagre shelter that night, a flapping tarpaulin strung by its centre fold. Wrapped in her sleeping bag and covered with a scratchy wool army blanket, Sarah fell asleep watching her breath, thin plumes of moisture that congealed on each exhale. The morning broke cold and cloudy, and by the time everyone was awake, a wet drizzle had begun. Murdock boiled a pot of water and made a thin tea. Campers shared paper packets of preserved food for breakfast. Sarah blinked through mist and rain at the bedraggled collection of young people.

Murdock slurped from his tin mug. “So where are we, Quinn, and what’s the plan?”

“How did you get a pet eagle?” Levvy added.

Red splotches spread on Quinn’s sharp cheekbones. “Laxgi is no pet,” he said disdainfully. “She is free, and chooses to help me because we have an understanding. Murdock, it should be obvious what makes this location ideal. The lake is a source of fish and fresh water. A short hike north of here, there’s an ocean inlet, which means more fishing, and an excellent escape route. These trees will make a superb grove, and to the east, the soil is valley-bottom loam, excellent for gardening. Did you notice the old homestead we passed, with the neglected orchard? With tending, it will produce fruit.”

Tomin slow-clapped. A few of the campers tittered.

“News flash,” said Tomin, “it’s spring. There won’t be fruit on those trees until September. What do you suggest we eat until then? The spot I had in mind is close to an old farmer’s field. We could have dug potatoes yesterday, and be filling our bellies right now.”

“Let’s see those techniques you bragged about,” said a skinny girl, wrapping her arms around her elbows and shivering.

Quinn thrust his chest out proudly, and cleared his throat.

“It is time to reveal the truth,” he said. “I am a messenger from the future. I come from a time when many people will in groves—treehouse villages, built in forests. In my time, there’s a grove right here,” Quinn spread his arms,”in this exact spot.”

The ragged travellers shuffled their feet, and glanced at each other with raised eyebrows. Someone coughed, and there were a few nervous laughs.

“Oh, man.” Tomin rolled his eyes.

“It’s true,” Quinn said. “This grove where we’re standing is called Sassamatta. Over there, on Burnubbee Mountain, there will be another grove. The children in my time have a rope-skipping rhyme that goes like this,” Quinn chanted:

Sassamatta, Coquihalla, Burnubbee,

Vancouver-dee-island, across then out to sea!

Brambleberry, thimbleberry, rosehip tea,

Catch a fish, eat a fish, then play with me!

There was an awkward silence. No one seemed to know where to look.

“Quinn, buddy,” Tomin grinned conspiratorially at the other campers. “You must read a lot of good fantasy books. Frankly, your story sounds like a weird dream. But don’t take it too hard. This isn’t a completely terrible spot to camp. For today, we can set up our tents, and make a fire pit.”

“Tents on the ground,” Quinn scoffed. “How will you defend yourselves? A fire pit will send up smoke signals, and your enemies will find you, and overpower you in minutes.”

“Here’s the thing, Future Boy. I don’t see any treehouses,” Tomin sneered.

A murmur of agreement circulated among the campers.

“I’m freezing,” said one of the younger girls.

“I can’t believe we followed this guy,” another voice piped up.

The rumble of discontent grew. Quinn grit his teeth, and clenched his hands into fists. Levvy stared at Quinn intently, as if she might see a transponder glowing with blue laser light, or an implanted cyberportal. Sarah didn’t believe Quinn was a time traveller. But his glittering treehouse, rope bridge, and ladder had been real enough, and she felt honour-bound to speak up in his defence. Standing in a cold rain, surrounded by sour, incredulous faces, Sarah gulped, then spoke in a rush.

“Quinn is telling the truth. When we were chased into the forest, Quinn took us to a ladder, and a rope bridge, and the coolest treehouse ever, with a water-catching system—”

“Catchment,” Quinn interrupted.

“And cedar branches for bedding, and a special kind of roof and walls. He built it all himself, and it’s invisible from the ground.” Sarah looked around at a sea of blank faces. “And um, there’s this honey, special honey. You can only see the treehouses and stuff if you eat some.”

Tomin smiled at Sarah, like a grown-up indulging a small child. “Cute story, Sarah. That might lull Sammy to sleep, but I think we’ve heard enough. Come on, everyone. Back to Plan A. Let’s get our campsite built, and try to find some food.”

Muttering angrily, the campers moved away from a seething Quinn.

“Sorry,” Sarah said. “I tried. Until they see what hunaja does with their own eyes, I don’t think they’ll believe you.”

“But I can’t harvest hunaja right now,” said Quinn. “My hives are nearby, but rain makes bees uneasy, and liable to sting. Their stings are much worse than regular honeybees.”

“What if my parents can’t find us here?” Levvy asked, surveying the dismal clearing. “We should have camped closer to Spex’s place.”

Quinn grimaced, and stalked away. Tomin took charge. He designated himself and his friends to build a fire pit and improve the tarpaulin shelter, and ordered everyone else to forage for food. The mood was miserable, marked by disgruntled whispering and long faces. Sarah flinched under angry glances shot in her direction. She and Levvy joined the foragers and fanned out to picking their way through dense forest, searching for anything edible.

“They all think I’m nuts,” said Sarah.

“You can’t blame them,” Levvy replied. “Look at it from their perspective. Where are the treehouses, bridges, and ladders? There’s a complete lack of evidence. Just ignore them, Sarah. The priority now is food.” Levvy searched her satchel, produced a dog-eared book, and thumbed through it. “It’s spring, so these fiddlehead greens should be growing everywhere. I’ve never tried them, but the guide says they’re tasty and nutritious.” Levvy held a field guide open to a photograph of a tender young fern curled in on itself, like the scroll at the head of a fiddle.

“Do you believe Quinn’s a time-traveller?” Sarah asked, brushing burrs from her sleeve.

“More like an alien,” said Levvy. “Think about it—is there anything on earth like hunaja? And people his age can’t build things like that treehouse.” Levvy closed the field guide, stuffed it in her satchel, and plunged into a thicket.

They foraged for hours, and found nothing edible. As the day wore on cold rain hardened into sleet, and a bitter wind blew through the trees. Rumpus slunk close to the ground, his coat matted with moisture. Sarah was envious of Levvy’s familiarity with the forest, and found herself resenting the long hours she’d spent taking care of Sammy. At the same time she imagined how much Sammy would love this adventure, getting wet and muddy in the woods. Then a severe blast of wind shoved Sarah sideways, and her stomach clenched with hunger, and he hoped Sammy was somewhere safe and warm.

“Oh my gosh, I found some!”

Levvy squatted beside a stand of dark-green curlicues, perhaps two dozen fiddleheads. Together, they picked the odd plants from the cold ground, and Sarah filled her coat pockets with them. But the rest of the afternoon elapsed, and they found nothing else. Trudging back to the campsite, Sarah touched wilted fiddlehead greens in her pockets.

“Not even enough for two each,” she remarked.

Levvy didn’t hear; she was well ahead, almost back at the campsite. Stuck in her pockets, Sarah’s hands tingled—and then fiddleheads bubbled and erupting at her touch. The fiddleheads doubled, and then tripled. She emptied her pockets onto wet grass, and still the fiddleheads multiplied. Again and again she scooped out her pockets, until a mound of fiddleheads had formed. At last the tingling sensation in her hands faded, and Sarah stared at the heap of dark green vegetables. She removed her coat, loaded it up, and carried it awkwardly back to the clearing.

How could she explain the miracle? Sarah braced herself for questions—but no one paid her any attention as she joined sodden campers gathered around a hissing, smouldering fire pit. Foraging efforts had netted a dismal assortment of strange foods. A thin girl had a bagful of grubs to roast, inspiring grimaces of disgust. “They’re full of protein,” the girl insisted. One camper had filled the hood of his rain jacket with wilted dandelion leaves. Levvy, mobbed by campers with handfuls of bright berries, was busy consulting her field guide, deeming most of the berries inedible or poisonous.

“I found more fiddleheads,” Sarah said softly. She opened her coat on the ground. Curious campers inspected the crunchy green curls. A few hands darted out, and plucked fiddleheads from the pile to chew raw.

“No way—the patch must have been huge,” Levvy exclaimed. “How did I miss it?”

Sarah shrugged. Tomin clapped her on the back.

“Nice work, Sarah. We’ll boil these up, and toss them in the salt and pepper I brought.”

Nearby, someone whistled a cheerful tune, and Sarah turned to see Quinn arrive. His was hair flattened by rain, and his cheeks were flushed. Balanced on his shoulders was a stick heavy with fish, scales glistening, bellies slit, and innards expertly cleaned out. Campers erupted in shouts of disbelief and delight. Ignoring Tomin’s jealous frown, Quinn handed out fish, smiling modestly.

Quinn demonstrated how to thread fish on a sharpened stick, and roast them over fire until the fatty skin was brown and crispy, the pink flesh juicy and tender. Together with the boiled fiddleheads, the fish made a fine meal. Everyone ate until their stomachs were stretched and full. Sarah, drained and bewildered by the events of the day, fell fast asleep right after supper, curled up beside Levvy.

Dawn brought a clear, pale blue sky. Sarah woke in time to see Quinn slip into the forest. He returned just as everyone was grumbling about the lack of breakfast, arms laden with plants, and whistled for attention. He had freshly-harvested shepherd’s purse, Quinn explained, an edible weed with a crisp, peppery taste. It was better than nothing. As the campers crunched juicy stalks, looking like overgrown goats, Quinn opened one of his pouches, and withdrew a dripping piece of honeycomb.

“This is hunaja, honey from my homeland. It’s—”

“Revealing,” Sarah supplied, and Quinn winked at her.

Quinn put a piece of honeycomb in every outstretched palm. Muttering blessings, the campers sampled the honey. Sweetness brought smiles of pleasure, and Quinn sprang into action. With a pouch of hunaja slung from his belt and his largest knife in hand, he shimmied up a tree trunk, scarring the bark at regular intervals with deep horizontal knife slashes. Quinn spread a sticky line of hunaja in each slash, and it bubbled with bright yellow light, as glowing golden ladder rungs formed. The audience erupted in shrieks of delight and amazement, even as the hunaja faded to a sparkling line on each rung. When at last Quinn leapt to the ground from the bottom rung of the finished ladder, Tomin stepped forward, and extended a hand.

“I can admit when I’m wrong, and I was really wrong. I’ve never seen anything like this before. Please tell us more about groves.”

Quinn and Tomin shook hands solemnly.

Days of hard work followed. The campers were hungry, but they didn’t starve, and they were uncomfortable, but no one got hurt. Quinn taught them how to build ladders, bridges, and treehouses. Levvy and Tomin organized planting a garden, and harvesting local food. Crawling into her sleeping bag wearily every night, Sarah listened to owls hooting and frogs croaking. She missed her father and Sammy terribly, and was torn between soaring enthusiasm for the grove, and a childish hope her father would find her, and take her home.

A stand of wild hemp grew on the far shore of the lake. Quinn demonstrated how to harvest hemp, and braid it into ropes. Finished ropes were smeared with hunaja, absorbed by the dry hemp. The ropes were long and heavy, so they formed human chains to transport them up to the canopy. Teams stretched the ropes from tree to tree and lashed them together, constructing bridges. The ropes needed to stretch before they would be strong enough to hold weight, Quinn said, so treehouse building lessons began. They used axes to notch branches, and peel logs for floors and roofs. Every piece of wood was treated with hunaja.

Sarah and Levvy worked on the vegetable garden crew, tilling soil in a meadow, fertilizing it with fish and seaweed, and planting seeds. Sarah’s hands tingled as she worked. As she tamped seeds into warm, brown furrows, they germinated before she could cover them up. A first harvest was ready in record time, plump, crunchy radishes, big leafy lettuces, and thousands of chubby pea pods.

“I’ve never seen anything like it!” Levvy exclaimed, filling a basket with produce. “This soil shouldn’t be producing perfect food. It’s all happening so fast—like magic!”

Behind a curtain of hair, Sarah blushed. Her hand brushed a lettuce, and the leaves grew before her eyes, so quickly she thought she could hear them stretch. In the evenings, Levvy hounded Quinn to tell them about the future, but Quinn refused.

“I said too much already,” he explained. “Haven’t you read any science fiction? Bad things can happen, travelling to the past. There’s things I shouldn’t tell you. Leave it at that.”

“He’s infuriating!” Levvy complained to Sarah, as they laboured in the garden. “I mean, I’ve always known time travel was possible. Quantum leaps and so on. It’s like my visions—information travelling through time, right? But when I finally meet a real time traveller, he won’t even give me a clue how it works.” She jammed a trowel in the earth.

Sarah was homesick. When she thought about her family, tears leaked between her black lashes. How could anyone find the grove, when Quinn was teaching them to hide their traces? The Sassamatta lakeshore looked pristine, but in the shallows, tucked between logs, were big, strong baskets woven from reeds. A heavy rock held each basket to the bottom, and the long wooden fishing rods stayed hidden too, strung through the basket handles. There was no obvious trail from lake to grove, no path anyone could follow. Only Laxgi came and went, visiting Quinn.

In August, Quinn declared Sassamatta Grove finished. Three ladders led to seven treehouses, connected by sturdy rope bridges. The garden was fenced in with thorny berry bushes. There was even a doghouse for Rumpus inside a hollow cedar tree, so he could stay on the ground at night. Sometimes Sarah remembered Levvy’s vision by the pond, and worried that Sassamatta would be attacked now that the village was complete. But days and nights passed peacefully.

“You are Followers of the Grove,” Quinn told them one starry night. A Follower of the Grove! Sarah loved the sound of that, and if it weren’t for missing her family, her new life would be bliss. When she wasn’t thinking about her father and Sammy, she felt guilty for not thinking about them.

One crisp autumn night, Sarah woke up to a strangled cry.

“Sarah—I had a vision!”

Sarah rubbed the sleep from her eyes. “I’m listening,” she said.

“Your father and Sammy are still on Wailsmouth Street,” Levvy said. “They’ve been captured—they’re prisoners.”

“I know where your father and Sammy are,” Levvy whispered. “They’re still on Wailsmouth Street. They’ve been captured—they’re prisoners!”

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