“It takes a lot to become a leader, and if you’d known me when I was young you wouldn’t have believed I would ever make it. The leader at the time was a man named Bracken, and he certainly didn’t hold much hope for me. We used to argue constantly. From the
moment I could talk I was full of questions, full of my own ideas and opinions, and always in a rush to implement them. Bracken, on the other hand, was the type of fellow who likes to assess every possible option before making even a hint of a move. He also made that most fatal of errors as a leader: to assume that those you lead share your character. If anyone senior to him ever gave an order, the idea of questioning it would simply never have entered his head, so when I began to put forward my points of view, and to request explanations of certain decisions – sound familiar, Larch? – the elders hadn’t the faintest idea how to handle me.
For a long time this wasn’t really an issue, not for me anyway. I was aware that I was an irritating little wasp at times, buzzing about rotas, restrictions and the equal distribution of responsibilities, but I never thought I would land in any serious trouble. I don’t know how far the elders ever suspected what happened, but at the risk of sounding conceited, I don’t believe they ever quite had my insight into such things. Anyhow, arguments and punishments aside, I didn’t make any terrible mistakes until I became Nurturer. My first job was looking after this darling little acorn (At this, Willow reached down and patted the top of Oak‘s head. He’d sat up a little while ago and was eyeing Cherry with a mixture of suspicion and fascination). It was wonderful – for the first time in my life I had found an aspect of duty I loved without question, and within a week I was beginning to have dreams of caring for my very own child.
After I’d started to raise Reed I was sure of it. At that time, the business of spawning was shrouded in a lot of mystery, as it was still considered a ‘sacred’ process. Like now, however, one still had to present a case to the elders who would then deny or approve it based on supplies and individual merit. When I came running into the hut and begged on my knees, Bracken laughed in my face. I tried to explain, I cited Oak, the model citizen, as an example, but they maintained that this sudden performance only proved that I was too impulsive and wayward to become a parent.
We argued all night long, but I didn’t get anywhere. I left the hut boiling with rage at the perceived injustice of it all, and as I’m sure you realise, when anger is left to stew spite and stupidity can only follow. I decided, foolishly, that I would ‘just show them’, and spawn a child off my own back. After all, what could they do? Murder it? So in the dead of night, when the moon was full, I crept out of my bed and went and sat in the orchard. Fingers crossed and eyes closed, I shook out my spores and hoped for the best, a tinge of smugness creeping into my smile. When I opened my eyes, there before me sat a plump little PlantBaby, chewing its thumb and staring up at me with wide, innocent eyes. It should have been a moment of joy, but as soon as I saw him I felt my mistake. Looking into those eyes, I loved him unquestionably with all my heart, yet something separated us, as if he were only half in this world. The poor thing shook and trembled at my approach – me, his own mother.
When the elders found me, just before dawn, both of us were sobbing our hearts out on the grass, little Moss wracked with fear and I with guilt. They took us from the orchard and back to the elders’ hut, where they explained what had gone wrong. To spawn, one must always wait for the right season. It’s a complicated process, one that goes back to the very roots of our civilisation. You see, many years ago our people were formed from a union of plant and flesh-creature – don’t ask me how it happened, all records of the event are lost. But for a plant-being to flourish they need an exact balance of animal and plant. Wait too long, as I did, and the spores over-ripen: there’s too much plant in the brain. Ever wondered why Moss can talk to plants, or why he doesn’t always understand us?
The elders were furious, but nothing they could say could make me feel worse than I already did, knowing the life of fear and confusion I had condemned my own son to. I was numb inside for so many years after that. I realised that even though the elders were unreasonable and uncompromising, most of the rules were there for a good reason, whether that reason was clear to me or not. And now to the part of the story I suppose you’ve been waiting to hear since you were old enough to wonder: the day you were born.
Regretfully I can’t tell you the date, we truly don’t know that one. All we know is it was a few months after Lily was spawned, when I had just become leader. It has never been uncommon for Moss to disappear for a couple of days at a time, you know how he
gets wrapped up in his projects, but this time I could feel that something was wrong. I imagined he had probably broken something again, or perhaps Reed had snapped at him and hurt his feelings. I got the shock of my life when I peered into a bush found him crouched over a tiny body, sleeping fitfully on a nest of leaves and feathers. We took him, and you, back to the hut and tried to ascertain what had happened. Moss was in quite a state, I can tell you, but we managed to figure out that after Lily‘s arrival he’d been daydreaming about spawning a child and had, as he put it ‘let the pretend get too real’. I said we didn’t know the date of your birth, which is true, but we did know one thing: you were born a full season too early. Neither I nor Oak knew what to do about this. There were records of latecomers but never of someone being spawned too soon. I can never be sure, but my personal theory is that there’s too much animal in you. You’ve never been comfortable with the steady, seasonal ways of the plants, and you certainly awakened some interesting animal instincts in yourself and Lily here. Lily, I’m afraid I can’t even begin to explain what happened to you. I suppose the genes are dormant in all of us somewhere or other.
I kept my doubts about you quiet, anyway, for several reasons it seems. The leader in me knew it was pointless stirring up any more suspicion than the sudden appearance of a child does naturally, but you also gave me back something I thought I lost a long time ago. Reed has always asked me why I was so lenient with you: the truth is, because you reminded me of myself. Having a little rascal to chase after brought back my belief in the joy of life and reminded me of my youth. How could I have killed it by coming down hard on you all the time like my elders did? I also remembered how ineffective their lecturing had been on me, so it seemed ridiculous to assume that would not be the case again. I tried so hard not to make the same mistakes, to help you find what you loved and find happiness a lot sooner than I did. I resolved to be as open as possible with you, but decided that the circumstances of your birth should remain a secret, as knowing you were born into a line of mistakes and confusion might make you feel pessimistic about your future. At least that’s what I told myself – perhaps I just didn’t want to relive my own mistakes. I see now that I chose the wrong secrets, that building a life without an origin was like growing a tree without roots. You’ll never know how it broke my heart to see you grow up so bitter and angry; I suppose I knew then, in my heart of hearts, that we’d go down a similar way.
When I first became aware of Lily’s apparent illness, I knew that day had come. I thought I didn’t believe it, I didn’t want to believe it, after all, there was no record, no evidence to suggest she could be carrying an animal child. All I had to go on was that tiny little hunch and some crude observation of our mammalian neighbours – we couldn’t even give you a proper medical check: such unnecessary information has long been erased from our records. But there were stories, rumours, passed vaguely down from elder to elder of the possibility of such an occurrence, and perhaps more worryingly, of those ancient adversaries whose carnivorous clutches we had so long avoided. I never wanted to face the possibility they might be drawn back from our nightmares, because I would have to admit that what endangered my children was the consequence of my own rash stupidity. But I did, and I only hope that what I have done is enough to save you.”
Larch stood there, seemingly lost for words. Willow held his gaze for several moments, willing him to say something. Eventually she bowed her head again and bent to help her brother to his feet. The creatures had paused a short distance away from the window, seemingly wary of coming too close together lest they have to fight for their prey. The whole world seemed to hang from a thread.
“Well, they’re here now,” Lily said, attempting a brave, matter-of-fact tone, though her voice wavered. “What do we do now, Willow?”
“We fight them off, of course! Oak, get the book, we need to find out exactly what we’re up against. You sprouts keep a hold of that baby.”
“I didn’t think you’d care about her, you know, given the circumstances,” Larch muttered in surprise.
“Of course I do. Flesh-being or not, no Rose of mine is going anywhere tonight.”
“Ah, Willow, about that…” Larch and Lily’s minds cast back to the disturbing scenes that had greeted them before, Larch thinking of his father, and Lily of her sister. Willow appeared not to have heard. She was standing in front of the door, having just shoved the bookcase back out of the way.
“Regrettably, this is our only exit, so we’re going to have to be quick about it.
On my say so, everybody run out towards the attackers except the one with the baby. You run behind while they’re distracted with the rest of us.” Willow squared her shoulders. The others followed suit.
“All right, NOW!”
The thread broke.