Lily looked out of the window. Even though it was night, she could still tell it was cloudy, as the comforting light of the moon and stars was nowhere to be seen. It was the second day since she had spent the night in the spring, and after the first day she had sworn off
all visitors with the excuse of not wanting to pass on her ‘blight’. Being low on medicinal herbs this time of year (as it was before the harvest), the others were certain not to risk calling her bluff. This was just as well, as Lily was a notoriously terrible liar. There was a tiny part of her that hoped it would turn out not to be a lie, that it really would just a terrible mistake, just be some waterborne infection which Oak could cure in an instant. After all, could she be truly sure when the whole situation was so alien to her? She placed her hands on her stomach and felt another nudge. She bit her lip, clenching her jaw until she felt the sap run down onto her chin.
Larch had just swung himself down out of the tree. He straightened up, smugly admiring his own athletic prowess, when he noticed a figure peering out from behind a bush.
“Lily?” he said.
“Larch,” came the faint reply.
“Hey! What are you doing out of bed, I thought you got ill?”
“No. That’s just what I told them. I think – I think something much worse happened.” She stepped out from her hiding place to stand in front of Larch. Even in the dark of night, he could see that something was terribly wrong. Her stomach was swollen, growing out from her torso like some kind of strange fungus. He took a step back, a horrified expression on his face.
“Good grass, what the **** is that?”
“It’s a baby,” Lily whispered. “I think.” Larch stopped. He frowned.
“No. That’s not possible.” Lily stepped towards him, and with trembling hands she placed his on the sides of her strange new growth. Larch leant in, listening, feeling, determined to find no sign of life. But he too felt a movement, something living, swimming in the dark like one of Reed’s precious fish. Larch sprang back. He couldn’t believe it. He didn’t
want to believe it. But he knew in his heart it was true. He had never thought to equate his own actions with those of the rabbits and the wild dogs, but now their terrible similarity chilled him to the roots. He started to run. Lily called after him, but he didn’t look back. At first he wasn’t aware of where he was going, but soon he realised his feet were carrying him to Oak. He needed to find out how deep this taboo ran, to find out just how much trouble he was in, and if anyone knew about these things it would be him. When the door burst open, Oak looked surprised. Mercifully, he was alone. Larch certainly didn’t want Willow‘s eagle eyes staring him down while he did this.
“Hey, Oak,” he said, feigning a casual voice. “I, er, wondered if I could ask you some questions.” Oak looked a little bemused, but as nothing pleased him more than the opportunity to dispense his vast knowledge (what was the point of collecting it at all, otherwise?), he decided to give his great-nephew the benefit of the doubt for once.
“Of course, my boy, of course. Do sit down. Now, what’s on your mind?”
“Well, seeing as Holly‘s going to spawn soon, I thought I’d like to know a little more about that kind of stuff. Like, how exactly it is we reproduce.”
“Oh, well, it’s very simple really. Essentially, we just have to think about spawning and shake out the necessary spores. The only difficulty comes – and this is why we must study
carefully – in focusing the mind exactly right. One must meditate carefully for the right period of time, be in a completely calm, dedicated and secure frame of mind to produce a healthy child. It also has to be the at the right time. If the spawning happens too early, or in the wrong season, then the spores don’t grow properly and… problems can occur.” Oak didn’t quite meet Larch’s gaze at this point, but Larch was fidgeting agitatedly, not really registering Oak’s explanation. He broke in.
“Is that the only way?” he asked. “Or could we get children like the flesh-creatures do? You know, theoretically.” Oak raised an eyebrow.
“Hm? Why do you ask that?” His voice was sharp.
“Oh, the, er, the wild dogs were mating in the fertiliser corner again,” Larch lied. “And I was curious to know if that would work for us too.” Oak was silent for a few seconds. His eyes seemed to bore into Larch’s head.
“No,” he said shortly. He spotted the look of further questions rising in Larch’s eyes and cut him off with a raised hand. “It doesn’t work. It isn’t natural for plants. The day you see two trees mating in the fertiliser corner, please give me a shout.” Larch nodded and rose to leave. The vehemence of this denial had given him more proof than he needed that their suspicions were correct. The elders were never so adamant unless they had something to hide.
“Chase them off, will you,” Oak called after him. “I can’t deal with another litter, not at my age.”
When Larch got outside, Lily was waiting for him. She’d been eavesdropping through the window. Her face was stained with tears and her chin with sap from her nibbled lips.
“Oh, Larch, what are we going to do?” she whispered. “If they find out they’re going to hate us forever. We went against nature. What if they kick us out of the garden? Oh Larch, I’m so scared!” She reached out to embrace him, but Larch shrank away from her arms. Lily’s face fell. Her heart began to thump and her voice shook.
“Larch? What’s wrong? I-I know this is scary, but we can get through it together. I mean, we love each other.” Larch shook his head. This was all getting quite out of hand.
“Uh-uh, Lily. No. I was angry, you were pretty. Don’t get me wrong, I like you, but that’s as far as it goes. And I hate that,” he pointed at her stomach. Lily curled her arms instinctively around it.
“But… you said it. That night, you said it.” She looked as if the heart had been wrenched out of her very body.
Larch swallowed. He could think of no decent answer, so he turned and ran for the trees, leaving Lily alone by the side of the hut. Long into the night, she lay there and wept, sobs harmonising with the melody of her beloved’s flute.