[Word count: 5547]
Rain had started falling in the late afternoon, large heavy drops that fell in the last light of the day that peeked between the cloud cover and the mountains to the west.
When night fell the wind had started to howl as it found odd angles between buildings, gusting past the closed doors of Carmine City as the residents took shelter. It was the first proper storm of the summer and it wanted to make an impression.
Niva watched the lightning through the narrow glass panes of her living room window. From her position she only had to tilt her head to check on the rising water level of the canal that ran by her building. The city wasn’t prone to flooding, but the roots of one of her trees had recently weakened a nearby canal wall upstream from her. She had yet to spot any large debris amongst the churning water.
With another rumble of thunder the lights flickered indoors as magic carried within the storm interfered with their energy supply. The radio crackled briefly, music fading in and out of static before returning to normal with a wavering whine.
Yawning, Niva rose and switched it off, closing the curtains on the damp view before going to bed. She couldn’t stop the wall from collapsing, only hope that it held.
In its enthusiasm the storm had blown itself out long before morning, the intensity fading soon after Niva had fallen asleep.
Its detritus still littered the streets as she walked to work the next morning, leaves from plants that grew in different neighbourhoods and items of clothing that had been absent-mindedly left outside to the ravages of nature.
Her pack bounced between her shoulder blades as she jogged up the slope to the small garden that held the mis-grown tree. The bed of wild flowers around its base had been flattened by the rain, the nahen tree itself lessened in foliage, but the ground beneath it was sound.
Checking on the canal wall she sighed in relief to find it unbent by the waters onslaught. She could get masons and labourers to help move the tree and reinforce the wall; she’d have done it before the storm but there hadn’t been time. Checking over the tree for storm damage she found no more than dropped foliage and immature fruit, a shame but not a tragedy.
Glad that disaster had been averted Niva moved on with a spring in her step. As an arborist she tended to twenty different trees, most within easy walking distance of her apartment.
Checking on her trees in the morning sun she followed the familiar path between them. While the nahen had lost green fruit along with its leaves, and the mangos had dropped ripe fruit in abundance, the finger lime blossoms were so small and well sheltered within the dense foliage that they were undamaged.
Niva cleared away the detritus from the bases of the trees, taking note of what ground covers had taken the most damage. Some of the gardens would have to be partially replanted.
The furthest tree from Niva’s apartment, downhill and on the western edge of her route, was a large mango that dominated its plot. Between the three-floored buildings surrounding the space and the thick spread of the tree’s canopy, very little direct light made its way down to the ground where ferns and low light creepers consumed the shadowy park.
A brilliant beam of sunlight pierced the gloom as Niva approached, small winged insects fluttering in the golden pillar left in the wake of a fallen limb. Picking her way through the undergrowth Niva clucked her tongue in distaste, frowning up at the messy break. The branch hadn’t torn away cleanly and still clung to the trunk with a strained segment of bark and sapwood.
The wood creaked as a fresh breeze tugged at the tree.
The break itself was far enough out from the trunk, the angle of the drooping limb safely pointing its rough edges away, that she could deal with it herself before any more damage was done.
Assessing the rest of the tree for harm and danger, one eye out for animals caught within the mess, Niva dropped her backpack amongst the ferns and rummaged through it for her waist harness and a weighted rope. Easily slinging the line over a branch far above the damage Niva clipped the loose end to her harness, along with a trailing leather strap, and began to climb.
Damp bark slipped under her grip, forcing her to move slowly as she made her way upwards, tightening her guide rope with every inch gained. Bracing her foot on the base of the broken limb and holding a dangling twig for balance Niva pulled up the trailing strap and secured herself to the trunk above the work site, tugging the connection to make certain she was secure. Removing her handsaw from her belt she began.
The tension on the wood cracked before she was half way through and the branch at last fell away to land with a thud. Jamming her braced foot against the join with the trunk Niva balanced herself on the wide limb, staying atop it even as it swayed and the tree readjusted to the lost weight.
Inspecting the wound as the tree settled Niva wrinkled her nose. She’d cut away the bark first to prevent it from tearing away in a strip, so instead the sapwood had left large splinters protruding from the break.
With a muted sigh she trimmed the splinters, chunks of wood falling away from her long cuts. Packing away her ropes at the base of the tree she looked at the dropped limb.
She would have to get more people to clear the heavy bough, its dead weight far more than she could manage. Going over its length she checked for any creatures that had been caught in the fall, but it seemed the storm had been enough to send the wildlife scurrying.
The sun shone through the gap in the canopy, forcing her to squint as her stomach growled. It must be near midday.
Leaving the damaged fern bed to its rare sun bath Niva retired to a nearby diner and found a seat outside beneath a wide striped umbrella. Adding to her notes as she waited for her egg-on-a-roll to arrive she drafted her report on the storm damage. She would type it up when she got home.
A few fragmented clouds chased each other across the strip of blue sky above the street, perhaps the beginnings of the next storm.
Transplanting a mature tree was always a nervous business for Niva. The nahen only needed to be moved a handful of metres to the other side of the park, but as the best tools for the task included a massive crane that had to be assembled on site due to size and transport logistics the whole ordeal was taking far longer than she would have liked.
Niva stood to the side of the operation with several other people also wearing fluorescent green vests and helmets, gripping the rope barricade that indicated the safe place to stand with tight fingers. She must have made a sound as the tree rose into the air, its root ball gripped in a massive metal scoop, because the person standing next to her shot her a grin.
“It’s pretty amazing huh?” they said, looking up at the slowly moving tree with shining eyes.
“Amazing,” she said dully, trying not to flinch as the tree swung shallowly with the movement of the crane.
“Machines,” they said with a sigh. “A bunch of small moving parts are lifting a tree into the air.”
“Are you a mechanic?”
“Stonemason,” they said, nodding toward the canal.
At last the tree was lowered into the prepared hole, the crane gently withdrawn. As the last of the gaps around the root ball were filled with soil Niva approached to assess the harm. Despite their care there would be no avoiding the shock that the tree would go through, so finding only superficial bark damage was a relief.
Wandering over to the newly filled hole left by the roots of the displaced tree, where the masons were carting stone blocks to the canal, she watched for a moment as the foreman directed the construction of the new wall. The stonemason who had spoken to her during the transplant waved up at her from the dry canal bed, squinting as they leant on the stone block that they were shaping.
A dam upstream had temporarily diverted the water away from the work site, leaving the dirt worn blocks on the bottom to sit in glaring contrast against the new. Patches of wear could be seen amongst the old stone, where repairs had previously been done and the slabs, fresh at the time, had been added.
“Was there anything else?” a voice asked behind Niva. The crane operator had approached while she’d been staring at rocks.
She shook her head. “Thank you. And thank you for being so gentle with the tree, I appreciate it,” she said, her smile more relaxed than it’d been all morning.
The crane operator grinned broadly. “I know how plant people can get if you mess up their babies,” they said with a wink.
Niva followed the procession of crane parts out of the park, turning off of the narrow street at the first intersection. She only had one more tree to check on, a young mandarin that had been infested with scale insects.
Humming as she approached the tented tree Niva let herself within the tightly woven fabric screen.
“How are my little buddies doing?” she crooned to the many flying insects floating around and resting on the tree. Lordling beetles, they preyed upon the scale insects.
Niva checked the underside of a few leaves with gentle fingers and found no trace of the previous infestation.
“Aren’t you good little bugs,” she said, smiling around at the swarm. “I’ll be back to collect you this evening.”
The rich scents of roasting lamb and root vegetables mingled in Niva’s kitchen as she sliced fresh garlic for the mixed greens. Late afternoon sunlight pushed past the potted ferns on the windowsill to gild the hairs that had escaped their tie and curled at the edges of her face.
A counter separated the kitchen from the living room, where double glass doors stood open to a balcony edged with plants. There the narrow wooden table was set for dinner.
The squeak of hinges signalled the opening of the front door, and Niva looked up from her search for a clean frying pan to blow a kiss to her partner.
“Could you get some sage for me?” she asked as she juggled cooking implements.
“Love you too,” Iris said as she walked to the balcony, dropping her bag next to the couch on the way.
“Love you,” Niva yelled.
“I know dear,” Iris said as she returned with a small handful of leaves. “Do you need me to do anything?”
“No, I think that’s everything,” she said, turning to give the other woman a kiss but stopping at the sight of her soiled clothes, “Thank you. How was work?” A faint whiff of something gut wrenching rose over the food scents.
“Good. Exhausting. I need a shower,” she said, heading to the bathroom. Iris worked with animals.
Pulling the roast out of the oven as the pipes groaned, Niva set it aside to rest before dashing outside to light the candles. A string of small lightstones hung over the table would provide most of the light, but she enjoyed the flickering nature of candlelight too much to rely on the stones alone.
A smart rap on the front door caught her attention.
Opening it she greeted her grandpa. While Niva had been taller than him since her early teen years, her grandpa Varo had always been the largest personality in every dynamic.
Beaming broadly he held her at arms length once he’d engulfed her in a hug, looking her over.
“You’ve grown again,” he declared, releasing her and walking into the apartment. Leaving his hat and coat on hooks by the door he kept his cane with him as he entered the kitchen.
“What needs to be done?” he asked.
“Nothing, just the salad and that’ll only take a moment.”
“Salad,” he said, gathering a chopping board and knife together into a workstation for himself.
“I’ll do it,” Niva protested.
“I can make salad,” he said, shooting her a look from the corner of his eye. “You can pour the wine.”
Closing her mouth against further argument Niva got two glasses from the cupboard.
“And how is work?” he asked as he squeezed a fresh lime over the salad, letting the juice dribble through his other hand to catch the seeds.
“Mostly good, but I think one of my trees is getting sick,” leaning on the back of the couch she faced the kitchen, sipping wine as she ordered her thoughts, “It lost a limb in that first big storm we had and has started ailing.”
She described the symptoms as he helped her take the dishes to the table, the lightstones self activating as the light dipped lower in the west.
“Do you remember the diagnostic potions I taught you?” he asked, lingering by the potted bay tree as Niva took a seat at the table.
“They’re in a book inside,” she said, glancing toward the book case in time to see Iris emerge from the lounge, her short dark hair still damp from the shower.
“Varo, good to see you,” Iris greeted the old man with a kiss on his cheek, bending at the waist to do so.
“You too, you too. What kind of creature crapped on you today?” he asked with a nod to her freshly washed hair.
Iris sighed. “Python, and it regurgitated a semi-digested rat onto me,” she said, smiling shortly as she thought about it.
Varo chuckled appreciatively. “You’ll be needing wine then?” he asked.
“Please,” she said, bowing her head in thanks as he popped inside to fetch another glass.
Niva sipped mechanically on her coffee, swallowing the slightly overdrawn beverage without trying to savour it. There’d been no time to make it at home, having slept through Iris’s early rise she’d only woken when it was time to leave.
A follow up inspection of the canal wall required her attendance.
The first to arrive despite her sleep in, Niva settled herself amongst the roots of the nahen tree, resting against its lumpy trunk. It had recovered well from the ordeal of the transplant, and fresh blossoms bowed with the breeze over her head, harbingers of late autumn fruits.
Voices drifted to her on the wind as the other workers approached, two masons to check on the stone work. Recognising them both, the foreman and the stonemason who’d spoken about mechanics, Niva called a greeting with a smile and a wave.
“I hope we haven’t kept you,” the foreman said, ready to apologise as Niva waved her words away.
“Not at all, it’s a lovely morning to sit under a tree.”
As the masons tapped, shoved, and measured stone to ensure sturdiness, Niva settled herself on the short lawn and felt for the grass beneath her. Taking a deep breath she began extending her sensitivity beyond her fingers and into the soil.
Moving very slowly and taking breaks to reduce the risk to the plants she sent her magical awareness though their spread, travelling gently through the breadth of the root system. Jumping easily from grass to dandelion to clover roots Niva explored the underground network beside the wall and reassured herself that no more plants would be undermining the stonework.
The masons assured her that the stone had settled correctly with no gaps to allow eroding water through to the soil of the park, and Niva felt a part of her mind relax.
Thanking the others she wished them a days blessings as she left. She had other things to do.
Unlike the healthy nahen tree, the storm damaged mango had not recovered its health and appeared to be wilting before her eyes. She’d treated the mouldy residue that had collected on the leaves but many of them had still fallen rather than regain vigour, leaving the tree sparse and sickly even as summer progressed.
Standing amongst the mildly scorched ferns Niva frowned up at the wound where the limb had been. It was the most likely entry point for the illness, but it showed no signs of infection. Tempted to probe the tree with her magical senses she unslung her pack from her shoulders and began rummaging through it instead.
It was always a fight to hold the magic within a healthy plant, a sick tree’s energy could fluctuate wildly and throw off her focus. Or it could draw her into its death.
From her bag she pulled a sealed flask and a glass beaker wrapped in an old fluffy shawl. With the beaker firmly wedged amongst the leaf litter she filled it with clear liquid from the flask before finding herself a leaf.
Limp brown leaves hung from every bough and Niva gently plucked one from the closest low hanging branch.
Crouching to watch the reaction closely she lowered the sickly leaf into the beaker. A swirl of dark orange spread through the fluid from the edges of the leaf, swiftly spreading and staining the contents of the beaker. Urege, a type of internal rot.
Running through all of her cures and their likelihood of succeeding Niva held her position, unfocused eyes watching the slow sway of the mango leaf suspended in orange.
Movement amongst the undergrowth caught her attention. At the base of the trunk a thick stand of ferns moved counter to the air currents.
Niva rose and reached the stand in two long strides, tugging aside the fern cover by the very tip of the fronds. Only dried and decomposing mango leaves met her curious eye, and she frowned into the tangle of fern stems. Something twitched.
Gently rearranging the ferns she found what looked like an animal hide beneath the leaf litter, where a small section of it was raised to form a cavity beneath. A fallen twig from by her foot became a probe as she gently poked at the top layer of leaves, hoping to raise them to see what was beneath.
With an indignant squeak the pile of leaves shuffled away from her probe, tightening on itself in defence.
Retracting the stick Niva watched as two small eyes blinked open to peer up at her for the briefest of moments from within the shadows of the leaves. Carefully releasing the ferns to their natural position she fetched a towel from her bag. The wildlife she encountered on the job and living with Iris had trained her reflexes, and with one quick snatch she had the creature secured in a fold of fabric.
Still unsure of what she’d caught, but with suspicions building, she adjusted her hold on the creature to examine it. Four short limbs and a hairless belly were visible between the leaves that covered its back. Its skin was wrinkled and loose as if it had lost a lot of weight in a short time, and a bruised purple discolouration spread across its mottled brown middle. A nub of a tail could be seen between its hind limbs.
Dexterous digits felt for the towel, perhaps seeking to cover its exposed underside.
Moving the fabric so that she could see its face Niva’s suspicions were confirmed as she recognised the animal at last. Kahadi were occasionally called tree spirits because of the close bond they had with their chosen tree, growing leaf like frills to match its foliage as this one had.
It was also obviously sick, just like its tree.
Despite the confusion it must be feeling the kahadi didn’t try to bolt as Niva loosened her grip, rather it tugged the towel into a more comfortable arrangement within her hold.
“Can you understand me?” Niva asked.
The kahadi looked up at her but made no response.
“I’m going to get you help,” she told it anyway, collecting the rest of her belongings and packing them away one handed.
This was higher level magic than she was trained for, but she knew someone who could help.
The swamp witch lived over the river bank in a house on stilts.
Several other similar buildings stood nearby, the homes of other people with northern blood who built their houses after the manner of their ancestors, but his house stood apart at the end of a dead end street with a stretch of undeveloped land between him and his closest neighbour. He was a friend of Varo’s.
A narrow stair carried Niva up to the wide wraparound verandah, the outer edge of which had been lined with potted palms to shade the aviaries and vivariums encircling the house. A large rainforest lizard blinked slowly at her from its perch within a large cage by the open front door, dappled sunlight falling across its blue speckled hide.
“Uncle, are you home?” Niva called, tapping on the door frame as she held the swaddled kahadi to her chest with the other hand. He habitually left the door open even when he went out, and she didn’t want to wander around the animal filled house if he wasn’t home.
A voice rose over the constant sound of running water that came from within the house, unintelligible but a sign of human life. Within, Niva walked into a large living room filled with aquariums the size of two seater lounges, each individually lit and contributing to the music of many trickling filters. Navigating between those set in the middle of the room she ignored her curiosity as creatures moved within the flourishing water plants, heading through the next doorway.
After another two aquatic rooms she found him at the rear of the house, seated in what he tamely called his sun room.
The large rectangular space was roofed over with transparent panels that allowed unfiltered sunlight in to feed the multitude of plants that flourished within, while the windows filling the walls gave panoramic views of the flow of the tide and the barren southern bank of the river. A constructed creek bed ran through a depression the length of the room.
Onnem was sitting by the small waterfall that fed the creek, a fold out camp table erected before him. On it a box rested on an electronic scale as he weighed one of the myriad animals in his care.
“Niva, how long has it been?” he greeted her while jotting some numbers down in a note pad.
“Since grandpa’s seventieth,” she said, crouching beside him and waiting for his attention. The bundle that contained the kahadi she rested on her lap.
Putting away the notebook in a pocket of his short sleeved overcoat he leaned forward to turn off the scale. “ How can I help?” he asked, turning to face her.
Instead of fumbling with words she simply unwrapped her charge, folding the towel away from it so that he could see what she held.
Mimicking her silence he examined the kahadi, dropping from his seat to crouch before her, almost prostrate as he put his face as close as he could to the curiosity. With long gentle fingers he lifted its head and stroked the leafy frills.
“The mango tree took a hit in a storm, lost a limb and got an urege infection,” she offered after a moment’s silent inspection.
“You found this today?”
“I came straight here.”
“Follow me,” Onnem said, rising and tossing a sack over the scale and the creature within before leading her through a different door than the one she’d entered by.
Through the small kitchen he led her to the one room in the house with closable doors and without any potted plants. The exam room held little, a sink, a metal table, and a small glass cabinet. A directional lamp hung over the table, which he switched on as he took a place opposite her
“Put it here,” he said, prodding the lit spot.
Under the bright light the kahadi looked even more dehydrated and malnourished than it had in the park, and Niva could hear Onnem tutting under his breath as he looked under its forelimbs.
“I’ll put it into quarantine for now, until I can be sure it doesn’t have anything infectious,” he said, scooping it up and backing through swinging doors to a room with empty tanks. “Before you go I’ll make up a juice for you to give to the tree. It wont interfere with any of your other treatments so proceed as usual for the urege.” As he spoke he prepared a clean vivarium for the sick creature.
“It’s pretty hard to get rid of,” she reminded him, brows tugging together.
“In trees that don’t have a kahadi,” he corrected, turning to grin briefly at her over his shoulder, “Even affected like this it will be strengthening the tree, and now that it’s here I’ll be strengthening it.”
“You’ve never really explained how you do that,” Niva said, following him from the room, the kahadi settled under a heat lamp.
“I’ve tried explaining it to Varo, but your way of working magic is too different,” Onnem said with a shrug. Reaching the kitchen he began rummaging through the cupboards, pulling out bottles and jars of liquids and tins filled with dry goods as Niva perched on a stool pulled up to the bench.
“Now,” he said in a firmer voice, focused on his measurements as he added first one ingredient then another to a large mixing bowl, “You’ll need to take this straight to the tree and pour it at the base. Come back in two days for some more, and bring me a handful of leaves from the mother tree.”
With a bright copper ladle he scooped the sludgy mixture into a fresh jar.
Thanking him for his help as he walked her to the front door Niva grinned as he waved away her words, muttering about helping the animals not her.
“See you in two days,” she called as she descended the stair, jar secured in her backpack.
A woven basket hung from Niva’s crooked elbow, heavy with summer fruits. She and Iris had spent the afternoon wandering around the neighbourhood collecting the bounty from the many fruiting trees and vines, bushes and ground sprawling shrubs, that grew along the paths and in the parks.
Stealing a grape from the cut stems sitting at the top of the basket Iris grinned at her as they wandered slowly along the dusk lit canal. The street lamps had just started glowing.
“We have more at home,” Niva reminded her.
“At home isn’t here and now,” Iris said, opening her arms wide as if to embrace the scene, the street sloping gently away from them as it followed the water’s path to the river, flowering eucalyptus planted in intervals before the buildings on the other side of the old stone pavement.
Other people wandered the growing shadows, some moving swifter than others as they rushed across the city, others dawdling as their dogs sniffed the evening news from lamp posts. A cyclist rang their bell as they crossed a narrow foot bridge from the other side of the canal, passing between Niva and the lip of the sharp drop at speed.
Frying spices drifted through the air around a collection of mismatched tables and chairs, outdoor dining for the restaurants producing the mouthwatering smells.
The sun had set by the time they reached the river, the street lamps stopping at the very start of the dead end road. Only the light of the house, filtered through many leaves, guided Niva’s steps in the right direction.
The blue speckled lizard by the front door looked more awake than it had during her daylight visits, cocking its head to fix her with one wide eye. Its gaze shifted behind her as she heard a sound on the stair, even though Iris was beside her. A large monitor lizard, its dark scales pearlescent where the light caught its edges, climbed nimbly from the top step onto the balcony and proceeded into the house without paying any notice to the two women standing by the door. It was a Ssli, a water monitor from the northern swamplands.
Iris took a step after it, rubbing her fingers in a way that Niva recognised. She wanted to catch the lizard.
Knocking at the door swiftly to remind her partner to behave, Niva almost jumped as Onnem entered the front room before the sound had stopped. Iris restrained herself long enough to hug the old man and mumble some polite greetings before she crouched before the closest aquarium, keen eyes probing the weeds for the creatures within.
“I brought fruit,” Niva said, holding up the basket. “Eat some of it yourself.”
“Little mother,” he said, taking the basket with a chuckle. Turning to Iris he prodded her gently in the shoulder, “Come on, I’ll show you around after dinner.”
Following him through the house Niva almost stumbled, as all at once the individual aquarium lights switched off, leaving the ceiling lights dim. Only the kitchen was brightly lit, but they didn’t linger there long. A short legged table had been set in the sun room, cushions on the floor around it, and a collection of plates and bowls along its length filled with multicoloured dishes that steamed in the muted lighting. Different coloured candles sat flickering in a group at the centre.
“This looks amazing,” Niva said as Onnem set down the cool water he’d gotten from the fridge. Taking a seat on one of the cushions she leant forward to sniff at the closest dish, its bright red sauce strongly suggestive of spice.
“Where did you get whorl clams?” Iris asked, reaching for a plate of the small shellfish.
“A friend, “ he said with a shrug before serving himself.
Despite each dish being small there were so many of them that there was more than enough for their small party. The Ssli joined them mid-meal, when it became apparent that a fish had been lightly steamed, unseasoned, just for the reptile’s consumption.
After the meal and with a full stomach Niva lounged on the cushions by the creekside, the Ssli napping nearby, as Onnem showed Iris the rest of the animals. She’d seen most of them herself over her recent visits, and wanted to digest in peace rather than wander the maze of vivariums that filled the house. Ordinarily she’d be done with work for the day, and would stumble home to nap on the couch with the balcony doors wide and the radio on low. Not tonight.
Nocturnal, the kahadi had to be returned to its tree in the dark, and now that it was sufficiently recovered Onnem was worried about the stress of being away. Ordinarily kahadi never left their tree.
The mango itself had recovered magnificently. Although it had mostly missed the fruiting season it had recently sent out a handful of fresh buds to try to catch up, which Niva took as a good sign. Its glossy green foliage was also reassuring, as were the negative tests for infection. Onnem assured her that any lingering problems would clear up with the kahadi’s return.
Looking the kahadi over as Onnem transferred it to a travel crate, Niva marvelled at the improvement in its appearance. The bruise had faded and the dull orange, brown spotted underside had returned to a healthy golden yellow, blush-red on the chest. Its eyes were brighter over a snout covered in what looked like fresh growth, the green beginning of baby leaves. Those that covered its back had regained their gloss and vigour just as the tree had.
Declining the offer to join them Onnem waved goodbye from the top of the stairs as Niva and Iris navigated the dark street. The cooler night air still carried the happy smells of summer as they walked hand in hand to the mango tree.
Opening the crate amongst the recovering ferns, the light saturation had gotten worse before it got better, Niva grinned as the kahadi bolted immediately for the tree. With a sound like possum claws climbing it ascended the trunk and was lost to the tangle of branches and leaves.
“Yay,” Iris said softly, raising her arms in reserved celebration as Niva collected the crate.
“Home?” Niva asked as they reached the street.
“You know, I’d really like a coffee,” Iris said, brows raised as though she surprised herself. Glancing at her watch she pulled a face, “I guess I’ll make it at home.”
“Actually,” Niva said, looping her arm through her partner’s as she directed their steps through the streets, “Would you believe I know a place that’s open late? Grandpa told me about it, he sells coffee to the woman who owns it, and it’s not far, just down one of these alley ways.”