This story has Australian spelling and colloquialisms.
Best for ages 13 and over.
There’s something in the air that doesn’t belong here. When I breathe in, I get a bad feeling. This close to the forest the atmosphere is usually nourishing and lively but today, even the trees are limp and lifeless. It’s more than just the heat. Whatever is going on makes my left palm itch like crazy.
‘Stop scratching!’ My mother grumbles.
Her loud voice in the quiet garden makes me flinch. ‘I’m not!’ I protest and part my hands to prove it.
She shakes the rug out under the mango tree, throws a cushion on it, and then wipes sweat from her brow. I drop my backpack and sit cross-legged in the shadiest spot. My hand throbs so much my fingers go numb. The pain of digging my fingernails into my palms brings some relief from the itching but it’s not enough. Mum needs to leave so I can figure out what’s going on.
She kneels in front of me. ‘Show me.’
She’ll be suspicious if I pretend there’s nothing wrong. ‘It’s just a bite,’ I lie and hold out my hands.
Mum raises a brow. ‘A bite? Hmm.’ She examines my hands closely and shakes her head. ‘There’s nothing there. It could be an allergy or an irritant. Tomorrow, I’m taking you to the doctor.’
‘Mum, I fine!’ I protest. The doctor won’t find anything. My mark is only visible to one other person who’s no longer around.
Mum smooths out crinkles in the rug. ‘Are you worried about school?’
‘What? No!’ Last term of Year Eleven only just ended and high school means nothing to me. One more year and I'm done. Nothing they teach in a classroom can prepare me for life as samaran, but Mum doesn’t know anything about my secret identity. She thinks I’m just a weird kid with an aura. Everything she does is to help me to fit in and be normal. That’s something I’ll never be.
‘Is something else bothering you?’ Mum grills.
She’s still on about the scratching. Her overprotectiveness is becoming unbearable. ‘Nothing’s worrying me! Can you please go now?’
She presses her lips tightly together as though I’ve just asked permission to jump out of a plane without a parachute. ‘Okay, but do not leave the garden.’ She jabs a finger at me.
With an exaggerated eye roll I swipe curls from my forehead. ‘I know the rules: keep my aura hidden and don’t go into the forest. You don’t need to tell me every week. Seriously, Mum, go finish your application, otherwise you’ll miss the deadline.’ She needs a job—anything to stop her being on my case all the time.
Mum sighs. ‘That’s exactly why I need you to behave. Seriously, Lucida, don’t draw attention to yourself, otherwise this will be your last Sunday down here, do you hear me?'
Falling onto my back I gaze through the leaves above and bite back on a groan. ‘Yeeeaas.’ I drawl. ‘Go!'
After homework, swim squad, and chores, I only get one afternoon a week to myself and it’s not even close to being enough time for what I need to do. Ever since she caught me coming out of the forest with my colours lighting up the trees and my fingertips still glowing with esse, my mother has been watching everything I do. It’s lucky she didn’t catch me with Claire. If she knew I had someone teaching me how to use my aura she wouldn’t let me out of the house. Not that it matters. It’s been four years since I last saw my beloved soul mother. Now all I have left is my forbidden practice and I won’t let my mother take it from me.
Pushing aside worry and disappointment I try to figure out the quickest was to get my mother to leave but she’s in no hurry to go. ‘What are you doing?’ I ask as she unzips my backpack. ‘Mum! I’m seventeen. I don’t need you to unpack my stuff for me.’
She takes out my art box and opens it. ‘I know. I’m just helping.’ She lays out my new pencils and sketchbook on the rug.
Helping. Right. It’s not an art studio she's setting up. It's a boundary.
Reaching back into my pack, she hands me my drink bottle. It's covered in icy water that drips down my arm. 'I really don't know why you want to be out in this heat,’ she mumbles without looking up. ‘You’d be far more comfortable inside with the air-conditioning on.’
Her buzzing phone stops me from arguing back. She reads a message. ‘Your Uncle Rom’s on his way. He left his notebook here.’
It’s the perfect chance to get rid of her. Mum loves finding lost things. ‘It’s probably under the couch,’ I say. He scribbles in it while on calls.
Mum nods her head enthusiastically. ‘I’ll go look. Your aunt’s probably freaking out that he’ll miss his flight. She’s already flipping out over him leaving. Speaking of which, have you said goodbye?’
I don’t reply.
‘Lucida… You won’t see him for six months!’
I lower my head so I can’t see disappointment cloud her face. It’s dumb, but saying goodbye to my uncle is like letting him go. After he told us about the job in the Solomon Islands, I ran out of the room as if he’d just confessed to having a terminal disease. He came after me. ‘It’s not forever,’ he assured me but it didn’t make the horrible feeling go way.
Mum wipes endless sweat from her brow as she waits for a response.
‘I’ll message him,’ I say to get her off my case.
She doesn’t let it go. ‘When? You’ll have to do it soon. He’s going to a remote island and won’t be in touch until they set things up. I’ll text you when he’s here so you can come back up to the house.’
I gnash my teeth to stop from lashing out and say sweetly, ‘I’ll call him before his flight, okay? I promise.’
With her eyes narrowed, she studies my face but I'm good at keeping it blank. Her frown relaxes, her shoulders relax a fraction. ‘Okay.’ Getting up she looks at her watch. ‘You’ve got two hours. I’ll be back at five.’
It’s far from enough time but I take what I can get. This week’s been rough so I need to replenish my life energy more than usual. I check my phone. It’s ten past three. ‘Two hours makes it ten past five.’ I won’t be cheated of my allotted time.
My mother shakes her head. ‘Fine. Ten past. Stay in the shade,' she says as a final warning. She turns to leave but then rushes at me with a sweaty hug.
‘Gross!’ I protest.
She pulls away. ‘Love you,’ she says with an almost pained expression.
‘Love you too.’ I have no idea why she’s being like this but for some reason I find myself getting emotional. When she walks off I manage to brush it aside.
'Finally,' I say, breathing out a sigh of relief and scratch my itchy mark until it burns. As Mum disappears around the bend on the path back to the house, I set the timer on my phone. Sometimes she sneaks around the side of the garden to catch me out so I always wait ten minutes before I begin my practice.
Usually I just play on my phone but my new pencils are too tempting to ignore and I need a distraction from feeling awful. The esse that usually flows steadily through my energy veins is almost completely depleted. That hasn’t happened before.
I open the sketchbook to a crisp white sheet of paper and choose green and grey pencils to chase the shadows of the leaves above me across the page, mostly losing myself in the moment except for my itchy palm.
Six minutes to go, my phone reads. I replace the green and grey pencils with beige and yellow. Banded together they make good sunlight between my scribbles. I leave some of the page blank for the brightest light.
The picture feels done so I lay on my back and gaze into the forest that towers metres away. Cool and quiet, its canopy sways as one in a mild breeze. Closing my eyes, I imagine Awen Deva silently observing the world, slowly spreading deep roots, constantly changing, and yet staying the same season after season. I miss soaking up her earthy goodness. Down here at the forest's edge you can't see her, but up at the house she's the first thing you notice when you look across the garden. The tallest Moreton Bay Fig around, her thick, leafy canopy rises above the small forest huddled in the middle of acreage properties. My grandmother and well-known garden designer, Grace Duporth, tells people that she's the mother of all the trees, even the tall scribbly gums and blackbutt trees but my tree is so much more than that.
Four minutes to go. I desperately want to get started but I can't risk getting caught again. Then I'd have to sneak out early in the morning when the light is soft and it’s not as easy to see the spectral toxins I brush away.
Thinking that I’ll add some finishing touched to the drawing I roll onto my stomach to grab my pencils, when my phone chimes. Yes! After a quick final check to make sure I'm alone, I leap up and sneak over to where the garden ends and the forest begins. Being near the forest always makes me think of Claire but today her absence tightens my chest more than usual. It’s too quiet and I’m filled with nervous energy. After a week of tiredness and sorrow and the nonstop palm itch, it makes me wonder what’s going on. I can count the days I've missed a training day since Claire left on one hand. Three of them were last week. My colours have been slow, lifeless, and dull.
Whatever is going on this is my chance to feel better. Nestled into the wall of trees, I toss my sunhat aside, kick my legs to make my shoes go flying. The dirt beneath my feet feels cool as I send esse into the earth to ground me. The grass tickles my toes. With the world solid and stable, I close my eyes and calm my thoughts.
‘Esse doesn’t come from you but through you,’ Claire told me in my first lesson seven years ago. ‘It is the essence of all living beings. Esse is life.’ Every Sunday before our training started, she would replenish the ethereal lifeblood that flows through my energy veins, and we would airbrush until our moods matched the brightness of our colours.
‘Esse is life,’ I whisper her words and inhale a shallow breath to check the air for spectral toxins. They’re sharper than usual and cut through my energy veins like millions of microscopic shards of glass. Exhaled, they’re barely transformed by my breath. That’s never happened before. I open my inner eye expecting to see billowing clouds of forest esse but there aren’t any. Tiny particles spot the air between the trees, alone or in small clusters. It’s hard not to panic. Forest esse is the one thing I thought I could always depend on.
‘It takes energy to make energy,’ Claire taught. I hope it’s a one-size-fits-all rule.
With all of my willpower I radiate weak esse into the clusters. The particles don’t brighten and multiply as much as I’d hoped and the energy they release is mild and barely invigorating. Even getting into a flow of inhaling and exhaling living energy takes more effort than usual.
The harmful toxins take time to vanish but finally the air fills with nourishing clouds that I breathe in through my breath and my pores. The itching finally subsides and the urge to radiate comes on fast. On one long breath I slowly exhale faint misty vapours from every cell in my body stopping only to smile at the spot where Claire no longer stands praising my progress. Living colours drift out to float in front of me like bits of escaped rainbow. Encouraged, I breathe out more esse until I hear twigs snap in the forest. My heart skips a beat and I freeze.
An airy whistle on a gust of cool air brings a woody-earthy scent. Nearby, leaves rustle. I draw in a breath to dim my aura and check the shadows between the trees, expecting Mum to appear furiously threatening to ground me for life. She doesn’t. My shoes lie out of reach. If I stretch my hand I could reach my hat. Covering my head and toes to switch off my aura is probably a smart move but I'm airbrushing better than ever. Starting again will waste time. I sigh. I’m tired of worrying about getting caught and it’s probably nothing to worry about. Letting my colours out again, I breathe more esse into my energy veins only sense a dark, flat energy.
The ground rumbles. A humming noise comes from the forest. Goose bumps dot my arms as I pick up my hat and tiptoe over to my shoes and reluctantly put them back on. Back at the edge of the forest, I peer through the trees. Light flickers in the distance. The humming becomes a crackle, another cool breeze carries the smell of something sour. A gust of icy wind snaps at my face, whips my hair across it, and then disappears to leave the day too quiet. I rub goose bumps on my arms. It's early January and already the hottest month on record so the cold makes no sense. Just as I'm thinking it, a blast of hot air takes my breath away. It swirls around me, carrying the smell of something sweet, and then also disappears.
The light that shines through the trees isn’t a torch or a fire. It’s sharp like lightning and then it softens like sunlight through clouds and I see Awen Deva in my mind’s eye. Sometimes she sends me selfies of her dappled in sunshine or rippled by rain that make me want to rush down here and wash my esse clean in hers. Other times, she sends pictures of her crinkled leaves and withered branches when she’s parched, or fresh cuts after some dumb neighbourhood kid has gouged their initials into her trunk or buttress roots. When I get those images, I want to comfort her, even though she’s never truly hurt and always heals quickly. She just likes to share her experiences with me.
The thought of a tree sending me mental pictures of itself usually makes me laugh, but not today. While the image in my head of her is healthy and strong, my mind’s eye reveals more than just intact limbs and clusters of bright green leaves on supple branches. Something about the mood of the picture tells me that her energy is off.
‘Ouch!’ I gasp at a pinched feeling in my solar plexus. I rub my belly. Something is definitely wrong. Hurrying back to the rug I shove my phone and water bottle into my backpack and put it on. Back at the forest’s edge I expect to hear Mum yell, 'Get back under that tree!' I turn with a flinch but there's no one there. For a moment I watch the path back to the house, waiting for her to appear. She doesn't. Satisfied that I'm alone, one foot and then the other, I step through the tangled vines into the forest and head for the light.