‘Wider,’ said the purple bee, hovering in front of Verdan’s face. Verdan tried to relax as she lay on the soft Oober leaf. She stretched her lips and jaws wider. The large insect reached its foreleg right to the back of her mouth and scraped down her molars.
‘Relax, Verdan!’ Mindy called, giggling. She slapped Verdan on the leg. Verdan’s whole body tensed.
Verdan tried to speak with the bee’s leg in her mouth. ‘Ust wait ’il it’s ’or ’urn ’indy.’
The bee’s wings buzzed faster and it glared at her angrily, waving the sting on its behind. Verdan sighed. She could appreciate that the bee didn’t want her biting of its leg while talking.
But it was different. Of course Mindy couldn’t understand that. Wouldn’t understand it until she was older, and dental service could have other implications. Mindy had been born of their mother’s second tree.
The bee pulled upwards into the air, then zoomed back down and closed Verdan’s jaw for her. Verdan grinned. ‘All done? Thanks.’
Mindy lay back, next to her. ‘See, sis, this is how it’s done,’ and she opened her mouth wide.
Verdan rolled her eyes, slipped her legs over the Oober Leaf and into the shallow clear water that covered the Marsh. Her toes wiggled on the spongy mud beneath, soft and firm like a mattress. She straightened her soft green skirt and arranged her jewellery in concentric ovals on her chest. How long would be before she’d know if she had been lucky enough to achieve pollination? Lucky. That’s what everybody said. Verdan frowned into the reddening afternoon sky. She wasn’t so sure.
The Marsh expanded away in all directions as far as Verdan could see. Plants grew to hip height here and there; thin spindly orchids with petite leaves and flowers, and the occasional large Oober leaves that made comfortable seats.
Verdan found herself staring at one of the Beba trees. It was twice her height and as still as a stone. How boring it must be, frozen there like that, for a moon-turn. What would the Beba inside be thinking? Maybe it wished the gentleman beetles would get off its trunk. Or would it be all dreamy, I’m-a-tree sort of thoughts?
Verdan heard muttering voices behind her leaf.
‘It’s on the horizon, there, can’t you see it?’
A pair of old ones were talking. Verdan glanced at them to see the direction they were pointing.
‘Surely they can’t have reached the wall,’ said the woman.
‘Well, they have. Dare to come further?’ the man mused.
Verdan stood. She looked at the old ones, then squinted her eyes, looking into the distance to where the man had pointed. She used her palms and fingers to scrape her dark brown fringe back from her face. Even so, nothing stood out from the ochre tinged marsh and sky.
Verdan stood and faced them. ‘Who has come?’ she asked.
The old man’s stare met her eyes. He had grey hair hanging down to his waist, and a thin grey cloth covered his body down to his knees.
The other one touched his arm and shook her head, her long grey hair swaying. ‘We should not have spoken near the child.’
The old man smiled. ‘She’s not a child anymore.’
Verdan blushed and looked down. Did he know something that she didn’t? Was it obvious just by looking at her, to a practised eye?
‘All the more important that she leave this be,’ said the woman.
The man shook his head. ‘The more so, Kendla. Verdan might help us. She might be the key.’
‘Why Verdan?’ asked Kendla, wrinkles like upside down forks digging into her forehead. ‘Why one so young, so precious?’
‘All Beba children are precious. But Verdan might be the one who’s in time.’
‘In time with what?’ Verdan asked, her eyes worried. She wanted to back away, to run away.
‘You may run, if you wish,’ he said. Verdan gasped. The man’s eyes were sympathetic. ‘Yes, I think you should. And if you need me, you may call me,’ he added. ‘Temble is my name.’
‘Or me, child,’ said the woman. ‘Kendla. Call us if you need us.’
Verdan was filled with a horror she couldn’t understand. Her need to run was related to it, but she also felt drawn the way they had pointed. Tears filled her eyes, blurring her vision, and she ran.
‘Hey, Verdy! Where you goin’?’ Mindy’s voice reached her ears, but she was already far away. Sound travelled far, skipping along the ripples of the marsh water. A whisper could carry for miles. Verdan could still hear the bee cleaning her other sisters’ teeth.
Verdan’s feet shot down through the water and back out without splashing. She pushed harder with one leap and gained enough height for her running feet to skim across the water’s surface. She ran over the water like a skipping stone, for a short way, then came down through the water carefully, so as not to catch an ankle in its viscous traction and trip.
She slowed, panting, holding the pain in her side. She slowed further to walk and turned back to the Fiddling, the social gathering at which she’d been, where the small groups of Beba were sitting, chatting, grazing of marsh plants, catching tadpoles, and enjoying the afternoon.
Verdan had covered more distance than she’d realised. Perhaps that was why she felt so tired, like she could close her eyes and drift away. She searched for a seat, but there were no Oober leaves here. There were no plants at all. She stumbled forward. The run should not have been so exhausting. She had run further that morning and felt fine.
Verdan turned away from the Fiddling, to look in the direction she’d been running. There was the wall that the old ones, Kendla and Temble, had spoken of! It was about two metres tall and made of bark, or skin? Slightly higher structures grew behind it. Grey stem-like things reached up from their corners, toward the sky, and beyond those taller, enclosed…boxes?…stood. Beyond those were even taller boxes. Verdan wondered if she should be afraid. Fear was not something she was accustomed to. She’d known it a few times as a child.
She felt the welling up within her, like a geyser erupting in the marsh. Not now, not here! Her toes gripped into the spongy mud. Her toenails grew suddenly, clenching her position. The bones of her legs shot down through her heels.
‘Oh no,’ she said, turning back to look at the Fiddling. She waved to her sisters. They were far away. She glanced at the other Beba trees. They were nearer.
She brought her head back around, to keep watch on the wall, just as her spine froze into a twist. The skin on her body hardened, yet her torso and appendages engorged slightly as her new roots sucked up water. She closed her eyes as her skin turned green and she grew to twice her height. Her trunk and branches changed to brown as tiny leaves unfurled from her fingers.
Her children were to be born here, on the brink of civilisation.