This is a sneak peek of the first chapter of my new novel Wild Flowers, Electric Beasts. The book cover below includes alt-text.
Balika wasn’t sure when she’d lost track of the rest of the group. She’d been too focused on her search. A flutter in her stomach had accompanied her since they’d set off early that morning. For the first time, she shared her tribe’s enthusiasm for the upcoming ceremony. Sailiya was about to give birth, and she was ready to welcome the new member of the tribe as her own family. A soft smile touched her lips, and warmth spread in her chest. She took a deep breath, inhaling the rich scent of the soil mixed with the sweet aroma of blooming flowers.
She was scanning the forest almost mindlessly, when something in the back of her mind called for her attention. Balika paused and shifted her gaze back, studying the trees more closely. A prickle in her stomach nearly made her jump. There it was!
In the distance, almost lost among the endless variety of plant life, a tree stood out. Balika rushed to it, every footfall filling her with more excitement. The tree looked like it was dancing. The trunk bent like a ribbon, branches knotted and entangled, the edges of its long, blue leaves glowing gently with silver. The constant swaying and movement of its every part was barely perceptible, but Balika could feel the heat of energy within. Sure enough, pale, iridescent caps of Tatama mushrooms were growing all over the trunk. Balika grinned.
She took her knife out of the sheath attached to her waist and sliced her palm, letting her blood drip onto the biggest cap. Closing her eyes and pressing her other hand still holding the knife to her stomach, Balika whispered, “Take the sacrifice of my blood, sacred Tatama. Let it feed your spirit and your body, so that you can grow in strength, share your wisdom, and guard this land. Take a bit of me and allow me to take a bit of you for the benefit of my tribe, for the benefit of Sailiya.” Feeling her whole body tingle, she opened her eyes.
Her crimson blood swirled within the mushroom cap, which was now pulsing with vivid blue light. It had accepted the sacrifice and Balika exhaled, relieved and growing excited. She touched the cap that was ingesting her blood, pressing her wound to the mushroom so that it could guide her. She took two deep breaths and let go of it.
Within minutes, her perception expanded to include that which was normally invisible. Tatama was showing her the energy of her blood spreading inside the symbiotic body of the tree and the mycelium, flowing into the soil, where the mushroom reigned. The forest around her was breathing, talking, supporting and fighting, struggling and thriving. Everything was connected with shimmering threads, and so was she. A deep sense of relaxation and happiness enfolded Balika.
She inspected the mushroom caps again, noticing seven that were glowing a bit brighter, as if highlighted by Tatama for her. She counted them all the same, making sure she wouldn’t take more than half the total amount. Seven were enough to brew the ceremonial drink for the entire tribe, and it was rare that Tatama would allow anyone to take that many from one tree. Feeling as if the mushroom was smiling at her happiness and encouraging her, Balika whispered her thanks and cut the caps, placing them into her pouch.
She whistled the signal and sat down with her back to the tree, waiting for the rest of the group to find her. She stretched her tired legs and wiggled her toes. A yellow spot that seemed shiny against the dark brown of her foot caught her attention. Tatama always made her spots stand out, and she glanced at the ones on her hip and stomach. Balika could feel two more on her back and one around her right eye as if they were slightly hotter than the rest of her body. Her right iris was yellow too, unlike her other brown eye. There was no one else like her, and her spots usually made her feel even more like an outsider. Not today, though. Now, under the influence of Tatama, she could see their beauty. It was a pity the effect wouldn’t last.
Balika smiled to herself and took the cone she’d gotten from Sailiya out of her pouch. Shika cones were usually dark orange, but this one was brown with yellow spots, just like Balika’s skin.
“Look what I found. Reminds me of you — just as beautiful and unique,” Sailiya had said with a smile.
Balika squeezed the cone in her hand. She couldn’t wait to hug the woman she loved and welcome her child into the world.
As always, Tatama was showing her the beauty of the world. All the colours seemed deeper and brighter, and she laughed, taking them in. The blue of the leaves above her, the purple of the sky between the dancing branches, the green of the grass all around with orange, pink and white flowers breaking through. The midnight black of a strand of hair that escaped her lose braid and was tickling her cheek, the warm yellow of the sun glistening in the sweat on her body. The blue and white and green and red of the short animal skin straps attached to the yellow belt wrapped around her waist, creating a skirt. All the colours mixed and danced and filled her with glee. Love for the world saturated her heart. She tucked the strand behind her ear and kissed the cone before hiding it in her pouch.
Moosa was the first one to arrive. Her slender body was glistening with sweat, too, but otherwise she didn’t look tired, emanating her usual youthful vitality that, under the influence of Tatama, looked to Balika like she made colourful ripples in the air as she moved. She gave Balika half a smile and touched the tree to greet Tatama, whispering her gratitude. Then, she turned to Balika again.
“Hey. How many have you got?” “Seven.” Balika opened her pouch, showing the mushrooms to her. Moosa’s eyebrows shot up. “Unbelievable! From one tree?” Her surprise was palpable. Of course, she hadn’t expected Tatama to gift such a generous offering to Balika. Balika exhaled, releasing the tension. “I got lucky.” “Well, it’s great news! We can go back home. The shamans will be happy.” Moosa lay down on her back and popped a blade of sweet grass into her mouth.
One by one, the others emerged, and the same story repeated, making Balika feel like she was stuck in an endless cycle. They greeted Tatama, asked her about the mushrooms, and she showed them. Chiziko made impressed sounds, Fiosa clicked her tongue, and Riossi gasped. They congratulated her, touched her arms and smiled, and yet Balika felt that none of it was sincere; they didn’t think she deserved to be rewarded by Tatama. She looked at them, momentarily huddled together, as their attention was attracted by something in the grass. Their skin was a lighter shade of brown than hers. Everyone in the Maotto tribe had a similar skin colour, except for her. As if she weren’t already different enough.
Balika felt a familiar knot in her stomach, an acute feeling of not belonging, as if she were separated from them by a slab of rock she could never climb over, but it dissipated as soon as it came. She didn’t care anymore. She had her place now. Sailiya’s love was enough for her to finally feel at home in the tribe. Sailiya, Tatama, and the whole land accepted her as she was. She didn’t need anyone else to understand her. She smiled. Soon, she’d hug the woman she loved, and that was all that mattered.
Whistling a happy tune, Balika led the way back home. The Calm season was coming to an end, and the air was growing warmer and dryer each day. The tender touch of the breeze caressed her skin. Leaves were rustling softly above her head, shifting shadows painting intricate patterns on the ground and her body. Thin, feather-light clouds were swirling in their slow spiral dance high in the purple sky.
They had to make a stop for the night, even though Balika was growing impatient, eager to see Sailiya. They ate some fruit they’d found on the way and settled down on soft moss. Moosa and Chiziko started bickering like they always did. Balika lay on her back with her hands behind her head, gazing into the starry sky. She was awake long after the voices of her companions grew soft and faded into the darkness. She sighed, got up, and put her hand on Fiosa’s shoulder.
“I’ll keep watch. Can’t sleep anyway,” she whispered.
Fiosa nodded and went to lie down next to the others. Her quiet snores followed almost immediately. Balika didn’t like being on the lookout — undefined danger looming in the dark made her uneasy. She hoped that she would get sleepy and wake someone to take over, but her eyelids only started growing heavy right before dawn.
She roused everyone, urging them to get going, and they continued their journey as soon as there was enough light, grumbling. The closer they came, the stronger her anticipation grew.
As they reached the settlement, Balika noticed agitated movement, sharp gestures, and tense bodies. She saw Kaisha — the tribe’s healer — running, shouting hurried instructions to a few people who dashed in different directions, following her orders. Her gaze trailed the path Kaisha was taking, and her heart dropped. In an instant, she felt cold and hollow inside. She rushed after Kaisha, towards Sailiya’s hut, hoping it was someone else, anyone else who needed the healer’s help, but her stomach was a whirlpool of dread.
Sailiya’s scream was like a punch in her gut. Balika stormed into the hut right after Kaisha, ignoring a few other people who were already there, seeing only Sailiya. She was on her hands and knees, naked, shivering, and panting. She wasn’t supposed to give birth yet. Kaisha grabbed a pot and started throwing herbs into it.
“I’m here.” Balika dropped on her knees and touched Sailiya’s back. “I’ve brought Tatama. Starting a bit early, are you?”
The words came out too fast, and the chuckle that followed too high-pitched. Balika scolded herself mentally — she was here to support Sailiya, not distress her. Sailiya gave her a strained smile with her jaw clenched in pain. She was going to say something, but only groaned instead.
“I’m here with you,” Balika repeated. “It’s going to be fine now. You’ll be all right.”
She patted Sailiya’s back and head, hoping that her hand wasn’t trembling too much.
“Balika, I need your help!” Kaisha said, giving her the pot with herbs and water. “Take this and put it over the fire. Stir. When it boils, bring it to me. It’s medicine for Sailiya.”
The intense glimmer in the healer’s black eyes scared Balika. Her wrinkles somehow seemed deeper, and her grey braids were disheveled, with loose hairs sticking out. Even though Kaisha was shorter, Balika always felt small next to the woman.
She took the pot and rushed out of the hut. Someone had already started a fire and prepared the poles to fix over it. Another member of the tribe brought a wooden spoon and immediately hurried away. She took it mindlessly and started stirring. Her hands trembled and she couldn’t see anything but the hard toto nutshell of the pot and the herbs floating in it. It felt as if she was stirring her stomach, and the thoughts that were making her dizzy.
She could hear people entering and exiting the hut, running, and talking in sharp, loud voices. Every time Sailiya screamed, it felt like a knife stabbing her heart, but she kept stirring. She needed to help. Why was it taking so long? Couldn’t the water boil faster? She longed to be with Sailiya.
When circles appeared in the water, Balika thought that it was finally boiling, but it was rain. Lightning sliced the heavy sky in half, followed by a roar of thunder that made her flinch. Rain was rare during the Calm season, but when it came, it was a downpour. It soaked her in mere moments and was already putting the fire out.
“No, no, no!”
Balika couldn’t let it go out, so she grabbed the pot and a still-burning log and ran to the communal fire pit on the other side of the settlement. There was a space protected by a roof made of vines, branches, bark, and leaves. She was hoping someone would be cooking there. The log was burning her hand, but she refused to drop it — she might need it to start a fire. She felt in her whole being that every moment counted. She clenched her teeth and sped up. No one was at the pit. She dropped her log; it didn’t have much time left. She fixed the pot over it, anyway, and rushed to the pile of wood gathered by her tribe.
Balika bit her lip when she realised that everything was soaked. The roof was leaking over the pile — an old leaf had been torn away by the wind. Her stomach was churning, and tears were stinging her eyes. She couldn’t give up.
She clenched her teeth and grabbed the wood, but when she brought it to the pit, her log wasn’t burning anymore. Her right hand hurt, and her left one was numb. It took her longer than usual to put everything in order, and her hands wouldn’t listen when she tried to get a spark. The spindle fell out of her useless palms.
She tried again and again, but it didn’t work. She looked around. Why was no one there to help? Of course, they were probably either hiding from the rain in their huts or helping Kaisha. Balika fumbled with the spindle, like a child doing it for the first time. Her breath was ragged, and her vision blurry with tears. Her right hand felt raw, shooting sharp pain through her forearm, but she couldn’t stop. She was shivering, and the straps of her skirt were cold against her thighs.
“Come on, please!” she shouted into the damp air.
Finally, smoke rose from the nest. Balika cheered, but it was gone in a moment — the wood was too wet.
“No, no, no!” Balika threw the spindle and rammed her fists into the soil, allowing a sob to escape her lips. What was she doing? She didn’t have time for this! She wiped the tears with the back of her hand, picked up the spindle and started rolling it even more vigorously, ignoring the pain. It didn’t matter — nothing mattered except starting this fire. She heard someone behind her back.
“Come help me, I can’t start a fire!” she pleaded, turning. She saw Ramee standing there, water dripping off him, long strands of dark hair plastered to the sides of his face. Lightning split the sky behind his back, followed by a blast of thunder that made both of them flinch. Ramee’s lips were tight and there was something in his eyes she wasn’t used to seeing. He looked away and down. Balika’s heart dropped.
Featured image by Yuri_B.