By Elijah Lake
The wedding invitation smelled of lilly pillies and surprise. The creamy page was laden with floral illustrations and reasons to be proud, but truly, I was ashamed.
My sister had signed the invitation with simple hope:
You need not come, but you’re my brother, and this is a big moment for me. I’d like for us to share it, like we used to joke about, only real, and important, and full of cake and merriment but really the cake (strawberry and bitter chocolate, which I know you love.) So please, come. We can talk, or we can go without bumping gazes. Seeing the back of your head would be enough, I just want you to make it.
A heavy sigh fled my lips.
Skies above, not a damn chance. And only three weeks warning? Did she think her marriage more important than my work? My livelihood?
I clenched the thick paper, in two minds of whether or not I wanted to scrunch it up.
It seemed too fine of an invitation to trash so carelessly. Real effort had gone into crafting it. I grinned, eyeing the familiar style of the illustrations. She had never thanked me for all those hours I had spent teaching her.
Not truthfully, at least.
I let the invitation fall to my desk amongst a dozen unfinished drawings. The unoriginality of her style was plain. Mine were better. Of course mine were better. She hadn’t the dedication, the desire, the raw talent to make it work like I had. To move away, to live — no, to thrive off of my work.
Like she never could.
So of course she’d get married instead. I snorted.
Yet my gaze lingered on her soft shading of the moth orchid, the fine detail of the wattle. Quite familiar. Too familiar, maybe.
I stole away to my bookshelf and drew out a dragonleather fold-up. I rifled through the vast sheets it protected, pausing only to examine some of my older pieces — they were good, of course. Almost excellent. Maybe if I tried them again …
I drew out the two pages I was looking for, a study on moth orchids and a piece with a number of wattle flowers, and chuckled as I measured them beside the invitation. But as I scanned the drawings, a frown darkened my face.
My ears burned.
They weren’t that similar.
The angles, the lines, the forms were all close; but she’d drawn the same types of flowers, of course they would be.
I shuffled the pages back into the fold-up, feeling a little childish. The tawny leather was old and worn. It had been a gift, decades ago, a place to store my earliest drawings.
It had been her idea. She’d urged mother to buy it for me. She had been thoughtful, once.
I glared at the invitation.
(strawberry and bitter chocolate, which I know you love.)
Perhaps I’d been a bit unfair.
I stuffed away the fold-up and fell into my chair with a tired creak. As I picked up the invitation again, a dozen memories floated through my head. She had always said that she wanted to be married in spring, and here it was, years later: a wish given form.
And where was I in comparison? Alone, but supporting myself just fine … so long as I got paid for my work, which often happened. Often enough to live on.
Maybe I owed it to her. We hadn’t spoken in years, not since mum passed. And even before then, after I had moved, anything more than a letter between us a year wasn’t common. She could be difficult to talk to. She wasn’t particularly humble.
I grimaced. That ran in the family.
It wasn’t healthy to hold onto these emotions. She was my sister, and no matter her faults, I loved her. She deserved an excellent wedding, and if that included me, then I had to be there. So I would be, no matter the cost.
I reached for my coin purse, as sad and deflated as it was. There was no chance I could afford a flight by dragonback, or wagon. Maybe a horse? Although, it was only a four day hike to Watterston — scarcely an hour’s walk from where we were born.
I counted my coins, clink after depressing clink. Four golden and twenty-two silver mel. That’d only cover supplies for two days of travel, which was doable. I’d be a very poor observer of nature if I couldn’t live off of a trail for a few days, but the road to Watterston swerved as far from nature as it could, hook-turning to give the Egleein Rainforest wide berth. I could cut through it, which would be safer on the food resources, but the dense rainforest was notoriously difficult to traverse. It was riddled with chaotic paths that came to abrupt ends, making it almost impossible to navigate.
Skirting around the outside of it wasn’t much of an option, either. Tall grass rose right up to the treeline, which probably sheltered snakes I had no intention of stepping on. If I wanted to rob the rainforest for sustenance, I’d need to go far deeper.
And then there was the matter of the rumours. The rainforest was too small to house a stable population of dragons, but beasts often came to lay their clutch. Months ago, a gravid beast had supposedly nested within the rainforest, which added a precarious note to an already desperate plan.
With a despairing sigh, I raised my gaze to the plethora of unfinished work sprawled across my desk. I could demand advances for more art supplies. Paint wasn’t cheap, and a few of my employers were fool enough to fall for it, at the cost of me never being asked to work again.
No. I’d already done enough to damage my reputation in this town.
There was another option I was trying not to consider: pen a letter to apologise for missing the wedding lest I receive a response with enough mel to charter a rider to fly me. Something that’d completely sour the moment. My sister thought me greedy enough as is.
If I was going to attend this wedding, which I undoubtedly was, then I would do it in a way that might mend some of the issues between my sister and I, not drive us further apart.
An hour ago I had been checking my mail, procrastinating in the face of all this work in front of me, and now I planned on skipping off for almost a month. Maybe this was a sign that I could do something right for myself. Try find work in Watterston and move closer to family, to stop being so distant and to resolve some issues. Weddings were often seen as new beginnings, weren’t they?
Or was that divorce?
Regardless, it could be a new start for me. I missed having someone to talk to. Someone to joke with. Someone I could teach, who could look up to me. Loneliness wasn’t a permanent state of being. I snatched my sad coin purse from my desk and threw myself from my chair.
With good luck in the market, I could push it to three days of rations and starve myself into Watterston. Any excuse for cheery social contact.
They didn’t call us ‘starving artists’ for no reason.
The market lay on the far end of town, under a blanket of mid-spring humidity. Sweat ran down my back as I sauntered into the middling square. With sunset only an hour away, few others milled about each stall. I did my usual round, haggling down every bruised and blemished fruit I could find to the worth of a pittance’s spittle. Maybe it was because of the sticky heat, but the hawkers didn’t have much pity left for a bargain.
My funds didn’t go nearly as far as I had hoped: Half a dozen bruised apples. One split rockmelon. A bag of ten pears that smelled of fish. A new waterskin and bootlaces — things I should’ve bought for myself months ago.
With my last two silver mel in hand, I approached the baker meekly and flashed the coins.
She exhaled long at the sight of me. “Two stale loafs.” She thudded two bricks of bread on her counter and held out her hand.
Usually it was three for two.
I winced as I dropped the coins in her palm. “Why?”
“Old mate’s been whinging about you. Reckons you won’t finish his drawings in time.”
Her cousin thought himself a writer worth having art for his work. I’d read some of his passages as ‘research;’ wouldn’t recommend.
“Ah. I’m actually ahead of schedule.” I flicked her a smile as wide as the lie I’d just told. “And I’ll be making progress over the next few weeks.” The grin on my face burned. These people were exhausting. All they did was talk and chatter. To lie to one was to lie to half the town, and keeping track of so many half-truths and false statements was tiring.
“If you say so,” she said bluntly, and turned away.
I’d remember that, and the two loaves.
As I started my meandering walk home, I passed two men sharing a bouquet of flowers that stopped me dead in my tracks.
Flowers. People brought gifts to weddings.
I squeezed my empty coin purse. Why the fuck had I bought bread instead of a gift?
The Egleein Rainforest was home to dozens of rare flowers, which I could press and preserve. That would do. It was too early for a firewheel, or any of the other summer plants to bloom, but if she wanted better gifts then she should’ve given her guests more time.
Maybe she had. Maybe I was a late invite.
Or maybe she was just as disorganised as ever.
Either way, a pressing of every flower I came across in the Egleein would be a fine gift, no matter what she actually deserved or expected from me.
I snorted. I was doing it again.
I would surprise her. That’s what this was all for. Her distant brother at her wedding, with a bookful of flowers. Rare flowers that grew in a forest considered by most to be dangerous.
That’d go well. She’d love that.
Though hunger lurked in my belly and malcontent stalked my mind, I wore a smile as I downed my crumbs and packed for the morrow. It was coming up to eight years since I’d seen her. I had no idea who her partner even was. I hoped I got along well with them, and truly, I would try to. Staying absent from family for so long was a mistake; all the issues that lay between us were petty compared to the weight of isolation I carried about with me everywhere.
I eyed the invitation once more before I put myself to bed. My sister had a way with colours and shading that made me envious. From the moment I saw it, I was gobsmacked. I’d taught her all of that, and I’d see her again soon.
That thought kissed my dreams, and I awoke with vigour I’d not felt for years. A four day hike was all that divided us. I double-checked my bag, my boots, my knives, my fruit, but not my bread. Fuck my bread, and fuck the baker who’d baked it.
It felt good to walk the streets and leave the worn cobbles of home behind. The sun was still rising as I approached the outskirts of the town. Dry and drab countryside spilled out over hills and craggy terrain, disparately spotted with farms and old gum trees.
I cut up one of the fishy pears and gnawed on a loaf of stale bread while I walked. It did little to curb my hunger, but plenty to hone my anger. Stale or fresh, that baker’s bread always tasted of roach eggs, a flavour I wasn’t even aware of until I’d tried their goods. Yet I kept coming back, because it was the best I could afford.
Maybe my sister and I could try another business. The last one had done alright, for a time at least — a few months of decent living.
That was until —
It had been her fault. She had lost her temper. I had lost my clients. We had lost our business.
And yet, somehow, I was told it was my fault, and left saddled with the debt.
So I packed my bags and left, to do it all over again by myself. The right way. And all things considered, I was doing alright, wasn’t I?
I wasn’t the one getting married. I could still stare success in the eyes.
With darkness came dampness and discomfort. The cool chill of night soaked through my clothes and nipped at my skin. There would be no hot meal tonight. All I’d brought to pad myself with was a small picnic blanket — more of a mat, really. A small rectangle of coarse and scratchy cloth, which I bundled around myself and itched at constantly.
I stopped in a grimy gully filled with ants that marched in rivulets of black through the dull night. The cold clay only further sapped the waning heat from my bones, because a picnic blanket was not a proper bedroll. But it was the only cover outside of the Egleein, which sat silhouetted and silent on the other side.
Hunger gnawed away my discipline. The fruit had to last, but it’d been hours since lunch and I was close to collapsing. The sweet aroma of rockmelon spilled from my bag as I untied the knot.
My breath caught. I leapt to my feet, holding my bag and melon high, expecting the ants to react to its scent. But they carried on towards the Egleein as if they hadn’t sensed it.
I crawled out of the gully and ate my way through the rockmelon. Its flesh was warm and mushy, and its juices as thin and flavourless as water. I watched the stream of ants flow until the cover of darkness hid them.
I roused at dawn in a dour mood, fully expecting to find my bag riddled with ants, but they’d ignored it — and I’d slept through without being bitten. Under the rising sun, I could hardly believe how many there were, how many thousands must’ve passed in the hours I’d slept.
A gaggle of scrubfowls pecked along the dry grass on the other side of the gully at possibly the easiest meal they’d ever had. Runnels of ants as thick as ink hurried on, making little attempt to avoid the birds.
I sighed. Was I above eating ants? I was certainly above starving to death, but I’d need a lot of desperation to join the scrubfowl at their buffet. I drew out a powdery apple and a fishy pear for my breakfast, and followed the ants towards the Egleein.
Dense grass encircled the edge of the rainforest, and there were only two ways I knew to pass through it without risking snakes. One involved a stick and prodding every potential footfall, and the other involved running like a dragon was on your heels, making so much noise that any snakes hidden in the grass would fuck off without trying something.
And without a stick, I knew what I was doing.
The tall grass was dry, prickly and full of terror. Could snakes hear? But now wasn’t the time for such nightmarish questions. I belted out the harshest noise I could muster and sprinted forth on wings of fear.
My heart thundered through my head. Fuck snakes.
My lungs burned for air as I held my breath. Fuck snakes.
My foot struck something rounded and soft. Fuck. Snakes.
I shouted as I overbalanced and scrambled back to my feet, spinning with a jump, fully expecting to see some brown-bellied bastard rearing up to nip my shin.
Well, it was certainly brown.
A rotting branch lay innocently in the trampled path, part of it crushed under my heel.
With a heavy exhale, I turned and strode boldly though the grass. “Piece of shit,” I muttered under my breath, ears aflame with self-loathing.
There were no snakes in the grass. Or at least, none along my path. The air was a little cooler under the canopy, more than the shadows alone could account for. I drew a deep breath and marvelled at its damp, earthy tones. It was good to get out of the town. This scent was my youth in the bush; I could name every tree in sight. Skies, I’d drawn every type of tree in sight.
The trees had more to tell than most knew — that beech, for example, meant that water was close. And sure enough, a sudden drop in elevation revealed an eroded patch of sandstone leaking a dribble of water. I followed its flow between black apple trees as tall as ten men and towards a creek that echoed the laughter of a kookaburra.
Perched on a high branch, the kookaburra sat with ruffled feathers and preened itself for me. Smiling, I watched it ‘til it jumped into the air and soared for the edge of the rainforest with another peal of laughter. It was only mid-morning, and I could’ve stopped for the day. The creek split the trees enough to allow stronger sunlight down to warm the rocks around it. I lazed there for the better part of an hour, sketching the kookaburra in flight, embellishing the details on its feathers as much as I dared.
It gave life to the journal I’d brought to press flowers in. My sister wasn’t so much a fan of birds as I, but the moment was too pure not to preserve in graphite.
As I gathered my belongings and refilled my waterskin, I noticed a trail of ants crossing the creek on a fallen branch. Curiously, I followed the trail back — they’d come from further south. I found it difficult to believe they were following the same trail as the others, but the alternative was just as bizarre; there were more colonies on the move. I crossed the branch and followed them further down the creek’s shore. They marched vaguely in the same direction as me, and since I needed to find food and flowers, I allowed myself to follow their trail.
I’d never seen anything like it. My sister might know. She loved insects, which might be why she hated birds. But for some reason, she never drew them. In fact, she tended to drew birds and plants, like me. Because she hadn’t an original bone in her body.
I scoffed, and dusk fell.
I froze midstep, suddenly aware of the aches in my body. It had been morning barely moments ago. I scrambled for my bag, heart racing as I glanced about the dense trees. My shoes were sodden with mud, the legs of my pants damp and torn on one side, with filthy skids up to the knee like I’d fallen. My palms were brown with dirt.
And my memory was barren.
It had been morning, and now darkness descended from the canopy. I spun around the way I’d come. Only the ants were there, marching ever onward in an unbroken line. With shaky hands, I drew my waterskin and fumbled it to my lips, bursting into tears as it spilt down my chin.
My day had been defiled. Robbed. I raced through a dozen breaths, trying to orient myself, but everything around me was foreign and dark with dusk’s shadows. I had no compass.
Skies. I did have the ants. I gulped alternating breaths of air and water and let myself sob until I was steady enough to move. I sprinted against the flow of ants, crushing hundreds in my stride as I ran, and I did not stop running until nausea claimed me. I fell against the trunk of a tree, panting and pleading to myself to calm down, but senseless thoughts continued to swirl and swarm my mind — like ants. I dropped to the dirt and howled to the tune of swelling mania.
I don’t know how long I lay dazed, but a three-quart moon shone bright through a hole in the canopy.
I don’t know how long the sharp eyes watched me from a higher branch.
Its silhouette drew tight as it pitched from the branch, then splayed like a bat in flight. It scraped against the roots beside me, sniffing and snorting as it scratched the bark closer and closer to my head. Something cold and firm tapped my cheek — then warm and wet, and I leapt with a start. My body woke, but distantly so, as if it refused to obey.
Fear spewed fire through my head as I saw the body of the serpent. I stifled a scream as it reared up, parting its four wings with a hiss and raising claws.
We stood there in a silent standoff until it finally lowered itself to the ground. My fists fell like dead weights to my sides, and that unvoiced scream fled my lungs as a desperate sigh.
“Please,” I begged.
The beast leapt for my bag, discarded on the ground between us, and dragged it off into the impenetrable night.
“Stop …” I started after it, but my shoes were heavy on my feet and my limbs were sluggish. The sounds of disturbed leaves whispered away into the dark.
And there, alone again, I fell to my knees and sobbed once more.
Millions of footsteps tickled up my thigh; my back; down my neck. I’d fallen asleep across the path of ants, where they’d continued to cross without a care. As I staggered to my feet, the ants turned on my flesh in a stinging frenzy that only subsided as I shook them free of my clothes. They hit the earth and scrambled back in line, marching on as though nothing had changed.
A loose thought gusted about my barren head: I have to go through the rainforest.
On, through the rainforest.
I stepped alongside the ants, marching wearily with them as though my sinew was twine. I became aware of a dull tingle on my cheek, which quickly spread down my chest and to my fingers and toes. It buzzed and burned until a fire raged within my own flesh. It scorched through my veins and bones. My heart ached to a laboured beat as a wrongness grew within it. For hours the sensation festered, and powerless to stop it, I marched alongside the ants. Closer. Closer to — something. I knew not what.
The fiery tingles faded to steady pinpricks that sent my mind reeling, and in those moments of lucidity, I knew that I was going to die. That my body walked on of its own accord and starved, dehydrated and exhausted. That I shouldn’t have been able to continue.
The pinpricks finally stopped, and truly, I was lost. I could watch and little else, trapped behind my own eyes. The countless hours of untold days and nights passed, step by step.
Until at last we reached our destination.
The floor of the glade was black with ants — the leaves were black with ants, some scurrying into place among the branches, others still and rusting as fruiting bodies jutted from their backs and polluted the air with the damp and deadly stink of spores. My body started towards the nearest tree, then froze and collapsed as exhaustion sledged my skull. But it wasn’t long before I scrambled to my feet again on a sudden spike of adrenalin, my heart thumping as I swayed.
The most beautiful creature I’d ever seen lay splayed across a stone in the middle of the glade. Her scales flowed through a series of rusted tones, and she had a dark complexion that made her difficult to focus on. And her wings, skies, her wings trailed down her back in countless clefts of thin tissue folded neatly against her spine. She lifted her chin to regard me, the motion emphasised by a puff of spores from between her scales. Her whelps lay in a tired heap against her neck — and amongst the pile, my bag lay in tatters. Nary an apple core remained.
The dragon cooed softly, unthreatened.
I cooed back, the sound pulled from my throat against my will. I glanced down at my arms, now spotted with the same black and brown that possessed the ants amongst the trees. My hand raised itself to my lips. I winced as I bit deep enough to draw blood. I started to move closer, blood trickling from my fingers. Every fibre of my being rebelled against the forces that moved me, but to no avail.
I offered my bloody fingers to the beast, its snout an odd mix of serpent and echidna, as a long tongue snaked its way up my hand. The dragon purred to itself.
Its jaws widened, rows of flat teeth bared as its tongue constricted and tugged me into its mouth. Though my body refused to answer, I rallied against it in my head, begging, pleading for it to stop. I wasn’t going to die as mush in a dragon’s belly. I was far, far better than that! It had to stop. It needed to stop.
And mercifully, it did.
She spat me free, and stared deep into my eyes.
Still my body didn’t move. How could I stop her from eating me? Why wouldn’t she want to eat me? That single thought bubbled over and over through my mind, deafening and insidious: why, why, why, why, why, why, why, why, why, why, WHY?
And through the cacophony, I knew the thought wasn’t my own. She controlled my body; she controlled my mind. I didn’t want to die like this. I’d give anything — anything.
Why shouldn’t she eat me?
Because I could get her more. Because eating me now would be a waste. Because she has children to feed, children to feed for long months before they’re old enough to look after themselves. Because ants aren’t enough.
And now she has me, an agent of her pestilence. A new arm to spread her spores beyond the Egleein, to infest entire towns like those colonies of ants. To welcome her new bloom, her fungal kingdom.
Her gaze softened, and she lapped at a final drop of my blood running between the scales of her chin.
Agency crept back into my limbs. I clenched a fist. I panted; I cried. I turned.
Rivers of ants dodged my footfalls as my mind melded with theirs. I was suddenly one small part of a collective whose heart nestled in the glade behind me. I would do my best. I would make her proud. Nobody else could serve her like I could. Only me.
The sporemother had given me life. I had been nothing before this, alone and miserable. Purposeless.
The park was strewn with moth orchids, great bouquets of pink, purple and white, complemented by clusters of golden wattle that glowed like puffs of sunshine. I had purpose here. I shambled on, grim and groaning as my wasting body struggled under my own weight. A layer of filth covered me head to toe, all rusted and mouldered like the ants in the glade.
I’d survived the Egleein.
A soft trail followed me, darkening the grass with every step.
I’d made it to the wedding.
With every step I jerked, and brown fluids seeped from my fungus-covered flesh.
The sporemother would be so pleased.
White ribbon snaked around the backs of white chairs, arranged in two banks with an aisle through the middle. Thick paper covered the grass, adoringly decorated with small drawings of flora and fauna.
A scream sparked terror through the dozens of guests.
I admired each illustration I stepped over: a wallaby, a bee, a bottlebrush, an ant.
Chairs spilled and emptied as the screams scattered to the wind.
I raised my arms, and a cloud of spores gusted off in that same wind, chasing all who’d left.
“Jamie?” My sister gasped from the stage. “Jamie, what are you doing?”
With arms still raised, I staggered and lurched closer.
“Is he alright?” another woman asked.
Apotheosis tickled my head; the sporemother watched from within. She was glad. I was glad. A blackened smile split my face, though it pained me so.
“Someone get a doctor!” My sister leapt from the stage, her frilly dress bunched and bundled in her fists. “Jamie!” She reached for me.
I grabbed her arm and fell into her. Brown and red smears painted her dress, and hideous laughter welled within me.
I’d made it. And I’d brought the grandest gift of all, far better than pressed flowers: