Foxglove and Snakeroot
When Liwa closed her eyes, she dreamed of where the sky met the sea.
The reflection of the full moon in the deep blue of the water glittered as she dipped her toes into the waves lapping at the shore. The faint scent of pine in the air was overridden by the taste of saltwater that lingered on her tongue. Conches lay scattered at her feet, and she lifted one to her ear and closed her eyes to listen to the calming melody of the sea.
Like the rise and fall of her chest as she breathed, the ocean waves rose and dipped over the horizon. Standing here over the edge of the world was oddly nostalgic, as if she’d been here before. But such was the nature of dreams, like deja vu in a place she’d never been before.
In a past life, perhaps this had been the red fox’s home.
She took another step into the ocean, letting herself sink into the water as if she’d done this before. The vibrant light of the moon shone silver against the orange strands of her hair and lit up her eyes, and all she could think of in that moment was that even though a fox could not swim, the ocean could help her stay afloat.
Final year of undergrad was tough, but that meant Liwa was graduating soon as long as she managed to pass calculus. She had Professor Liu again this year much to her horror and chagrin, but she’d managed to get herself a tutor for this semester because she wasn’t about to risk barely passing now when she was so close to the end.
If she had friends or even acquaintances in her program, she might’ve done a little better in school. But all her life, she’d never been social enough to get close to people. All she did was pick fights, and now she was reaping the consequences of her behaviour. How she got through four years of university without trying to get to know anyone was a mystery to her mother, but at least she could say she tried.
Last month at least, there was a person with seafoam blue hair that reminded her of someone—maybe a classmate from elementary school? But he had the nerve to scowl at her when she passed and so her smile faltered.
“Hey Qin, why’s that girl looking at you?” one of his friends had asked.
“Dunno,” the boy had muttered, stalking past like he didn’t want to look at her.
How rude! But Liwa was a changed person, so she did not beat him up just because she didn’t like what he said. Other than him, people just generally did not make eye contact with her—not for any particular reason other than just average indifference. The campus was wide, the student population was large, and if one were to find a friend in this place they would’ve already done so.
Why did it feel so odd to be alone? It wasn’t like she was feeling lonely at all.
Liwa arrived at the address she was given to gaze upon the entrance of a small, out of the way cafe at the edge of campus that she’d never stepped foot in before. Apparently the tutor-to-be majored in economics too, which meant she was doing postgrad or was in the same year as her. Huh, some people had all the luck when it came to smarts and good grades. Liwa couldn’t relate in the least.
As she stepped inside and shrugged off her coat, she saw a girl in a green beanie waving at her. She had long, dark brown hair plaited in a neat braid down her back, and she wore a pair of thick, rectangular glasses. Her clothes seemed casual but fashionable, and made Liwa feel self conscious in a hoodie and sweatpants.
“Hu Liwa, right?” the girl said, waving her over. The table in front of her was already stacked with horribly familiar third year econ textbooks that Liwa thought she’d never have to see again. “My name is Yuna. Zhi Yuna, fourth year economics major.”
“Yes, that’s me,” Liwa replied warily. “I’m also in fourth year.”
Yuna blinked. “Oh. I see. I was thinking you looked kind of familiar. That’s fine—I’d say I know the material well enough to tutor simultaneously. I’ll give it a shot. Here, mind showing me what you’re struggling with the most? You brought your notes, right?”
Liwa pulled out the notes she’d just taken from the last lecture and passed them across the table just as the server walked by to take their orders.
“I’ll have a house special coffee,” Yuna said brightly. “How about you, Liwa? Their signature coffee is quite delightful.”
“Sure, I’ll try one,” Liwa said to the server, who fumbled for a pen to jot their orders down.
As he turned around and was still clearly in earshot, Yuna lowered her voice conspiratorially and said, “Ah, a new hire. He’s pretty cute, too bad I’ve sworn off dating forever…”
The server jumped out of his skin, flustered. He had brown and white patches of hair, pinto-patterned and reminiscent of a horse or a goat. He was probably zodiac, and he suddenly bolted into the back of the cafe at top speed in embarrassment.
“Anyway, let’s take a look at this…oh, I took international economics last semester, the final project sucks. Good luck…”
It wasn’t groundbreaking, but Liwa’s term test marks increased by an average of about five percent across all classes after a month of Yuna’s tutelage. They met at the cafe to celebrate, and Jin, the server, came by with their menus as usual. He scampered off before Yuna could bother him, saying he’d be back with their orders.
“You don’t have any friends either?” Liwa asked Yuna, surprised that she’d ask her of all people to hang out after midterm exams.
“Tsk, what’s that supposed to mean?” Yuna spluttered. “I’m just not a very social person, okay? I dunno, I must’ve had friends in the past, but classes have been eating all my time so I haven’t gotten much of an opportunity to socialize.”
“Past as in your past life, or in your childhood?”
Her gaze seemed to darken, her deep blue eyes like a moonless night. “Don’t ever mention past lives in front of me again.”
“Oh,” Liwa said, swallowing hard. “I won’t.”
Her own past life was basically irrelevant, granting no powers to enhance her daily life anyway. But she could understand if people were touchy about the subject. So instead, she tried to shift the flow of the conversation. “So, are you not going to bother Jin to join us today?”
Yuna seemed to consider it for a moment. “Nah, he got in trouble from the boss last time.”
“That’s because I’m on shift,” came a familiar voice as he brought over their usual drinks. Jin looked scruffier than usual, with rumpled clothes under the black apron and dark bruises under his blue eyes.
“Tsk, your eyebags are getting ridiculous!” Yuna tutted, but she took the coffee from him gratefully. “Did you pull an all-nighter yesterday?”
Jin yawned. “I’ve been taking on extra shifts for the past two weeks.”
“And for what?!”
“My brother is entering college this year,” he said proudly. “I’m trying to scrape together some funds so it’s less of a burden on my parents.”
“What a family-oriented guy,” Yuna mouthed as he walked away.
There was the strangest sense of deja vu, being in this space with the other two like they’d been friends all their lives. Perhaps they’d known each other, in a past life. Their friendship had so naturally formed over the past few weeks like falling into a routine, like something in Liwa’s dreary life clicking into place. They’d only just met and it felt like she’d known them all her life.
“Just so you know,” Yuna said, interrupted her sentimental train of thought, “you’re not off the hook yet just because we’ve got one midterm down. We’re still going to be reviewing Liu’s lecture later tonight.”