Chapter 13:

Fern of the Forest

City of Flowers

Days blur into one another like spilled paint. Iris spends most of her time staring out of the Wagon and whispering to the Blumen in her arm—most of the time, it does not respond, but even in his silence she can feel his influence. Even as the broken landscape rolls past, even as the sun sets and the moon slips out from the horizon, he festers like an infection.

She touches a leaf where her fingers used to be, and she swears her arm—the Blumen’s arm—tingles where her finger leaves her skin. No, not her skin. She shakes her head. Her skin is a dark peach, and it shines under the midday sun. But nowadays, she's not so sure.

During the day, she keeps the Blumen hidden under her cloak, but occasionally, he yearns for sunlight. Craves for it like predator to prey. When she goes to lean her arm against the windowsill, sometimes, she catches her companions' wary glances in the reflection.

Even an arm of Blumen is considered strange by Tongue means. Iris tries not to think of her eventual return to civilisation. She imagines Georgie in her mauve patchwork seat, glancing every so often at a screen as she types away at her assignments, trying her best to ignore the world around her and the loss of her best friend. Her mother—standing at the sink and gazing out of the window, sobbing at whatever story she has been fed by the news outlets.

You're not going back, Iris. The Blumen says. Not ever.

Iris does not answer. It doesn’t seem fit to answer, not just yet.

One day, when the sun is mired in rain-laden clouds and the air tastes like rain, the wagon stops moving—Koal tries their damndest to get it to move again, tugging at multiple levers multiple times but as the engine gives one last earth-shattering crunch, all of their efforts are in vain.

“Shit.” They turn to Petri. “Maintenance time, poetess.”

“Gotcha.” Petri snaps the band of her goggles around her forehead. “And please, don’t call me that."

She slams the wagon doors open and steps outside. For a moment, all Iris can hear is the gentle squeak-squeak of the doors swinging on their hinges, and the rhythmic sound of metal tapping against metal.

Koal slides a mug of tea over the mat towards Iris. She observes it; there is no steam, so it must be cold; the liquid is crystal clear, so it must be lacking in flavour. Still she thanks the Koal for the tea. She gulps it down greedily, as if she is drinking water instead.

The Blumen arm shudders. On the third sip, it says, They're dead, Iris. Left to dry—fuck, like swatted flies.

A second passes before she realises that he is referring to the leaves in the tea. Something sour plays at her throat, but she keeps the urge to vomit down. For now.

"You good?" asks Koal.

"I'm alright," Iris says, but her stomach is still swirling, and she ends up excusing herself to go outside anyway. With her real hand braced against the side of the wagon, she heaves until she is coughing out air.

When she is done, she asks wearily, "Is this how it's going to be now?"

I… For once, he is at a loss for words. I'm sorry.

Iris says nothing as she picks herself back up. And if Petri had heard Iris, she makes no indication of it—she has her head dipped into the engine, and every so often she swears and kicks the wagon's outer shell and then immediately resumes tinkering with its innards.

Koal does, however.

“You’re not fine, that much is obvious,” they say, crossing their arms.

“I get motion sick on long rides,” Iris lies, sitting back onto the mat. She tucks her Blumen arm underneath her cloak again, as if she is pretending that he does not exist.

Koal doesn’t push the subject. Instead, they gesture to the windows, to the world beyond. “We’re getting closer to Fern. Look outside. You can see her influence even here.”

Iris does—she sees the same old landscape, same white-slab ruins and dark, crumbly roads. But there is something different, something that lingers in the cracks and clings to the buildings that still stand. In a twinge of emotion, the Blumen recognises it before she does.

Ivy. Moss. Verdant and glossy and soft.

She turns back to Koal. “What is this?”

I should’ve made you ask this earlier, says the Blumen.

The pot on the stove boils. Koal reaches up to lift the lid; when they do, steam pours up and over the sides. “Never looked properly at the outskirts, I take it?”

“I’ve… never seen anything like this.” She knows next to nothing about the outskirts, only that to wander here is dangerous somehow. But now that she is properly looking, everything that she sees is extraordinary—a puddle of moss dripping over cracked roads, plants that climb the walls like marching ants. Tiny discs of fungi edge along forgotten pathways; mould splatters like paint against the concrete.

Nature reclaims. Scars fade.

“It’s the stuff of poetry,” Koal says. When Iris doesn’t answer, they continue, “It’s a mystery, isn’t it? The more conspiratorial Tongues say there’s a reason why the corporations don’t like us coming to the outskirts—there’s something they’re trying to hide, or something they’ve been told to hide. The truly insane claim that it’s aliens, or the remnants of a vengeful god.” They laugh. “Our people can be fanatical sometimes.”

Iris fights a smile. “Only sometimes?”

Another laugh. “But you have to admit; all of this flora, all of this—” They gesture to the ruins. “—this destruction that nobody knows about. Some of the Tongues say that, if you listen closely during the night, you can hear the plants grow. All of this destruction, this history, and no one has an explanation for it. It’s scary.”

It's very scary. Most of the buildings—concrete behemoths Iris thought would stand the test of time—have crumbled into the ground, reduced to dust and sand. And yet she continues to look. "Who is Fern? How'd she cause all of this?"

"The Queen. The one who watches over the Tongues." Koal sits back down. "She works miracles as easily as we breathe. I've seen her stitch up wounds in an instant, change someone's face to the point where they're unrecognisable. And she's a gentle ruler—I've never heard of Fern attacking anyone. But none of us have seen her face, let alone the rest of her body. No one knows what she looks like because she's always speaking behind a screen. But we do trust her."

“Where’d she come from? Did she pop out of nowhere, just like that?”

Koal shrugs. “The other Tongues make up a new story for her all the time. They say she used to teach the humanities as an esteemed professor before… You know what happened. Others say she worked in corpo hell, until she turned a civil debate into a debacle by causing roots to erupt into the theatre.”

Iris watches the leaves in her tea bob around; they look like dead bodies in a pool of water. “And what’s your working theory?”

“It’s not my place to pry,” they say. “Someone’s past should stay in the past.”

The wagon rumbles, then splutters, then rattles back into life. Petri shouts from outside, "She's up, Koal!"

Koal stands, but instead of heading towards the driver's seat they take the pot off the stove and pour the water into a mug. "Here," they say as they hand the mug over to Iris.

"I've got water already." Iris lifts the cup of tea. Her stomach churns at the thought of drinking it again, but she swallows thickly and keeps the bile down. Anything to maintain the masquerade of normalcy.

But Koal places the mug next to her anyway and returns to the driver's seat. Later, when they've passed several kilometres already, she downs the water in one grateful gulp.