Clár Ní Chonghaile, Iris in the Flame Tree

“No babies allowed,” Tamara yelled over her shoulder as she and Emily ran down the path, all windmilling arms and brazen hair, disdainful butterflies darting away in the late-afternoon sun. They were twin suns orbiting each other in a universe they didn’t want anyone else to enter.

Iris stood under the yesterday-today-and-tomorrow bush that marked the border between the garden and the wickedly-whirring forest that sloped down to the sludgy brown river that wound its way from Nairobi’s green-velvet suburbs to its pulsing, pungent slums.

White and purple petals shimmied to the ground on sluggish air currents. It was December and the heat was climbing to its January peak. The air was dry, the earth was parched-packed, the bougainvillea was indecently incandescent.

Iris thought she could go back to the house, sit on the shaded verandah, and read her book but already her feet were moving down the rutted path that wriggled its way through the forest, snaking lower and lower until it came to the banks of the river.

They would not banish her from their whispery, giggly walk. They were only two years older and not even very interesting but she was compelled to follow them. She felt their betrayal as only a 10-year-old can. It gouged her soul.

She moved slowly, like a poacher. Wisps of conversation floated up to her from the river. The girls had stopped and were sitting on the bank. She crept closer, stopping on the final bend. She clambered into a flame tree, wrapping her hands around the trunk. Her fingernails were dirty underneath the cracked, sparkly polish. A frond of feathery leaves brushed her hair. She imagined it was the hand of one of the long-tressed, twist-limbed dryads she sometimes saw hidden in plain view in the tree trunks. She had pointed these figures out to her mother, who had smiled and said: “Oh yes, I think I see it now”. But Iris knew her mother did not really believe in the dryads, she didn’t really believe in the power of the forest.

Iris did. Here in the forest, time became weightless, like men walking on the moon. That’s why she was always late for supper when she had been playing under the trees, picking porcupine spines from inside the stone fairy ring, or daring herself to push sticks deeper into the holes they said were made by giant pythons. She tried to explain to her mother that time was different in the forest. She couldn’t find the right words though. It just sounded like she was making excuses and so she was scolded.

She tuned into the conversation below her. She could just see the girls.

“Why don’t you ask him if he likes you?”

It was my Emily’s voice. Tamara giggled, the sound ringing brash above the forest-fizzle.

“I dunno. I mean, I like him but it’s embarrassing,” Tamara said.

“Do you want me to ask him? I’ll do it discreetly. We don’t have to let anyone else know.”

“You’d do that for me? Really?”

“Of course, silly. You’re my best friend, aren’t you?”

Iris’ heart twanged and her hands tightened around the tree. She felt like crying but that would be silly because she already knew that Tamara was Emily’s best friend. Emily was always saying that Iris was too young to understand what they talked about. She shouldn’t be surprised to hear it again.

What hurt now though was the knowledge that Emily wasn’t saying it to her face just to hurt her. That meant it was truly, really, honestly what she thought.

“You’d do the same for me, wouldn’t you?” Emily asked.

Iris wanted to leap out of the tree and run to Emily to tell her that she would. She, Iris, did understand and she would ask a boy if he liked Emily, and she would do it discreetly, and she would do it better than Tamara ever could.

Because she was her sister.

Something held her back. She did not want to see that look – the furrowed brow and cross-cat eyes that usually greeted her when she broke into Emily’s world uninvited. That would hurt even more. That would put an end to whatever she might tell herself to excuse this heartlessness. If she stayed hidden, if she stayed quiet, she could tell herself later that Emily was just being nice to Tamara. Just telling her what she wanted to hear. It didn’t mean she didn’t love Iris more.

Iris was also reluctant to lose her invisible power. She could see and hear everything from up here and no one knew. It was like being dead but still in the world. A fly-girl high up in a flame tree.

Emily and Tamara rolled from their backs onto their tummies. They picked stray leaves and grass out of each other’s hair. They spent a few minutes trying to kill a mosquito that was attacking Emily’s bronzed, scabbed legs. She always got bitten. Then they got up and ran along the bank towards another path that led back up to the house, past the swing. Their voices floated back to Iris long after they were gone, a melody-echo in the silence that follows the end of a song.

The light faded but Iris was not scared. Birdsong drenched the forest, falling through the branches like a rainstorm of sound. The leaves on the flame tree rustled. They rubbed against her hair and the goose-pimpled skin on her arms. She felt tendrils spiral up her legs and still she didn’t move. She felt as though she was being hugged, embraced by the branches, swallowed up by all the magicky, wind-whipped, sibilant green of the forest. She leaned into the trunk, softening her back so that her chest pressed into the bark. She closed her eyes.

Hours later, they came. Flashlights bobbing, heavy footfalls on the broken twigs and crispy leaves far, far below. There was a woman’s voice, frantic and breathless. A man’s deep baritone like a bass line to the scared soprano. And above it all, Emily shouting, “Iris! Iris!” She didn’t usually yell like that.

Usually she was angry or exasperated when she called Iris’ name.

Iris opened her eyes and wondered if she should climb down and surprise them. Run into her mother’s warm arms so that she could nuzzle her neck, just below the ear lobe. But Iris could not move. Oh, I’m a dryad, she thought with a touch of surprise. She looked down at her family and realised she had passed through the forest’s portal. She could not now go back.

Her father was the first to see her pink shoes poking out from the leaves. He climbed up to get her, prising her hands from the bark, brushing her hair from her flushed-red face. She heard them say it was a black mamba. How they didn’t understand how Iris hadn’t seen it. Why she hadn’t fallen when it struck.

But Iris knew the truth. She had become a dryad and now she would live in the

For a while, she continued spying on Emily and Tamara. At first, they came to the forest every few days but they didn’t giggle and they didn’t stay long. They often left flowers by the base of Iris’ tree – bird-of-paradise blooms and pink bougainvillea branches and red hibiscus. They didn’t hold hands anymore.

After a few months, Emily started coming on her own.

Iris would like to ask Emily what happened to Tamara but she doesn’t seem to hear her anymore. Iris can touch Emily’s hair and hold her hand and Emily no longer shakes her off like she used to. But she never touches back. Sometimes, Iris drops those little orange flowers that look like bells into Emily’s hair.

Mostly she doesn’t seem to notice but sometimes she feels them plop softly onto her head and the edges of her mouth turn up in a half-smile. Iris hopes she’s remembering how they made perfume in egg cartons with these flowers and she smiles too because that is what she wants Emily to remember.

When Emily leaves, she always breathes, “Goodbye, Iris.” Iris always whispers back, putting her lips close to Emily’s ear and kissing her cheek. Then Iris climbs back into her tree and watches Emily trudge up the path to their other home.

Clár Ní Chonghaile has been a journalist for more than 20 years, working mainly in Europe and Africa. But she always wanted to write books and eventually, she did. In 2016, she published her first novel, Fractured, with Legend Press. Her second novel, Rain Falls on Everyone, was published in July. Clár grew up in An Spidéal, County Galway but left after college to join Reuters in London. She has lived in the Ivory Coast, Senegal, France, and Kenya but has ended up, somewhat unexpectedly, living in St Albans, UK, with her equally surprised husband and two daughters.

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