Root System by Kate Abbey

This response by Kate Abbey is partly inspired by the MKW event Creating Well Beings: Night Hack at the Melbourne Museum. ‘Root System’ creatively explores themes of wonder, enchantment and healing.

This story includes mental health themes.

One hot summer’s night, when the cicadas sing their hearts out and all the moths get amorous and fling themselves against the kitchen windows, Liv decides to run away. She’s not running very far, only across the street and into Carlton Gardens, but as far as her mum’s concerned she’s upstairs in bed reading The Bell Jar for the third time. Instead she shins down her dad’s trellis, nips across the street and plunges into the gloom of the park, sweating in her long sleeves and leggings.

        The trees cast shadowy tendrils across her face, it’s milky and dim, but this is her forest, she knows it by heart. She’s played here since she was a little kid, the city murmuring and clattering around her. By day it might be a fancy backyard she’s forced to share with Tai Chi devotees and bossy power walkers, but come night it’s something else, something closer to its turned-earth self. There’s a Moreton Bay Fig tree, her favourite, its roots all exposed, a great secret maze made visible. She’s spent a lot of time there this year, nestled into its roots. Sometimes the scent of the tree and the earth and the dust follows her home. Sometimes those roots thread themselves through her dreams, and she wakes up parched, and sculling an entire bottle of iced tea doesn’t quench her.

        She’s almost reached her fig tree when she sees him, mooching around by the base of the tree. He’s little, no more than seven, his tummy poking out of Power Ranger jammies. His hair is electric blue, his feet are bare. He grins when he sees her, and puts a finger to his lips, like it’s a game.

        ‘I’ve been waiting for hours!’ he says, and turns a perfect cartwheel in the grass, hand over foot over hand, a spinning blue star of a boy. ‘Are you ready?’ Then he’s off, pelting across the lawn, past the fountain, haring past the Exhibition Buildings into the night. And she chases him, drawn by his thrumming rabbit-tread and his silty scent, to find out what happens next.

        At first she thinks she’s lost him, all she can hear is the plash of the fountain. She feels raw in the floodlights of the Buildings. Usually there are people about, but there’s just the warm wind wrapping itself around her. Her sleeves are all prickly against her wrists, her blood skipping a beat in the blue veins beneath the skin. She rounds the corner and sees the Museum, a glassy white ship washed up on a gravelly shore. He’s there, jigging around a column, looking like he’s about to pop out of his skin with excitement. ‘Cooee,’ he calls, dancing over to Liv and taking her hand. ‘Let’s go backstage. It’s stuffed with magic.’ There’s a strange little door she’s never seen before, tucked away at the side of the museum. It’s round, like a Hobbit’s door, and it’s ajar. If she ducked her head she might just fit. He darts inside, tugging her hand.

        She steps into brightness, a wonderland wheeling with colour and movement. Mineral green planets spin on invisible axes, molten comets scissor through the air. There’s birdsong, it’s caught all around her. A flight of butterflies wash over them and a frogmouth owl lands on her shoulder, clicking its beak with delight. Her sneakers crunch, they’re walking on a jewel-bed of crystal, alive, slow rolling, thickets of amethyst, fluorite, malachite forming and reforming. A roar, a great undulation, and a dinosaur’s skeleton saunters past, its spine rippling, pursued by an aerial ribbon of scarlet robins.

        They sit in a rainforest by a stream, sensing the bright beings that flicker in the bush around them. Liv kicks off her shoes and dangles her feet in the water, splashing his toes to make him giggle.

        ‘Won’t your parents worry where you are?’ she asks him, but he just wriggles against her and runs a small hand through his blue hair.

        ‘Aren’t you hot? You’re all bundled up like it’s winter,’ he says, nudging the arm of her skivvy, her long black leggings.

        There’s something sharp falling through Liv’s mind, with her inner eye she follows it, a crow felled from the sky. He hooks his pinkie into her sleeve and pulls it up at the wrist, just a bit. The silvery lines etched across her skin. Like white rungs on a ladder. Her arms. Her legs. She bows her head, tastes salt.

        A trout leaps from the water, arcs high in the air and slicks over her bare wrist, fish scale to scar tissue to human flesh. Afterwards, in the morning at home she will examine her skin. The lines are still there, but they’re faint, like a root system disappearing into the ground. When she holds her arms up to the light she can barely see them.


We’ve teamed up with RMIT’s School and Media and Communication and asked students to respond to the themes of Melbourne Knowledge Week and reflect Melbourne’s future. 

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