Koka Kandy was the taste of childhood. He was vaguely aware as he was walking back home from school that he was now old enough to be nostalgic.
The walk home from school was like the suntan pattern on Aunty Ore’s back when she asked him to put sunscreen on for her at the beach. At some point, pavement slowly transitioned to leaves and then eventually brush but he couldn’t really draw a line where the change concretely happened. He’d know when he was in the forest and he’d know when he wasn’t but there were always a few minutes of flux in between.
They stopped making Koka Kandy. He realised he was sucking at nothing, the center of his tongue mindlessly scraping his palette. His mother never bought him a lot of it. He’d never really been shopping with his mother in any distinct sense he could remember. The idea of his mother buying things for him, treats and nice things, was a foreign idea but not an entirely alien one. He could conceive of how it would pan out but he didn’t think it had ever happened to him.
“Markus, wait!” Una was running up to him, her feet kicking up wet, fallen leaves and grainy mud. “You’re supposed to wait for me at the end of the road!”
“You mean the beginning of the forest?” Markus asked.
“Not this again.” She caught up with him and sighed before meeting his eyes and smiling. “So guess what.”
“What?” They began to walk, significantly slower than he could’ve managed alone. “Is this about the boy?”
“No….well, yeah….yes and no.”
Markus turned to look at her, lips crooked downwards. “Sounds right complicated, eh? Unnecessary.” Una’s ongoing entanglement with ‘the boy’ was something Markus had been hearing about ever since the new term started. They were in different schools, so Markus had no way of seeing for himself or confirming if any of it was true. Not that he’d be interested in doing that, even if he could.
“Like you’d know about what is or isn’t necessary, Markus, you have no life.” This was something she had been trying to get him to accept for a couple of years now. ‘I am your only friend and that isn’t okay,’ was a sort of catchphrase for their relationship and Markus never really had the courage to say that that wasn’t really true. That he didn’t really consider even her a friend.
“Fair enough,” he said.
“Anyway, we talked today.” She turned to him, her big, artfully-lined eyes looking at his face closely and pensively. He wondered why his opinion on this whole thing mattered so much today. It never had before.
“Oh yeah? What’d you talk about?”
“About? Oh…just you know…family and things like that.”
Oh. His hands went up to his cheeks and he massaged them hard into the row of teeth on either side. This was one of his many ‘nasty habits’: things that were absolutely fine to do unless Mama was watching. “Family like Aunty Sion and Aunty Ore and like your mother?”
“Yeah…and family like you.” She was dead quiet and it seemed the forest had decided to mimic her. It felt like the whole bloody universe had gathered itself around him and was waiting for him to fume.
“You know what this is about, Una.”
“It isn’t like that. He’s-he’s…we were just talking to each other. He told me about my family and I told me about his.”
Markus was trying as hard as he could to ease his feverish mind. He could feel birds alight on branches in a circle around him. Squirrels had stopped their foraging to watch. He could feel the roots under the earth gently twist and shift through the rubber soles of his black shoes. He felt lighting and thunder between his fingers and though he knew he was miles away from the edge where all of this could slip out of his control, the quickness with which nature, and he, came to this point terrified him a little.
“You know why the white boys come here, Una. You know why they come here to this empty, hot little place instead of all the other places in the world they can go.”
“Markus, it isn’t like that. He’s been here most of his life.”
“His father, then. His mother. His older brother. They’re all here for me. And eventually for mother.”
As they moved in silence, the forest moved with them.
“What did you tell him, anyway?” Markus asked.
“Your school. And your name.”
He chuckled. “He’ll come and see me after the weekend, I’m sure. I’m also sure he’s not going to have a lot to say to you after that.”
Una opened her bag and took a sip of water from a canteen before handing it to him. He shook his head. “Mother says that’s what’s wrong with your whole end of the family. You think everyone’s evil.”
There was a lot Markus wanted to tell her then. He wanted to tell her magic came as easy to him as breathing or taking a shit. It wasn’t something he and his mother had to conjure. It was just there, like every other biological process. He wanted to rail about how callous it was for her to consider his life of suppression to be somehow, in some skewed way, his fault.
They were quiet again for a while. “I’m sorry,” she blurted out eventually. “Wasn’t thinking straight.”
Markus said nothing. But nature seemed to loosen around them. The birds sang again and a light breeze disrupted the claustrophobic clamping the trees had been doing for the past five minutes.
“What does childhood taste like to you?” Markus asked. They were past the final bend and he could see smoke rise gently from his chimney. Una’s house was further ahead, very close to the village.
“It tastes like this. Because I’m fifteen, Markus, I’m still a child. And you’re a year older so so are you, okay?”
He laughed. “I don’t know…I don’t think I am.”
“When did you stop being one, then?”
“Whenever they stopped making Koka Kandy,” he said.
She nodded sagely. “Yeah, I suppose that is the taste of childhood. If they ever bring it back, they should use that as their tagline. We’d be old then.”
“Old Una.” He laughed and she laughed too and they laughed till a dark sound cut them both off. The voice making it belonged to his mother and she was singing the old song. The healing song.
Markus tensed and the forest tensed with him.