Featured Story • April 2017
On Grief and the Language of Flowers:
Damien Angelica Walters
The drape atop the closed lower half of the open casket is of red roses arranged with fern fronds and accented with a red satin ribbon. Hazel Evelyn Ross’s husband preceded her in death by three years, so the flowers were selected by her youngest daughter, Marie, from Hopewell & Bloom, a local florist recommended by the funeral director. If you look closely, you can see a few hidden sprigs of rosemary.
The funeral home is much like others of its ilk—muted lighting, soft carpet, pale wallpaper, dark wood, chill air—with one notable exception: no chemical bite lingers beneath the scent of flowers.
To the left of the casket stands a large wreath of red peonies, pink carnations, and lavender, the combination a bit jarring, yet oddly sweet. And no wonder; the banner adorning the wreath states From Your Loving Grandchildren.
The grandchildren, all six of them, are present, although the sixth is safely ensconced in his mother’s womb for a few more weeks. Although Marie has shed countless tears over the thought that her son will never meet his grandmother nor she him, the boy will carry a memory of his grandmother dressed in pale blue and lying peacefully in her casket until his own final days. Deeming this a wish instead of an impossible memory, he will never share it with anyone.
The children are seated on sofas in one corner of the room, talking in quiet whispers, even the nine-year old who was recently diagnosed with ADHD.
Four vases sit on a small table in front of the wreath, framing a photograph of the children and their mother, taken by their father on a long-ago vacation to the beach.
Marie had asked for a heart-shaped wreath of larkspur because she remembered her mother planting them in the garden when Marie was very small, but the florist had taken her hand and suggested a vase of lily of the valley instead, claiming the smell of the latter far more pleasant.
Although Marie can’t distinguish the smell of her flowers from the others, she admits they look lovely. Her husband squeezes her hand and raises his brows. She squeezes his hand in return, and the baby kicks, as if in approval.
At thirty-five, Marie is the same age her mother was when she had Marie, though in her mother’s case, the pregnancy was unplanned. Little Matthew Ross is something of a miracle baby. After years of trying and many miscarriages, Marie had nearly given up hope.
She leans against her husband’s arm, and the baby presses a periscope foot below her ribcage. For the first time since her mother’s initial stroke, and then the fatal second, which occurred while she was still recovering in the hospital, the tightness in Marie’s chest eases. She thinks, hopes, her mother would understand.
The second vase on the table contains lush violets threaded with peppermint. Jeffrey, the deceased’s youngest son, breaks off a small stem of mint and twirls it in his fingers. Ever since his mother’s first stroke, he’s felt a curious numbness, as if his heart were encased in a block of ice. No tears, no sorrow. Nothing at all. He keeps telling himself he’s staying strong for his daughter’s sake, but Megan’s thirteen and tough enough to handle her dad crying.
He darts a glance over his shoulder. Meg, sitting with the other kids, catches his gaze and smiles. He’s surprised her cousins are so quiet; the younger kids are usually hell on feet.
When he walked into the funeral home and saw the casket, he grabbed a tissue from one of the boxes the funeral home had kindly placed around the room, expecting tears, expecting something. Still, though, his eyes are dry. His father, not fond of public displays of emotion, would probably be proud, he thinks, and then he swallows the thought. No, that’s an unkindness his father doesn’t deserve; he was a stoic, not callous.
As his boyfriend and sister, Eva, are manning the door to greet people as they come in, Jeffrey plops down in one of the chairs, away from everyone else. He tucks the stem in his shirt pocket, glances at the casket, and feels a thickness in his throat. He can’t believe she’s gone. He and Phillip had promised to take her to Clementine’s for brunch when she got out of the hospital but now… Tears finally burn in his eyes and he lets them fall.
White tulips and purple hyacinth make up the largest bouquet on the table, and the blooms are so densely packed they obscure the tiny card reading Your Loving Son. That son is walking around, thanking people for coming, his voice laced with tears, caught but unshed.
He keeps darting glances toward the casket as though making sure his mother is still there. Death shouldn’t look so lifelike, Jonathan thinks, knowing the thought irrational. His sister remarked that the funeral home had done a wonderful job, but he wishes they’d done a little less so.
When his father died of cancer, he no longer resembled the man he’d been in life. His mother, though, appears exactly as she always did, and Jonathan keeps expecting her to sit up and demand to know why he didn’t come to see her in the hospital.
He tried to go see her, but when he entered the hospital, his heart began to race, his hands shook, and he couldn’t make his legs move. Fear washed over him in great dark waves, and he bolted, his body raging with the inexplicable panic. He tried to visit her twice more, yet twice more he panicked and fled. And the worst part? He couldn’t, and still can’t, explain why.
He once visited a coworker in the hospital without a problem, and he was there when his children were born, so knew it wasn’t the hospital itself. He’s spent many hours in the dark with a glass of whiskey in hand, poring through the shadowy recesses of his mind, trying to find a reason. Trying and failing.
Then, he consoled himself with the thought that his mother would soon be home and he’d visit her there. Now he has no such consolation. He hasn’t even felt comfortable talking to his wife about it, although he knows in his heart Siobhan would be nothing but supportive.
He sits heavily in one of the chairs near the back of the room and puts his head in his hands. He can’t yet see Marie approaching and when she sits beside him, he will open his mouth intending to say something of comfort and instead, the truth will spill out.
The final vase on the table holds a profusion of azalea and scarlet geraniums. Eva, the eldest of the four children, is still standing at the door. She can’t believe how well behaved the kids are, especially Kieran. If nothing else, this is proof the medication his doctor prescribed works, and thank heaven for small mercies. If he were acting up, it would make everything so much worse.
When she saw Jeffrey start to cry, she nudged Phillip, who gave her brother a few minutes alone and then went to console him. Eva wishes her own husband had been half as perceptive; if so, maybe they’d still be together. Then again, she knows she’s often hard to read.
She scans the room again, frowning a bit when she realizes her Uncle Robert hasn’t yet arrived. Eva knows he and her mother didn’t have the best relationship, but when Eva called to inform him of his sister’s passing, he assured her he’d come. He did, at least, send flowers.
Her sister-in-law approaches her with a small smile, gently touches her wrist. “Why don’t you take a break,” Siobhan says.
Eva nods a thank you and takes to the restroom, where she runs cold water over her wrists, wets a paper towel and presses it against the back of her neck. Her emotions are jittering under the surface, but her eyes are dry. She is her father’s child, and tears should be a private thing. Besides, someone has to keep it together.
Walking out of the bathroom, she sees her aunt and uncle making their way into the viewing room. Surprisingly, Uncle Victor is pushing her aunt’s wheelchair and their live-in caregiver is nowhere in sight. Aunt Marian is wearing a confused half-smile, but her hair is immaculately curled and her clothes elegant.
Eva thinks, not for the first time, how grateful she is that her mother was coherent, was still herself, until the end.
To the right of the casket stands a bouquet comprised of dahlia, lily, sedum, snowdrop, and silver-leaved geranium. Marian thinks all the flowers are pretty—they remind her of a garden—but she doesn’t understand why everyone is talking. People come up and say hello and she says it back. When she tells them to please be quiet and let her sister sleep, their faces crinkle like paper or their lips press tight together.
Marian hopes the man pushing her wheelchair will let her stay until Hazel wakes. Maybe when she does, they can pick flowers for their mother. Hazel only likes to pick yellow flowers because that’s her own favorite color.
The white-haired man pats her shoulder, calls her Dear. He’s a nice man, Marian thinks, but she likes her husband better. He’s a doctor and is always busy with work, though. So very busy.
A wreath of bugloss, frog ophrys, yellow gentian, meadowsweet, scarlet auricula, and amaranthus stands behind the dahlia bouquet. A small, attached card reads Love, Robert.
The Robert in question is currently sitting in a bar a half-mile from the funeral home, his tie loosened, nursing a beer. From the bleariness in his eyes, it isn’t the first.
He had every intention of going to the funeral, just wanted a quick drink first. Needed it, to be honest, because never mind honoring the dead, he was going to tell everyone what a selfish woman his sister was. When he went to her for help, she refused. Not like he needed that much money. Not like she didn’t have it to spare, and families were supposed to help each other out. If she’d just helped him, he wouldn’t have lost his house and all his things, and Pam wouldn’t have left him.
He sneers and takes a long pull from the bottle. He told Hazel he’d pay her back, and he meant it, too. The hell with it. He sent flowers; that was more than enough. He drains the bottle, waves over the bartender, and orders another beer.
A woman with hair dyed a bright shade of red stands beside a heart-shaped wreath of pink roses, nodding in approval. Two women stand with her, and all three have tears in their eyes. This isn’t the way it was supposed to happen, the red-haired woman thinks. Beatrice herself has diabetes, Julia a bad ticker, and Ellen, well, Ellen refuses to quit smoking even though her doctor claims she’s one breath away from emphysema. Hazel was the healthiest of them all. It just isn’t fair.
“She has such a lovely family, don’t you think?” Ellen says.
Beatrice can only nod. She can’t imagine their weekly book club without her friend, can’t imagine her not on the other end of the telephone when Beatrice calls. The three of them sit down next to Hazel’s pregnant daughter and before long, they have her in laughter’s tears as they reveal her mother’s predilection for romance novels, gummy bears, and cheap pink wine.
When the family leaves, a man with a bright shock of silver hair enters the room. He slipped an employee a twenty-dollar bill for the privilege; he didn’t want to explain his relationship to the deceased to her family.
He approaches the casket slowly, holding a dozen red roses, their stems wrapped with a faded yellow ribbon. When the man was nineteen and Hazel—Hazel Matthews then, not Hazel Ross—was eighteen, she wore the ribbon in her hair. With startling clarity, the man remembers untying it, remembers kissing her and holding her close. They promised each other forever that night, and when he said the words, he meant them.
Then his parents died, leaving him with four younger siblings, and he knew what he had to do. He couldn’t burden Hazel with a ready-made family, so he broke it off. Told her he didn’t truly love her.
It seemed the best decision to make, but he was a fool, and when he realized it, it was too late. At night, alone in his quiet bachelor’s home, he reads science fiction, wishing time machines were real and wondering if Hazel ever thought of him, ever wondered what if.
He kneels by the casket for a long time, hands clasped tight, eyes closed, lips moving in silent conversation, lost in memories of her laugh, her smile, the way her hand would slip into his, the way she’d touch his cheek after every kiss. Finally he stands, his right knee creaking like the dickens, and whispers, “Goodbye, beautiful,” his voice thick.
He kisses her forehead and places the bouquet beside her in the casket. They should’ve dressed her in yellow, he thinks. She would’ve liked that. She would’ve liked that a lot.
His steps are quiet; the room, once he’s gone, even more so.
-  Meaning: Love. However, the deceased was known to despise roses unless they had thorns. “A rose without a thorn is like a kiss without passion,” she was wont to say. Those who knew her best knew this.
-  Meaning: Sincerity.
-  Hopewell & Bloom is owned by the funeral director’s sister-in-law. The funeral director did not disclose the familial relationship. Some might call this unethical; however, a recommendation is neither demand nor contractual obligation.
-  Meaning: Remembrance. The florist did not mention this addition to the deceased’s daughter.
-  Although not her crowning achievement, the florist is quite proud of this one. A small, unobtrusive bouquet on a table in the entryway of the funeral home filters the tang of Formalin from the air and traps it within the blooms. The absence of the smell provides a subtle, calming effect to the mourners.
-  Meaning: Devotion, I will never forget you, and calmness, respectively.
-  The deceased was buried in a dress her daughters mistakenly believed was her favorite; however, pale blue was best-loved by her late husband. The deceased’s preference would have been yellow.
-  Meaning: Levity.
-  Some might claim the florist has a particular, shall we say, instinct about such things. In less enlightened times, she might have been burned at the stake for such abilities. Small magics are all that’s left in the world these days, but small does not mean ineffective. It is important to note that she harbors no secret ill intent. Love is a kind of magic on its own, but when burdened with grief, it becomes a tangled knot. The florist uses her talents simply to help ease that binding.
-  Meaning: Return of happiness. The florist successfully coaxed the flowers to give up their natural toxicity.
-  In the very center of the arrangement is a single bough of cedar for strength. The florist is hopeful that the deceased’s daughter will take the vase home for she will need such strength in the coming weeks. Once the florist sensed the baby’s heart had a defect, she made certain the flowers would live at least until his birth. Regrettably, her magic can’t influence the physical or she would have used it to help. She does have faith in modern medicine, though, and hopes the baby will be okay.
-  Alas, the secret language of marriage is learned behavior, not magic.
-  Meaning: Love.
-  Meaning: Warmth.
-  Peppermint often does not work without direct contact, something that puzzles and frustrates the florist. She takes consolation in the fact that the scent of the plant naturally draws people toward it, and it doesn’t take much to make certain it’s the right person.
-  Meaning Forgiveness and I am sorry, respectively.
-  The florist agonized over this arrangement. She takes great care with her work; the wrong flowers could spell disaster and not in the cute-kids-all-lined-up-on-stage-taking-turns-with-a-microphone way. Listening to what the flowers tell her is the most important part of her job, and she has scars on her palms to prove it—roses are always the first to make their displeasure known. But as she crafted this particular arrangement and tried to see beyond what the flowers said, all she found was an alarming darkness that set her fingers trembling, and she fervently wished her mother were still alive for a consult. In the end, the florist trusted that the flowers knew best and hoped she made the right decision.
-  When he was five, his mother was hospitalized with pneumonia. On a visit to see her, Jonathan wandered out into the hallway, as children often do. Unfortunately, when he finished his wandering he returned to the wrong room where a badly burned man was recuperating. When the man turned toward him, Jonathan saw the pink, suppurating wounds and his mind screamed that his mother had turned into a monster. Although he tried to run, the door had latched shut and he couldn’t open it. Nurses rushed in when they heard his cries and returned him to the correct room, but the damage was done. If he’d been taken to see his mother in the hospital after the birth of his younger siblings, this residual fear might have been discovered and conquered, but it was not to be.
-  Unfortunately, the only family member who remembered what happened was his father, and he never retold the story because he didn’t realize how truly frightened his son had been. To be fair, the man was preoccupied with his wife’s health. Everything else, including the children, was secondary.
-  Guilt is not magic, but it holds a dark power nonetheless.
-  Marie will reassure Jonathan that his mother assumed he was busy with work and wasn’t upset. She will remind her brother that although he didn’t visit, he did call and speak to his mother several times. He will leave the funeral home feeling much better and, in time, he will forgive himself completely, but he will never remember the burned man in the hospital. Magic has its limitations.
-  Meaning: Temperance and comforting, respectively.
-  Although she is not aware of her gift, Siobhan has a touch of compulsion. Compulsion is one of the trickiest magics because it can be used to manipulate or defraud people. Siobhan has a kind heart, though, and would never do such a thing. The florist would approve.
Although Siobhan knows her husband is troubled, she mistakenly thinks it’s part of the grieving process so she’s given him the space she thinks he needs.
Unfortunately, insofar as this situation is concerned, compulsion can’t be used to retrieve buried memories.
-  Later, when her children are in bed, she will finally allow her sorrow to fall. Although she was always closer to her father, she misses her mother fiercely, and the loss has left a deeper hole than she imagined it would.
-  Meaning: Dignity, elegance, tranquility, consolation, and recall, respectively. Crafted by someone with lesser skills, the arrangement would perhaps appear garish and ill-conceived. The florist wept during its creation and urged the flowers to speak a little louder, to try a little harder, but in her heart she knew that no amount of magic would help. Her mother would have told her not to focus energy on those she couldn’t help, but the florist had to at least try. She thought she owed the mourning family that much.
-  Meaning: Falsehood, disgust, ingratitude, uselessness, avarice, and heartless, respectively. When flowers speak a truth a person is unable to hear, they act as a repellant. The florist feels no guilt for her choices. There would have been an ugly scene for which Eva would have blamed herself, and her resolve would’ve cracked like a dropped egg. With her mother gone, she is now the glue that holds the family together, and they need her to be strong. The florist knows her mother would’ve cautioned against it, would’ve said she should not interfere with family dynamics. The florist would argue that what she’s done has preserved those dynamics.
-  It was not the first time Robert had asked his sister for money, nor was it the second or third. He had a fondness for alcohol, expensive gadgets, and vacations to exotic locales. Unfortunately, his income did not quite support such a lifestyle. Hazel had loaned him money on more than one occasion, money he rarely paid back, but the reason she refused the last time was because he had also borrowed money from Marian, more than enough to fix his problems, and then lied about it to Hazel’s face.
-  He will drink until on the verge of passing out and stumble his way home. In the morning, he will wake, determined to quit drinking and make things right. By six o’clock that evening, he will once again be seated at the bar. In spite of the condition of his liver, he will outlive Marian as well.
-  Meaning: Friendship.
-  There is a tether that binds magic to its maker, and the florist knows when her flowers have worked their influence. Her limbs grow heavy, her body warms, a sensation similar to the lassitude after an orgasm. When the magic has unintended, negative consequences, chills rack the spine and set teeth to chatter, something that’s only happened to the florist once. Tonight there is only the warmth and a sense of relief. The flowers spoke true, and she listened well.
She knows she can’t help everyone, can’t know everything, but she does the best she can and hopes it’s enough.
-  In the employee’s defense, he’s known the man for years, knows he isn’t someone with a strange predilection for the dead.
-  The roses have thorns.
Damien Angelica Walters is the author of Paper Tigers (Dark House Press, 2016) and Sing Me Your Scars (Apex Publications, 2015). Her short fiction has been nominated twice for a Bram Stoker Award, reprinted in The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror and The Year’s Best Weird Fiction, and published in various anthologies and magazines, including the 2016 World Fantasy Award finalist Cassilda’s Song, Nightscript, Cemetery Dance Online, Nightmare Magazine, and Black Static. She lives in Maryland with her husband and two rescued pit bulls. Find her on Twitter at @DamienAWalters or on the web at http://damienangelicawalters.
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