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Flower, Daughter, Soil, Seed

There isn’t a more resilient thing than a small flower. 

Your great-great-grandmother was a yellow daffodil. Where she was born people called her narcissus. Her many heads blossomed from a loamy opening in the forest on a particularly chill spring day. They rose hungrily, searching for a few precious rays of sunlight. Her stems pushed against each other and against the cold wind. 

Flowers don’t have memory. Not in the way humans do. They don’t know where they come from or why they are. They only care about flower-things. But they know when they love a place with their whole being. Because each forest has a different kind of smell, color, and feel to it, like a human body. And the soil is its skin. That shadowy spot in the forest was home for the daffodil.

Until it wasn’t. 

Your great-great-grandmother woke up on a summer day—when the sun was high and the heat relentless—sensing her end was near. The end was a fire that was still too far away to be seen by anyone. Flowers don’t have memory. But they have a keen awareness of their short-lived nature. And when they feel that they are about to die they are almost always right. The daffodil didn’t have legs to run like the animals, or a voice to scream like the little children who picked her many heads while singing songs, but she had her senses, and a smell, and something other flowers didn’t: a desire that a part of her would live on. Where she got this intention from, I don’t know. Sometimes creatures decide they will survive despite everything.

There was a young buck nosing around her clearing and the daffodil smelled and swayed her way into the deer’s perception, and then into his mouth, and then deeper still, in his stomach. The forest burned not long after, and your great-great-grandmother died with it. But the seed she hid inside the deer’s belly made it to a faraway pond where the buck stopped to drink water and, well, die. Maybe it was the wounds the fire had dug in the buck’s flesh, maybe it was the daffodil itself growing poisonous inside his stomach. Whatever the reason, the buck lay by the pond, his knees buckled, and he drew his last breath among watermint and sweetflag.

Now sit still my love. We have a long way tomorrow and you need to hear all of this. 

The seed floated through the ribs of the decaying animal when the water lapped at its corpse, and it sank at the bottom of the pond. That’s how your great-grandmother was born. Under the glassy stare of toads and the squawking of grey herons. She was beautiful, oh yes, she was, twice as lovely for the delicate line of her mouth and her long violet arms. You see, your great-grandmother emerged from the water as a tiny human girl from the waist up—in the image of that one gentle girl, who picked the daffodil’s heads—and a waterlily flower from the waist down. She had adapted but she had kept the memory of the daffodil. The dream of her lost forest. Her eye shape had something of the buck she had lived in as a seed, and her little voice made toads and herons alike flock around her, enchanted. The same voice made a little boy run to her one afternoon. He had escaped his mother’s watchful stare and stretched his little arm trying to pick the waterlily girl from the pond’s surface. His face was flushed from the effort. He frowned and came a little closer and tried again. 

“Come here so I can pick you!” he demanded. He had been born into a rich family and demands came to him naturally.

The waterlily girl did not want to be picked, so she steered herself to the center of the pond, away from him. The little boy huffed and took one step into the pond and then another. But unlike her he did not float. His mother was heartbroken and his father, the lord of that land, ordered his people to drain the pond and find the fay that stole his firstborn’s life. 

When the men arrived at the lake, your great-grandmother knew they were coming for her, just like the daffodil knew there was a fire approaching. In the pond, there was no buck, but the waterlily girl was not about to go without a fight. With her song she called her favorite grey heron. When the bird swooped down at the pond, between the men’s shoulders, she reached her soft, petal arms and wrapped them tightly around its long neck. Together they flew above the pond that was her home and her cradle, and soon they had left the lord’s land and many others behind. 

The waterlily girl loved to fly. She finally understood what her mother, the daffodil, had felt all those years ago. The desire to keep going, to be a part of something bigger, something with memory. But no matter how strong her intention, the waterlily girl had been cut at the stem by the heron’s force and she was dying. She was thankful to the heron for saving her, but as they flew over more and more lands, it was clear that she would soon let go of her friend. When she did, they were passing over a mountain range. As the waterlily fell in the white, soft snow, she chirped to the heron, Thank you and goodbye. It was in a rocky cranny that the waterlily girl faded and finally slept her deep sleep, only for her daughter to be born from her seeds with the first spring rain.

When the goat herder and his wife found your grandmother, she was curled up like a baby-sized seed between primroses and drenched in meltwater. Her skin was primrose, white with a pink streak cutting down the middle of her. What did it matter that she was buck-eyed and had the long neck of a heron? That her face had the roundness of a drowned boy and between her curled toes grew primroses? She was beautiful like every child is, and if you live long enough on the mountains with goats as your main company, strange things become a little less strange. And this couple had lived on the mountains their whole lives. They loved the girl the moment they picked her up and thanked the mountain Gods for their gift (and every other God and minor deity they could think of, just to be on the safe side) and took her to their home in a small village wedged at the foothills of the mountain. They named her Primrose. 

Primrose grew up to be a patchwork of goodness and strength, and of the memories of the yellow daffodil and the waterlily girl. She could walk the steepest trails without fear. Better than the goats themselves—who she would occasionally rescue and carry back to the herd, sometimes letting them eat the flowers that sprouted between her toes. When asked how she was so good at climbing she’d say that the wildflowers held her by the ankles so that she wouldn’t fall. 

As much as she was loved by her parents, she was equally loved by a young milkman who later became her husband and my father. And that’s the part of the story where I come in, my little one. But not just yet. You see, you can run from forest fires and vengeful lords, but trouble will always come, no matter how far you travel. This time the trouble was much bigger than the ones the daffodil and the waterlily girl had faced. But Primrose in turn was bigger than both her ancestors and carried their wisdom. 

There was a war raging at the border on the other side of the very mountain she lived. This time there was no passing animal that could have swept away your grandmother. And if there were one, it was taken away by the soldiers who took her family’s goats, and then their chickens, and most of their milk and cheese, and eventually their loyal hound. The villagers shook their heads every time she climbed the steepest cliffs to gaze into the distance, towards the border, but she had her plans. If only she could walk along the mountain range, get past the blue forest and the dead river, cross the desert, and reach the coast, she and her husband could be free again. They could start anew. Primrose tried to wait out the war with her husband at first, rationing all the food they had left. She didn’t need much to survive and meltwater seemed to give her strength. But my father needed more than meltwater and greens. He was getting weaker and soon it would be impossible for him to travel. The old intention that lived inside my mother had grown roots and thick branches and Primrose got up one day, before the sun peered through the windows, and packed all the food she could find. 

“We are leaving,” she told her husband. “I will do this with or without you, but I would rather you came with me.” She took his thinning hand in hers and kissed it with affection, and he nodded a tired nod. 

Both of her adopted parents had died by then, so she had nobody to say goodbye to but the cabin itself. She hoped that perhaps, if peace came, they could return safely. But you and me both know that didn’t happen. 

The mountain was hard to climb and hard to walk for her husband, even during springtime, but Primrose was in her element, and there were days when she alone would carry him and the sack with all their possessions. She let him have most of their food and she melted fresh snow for him to drink. That got them all the way to the forest where food would be easier to find. My mother had never been there before. It wasn’t the daffodil’s forest. The smell and the color of the soil were different, there were tall trees covered by thick blue moss and plants my mother did not recognize. But all the forests are distant cousins. Just like all the mountains and all the ponds. And as cousins they share secrets that my mother knew. They ate the right kind of berries and mushrooms, and they even managed to catch a rabbit or two. My father was looking better. The dead river came next and that wasn’t hard for my father to cross, but without enough water my mother slowly started to wither. She didn’t notice at first, as she often drank from the flasks they had filled from a stream. But one cold night, as they huddled around the fire and she took off her worn out shoes to rub her feet, she saw that the flowers around her toes were dying.

My father stared at the dried flowers, dumbfounded. Her flowers had always been fresh and smelled sweetly. 

“What does this mean?” he asked. My mother could hear the rising panic in his voice.

Primrose knew very well what it meant. She had lived it through her memories time and time again. She was dying. Wasn’t this always the way? But the intention was there, and they had walked all this way. They were at the cusp of the long desert. It would be suicide to turn back now. So my mother chose to focus only on the positives: my father would be free and there was a baby on the way. Well, not exactly on the way. But there would be a baby. That she knew. And the baby would be a strong desert baby and she would make it out alive. And my mother would live through her daughter’s memories. She would make sure that they were happy ones. 

She turned to my father. “Nothing to worry about, dear. Just need some watering.” She smiled and took a sip from the flask. And my father believed her. 

They walked in the desert that was hot by day and freezing by night. They passed salt flats and lagoons where they refilled their flasks, but also places without a trace of plant or animal. My mother fiercely held on to her life until they reached a part of the desert where the shrubs gave way to milkweed and prickly pear. 

“Let’s rest here for the day,” she said to my father. She laid a goatskin on a cold stone slab. She didn’t say, This is where I’ll die tonight. Please hold my hand until I sleep. My father’s expression was grim, because deep down he knew. He held her hand anyway. 

When he woke up the next morning the stone slab was scalding hot, and my mother was nowhere to be found. But next to the prickly pear, inside her now-empty linen dress, slept a baby girl. Me. I was heron thin; my skin was the color of the desert at high noon and my lips were the shape and the color of the pear cactus flower. My father could hardly hold me because my body was covered in prickles, fine and small like a baby’s peach fuzz, but he clung to me like the last precious thing left in the world and let out a small, small sigh. 

Opuntia, he called me, for the pear cactus. Something of my mother’s intention must have seeped into him. He wrapped me in her dress tightly, and together we crossed what was left of the desert. He fed me the sap of milkweeds and I suckled at the stems like a mother’s breast. He fed himself the fruit and the pads of the pear cacti that grew all around, and somewhere along the way we found a group of alpaca herders. They didn’t question what a man with a newborn was doing crossing the desert. Only gave my father thyme tea to regain his strength and guided us to the city by the coast. By then I was one month old. 

We stayed in the city until I was old enough to talk and then to walk, and before any of us knew it, I was a grown child, and my prickles had thickened into spines. My father had turned to carpentry and forgotten all about the goats and the milk and the little cabin on the mountains. But in my memories, I carried all the places my ancestors had been, and I knew this wasn’t the place my mother wanted us to settle. No, the place we were meant to go lay beyond the sea, eastward. Every day I ran away from school, and he would find me at the port, looking longingly at the ships leaving.

“Why do you still want to travel?” he’d ask me. “Haven’t we travelled enough for ten lives the two of us?” 

But the intention had set its roots inside me.

It was many years before I finally managed to bend his will. Reluctantly, he packed our few precious possessions—my mother’s linen dress was first—and we headed to the port where one of his sailor friends had found some space for us below deck, on a merchant ship that carried cereal and wheat towards the east, in exchange for labor. My father repaired every single thing that begged for a carpenter’s touch, and I helped him. On every port he would turn and ask me, Is this the place? And I would shake my head that, no, it wasn’t. Not yet.

Until one day we stopped at Cotani. Our island. It was the biggest one in the Great Mild Sea and the ship made stops at each of the three major ports. South, East and Northwest. I wasn’t meant for the sea and seasickness was making me more miserable with each passing day. I preferred to spend my free time staring at the ceiling from my hammock below the deck. But something made me get off the ship when we reached the northwestern port and go for a walk. Stretch my limbs and stretch my spikes. The port was like any other. The people as well. The crowd steered clear of my spines but never gave me a strange look. People who live in ports don’t bat an eye at a girl with spines. They have witnessed much greater wonders. No, it’s only the inland people who do that. 

The island was rocky, but I could make out patches where forests spread inland, and fields that were full of olive trees and grape vines. I walked on the cobblestoned streets, already feeling better, and studied the small terracotta houses with the low roofs, the white and magenta bougainvillea twisting and trailing over every crack on the walls. In the pots that were left on the bleached white windowsills there was hyacinth and there was daffodil. I approached them almost hypnotized. The daffodils greeted me like old family. I had seen daffodils before, but there was something about these ones that felt achingly familiar. Flowers recognize their own.

“This is it,” I said to myself, my knuckles brushing over petals the color of runny yolk. “This is the place.”

I ran back to the ship and dragged my father outside. He didn’t need much convincing. Weeks on the ship tending to all that needed repair, along with the seasickness that plagued both of us, were enough to make him the most complacent man in the world; not that he had been a difficult man to begin with. I wish you could have met him yourself.

He crouched on his knees and held me carefully by the arms to not disturb my spikes, trying to extract a promise. 

“Are you sure, Opuntia? Is this where we stop forever? No more leaving?”

I nodded—though there is no such thing as forever. I knew that this was where we were meant to be, and my father’s feet longed to walk on steady ground for more than a day. 

“Yes,” I replied as he pierced me with his sunken eyes, smiling at the words that came next. “This is our new home.”

We did not stray too far from the port the first year. We rented a room over a bakery; the whole house belonged to the baker, a lovely woman with four children. My father got a job at the shipyard and was thankful for every single day that he did not spend out in the open seas. I spent time with our landlady and learned all the secrets of yeast and flour and heat. Poppy seed bread and pastries were my favorite. I knew the poppy flower well. I admired its beauty and respected its power. 

One day—did it count as day? I used to get up so early the roosters were still sleeping—as I was kneading chickpea and wheat flour into a soft dough, I noticed that our poppyseed supply was dwindling and asked our landlady for more. 

“You’ll have to talk to the gardener for that,” she said, her back was turned to me, twisting dough braids for the tsoureki more deftly than her daughters’ hair. “Just take the main path inland. When you see a small house with the biggest garden in town, you’ll have found her.”

I took my basket and did as she said, and soon I was in front of the biggest and tidiest garden I’d ever seen. Everything seemed to serve a purpose and have a natural flow. Not one petal was misplaced. Whoever had created this, I thought, knew plants from the inside out. And I wasn’t wrong. It has only gotten bigger while you were growing up, but the oldest plants are still here growing stronger, like you, my flower.  

At a corner of the garden I saw the gardener, your mother, poring over a patch of hyacinths, and the basket fell from my hands because I knew I had made it home. My sweet girl, flowers don’t have memories, but I do, because your great-great-grandmother wanted it so. And I remembered our forest, our first home. The gardener’s skin had the exact shade of its stones when the sun was peeking over the oak trees. When she turned to face me, her eyes were the color of its cypresses when the moon was round and bright. She was part of my forest. She was the forest. She smelled like it too. I wasn’t sure if she knew. If she remembered. I didn’t know how memory worked in her family line. But I knew her ancestors had come from the same place as mine. They were made of soil and stone and tree bark, but also of human flesh and moments in time like I was. 

Oh, you can imagine my joy when I found out she did remember. Drys said my eyes were the exact green of the daffodil stems on early summer, and my voice had the lilt of the stream passing through the oak trees. I had changed a lot along the way. Her ancestors had not gone as far as mine, so her changes were small, delicate. The forest where the daffodil had been born was on this very island. It had slowly been reborn into itself and was now almost as big as it had been when the daffodil first sprouted her heads out of the soil. 

When your mother touched my hand, my spikes made way for her. They bent, soft like hairs. Not long after I moved into that small house with the big garden and helped her make it bigger. I begged your grandfather to come and live with us, but he just kissed the spot between my eyes and smiled at me and Drys and said, “No more leaving now. This is it.” And I remembered my promise and respected it. The baker took a liking to him, and they ended up spending their lives together. I came to visit him every week, and later when he was at his weakest, every other day. 

But as it had always been with my family, a different kind of intention soon found me. I wanted to have a child. But I only knew one way. The way of my mother, and grandmother, and all the flowers before her. And trouble had not found me here, not yet. I wasn’t dying and nor had I wanted to. Our lives were sturdy as tall trees and sweet as black grapes. So how could I have a child? It would be like having it all.

“You know,” Drys told me one day, when she saw me frowning over a baby oak tree. “Cacti can propagate by stem cutting.” She hugged me then and gently led me into the house, where there were tea and pastries waiting for me.

I knew that of course, but I didn’t believe it would work. Dying and being reborn was part of my ancestors’ life. Part of my life. But I had Drys and I had time, and no hint of trouble on the horizon. So I took a sharp pair of hedge shears and cut off my waist-long curly hair to the shoulder. I left that part of me to the quietest place of our garden, where the heat was right and the shadows short, and before the month was over my hair grew roots and my heart was about to burst under my linen dress. 

I took you inside and kept you in my bosom during the day while I stirred the pot and kneaded bread and shoveled dirt. Drys had you during the night. She slept with you on her pillow, right next to her sweet face. You belonged to both of us, and you should have something of us both. You grew fast and, in a year, what looked like a tiny human girl, much like the waterlily, cooed in my arms. There was a drowned boy in your frown and a deer in your eyes, your hair was oak bark brown, and behind your ears two hyacinths grew, as blue as the sea I had crossed with my father. How funny, I thought then, to have another flower with poison in our lineage and a name not unlike narcissus—the yellow daffodil—after all this time.

 The years went by, and you grew older, and I know you have all these memories in your little head right now that don’t make much sense. That you don’t know what to do with. I promise that they will clear as soon as you grow up a little more, and then you will be able to tell this story that I am telling you—and perhaps I will be in there as a memory or perhaps I won’t. But tomorrow is a big day, my Hyacinth, and I had to tell you why. The forest we are going to visit is not just any forest—although they are all distant cousins, never forget that, it might save your life—it’s the forest of your ancestors and when we are there, we’ll be visiting them. So sleep well and dream without trouble, my love, but if trouble happens to come I know that you will be ready, because you will remember what to do. 

 

(Editors’ Note: Eugenia Triantafyllou is interviewed by Caroline M. Yoachim in this issue.)

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Eugenia Triantafyllou

Eugenia Triantafyllou is a Greek author and artist with a flair for dark things. Her work has been nominated for the Ignyte, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards, and she is a graduate of Clarion West Writers Workshop. You can find her stories in Uncanny, Tor.com, Strange Horizons, and other venues. She currently lives in Athens with a boy and a dog. Find her on Twitter or Mastodon @foxesandroses or her website  https://eugeniatriantafyllou.wordpress.com

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