The icy pole packaging said that it was blueberry. It was tasteless though, and melting, spreading a sticky layer of sugar and ice over my skin.
The beach for me, was a place where I always got sunburnt, despite smearing SPF 100 sunscreen all over my freckled skin, where I was marred by tan lines for months.
It was a place I imagined myself going to when I realised the futility of self-actualisation. A place where I could try and do yoga with the waves lapping at my ankles, somehow get drunk on lemonade and high on icy pole.
It was the same beach we went to on a school trip in year five, where I got caught in a rip current, panicked and almost drowned.
In the brief moment of hysteria, head under the water, I didn’t think about death, only trying to break free from the constraints of the currents that pushed me against the sea floor – I held my breath so sand wouldn’t get in my lungs.
I closed my eyes, and the water tugged me to some place where the air was heavy. There were large trees with exposed roots and thick leaves that kept all the moisture in. Alive with greenery and birdsong. Buds of innumerable vibrant flowers hung overhead; it moved with the rustling breeze like the colourful tentacles of octopuses.
I picked one of them. A rich, velvety red one. The petals soft and delicate. It reminded me of the gold wrapping paper that my grandma kept in a pristine, mahogany drawer. It was sparkly and thin – ripped and tore if you weren’t careful.
Beauty was a delicate and fragile thing.
I held the flower for a little longer, until it crumpled in my hands; petals breaking away from the stem, red fading into black. Substance fading into dust.
“You shouldn’t pick the flowers.”
A girl emerged from between the enormous trunks. Shrouded in the mist of a morning fog that left traces of dew drops on the succulents resting at the base of the trees. A flower crown encircled her head, stray leaves woven through her wavy auburn locks. The imprints of petals painted across her cheeks. Her eyes shone green like the vines creeping up her ankles that quickly retreated when she took a step forwards. Her lips were small and red like a rosebud.
I was enchanted.
She moved closer. “You don’t belong here,” she said. “You should go back.”
Then she disappeared amongst the trees once more. And it seemed the very flowers I was told not to pick bowed to her as their queen.
I woke up coughing sand, with a lifeguard hovering over me, ready to perform CPR. It was a dream and nothing more.
Detachment loomed in the air though. And I could never quite shake that away. So I kept coming back to the beach, floating on the gentle currents that I knew could strangle me any moment. Wishing to see her again.
I thought of a name for her. Flora. It seemed fitting for the Queen of Flowers.
She had been a child the first time I saw her, same age as myself. She grew with me. Became my closest friend.
I chucked the melted icy pole aside, and lay back on the sand. I had been for a swim earlier, so the grains clung to my bathers, growing there like algae.
I was alone on the beach. Most of the people had left around late afternoon.
I stayed to watch the sunset.
Heat waves were visible upon the horizon, it bled into the air, making red bloom across the sky. Of course, there were the more picturesque hues of pink and orange and gold, but red was always the first colour I noticed – that lingered the longest.
I always came to the beach after a break-up. I won’t make up an excuse about how the lapping of the waves stilled the roaring emotions of heartache within me. I wasn’t exactly one for heartache. When I closed my eyes as I lay upon the water, I was back in the forest.
Flora had been wary to greet me at first, but slowly, she began taking me through the trees. I slept there one night when everything had come alive. We lay next to each other on the moss-covered forest floor and counted the stars that peeked through the tops of the leaves.
I reached my hand over and bumped her fingers slightly. I felt her pulse beating on the underside of her wrist, how her breath curled and made patterns in the air. And I had never felt more alive.
We fell asleep under the starlight, entangled in each other arms.
I woke with petals brushing at my face. “What is this for?” I asked Flora.
“Breakfast,” she replied. She had her own flower in hand, sucking at the bud. “The juice is delicious.”
I sucked on the bud like she did. Sour juice flooded my mouth, shocking me awake. The red liquid dribbled down my chin, and I kept drinking it like it could purge me from the earthly plane – so I could stay here with Flora.
But I ended up choking.
Flora took the flower away from me, like how a baby was torn from a mother’s breast. I felt the ache of that loss throbbing in my chest. I reached up and wiped the sticky juice from my lips. Flora was frowning down at me, a crease between her brows like a crumple on smooth fabric.
I got up, cheeks hot with embarrassment, throat tickling with remaining juice. I grabbed onto her wrist before she could turn around and walk away – like she always did. Her wrist was small, seemed capable of breaking in a single snap; as though her bones were hollow and made of air, like the birds she sang her songs with every morning.
“Please, don’t go,” I said. She shook her arm from my grip, the vines slack around her ankles. “Tell me what I have to do to stay.”
“You do not want to stay,” Flora replied, brushing her leaf entangled hair away from her face. “This is fun for you, for a day or two, but you always leave.” Her voice was the like the tinkling of a bell, echoing in the air long after she had spoken her words.
That was when a I saw the hurt shining in the highlights where the light just managed to catch. She was out here in the forest all by herself, accompanied by birds, flowers and wildlife, but not a single human other than herself.
Was she even human?
She seemed too pure, too good to be that.
“I can stay here with you,” I said. “I want to.” I bit my lip, tongue cringing at the sourness that remained. I swallowed hard. “I love you.”
Flora gave a sad smile, brushing her cool fingers against my neck – it ran along the vein where my pulse was beating out of control. She leaned close, pressing her rosebud lips against my cheek. She smelt of leaves and the rain, and flowers and woodsmoke. “Perhaps, it is so.” The mist was reaching out to claim her. “Goodbye, Johanna.”
I wanted her to keep saying my name. Because everyone else just called me Jo, but Flora was different. And I kept wondering if she loved me back. For years, and years, I was too scared to go to the beach, too scared to face her again.
Was it wrong that every girl I kissed, in that moment when both our eyes were closed, I imagined those lips to be Flora’s? That every time I ran my fingers through their hair late at night, I imagined them to be tangled with leaves?
That was why all my relationships went downhill eventually.
Some people were detached in love, I was just… detached.
Because when I told them that they owned my heart, they didn’t really. My heart belonged to Flora. I had left it in that forest for her to keep.
I decided to come back to the beach eventually. I wondered how Flora looked now. It was hard to describe her beauty. It wasn’t like that of a flower’s, because flowers bloomed magnificent and passionate, but only for a short while, easily ruffled by harsh winds and torn by coarse fingertips.
Flora’s beauty was eternal, incomparable.
The sun had sunk below the horizon, taking the heat waves with it. It was always raging hot during the day, sweat dripping from your pores constantly, but then the cold wind hit you like a slap in the face. I had left my jacket in the car and my shoulders were bare and sunburnt.
Slowly, I waded into the water, toes sinking into the soft sand. When I got out far enough, I laid back against the current, my body as light as a log. I looked up at the night sky, thinking that the stars were bright, but they had been brighter with Flora beside me.
The water kept moving beneath, it washed away the sand clung against my bathers, stripping me of dirt and grime, my melted icy pole only a fleeting thought. Then, I closed my eyes.
The forest hadn’t changed. The birds were still singing, flowers still blooming, but Flora wasn’t among them.
“Flora!” I called out. “It’s me, Johanna. I know I haven’t come for years, I’m sorry.” The birds themselves stopped their song, leaving my voice to be the only one echoing. “Please let me see you.”
I stood there in silence for minutes and minutes. Chills crept all over me despite the humidity, like the giant furry legs of spiders, and I stood completely still, afraid of the blood their pincers could draw from my flesh.
My hands clenched into fists, then unclenched because I didn’t want Flora to think I was angry. However, my nails had already left crescent indents in my palm. It was too silent. The birds still hadn’t resumed their song, not even a wind came to rustle the flowers.
“Flora!” I called desperately once more.
“That is just a name you fancied for me.” Her words ricocheted right to my heart. I had been waiting to hear that voice for years.
The mist parted, the forest still deadly silent.
She had grown taller, limbs long and elegant and graceful. She wore a dress made of shimmery red fabric that hugged against her gentle curves and spilled down her legs in threads of beads. She left a trail of rose petals behind when she walked. Thorns were woven through her hair. Her lips stood out bright crimson against skin as smooth and pale as moonshine.
She looked up at me, butterfly lashes fluttering.
“You came back,” Flora said, almost a tremor of nervousness in her voice.
“Of course I came back,” I said. “I was just… embarrassed and frightened.”
Flora tilted her head. “Why is that so?” she asked, stroking the feathers of a colourful bird.
“Because you’re beautiful and gentle and kind, and I loved you from the moment I laid eyes on you. I was embarrassed because you could not love me the same. When I lie down to sleep, I think of you. I dream about you, and when I wake up, I think about you some more. I love you,” I said. “That is the truth plain and simple.”
Flora wrung her hand, then extended her fingers to my hair, stroking it gently. “The truth is never plain and simple,” she said. “You have let love blind you to what is right before you.” She exhaled. “Who do you think I got all dressed up for?”
My heart stilled.
That was how we ended up kissing beneath the leaves and buds of a thousand flowers. Vines crept up my ankles, tugging me closer to her. I buried my hand in her thorn woven hair, not caring about how it cut my skin and made me bleed. As long as I could have Flora.
After we broke away, Flora held up her hands, and in her palms was a bright red flower. The same one whose juice I had choked on. “Do you wish to stay here with me?” she asked.
“Yes,” I replied. “A hundred times, yes.”
“You would have to give up your life and all the people you care about.” Flora said, her voice shook a little. “Are you still willing?”
I held my hands against her cheeks. “You are the only one I care about,” I said, meeting her eyes that sparkled so unbelievably bright.
She gave me the flower. “Then drink.” I held the bud against my lips, tipping my head back. The sour juice ran down my throat. And I drank and drank until I could drink no more.
This time, I didn’t choke, and Flora remained before me.
Just us, and the birds and the trees and the flowers… forever.