In a field of poppies, I lie in wait.
Blinking the warm afternoon sun out of my eyes, a stray breeze kisses a shiver into my skin. In the dawning of spring, I twirl a leaf between my fingers, one of many; it is emerald and bold. Nature's first green is gold, her hardest hue to hold. From my leatherbound notebook, I pull out a pressed carnation. Its pink petals are sun-soaked and radiant. There is no place else in the world I would rather be―only there is, with her.
I am a child dancing in the greenhouse. My father, one of the Mavis Country Estate groundskeepers, brought me to the greenhouse to keep an eye on me. Too young to know better and too brave to care, I spin haphazardly from one shelf to another, making sure every plant pot is watered. Surrounded by flowers of all curious shapes and colours, I hum to myself, flitting from one plant to the next, the water sloshing around unceremoniously.
I had spent countless days at the greenhouse. When I wasn’t at the schoolhouse or home, I was there, watering the plants, pruning the trees, arranging bouquets. I had grown to love the flowers most. Learning their hidden meanings and secrets, I became fluent in the language of thorns and roses. Some were frighteningly beautiful, while others held within them a clandestine magnificence that could not easily be seen―but none of them could ever be as beautiful as her.
Blinking, I didn’t even notice the shattered clay pot at my feet; the orange-tipped marigolds had fallen through my fingertips―my heart tumbled out of my chest.
In the beginning, we were two children with lanky limbs and floppy hair, our hands too small for our hearts, but we held each other anyway. There was nobody else in the world like her. We talked about the world and all its absurdity with unwavering smiles and contagious giggles, like the word bittersweet and how ridiculous party hats looked. She taught me about the drab ways of high society, and I taught her about flowers.
On days where we couldn’t see each other, we'd leave flowers for each other on my worktable. Pale blue salvias; I miss you—sunflowers; friendship. Canterbury Bell; message received.
Although we did not go to the same school, she would meet me in the greenhouse with a crown of ivory myrtle woven into her russet hair. She had all the grace her birthright promised.
As time meandered on and way led on to way, we slowly become entwined with one another. Her title and my status never mattered when we went fishing in the river, painting in the gardens, or repotting plants. Once I told her that the woods were no place for a Lady, she shoved me and kept walking, rattling the crab traps in her hand.
"This is nice. We should do this more often," she said, pouring soil into a plant pot, mud caking around the hem of her trousers. She’s happy. I am happy. In this golden hour, the young crocus leaves are gilded and green. Together we mill around the Estate, nothing more than restless children, hungry for adventure.
My father and I bury my mother, and still, she stands at my side. Cosette holds my hand and tells me she’s in a better place. We plant marigolds by her grave, our final farewell―goodbye. When I finish my schooling, I get a job as a groundsman and work alongside my father.
One summer night, we sat on the moorings by the lake, shoulder to shoulder. Splashing our feet in the freezing water, we watch azaleas float away in the wind. She takes another swig of the whiskey I brought, and I catch myself memorizing the mischievous curve of her lips, the smile she crafted just for me. My hands fit hers as if we were made for each other, and I stop to wonder if there could be a life where a Lady of Mavis family would choose a groundskeeper. If only we could run away together. Taking the whiskey from her, I take a sip, and I dash the thought before I fall too in love with it―I am already too in love with her. Setting the bottle beside me, I hold her face in my hands and kiss her.
Now no longer children, we know what must happen next. Neither of us says it with words, but our eyes exchanged promises that we are too afraid to say. There was no dream, no future that I want that does not involve you. Neither of us knew what love was, but it was hungry kisses and clumsy caresses. Fingers entwined, we hold each other the only way we knew how, in our arms, chest to chest, the safest place we knew. Neither of us wanted to let go, to be left with nothing but ourselves, but it was as inevitable as the falling of spring. As young and naive as we were, love wouldn’t be enough for us, that much we knew.
In the echo of our love, I stand on a terraced balcony and watch her walk down the aisle into the arms of a sapphire eyed Lord. Garlands of evergreens hung still in the winter gloom. The violin quartet's honeyed notes filled the air as Cosette and her husband floated on the dancefloor. It has been a few years since we parted ways at the lake, but even from a distance, I could see that her lips carried the same wicked curves I knew all too well.
That night white and yellow chrysanthemums and pearl pink carnations littered my worktable. Rubbing a stray petal between my fingers, I knew that they could only have been left by her. The golden flowers were wilted and brown in places, but the message was clear enough; I’ll never forget you. Goodbye.
Pressing one of each flower in my notebook, I left behind a bushel of violet canterbury bells and crimson gardenias. Message received; I love you.
Young and untethered, I still yearned for an adventure, but my heart so full of love―so full of her, that I hardly knew what to do. For a while, I worked a few odd jobs around town. I couldn’t bear to go back to the greenhouse―not without her, but before I could discover the world, war drums sounded, and I was conscripted to the Royal Army.
Most days, I march from one battlefield to the next, loading ammunition, sewing up wounds, bury the dead. I haven't seen a flower in months. I can't sleep. I no longer get letters from Cosette.
Fight. Survive. Breathe.
Fight. Survive. Grieve.
The cycle does not end; only the men break. There are no unwounded soldiers in war. It is autumn again, and leaf subsides to leaf. Nothing gold can stay.
The men in my regiment have begun to call me sunny. I don’t have a clue, but I think it has something to do with the sunflowers I grow when I am at the garrison. At first, it was only herbs and medicinal plants to help the medics, but then one doctor gave me a sunflower seed pack. I planted the canary-coloured flowers everywhere. By the canteen, in front of the infirmary, around the barracks. They were the first flowers I had seen in years, beautiful and untouched. A symbol of vitality and happiness, but I would be lying if I didn’t say that I also planted them to remind me of her―of our friendship.
Sometimes when I am sent to the infirmary, I dream of her. Giggling in a field of lavender, she is happy and free, always wearing a crown of red carnations. My heart aches for you.
We eventually win the war, but they still do not know the price we paid. Broken and bruised from the battlefield, I go home, back to my village. My unsteady gate is a result of the bones never set quite right after the war. Sometimes when I am tired, I limp. I bury my father next to my mother, I sell my childhood home, and buy a new house with a garden in a quiet part of town. The war is over, but I can’t―I still can’t remember how to breathe. I sleep on the floor near the fire because my bed is too soft, too good for this broken body. My dreams are filled with blood, ashes, and screams. My hands can’t stop shaking when night falls.
The months melt into years, and I buy a little store in town. I turn it into a flower shop. I teach the children which plants to grow in their garden and their mothers’ what herbs to put in their tea. I paint small white lilies on my bedroom walls, bright snapdragons in the kitchen, and periwinkle hydrangeas in the living room. I paint Eden on the store wall in an attempt to find myself, but it is a garden full of grief. These are the only things that bring me peace these days. I no longer think of my boyhood, of days full of laughter and light, but sometimes I think I see her in the corner of my eye.
I cannot breathe, but I keep trying. Every night I drown. Sunrise has become resurrection. Most days, I watch the dawn grow into day. This second life my redemption, there is no going back, but still, I go on. I am a shell of a man, haunted by war with a broken heart beating the best it can; most days, I attempt to sew joy and hope back into my chest, but the seeds never seem to take root. I have become the definition of ruin.
The flower shop soon becomes a favourite of the merchants in town, and one day a woman with raven hair and warm toffee eyes walks in. Her name is Lucie. From market days, I knew she had a sharp tongue and owned the trading post. Like me, she is middle-aged with sun-kissed skin with laugh lines that hint at brighter days. At first, she comes by with questions about roses and sunflowers. In time she starts buying flowers to put in her window. Purple peonies were her favourite. Bashful, a happy life. Somewhere along the way, she convinces me to walk with her in the town square and go with her on business trips. I take her fishing in the rivers and strolls in the forest. She grows to love my constant humming, and I learn to love her silver tongue. We fight and yell but never build a wall too high to cross. She is happy with me as I am, and I think I could be happy with her.
One midsummer night, she and I are lying in the grass of my garden, her head on my shoulder. We are too old for butterflies, but we are hungry all the same. Lucie talks about the future and asks me if I wouldn’t mind spending it with her. I hadn’t held anyone in my heart since my youth, and after my years on the battlefield, I didn't think anyone would want me, but she didn't mind. Lucie had fought and lost people during the war. She knew the depth of my loss. She knew me, and I knew her. I kiss the top of her head and whisper softly, "I would love that." With her, it was never love at first sight, but love at first laugh, first secret, first dance; we grew into love.
I think nothing can stay gold forever, but in this after, I am learning to breathe again.
Simple bronze bands adorn our ring fingers. We spend our days working the trading post and flower shop and then come home to one another. Lucie teaches me how to breathe again, and for the first time in years, I sleep without nightmares. It wasn’t easy, but she walked me back to the light. Maybe this is what love is meant to be?
A few years later, her nephew comes to live with us after his parents die. He was no older than five when he first arrived, and while the thought of children terrified me, this one wasn’t so bad. Wrinkles begin to creep across our faces, and her nephew starts to call me uncle Akmad and then papa. I teach him how to fish in the rivers and paint a happier Eden. He teaches me how to fix the radio and how to mend clothes. We all laugh when I accidentally sew my trousers to the tablecloth. Together the three of us plant yarrows in the front garden; everlasting love taking root.
It was the first day of spring that the flowers began to show up at my door.
One afternoon, a singular sprig of salvia was left on my doorstep, pale robin’s egg blue; I miss you. Perplexed, I put the flower in a glass bottle near the window, by the door and left for work. I now wore spectacles, my hair slowly turning white; I welcomed the wrinkles on my face, for there was a time I thought I’d never grown old. My limp becomes more pronounced, and I start to use a cane. Although the lingering chill of winter still hung in the air, April showers and flower blooms made the weather all the more lovely. The next flower came a few months later. This time it was a yellow pansy, I think of you.
Not a fortnight later, another bouquet of salvias appeared.
That night I left a bouquet of yellow marguerite flowers with a note. My Lady? The following day a yellow marguerite flower wreath with cerise carnations hung on my door. See you soon. I’ll never forget you. I love you. Attached was a note with the words I thought I told you not to call me that. Something unbearably heavy slammed against my chest as the world shifted.
A young woman meets me at the gates and takes me to the old ironwood and glass greenhouse. Once she left, I began to pace a familiar stretch of marble floor. The worn stone was dull in the fading light of day, but I was almost sure I could still find the spot where I had carved my initials as a boy. Finding my way to the back, I see my old worktable, untouched by the time a vase of orange-tipped marigolds sat on the rough-hewn surface.
In my calloused hands, I cradle the flowers against me. I feel her arms around me before I hear her. Strong and steady, she hugs me from behind. I didn’t have to look to know who it was. “You came,” she sobbed, "you're alive." Turning around to face her, I didn't even notice that I had let go of the flowers until she lunged to catch them, the clay vase in her hands.
Taking a step back, I saw the new lines of age on her face. A scar that I had never seen runs across her forearm. Now bare of flowers from her girlhood, she wore a gold necklace fashioned to look like an ornate sprig myrtle curled around her neck. Cosette was dressed in the regalia of a Lady, complete with a diadem of gold; her umber hair is pinned up on top of her head. Her ring finger held one simple gold band.
“Are you well?” My voice comes out shakier than I wanted it to, but I can’t help it. She and I sit on my old workbench and talk. She tells me about her children, all five of them. I tell her about the shop. She tells me that she’s taken up baking, even though it makes the kitchen staff uneasy. I tell her about my paintings. She tells me that she ran away to fight in the war. I tell her that war is no place for a Lady; she shoves me gently but doesn’t get mad. She tells me that she’s happy, and I joke that he must be one hell of a man. She laughs with me. The sound is so foreign yet so familiar.
Reaching out, she has my hand in hers, and I feel it. I see it in her eyes. The embers of our friendship were still there, but she no longer had a smile just for me, and I no longer want to hold her. She and I are nothing more than strangers with a past.
We agree to keep in touch, to stay in each other’s lives. Once a week, she comes to the shop to pick out flowers, and I agree to meet her for lunch in town. Sometimes she brings the children, other times, her husband. Lord Rafaele is tall and quick-witted and almost as funny as her. I am happy that she has found someone who can make her laugh in the world with so much loss. Lucie comes with me every now and then, and together the two women laugh like old friends. We relearn each other’s laugh. Discover each other’s new likes, new loves. We are happy for each other.
Lucie and I spend the remainder of our lives together. Our hair turns grey, our bodies curl into each other. Though frail and tired, we hold each other the best way we can―in our hearts.
The earth claims me first, and I wait seven years to see her again.
In a field of poppies, she’s sprinting towards me, her arms are open, her smile wide. We are young again, haphazard and bold. I bury my face in her neck, and she laughs against my chest. This is how―where I was always meant to be. Lucie and I walk hand in hand.
Together again, we are sun-soaked and radiant, giggling like children in a field of poppies.