"You will know it is spring when you are blooming again, my dear." She hears her mother’s voice whisper in the winds. That is how she knows she is dreaming again.
In her dream, she is imprisoned under the earth in a palace made of bones and gems.
"The gates are always open for you," the King of the dead had said as he showed her to her rooms. She was not too naive to understand that her rooms and this home were a gilded cage.
She is in the Underworld, all heat and smoke. Endless miles of black rock extend as far as she can see, only to be broken up by six rivulets of firewater and glowing liquid. There are shapes in the gloom: bat-winged hags, a three-headed dog, a hooded boatman, specters and shades, and the odd skeleton. Screams of the damned fill the air and mix with the smell of ash, brimstone, and misery.
It has been so long since she had last seen a flower.
She can feel the ache in her chest as her heart twinges and pinches in despair. That last bloom had been vanity, a pale yellow narcissus, offered to her from the hands of the Earth, smiling at the bluest skies and shining under the sun.
That had been the last she had seen of spring before the King of the Dead broke through the ground astride a golden chariot and brought her below.
And now she was here, in her gardens filled with shadows of them: silvery hothouse blooms, asphodel lilies, golden vines with emerald leaves, and interspersed between them are her coral skinned pomegranates.
She runs a cautious hand over one of the low-hanging fruits, and a sticky droplet of juice runs along the length of her index finger.
She eyes it curiously before realizing that she had not yet eaten. She brings the drop up to her mouth and tastes the sweetness of its heart, and under it, something older.
A compact. A law.
From the wooden poplar doors, a pale-skinned nymph emerges and whispers the words her master had relayed. “He wishes to speak to you, my lady.”
As she treads barefoot on the smooth garden soil, she can already imagine him, on his skull throne, pale-skinned and fine-boned yet unspeakably beautiful.
He will speak to her of love and kingdoms and worlds that he will offer her, but she will decline, for what she wishes is something he will not give.
Then their conversation will fade away aimlessly until he summons her and it is brought up again...
For the past ten years, Iris could feel herself gradually losing interest in her life: its motions, its shakes, and lulls. Her daily routine consisted of waking up to her 7 a.m. alarm, entering the cold shower, then quickly evacuating her apartment while she clutched her morning coffee (more sugar and cream than coffee) on the dull work commute.
Afterward, she would sit at her desk, going through the motions of her work while consciously counting the hours till she got home and collapsed into the blankness of sleep.
“You ought to rest and have a change of scenery, Iris.” Margaret, the motherly 70-year-old who lived on the ground floor apartment greeted her.
It was past nine and Iris was exhausted.
“I do Mrs. Sumner,” she replied, respectfully before moving to take the steps.
“Y’know Iris, it’s a Friday night,” The silver-haired lady clucked. “Maybe y’all would want to eat with me and my nephew so y’all wouldn’t have to cook tonight.”
“Oh no! It’s alright Mrs. Sumner, I’m sure I have something left in the fridge,” she lied.
Iris rushed up the steps while the remnants of the invitation chased her up to her apartment.
She hadn’t lied, sometimes a holiday would interrupt the tedious cycle of work and stress. But ever since she had arrived in the city, Iris found that making friends was work in itself and she didn’t have the energy to move or to live at all.
That had died ever since her mother had forced her to go take up a business course in college and work in the city.
She could still remember them arguing at the dinner table of their bungalow. “Iris Eliana Mirasol Lopez! Each one of your cousins is either a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer.” Even at five foot one, her mother could berate death if she had wished to. “You will take something respectable, not art or dancing or painting. I will not let you make a mockery of our family!” The measure of a Filipino family was how much their child could stand up against their relatives' children.
And that had been the death knell, the day Iris had died and withered up under the crushing weight of responsibility.
So she would spend the break days, avoiding the world and staring at a blank page, waiting for words that would not come. Sometimes, she just spent it in bed, cradling her guitar like a lover while her voice refused to sing notes she could reach in the bygone days.
The music had left her and it had been winter every day since then.
“Iris,” his voice called after her.
Christmas was a few weeks away and she could feel the cold breath of winter in the air.
He was a kindred spirit after all.
But as she turned on her heels, Iris could feel her heart quivering with the heat of something she had not felt in a while. Sol Springen’s teakwood eyes, brilliant white smile, and smooth baritone did inexplicable things to her.
“Hi Sol,” she managed to squeak out.
They were standing on their floor, empty because it was overtime in December, the desks their only witness. It was another late night on Friday but this time it managed to seem different. And the man in front of her was the sole reason why.
Iris could not remember how it had started, for her days in the city had always been so cold and lonely; but this man across the floor, whom everyone loved and admired, had slowly coaxed her out of the lonely spell she had cast on herself.
His easy attempts of conversation at lunch and on the walks home had slowly transformed into lunches with the rest of the staff in the food court. Sometimes she sat, a silent observer, while they drank and sang in an obscure bar up until the sunlight bled across the horizon.
“Are you going to ask me out again to dinner or something?” Iris attempted to joke.
But instead of Sol laughing in good humor, his cheeks burned red as he awkwardly ran his hands through his smooth chocolate hair. “I was… I… I wanted to-”, he attempted.
She had never seen this side of him before, it amused and flattered her all at once. “What is it, Sol?” She asked plaintively.
Her reflection from the mirror on the adjacent desk coerced her to attempt to fix her messy bun and straighten her messy blazer.
Iris couldn’t understand what had flustered him so, it was only her. Iris. The middle-aged Filipino woman two desks away with her personality as dull as her face. A voice that had long since given up music and feet that were strangers to dancing.
But his question blew those thoughts away. “The party next week… would you come with me?”
She looked up to see his cheeks creased with the dimples of a blindingly nervous smile.
And because of how he had somehow brought her to life again, Iris couldn’t bring herself to say no.
Two weeks later, she was ensconced in an old violet dress that swished like iris petals on the dance floor. She was flying in Sol’s strong arms to the lullaby voice of Nat King Cole. He was singing of autumn and a love that had died with its promised dreams.
“Not a very romantic song is it?” Sol’s voice brushed by her earlobe.
Iris laughed a little bit,” I’m not looking for that now.”
“Really?” He asked though she could hear the disappointment in his voice.
“I loved once and it was taken away from me.”
“And what is that?”
Iris let his unspoken question hanging in the air for a moment before resting her head on his chest. His ocean eyes were tinged with concern as he waited for her reply.
“Music and words,” she confessed. “I wanted to make it to Broadway once.”
“What stopped you?”
“Aaahhh, yes,” he answered. He understood what she had meant.
As they had grown closer, she had told him of her bygone days, where she could finish three poems and a song in a day and then prance around town with her friends. She was everywhere: in a bar or a coffeeshop or a mall; doing whatever it was that the living did in their spare time.
She had told him of her life and the fallout between her and her mother. How when Irina Feliza Mirasol Lopez had died of stage 4 pancreatic cancer and she pursued her mother’s dream.
Why she told him those things made no sense, but now as the song ended and a new one began, Iris realized she could trust him all the same.
“I know I can’t give you Broadway, Iris, but-”, Sol maneuvered her to the center of the dance floor and into the spotlight, where Carl crooned from a microphone and offered her its pair.
She took it with shaky palms and looked up to the gathered crowd. Sol waited expectantly by the tables, Sing, he mouthed to her.
Iris shook her head.
The crowd took up the chant and Iris stalled for a moment, slightly angry at the man for putting her in this situation.
But as she looked up to him, she saw something pinned to his lapel that she had not scented or seen while they were slow dancing in the dark. Whether it was a trick of the rainbow-colored lights above or reality warping for her at this moment, she did not know.
Either way, Sol had a rich purple iris on his chest.
The words from her mother’s voice in a dream found her again, You will know it is spring when you are blooming again, my dear.”
And maybe it was slower than she had thought, but the ice in her heart had gradually thawed away. Thanks to the man smiling encouragingly at her, with faith and love in his eyes.
Maybe it was spring.
She gave Sol a blinding smile and began to follow the melody Carl had set. Somehow, under the beautiful iridescent lights, in front of a different world, life’s music found her again like the sun.
It seeped into her bones as Iris serenaded her officemates long into the night, to a Christmas tune and more.
Sol sleeps with Iris in his arms, she is in his downtown apartment rooted to his side, and he dreams. He sits on his bleached-bone throne with his head in his hands while her lovely mother, dressed in her earth and barley-toned garb, attacks him with words.
The world disappears as soon as she prances into the room, with cat-soft feet and a distant smile on her face. Her mother’s words exit his ears without him comprehending their meaning.
All he can see is the beauty of her, like a diamond that had just caught sunlight before exploding into color.
“She deserves to be returned to me!” Her mother screeches. “Her father commands it!”
“And it shall be so,” he replies, serenely.
“My darling,” he addresses her, “your mother has come to take you home.”
Her face bursts into a radiant smile as her wish had finally come true. But as she takes her mother’s hand they do not disappear in a starburst of sunlight and notes of earth. Instead, she is rooted to the ground and unable to move.
He can see tears lining her eyelids.
“Did you eat anything?” Her mother huffs the question angrily.
She realizes now that the juice of the pomegranate had sealed the bargain and she begins to cry.
He does not like it when she weeps, for the world seems a much sadder place with her tears.
Out of his bone-like fingers, he summons a bouquet of her flowers, deep violet irises, and softly tugs away her hands from her face. “You don’t have to weep, my love,” he whispers and places them in her tear-stained palms. “Return to spring and your mother for a half-year. When the world turns cold return to me and I will still be here waiting for you.”
That is as much as he can offer.
Her lips slowly turn up at the edges, and she smiles at him. It is as sweet as pomegranates and brighter than daffodils. "Thank you," she says before she offers him a kiss that tastes of spring.
The black stones of the Underworld and the beautiful boy disappear from her view. It morphs into green meadows and blue skies filled with puffy clouds.
She spares a glance at the bouquet in her hands, and she knows it is spring once again.