“Oh yeah? The common snowdrop. There’s a hundred freezing outside, so why is this one freezing in here?”
February crept in through the windows, invaded gaps in the old, tumbling masonry. Thomas’s breath fogged the air, there was frost around the rim of Grandma Evie’s wine glass. Her bedroom's only fire burned at the end of her cigarette.
But still, the old witch refused to die. Thomas took her hand; dry, cold cracked skin and age hollowed bones, stretched across the meanest bitch England had ever borne.
She spat a cough to the rafters, washed it down with the last sip of wine, and a drag off her cigarette.
“That common flower is my last will and testament. It’s your inheritance, boy.”
Thomas looked into the pot. Nothing but empty dirt and a hint of green; he had to squint to see it.
Thomas squeezed her hand. “I always knew you hated me, but even for you this is art.”
Her cough twisted into a laugh, the laugh drowned in watery lungs. Every night Thomas crept into this room through their adjoining door and stared down at the shriveled old woman who had raised him, thinking that this would be the night her breath froze in her lungs.
“You wouldn’t know…” she wheezed, “the first thing about art.”
“Nor flowers. Dammit boy, help me up.”
Gently, Thomas drew her up against the headboard. She reached out, took the flowerpot from the bedside table herself. When he was little, Thomas had thought of Grandma Evie like the busts in the foyer, as tough and timeless as ancient marble. With the flowerpot in hand, she slipped into that woman like an old coat.
“This flower is special,” she said. “I call it Galanthus nivalis novum. You’ve seen its cousins in the garden.”
“Yes. They’re blooming.”
“But this one isn’t. Why my Fair-Maid has hardly even grown.
“And that’s worth more than the manor?” Thomas asked.
The cough bubbled up, tore free; Grandma Evie filled a handkerchief with scarlet spotted phlegm. A maid came for the handkerchief, traded it for another cup of wine.
“Grandmother,” Thomas said, “when will it bloom?”
A sharp smile creased her face. “When I die, my boy, when I die.” She sipped her wine, lit another cigarette. “God, I hope it’s beautiful.”
The cigarette burned out. Thomas left for tea, stayed away for supper. He walked the snowdrop gardens, and when the stars came out he tried to plot the future in them.
In the morning a boy was seen walking south, an empty flowerpot tucked beneath his arm, tears freezing on ruddy cheeks.
“Evelyn, have you seen my glasses?”
Giggles echoed through the greenhouse. An old man stood beneath warm lights, New England February bleeding into March on the other side of the glass. He squinted through the rows of flowers, saw suggestions of shapes swimming by in reds and purples, crowned by the silky white battery of snowdrops he had raised.
“Evelyn, I do rather need my glasses. “And,” Thomas said sternly, “my flower.”
Another giggle. Thomas sat on the greenhouse’s lone chair, carefully arranging his long, dark jacket. “Oh well, I suppose there’s nobody here. No sense in stories, hmm.”
“Stories?” Evelyn said, poking her head up from the blurry sea of flowers.
“Can I keep the special flower?”
“Little girl, who taught you how to bargain?”
“Momma!” she said proudly.
“I shall have to speak with your momma.”
“Okay!” She stepped out, a little girl who— when Thomas had his glasses— had worn a dress of snowdrop white fringed with bands of black, black buttons and a black collar, ribbons in her hair. Now she looked like an adorably melted snowman. Thomas gathered the squirming mound of snow onto his lap and she pushed his glasses onto his nose.
“Ah, that’s better. Now I can see what you stole!”
Thomas chuckled, laid a protective hand on the little flowerpot in his granddaughter’s lap. “Galanthus nivalis novum. The not-so-common snowdrop.”
“Like those!” Evelyn said, pointing.
Thomas patted his granddaughter’s shoulder. “Good memory! Yes, you might say those snowdrops are this flower’s cousin. Only they aren’t half so rare, so special. And I won’t be half so cross with you if anything happens to them.”
Evelyn’s eyes widened. “But I’d never—”
Thomas pressed his finger to her lips. “See that you keep it that way.”
Pink ribbons bobbed as she nodded and Thomas snapped his fingers, said: “But ah, your story!”
Evelyn nuzzled into his chest and he brushed her shoulder, whistling a lullaby as he gathered his thoughts.
“Little one, how much has your mother told you about this flower?”
“I don’t know,” Evelyn said.
“Not much then, hmm? Well, my grandmother didn’t tell me much either, but yet here we are.” Thomas leaned in, his voice becoming very serious. “Evie, would you like to know where this flower came from?”
Evelyn gave her most serious nod.
Thomas smiled. “When my grandmother, your great-great-grandmother, was a little girl about your age, she met a boy destined for the navy. Navy brats, they play rough you see. He knocked her into the snow the first time they met, and it wasn’t until after that that he realized one didn’t do such things to little noble girls.
“The way Grandma Evie’s journal told it, he dug through the melting snow looking for a flower, any flower he could use to apologize, and what he found was a snowdrop.”
“This one?” Evelyn asked, holding the flowerpot up.
Thomas let the tension build. Evelyn held the flowerpot up until her little arms began shaking and then Thomas leaned in further, raising his hand menacingly.
“No,” he said, poking the tip of her nose.
She dissolved into a fit of giggles and Thomas hugged her to him.
“It was a nice, normal snowdrop, though even then Grandma Evie claimed to know that snowdrops were truly February Fair-Maids.”
“A superstition. The Victorians thought snowdrops were a harbinger you see, they meant a death would come. And there was death.”
Wind howled against the greenhouse windows. Evelyn leaned into Thomas’s shoulder. He toyed idly with her hair. “When your great-great-grandfather joined the navy he revived the tradition as an apology for time spent away. He came bearing dahlias and roses, chrysanthemums and violets, and one day, to apologize for an out-of-season trip to the Mediterranean, he sent home this, the flower that never bloomed. The flower made it home, but he never did.”
Evelyn was silent for a long time, staring down at the little stem punching up through the soil. “Will it ever bloom?”
“Oh yes, I’m sure it will.”
Thomas smiled faintly. “Why, the day I die, my dear. It’s a Fair-Maid after all, and look at me, surrounded by all you girls. It seems I’m the Maiden-Keeper.”
“I don’t think I like snowdrops anymore,” Evelyn whispered.
And Thomas, though an old man with an old man’s somber moods, nonetheless knew when he had erred. He shook his head and kissed her hair. He adjusted her ribbons, found her jacket, and got down on his knees to zip it up. “Ah Evie," Thomas said, "it will be so beautiful when it finally blooms.
They made snow angels and snowmen, and later, running up the big hill towards the house he’d built, Thomas felt a sudden shooting pain through his chest and down his right arm.
“So what made you want to be a botanist?” Sanjay shouted.
Dark curls and a thin, pleasant face, kind eyes that looked everywhere but at her. By the time he’d finally asked her out Sanjay himself was the only one surprised, a look that was finally fading now that she’d taken him to Mandy’s, where a synthesized bass was always pounding, and the drinks were just cheap enough for grad student budgets.
“What made you want to be an astronomer?” Evelyn said, slipping her words past deafening vocals.
Evelyn rolled her eyes. “My grandpa did! Grandpa Thomas was obsessed. He built his own greenhouse, he even left me his favorite flower.”
“Ah yes, the flower! My grandfather left me his telescope,” Sanjay said wistfully. “It was beautiful, all brass with little golden inlays, the designs engraved by hand. I had to leave it behind when I left India.”
“Oh! I’m sorry.”
Sanjay laughed, took another sip of his beer. He was drinking fast tonight.
“Don’t be! The first thing I learned after I came here was not to trust the pretty things. That telescope, it was terrible. It hardly worked at all. The one I have now, it’s much better.”
“Hmm,” Evelyn tapped a finger against her lips, “then does that mean you don’t trust me?”
Sanjay dropped his empty glass. Evelyn couldn’t help but laugh and tell him she’d been joking, that she did that sometimes— a bad habit. They drank until her jokes loosened him up again.
“So, how’s your thesis going?” Evelyn asked. “Did you find a new topic?”
“I think so,” Sanjay said. His sharp chin rested on the edge of a half-empty glass, fringed by an enticing shadow of a beard. “I— well, Carlos and I discovered a new comet approaching.”
“Thank you! I think I can make this one work. I’ve been coming up with names all week.” He took another sip and burped softly, shaking his head as he apologized
“Names? What kind of names?”
“The stupid kind.”
“Oh, now you’ve got to tell me.”
“No, no, I—”
“Tell me and you can take me out again.”
Sanjay snapped to attention. “Sanjay’s streak. The Bombay Blur. The—”
“Okay,” Evelyn laughed, “it’s a date!”
“A date,” Sanjay breathed.
“Focus, tiger. So what's this comet like? Very comet-y?”
“Actually no,” Sanjay frowned. “It looks like a comet but there’s something so odd about it. And— well, it’s very complex and I am very drunk and you are very beautiful and I… I…”
Sanjay hiccupped. “I’m sorry, I don’t drink much. At all really. Tell me about your thesis?”
“What, you want to know even more about the world’s most stubborn flower?”
“Well me too, because I’ve got nothing. Not. A. Fucking. Thing.” Evelyn punctuated each word with a rap on the table. The bartender glanced over at them. He looked haggard, and Evelyn had learned that when even the bartender was tired you knew you were out too late.
“We should go soon,” Evelyn said, “but the gist of it is that I’ve tried every trick known to man to get the damn thing to bloom and it simply doesn’t care. I’ve changed the soil’s PH, fucked with the temperature, fed it every brand of plant food under the sun, locked it away from the sun— nothing. Not. A. Fucking. Thing. It’s definitely not dead, it’s definitely alive, and it’s definitely some form of snowdrop. And that’s all I’ve got.”
“Maybe we’re both a little odd,” Sanjay said.
Evelyn smiled. “That’s where all the beauty lies.”
Sanjay smiled back. He finished his beer and closed his eyes, and when he opened them he was a different man. He reached out and took her hand, and when he pulled her up Evelyn thought he might kiss her. Instead, he nodded, and she laughed, and they danced their way towards last call.
“The oddest thing of all,” Priya was saying, “is that it even bothers to grow.”
“Priya, I swear to god if you don’t give me that flower right now…”
The snowdrop’s tall, drooping stem wavered in the bleak October breeze. Priya had read and re-read her great-grandfather’s journal; she knew that when he’d come to America it had barely broken the soil. After a lifetime of measurements, her mother had thought it might finally bloom in the next thirty years. They’d sat in her study marking dates in February 2035, Priya hoping more than anything that if it dared to bloom it would bloom on her mother’s birthday.
Evelyn Subramanian would have been 76 years old.
“Give me that!” Daniel shouted, darting into the backseat.
Priya’s older siblings hadn’t been in the study.
Daniel took the snowdrop, slamming the door behind him. All was quiet in the cemetery, save the engine Daniel left running. He hadn’t even dressed up. Priya wore a sari, Sabrina wore a suit.
“We shouldn’t do this,” Priya said, “she wouldn’t have wanted this, Dad would want this, he—”
“Is he taking your calls?” Daniel’s fingers dug into the flowerpot, grasped the fragile stem.
“Danny, stop!” Priya said. “Sabrina—”
“She’s right Danny, cut it out.” Daniel swore. He tossed the flowerpot to Sabrina and stalked away through the weathered headstones.
Sabrina took Priya’s hand. She spoke quietly. Firmly. “Priya, you’ve got to understand. We’re still going to plant it.”
“I’ll dig it up again.”
Sabrina’s grip tightened. “Listen to me. That flower is going into the ground and we’re going home. We’ll forget about it until we come back to put roses on Mom’s grave, and then we’ll glance over and say ‘Hey, would you look at that! It still hasn’t bloomed.’ And that will be it.”
“Mom’s dead, Priya! She died obsessed, like everyone else, like Dad in his fucking observatory. I’m done. You know, in school I learned about cycles of abuse. I’m not letting my kids get abused by a fucking flower. It’s literally too stupid for words!”
Sabrina took a great, heaving breath. Her hair had fallen from its bun, spilling ink-black across the lapels of her suit.
“Too late sis,” Priya said, “I’m already obsessed.”
“Yeah? Then this is a fucking intervention.”
They found Daniel at the headstone, fist balled up above their mother’s name. Sabrina planted the flower with their mother’s trowel, the frigid Earth resisting.
Priya read the headstone three times, wishing there’d been some kind of mistake. As if there could be another Evelyn Subramanian anywhere in the world, as if that were a common name.
Daniel wandered away. He’d find somewhere quiet to stare at the texts he’d sent their dad, all the missed calls the broken man had been unable to answer.
It didn’t help at all that Dad had answered her. Such a cryptic message, “Comet trajectory off. Give your mom my love.”
It made Priya want to cry. Grieving for a dead parent was bad enough, but to grieve for one still living?
And then she was crying, and Sabrina was holding her.
“I know you’ll come back,” Sabrina said.
Priya nodded. They heard Daniel shout with pain, he’d punched another tree.
“I will too,” Sabrina said, “for the roses. So I’ll know if you dig it up, and I’ll bring it back. You understand, right? This isn’t healthy.”
“I’m not fucking around! Look at me. Look at me!” Priya tried to slip away. Sabrina’s strong hands seized her, and for a moment they wrestled above their mother’s grave.
“That flower is never going to bloom. Never. Mom died waiting for it, just like great-grandpa Thomas and his grandmother. And even if it does, what then? Priya, I’m doing this because I love you! How beautiful can a flower be?”
Priya stared into Sabrina’s eyes. She stared until Sabrina let her go, until Daniel stalked past them, dripping blood across the ground. She stared until the snow fell, until they took her away.
Gilgeous’s ship soared by overhead, a blunted diamond trailing silver streaks across the sky as it scanned for animal life. For inspiration. For anything worth a eulogy.
From the poisoned seas to the boneyards, there was nothing.
And Gilgeous had been sent to write a poem for all that nothing.
His people had imagined first contact a million different ways. Proud ships streaking through an ocean of night, captained by Ambassadors and Admirals; that was how it should have been. In all those imaginings it had never been a scout ship captained by a second lieutenant, blinded to protocols and procedures by his lust for fame.
But still, who would have thought that an entire world could be allergic to that?
Now the Earth was allergic to poetry. It pushed back against Gilgeous’s feet, the stark towers and the fetid biomass rebelled against his presence. Didn’t it know why he was here?
In the end, he’d settled on graveyards. Ordered ranks of weathered marble, names, and deeds engraved upon stately stones. There was sense in a graveyard. The land had been bred for death, it wore apocalypse well.
Gilgeous picked his way from headstone to headstone, eyes devouring the landscape. When his eyes were sated he closed them, came to know the world by his sensitive fingers. When his fingers were rubbed raw he tasted the air with a forked tongue. He found and followed a hint of sweetness.
The sweetness grew until Gilgeous fell to his knees before it. He reached out and learned the scent with his fingers. He opened his eyes— wide.
A skeleton lay in the shadow of a gravestone, wrapped around a single perfect flower. Silk white, three soft petals cupped a fragile bloom that drooped down to graze an empty eye socket. Flesh decayed, bones decayed, yet the empty eyes still stared with a gaze that excluded the world.
Gilgeous realized he was crying. A tear fell, caught a drop of half-melted snow, and rode it down to kiss the flower. Lines twisted through Gilgeous’s mind, racing through rhymes, composing and discarding as he stared at the flower and the skeleton.
In an ocean of meaningless, horrific deaths, this was the first death that Gilgeous understood.
He reached out, caressing the dead human’s skull as the poem came together. Three stanzas, one for each petal, three titanic blows that could capture an entire world.
And a fourth, a whisper for this human who’d died on the mad quest for beauty. A kindred soul worth a tear, a snowdrop, an elegy.
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Sometimes a story has such a subtle perfection to it that I read it, and then re-read it, and just sit back and think how I'll never write something so wonderful. This is one of those stories. I don't even know if I completely understand it, but still it means something to me. Amazing work.