Flowers for the Dead, A Long Road for the Mourning

Submitted into Contest #191 in response to: Start your story with your character(s) going to buy some flowers.... view prompt

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Friendship Speculative Sad

The world is a dry place in these strange times. If you want to honor your dead the old way, you’ve got a long road to walk. River City and its spring blooms await the weary pilgrim.

The path stretches long and straight across the cracked soil of the high plains, grayish-red bricks a counterpoint to the muted yellow of the surrounding grassland. I’ve heard it said that the Pilgrim’s Road was originally laid by scouting parties preceding some conquering Roman legion on its long march across the countryside. This seems an obvious falsehood, given the relative unimportance of our little corner of the world, but I appreciate the romantic lie all the same.

Ahead, my fellow travelers stretch out along the horizon, made dusty ghosts by distance and the ministrations of an unforgiving sun on sensitive retina. I don’t know how long I’ve walked this road; my dwindling rations suggest something like two weeks, but boredom has a funny way of interacting with food. I’ve come to understand that the pilgrimage is a religious ceremony only in name. Flowers for the dead, a long road for the mourning; this is the way it must be if the sadness of us pilgrims should not suffocate what remains of the world. I’ve marked the travelers along my path, even made fast friends of a few if only to stave off grief a little longer. Most are like myself, world-weary and short on words. The boy is different though, the boy doesn’t belong here.

The boy stands no taller than my shoulders, young to travel these roads, but not so young as to be unmarked by the realities of hardscrabble living on the frontier. His cloak is new, but thin and cheap. His gait is awkward, as if his soft feet are unsure why they wander west with the rest of these hapless old fools. He seems content to walk along in his own company. I am too restless for such stoicism.

“Hail, pilgrim” I increase my pace to walk beside him. A chill breeze blows in from the North.

“Hail.” The reply is terse, quiet, he doesn’t look up from the dust of the road or otherwise acknowledge my presence. Another minute passes with only the soft scuff of old boots on brickwork. I decide to try again.

“Who do you walk for, friend?” Now, this got a reaction. The boy stops with a childish immediacy as if he lacks the energy for trauma and walking together. His tears had clearly been waiting to ambush him at the first opportunity, as they now flow free and unbidden.

“My Ma and Pa, sir,” he looks up now, grief writ clear on a face that couldn’t be more than fifteen summers, “lost em’ both in the winter. This just seemed right, you know?”

“Oh, I know…” I look for the words. They aren’t coming easy.

“The farm’s drying up. Everyone got sick,” he starts walking again, the words spilling out of him angry and sad now that the tap is open, “I’m gonna get to River City and honor them with flowers, just like the good book says. Maybe then it can make sense, right? Maybe then I’ll know what to do.”

A few more minutes pass, punctuated by footfalls and uncomfortable silence. I thought I should probably comfort this one. I wish I knew how.

“My wife,” I blurt out. I guess that I needed to say it, needed to make it real. “47 years together and I’ll be damned if I’m not lost.” I turned now. The boy has stopped again, tear-streaked visage exhibiting a picture of sympathy far too mature for its years. I am reminded of a painting of the Buddha I’d seen some decades ago in a traveling show, I don’t know why. A moment passes between us, friendship in mutual grief. It didn’t seem fair.

“Share our fire tonight, kid. There’s a woman from the low country that camps with me, a wizard with a pot of soup. The world’s shit sometimes, but good soup is good soup.”

“Alright, mister,” the answer came meek, but not without relief.

***

The day’s sun surrenders without fanfare, giving way to a hazy twilight decorated with the thin gray smoke of cookfires along the Pilgrim’s road. The path begins to climb out of the prairie and toward some convenient pass through the mountains that block tomorrow’s progress, the many fires along its length giving the impression of stars brought low. In our own little sphere of light, the smell of boiling leeks and good, dry woodsmoke fills the air.

Nearby, the old woman’s donkey quietly protests its continued attachment to her cart, while she leans against the trunk of a gnarled little pine, absentmindedly stirring our dinner. I wonder, and not for the first time, at her ability to procure fresh produce weeks into our journey through this nearly lifeless country.

The boy sits on his traveling pack, staring into the heart of the fire with his tears periodically dripping down to mingle with the dust at his feet. He has been like this since I set the kindling to burning. Again, I find myself unable to voice anything worth saying, and again I find myself grateful for the old woman’s presence.

“Don’t see many trees in these parts, do ya?” her folksy, low-country accent cuts through the droll of camp like her wicked little knife cuts through potatoes, “it’s odd what you take fer granted. Don’t notice what it means to ya until it’s gone.” Her unoccupied hand, as gnarled and leathery as the bark on the little dune pine she leans against, reaches up to gently thumb the bud of new spring growth on the tip of one of its branches.

“Had a big ol’ dogwood smack dab in the middle of my village. Grew up in its shadow, ya know? Played beneath it as a girl, kissed on this boy or that one under its shade in the summer, even married one of them boys in the end. Brought my daughters to play neath’ its flowers too. Stood there afore I was born and figured it would still be there after I was dead and gone. Wasn’t though…” With a flick of her wrist the little tributary branch snaps, she tosses it into the fire beneath the soup pot.

“One day, lightning come out of a clear, blue sky and smote that old tree like God had gotten jealous of it. Split the ol’ girl in half and set her to burning, and that was that.” She stops stirring for a moment, clearly lost in an old memory, “I cried more for that tree than I did when my feisty ol’ papa died, would’ve felt silly, being a grown woman with plenty of loss behind her, except that I knew that everyone else in town would be cryin’ too.”

She turns now, lifting the boy’s chin up with her tree-bark hand to meet her eyes, “you know what we did after we got done with the cryin’, boy?”

He sniffles and gently shakes his head.

“We pulled that broken trunk and gave folks a place to sit. We filled her belly with good dirt from our gardens and planted flowers in her stump. We thanked whoever was listenin’ for takin’ that old tree instead of our homes. That’s what life is like sometimes kiddo, makin’ the best of it.”

He nods at this, wiping at a dirty face with his dirty sleeve

“You’ll reach River City in a few days, boy. It’ll be a chance to make the best of things. Don’t lose sight of that, ya?”

***

The next few days blend together, each a new struggle as the Pilgrim’s Road climbs up and over the tall pass. Dry heat eventually gives way to the cooler moist air common to western slopes. We begin our descent into the heart of an emerging spring, the world around us beginning to take on new colors as our pilgrimage approaches its end.

The boy doesn’t cry as much anymore, every once in a while he even smiles as we sit around the campfire and the old woman recounts tales from her wild youth with a showmanship ill befitting her age. I begin to feel better as well. I miss her terribly, but companionship takes some of the sting from reality.

***

We finally stand atop the last foothill, overlooking the glacial valley that marks the end of our pilgrimage. River City stretches out like stained glass below, its massive fields of spring blooms almost otherworldly when compared to the drab palette of the surrounding landscape. Streams both great and small crisscross the blooming settlement, powering waterwheels and cascading waterfalls alike. Buildings hide within walls of ivy and great blooming trees, long houses and temples in every shape and size, and sporting symbology that spans the march of time. The air smells of lilac and pollen.

I manage to tear my watering eyes away from the city to truly see the boy for the first time. His cloak has been abandoned to the warm spring sunshine somewhere on the hill behind us, and the truth of the city has stripped away the illusions that made his pilgrimage possible.

His skin is incredibly pale, a bluish tint accentuated by the darker blue of his lips. Eyes glassy and unfocused stare out upon a scene in death that they never could have observed in life. His hair floats almost comically above his head, flowing unnaturally in the gentle breeze, a bit of pond scum clinging to one lock like a tiny green flag.

I do not discard my traveling cloak, even if the spring sun would have felt wonderful on my weary limbs; its hood covers my own truth and I am not ready to share it with the boy just yet. It had been no grandiose end, a trip to the herbalist for a gift of roses that ended prematurely when some enterprising highwayman clubbed in the back of my head for my purse. I wondered, and not for the first time, if my wife had been the one to find me laying there on the side of the road. I hoped not.

The boy, for his part, doesn’t seem to know that he is dead, and for this I am grateful. The old woman had made my own situation clear to me early and often, pushing through rejection, denial, and plenty of anger before finally reaching something like acceptance. I had long resented her forwardness in this regard, but now I finally understood it; she had guided me to this moment, now it was my turn to do the guiding.

I place a hand on his shoulder, squeezing gently as he turns to smile at me. “I’m not much for scripture, to be honest. Does the good book mention what color the temple bouquets are meant to be?”

He snorts at this, “All of 'em, sir. One color for each of the disciplines.”

“Well I suppose we have our work cut out for us, don’t we? Let’s get to it… I intend to rest my tired legs eventually,” we make our way down into River City, into whatever’s next. Only the flowers note our passing.

March 31, 2023 23:56

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