Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2023  Vol. 21  No.3
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Of Flowers and Sorrows
. . . but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.
—from Sula by Toni Morrison

. . . I was mesmerized. The dead have active, curious, busy existences? Lucille
assured me it seemed to be so. I was happy beyond belief to contemplate the
afterlife that way. Not some static hymnal-singing, self-aggrandizing chorus, nor
blank preconsciousness—but life otherwise.
—from Toni Morrison’s foreword to The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965–2010

The first time Crescent turned, she did not become a whole field of flowers. Rather, she found herself a single lily sitting in a long-necked, blue glass bottle on her own desk, her petals not yet limp but on the brink, the first traces of wilt preparing to creep up the stem and leaves to the heart of the white bloom. She had been sitting in her matchbox of an office, battling a typewriter badly in need of grease, when she looked up from her hands at the mirror she had placed on the wall facing her and met the image of the lily where she had expected her face to be. The other mirror on the back wall showed no different. Instead of the nape of her own neck and her braided bun halfway up her head, there was only empty air, the back of her chair, and the little sunshine from the open door striking the bottle and sending speckles of light across the tabletop. She felt panic whirling toward frenzy inside herself, which only multiplied when the reflection of her own eyes was not there to return her gaze, to remind her that, at the very least, she still existed. If this is what it meant to grieve, she would rather join Aunt Freda in the realm of the dead than remain on the side of the living where her mind seemed to be unspooling itself into delirium. She covered her face to weep, and when next she dropped her hands in her lap, the breath still catching in the back of her throat, her real face was there, lighter streaks cutting a path in her makeup where her tears had rolled, and kohl black ringing her eyes and clumping her lashes together.

The only force greater than her despair was her disdain for the nuns who ran the primary school where she had attended school and now worked. Handing in another late stack of papers would mean having to endure their open threats to her livelihood, their wizened hands worrying rosary beads nonstop as they warned, “This has to be the last time, mamzelle.” So, she touched up the eyes that had failed her as best as she could in the same mirror that had just betrayed her, wiping with tissue dampened by the sweat of her iced water bottle. She spent the next half hour being defeated by the machine, as she was most days. The text she typed came out like a collection of black smudges of unequal sizes, totally impossible to read, totally useless.

The nuns who ran the school insisted on this way of producing exam papers, circulars for the children’s guardians, notices of impending failure, report cards, requests for money from the Mother Church, all typed out on paper that always had a light gray cast whether it was fresh out of the box or had been sitting at the bottom of Crescent’s desk drawer for months. They made the ink in the convent, and on the last Friday of every month the youngest nun, Sister Evangeline, would deliver reams of stiff paper and a crate of twelve bottles of ink to Crescent’s office, her hands so thin they looked boneless and stained with blotches of blues and blacks. This was the way they had always done things, ever since Crescent herself had been a pupil there and long before that, and if the letters continued to come out blurry and illegible, it was because the nuns were sure that Crescent refused and maybe was incapable of tending to her work with the divine patience and care that it required.

“Mizz Crescent, I don’t know how many more times I have to warn you.”

Sister Honorée was talking over her own shoulder, trying to shoo the two stubborn peacocks back beyond the wall that separated the convent from the playground. It was still early enough that the only other people there besides Crescent and Sister Honorée were a few children who lived too far to enjoy the luxury of rising late, setting off from home at daybreak to have any chance of making it on time. Still, it wasn’t safe for the birds to be that close to other people who weren’t their caretakers, just in case.

“Bonjour, Sister Honorée. What is it this time?”

“You know what it is. Our students are struggling to prepare for the final exams because they can barely read their materials. Do you realize how serious this is?”

“I do, and I promise you that even writing by hand while blindfolded would be better. Anything but that bucket of rust you have given me to use.”

“Mamzelle Crescent. What is the matter with your face? Did you make it to bed last night? You know that we cannot condone any immoral behavior—”

Crescent bit down on her tongue to stop from screaming, not because of fear of judgment, but because she could not risk her scream becoming a sob in front of Sister Honorée, who would most likely find delight in her dejection.

“Whatever I do beyond these grounds is none of your concern, Sister. I stopped being one of your pupils long ago.”

The Sister turned on one heel like the spinning tops the children played with and stopped short, pointing straight in Crescent’s face, her other hand held up behind her head and toward the peacocks who stopped mid-cry, blinking as if momentarily frozen in place by the Sister’s wordless command for them to be still. Crescent did not hide her eyes from cutting at the Sister. She sat back in her chair and pulled the back of her trousers up only for them to slide back to where they sat before, leaving a gap at her lower back.

“As disrespectful as you always were, and never on time with your work. Were it not for your aunt—may the Holy Mother rest her soul—enrolling you here as a child, you couldn’t sit down here spitting at me like this. Anyway, the Mother Church is threatening to reduce our funds. Do you understand what that means? You could be out of the job you don’t really seem to want anyway. Come to my office during first break.”

Crescent didn’t go to Sister HonorĂ©e’s office at break time. That place always felt like the inside of a dusty filing cabinet left out in the sun no matter the season, and there was nothing less appealing to Crescent than stepping into that furnace to receive her marching orders delivered like a curse to eternal damnation. As far as Crescent was concerned, it was senseless for the nuns to lay all this blame for the poor quality of the prints at the door to her office. They refused to enter the new century with their beliefs and methods, everything from how they made ink for writing and dye for their clothes to how they punished the children for the slightest wrongdoing remained unbendingly archaic. She was so angry that she almost forgot that she had lost herself in the mirror’s face that morning.

Before the bell rang, she stepped out and down onto the veranda, finally accustomed to the uneven threshold, and locked the door behind herself. She tucked her cold lunch under one arm—she couldn’t risk running into the Sister by the microwave in the staff room—boiled rice and egg stew, its oil soaking through to the bottom of the plastic. Eggs made her gag, but that was what the contents of her kitchen would allow her to cook up for the week. Ten minutes later, she sat watching the school compound while eating fried yam and hot red pepper with pork, her homemade meal forgotten and fallen into a crevice between the roots of the neem tree sheltering her, now an object of curiosity for the crows who ruled the skies in that part of town.

Crescent relished every bite of her lunch, a welcome ecstasy, however simple and small, on a fraught day. Aunt Freda had taught her never to deny herself any kind of pleasure. Regardless of Aunt Freda’s fluctuating finances, they always had glass candelabra on the dinner table; gold-plated teaspoons for scooping in that second serving of sugar for sweet tea; chocolate truffles for every birthday; in addition to ice cream cake and new leather shoes with a shine so high you could see yourself in it. And while Crescent was more than through with the imperious posture Sister Honorée took to run the school, she was only slightly worried about losing her job or getting by without it. She had applied to be the school’s typist because she didn’t find the concept of work in general at all interesting or edifying, and because she had no idea what she really wanted to “do” with her adult life. So, why not this? The job required little imagination or mental effort from her, and she could still afford rent and all the little and larger niceties that Aunt Freda had taught her to appreciate. And if the job was indeed to fall through, she knew she had other ways and means to survive.

The students were finally free of their teachers, and the school walls themselves looked to be alive and running because they were painted the same pink and cream of the pinafore and blouse uniform the students wore. For the rest of the afternoon, Crescent typed so carefully that she spent fifteen minutes on each sentence of a five-line letter informing guardians of an increase in the school fees.

“Please . . . bear . . . with . . . us. The . . . Mother . . . Church . . . is . . . only . . . able to support so much. We need . . . your help . . . to . . . continue . . . to provide . . . your children . . . with the best possible education and divine guidance.”

No part of her painstaking pace was her taking increased care, an attempt to get back on the less fiery side of Sister Honorée’s wrath. Her mind was on what she would do with Lent approaching if she actually lost this job. The people of Our Lady of Sorrows parish would be temporarily burdened by guilt from neglecting their rosaries, skimping on their offerings, and indulging in too many fleshly pleasures, that they would be committing themselves to forty days of deprivation and piety, and would have no room for Crescent’s company, though their need for her time and her body might remain.

Our Lady of Sorrows wasn’t as bleak as the spirit who was the town’s namesake. Besides the statue in the center of town, her face twisted in agony to some threat unseen, tears welded into her bronze face, no one except the elderly who had been among the first to settle there could remember how the name had come to be. Several eternities and a few days before human beings walked that land, her spirit in perpetual misery roamed. Known to other spirits as Maria Delorosa, Erzulie Dantor, Black Madonna, Dada, she was in endless agony, weeping for all the suffering that was to come and would ever be on Earth. She cried so long and so deep that her tears first turned to blood. She wept more still, until they ran clear and became a celestine blue lake so clean you could count the pebbles on its bed from the shore. Its dazzle eventually attracted people to its banks to try and make a life, and all that remained of the mournful patron of the town apart from the lake was her name.

Sorrows was smaller than the island’s capital Magdalène, and, because it was inland, it lacked the sawdust-yellow beaches and the sapphire Caribbean sea kissing up to the shore. It was also quieter than the neighboring towns of Caridad and St. Isidore, where the passing of the months was marked by street parades and live music for any and every saint’s day. Sorrows was, for the most part, remarkably unremarkable. The city did have its quirks that made it distinct from its flashier neighbors, details that might jar or intrigue depending on the visitor, like the local piano tuner who could only hear, or preferred to only listen, to music in a minor key so that every piano in town sounded like desire unexpressed, like deep longing, like an echo of a lover’s “you said you would be back soon.” Yet, its people weren’t any more miserable than the people elsewhere, their desires, their vices, their aches, their needs neither animal nor spectacular, but rather the concerns of any other human being working to keep body and soul reconciled. They sought out Crescent for several reasons, one of which was a needling loneliness unknotting at their insides. She could be whatever they needed: a change of scenery, a hand to hold, another body to warm the chill of utter silence in an otherwise empty house.

There was the new mother who came to Crescent any time she could steal away from the incessant cries of the child she hadn’t wanted. She would lay her head in Crescent’s lap so that Crescent could massage her scalp between her feather-thin curls. Crescent didn’t always charge her. It made her feel wrong, grasping even, especially when the woman came to her with tears threatening to flood the dam of her composure or when she felt the tremor in her hands as she pressed a few damp bills into Crescent’s waiting palm. A man who had lost his wife just six months after their wedding came to Crescent to be held and to weep. So far, he had only asked for un petit peu plus in the form of a kiss, after which he wept long and loud until he fell asleep on the floor at Crescent’s feet. A lot of her clientele wanted to touch and be touched, like the one who derived great pleasure in nothing else but resting his hands between her breasts.

There were others who simply wanted to fuck, and most of the time, Crescent enjoyed it. Now that she had passed thirty, she found herself approaching her own body in worship of its new fullness, its being grown for real and not what she thought grown meant as a teenager, her thighs dimpling and her belly folding on itself. Her self-desire made her encounters verge on limerence, from which she would have to pull herself back when she remembered that this too was work and not nascent love. Besides her clients, the friends she had maintained a cool cordialness with since they left school had all drifted beyond and eventually fallen over the edge of promised phone calls and visits, occupied with their own deaths and births and the doldrums of their lives, unable to continuously make room for Crescent’s ebbing and flowing melancholy. Mes condolèances, cherie eventually became a beeping dial tone like no one was home or willing to pick up her call.

By the time she got home, Crescent’s brain was sputtering to a stop like a candlewick sprinkled with water yet still trying to burn as she attempted to make sense of her day. She went to sleep thinking about the orange roses Aunt Freda had somehow managed to grow in a window box only as long as Crescent’s forearm had been as a child.

She had gone to live with her tantine, Aunt Freda, when she was eight, her parents having moved to Magdalène to make more money, they said, but they were never seen again.

“Such a wonderful age,” Aunt Freda would say at random, like in the middle of oiling Crescent’s scalp or teaching her how to remove the stalks from spinach leaves for the night’s meal.

“Eight. A nice, round number. C’est si belle, like you. And lucky too. Powerful.”

Aunt Freda would never answer Crescent when she asked what kind of power could possibly lie in an age that so far had meant that you could never keep your frilly socks clean and pulled up taut round your ankles, and that you couldn’t stop sweet and salty popcorn from stinging the corners of your mouth no matter how much cold drink you chased it with, and that your parents could leave without telling you when they were coming back. Crescent suspected that whatever this power was had something to do with the small room curtained away from the rest of the flat by a sheer, pink curtain, the only thing passing through besides Aunt Freda’s slippered, still-sleepy footsteps being the sickly smell of incense of some unknown flower blooming rude and audacious with too much life.

Life with Aunt Freda had a sort of dangerous whimsy, like the film version of Alice in Wonderland Crescent had skipped school to see in the city’s single cinema. Our Lady of Sorrows generally took a siesta after lunch, and it was easier to sneak into the afternoon showing when the attendant was dozing behind their smudged glass booth, unable to go home for an actual rest as long as the cinema was open. Something akin to Alice’s adventures, the life Aunt Freda was making was beautiful and lethal, like majestic chess pieces, sentient and larger than life breaking each other with their stone weight depending on which one of them lost the game. Her aunt lived for a long time in an apartment building with other lethally beautiful women who Crescent hardly ever saw in the daytime or rarely at all. She stole looks at them on their way in or out, like Ida, standing on one shiny black heel while lifting the other to buckle the strap, or Kadja, who maintained her allure with a simple turn of her slippered feet and a fold of her wrapper or house dress between her thighs.

The day Crescent’s parents left she was wearing her favorite dress: a square neck with two thin straps and sunflowers dancing over splashes of blue, a harvest blooming skyward. They had taken her to Aunt Freda’s house to visit, and for once the adults’ watching eagle eyes were otherwise preoccupied, leaving her free to play in the mound of jewelry and perfume bottles crowding the top of her aunt’s dresser. The apartment had only two rooms and a small bathroom, but Crescent was so deep in concentration, she didn’t hear them arguing. She was trying to work up the courage to draw back the curtained off place she was forbidden from seeing.

Little Crescent had been the type of child who did not let a single detail of the world around her slip past her unnoticed: one friend or cousin standing outside the door to their home, arms tucked in pockets or across the chest and into armpits, waiting for the other to drive off, the farewell wave high in the air; how much softer the skin inside a popped blister was; her mother leaving a streak of stew on the round of her palm like a gash, the tip of her tongue bright pink and furtive sticking out to taste and her nose wrinkling—too much salt, too much ginger; the bows looped around braids in various stages of unraveling, hers so tight she felt her eyebrows had jumped up to her hairline, frozen in temporary surprise and fear of a telling off should the hairstyle slip by closing time; church bells sounding two notes behind to call to prayer; the part of the sky as far as Crescent could imagine from her little life in that little street lush pink like the first cut into one of the blood oranges that grew behind their house. But Crescent turned tightly toward her inner self after they left and away from the memory of what her life had been with her parents. It was as though the part of her that had been told Vas-y. Stay quietly in the room, cherie. Just for a little bit, OK? was still silent and waiting until they were done talking so she could tell them what new idea she had or what wonder she had found among Aunt Freda’s things.

In the morning, Crescent rose with the resolve to gather as many bunches of orange roses as she could carry to bring back for her living room, with no concern at all if this mission made her late for work. She knew that the roses had been a creation of Aunt Freda’s nimble mind and hands, but she felt, urgently, the need to find some. She drew near the mirrored medicine cabinet above the bathroom sink like it posed a threat, as if it was a shark’s open mouth daring its prey to come close enough to fall in. She felt at her face, all her features jutting out stubbornly, a permanent almost pout when her face was in repose, and ears for which her aunt used to tease her for their fairy-like points and size. She couldn’t be sure that she would be met with the image of her flesh, broad forehead, gaps in teeth, familiar and unchanging, deep and brown.

She dressed with the blinds closed firm and white lace curtains drawn over them, her eyes cast down and studying her fingers fumbling over her buttons, all to avoid confronting the uncertain fact of her bodily self. It was easy to make morning feel like twilight in her flat because she had painted each wall an increasingly deeper shade of green starting on the left when one entered so that the deepest shade would be behind you in the wall that held the front door. Depending on how you looked at the room, it could be a color palette spilled out of its binding or a leaf in the process of opening. To Crescent, it was like her child self lying down on her back in too-tall grass in Aunt Freda’s back garden: pampas, vetiver, sweet, lemon. Sometimes she could even smell it, especially if she had just woken up from sleep.

Before slipping her sandals on, she took her time pressing the flat of her instep as if each deliberate touch of her flesh to her flesh would guarantee that she would continue to exist, human, and not flora and fragrance. On the way out of the door she caught sight of herself in the silver of the door handle, still here, still late as usual, anticipating and maybe even eager for another showdown with Sister Honorée. The tap-tap usually picked up right downstairs from her apartment, in front of a store that sold wigs and flimsy fascinators, but also cigarettes if you asked for them from behind the counter. This morning the blue gate was pulled down over the storefront window, and the children sent out into the city to sell items of varying usefulness to early morning commuters were also absent, all except one.

“Boy, where are the rest of your friends? Where’s everyone this morning?”

The child was selling clocks with glassy faces, and he adjusted his wares with one hand, giving a play salute with the other.

“Damn, madame. Good morning to you too! You lost or something?”

Crescent looked over his head at what should have been the bus’s arrival in a veil of dust, honking horns, and the morning’s news bulletin straining through radio static.

“Lost? You know I live upstairs. What kind of question is that?”

“Well, you look lost, ma. No one is working today, you forgot? Today is for Maria Delorosa, our lady, our Erzulie.”

She turned away from him and looked both ways like she was going to cross. In every direction there were barred shop windows and neon signs unlit, cool quiet tar where melting rubber tires, people rushing through several separate yet colliding lives, and car bumpers chasing each other should have been. Most feast days involved eating en plein air, either in the park or on the church grounds, blankets and jackets soaking up last night’s rain from the grass and spilt juice (wine for those who were or wanted to be grown), cold sandwiches with the crust cut off, salty sausage, blood orange sliced into eighths, music so loud the bass swallowed the lyrics and melody, church bells tolling to remind the revelers of whichever saint they were gathering to celebrate.

Crescent had been so intent on the flowers and on the chance to antagonize Sister Honorée with her lateness that she had forgotten that it was Our Lady of Sorrows’ feast day in honor of the mother of the town; the most somber of occasions. In her aunt’s home, and in most households in Sorrows, they spent the day with the curtains drawn and lights low with a single blue candle sitting just outside the front door. They cleaned every inch of the house using cold water with drops of vinegar and Florida water, and fasted until sundown. At night, the candle was lit to guide their Erzulie’s spirit through the town, to reaffirm their commitment to her memory and her mourning that made all their living possible. After darkness had descended in all its fullness, they would break their fast with the prayer,

Erzulie Dantor
Patron of the grieving, the striving, the yet-to-be-unbroken
Que la Déesse nous bénisse.

Even though her house was suitably darkened for the occasion, the idea of staying indoors on her own with so many chances to encounter what felt like a glitching reflection was terrifying. So, she turned toward the main road, ignoring the boy calling out behind her, “Lost madame, you didn’t want to buy nothing?” She did not hurry, following the main road like a patient devotee on a holy pilgrimage as the ground turned tar turned gravel turned deep red laterite like a fresh wound leaching blood from Earth’s body. She was grateful for the silence this feast day demanded so she could stroll: no young people racing each other on bikes and throwing laughter and insults back and forth between themselves, no little ones walking in synchronized step to the rhythm of the clacks from their beaded braids, no drivers tossing curses through open car windows. As a child, she had taken this route in reverse, usually in a tap-tap and much more rarely in Aunt Freda’s car when she could afford to keep one running. This walk pressed calm through the undersides of her feet, and she focused on this rising peace, so she didn’t have to deal with the fear and grief roiling in a part of herself that was just out of reach, like her fingertips brushing on the edge of too high a shelf. She had no sense of time. Her watch had died long before Aunt Freda had, but she kept it on because she liked the look and feel of the gold links on the soft inside of her left wrist.

When Crescent was ten, they had moved to this house with its seemingly endless driveway. It slithered up to the house, a silver serpent with its mouth open as it widened when it met the front steps. The house itself was painted all white, from the siding to the shutters and the porch that wrapped all the way round its lower half, without stain, crack, or any other color save for the front door with its pale-pink panels and gold doorknob. They were on the edge of Sorrows, so through the windows the only thing Crescent could see was grass bristling and rolling over itself until it met the woods around the house. Crescent was old enough to wonder where the money came from for this house after years of her tantine carrying her from that two-room apartment to a friend’s settee to other one-room flats that never felt warm or scrubbed clean no matter how much they tried. She was also wise enough not to ask questions that might provoke Aunt Freda. She was unlikely to get a clear response anyway, considering anyone who asked her aunt how she made a living was likely to hear, “I make things beautiful,” or, “I make beautiful things,” and that could mean her hairdressing, maquillage, or cleaning other people’s clothes and homes, or any number of ways and means she used to keep life sweet, such as it was.

The house always felt like golden daylight on the inside, especially in the living room out back, one wall completely made of windows allowing the honeyed sun to spill in. Living there felt like a perpetual afternoon after school, free and easy, ignoring homework and chores in favor of chasing a friend or her own shadow to the end of the garden, until the warning letters started streaming in through the slot in the front door. The paper the landlord used to issue his late rent notices reddened as his temper grew shorter, more brittle, more liable to shatter at any moment. They had started out benign, almost toothless, gentle reminders that rent was due every first of the month with no exceptions. Then he tried compromise: if she paid the now three months overdue on the next first of the month, all would be forgotten. Aunt Freda found this amusing because she had no intent of paying if it meant living less lushly for herself and her niece, but mainly because she didn’t have enough even with all the different kinds of work she did.

When his anger began to stain the letters crimson, they started running out of ways to use the paper. They had ripped them up in tiny scraps to wrap and throw away stale gum; to hold the morning loaf; to stuff the gaps underneath poorly hung doors to slow, if not stop, cold draughts at night. Aunt Freda used thin strips of it to roll the impossibly thin cigarettes she always kept on her: between her bony pointer and middle fingers, behind her ear, in her bra. Finally, the paper’s redness marked the bread, and they were nervous to eat in case it was poison—maybe that was paranoia, but Aunt Freda wouldn’t put anything past this landlord who felt denied what he thought was his due—so she wrapped fish bones, orange peels, tomato seed for the trash in them, the juice from pulped oranges turning the page transparent around the words “last warning.” They moved out at night and returned to the decaying wonderland that was their old apartment building, where doors ajar revealed slices of all kinds of sensual, sorrowful lives. They stayed with an old neighbor until Aunt Freda could convince the landlord to rent her old flat back to her. Years later, with Crescent now living at her new place in the next quartier over, Aunt Freda would die there, alone, her breath having hitched in her chest and stuck, years of smoking tobacco culminating in one last elegant rasp like a rustling of clean sheets against a body.

Now, the house was a worn, sagging version of its former striking self, green life pushing in tufts along the length of the driveaway, up the stairs and the walls, now patched with moss and mold all over. Crescent tried not to look directly at the house’s aging façade, as though she was guilty of some transgression and avoiding eye contact. And maybe she was because she had gotten grown but had not made good enough to buy back the place and stop it from falling into its present state of ruin.

She walked off the driveway and into the grass round the side of the house. At the back, she finally faced the building head on and what she saw knocked the breath out of her body so hard she fell to her knees, the grass now stroking her temples and the sides of her face. Aunt Freda’s orange rose bushes once lined the steps up to the back door, but now they had grown so full and so tall that they almost obscured the French window, most of the still visible panes empty of glass. It was a glorious desolation. The flowers themselves were as wide as open palms, the petals ranging from pale to peach in the center to burnt near black at the edges, as rich as they’d ever been when her aunt first taught her not to be afraid of feeling deep into the black soil, when to fertilize, how to water the bushes without directing the full force of the garden hose at the delicate buds.

Crescent blinked once, twice, again at the remains of the house now overrun by the garden, and at her next blink, she became a roomful of orange roses, high on her own sweet perfume and blooming every which way, across the floorboards and up the peeling walls. She was admiring her own blossom and flourish when Aunt Freda walked through a doorway with no door, dressed in the crisp, linen trousers and yellow, silk blouse she was buried in. Crescent cried out—or at least she thought to—Tantine! But she couldn’t be sure if she would be heard. Flowers don’t have mouths, at least not mouths from which they can speak or sing.

Aunt Freda was carrying a pair of garden shears with her and got to pruning, mumbling between hums, “Why would this child let my house grow wild like so? She just gave up, oui?”

As her aunt clipped gnarled stems and drying flowers, Crescent felt like someone was scratching her scalp with the sharp end of a rat tail comb. She gave up on trying to get her aunt’s attention and just allowed herself to bask in her presence, even if it was a mirage conjured by the pain of living without her, even if it was just for right now.

“Ma chère, you know these were the only orange roses in the town as far as I know. They are not even that hard to tend to, you just need patience. I even made it so that the thorns bend to the touch. They don’t scratch or stab.”

Crescent came to lying on her back in the grass, damp all over from the dew and her own sweat. She was, for a moment, suspended in that daze between dream world and waking life, trying to hold on to the slippery details of her aunt’s apparition before it receded too far in her consciousness, before she was too awake to access it. Leaving her bag and her shoes in the grass where she had slept and dreamt, she walked up to the bush and began to pull off as many stalks as she could, trying to keep the flowers and leaves intact. This was not like the other day in her office. This time, she could see flashes of her reflection in what little glass was still exposed in the backdoor, and she knew that she wasn’t outside of herself, and even if she was, maybe Aunt Freda’s spirit could be there to witness her back into her body and into something like sanity—maybe not an absence of misery and longing, but an acceptance of it as evidence that her tantine had truly lived.

The next day, she was so early for work that Sister Honorée had not yet walked over from the nunnery to her office. The school grounds were as yet unswept, and besides Crescent and the early children, the only other presence were the peacocks, misplaced in all their splendor amidst the peeling green playground slides and merry-go-rounds. Sister Evangeline had not yet come to shoo them away back into the nunnery, so they stood preening and sweeping the ground with their tails, watching with what looked like wary eyes the children who stood at a distance, waiting for their teachers to unlock their classrooms so they could set out their pencils and protractors, slap the chalk from the dusters, straighten their backs, set their sights on the classmates they were going to pelt with rubber band catapults or whose backs of the head they would spend all lesson admiring.

The children waved faint salut and ça va to Crescent as she shook her handbag trying to find her office keys from the tangle of old receipts, phone numbers, lip balm, and rubber bands at its bottom. She felt an eagerness to get to work that she had never experienced in all the time she had worked at the parish. Her energy was buoyed by the chance that she could encounter Aunt Freda, that what she had first felt to be a frightful hallucination might be a way to cross briefly into the latter side of living where her aunt and other ancestor spirits resided. Crescent didn’t have to force her mind into a needlepoint focus in order for her sentences to come out coherent like she usually had to, squinting her eyes and holding her breath as if that would push the typewriter into functionality. Each letter she typed aligned with the next, distinct and sure, even if white space still snuck between certain words at unexpected intervals:

D e ar parents a nd guardia ns, please be ad vised that Ash Wed nes day services are open to all. Come an d commun e with us in prepara tion for the Lenten period.

Focusing on the words snaking themselves around each page allowed her to steady herself. She glanced at the mirror only once or twice an hour and was still met with her own rendering staring back at her, eyes ashine and trying hard to contain her impatience. Right before the bell for second break, her reflection was replaced by wreaths of frangipani spread across the keys and over the entire desk, the yellow petals so velveteen they felt almost like skin. There had been a frangipani tree outside her bedroom window at the old house, and young Crescent climbed its twisted branches often, only to find herself too scared to jump back down until her aunt came and reached up a hand.

Aunt Freda never scolded, only offered gentle warnings, “Ma belle, you need to stop this! What if I’m not here to catch you?”

“Every day I climb I keep thinking coming down will be less scary or easier.”

In this flower state, Crescent could not tell how or if time elapsed. She spent most of it trying to understand what this meant for a self that she had assumed to be wholly human and unchangeable until death, and whether the possibility of her aunt’s appearance meant her own dying was imminent. She didn’t know she was back inside the human form of her body until she was standing on the veranda, keys in hand, and getting ready to pull her door shut.

She heard Sister Honorée’s voice behind her, more clipped and harsh than typing noises, “Mamzelle, it’s perfectly fine to bring flowers and other items for your office, but please let’s be sensible for the Holy Mother’s sake. Sweep up around here when they start to wilt.”

Crescent looked down at her feet and saw frangipani buds and petals scattered around her. Before she could come up with a response that would cut, Sister Honorée continued, “I don’t know if I’m amazed or annoyed at what I’m about to say, but your work today has been satisfactory. We can actually read the latest circulars, all of the words, all of them. Bon travail.”

“Bon.” Crescent stepped around the pile of flowers she had been and brushed past Sister Honorée because she was trying to leave before her words slid out like a razor from underneath her tongue, and because she didn’t think she had heard anything other than vindictiveness from Sister Honorée’s mouth ever in her life.


Lent arrived and the town was dry and slow, the air crisp as if hardened by the tension and discomfort of thousands of people trying to prove their holiness and secure paradise for themselves by turning away from chocolate, from meat, from wine, from jazz, from the bodies of Crescent and other women like her, from anything they felt enlivened the flesh too much. Crescent didn’t believe in deprivation of any kind. She was far past the kind of salvation the church promised and reveled in the free chaos of a life of heathenish uncertainties. Hers was a hunger that was far more interesting and expansive, one that signaled to her that she was becoming her floral self again.

The hunger was actually the hardest part, though one would think it would be the actual turning. No matter that she had eaten a full meal the moment right before; Crescent guessed it took that much out of her to become a whole grove of orange trees, blossoms and all, or a hibiscus bush flouncing out of the flowerbed in front of someone’s barred window. As soon as she felt the pangs gripping and twisting inside her, she would try to be as still as possible, trying to prepare herself and spirit for the turn, to preserve as much energy as she could for it.

Turning into lemongrass felt like early morning air whispering cool against a raw, freshly tressed scalp. She always felt it first in her left ear, some tiny pleasure like strands of hair tickling a specific itchy spot behind it. Then, the tingle radiated across her face and down the back of her neck between her shoulder blades and tickled the small of her back. The tickle became a linger became an embrace became a laugh became a waving blade became a green expanse became a luxuriating became became became . . .

Honeysuckle always announced itself in scent first, faint, then a cloud hanging around her shoulders in her office at the school, in her bedsheets, on lovers’ fingertips and in their clothes, a haze trailing behind her on the streets so that children pulled at her pockets asking for sweets and irritable co-passengers stuck their heads out of the tap-tap windows to gulp fresh air.

“One person and all this perfume. You want to kill us? C’est ça?”

And then, late in the afternoon when the light was molten gold and the fan ticked round slow, she would turn, her arms becoming the leaves; her legs, the stalk; her hair, inflorescence.

Turning into peonies was her least favorite change because it always smelled like a tart made with rotting fruit and curdling milk, even if the flowers themselves didn’t stink that way. It was always the most difficult to clean up. Because of their impossible softness, broom bristles would only smear them across the floor in pale-pink smudges, and she would have to spend days afterwards picking up petals one at a time as she came across them.

Soon though, Crescent’s euphoria morphed into desperation after several times she turned without seeing Aunt Freda. She started to look for signs of her aunt in every corner of her life. She went to bed at night with each tendon in her body taut and alert, a newly strung instrument with the singular purpose of trying to feel her aunt on this side of elsewhere, hoping to feel a tapping on her leg or a gentle shake of her shoulder at night, Crescent, lève-toi. I’m here. She was straining so hard the veins in her forehead became a permanent feature, but she was listening in all the wrong ways, seeking signs where there were none so intently that had she appeared, Crescent would have ended up walking right past her aunt’s spirit, through her doorway and on the way to a life she was becoming slowly absent from. There was a gap widening next to her sharpest tooth on the top left-hand side and the exposed gum stung when she drank ice water, but Crescent sought neither warm drinks nor medicine in the meantime. Instead, she let the tooth move further away from its neighbor, and as more weeks passed her by, she convinced herself that the unbearable pain could be her aunt’s way of announcing her next appearance. Her self-neglect extended beyond the confines of her body into her home, candles collapsed into themselves in a yellowish pulp with wax and wick now indistinguishable, the bathtub ringed with soap scum and its clawed feet gaining new rust from lack of polish, the flowers she had been bringing in since her first turning broken-necked or sandpaper dry and fallen to the floor.

Time wore on, hungry and yawning, interminable noon thirst and fleeting cool night, and except for her fingernails and some slices of bread with the mold picked off, Crescent had not eaten in days. She stopped feeling hungry in the evening of the third day, which is also when she stopped counting. By then, she assumed her stomach had stopped holding itself open in hopes that she would fill it and started eating itself. Ravenous, it might run out of flesh and spread its acid beyond her insides, at which point she could implode, the heart being the last to go, its muscle being especially stubborn.

Crescent wasn’t punishing herself on purpose, not at all. The morbidity of her hunger terrified her, but the fact that this ache for food always preceded her turning somehow made her think that if she were to take it as far as it could go, Aunt Freda would reappear, even if it was to admonish her. Baby, are all the dentists in town dead? or Is this what you call dinner? What she thought was mild discontent had settled into her mind, extending aerial roots spiny and tough and vines sprouting lethal thorns, all to stifle the part of her mind that was concerned with keeping her alive on even the most basic level. When she finally ate, she ate like she was ill: rice water, light soup, peas mushier than paste, anything that didn’t require a crunch and teeth clamping down hard.

Before Easter vacation could arrive, the school went on emergency closure because one of the birds in the compound had gone rogue and attacked a child who drew too close to its fanned out feathers. Crescent was at home trying not to think about dinner because even the thought of food hurt too much. She had just decided on some bananas that were near spoiling, minimal effort but enough to fool her stomach that it was full hopefully until she could fall asleep. She ignored the first few knocks, assuming it was the upstairs neighbors rolling something along the floor as it often seemed they were doing, until she heard her own name through the door, faint-like, as if the caller wasn’t entirely sure they were in the right place or should be calling her name at all. Without a peephole, Crescent never opened the door to just anyone who knocked, especially with the prospect of a client finding out where she lived and transgressing her main boundary of keeping her home space separate from her work.

“Oui? Who’s there?”

“It’s Sister Evangeline. From the parish?”

The breathlessness and questioning in the visitor’s voice made Crescent pause several seconds with her ear against the door before she opened it a crack. Standing in the dim hallway was indeed Sister Evangeline from the convent, Sister Evangeline of the vats of ink and reams of paper, Sister Evangeline of the shooing of birds every morning, but as Crescent had never seen her or any of the other nuns before. She wore a black slip of a dress that looked like it might have been better suited as underclothes; thin black sandals strapped around her feet; her hair exposed, its curly roots dyed a blazing red and feeding into a bun sitting low at the nape of her neck. She recognized her by her bony hands fluttering over the sides of her head like a nervous nesting bird. Crescent bit back her shock and spat it out as brusqueness.

“What are you doing here? How did you even find this place?”

“I—I’m so sorry. I came to your office before the closure, to check if you needed more ink, but you were already gone.”

“So you thought you would bring it to me at home, oui? You still haven’t answered my question.”

“No . . . no. I’ve followed you home before. And I’m still not sure what made me do this or why. It was something about frangipani, or jasmine, maybe gardenia? Something that reminded me of the garden that used to grow at my house where I used to live, before I joined the convent. Every time I passed by you or that office, I thought of those things. And I so badly wanted to be around you away from the church, the nuns, all of it. And I know what you do, so I thought—”

Crescent’s sweaty hand kept as rigid of a grip as it could around the doorknob. She didn’t know if there was some way Sister Evangeline had seen her as flowers, and if so, who else could see her in that state. But the potential of being found out for these turns faded into the periphery, hovering on the edge of Crescent’s brewing anger at all the presumptions that brought Sister Evangeline to her door.

“You thought what? Keep your thoughts to yourself, you hear me? And leave here if you know what’s good for you, Sister.”

Crescent stood by the door staring into the empty space Sister Evangeline’s hasty departure had left behind, trying to stop the impulse to cry and wail from brimming over into actual tears. She didn’t actually care what Sister Evangeline or any of the other nuns thought of her, knowing that as far as they were concerned, her standing as wayward and irredeemable was as solid as the miniature statue of Our Lady standing in a blue-walled grotto behind the church. She wasn’t crying just for Aunt Freda either, but what felt like a double loss of being able to hear and see her only once and then never again since that encounter, a widening of the wound that was Aunt Freda’s absence from Crescent’s life.

She finally shut the door and turned the key in its lock, but instead of turning back toward her living room, she found herself in a field bristling and waving in a soft breeze. In fact, she herself was the field. She was lemongrass as far as the eye could see, smooth and bulbed near the ground and green blades sprouting high away from each other like so many hands lifted in praise. She was solid tree trunks, twisted, tall, unwavering, draped in vines on vines on vines; she was roots gnarled and probing far into the earth; she was black soil plant bed itself. She was orange blossom, fragile and reaching, its scent heavy in the air as if a dome over the entire land, and she was the oranges themselves of all kinds—blood, cara cara, bergamot—growing tough and bitter, then supple and ready. She was flame of the forest, its trunk sure and stout, its top sitting high and red, a bonfire in blooms suspended in air. She was in many stages of becoming all at once: pale new sprouts fragile and huddled close to the dirt, tentative about the ways they might grow; soursop past its ripeness and fallen, a feast for swarms of flies; palm fronds still strong enough to resist slow browning from heat and sun. And then she was the orange roses, planted in straight lines on the far edge of the field in all their varieties: tropicana, cayenne, daybreaker. They wore their petals in various arrangements, tightly wound around each other in spirals or loose and languid like scarves wrapped around somebody’s neck. And tending to the crowd of roses was Aunt Freda, this time dressed in a filmy, yellow dress with no straps, looking younger than Crescent had ever seen her while she was still living.

Tantine! What took you so long? Where have you been?

“You know, people who are still living need to realize that the spirits of the dead aren’t just waiting around for you all day. I have places to be, cigarettes to smoke, hair to coif, people to kiss.”

Aunt Freda, can you hear me? You see me? C’est si belle, non?

“Yes, beyond beautiful. Except these stubborn roses demand fussing. You need to take better care, ma chère.”

Crescent didn’t have to worry about containing her excitement, it rolled across the field that she was, unlimited, unsullied, as buoyant as the childish joy that she could let fly when she lived with Aunt Freda.

What are you doing here? What do you need me to do?

“Wrong question, child. I don’t need anything from you or from this earth. For one thing, you need to eat and drink, enjoy. When did you ever see me wretched? This what I taught you?”

I can’t explain to you what it means to be in Sorrows without you. My sadness is bigger than me, tantine. I need somewhere for it to go. How can I explain—

“You don’t have to. Écoute-moi bien. You listening? You see all this life that you are? You see all this? You have somewhere for it to go.”

I don’t understand.

“Crescent, you yourself, your spirit is a whole sky, too much for flesh and bone. Your grief is also too much. The two could not stay inside your body. And so here you are, in bloom, a whole grove, in the unfurl of all that is possible. You will not be in pain forever.”

I turn, I turn, I turn, in the unfurl of all that is possible—  

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