If the Bough Breaks
Everyone can see the flowers, but the gardener is always just out of sight. The neighborhood welcomes the chance to meet her one day, once she decides to come down. Until then, the residents of Nirvana Avenue appreciate her mesmerizing work as they lift their gazes up towards the sky, where the flowers rest in their cradles on an otherwise nondescript third floor balcony. Petunias and chrysanthemums are the gardener’s favorites.
These plants have a celestial quality, as if they were too beautiful, too perfect for the earth, brick, and sidewalk colored neighborhood. Nirvana Avenue. Once the daily joggers, or perhaps the rotational delivery men, lay their eyes upon the flowers—head tilted upward about 45 degrees—they pause. The flowers are mystically endearing, trapping outside eyes with their gem-toned allure. Chrysanthemums remind onlookers of a home that never necessarily existed for them, where it’s warm and the breeze feels affectionate and soft. The petunias are radiant, reversing the dulling effects of an otherwise dreary street; the mélange of orange, yellow, red, and pink absorb like deconstructed dawn. Sometimes they appear to sway on their own—they tilt back and forth, back and forth, towards the sun just beyond the railing and back into their shade, singing the sort of hymn that is slow and sweet like viscous honey. The neighborhood, passing by the display, always feels inclined to stare for a little while longer, even when in a rush. To those on the ground, the plants are sacred, laid upon the railing of the third floor balcony on 35 Nirvana Avenue in dainty pots, polished and burgundy. They turned humans into thirsty bees.
Not many are out at the time of morning that Jackie likes to water her plants, but those who are report strange sounds. Humming. Whispers. Lullabies. A human cry.
No one knows Jackie, except for the delivery man who addresses her as Ms. Litheman. She orders everything from a local market and has developed a quiet relationship with the man who arrives daily with her goods. Although Jackie seldom converses beyond the initial formalities, she occasionally slips him the mundane details of her life, like what she had been watching on the television that morning or her hopes for a sun-shower. He is a commendable listener. The interactions are brief.
Once, she mentioned a film that was on the Hallmark channel, and she remarked that it was Very charming, and A lovely film. He nodded and said, “That was actually my mother’s favorite movie.” She swallowed and said Thank you so much and closed the door. It had been enough talking for one day.
On a Monday, the delivery man brings groceries and has even checked the eggs for her, placing them carefully in a separate bag. He has been very consistent since he started delivering to Jackie. In his clearest possible early-morning voice, he says, “How have you been, Ms. Litheman?”
She hesitates, swallows, looks to the side. She seems forlorn and, as seconds after the formality drag on, Jackie’s face shrivels into itself, her neck curling in self-defense. She seems to be looking at something to her bottom left. He darts his eyes to follow her line of sight, realizes that there is nothing there, looks back at her face. Then he looks beyond, through the pale blue door into the apartment he hasn’t gotten much of a chance to observe. Even with only a view of three quarters of the living room, the delivery man gets a definite sense of reclusiveness. Things look dingy, well-lived-in. The couch, a murky brown, has dents and stains. The view of outside is blocked by cream shades, dusty from inactivity. There are no decorations on the walls. His eyes are drawn to the center of the room, where a few empty picture frames litter a long coffee table near the couch. He follows the coffee table as far as he can without making it obvious. A pen. A jar of applesauce. A green packet. A notepad. Pink thermometers scattered upon a dining table with two chairs.
Well you know, taking care of kids is always a hassle, but a fun and meaningful one.
He had forgotten that he had asked her a question. Now the delivery man can’t help but smile, releasing a quiet chuckle. He blurts “Grandchildren?” Jackie, of course, is very insulted and says No, my children. I had been trying for decades.
When she reaches the last word of her sentence, her eyes gleam, like a lady reminiscing about better times, like a 70-year-old woman who lives alone. She waits a few seconds, gestureless, then grins. The delivery man catches himself recoiling and straightens. He has never heard the living sounds of a living person in the apartment. He tries to form a normal smile, nods. Jackie’s eyes sparkle with pride.
The delivery man, perplexed by her delight, feels the biting strangeness of the encounter as a pinch on his windpipe. They have never spoken this long. To break the silence, which was becoming uncomfortably loud, he says very earnestly, “I actually lost my mother last year and it’s been very hard for me and the rest of my family, my brothers and sisters…” He trails off, waiting for a reaction. He tries something else. “How old are they?”
Jackie’s eyes widen, appearing like two cold grey suns. How old are they, now that’s a funny question. So easy to lose track, right?
“I’m happy you’re taking on the responsibility of motherhood, Ms. Litheman. I love my mom more than anyone else in the world."
I would—Jackie chokes on her words, her attention glued to the voices calling to her from the porch just behind her—hope so.
Days and nights at Jackie’s apartment pass like seconds.
Curling her lips and crinkling her eyes, her hand guides the door to its frame. Jackie needs to tend to her flowers. Mommy’s on her way, loves, she says eagerly. The clock says 6:35 AM.
This is a special thing. You make me think I make sense here. She is mumbling unintelligibly, but they understand. She brushes delicate fingers through their petals; she alone understands their fragility, their vulnerability. This is something I always wanted to have, she gulps. The plants thrive off of the sustenance they receive. They are so beautiful, and they are hers. Breathing in their spirit, a stream settles down to a trickle, to a sniffle, to a resolute exhale. I love you too much. She heads back inside.
One week later, the delivery man arrives at the doorstep and knocks measuredly, quietly. He is determined to listen for children, to seek out any signs of life. Jackie opens the door. She seems far woozier than usual. She greets him with a toothy grin, but her eyes are cold and distant.
He hesitates. “Good morning, Ms. Litheman. How are you?”
Her face hardens as she considers her wellbeing, and then a slow murmur, I’m doing quite nicely. She directs the edges of her lips into an uneasy smile once again. I’ve been thinking about what you said about your mother and I found it very touching. I was very moved by that.
“She died last year and my life hasn’t been the same.” He extended his dominant arm, which held her grocery bag. “Here are your groceries, Ms. Litheman.”
She cannot accept them, her lower lip trembling as she peers into the laces of the delivery man’s feet.
But here you are.
“Yes, here I am. I just take it day by day.”
But here you are. She scans upward, making out what she can of his frame through vision blurred by grief. The dim light of the hallway is just enough to see two kind eyes wondering if she’s truly alright. I’m so sorry to hear that. She can’t imagine expelling the gnawing in her chest, its adamant yearning. I’m so sorry to hear that, what a horrible horrible thing to happen. Losing...
He reaches for her arm but she jumps back, flinging the door open with her. For the first time, he can see the full apartment. Leaning against the wall opposite the couch is potting soil. Not in the bags he delivered them in, but poured across the hardwood floor, in one large pile with grooves and crevices. Flowers are scattered throughout the soil, dry and cracked from endured lifelessness. Dead. His eyes widen, glued to the graveyard of dry brown paper. She jerks the door forward with unanticipated force, allowing herself to be frozen in time.
“I think I’ll head out now,” he chokes, “have a good day.” He rushes down the hallway after placing the bag in her door frame, forgetting to collect his tip.
Jackie runs through the screen and screams at her children that they will never be enough. Why don’t you love me as much as I love you?
What would you do if I died? Would your lives be the same?
She winces. Tell me you love me, that I’m the best mom, kids... Babies... Lovies…
She speaks with caramel sweetness, attempting to coax them out of shyness. Mommy’s home! There is a pause. Her face darkens as clouds above her cover the sun. Her lips contort into a disciplinary, ominous shape.
This is my last straw, kids. She is speaking through her teeth. You know I don’t like to be angry, especially not with you.
The flowers stand, robust and exotically beautiful, in the face of their creator. You’re taunting me now. That’s really how you’re going to treat me? After all my love and care?
She realizes she is speaking through sobs, heaving words out with every chance she gets to breathe. They don’t even care about her. They don’t even love her, They lied to me the whole time, Dr. Lewis would want her to breathe, so in her rebellion Jackie holds her breath until she feels red throughout her face. She squeezes inward, repressing a scream, convulsing and tightening until the intoxicating energy translates itself outward. She begins to rip her children by the roots, crying and ripping and crying and ripping until the victims of the filicidal massacre lie on the ground, lifeless and ugly.
There is a sunshower the day the neighborhood notices: the flowers are grown again, and they look wonderful as ever. This is the word around town. Mrs. Cuttleman and Edina Wells had known the flowers would be back, just like last time.
As the ladies pass 35 Nirvana Avenue, they hear the gardener’s screen door shut, emitting a somber click. They are thankful for everything the gardener does—she is a true artist, a master of her craft. Looking towards the flowers, the two grounded women stop to inhale the sublimity of the air and the view. The afternoon sun enriches each color with its honest warmth; each moment collides before them in what feels like divine choreography.
“We’re lucky, that’s what we are,” Edina Wells remarks, “to have such an uplifting sight to look forward to on our walks.” Mrs. Cuttleman nods conclusively as her partner says her remark, and adds, still nodding, “Yes, absolutely...I wish I had a hobby like that. Gardening. I’m sure it’s very therapeutic.” They watch how the flowers rustle and coo in the tender breeze, situated high above them, far out of reach but somehow more magnificent because of the distance. Just above the railing, they can make out a frail hand guiding the petals towards the sunlight and then back out of sight, forward and back, forward and back.
//JANE PAKNIA is a sophomore in Columbia College. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.