Ruth Joffre

A Girl Talks to Flowers

Every Saturday, Bianca sits outside and talks to the geraniums in the backyard. Once, this plot of nutrient-rich compost and wriggling earthworms belonged to her grandmother, Lena, who planted asymmetrical bee balm and bushy valerian because she liked the vibrant color, that shock of carnelian, vermillion, and blood that said, “I was here. I was alive.” About seven months prior, Lena died from deep-vein thrombosis when a blood clot in her leg broke loose, stampeded up her body against her will, and lodged in her lungs, causing a pulmonary embolism. Nobody expected Lena to have her will already prepared, let alone for it to demand that she be composted and used to refertilize the perennials in the backyard—and yet, there she was, her remains fueling the daily acts of sustenance and photosynthesis that caused the flowers to bud and then to blossom. For the past several weeks, since the geraniums bloomed, Bianca has been chatting with the flower beds, calling them Grandma, and asking them for advice about life and school. “How do I tell Willy B. that I’m not really interested in boys? Should I braid my hair like Molly? When do I start shaving my legs? All the other girls have already started.”

Ay, no te preocupes, niña, she imagines her grandmother saying, I haven’t shaved my legs since August 2002, and your abuelo never complained. Her abuelo was an unfailingly sweet man who hand-carved and painted wooden estatuillas de deer and foxes and other woodland creatures for all her birthdays and major holidays. Even when his eyesight began to fail him. Even with his hands as rough and thin as the layers of silver bark she once peeled off a birch. In the fading light of the porch, he turned the wood in his hands, sensing its weight, rubbing his thumbs on the grain until he could see the life inside it: water and rings and the gradations of hue that come with time and age. Here, the gentle beige of its early days, when it was carefully tended and protected, kept safe in the light of a greenhouse; there, the burnt umber of an old burl weeping at the indignity of cutting off a root to make room for a sidewalk. For these, he imagined the flop of a bunny’s ears, the stripes on a tiger’s back, the menagerie of gifts Bianca would arrange on the windowsill even after the house was sold and he set down his carving knife for the last time.

“But why can’t we move in with abuelito? Why does he have to leave?”

Her mother tries to explain: “You have to understand, mija. Your grandfather needs more care and attention than your father and I can give. We have to work; we cannot afford to keep the house and pay for his doctors. But he will be close by—you’ll get to see him whenever you want. Okay?” Her mother rubs her arms, as if that one word (okay) is a balm meant to soothe her heart, but for Bianca this answer only raises more questions.

“What about abuelita? Will we get to visit her? Will the new owners keep the garden?”

To this, her mother has no answer, so Bianca goes outside to consult the geraniums. “I’m not sure what to do, abuelita Lena.” She sits in the grass with her feet out in front of her, her bare toes squishing the soil together and then letting it fall loose from her skin. As she sits, she studies one blade of grass she slides underneath her thumbnail, wondering at its thinness, its frailty. “I’m not ready to say goodbye to you.”

The Earth never says goodbye, niña. It’s always here with you: in the air you breathe, the water you drink, the dirt I can see underneath those fingernails. When my body was composted, I didn’t die. I returned home. This isn’t enough, she thinks, her mind turning to abuelito. In his last days at the house, as Bianca walks him around the garden, naming the flowers, she thinks, maybe he knows. Maybe abuelita is with him everywhere he goes. He smiles up at the leaves swaying in the breeze and seems to hear love in the sounds; but just in case the girl brings a terracotta flower pot from her family garage, and on the day of the move, while her parents stand around, directing the hired men around the house, and abuelito sits on the porch, sweating and blinking at the yard, Bianca digs up some geraniums with her bare hands and then plants them neatly, perfectly, in the center of the pot.

Afterward, she brings the pot to her abuelo and sets it on the table between them.

“¿Escuchas, abuelo?” She holds one ear close to a flower. “Es abuelita Lena.”

He leans over the pot dutifully, first running his fingers along the terracotta, then pressing them into the top layer of soil, letting the earth speak to him. When Bianca asks again if he hears, if he understands the language of the flowers, he nods with that gentle absentness of someone for whom the whole world disappears when they hear the voice of their love. He tells her, “I’m here, mi amor. I see you,” and describes Lena as he knew her and would always see her: jet black hair, a slight curl where the cut fell about her shoulders, under the shadow of a floppy straw hat; a pale yellow sundress; a pair of strappy sandals; and always a trowel or a hoe in her hands, always new flowers in their vases and fresh rosemary in the masa. What a force of nature she is—was—is.

Ruth Joffre is the author of the story collection Night Beast. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Kenyon ReviewLightspeedGulf Coast, Prairie Schooner, The Masters Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Pleiades, and elsewhere. She lives in Seattle, where she serves as the Prose Writer-in-Residence at Hugo House and co-organizes the Fight for Our Lives performance series.