Perennial (Emerging Writer's Contest Winner: FICTION)
In fiction, our winner is Rowan Beaird for her story “Perennial.”
Of her story, fiction judge Garth Greenwell said, “The subject of this delicate, psychologically penetrating story is the derangement of grief, which it dramatizes with deftness and patience. It demands a similar patience from the reader; its quiet discloses startling depths. Best of all is the ending, in which a disenchanted metamorphosis is entirely magical.”
Rowan Beaird’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The American Literary Review, Puerto del Sol, and Compose, among other publications. Her story, “Cassiopeia,” which appeared in Little Fiction, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She received her BA from Kenyon College, and currently works in the nonprofit field in Chicago.
“I’ve always been obsessed with Joan Didion’s articulation of ‘the ordinary instant’ when someone’s life changes, when you lose something you can never regain. ‘Perennial’ is an exploration of this and the endless ordinary instants that follow, colored and twisted by grief. The specific idea came from memories of my mother’s garden in the suburban Chicago neighborhood where I grew up. One summer, she gave me a stretch of dirt where I could plant my own flowers, and I was awed by the incredible care it takes to tend a garden (not surprisingly, I abandoned mine after a few weeks). Afterward, I couldn’t look at a flower bed without seeing endless hours of weeding and watering. Even though we’re conditioned to see them as places of peace, truly beautiful gardens require an obsessiveness, a sort of madness. That is what I wanted to explore.”
In the morning, he reads about the tornados. They touched down in Kansas, several hundred miles away. The air swelled and burst, forming a cyclone that from a distance looked clean as a pipe. Children tucked their heads between their knees in school basements, hundreds lost their homes. Everything around us just flattened and now my yard looks like a trash heap; the tub is in the kitchen and the kitchen curtains are in the trees, a local woman named Cassandra says. In one of the black-and-white photos of the devastation, he sees, remarkably, their same table lamp, slanted against the plastic slide of a jungle gym. He looks up to tell his wife, but of course, she is not there.
He rinses his coffee cup out and places it on the drying rack. He no longer washes it with soap, the same lips touching its lip every morning. The cup is now ringed with a thin coat of brown, and he’s starting to think he can taste the coffee from the day before and the day before that, and that it’s better this way, for your breakfast to be the sum of all of your breakfasts, for it to have a sense of history.
He laces his work boots. Crabgrass has begun to bud by the fence, and he needs to pull it out by the root, freeing its veined tendrils from the soil. Spring light comes through the back door window, cool and pale.
The garden is no more than an eighth of an acre, but nearly every foot is covered in tulips. He planted them last November, digging up the grass in an uneven wave from the fence to the cement deck. There are Parrots, Davenports, Baspars. Some of the tulips are salmon, others a hard yellow, several a purple so deep they’re nearly black.
He makes his usual route around the edge of the soil. It is dry and loose, with bone meal scattered underneath. He does not touch the actual flowers, only occasionally pocketing loose petals. Last year, he had a student who brought a rose encased in cellophane into his classroom, and she spent the next thirty-five minutes slowly plucking away each layer. She was seated near the back, and he found himself barely able to discuss whatever battle or presidency he was meant to be teaching, so absorbed was he in the flower’s slow disassembling. He said nothing; the act was too private for comment. At the end of the class, she merely left the mound of dark red on the desk.
Three more flowers are missing. They have been snapped off at the base, their leaves two shrugging shoulders. This has been happening every two or so days, the number, the type of tulip always varying. The ones today were Bolrays, of the Triumph family, their tips a soft pink. He leaves their remnants and walks over to the planner he has left open on the lawn table, noting the missing flowers with pencil marks. There is rainwater in her ashtray, a dead bee at its center. He empties it onto the cement, and pulls on his cotton gardening gloves.
I never realized how much paper I kept. There’s paper everywhere, dishrags, towels, I don’t even know if it’s mine anymore, if these things belong to me, out here like this, Cassandra said. He thought how odd it was that you never heard the reporter’s response, how all newspapers are one half of a conversation.
The boys from next door have come outside, looking for earthworms. The crabgrass takes hours, dirt spilling into the opening of his gloves until he removes them, losing his hands in the soil.
Any man off the street will you tell you tulips are from Holland; any book will tell you they are from Turkey. In his portrait, Carolus Clusius has a white frill at his neck that looks like wired tissue paper, decorations for a child’s party. Clusius was a botanist, director of the oldest garden in Europe. In 1590, he was sent a tulip from the ambassador of Constantinople. Tulip for turban, west for east, or east-west, or west-east. Clusius studied them in the hopes they would cure dysentery, small pox, influenza, and published a book on the flowers, rich with ink drawings. The drawings became so popular that Netherlanders began to desire tulips more than money. In the years to come certain species would sell for more than the cost of a house.
At night, men and women would scale Clusius’ garden wall and steal the flowers from the soil beds, burying the bulbs in their aprons and coat pockets. Back home, they would hold the dense, rounded forms up to their ears like a shell, listening for the sounds of blooming.
There is a squirrel in the wall, or maybe a possum, or a raccoon. Something with claws, dull as molars. It scuttles behind their bookcase, scaling the doorframe and settling in the space behind their wicker hamper, her jeans and cotton underwear untouched at the bottom of the basket. It is not loud enough to wake him up, but loud enough to keep him awake, pulling him from near-sleep like a hook looped through his ear.
After an hour, he stands in the darkness, slamming his palm against the plaster where he believes the animal is nesting. It has visited before, but he is not sure how it gets in, having walked around the house’s roof and found no hole or loose shingle. His banging only causes a temporary pause in the scratching, so he clicks on his bedside light and resumes reading The English Landscape.
It is nearing one but he has no alarm set, having been let go from the school last month. After she went missing, they gave him time, allowed him several months of arriving late to first period and forgetting the days he scheduled tests. He does not remember waking up those days, or brushing his teeth, or pulling his car into the parking lot. He only remembers suddenly standing in front of neat rows of students, staring at him as blankly as cattle, and him turning to the chalkboard, hoping for some clue as to what he should say or do.
Being such a small private school, I really think of us like a family, that’s how I think of it and how I hope you think of it, and that’s why it’s so incredibly difficult when I have to let someone go, the assistant principal had said. On her desk was a manila folder with his name on it and half of a blueberry muffin, its grease wetting the napkin underneath. He should not have been surprised, but he was, and a brush of fire spread through his chest and up through his neck. He had not felt this anger since his mother suggested that his wife had been drinking that morning, that perhaps she had decided it was not safe to drive, and wandered off.
His voice spiked to a shout and he could not quiet it, even when the security guard held his wrist in a sad, loose clasp. That evening, he sat in their bathtub, found one of her hairs on the tile floor.
Eighteen days later, the morning after he hid in their bedroom while costumed children rang the doorbell, he drove to the plant nursery. When they rented the house that summer, she said the lot was just large enough for a garden, that they should begin planting in November. He chose tulips because they were her flower, purchased monthly at the supermarket, their clipped stem bottoms rolling off the kitchen countertop. The vase holding them would never stay in one place—one day it would be at the table, the next on the front window ledge, the next on a notepad by the telephone.
Beyond pulling out dandelion weeds as a child, he had never worked in a garden. At the library, he piled books on botany atop the checkout desk—books by Tomkins, Raven, Strasburger. Back home, he pulled back the soil with his hands, sweating through his thermal. In their wooden box the bulbs looked like shallots, encased in a crisped skin. He thought briefly about eating them, wondering if that would be enough.
The animal’s movements are more hurried now, as if it’s trying to claw through the wall. The sound is sharp, insistent. It does not know that on the other side is just a lone lightbulb and more bare wood.
History books tell the western story first, but the Turkish were just as enamored of tulips as the Dutch. They were grown for the sultan, a symbol of wealth. Every year, the sultan would hold festivals for the flower, hundreds cut and scattered around the palace. All guests were required to wear colors that matched the blooms, yards and yards of fabric dyed red, pink, and orange. It is easy to picture, softened by candles, men and women walking slowly across carpet and stone, the purple of the sky framed by archways.
Outside Constantinople, growing tulips was forbidden, and those found guilty were punished by exile. That is more difficult to picture. Exile often conjures up images of open plains, sand dunes dotted with prickly shrubs, life or not-life at the edge of everything else. But all exile means is not home—waking up in the morning and for a moment, the light warming the tip of your nose, your left cheek, having no idea where you are.
Two more tulips are gone, broken off at the half-stalk, as if the person was in a hurry. He makes two more marks with his pencil, and then tallies them: twenty-nine total. He waters the strip of grass in loose arcs, looking to the tips of his fence posts, to the tops of his neighbors’ windows. There is no movement. It is a Tuesday, so the children to the left are not swinging in their thick-roped hammock, the man on the far right is not working on his bicycle. She had predicted they would be friends with him, because his bike was a deep orange: the color, she said, of someone who cooks well. She had waved to the man once, and he had waved back—a curt sweep, his palm hanging in the air for no more than a second.
In the house, he puts on one of his short-sleeve button-ups and picks up a comb. His hair has grown past his earlobes, longer than she had ever seen it. It is the hair he had in high school, thick as a dog’s, which makes him feel older than his thirty-two years.
He decides he’ll begin at the house at the corner of Kilbourn and James. It has an overturned bird bath on the front lawn and dried vines across its western siding. He has stopped in at all the others on the block and knows it’s time to look farther.
The phone rings. He goes to the kitchen, waits for the call to roll over to the machine. It is his mother in New Hampshire, a message he deletes before she is halfway through her first sentence: Just checking in, wondering if you’d… The police haven’t called in months, but they may still call. He would pull the cord from the wall if it weren’t for that, and the somber voicemails he receives from her mother. Her voice has his wife’s same low timbre, and he often replays the messages, assigning new meaning to the words, pretending it is her speaking.
It is cooler than he expected outside, but he doesn’t want to bother going back for a sweater. When doing this he always feels like his time is limited, that there is a clock ticking. There are no sidewalks in their neighborhood, so he walks close to the lawns, short rolls of grass leading up to squat brick houses, their roofs wide as hat brims. Many have picture windows, many of them displaying vases of flowers—apologetic roses, mottled hydrangeas, painted daisies that look as if they were chosen by young girls.
There is no car in the house’s driveway, but he rings the doorbell to be certain. He looks behind him—no cars pulling on to the street, no stay-at-home mothers out for a walk. The front window is clouded with water stains, but he is still able to see a flattened beige couch, a wood-paneled television and a stack of magazines on the floor. Near the hallway there is a kimono hung from the wall, stitched with lifeless purples and blues. There are no tulips.
He circles the house, looking into bedroom and kitchen windows. He knows there is a possibility that the stolen flowers could be perched along a windowless hallway, tucked away at such an angle that he could never see them, but he can’t dwell on this. He had a dream the other night that there were tulips blooming in the hall closet, in the tile underneath his toilet, on the top shelf of his pantry.
On to the next house. He repeats his routine, and walks up to the front window. But instead of an empty couch, he finds a boy in the living room, wearing loose shorts and a pair of too-large gym socks. The boy is sticking his left foot in the air. His face is turned toward the television screen, but then he shifts, their eyes meet.
He turns and begins to walk toward the forest, careful not to run. If the front door bursts open, if someone demands why he was on the front lawn, he will say he was just out for a walk, that he thought he heard a scream from the house. Even before, he was never very good speaking to parents, preferring to explain why he chose Shelby Foote as a text over their child’s inability to learn, to grow. She was always the one to order their coffee, joke with the grocery store cashiers. But now it is much worse—even the cashiers have stopped attempting small talk, picking at their nails as his receipt unspools.
He wants to sprint through the trees, but he continues to take measured steps along the footpath. He looked for her here as well, months before, though it was twenty miles from where her car was found. Few things feel as futile as looking for someone in the woods. That first day, with the others, he was unsure if he was supposed to talk, how often he should call her name. All he’d eaten that morning was the small rump of a bread loaf, and he was embarrassed by his hunger, his thoughtlessness at not bringing water or wearing his work boots.
He hears a car door slam in the distance, and begins to walk faster. Sparrows land and take flight in nearby trees.
Alone, the days were shorter. He began to imagine starting a fire to clear the path, flint against flint, smoke spooling from a small hovel of dead leaves. He would wait at the edge of the forest until she ran out, chased by the sweep of flames, wearing the same violet sweater she’d put on that morning, and they would walk together in silence, toward home.
He does not leave the forest for several hours, looping through the now familiar trails. It is nearly mid-afternoon when he returns to his empty living room. He brings in an apple from the kitchen and lies down on the worn leather couch, placing the fruit above his navel.
When war broke out, Princess Juliana and her children found sanctuary in Canada. As Nazi boots kicked up Dutch soil, they carried on life in a simple stucco house in Ottawa—practicing English along with the radio, taking a boat out onto the lake. During a visit from her husband, a German who remained in Britain, Juliana became pregnant. When giving birth, the land the hospital stood on was declared leader-less, country-less, to ensure full Dutch citizenship for the little girl.
Upon being restored to her throne, Juliana sent Canada a gift of gratitude: one hundred thousand tulip bulbs. They were planted on the hospital grounds, and for the rest of her reign, Juliana would continue to send flowers every year, crates and crates, though perhaps at some point Canada did not want to be reminded of the war any longer. Perhaps the gardeners that pulled the nails out, that dug through the strips of paper for bulbs, could not help but remember their fathers and cousins and whisper, softly, enough, enough.
She is sitting on a lawn chair, her feet propped up on another. Next to her is a blue duffel, scuffed and fraying. He thinks it’s actually his father’s bag, one of the several he had piled in the damp basement closet—he would not be surprised if she took it without asking. She turns her head, sees him through the glass, and smiles.
“Why tulips?” his sister asks, as he picks up her duffel.
“Roses seemed too difficult,” he says, sliding the screen door shut behind them.
He carries her belongings into the house, and drops them next to the couch. She would only be in for a night, having come from a show in the city. As he pours her a glass of water, she trails behind him, picking up gardening books and vases, running her fingers along the grooves in the wallpaper. This is how she is in every space, possessive and unquestioning. She does not go to museums.
They make dinner, falling into the rhythm of preparing their father’s red sauce. He opens the cans of peeled tomatoes as she cuts the onion into thin ribbons. The kitchen begins to smell rich, the olive oil shimmering in the pan. She teases him about his new interest in flowers as she opens cabinets, undoubtedly to ensure that he has enough food.
He asks her about a tattoo she has gotten on her ankle, a mountain range for their home state that looks more like the humps on a camel’s back. She looks older, he thinks, though he’s not sure in what way. When she asks about work he says he’s teaching lessons on World War II.
Afterward, they play card games at the kitchen table, and he has a glass of wine for the first time in months. She cheats every time they play, and though they are both aware of the other’s knowledge of this, it is never mentioned. When she came to stay with him after the car was found, they played cards every evening, games they learned from their grandmother: casino, karnöffel, gin rummy. They did not turn on the television, or listen to the radio, or speak about anything other than who was better at bluffing and the odd Israeli man their grandmother brought to Thanksgivings.
“You’ll be a good dad,” she says, when he agrees to play after losing his fifth hand. She begins to shuffle, though her hands are slightly too small to do it gracefully. Looking at the cards, she asks hesitantly, “Were you thinking of children?”
“Everyone thinks of children. They’re everywhere, especially when you’re a teacher. But there’s no point in thinking of them now.” The window is open, and the wind lifts up several pieces of paper he’d placed on top of her record player. Bills for the credit cards he’s maxed out, or another letter from one of the wildlife refuges she donated to every month. I don’t even know if it’s mine anymore, if these things belong to me, out here like this, Cassandra had said.
His sister nods, takes two cards from the deck.
Red tulips convey romantic love and passion. Yellow tulips are for jealousy, though now many say they are the color of friendship. They are given to siblings, or when you want someone to be well. Purple is for royalty and rebirth, they are given to queens and those who are experiencing change. Striped tulips are said to represent the eyes of your beloved, though no one’s eyes look like that. White tulips are for a wedding, or an apology, or a death. They are rarely given, or grown, or found in vases. There is no history to any of this — it is as meaningless as memory.
She puts on a record and lies across the couch, so he takes the armchair by the window. Holding her wrist against her eyes, she tells him about their mother. She has stopped dyeing her hair, and now it is a soft, feline white. It somehow makes her look younger, only her hands seem truly old. She keeps asking if he needs money, even though she has nothing to give. Their father’s watch is still on the mahogany table in the front hall.
Outside, the front door light illuminates the lawn and the rough edges of the road’s concrete. The house across the street is dark, asleep. This was the first house he visited, and in their bedroom, he found dishes stacked on the dresser, loose silverware beside them, as if they ate meals underneath their covers.
His sister has stopped talking, possibly she has fallen asleep. He places his wineglass on the floor and thinks of suggesting they go for a run, suddenly eager to leave their house, to see it recede in the distance.
A song floats from the glossy vinyl, sparse bits of string, and he remembers that he and his wife heard this played once. They were in a church, gray stone and unstained glass, and the quartet was in the middle of the aisle. It was when they were just out of college, he thinks, and his memory of the light makes him believe it was mid-morning, but he is not sure where the church is, or why they were there. She had said something to him about the flowers on the altar, and though he can feel her hand cupping his ear, he cannot see them, or remember her words.
He hunches forward in the chair, holding his forehead in his hands. He looks up to find his sister on her side, watching him, as if he were in a boat pushing back from the dock.
“So there’s been no word?” she says, sitting up and folding her feet beneath her.
“No. They haven’t called since March.”
“You know, I thought I saw her yesterday? At the airport. But then when I got closer, it was this much older Asian woman. I don’t know why, from a distance—I think it was something about the shape of her neck.”
“That used to happen to me. I used to see her at the supermarket, at the carwash, in one of the booths at Smith’s or behind the counter of the dry cleaners on Belden. So I stay home, but now—”
“Now what?” she asks, when he pauses.
“I know you won’t believe me,” he says. But she will believe him, he knows, she is his sister. “But someone is stealing the tulips—”
“Stealing the tulips? Your tulips?”
“Our tulips, and yes, I can show you, and sometimes I wonder if somehow, if she—”
“You know, you don’t have to stay here, you were just here for her program and you can always go home. I know I’m not there, but—” She says this calmly, holding out her hand.
“No. I’m sorry, but I—no,” he says, and stands up. “I should find some sheets for you, so you’re not sleeping right on the couch.”
He takes down sheets and a quilt from the closet. His mother washed them back when she stayed with him in the fall, but they smell like the shelves, cedar and dust. He brings her more water and closes the windows so the moths flapping near the porch light won’t come inside. She unfolds the linens and shakes them out over the cushions, watching him as he turns toward his bedroom.
“Yes,” he says, turning back. Her arms are folded, and she is touching her elbows with the tips of her fingers. She looks small, far away, reminding him of when she would throw wood chips at his window as he read, soft nicks at the glass, asking him to come outside.
“It’s a beautiful garden.”
A legend, from Turkey: a prince falls in love, as all princes are required to do. Her skin is dark and her ears are small as mice. One day, in the village, she is killed by a thief—an accident, some said, as if death is ever an accident. Upon hearing this, the prince ran to the stables. He found the horse he learned to ride on as a child and mounted it in one great leap. He rode for miles until he reached the cliffs, and kept on riding, over their edge.
At some point in the falling, he must have loosened himself from the horse, his feet slipping from the stirrups, his thighs rising above the polished leather saddle. Or perhaps he gripped it tighter, warmed by the horse’s skin, one final reminder of life.
They say that in the valley below, a tulip blossomed from each drop of his blood. But what of his love’s blood? Did it just dry and harden on the street?
In the morning, he finds no sign of his sister. The blankets have been placed in the hall closet, the water glass is dry and back in the cabinet. He has a vague sense of his bedroom door having been opened, a hand on his forehead.
He showers and wipes the fog from the mirror, wondering what she’ll tell their mother, if she will also show up at his doorstep unannounced. He doesn’t have any energy to look through other houses today, and decides he will go to the library instead. It is one of the few places he hasn’t come to fear, as the only other occupants are usually huddled in the children’s nook or asleep in the teal reading chairs. The librarians never limit the number of books he checks out, as no one else has any desire to read about the Keukenhof Gardens, or the correct measurements of silt, sand, and clay.
As he begins to spoon out coffee grounds, he sees movement at the corner of his eye. He turns toward the garden. There is someone in the tulips, slight and light-haired. Someone half hidden behind their young oak tree. He puts down the coffee bag, and slowly approaches the screen, his eyes focusing and re-focusing on the door’s silver cross-hatching, the green behind it.
The neighborhood is quiet, and the deck is cool beneath his feet, all in shadow. The figure moves from behind the gray bark, the tulips rustling underfoot, and he finds her.
She is holding half of a tulip, a Negrita, and she is smiling, close-mouthed, the way she would when he brought her glass of wine to the couch, or placed her book on their bedside table. Her hair is darker now, with shimmers of red, and there are soft brushes of dirt across her legs. She is not wearing her violet sweater, but a cotton nightgown she slept in that past summer, when it was so hot that they stripped their bed down to the sheets, the fans humming them to sleep.
He finds himself hunched over, one hand on his mouth and the other on the ground. And when he looks up, she’s shifted. Her legs have thinned, her neck has lengthened. She is no longer herself, but instead a lone deer, a half-eaten tulip stem in its mouth.
Parrot tulips can grow nearly a foot and a half tall. Their petals have the appearance of a piece of paper curling up in flame. They were incredibly popular throughout Europe, but in the early twentieth century it was discovered that at the heart of their frilled texture was an infection. A small, wingless insect would poison the flower, which when healthy was smooth as a peach.
Is this why you loved them? Not for any of the other myths, or stories, or meanings, but because even when dying, they are beautiful, and unknown?