Cupid's Mallow

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The pièce de résistance of my shop was a flowerpot large enough to swallow a small cow, set into the wide mahogany counter. It was full of small bundles of flora, hand-selected varieties of buds I had arranged the night before. 

A woman in a bright green blazer fingered the plastic around the white tulip and valerian bunch. “How much?”

I glanced at my daughter Kendra, who quirked an eyebrow but did not lift her head from her history textbook. I sighed. “They’re not for sale.”

Five minutes of increasingly heated conversation, and the woman left with nothing.  Kendra tsked behind me. “You could have made her a different one.” 

“She didn’t need them.”

“Figured you’d say that. How are you going to pay for my tuition?”

“With prayer. Study up, you’ll need a scholarship.” 

The door chimed and Anthony, a regular customer, walked in. I waved. He grinned. “Good morning Natalie!” Then stood in front of the rose display and pulled the tufts of his graying beard into his mouth, chewing on the wiry strands as he thought. I plucked a bundle of pink zinnia and blue forget-me-nots and set it on the counter when he approached with a dozen long-stemmed reds. “For your lady,” I said, presenting the bundle to him along with his purchase after we had completed the formalities. Anthony bowed his head towards me, wished me a good day, and left. 

“What were those for?” 

I turned to Kendra, “Pink zinnia for lasting affection and forget-me-nots for memories.  You should know this by now.” 

She drummed her pencil on the open pages of her textbook, “And that other woman?”

“Forgiveness.”

“She didn’t need forgiveness?” 

I shook my head. “She may need it, but she doesn’t want to ask for it.” 

Kendra made a noncommittal noise and raised her book, pencil poised to make tiny notes in the margins. 

 

The first time it happened, I was a junior in high school. I took clippings of tiger lily and lobelia to my principal, and two days later she was arrested for embezzling from the school. It was not until later that I found the flowers meant pride, arrogance, and malevolence. The combination had come to me in a flash of inspiration, and with a compelling need to give them to her, and only her. 

The feeling built from there, until it seemed second nature to open my very own florist shop in the downtown district. Now a small reputation surrounded the store—that my flowers could bring good fortune. For the most part, that could be true, but for some, it was just the opposite.

At least Anthony did not hold any ill will when I handed him cyclamen, aloe barbadensis, and sweet pea flowers. He knew from the way I would not meet his eyes what would happen, and his wife died that very night from a long illness. He came back the next day, to invite me to the funeral and tend to the flower arrangements. I would always be thankful for his understanding. 

 

Kendra practically pulled me out of my work studio, shoving me behind the counter as she hissed in my ear. “He’s back!”

I knew without looking who she meant. 

The artist bent over his leather sketchbook, his eyes shadowed by a lock of dark hair, a colored pencil brushing methodically at the pages. A begonia came to life under his skilled fingers, the page tilted just so I could see each petal being delicately shaped. For five years the artist had come into my shop. We never spoke, but I watched as he pulled perfect-hued pencils from his messenger bag and put them to paper. The flowers seemed to preen under his attention, twisted to their best angles, their petals vibrant with dew or gloss that had been absent moments before his arrival. 

The artist bought nothing, but I never minded. The customers enjoyed him. So did I.

I stared for a moment before starting back to my work room, and Kendra followed.  “Mom!” She whispered, “Go talk to him.”

I shook my head and looked around at my sanctuary of colorful buds, silken ribbons and clear plastic wrappers. “I don’t want to talk to him.” 

“But you’re always moping around after he leaves. I know you like him.”

“I like a lot of people.” I threw up my hands. “I don’t know a thing about him!”

“You didn’t know anything about Dad when you married him, did you? You’ve said that a million times. But the flowers told you, and it worked out.”

I bit back a sharp response. The flowers had told me at the beginning, and at the end. Bellwort for hopelessness. Asphodel for regret. He died before Kendra was four years old, and I had closed the shop for two weeks while my flowers withered from inattention. 

I tried to ignore the syringa that now seemed to crowd every available spot in my workshop, a promise that I would be happy again. I did not want to believe them.

Kendra glared at me, but our exchange was interrupted by a deep voice from the shop.  “Hello?” 

I followed the sound out of my workroom and behind the counter. The artist leaned against it, a potted succulent in hand. He smiled when he saw me. “I’d like to buy this.” 

Kendra gave me a push at the small of my back. I took the potted jade plant, my hands shaking, and I reached for the vase at my elbow. I plucked out a red mallow bundle, and presented it to him. The words came out shaky, though I had easily said them a thousand times. “For your lady.” 

The artist took the mallow, a flower for those deeply in love, and considered it for a moment.

Then he passed it back to me. “Are you free this Saturday?”

The mallow seemed to thrum beneath my fingers. I nodded, my throat tight, and then smiled. “Yes.”