It was a hint of petal that stopped her mid-shuffle. Relinquishing control of her lime-green vinyl shopping trolley, filled with the remains of flowers, she hobbled purposefully up the path. The sign was unmistakable – a sole camellia, almost translucent, fringed by a cool frond of fern, interwoven skilfully between the rusting ironwork of the security door, and the frayed, flaccid wire mesh, sagging behind it.
“What’s that mum?” called her daughter, as she lugged a shopping bag containing a bottle of oil towards the door step.
῾Ήταν εδώ,” she whispered, clasping at the tightness in her chest as if to rip it open and release it. “Ήρθε.”
“Who?” the daughter asked, disinterestedly, stretching out a hand to pluck the flower from its position.
“Μην το πιάνεις!” came the cry. “Άσ’ το αυτού, άσ’ το αυτού, λέω!” the pressure of her furrowing brows closing her eyes, as she spoke.
Flowers were always the calling cards of old, presumably down the centuries, even. Etiquette demanded that one could not conceivably hope to cross the threshold of another’s home, empty-handed, “με τα χέρια ταράζοντας,” as they used to say. And when, as was often the case in those times, one had nothing substantial to offer, a jar of preserved plums, a selection of fruit from the garden, a bag of tomatoes in various hues of yellow – was it not a dimly remembered teacher back in the village who had told her that the ancient Greek word for red covered a range of shades, from yellow, all the way to mauve, or was it he, that other one, who had told her this, commenting on the violet swelling of her lips, as he bruised them again and again with the rapacity of his moustache? The teacher was found murdered in the village square, his crimson blood weeping down his shirt. The only blood of the other’s she ever saw however, was her own.
A bouquet of cucumbers. A profusion of persimmons. Anything to ward off the disaster of losing face, so precious to those who have next to nothing and are in perennial danger of being disposed of even that, altogether.
Flowers had their own etiquette. They signified absence and loss, which is why her mother had so hated them. Furthermore, to provide flowers as a visitation offering signified the absence of a capacity to grow foodstuffs. Providing flowers in a pot saved some face, for the opportunity was there for such flowers to take root in the new environment and thrive, much as they had done in this Manichean land, both rich and barren. As such it was a true gift.
Cut flowers, on the other hand, ranked as barely acceptable in the hierarchy of permissible gifts, excusable in the elderly and infirm but otherwise, only to be offered upon a face to face encounter in the most dire of circumstances. Instead, as harbingers of the shame of inadequacy, such flowers were to be left surreptitiously upon doors to mark a passing, when the recipient was not at home, signifying their absence and an opportunity lost.
She remembered two types of flower markers. The most common, those visitors who would merely decapitate a sprig of verdant growth or some inconsequential flower from the garden of their absent hosts and weave it in or around, their door frame. Over the years, a pattern would emerge and it would be possible to discern the identity of the absent visitor both by their habit of choosing particular flowers from the hosts’ yard and their manner of interlacing them through the door.
The other, was the usual preserve of the garden proud, those who obtained their ascendancy by disdaining to pillage the gardens of their hosts, instead, venturing forth with perfect and often rare specimens from their own gardens. As each of them had an encyclopaedic knowledge of each other’s gardens, deducing the identity of the absent visitor by means of his flora was but a task of moments.
“I hate cut flowers,” her mother would snap every time she would pick them from the front door. “They are dead and thus belong to the dead. That is why they leave them when our backs are turned. To remind us that when they don’t see us, we are dead to them.” Throw them in the bin. No, not out onto the street. The people will see.”
It was that Saturday, the Saturday before Easter that the camellia first appeared upon their door, a frond of a fern wrapped lovingly around it. Though she had trudged back from the service of the First Resurrection in a daze with her mother, the bloom was immediately discernible among the multitude of pensive carnations, red and white, studding their front door. It had been Good Friday the night before, and their neighbours had knocked on their door, expecting to find her within, for she had told her mother she would remain to commence preparations for the Easter feast. It was the flowers from the funerary bier of Christ, that they had left in their wake.
“A camellia? Who has a camellia? I know no-one. Strange.” Her mother looked directly into her eyes.
She turned various shades of funereal porphyry and rushed inside to the kitchen, feeling the blooming of the life that had taken root within her, the words she had sobbed as he clutched her to him the night before, behind the station, still ringing in her ears: “It is easier for the camel to pass through the eye of the needle than for this situation to be resolved without you asking for my hand, and quickly.” He had pushed her away, smoothing his sideburns as he chortled: “Then I will call you my camellia.” And she fainted.
The pain had a shape. It was petal-shaped. A flower of granite composed of the palm and fingers of her mother’s hand, thudding against her, crushing her with its impact and painting her skin various livid tones of red and yellow. A petal bedecked funeral bier of hope crucified.
“Λέγε μωρή σκύλα. Ποιος σού τό κανε αυτό; Λέγε ποιος σε γκάστρωσε. Απόψε θα γίνει η κηδεία σου.” And yet, on that night, the Resurrection was imminent.
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There were no flowers after that, though she was dead to the world. No visitations, merely silence, entombed in stone. On the balcony of her one bedroom flat, her daughter would ask why they did not have a few flower pots and she would invariably answer: “I hate flowers. Flowers are for the dead.” Yet in the agonising hours just before dawn, she would hear the roots of that camellia seeking out the places where her wounds had been and when she would finally awaken to the sound of the neighbourhood rooster crowing three times, her eyes would glisten with the dew of petals, as she would deny them all.
Walking across streets that had turned their backs upon her, she would avoid the acrid incense emanating from the cracks in the mouldering edifices with the weed-strewn gardens. “Σαν ο διάβολος το θυμίαμα,” the dandelions growing in the guttering would sneer at her before sinking to the ground on a leaden breeze. “Why do you place yourself among the living, when you are dead? You are not here,” the cross-bars of the sagging street lamps would flicker, accusingly. It was there that she saw him. Greying, his cream suit sagging from his frame, his yellowing moustache framing a smile of anticipation as he stretched to affix a camellia to a slashed fly wire screen door.
She shrieked and the world went to seed.
“You know it’s a stupid custom anyway,” her daughter remarked as she put away the cleaning clothes she had used to wash and polish the granite of her grandmother’s grave, and that of another, unmarked. Can’t you at least call or text? Instead, you have to mangle the entire rainforest in order to proclaim your passage. It’s horticultural narcissism.”
The wind picked up, sending the branches of the camellia bush in the pot outside scratching against the window. “Τουλάχιστον κάποιος θα βρεθεί να μας αφήσει ένα λουλούδι,” she pronounced after a long while. “Εσείς τι θα κάνετε;”