Bloom and Die

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Beth Sawicki


My daughter has never exactly been brilliant. She’s not a genius, or even very smart, and she doesn’t have some kind of talent that’ll get us enough money to move the hell back to America. But she’s pretty clever when it comes to getting dirty. There’s not a single unstained T-shirt in her closet, and her mouth is permanently surrounded by a sticky red ring. Once, I watched her run into the valley, fall in a mud puddle, roll around in some type of animal shit, and then sink to her knees in silt when she got to the lake, all in less than a minute. It would be impressive if it wasn’t so damn pathetic.

Last week, I didn’t even recognize her under a crust of mud when she came running up the back steps and shoved a purple flower at me. “Damnit, Katie,” I said when she stopped right in front of me and grabbed my leg for balance. Now there’s this big brown splotch on my nicest pair of jeans.

I tried to rub the dirt out of my pants, but Katie kept pulling on my arm and pointing to a patch of dead grass next to the patio. I had no idea what she wanted, but my favorite jeans were ruined, so it’s not like I really gave a crap. I gave the flower back to her, and she ran into the house with it and somehow managed to get mud on every inch of floor from the back door to her bedroom.

I assumed the flower came from the valley. I haven’t really been down there since we moved to this godforsaken house last fall. We lived near Rome for a while and in London before that, which was awesome. But then Giacomo’s grandmother croaked and left him this crummy little shack in a valley at the base of some mountains on Italy’s border with France. And instead of selling it when I told him to, he decided that we needed to move here and “keep it in the family,” like this piece of junk is a monument or something.

God, Giacomo. It’s been a hell of a long time since the days of lunch break Italian lessons and please, call me Joe. I became his temp when I was nineteen and fell in love around my second day on the job. His divorce was final, and his monster of a son was living with his ex-wife in Sacramento. I don’t believe in fate or divine intervention or any of that crap, but I will say that I had kickass timing with “Joe,” as people in L.A. called him. If I’d gotten onboard only a couple weeks later, he might’ve actually gone for that slut in HR who definitely had a thing for him.

That night, Giacomo told me that only white flowers grow in the valley. Katie was sitting Indian-style on his lap, spreading her grime all over his work pants, with that purple flower pinched between two of her fingers by what was left of its stem. She twirled it close to her face and squinted whenever the petals brushed her nose. Giacomo squinted too, at me, like I was dumber than Katie because I didn’t know what grew in that stupid valley. It’s not like I ever go out there to see what color the flowers are. I don’t even want to be here. If I had it my way, we never would’ve left England. No, actually, we never would’ve left L.A. I was born and raised there. I’d barely been outside the thirty-mile zone before I met Giacomo. And now I’d give anything to be back in it.

I followed Katie outside the next morning and got ready to count the seconds until she messed up her pants. But then she started babbling in Italian and ran to the patch of dead grass. About five or six more of those purple flowers had grown overnight. Katie kneeled next to them and looked up at me with that retarded smile of hers.

But she was sobbing a few hours later when the flowers suddenly wilted and turned brown. Mirra, the ancient woman from town who helps take care of Katie, tried to get her to shut up. I hate the sound of the kid crying, so I sat outside on the back steps and stared at the valley. The mountains in the distance were covered with snow. They still are, even though it’s practically summer.

I almost shit my pants when I saw snow for the first time. Me and Giacomo were in London, and I was so pregnant that it looked like I was about to explode. I was sitting on the sofa in our flat, freezing half to death, counting down the hours until he got home from work, when I looked outside and screamed so loud that the girl next door banged on the wall and asked if I was going into labor. I was just hypnotized by the snow that day. Now I can’t stand it.

I looked at that patch of grass to get my mind off the fact that I wasn’t in L.A. anymore. A few sprouts were poking through the ground around the dead flowers. I went inside and grabbed Katie by the arm to show her. She stopped crying, like somebody turned off a damn tap. Mirra said something that could’ve been either a curse or a prayer.

That cycle repeated itself for the next couple of days. A few flowers grew and died, and Katie would have a panic attack until new ones came up. She didn’t pick any of them during the hour or so that they lived. She just sat on the patio, staring, sucking on two of her fingers like she was concentrating really hard. The first flower, the one she picked on the day she destroyed my favorite jeans, lay on her bedside table, still alive and bright purple.

I tried to talk to Giacomo about it. He always gets pissy when I speak English. I’m sorry, but I’m not nearly as interested in learning Italian as I was when we met. He used to take me to lunch and teach me useful phrases, like the cow ate the chicken that lived on the moon. Really stupid stuff, but it made us laugh. He told me that he left Italy because he wanted to “find riches on the golden streets of America.” He married a Sacramento woman to become a citizen, and had a son who sounded like a total brat and is getting ready to graduate from high school now. But then he got homesick. “I feel the tug of Italia,” he told me. “It is my blood. It is my life. I was born in Italia, and I must die there.” He accepted the job offer in London, which was obviously so much closer to Italiathan Los Angeles, on the same day I found out that Katie was on the way.

Since my Italian sucks now, Giacomo finally backed off and told me in English that the people in town believe that the dead are always giving signs from beyond the grave. Giacomo’s grandmother, the one who was kind enough to leave us this p.o.s. house, keeled over on the patio near that patch of dead grass. Apparently, she had this theory about how our time on Earth is short and cyclical: as soon as one life ends, another begins and takes its place. “It is the reason that the flowers bloom and die so quickly,” Giacomo said. “And she loved porpora .”

Well, it sounded like a big steaming pile of small-town superstition to me. I wanted to go outside and test that story with a bottle of Roundup. I never thought Giacomo was religious or believed in that kind of crap, but he looked dead serious. His grandmother is buried in the cemetery up the road, but he honestly thinks that some part of her still lives in this house.

For the next few days, the flowers grew so fast that the new ones didn’t even wait for the old ones to die, but just pushed them out of the ground from underneath. Katie had a field day watching them, clapping her sticky hands and shouting through the kitchen window at Mirra. I spent yesterday morning with my English-to-Italian dictionary, trying to figure out how to tell Katie that her dead great-granny was fertilizing her new garden, but when I finally grabbed her and spit out the phrase, she just looked confused and pointed to the flowers. Stupid kid.

Around dusk, she and Mirra said some kind of prayer over the flowers. I watched them from the steps and listened to their fast Italian. As far as I know, Katie doesn’t understand a word I say. She spends most of her time with Mirra, who doesn’t speak English, or Giacomo, who won’t speak it anymore. I just hope that she decides to learn my language someday. After all, she is half-American.

Mirra took Katie inside for a bath when it started to get dark. I kept sitting and staring at the mountains, pretending that they were the Santa Anas and snow didn’t exist. Then I look over at the flowers and, I swear to God, I actually saw a new sprout pop out of the ground. And I’m not kidding when I say that it was mocking me. Its petals opened wide to show me its sneering little face.

So I walked over there and ripped that flower out of the ground, roots and all. God, it felt good. I pulled up another one and tossed it onto the patio. Then I started stomping the rest of the flowers. Purple and brown petals floated around my feet. I kicked at the dead grass until huge chunks of dirt went flying.

When I turned around, Giacomo was behind me, home from his job in town, holding one of the flowers. Before I could say anything, he took off toward the valley. I watched him until I couldn’t see him anymore and then went inside, where Katie was standing next to the kitchen table in one of Giacomo’s huge old T-shirts. The ten seconds after her bath are the only time she’s ever clean.

Dov’è Papà?

I looked down at my daughter, the reason I eloped with Giacomo, the reason he stopped going by Joe and moved us from England to Italy so she could grow up like he did. She was holding that first flower, which was still purple, and staring at me with her mouth open. I turned around and went back outside to sit on the steps. The mountains and valley and even the patio had completely disappeared in the dark.

I’ll be twenty-four next month. But I feel even older than Mirra. How did it happen? How did I go from being in love to living this life so quickly? I feel the tug of America. It’s where I was born, and it’s where I want to die. So what am I doing here?

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I’m an Atlanta native who made the brilliant decision to attend college in the frigid Midwest. 2007 marked my graduation from Miami University. (That’s in Ohio, not Florida.) Now I’m back in my hometown and working as an editorial assistant for a magazine publishing company. E-mail: beth.sawicki[at]gmail.com

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