AMARA OKOLO

The Art of Planting Flowers

Of all things that are born, live and die, plants and flowers are the only living organisms that rebirth themselves. It is amazing to see how a tree would be felled down, and in its stead will grow another. Or a vegetable, pulled out from the ground and replaced with its seed, sprouting again in a matter of weeks. I have always wanted to tell a story of grief with such mechanisms, how pain is installed almost like a planted thing, and when it germinates, it grows into grief. When I think of grief, I think of it as a love halted before its prime, uncertain and anxious of where to go. So it becomes lost. It stays still, motionless, but quietly growing into pain. This story was my way of piecing together how the loss of a life can exist despite the birth of another, to give each life an extent of attention, and how loss, despite who feels it, is felt the same way: through grief.

Ekeledo’s mother had taught him the art of planting flowers. She had taught him how to love the soil like it was human, burrowing into it until the blackness of the mud stained his fingers and filled his nails. It was from her he learnt how to lower plants into the dugout holes of dirt, the angle his hands had to bend as he pruned each flower. He had only been a year old when she introduced him to the garden, a forest of colors humming with bees and butterflies. Clumps of blood-red roses extending from stems of thorns; a carnation of hydrangeas, curls of clematis, an unfolding family of hibiscuses, and drooping stems of lilies. She held him on her waist, a robin chirping over their heads, the Rose of Sharon clutched in his chubby hands making him sneeze. The sun was warm, the air was edible. He raised the perfumery petals to his mouth as his mother sang an ancient Igbo song.

I will touch the skin of the Earth

Nda

I will smell her soil,

Nda

let me decay, let me be reborn again,

Nda

for she is my mother; my land, Anioma.

Nda, ndalioma, nda!

Two years later, his mother walked into the garden on a cool September evening with a kitchen knife in her hand and slit her throat. He was witness, a five-year-old sitting on the windowsill of his room, playing Chutes and Ladders, his eyes straying occasionally from the game to the garden, the rustling of leaves and bobbing of daffodils in the breeze. His newborn sister had arrived three days earlier, and she was in the next room, asleep on the cot. The room smelled of lunch, the pleasant aroma of boiled plantains and crayfish stew. He had won a round, and the rustling brought his head up again to see his mother standing in the garden. She looked towards the house, her eyes glassy with tears. Perhaps she had seen him, perhaps she had not—he could not tell. The sun was setting behind her, a butter-yellow halo, like the circles drawn around the head of white Jesus in his Bible picture books. The stainless steel of the knife stole the sunlight as she raised it to her throat and drew a line. He never heard her body fall. The flowers had been too bountiful; they cradled her like a thoughtful lover as she bled her life onto them, drenching the soil she had loved with the remainder of her years.

It was only on the day of the funeral that they found the note she had written, buried in a jar of powdered cane sugar in the kitchen. Three months of crying, of confusion and questions had shrouded the family, and it was answered in a sheet of neatly folded paper. His mother’s familiar cursive was scrawled in black ink, and as his father read aloud, his sobbing punctuated the sentences, his voice rocking the room.

My head is begging me to split it open. I will answer these voices speaking to me or else I will run mad! Please love my children, my son Ekeledo. Tell my Kpakpando I will see her in the morning. In another world I will be her mother again, but not in this one. This world, it hates me. Let me go to my flowers, I need to sleep.

One morning, when Ekeledo was seven, his father came downstairs as they ate breakfast. He kissed him and Kpakpando on their mouths. It was a Sunday morning, the week before their mother’s memorial, and their father’s sister Aunty Bisa was present, ironing the matching fabrics the family would wear to church the next Sunday. His father went over to her, hugged her tightly, his head buried in the curve of her shoulder blade. Ekeledo watched them, his eyes dry. The room smelled of the steaming iron and soggy Nasco cornflakes infused with warm milk. When his father extracted himself from the hug, he picked up his car keys beside the kitchen door and went through it, the screen door thudding close with a sharp slam.

They found his body in the river a week later. His seatbelt was still intact, clipped across his chest. The windows had been wound up. Some said he intentionally ran off the bridge, others said he must have fallen asleep at the wheel. But whatever it was, his father was dead. Ekeledo knew this much. His mother had slit her throat in front of him, his father had ended up in the water, burying himself in its belly until she was full and spat him out. And that Sunday morning, as the Priest gave a sermon that juxtaposed his father’s death with his mother’s memorial, Ekeledo felt the weight of the congregation’s eyes on his back. Their eyes burrowed into his skin until he became porous, grief oozing from the holes. Though he was a child, he began to understand that the world he walked through would be shrouded by the horrors of his parents’ deaths. They would haunt his dreams. His eyes strayed down to the lilies in his hands. They were limp, speckled with the morning’s dew. And as clear as the day outside the heat of the church, he knew what he would become.

On the spot his mother’s body had fallen, Ekeledo planted a cluster of forget-me-nots. He had bought them off an American horticulturist he met in a Facebook group, and when he had offered her money, she politely rejected the full payment except the shipping cost. The flowers arrived on the thirtieth anniversary of his mother’s suicide, a rectangular bed of blue, pink, and yellow flowers that kissed his fingertips with their feather-like texture. It was also the month Kpakpando was to marry Osara, the man with the coconut-shaped head and slanted eyes with puffy eyebags. His sister came with her fiancé to the house to officially introduce him. When Ekeledo rose from his haunches and analyzed the burliness of Osara, he knew what laid in wait for the future—this man was going to ruin her life.

He tried telling her, after sneaking her off to the backyard while Madam Maggie the maid entertained Osara in the parlor. A blood-red robin was chirping from the daisies, eyeing them suspiciously as they sipped from their bottles: homemade orangeade for him, Coca-Cola for her.

“I am a slave to sugar,” Kpakpando always joked, especially when he tried getting her to his side of the table with plant-based diets and holistic eating. “No matter how many salads I eat, I will die. Better to leave this earth filled with pleasure than to have starved my body of it.”

Sometimes he tried to recall if his mother had eaten a lot of sugar while pregnant with Kpakpando. But the trauma of her death had so darkened his memory, his persistent thoughts of her were of an opened throat pulsating with blood.

Kpakpando was smoking a Camel, staring at a lonesome hornbill on one of the mango trees that surrounded the blackened backyard walls. “You don’t have to say it, I know you don’t like him,” she said, blowing out a fast line of smoke.

He watched his muddied fingers smudge the glass in his hands. “He looks like a wife-beater,” he said under his breath, his eyes down.

“But I am the first woman he is going to marry. How can he be a wife-beater when he has not been married before? And when did people now walk around with the label wife-beater on their faces? Oh-ho… did you see something I did not see?”

She was longing to pick a fight, her usual defense. The tension seemed to implode whenever their parents’ death anniversaries arrived, a reminder of his pain and insufferable silence. For Kpakpando, their parents’ lives were a blur, a blind spot in memory as she had been saved by infancy to witness the horrors. But for him, he carried the demons like trophies. His dreams were dense with their bodies—his mother’s, bloodied from the neck down; his father’s bloated and perforated by the fishes’ teeth. In the dreams, he always failed at saving them. Grief had tied him down to this house, this life as a gardener, searching for answers in empty soil. Kpakpando could not understand him, and she hated him for the ambiguity that encased him like second flesh.

He was too tired to fight, so he let her keep talking.

“Ekeledo, will you not answer? I say again, how will you know Osara my soon-to-be husband is a wife-beater? Or are you going to tell me now that our dead mother appeared in the dream and told you this? Or is it Father this time?”

Her tone angered him. He stood up, dropped the glass of juice on the cemented veranda. “It is your choice,” he said. “Marry him if you want. I have said my own.”

She hissed at his back as he walked away. “You want me to be like you, alone and miserable, staying in this wretched town. For what? To remind me of the deaths of people who could not even stay to see their daughter grow up! God forbid you and them!”

Her voice died off once he circled the house and returned to the garden. Osara was outside, standing beside the Toyota he had driven. He was talking in hushed tones into a cellphone, and it was only Ekeledo’s rustling of the rose bushes that prompted him to turn. The man’s eyes widened with syrupy pleasantness as he saw him, switching off the call with a swiftness that implied guilt. Ekeledo felt sickened.

“Ah my in-law, you are here,” he cackled.

His voice was severing to Ekeledo’s ears. Saying nothing, he walked past the man.

Osara continued. “Have you finished talking with my love, your sister?”

Ekeledo ignored him. He disappeared into the garden, shutting the miniature gate behind him.

He had buried five new forget-me-nots when he heard the car doors open and slam. The mutter of Kpakpando’s voice as she spoke with Madam Maggie carried over through the wind, but he could only hear I don’t care about his blessing. Ekeledo felt the plants drop into the holes of the earth, silent and heavy like a last breath.

The screech of the tires on the stony driveway was quick. He listened as the quietness returned, ushered in with the evening sounds of birds chirping, excited cicadas buzzing against the impending dusk, the fluttering of his beloved flowers. He closed his eyes, relished the moment. It never came back again, a specific time or moment. He wished he could hold it in him as much as he could. He had found the importance of that from this place, this soil, this garden.

Seven months later, he heard the screech of the tires again. He had been eating a bowl of fried snails drenched in pepper sauce when the Toyota stopped beside the house. It was Kpakpando’s sunglasses that made him stand up, and when she began to cry as he walked towards her, he knew. She did not have to take the glasses off to reveal a blackened eye, he did not need to see the bruises snaking over her arms, streaked with purplish inflamed veins. He just knew.

“Come in,” he said. “Come in where you belong.”

Months later, Kpakpando left in the rain and wasn’t back when the drops slowed to a trickle the following day. Ekeledo paced the room, his hands interlocked as a cradle behind his head. Night sounds resumed with ferocity, disrupting the silence. He lost count of how many times he walked to the window, looking out through the lace curtains, seeing nothing but darkness. It would have been less invigorating if Kpakpando was just out, but he’d recently learned she was pregnant. What if something terrible had happened to her? Fear jumpstarted his midsection, like he had been kicked in the ribs.

Two days later, Kpakpando returned with a woman he did not know. By then, he had reported at the police station, wrestled against calling Osara, decided against it, then finally caved and called. The man had driven down on the third day, his face a replicant of squeezed fabric. They were in a middle of a heated argument when the Toyota drove in, and Kpakpando and the woman appeared. He was quick to notice that her stomach had deflated and was about to speak, when the strange woman he did not know opened the back door and retrieved a baby car seat. A swaddled newborn, pink and curled up in sleep, lay in it.

He could only stare. Shock stuffed his throat, rendered him dumb.

Osara rushed forward, his face laxed with genuine surprise and joy. “Ah thank God! Kpakpando, my sweet wife, you are alive! Baby is alive! My son is…wait, is it a boy? I believe it is a boy, right?”

Kpakpando was gazing at him, her eyes dilated. She appeared dazed, like someone shaken awake from sleep, still grappling through drowsiness.

The woman beside her spoke. “It’s a girl,” she said. “My name is Nnando, by the way. I am a midwife.”

Osara’s face darkened like clouds imminent with rain. “A girl? But I thought when you went to the gynecologist, you said it was a boy?”

Ekeledo turned to Osara; his fists tightened. “Osara, get out of my compound this minute.”

“I won’t leave without my wife and child.”

“She is not your wife, you bastard!” Ekeledo screamed at his face. Spittle gathered at the corners of his mouth. “Oh, now she is your wife? When you kept hitting her at every chance you got, you did not know that?”

  “Hit her?” He stuttered, looking from Ekeledo to Kpakpando, his face creased with confusion. “Did she say that?”

From the corner of his eye, Ekeledo saw Kpakpando’s eyelids flutter rapidly. Her eyes were round, like a deer caught in headlights, and she turned away and began gnawing at her fingernails.

“I saw the bruises, Osara… so stop lying. My sister came to this house three months ago with a black eye. She was pregnant! Osara, please just leave.”

“I said I won’t leave without—”

“I will go with him,” Kpakpando said.

Silence settled over them like unpleasant air. The newborn fussed and let out a short, sharp whine, then fell back into her slumber. Ekeledo turned to Kpakpando, his eyes pleading. “You don’t mean that.”

Tears fell from her eyes as Kpakpando shut them tight. Ekeledo’s heart lurched in his chest, carved him in half. He drew closer to her.

“Kpando. You said it yourself, you told me he was abusive to you…”

She turned to him, her teary eyes flashing with anger. “Are you my husband, Ekeledo? Leave me alone to return to the man I married.” She turned, took the child car seat with the newborn from the woman next to her, and headed towards Osara’s car.

Just do it.

Do what?

Do that thing you have always promised us. Do it now.

Are you insane? I just had a baby.

So what?

B-But…if I do it, who will be here for her?

That is not your problem. You just have to do that which you promised us.

But I don’t want to leave her.

You are lazy.

What?

You heard us right.

That is so unfair to say. After all I have done for you.

You have done us nothing. Nothing.

That is a lie. I gave you everything.

You are such a disgrace. We regret why we picked you.

Don’t say that. Please.

At least your mother was easier with us. She made us welcome. She obeyed us. All you have done is try to send us away.

Please don’t mention her. Please.

She was far better than you. Stronger, talented. We gave her so many talents. She loved painting. She loved gardening. She loved color. We gave her all the beauty to create that life, and she used it. Then she gave us what she promised us. You on the other hand…

Don’t mention her!

Disgrace. Lazy. Stupid.

Stop it!! Please…

Why are you so afraid? Your mother made it easy. Why is it so hard for you to obey us?

I am not my mother.

Of course, you aren’t. She was stronger than you. Obedient. You are lazy, stupid, good-for-nothing, crazy. Don’t you see how everyone looks at you? Osara, Ekeledo…everyone knows you are a weakling with no spine. A crazy woman. Even your own parents could not bear to see you grow up. They killed themselves after you were born. Have you not sat down to think about it? Nobody wanted you here. You are a failure, a mistake. A crazy woman who talks to herself.

STOP IT!

Look at you now, screaming to nothing. You are absolutely mad. Stark-raving. You are a crazy woman; you do not deserve to be here. The more you are here, the more you ruin their lives. Your brother’s, your husband’s, now your baby’s. Imagine her growing up to see how crazy her mother is. Imagine the shame she will feel knowing that her mother is a madwoman. Do you want that for her?

No…oh please, no…

Then do what needs to be done. End this misery. Save your daughter from the pain you will cause her. If you truly love her, you will do that for her. That was what your mother did for you.

Did she?

Yes. She loved you so much, that was why she did it. She could not bear to see you feel shame for her. With Ekeledo, it was easier because he was a boy. But with you, a girl, she had to choose, and she chose you. She chose to go so you could be happy. Are you not happy?

No! All my life, I have never been happy! I wanted my mother…I wanted her to stay for me!

Selfish. You are so selfish. After all she did for you, this is what you say. We were not wrong when we called you worthless.

No, please don’t.

Go ahead…stay for your newborn. We will make sure she grows to despise you. She will hate you with all her blood. Look at her now, asleep and innocent. But watch. Once she becomes older. She will be miserable, and she will extend that misery to you. Watch.

I don’t want that. Please I don’t want her to hate me.

Then do what we asked you. Go to the window now. That is good, now you obey us. That is good. Look at the sun, the sky. Is it not all beautiful?

Yes. It is. All beautiful.

Good. Now, look below. What do you see? Tell us.

A woman. I see a woman.

There. That is your mother. Look closely, someone else is there. Who is that?

A man?

There. That is your father. See them, look how they look up at you, with pride, with love. Can you see them smiling?

Yes. Yes, oh yes!

They love you so much. They are here to say they are sorry for leaving you. Look at them waving. They want you to come down and meet them. You need to go and speak with them. They have so much to tell you!

Oh yes, I see them wave. Mama! Papa! Oh, look at them smile! They love me! How do I go to them? I want to go to them.

The way is right before you. Just step over. You will be right next to them once you step over. Do it. They will not wait all day.

But what about my baby? Who will be with her when I go down to meet my parents?

Don’t worry, she is safe. When the time is right, we will come back for her. But we have to go see your parents now. They have missed you, oh how they have missed you! Go and meet them, speak with them. They love you so much. See them wave. They love you so much…

The funeral was short, quiet, un-ceremonial. Sorrow had chosen to lodge itself like a bone in the throat of Ekeledo’s family, and the people of the small town wanted none of it. They had mourned enough. With a small group consisting of Osara, Ekeledo, Madam Maggie, Nnando the midwife, and few relatives who cared, they lowered the casket with the remains of Kpakpando into the earth, next to the graves of her mother and father. Ekeledo had convinced Osara with little persuasion for his sister to be buried at the home of her birth. Osara had been too distraught to argue. The memory of his wife’s body on the grounds of the hospital plagued him; he hardly slept anymore. All his dreams were filled of the moment he had seen the security guard running toward the gates as he drove in, screaming blue murder. To come back and look upon the woman he loved on the concrete floor, twisted, broken and surrounded by blood. The sight had been too horrific to comprehend. When Ekeledo took the funeral arrangements into his hands, Osara willfully allowed it. Now, as the gravediggers covered the grave, the small gathering dispersing, he knew in his spirit what he must do.

They returned to the house. Inside, Madam Maggie and Nnando busied themselves, dishing out food to the people who had attended the funeral. In the room adjacent, the newborn slept in a cot, wrapped in warm blankets and surrounded by soft pillows. Osara and Ekeledo stayed outside where the sun was lazy but warm, casting an apocalyptic yellow glow everywhere.

“I have a request you may not like,” Osara suddenly began. His face was crestfallen, like paper crinkled at the edges.

Ekeledo sighed. “So why ask if…”

“I want you to take the baby.”

Shock ran across Ekeledo’s face. “You want me to take the baby?”

Tears choked Osara’s throat. “I am in no position to be emotionally strong for her. I cannot do it.”

“But she is your child, Osara.”

“Madam Maggie raised you and Kpakpando—she would do a better job than I would do.” He sniffled, hacked and spat out a yellowish-green blot of sputum onto the ground at his feet. “My extended family is not willing to help me. They have accused me of marrying a woman who was…deranged. They used those words for my Kpakpando. Imagine what they would say, what they would do to our child. I do not want that for her, for Kpakpando. Please, see reason.”

Ekeledo said nothing. He folded his hands across his chest, his eyes on the three graves at the right corner of the house. Two cemented and greenish with moss. One freshly brown, circled with stones and pebbles. His entire family reduced to dust and memories. His eyes shifted to his flowers, where he caught a honeybee floating over a pink rose. The air stymied with the scent of warm rice, lemon goatmeat, and spicy tomato stew. A goat bleated from a makeshift barbed wire cage next to Ekeledo’s parked motorcycle. His chickens, which he let roam around, clucked in reply. From afar, somewhere in the neighborhood, he heard a toddler wail.

“You are a better man than I am, Ekeledo. You will be a better father to my child than I will be.” Osara continued. “Please. I will come to see her if you want, but I want you to raise her. Notice the things I never saw in Kpakpando, the things I chose to ignore. I saw it all, her depression, her pain, her suffering, but I chose to ignore.” Tears streamed down his face. “I do not want to make that mistake with our daughter. You have come this far for a reason, maybe it is for you to save her. Save our daughter, Ekeledo, please. Take her in and save her.”

Ekeledo still said nothing. To him, words were dead.

The air began to lift with breeze. Osara stood up, walked into the house. The din of his voice as he conversed was inaudible, but Ekeledo knew he was saying his goodbyes. When he remerged again, Ekeledo looked up at him. Osara’s eyes were swollen, red-rimmed with tears. The two men said nothing, for nothing had to be said. Silence was delicate, more intimate, and they let their eyes say what failed with speech. Then Osara nodded and began walking to his car. The sound of the Toyota was slow and harried, but as he drove off, Madam Maggie and Nnando came to the veranda where Ekeledo still sat, watching the graves and his flowers.

“Where is he going?” Madam Maggie asked. “Is he coming back?”

“Perhaps he went to get more ice for the drinks,” Nnando replied. Her eyes connected with Ekeledo’s, and he knew that she knew.

He stood up, steadied himself not to fall from his dizziness. When the vertigo faded, he said, “I am going to the garden. Do not wait or call for me.”

“Will you be all right?” Nnando asked as he walked away.

He stopped, his feet planted to the ground like they were glued to it. His hands shook, his bowels throbbed. He felt his head become heavy; his chest tightened like fabric clumped in knots. When his eyes began to water, his mouth did the same, pooling with free-flowing saliva. Grief had various forms, and this was his. He began to feel this way since he saw Kpakpando’s body at the morgue, her eyes open, dilated with death, questioning him. Why did you not know I needed help, just as our mother had? I screamed and you did not listen. Why did you not save me? Those eyes chased his thoughts, freezing him with guilt, and Ekeledo knew that for the rest of his life, this was the man he was. Broken, maimed, without an ounce of redemption.

As quickly as it came, it dissolved. He felt his body return to normal, motion slowly taking over. Turning back to the women at the veranda, his face stretched into a wry smile.

“Yes,” he said. “I will be all right.”

Amara Okolo is a writer and author of three books Black Sparkle Romance, Son of Man, and Daughters of Salt. She was a participant in Chimamanda Adichie’s Farafina Creative Writing Workshop and the Invisible Borders Trans African Project. She is a past Honorary Fellow from the IWP at the University of Iowa, the City of Asylum Residency, and Oxbow. Her works have been supported by Pen America and United States Artists. Her works have been published and mentioned on Long House, Hunger Mountain, Catapult, Panorama Journal of Intelligent Travel, Commonwealth Writers, WeTransfer, A Long House, and mentioned on CNN, The Guardian, Aljazeera, Radio France International. She has an MFA and is finishing up her PhD in Creative Writing and Multicultural & Gender Studies. She currently lives in Baltimore, Maryland, where she is working on her novel.

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