by Andrea Ellis-Perez
When I come home from school, Papa is pruning the roses. His back hunched, an oval of sweat creasing his white shirt that la Señora Francisca had pressed this morning. He isn’t wearing the gardening gloves that Mama bought him because he insists that it doesn’t let him talk to the roses. They can only hear him through his skin and the rough canvas of the gloves offends their delicate temperament.
I watch him as he goes from stem to stem, and snaps up the flowers. Even the buds, shy against the noon-day sun go tumbling into his hands and are tucked into his basket. I frown. “Papi, what are you doing?”
He scowls. “It’s them,” he says and he jerks his chin to the concrete wall blocking us from the facility next door. It’s a home, the only one in the province, for the viejitos whose children are too selfish to keep them in their houses. “They keep taking them.”
I follow his gaze to the wall. His roses have a mind of their own—they always have—and they’ve pushed through the concrete, their thorns cutting ribbons into the gray scrape of the wall and the buds blooming out of the holes their stems created like bubbles bursting. When Papa cuts them at the base of the head, they weep golden sap onto your palms. If you drink it, Papa says, you can extend your life by months. But it’s an empty promise. Time that can’t be spent except in sadness, your tears sticky like the sap of the flower.
I leave Papa to his task and take myself inside. La Señora Francisca is in the kitchen with a bag of shrimp. She has two bowls in front of her and, one by one, she takes the shrimp from the bag, rips off its tiny head, slides a thumb under its shell and pushes off the hard exterior into one bowl, and puts its frail shrimp torso in the other. I offer to help her and she looks up from her task, a smile on her lips, before waving me off to watch TV or do homework.
It is a silly offer, a private joke between us, because I cannot touch the food. My fingers carry poison like the spindle in Sleeping Beauty’s loom. When I was little, I fed the canaries my father kept in a cage in our backyard. It was a Sunday and I had watched my father pull their feed out from the laundry room to fill their bowl. I buried my hand in the same sack of grain and pulled out a handful, carried it to the canaries singing in chorus. By morning the next day, they were all dead. My father had to burn the feed.
Papa comes in at dinner time to the smell of fried shrimp and yellow rice. La Señora Francisca is just pulling the sweet plantains off the skillet and placing them on a paper towel-covered plate to soak up the oil when Papa takes off his boots by the door and changes into his house slippers. He smells like soil and sweat-tainted cologne. “Did you get all the roses?” I ask.
His brows come down, make a V on his forehead. “For now.”
The roses grow fast. They have the conviction of a much less delicate flower. Tomorrow, Papa will have to cut them all over again after he gets home from work, but by then the viejitos could have taken them.
The next morning, I am walking out the front door when I see a woman bent over one of Papa’s rose bushes. She has white hair and a long blue dress that covers her like a sack. Her arms tremble as she tugs on the head of one of the roses and, when it snaps and the syrupy ichor starts to spill, she bends her body down slowly to lick it up.
“Señora!” I call, “Get out!” I feel strange, having never said those words to an older person. My tone sounds wrong and I can’t figure out what to do with my hands besides wrap them around my backpack straps.
She turns back to me and gives me a smile, her teeth dripping gold. “You have so many,” she says and holds up the bloom she tore. “Why can’t you just spare one?”
I don’t know how to tell her that it isn’t worth the effort. That she’s better off with the time she has left and that borrowed time will only make the end that much worse.
But I don’t have the authority to make it sound real so I clench my fists instead. “I’m going to tell my Papa.” Papa is a towering man with an empty holster at his belt that does most of the job that his gun—tucked away in a locked toolbox in his truck—would do. I wish he were standing beside me so the woman could understand my threat.
I don’t have to worry. Her face falls and a drip of sap leaks from the side of her mouth as she hustles out of our yard, to the front gate, and out onto the sidewalk. I watch her backside swish under her dress, her age bearing down on her like a thickly woven blanket.
Mama has only pins and needles on her tongue for me when I come in the house. “Put your backpack away, Aniscia! Y tu tarea? Ay, niña, look at those shoes. Have you been tramping through mud?” She is a flurry around me, yanking off one thing after the next and shooing me off into the shower. When I spot a bowl of pear slices on the kitchen table, I reach for one and she slaps my hand away. “Toma,” she says and pops the pieces in my mouth, her manicured nails scraping my skin.
At dinner, Papa is a tempest. He blows in the front door and slams into his chair, rattling the tea cup with his espresso. “They’ve done it again.” Mama purses her lips and sips at her water. “They rip them, tear at them, their blood soaks the thorns,” he shakes and I can hear the grind of his teeth. “No me respetan.”
I sit up straighter in my seat, look at Papa with an anger I hope matches his. “I saw one of them this morning. She came into the yard.”
He slams a fist onto the table and it sets off his place mat. “That’s it. Ven, Aniscia,” Papa stands up and wraps a hand around my wrist. I scurry to keep up with his pace and tumble out of my seat, my feet skipping under me to stop me from falling.
Outside, the sun is sitting low in the sky and the mosquitoes pounce on me as soon as I’m out the door. Papa swats at them as he leads me to the tea roses—his favorites—and points. “Touch them. All of them.”
I shake my head. It doesn’t count, it’s not food, but Papa reads my mind because he crosses his arms. “If they want to eat, let them eat.”
I don’t want to argue with Papa. I don’t want to think of the viejitos falling to the ground like the canaries. I run across the yard as fast as I can with my hands outstretched. By the end of it, I’m covered in beads of red where the thorns have pricked my skin, a bite reminding me they don’t want this any more than I do.
The next morning I wake to the sound of hushed voices in the kitchen. Papa’s baritone and Mama’s alto toying a line between a quiet song and the hiss of a snake. “It’s their own fault. I’m not responsible for an old woman trying to cheat death and failing,” Papa says.
Mama’s anger, cutting crisp in her consonants. “El veneno fue tuyo.”
“And what am I supposed to do?”
“End this madness.”
I hear the click of her heels and huff of air that sounds like Papa’s, then the door to the house, with its distinct, heavy kuTUM, slams shut.
I see Papa when I’m heading off to school later, the knees of his slacks sunk deep into the grass and his back in a hunch that I recognize as something like defeat. The yard is empty, brown circles of solemn soil where creeping stems once flowed into nature’s vainest beauty. Piles of uprooted roses lay in Papa’s basket. “Where are you putting them?” I ask.
A twitch in my chest and I think about the part of me that lives in them now, the small bit of venom I passed into each of them that they carry like a shield. Would it waste away as they sat at the bottom of the trashcan? Or would it poison everything they touched like a plague?
I think about taking them from the trash in the night, after Papa has gone to bed, and replanting them. I could claim that he left some part of the root and they fought to come back to the surface. But I don’t have Papa’s hands. The roses would never grow the same—or worse, they would wilt in plain sight without the dignity of privacy. They would be bodies buried upright. Papa’s garden would be a graveyard.
I squeeze Papa’s shoulder instead. He places a hand atop mine, his callouses rough against the baby hairs of my fingers. Tomorrow he will plant bougainvilleas, he says, and he will let them crest and trough as they please and they will be less headstrong, he thinks. More temperate.
I picture them now. They lie low to the ground like a hound and blanket the concrete wall in a tuft of color, shades of pinks and purples glinting off the sun, eagerly crowding each other. They have that vague, lovely scent of flower that fades as soon as you’ve smelled it and, underneath it all, the near-distant memory of roses.
Andrea Ellis-Perez is lots of things, but mostly she is a writer of several published stories, an MFA student at Stetson University, and a lifelong lover of the stories her mother told her of her childhood in Venezuela. She lives in Florida with her wife and cat and works at the library, where she takes advantage of her proximity to books to read constantly.