“And lavender to help her sleep,” Mari murmured, and wove the last stalk into the wreath.
Scent flared, floral, but also (to Mari at least) somewhat soapy. Definitely thick. Dream perfume, she thought, a scent weighted and intoxicating. Sliding the arrangement aside, she then hesitated, pulled it back and added a bow—a length of silk from a spool that had cost far more than she’d ever admit. Ted’s voice bit at her memory as she tied it. “If you’d actually start charging people for all your witchery, then maybe I wouldn’t have to work so hard.”
Charge people? But no one ever asked her for her nosegays or wreaths. Mari always just knew what they needed. It was in their knit brows. Their tired eyes. She could sense all their longing and pain, and while what she did wasn’t witchery (she actually hated that word) it probably was some sort of magic. Certainly it felt otherworldly when she was compelled, time and again, to her greenhouse where, amid the living scent of damp soil and green growth she created sachets. Bouquets. Wreaths like this lavender piece for the Arden’s brand new daughter, a sleepless, squalling, yet otherwise perfect wee dolly, her newborn skin so flawless it felt like powder beneath Mari’s bare fingers. “Lavender to help her sleep,” she repeated, and ignored the swell of longing that crested inside as she recalled the sweet, small weight of the baby in her arms. She had never had children. Likely never would. Ted had second thoughts after this house had appeared in their price range—a cottage, really—two bedrooms and no basement. Mari remembered toeing over the threshold with more caution than she should have felt. “Not much room for a family here,” she ventured.
Ted’s nose wrinkled, an expression she’d once found so sweet. “Mar, don’t you think the world’s over-populated already?”
Of course he was right. So many people. So much pain. “Trumpet gentian for healing,” she said now, finally able to pluck petals from the flowers she’d nurtured from seed. Ted chided her for how she checked on their progress daily. “Watch pot never boils, Mar,” he said, and of course he was right again—but when she tried to explain the urgency, he waved a hand. “Mari, your heart’s way too soft. Most people who are sick or hurt have usually drafted their own death warrant.”
Sometimes, maybe. But still—“Illness is never the goal, Ted. No one deserves suffering no matter the choices they’ve made.”
He shrugged. “They made their beds, Mar. Everyone does.”
Was it really so simple? She’d had no reply so had silently tended her then-stringy Trumpet Gentians, their stems barely a gasp above soil. But now…now they were ready and as she detached their petals she placed them upon a measure of tulle, ivory in honor of the woman who would be their recipient. Ivory Witherstock was the town crone some whispered about and who others were actually scared of. Not Mari. When she looked at Ivory she saw the gnarled knuckles and curled wrists that bespoke a rheumatism that had become a constant sizzle down deep in Ivory’s bones. Mari had first become aware of her agony on that jarring day in the park, that afternoon when Ivory had slumped onto a bench a few feet from a small cluster of Johnny Jump-Ups Mari was carefully placing in a basket. Ivory’s pain had seared her like an internal blister, and she’d gasped. And then, when she thought she heard Ivory say “Sorry darling,” she’d lost her footing altogether.
A hand had grasped her by the elbow, kept her upright. “You okay?”
The voice, and the face when she turned, robbed her of breath anew. I know you, was her first, certain thought, but she rapidly chased it away. She didn’t know the man holding her elbow. He wasn’t even vaguely familiar.
Still, he was somehow completely familiar.
“I-I’m okay.” Her tongue tripped and stumbled all over itself, making her feel so ludicrous that she remembered glancing over at Ivory, hoping the old woman couldn’t see—or more importantly sense—how inexplicably rattled she was. “I-uh-I think an insect just bit me.”
The man’s eyes were gentle, as tender as his hand on her arm. “I have After-Bite in our bag,” he said.
‘Our’? The word nabbed Mari, and when she looked a little girl—no, make that two little girls. No, wait, three—were playing just beyond them. His children. Her stomach dove, disappointment that confused her.
“Did you want some?” he asked.
Some children? Some salve? Some…their gazes caught and his eyes, smiling softly, were very big. Very blue. He had a kind smile. An unruly ink spill of black hair. He had…
He had a wedding ring. A flash of gold not unlike her own which, to her shock, she found herself hiding behind her back. Why? Because she didn’t want him to see it? Or because she didn’t want to be reminded it was there?
Or maybe it had already been shame.
“After-Bite?” he asked again.
“Um…I’m fine.” A lie. If she were fine, she’d somehow be able to pull herself out of the undertow of those blue eyes. She’d be able to shake the ever-growing certainty that said I know you. So when a second shock of Ivory Witherstock’s rheumatoid pain lit her joints all afire, Mari was grateful. “I’m sorry I startled you,” she told the blue-eyed man, and was certain she imagined his sudden look of disappointment as she tossed him what she hoped was a detached looking smile.
Yet as he walked back to his flood of children an unmistakable feeling engulfed her. Loneliness. Wistfulness. His? Startled, she stared at his broad back, but….no. Those feelings weren’t his. They were hers. And that was crazy. She was married. He was married. Sunlight glinted off his wedding band as he played tag with his little girls. Too many little girls, she thought acidly. Here she couldn’t even have one child and this glutton had a whole herd. “How not attractive,” she muttered, and behind her, on the bench, thought she heard Ivory Witherstock laugh. She whirled, but oh. No. The poor old thing hadn’t laughed. She’d grunted in pain. “I can help you,” Mari whispered. But it would take time. Trumpet Gentian didn’t mature overnight. Collecting the last of the Johnny Jump-Ups—and sneaking glances as the blue-eyed man played with his daughters—she closed the lid of her basket, walked away.
Wistfulness, and loneliness, weighted her all the way home. So did guilt, though, and she supposed it was some sort of divine punishment that after that day in the park she then saw him everywhere. At the gas station. In the grocery store. In line for the movie Ted hadn’t wanted to see and so she’d gone alone, waiting in line for popcorn when the blue-eyed man, and his daughters, and his wife, had queued up behind her. “Hey, there,” he offered, brightening, it seemed, when he saw her. She could not reply. The weight of loneliness and longing became so heavy she could not find her voice. So she ducked out of line, grateful she still had a half bag of M&Ms in her purse from the last show she’d been to alone—and certain that she was imagining him watching her.
Nonetheless, that night she kissed Ted when she got in, a mantra at work in her head: Garden Heliotrope for devotion. She raided the plants in her greenhouse, then steeped tea out of the petals. Choking it down, her mouth puckered for how it tasted like soap and ammonia.
“That smells nasty, Mar,” Ted had said.
You have no idea, she thought and kissed him again, a little aggressively, as he passed her on his way to bed.
Yet…the tea worked. She thought perhaps the blue-eyed man and his gaggle of girls moved away (or maybe it was due to the fact that she all but locked herself in her greenhouse) because he disappeared from her orbit. She didn’t see him even when she dared look, and the relief of immersing herself back into other people’s pain and ailments was knee-weakening for all its normalcy. And its decency.
Yet the sensation of lonely wistfulness grew. So strong, in fact, that sometimes tears would sear her eyes unexpectedly as she wove her wreaths, or when she tied her sachets shut with their secret lengths of silk ribbon. She’d start to cry when, instead of heading downtown to the cinema, she’d stream the movies Ted hated onto her computer, watch them alone with earbuds plugged in her ears. She’d even cried—sobbed, really—inexplicably and unexpectedly as she tended the Trumpet Gentian she was raising for Ivory. That time, Ted had caught her. “Problems?” he said and she stared at him, an unbidden answer leaping forth.
“People don’t ask for the things that happen to them,” she said, a mite breathless. “Bad things aren’t a payment—or a price.”
He raised his hands in surrender. “Okay,” he said. “Work your witchcraft for old Ivory, Mar. I’m not judging.”
She hadn’t been talking about Ivory but, as she considered her, it struck her that the old lady had actually taken the place of the blue-eyed man. Mari now saw her everywhere, the rheumatism still a red blister of agony seething inside, yet her wizened old arms nonetheless trying to lift in a wave whenever they’d meet. She made Mari’s heart ache and now, as she tied the sachet shut with a silken bow and got ready to deliver it, she smiled for she was certain—“This will help you.”
Outside, a braided knot of stems lay on the stone walk leaving her greenhouse, and Mari started. Gloxinia. She picked the knot up gingerly. Inhaled its rich perfume. From Ted? Was it a bit of a poke or a tease? Certainly the inexpert way the stems were twisted together spoke of someone with unrefined methods, yet…she set the wreath of Gloxinia aside and knew, the same way she knew when people were hurting or ill, that they did not come from Ted.
Neck prickling, she glanced around. All alone. Still, the sun would soon be setting, and Ivory lived clear across town. Zipping her hoodie up, Mari hurried along the short-cut through the trees, and was almost at the end of the woods when “Hey there!” resounded behind her.
Oh, no. She’d only heard his voice a handful of times, but knew it at once. She turned and there was his shock of raven-wing hair. The blue eyes she daren’t look into.
“I haven’t seen you around in ages,” he said.
Meaning he’d been looking? Her heart leapt. Her conscience drop-kicked it. He’s just being polite, she told herself caustically. He’s a married man with manners. And YOU are a married woman who should be wearing a scarlet letter. She smiled mutely. Willed him to somehow, someway, vanish.
“You-um-you’re the flower lady, right?” He looked at Ivory’s sachet.
Just polite conversation, but it stung. How long would she be the flower lady? Yesterday the power bill for her greenhouse had arrived, and Ted took her by the hand, sat down with her at the table. “I know you love your witchcraft, Mar, but how long can we keep doing something for nothing? Something expensive for nothing?”
It wasn’t an unreasonable question.
But now the blue-eyed man gazed at her. “It’s really kind,” he said. “What you do. Everyone talks about you.”
Oh, no. Tears again. “Th-thank you.” She clutched the sachet while clinging, finally and at last, to the tenderness in those blue eyes, deep enough to drown in. “It…it’s nice to see you,” she whispered.
He nodded. Was about to speak. She rushed over top of him. “I need to go,” she said and raised the sachet. But before hurrying away she crouched, quickly and before she could change her mind, to pluck a wild pansy from the forest floor. “A gift from the flower lady,” she mumbled and, handing it to him then bolted, lonely wistfulness chasing her all the way to Ivory Witherstock’s sidewalk where a riot of flowers—Ivory grew flowers?—pulled her up to the front door. “Why him?” she whispered. “Why me?” She twisted her wedding band. “Why do I feel this?”
The door opened before she could knock. “Evening, Mari.” Ivory, curved over her walker, contorted herself to look up at her.
A red blast of pain seared inside, attacking Mari’s knees and her hands. She quickly held out the sachet. “For you,” she said, and gently slipped it into Ivory’s curled palm.
A wave of relief washed inside, soles to crown, and as they both basked in the feeling the old lady smiled. “I wasn’t able to tend Trumpet Gentian anymore but I knew you’d do it.” Then her grin became shrewd. “And did you get what I left for you?”
The knot of Gloxinia on her sidewalk. “You left—”
“Of course I left,” Ivory chided. “Mari, look around.”
The yard, the porch, everything was an explosion of petals and colors. And it all breathed with scent. Ivory said, still shrewd, “There is always someone older, and better, at your craft than you.”
So it seemed. But—“I-ivory, Gloxinia means—”
“Oh, darling girl, I know exactly what it means. Just like I know your young man is right now thumbing through books, learning that pansies mean ‘Sweet Thoughts’.”
“Ivory, he’s married! I’m married! There are children!”
“Mm. A damnable shame. Well…maybe not the children.”
Mari gaped and the old lady’s grin broadened as she straightened, all rheumatoid pain gone. “I could never have fiddled with the seeds and the pots to plant Trumpet Gentian for myself,” she said and wriggled the gnarl of her fingers. “You are a beautiful child.”
Mari’s mouth opened. Closed. Nothing intelligible would come out.
A gleam discovered Ivory’s eye. “It’s been highly amusing, you know, watching him look all over for you—and watching you duck and dive to avoid him.”
Seriously? That’s why Ivory had suddenly been everywhere? Still—“H-he’s looked for me? W-why?”
“Mari! You know why. He’s looked for you for the same reasons you’ve been avoiding him, and before you get all indignant, the answer is no: one of you is not more noble than the other, elsewise you wouldn’t have been dodging him in the first place.”
“But…” Her face became five-alarm hot. “We’re married!”
“Yes,” said Ivory, and her grin was now gone. “But wasn’t it you who said that people shouldn’t suffer because of the choices they’ve made?”
She couldn’t answer. Couldn’t speak. All she could do was feel and, miraculously, the empty weight of all that lonely wistfulness lifted. Was gone. Still—“Ivory—”
“I would like you to go home.”
“Mari, you’re a lovely child. A caring, darling, open-hearted child. But leave now. Go home.”
“Home.” The old woman backed over her threshold, closed the door.
Mari stood within the abandoned flower garden gone wild, her heart pounding. Home. Where the Gloxinia wreath, not inexpertly made, but instead twisted purposefully by misshapen, spent hands, waited for her.
And for him?
She trod back to her cottage and the lights were all out. Meaning Ted wasn’t home. Gloxinia. She rescued the wreath from where she’d left it outside, resisting the urge to fix the places where it was crudely woven, and instead letting its perfume climb up from her lap, envelope her as the doorbell rang. She closed her eyes and heard her own voice say: People shouldn’t suffer for the choices they’ve made. She stood, went to the door.
“I’ve been having sweet thoughts,” he said, and looked both guilty and not guilty. Then his blue gaze flitted to Ivory’s wildly hewn wreath of Gloxinia. “Does that one mean something too?”
“Yes.” She inhaled and debated. Waited. Then—“Love at first sight,” she told him, and let him come in.
Like my fiction? My full length romantic suspense novels are right here:
Secrets & Shadows I, Divinity & The Python
Secrets & Shadows II, Within The Summit's Shadow