Henrietta’s Garden9 min read
It started at her dad’s funeral. Her brother gave his eulogy about what a great dad he was and how he took them out for soccer on Sundays, and Henrietta wept a single tear that was not a tear but a daisy petal. At first she thought it was a mistake—she wondered if a flower caught in her hair—but she cried another and it slid down her face just slightly. People took notice. Was that woman crying petals? Henrietta smiled at them, holding back the tears. The petals unfurled, about to fall, but she wouldn’t let them. She thought this made her extremely strong, but really it made her look like an idiot—a magical idiot, maybe, but still an idiot. After the funeral, her dad’s friend told her what a great man her father was.
“Oh yes,” she said. “Mhm.”
“He was probably the best salesman I’ve ever met.”
The petal of a carnation slowly crept down her cheek. She brushed it off.
The man looked at her curiously. “Was that a petal?”
“I think you just cried a petal.”
She laughed. “I seriously don’t know what you’re talking about.”
That night during her bath, Henrietta performed an experiment. She thought of dead kittens and hurricanes. Tornadoes. She thought of her dad playing soccer with her and her brother. She thought of her brother leaving for college. Her brother did her in. She cried monstrous tears—heaps of petals of marigolds and orchids. They unfurled in her eyes and spilled into the tub. She found this disturbing. They blocked her vision. She would have to clean up after crying. There had to be a solution. The family doctor, for instance, could help her. He was a big man with a proud chin and stodgy glasses. He could help, though her dad died on his watch. She convinced herself her dad would have died anyway—that they all would have died anyway. It wasn’t the doctor’s fault. It wasn’t anyone’s.
She went to Dr. Stein, the family doctor, and he told her she would be all right. He pinched her finger for some blood, and she wept. He caught the marigold in his plastic cup and shut it tight. She said, “I’m scared there’s something wrong with me.”
“Tumors, lung infections—it’s nature bleeding through the cracks,” he said. “There’s nothing necessarily wrong. It’s just survival.”
“That doesn’t make me feel better.”
“It’s just a fact.”
After eating some Ragu, lamb, cow belly goulash from her dad’s old boss, she collapsed on the bed. Henrietta turned over and watched the ceiling fan. Her brother called. He asked if she wanted something. She said she was okay but she went to the doctor. Things became quiet. Calvin softly asked if everything was all right.
“I have a condition,” she said. “Nothing serious though.”
“I’m crying flower petals.”
“This is for real?”
“Yes, it is.”
“How can that be?”
“I don’t know. They’re running some tests. They think they can help me.”
“What do you think will happen?”
“Impossible to say. It’s just uncomfortable right now.”
“I don’t want you to die.”
“I won’t die,” she said firmly. “I won’t die.”
Work was even more unbearable. She was on the lookout for anything that could set her off, such as her friend’s promotion to manager. Now she had to report to a woman she once considered her equal. She remembered when they attended runways in Milan. Her friend always drank way too much and never liked any of the designs—she wanted to be a designer herself—but she bought one red cardigan and suddenly everyone loved her. The red cardigans sold so fast the supplier barely kept up. It was ridiculous. It was the most successful sale Henrietta had ever seen, and she couldn’t stand it. It was luck, she thought. She could have bought the cardigan too, but she preferred to buy trousers. They were classier.
Her friend laughed by the array of soft drinks, and Henrietta stared at her with infinite hatred, but also the self–awareness that her feelings were unjustified. She couldn’t let this come between them. She had to be her friend. Henrietta said, “I’m happy for you. Congrats again.”
“Thank you,” her friend laughed. “Hey. I’m sorry about your dad.”
Henrietta’s lip quivered. She felt tears rising. Her friend looked at her strangely.
“Thank you. He was a great dad. I really miss him a lot.” Henrietta looked away. She thought of happy things. Lollipops. Rain. Bears. Honey. “So what are you going to do now that you’re in charge of everything?”
“Well I wouldn’t say everything.”
“Oh but you have way more influence now.”
Her friend laughed. “I know.”
“It must be nice.”
“You are a great employee.”
Henrietta laughed. “I know.” The yellow petal of a daffodil drifted the floor. Henrietta and her friend looked at it. Their eyes met.
“I’m sorry,” said her friend. “Did you just cry that?”
“Are you okay?”
“I have a condition,” Henrietta sighed. “This is new.”
“This is not normal.”
“What do you think’s going to happen?”
Henrietta shrugged. Her friend sighed and hugged her close and Henrietta cried daisies, bluebells, and lemongrass.
I am very tired, she thought on the walk home, and extremely sad. She crossed the bridge to her small apartment with its small rooms and small furniture. There wasn’t enough space, and now she had to worry about picking petals off the carpet. I’m going to cut out sadness, she thought. I’m never going to cry again. I’ll bottle it up and no one will see. Henrietta figured if she cut out her misery, then she wouldn’t embarrass herself with crying anymore. This seemed like an extraordinary plan.
She watched six hours of self–help videos on the internet. She liked listening to people who seemed to know everything. They made her feel confident in her ability to recover. That’s the word they used. They thought that grief was a symptom of a deeper problem: the ability to accept fate. She had to agree with them. They said it was painful to let go, but you had to let go or else you’d be trapped in suffering. One of the videos recommended she concentrate and imagine her sadness forming a plastic ball, then that plastic ball melting into air, so she did that and didn’t feel sad at all.
In fact when her brother called to tell her how sad he felt, she said, “Yeah, that’s sad and all, but I really don’t have the stamina to worry about these emotions anymore.”
“Yeesh. When did you get so cold?”
“I’m sick Calvin. I can’t stress myself out.”
“I thought you were emotionally attached to our dad or something.”
“I’m sick of crying. I’m sick of looking like a weirdo. I can’t think about this.”
“Not thinking is what leads to misery,” he said. “Not thinking is what keeps people stupid.”
“Are you calling me stupid?”
“No, you idiot.”
Nature can only be controlled for so long, though, and the flowers came out in other ways. One day, Henrietta filed taxes, and carnations poured out of her hand, and she washed the dishes and a rose bloomed in her hair. She plucked it out, but it grew back the next day, and tulips grew along her neck. She couldn’t stand it. Dr. Stein said they couldn’t figure out what was wrong. Henrietta cried roses and daffodils and marigolds and rosemary. She sweated violets on her elbows and dahlias on her back. She tore them out, but it stung, and she bled, and she curled up on the examination table and cried even more.
“I just want to know what’s wrong with me,” she said.
“There’s the possibility that your internal organs could grow flowers as well,” said Dr. Stein.
“These seem to operate like tumors. You don’t seem to be getting better.”
She couldn’t go out like this. “Am I going to die?”
“We don’t know.”
Henrietta waited for her bus in the rain. It was a soft rain with a low rumbling thunder, and the college students covered their heads with newspapers or backpacks while they waited, but Henrietta just took it in. She thought she might have died that day—as she did the laundry or cleaned the sink—or maybe she died on Wednesday when she took the elevator to the third floor of the office. There was no way to tell. She imagined a giant Venus flytrap inside her, spreading its roots, destroying everything. Are you happy now? She thought. Are you happy, body? You’re killing me. She wept. I hope you’re happy now.
One of the students noticed the petals falling down her cheeks. He said, “Hey, are you crying flowers?”
She said yes.
“That’s so cool. That’s like a superpower.”
“It’s not,” she said. “I might die.”
“You won’t die.” The college student seemed very wise. “No power like that can kill you.”
“I can’t control it. The doctors say it might take over my body.”
“Learn to control it like every other superhero.”
“Yeah,” he said. “You need to embrace it.”
Henrietta thought this seemed incredibly wise. She went to bed thinking “eight magnolias”, and when she woke, she found eight magnolias on her chest. The next night she asked for six lilies on her shoulder, and when she woke, she found six lilies budding on her shoulder. She had to take them off because she couldn’t fit into her suit with them, but she smiled the entire day. Finally she had some control. She determined to become so good at conjuring flowers, she could create them anywhere and whenever she wanted.
Her friend called her in, said, “Look, Henrietta, I think you’re great, but you’re not attending runways anymore, and you’re always late—”
“This is about the flowers, isn’t it?” asked Henrietta.
“The flowers certainly aren’t helping—”
“I know you’re recovering.”
“Getting better takes time.”
“You need to get better faster.”
“What do you recommend?”
“I really think a break would be in your best interest.”
Henrietta looked at her friend like she couldn’t believe it, but she took her break and spent it watching movies about broken families on cable. She gave up making the flowers disappear since it never seemed to work, but she could make them grow whenever and however she wanted. She grew daffodils in her hair and roses along her side. She told herself she was happy. The bed became her favorite place. Calvin told her he missed her. He told her he missed their dad and mom. When he opened the bedroom door, he found his sister covered in flowers and very pale. He said, “You’ve gotten worse.”
“I’ve gotten better,” she said. “I can control it now.”
“There are flowers everywhere.”
“That’s what I wanted.”
“I’m becoming what I’m meant to be.” She laughed. “It’s too late anyway.”
“You must have flowers infecting your brain.”
“Tell me why you’re so sad.”
“I’m sad because I lost Mom and Dad, and now I’m losing you.”
“This is what I want.”
“This could be your deathbed.”
She shrugged. “Watch TV with me.”
They watched a movie about orphans making it on their own in the big city. In the end, the girl orphan scored the lead of this Broadway production and her brother became a producer.
“What a great film,” said Calvin. “It’s pretty relatable.”
Henrietta smiled a cunning smile and marigolds and roses and lilies sprouted from her arms and legs and torso.
“Henrietta,” said Calvin. Daisies wrapped around her neck. “We need to call Stein.” Cherry blossoms, tulips, and hyacinths burst from her fingertips.
Her smile softened. “Thank you for visiting me.”
Calvin shook her, but roses climbed her hair and orchids covered her ears. Marigolds spread across her face. He tried to pull them off, but more marigolds grew, and he tried to tear off the roses, but the thorns scratched too much and there were too many and they spread too fast. The brain created flowers and flowers overtook the brain. Soon there was not a brain or a body or a heart, and Calvin knew his sister dissolved into this patch of flowers. The bed felt lighter. The great heaviness came upon him. The windows shook with the storm outside. It was always cold there, even in the spring and summer, even when they thought they could escape it.
He studied the last of her. It was the most beautiful garden he’d ever seen, with every kind of flower he could imagine. Calvin grasped at this bed of flowers, held the dewy tulips and bluebells and rosemary. Outside it rained softly. You could hear thunder if you listened for it. Maybe it was a sign.
A monarch settled on a lily. She drank its nectar and beat her wings. As she fluttered past, Calvin swore she whispered: It’s beautiful, isn’t it? This is great.