Planting Petals

Prose

My sister puts petals back into the earth.

“Death should not be the only thing we find here,” she says and smiles at me, and I try not to look at the shape of her bones under her skin or how her teeth have grown long and sharp. She steps carefully, her weight too little to crack even the twigs under her feet.

“They’ll only rot,” I say, and I no longer recognize my own voice. It should be deeper now that I’m older—the voice of a woman—but it is high and breathy as a girl’s. Another thing to be ashamed of.

My apron is dry, but my sister pulls me down beside her onto the damp ground, and I want to run, but there are her teeth, and the tug of her fingers on my wrist, and I quiet every feeling boiling under my skin.

“Even decay is a kind of rebirth. A kind of beauty,” she says, and her lips are red and chapped and look like blood, and it hurts to breathe. “If you only know how to look closely.”

We are here in the woods, the dark trees tangling above us, and we are walking. Still walking after all this time. Sometimes, I don’t think there was anything that came before, but I know there was a little house that smelled of wood smoke and oranges and our mother who pulled a comb through our hair and sang of creatures with fingers sharp as knives and the little girls who found them.

We have walked so long among the dead.

“Sometimes, I wonder if the earth can feel them. The petals. If it knows they are changing. If it knows how things become,” my sister says.

I do not answer her because there is the fear pulling at me like a wet, heavy stone, and I want to lie down, to never rise again, but my sister will not let me. Those sharp teeth and crimson tongue will not allow it.

“Come,” my sister says and tugs me to my feet. We walk, and I stare at the sky and listen for any sound, but the birds fell out of the sky long ago, their tiny bones ground into dust under our feet. We are the only things moving through this silent place.

I am the only thing with a heartbeat.

My sister plucks berries for me, her stained, death-scented fingers on my lips as she feeds them to me one by one. There are not as many berries as there used to be. They cannot last for much longer. I chew and swallow and breathe and look at the sky and wonder what it would mean to run; what it will mean when the berries are gone; what it will mean when my sister grows hungry again and there are no more small creatures to hunt.

“What are you thinking, sister?” she says. I do not hesitate.

“Of the sky.” It is what I always say. She smiles, but it is not lovely, and she presses her lips to my cheek.

“I’m hungry,” she says, and I hear the command in it, the thin edge of a threat.

“There’s nothing left.”

My sister’s eyes are the color of the sun in winter. “There has to be,” she says.

“Where should I look, sister? Where else is there to look?” I say, but she has never had anything else. It has always been me. There is no point in pretending any more that it has not always been me.

My sister’s eyes are the color of deep water. “There is something else.”

I touch my cheeks, my arms, my throat, try to remember my little sister with flour smeared over her cheeks or her hands rubbed raw from washing our dresses in the river or the sound of her laughing as I chased her through the woods. The woods are a different place now, and I think I have forgotten how to laugh.

We fall asleep that night with our arms wrapped around each other, and I hope she will not hurt me. Hope she can last a bit longer.

She does. For that small grace, I could weep.

In the morning, my sister smells of salt and rain, and she smooths my hair away from my face and sings the songs our mother used to sing and tucks fallen, green leaves back into the dirt.

What they will turn into, I do not know. A jagged whine begins in the back of my throat because there is something about those small mounds of earth that make me afraid.

“Hush now. Be still,” my sister says, but I cannot stop myself. My heart is too loud, and I cannot keep myself from screaming just to hear something other than my sister’s voice wrapped up in all the silence of the world. I scream until I drop from exhaustion.

My sister sits beside me as the sun falls back into darkness, and I am too weak to do anything other than chew the leaves she stuffs into my mouth. When I spit them out, she buries them, too.

That night, my sister curls her body to mine, and her hands press against my abdomen as if they can pull out whatever it is she’s seeking. “Why do you bury them?” I ask her.

“I don’t know. There isn’t anything else to do,” she says.

The night our mother did not return from the forest, my sister was the one who wanted to look for her. “She could be hurt,” she said, and I watched the darkness gather beyond our little house.

“She’ll come back,” I said because I was the eldest, and I was the one who was supposed to provide solace.

“There are wolves,” my sister said, and so I stepped outside. Already the sky and earth had gone quiet, but my sister chattered on behind me, and I did not notice the silence.

“Hush. She’ll come back,” I said, and my sister let her voice die.

I only noticed the silence when I woke in the night to see my sister’s bed empty and her cloak taken from its peg beside the door.

Again and again, I called her name into the night wind, but I knew she had gone looking for our mother, knew she had run into the forest.

I found the fallen birds and small animals first. Every breathing thing lay quiet as verdant tendrils of grass cupped their insubstantial bodies. I clutched my skirts and stepped carefully and tried not to sob. I did not find our mother.

I did find my sister, her body stretched along the forest floor as if whatever lay beneath had pulled her down and would not let her go. I gathered her body against mine and carried it back to the house. I locked the door and bolted the windows and dared not look outside to search for whatever terrible thing had found us.

She slept for three days. What woke up was not the girl who went into the forest. What woke up was not my sister.

At first, my sister ate the birds and small animals who had fallen to the earth, but those wasting bodies were not enough to ease the hunger in my sister’s belly.

“We have to go and see if there is anyone else. Someone who can help,” I told her on that last night, but we have been walking for so long, and there is only the forest. Only the trees stripped of their leaves as the world dies around us.

Now, my sister lies beside me, and there is no breath inside of her to stain the night air. “I’m hungry,” she says, and I am so tired. I remind myself what it means to breathe. Beside me, my sister makes no sound, but her body trembles in the dirt, and I wonder if whatever death has leaked into this world feels her stirring. Like all of those rotted petals my sister buries.

On all fours, my sister creeps away from me. During the night, I drift in and out of consciousness. Sometimes I wake to what I think is the wet sound of my sister eating, but everything is painted in shadow, and I cannot see.

The sun is high overhead when I wake the next day, and my tongue feels swollen. My sister sits with her back to me, and her body droops as if she’s sprouted from that barren dirt only to fall back into it.

“I dreamed you were gone. Dreamed I was alone underneath all of these trees, and I was digging and digging and digging, and there was blood beneath the earth, and it filled up the rivers, and the trees drank it up, and I was not hungry, but you were gone. There was so much life, but you were gone,” my sister says, and her voice is thick.

“I’m here. I haven’t gone.”

“No,” she says. She turns back and her face is streaked with dirt. “You haven’t.”

My sister holds a white bloom in her hand—the tips have only just begun to brown, and it’s an impossible thing. The sight of her with this lovely flower.

“What else are we supposed to do?” she says and scoops a hole in the earth and then places the flower inside. “What else but to starve and to bury and to wait?”

“I cannot run.”

My sister glances down. “I know. Sometimes I wish I wasn’t able to catch you.”

“I know.”

“Rest,” she says, and then she is gone.

I sleep fitfully and wake to my sister feeding me more berries, but these are hard and not yet ripe, and they break bitter over my tongue. I gag and cannot bring myself to swallow them.

“You have to eat,” she says. Neither of us says that the berries will be gone soon. That every leaf will wither and decay and then there will be only our bare heads under the open sky and what will we do then?

“Come,” my sister says when the berries tucked in her palm are gone, and she helps me to my feet. We keep moving.

“Chew these,” my sister says and offers me a handful of leaves. I chew, and my sister watches, but I know it isn’t enough. My sister’s eyes are the color of an ending.

My sister’s eyes tell me that I’m dying.

If I could run, I still would. Perhaps there would be something else beyond all of these trees. Something that could save us both.

We walk until nightfall. My sister’s apron is filled with fallen petals, and she buries them and then returns to me. “I’m hungry,” she says and squeezes my arms, and I know she has waited too long.

Like a panicked rabbit, I do somehow manage to run. Behind me my sister laughs high and clear, and it is a terrible, frightful sound. My body knows only this movement, this distance, and I push myself over all the holes my sister has opened in the earth. All of that death forced into the ground. I wonder which one of them I will tumble into.

When my sister catches me, it is not forceful. There is no violence in her hands against my waist. No pain in her mouth as her teeth close over my skin. “Sister,” she says, and then the world blinks out.

I try not to remember the things that have happened when I wake up. I think it would be better to forget my baby sister with her wasting body and teeth like an animal. Better to forget that there is no world beyond the nightmare we’ve woken into.

“I’m still hungry.” My sister’s words are the first thing I hear, and there’s no bottom to her voice. It drops down and down, and I know I’ll never stop falling into it.

“I cannot,” I say, but there are so many things I will not do again. I will never again tie back my sister’s hair with the green ribbon she loves so much. I will never again sit beside my mother and shell peas, our fingers smelling of spring. I will never again taste cold water. I will never again know what it is to be warm.

“You can, sister. You can. Burial is so much more than death,” she says, and she presses something warm and wet to my lips, and my sister laughs and laughs as I open my mouth, my teeth and gobble down what it is she’s offered me.

I do not see what it is she’s given me, but I remember its taste, remember what it is to have meat. My sister digs a hole and fills it up with what she has fed me.

“Where did you find it? There’s nothing alive. Not here. Not anymore,” I say, and my sister turns back to me.

“There will be more,” she says and then her teeth tear at my neck, my chest, and my breath is swallowed in her desperation, and there is not enough air for me to scream.

When my sister is finished, she holds me tight, her hands gone scarlet as she tries to close the places she tore open. Her mouth is small, and I don’t bleed for long.

There are petals clutched in her fists as she stretches herself next to me. Petals the color of the sky at twilight. “Will you bury them?” I say, and she turns and darts her tongue over the tears on my cheeks.

“Of course, sister. It’s the only thing.”

The sun falls down around us, and I can hear my sister clawing at the earth, hear her churning up all that came before, all that found its way back to dust.

Even in death, there is no rest.

I sleep and do not dream. I wake only when my sister wraps her cold body around mine. My sister does not sleep. I keep my eyes open and watch the sky. One by one, I pass my fingers over the wounds my sister has left behind and wonder if love is something like death. The dull spark at the start and then the terrible knowing that everything has been growing toward an end.

In the morning, we rise and carry on.

“Look, sister.” My sister points ahead of us, and her hands tremble. There is a pit in my stomach that tells me I don’t want to see what it is she’s found, but I lift my eyes.

Petals reach toward the sun. A flower, the color of clotted blood, sprouts from death-filled earth, unfurling into a life that should not exist. I sink to my knees, and my sister stands beside me, her hand cupped against my neck.

“It should not be,” I say.

“But it is. All the earth asks is that we return to it.”

I shake my head and think of the lightness of my sister’s body, of the quiet violence hidden away.

On all fours, she crawls toward the flower, her fingers hovering over the petals, and then, in a blur of movement, she’s plucked it.

At the sight of it, something inside of me tears loose. I open my mouth to say don’t, or stop, or please, or to utter something that would have once been a prayer, but the air that escapes my lips is nothing more than a sigh.

“Close your eyes,” my sister says, and I do.

What she presses to my mouth is the flower. It is delicate on my tongue and dissolves like ice. It tastes of rabbit, of deer. It tastes of raw, bleeding things left under the earth. It tastes of rot.

“It was a flower you fed me. Before,” I say.

“Yes. I’ve been planting them. The petals. Asking the earth to give back what we need since it has robbed us of so much. Blood. Meat. And this is what it provided,” my sister says. Juices bead against my lips, my chin, and my sister traces her tongue over my mouth and neck, and I hold myself very still.

“I can hear your heart beating,” my sister says. Her hands are cold but they slip beneath my apron, beneath my shirt and press against my chest. I lean into her because even now, I know I cannot tear myself from the blood between us.

“So beautiful,” she says, and my arms are around her neck, and she feeds me with her mouth, the petals breaking open on our tongues, and the sky gone white above us like some bleached out heart.

Under the moon, we bury the petals that are left.

“We will always be here. Under the trees. Like ghosts,” I say. My hands are stained with deep earth gone crimson.

“No. Not ghosts, sister. Something else entirely.”

We walk through the night. My throat has gone dry, but there are no more flowers. When the sun rises we stop, and my sister draws me down into the dirt, her hands woven through my hair, and she sings of a creature come awake. A creature with teeth and a mouth made for blood.

I fall asleep to the touch of her teeth against my throat