The Rhododendrons Stop, and Wait
Words By Marisca Pichette, Art By annca
The following piece is the flash fiction winner of F(r)iction’s Spring 2022 literary contest
Her parents were mud and glass.
The cottage where she grew up had been made of concrete, its shingles composed of sunflower seeds. She used to climb up onto the roof on Sunday afternoons, prizing black and white shells from their beds of moss and nibbling them, working her way across the roof while grackles called to each other from the rhododendron forest that had grown, over the years, to absorb the garden.
Her mother’s lips were always wet. They left a smear of silt across her cheek when her mother kissed her before breakfast. Her mother was brown, lumpy, damp in winter and cracked and brittle in the summer weeks. She didn’t much resemble her daughter.
Her father was violet. His faceted face captured the sun, blinding her if she looked too long. She had to be careful not to burn her hems in his intensity. He cast no shadow.
Once, she cut herself on his edge, sunflower oil soaking into her silk skin.
“You’ve been on the roof again,” he chided. Then he took a needle and sewed her up again.
But the oily stain remained.
As her parents aged, the rhododendrons grew, closing around the cottage until moss had replaced all the shingles, and lichen crept over her mother’s soft soil.
One winter, her father fell, his hip shattering into reflective shards. She gathered them up in a pewter dish. That night she sat in bed, stitching the places where his pieces had caused her skin to fray.
Her father continued to shrink.
He lost pieces of himself, fracturing in the winter air. She would find them lodged in the green upholstery of his favorite chair and in the dust of the fireplace. She started collecting him in jars, standing each on the windowsill. Sunlight filtered through his fragments, turning the inside of the cottage violet and gold.
Her mother sank under the rhododendrons, her edges softening and softening until grass replaced lichen and stones wandered over the mound that was once a head.
Before she’d finished repairing herself, they were gone, and she was alone.
It had been gradual, her parents’ dwindling. She’d not thought to worry, or imagine life without their shapes. And now.
She let the rhododendrons in through the kitchen door. Green filled the hallways, branches sneaking past jars of broken glass. She walked out the front door and made her way to the city.
In the hotel bathtub, she took a pair of nail scissors and snipped threads. Her scars reopened, sunflower oil filling her palm, chamomile tea streaking her cheeks, vaccines leaking from her forearms to circle her wrists.
She let the liquids soak her silk, covering her, dripping down into the bathtub. Its porcelain body filled with rainwater, stomach acid, cough syrup, and rhododendron sap.
When the mixture crept past her ankles, the tears in her skin bleeding the last of their memories, she pulled the plug.
Viscosities blended and colors swirled away, leaving her thinner, riddled with drafts.
She paid the hotel bill with sand dollars, and went home.
The cottage had surrendered to the forest. She climbed over roots and clumps of grass which might have once been part of her mother. Mushrooms reminded her of nipples, fingertips.
There was no door anymore. She climbed in through the kitchen window. The jars that had once held her father lay broken on the floor, heaps of fragmented glass. Looking at them, she couldn’t detach him from the curved shards that had once held his pieces.
She stepped around the mess and climbed moss-covered stairs. Through every window, the rhododendrons watched her, filling the house and sheltering everything that once was.
On the roof, she walked through milkweed and cow parsley, mullions stroking her calves. In the heart of a cluster of goldenrod, she looked up through a gap in the rhododendron leaves.
The trees had just begun to turn, yellow flickering at the edges of green maple leaves. Sunlight dodged between them and touched her face. She closed her eyes, her silk rustling with the trees.
When she opened them again, lowering her gaze, she found another face in front of her, upturned to catch the sun. A single broad sunflower grew from the cottage roof, casting the faintest shadow on her frayed feet.