Broken Stems

Short Story by Melissa LaDuc

Broken Stems

At eighteen, she had changed her name to Persephone and tattooed a blooming flower with a leafy stem just below her collarbone, above the location of her heart. It was the size of an apple or a pomegranate, which was slightly too big for the location on her slender frame, but she had done it anyway. And she had asked for it to be done in crimson red, having researched carefully the color of ink which would show up on her ebony skin. She had wanted to remember her life in the forward, not back. It was her first bold moment, when she had somehow walked into a room and told a white man what she wanted. Flowers are like that too, she had decided. A bloom sprouting through a sidewalk crack – a burst of courage. Persephone she had become that day and eight months later, she became a mother.

When Persephone began to grow her flower fields, she wasn’t sure it would be enough to provide for herself and her newborn child, but she knew she needed it. On some nights, she remembered his laugh and how he ran his fingers across her collarbone. Others she still wondered about her parents and how it would have been nice to tell someone, anyone, about the life growing inside of her. Mostly, though, she was glad to have a place separate from the world where she could feel safe.

On Saturdays at the town market, she watched friends laughing and children playing. She noticed how lovers' hands touch and linger. There were many moments when she might have responded to a sincere inquiry and began a friendship, but her scars were too tender to risk more than a smile. Rather than allow someone in, she passed a flower and took the money.

These market mornings, when Persephone came across a useless flower flopping sadly with a broken stem, she would let her daughter, Glory, have the bloom, rather than toss it aside as flawed. And little Glory chose to make those flowers special. Left to wander the market square, not too far, and not out of sight of her mother, Glory toted a small basket, skipping in and out of the neighboring stalls, around the stroller lines and market bags. Reaching just waist-high, she'd find someone special and hand out the flower as a gift. To other children, to old men in wheelchairs, to snotty ladies counting their change and making a fuss. To shy girls who flirted with the farmers' sons. Glory would draw from her basket a perfect broken flower and share it with innocence and love.

Persephone had heard the oohs and ahhs over her daughter's budding beauty, who had her mother's high cheekbones and almond eyes, but her own lighter, caramel skin. And the cherub curls would wave like water on the humid summer days in a way that Persephone's kinky locks never did. It was the curls that broke Persephone's heart and made her dip into her past, but with a touch upon her pomegranate chest, she would shake herself back into the present, finding solace in the gift she was giving her child: the home she herself had not been given. And so Persephone would watch her sweet little girl twirl in summer cotton sundresses and float through market crowds, passing out moments of surprise and joy in the form of Gerber Daisies or Sunflower sprigs. Small cuttings, broken stems. Bouquet could-nots turned into cherished tokens, placed, like hers, behind ears, in ponytails, or spun between thumbs and pointers like magic amulets.

One hot July morning, Persephone backed her dented red pickup truck into the space she rented for twenty-five dollars each Saturday. A slender stall – just enough room to set out her buckets of flowers and arranged bouquets. Posies, Sunflowers, Dahlias, Delphiniums. Chrysanthemums, Hydrangeas and Lilies. Purples, yellows, blues, sunny pinks and soft ones, reds, and oranges. The smells were complex with floral depths if even a slight wind wafted through. Yes, the vendor slot of Persephone's was a community favorite. The town did not see that under her laugh was loneliness and behind her smile was a yearning to be needed. No one was looking behind the flowers and she had learned from her childhood how to transform silence into safety.

Persephone unloaded her buckets, allowing Glory to wander off. Next to her tiny vending slot pulled up another red pickup truck, driven by a well-dressed man in a white shirt, buttoned high, with khaki slacks, creased down the middle, carrying a walking stick. The two met eyes quite quickly, as neighbors often do, and he did nod. Then to work he set, and she too kept her fingers busy, balancing with odd numbers and blending rainbow hues. Each creating silence as a wall.

Peter Tare was a man who hungered and thirsted for righteousness. He was a self-proclaimed, predestined prophet, not just following God's sidewalk, but pouring down even more cement wherever he would go. He thought this made him superior: a prophet on steroids. He never paused to notice the definition of a Pharisee, for he wasn't hunting them. His crosshairs were on the obvious ones, who sinned so much he knew their hearts. This cleared him, he thought, from judgment because anyone could see their sin: the drinkers, the smokers, the rich, the filthy women. They were easy to pick. The filthy women with children and no men.

Each Saturday he headed to a town square where four sidewalks led to a courthouse. With plenty of room to tote his block-lettered sign reading, “John 8:11 Jesus said...Sin no more!” He would walk and profess and condemn.

He did this because people needed to know their sins. Some say God is always knocking, waiting for someone to answer the door. But Peter preferred to imagine God as the homeowner, rather than a vagrant caller looking for shelter. Instead, he imagined heaven as a nice southern plantation with a veranda of angels pouring lemonade and fanning God. He supposed certain people, like himself, were given back door privileges and imagined God rising to greet him at a back screen door, while sinners were ushered into lobbies and waiting rooms by angels to decide their fate. Peter, though, planned to march right up the steps and drink a sweet tea with the King on his heavenly arrival. Until then, he would be about the business of his Lord; condemning and convincing.

This Saturday he had grabbed a walking stick on his way out the door. He liked the idea of using the stick as a pointer. And although he had never done it in person yet, he practiced quite regularly in front of the mirror at home, taking his stick and thrusting it forward as if to point someone out of a crowd. “You!” he would say and jab the air in front of him like it was something on fire. “You!” like it was something sharp sending needles through his spine. “You!” like parting a river, like God coming down and shattering the golden calf himself.

Grabbing a tattered Bible, Peter began his morning march around the courthouse square. As if rounding Jericho the seventh time, he bellowed and heckled against others. No megaphone needed, he just started right in with the Lamentations and the gays, planned on working his way to the sin of abortion. He could proudly quote any verse of condemnation and practiced doing so. He threw in a good strong “Repent!” every now and then, and very quickly he had raised a small crowd in front of him. “Repent, today! It is not a message from I, but from the Lord and the message is for thy!” Peter trilled, using the word “thy” whenever he could. He thought it made him sound more like King James himself. He didn't mind the angry attacks which indeed came flying back – even Jesus could not prophesy in his hometown. Besides, he wasn't here for friendship; he wasn't here for love. He crisscrossed the county and the neighboring ones all summer long, haunting town squares and markets with his doomsday call. He didn't know that this would be his last day of marching. He didn't know that this day his own walls would begin to fall.

It wasn't Persephone; her look did not untangle him. In one of his many condemning laps around the square, he did notice her tattoo, budding scarlet from her earthy breast when she leaned forward to offer a bouquet to a child. When he saw the little Glory hugging at her hems, he pinned Persephone immediately as a Hester Prynne and bellowed out “Repent.” She noticed his remark, but it didn’t sting much. She had long been used to this condemning thought from others. No thunderstruck between them. If anything, their connection was muted and banal, hidden in commonality for both.

But little Glory, that day, saw him with eyes of innocence. As he watched others, she watched him, and passed out all her broken stems, saving one for him. Just at noon, when the heat was rising and the market packing up, Persephone began to fill her pick-up with empty buckets. Peter walked up next to his own truck and grabbed a towel from the back. While she eyed his JOHN 8 poster and vacantly wondered what was in the “...,” he dropped his sign and rubbed his face to dry the sweat. When he pulled the towel from his eyes, right in front of him stood Glory. Little Glory with her precious broken flower held out straight at arms-length. It was only a daisy, bent and bowing to him low. But with the daisy came the smile of the little almond skinned, and it was more attention than he could remember having ever known. Her eyes were so different than the other angry shouters who seemed to howl at him all day long. Her voice was soft and she said, “Here.” That was all.

Just the voice of a child and a broken-stem flower. But when exchanged, from small soft hand to calloused thumb and fingers, the hands briefly touched. His eyes looked up and met the mother's; a dumb stare filled his face and he received a second smile. Peter nodded back without a word and climbed into his truck and pulled away. The dented daisy looked at him the whole ride home, then he tossed it to the night stand and spent his afternoon charting his next week's stops and stations.

That night Peter dreamed a horrible dream.

Darkness and wind. Where was he? A flash of lightning. A white veranda. With each flash of lightning, his vision opens up. Front porch full of daisies and trellises of purple hues. Bright colors stinging his eyes with each burst of light.

Flashes of his shoes on cobblestone, a walking stick tapping beside, then a swinging gate meets sudden resistance. The stench of something burning assaults his nostrils. A wind pushes a sweet lilac sent past his nose, but then again, smoke and a burning sensation.

He stops dead. An angel robed in virgin white with coils of jet black hair, skin the color of oak, and eyes ablaze with darkness. Eight wings of blue flap with a violent force. One-hundred-eighty-degree arcs smack him like whiplash. He falls back, unable to reach the gate. A collapse. He crumples onto stone. With another flash, the veranda, in the distance now, porch empty. A back door slams shut. Rain pours down. Then something burning and the ground around him – engulfed in flames. He cries out, “Lord! Lord!” and the stench is burning flesh. The porch disappears behind flames.

Desperation woke him with trembling. He lay there in a sweat of sin with bewildered questions for half the morning. An empty veranda? Where had he gone wrong? He surveyed his room with a building combination of anger and shame. The walls seemed to push upon him; he needed air. So, he rose and hastily pulled on yesterday’s clothes. As he exited his bedroom he shoved the wilted daisy into the kitchen garbage can. Then, with defiance, he left in haste without his maps or lunch bag – just grabbed the signs and walking stick and got in his truck. Not five miles down the road, his truck sputtered to a stop.

Peter hopped out and hoisted the hood. He looked at the battery and loosened a cap or two, then got back in the truck. It turned over and rolled a full truck length before coming to a stop again. Peter got out and kicked a tire before lifting the hood. Then Peter shook the battery and jiggled wires. Peter’s rage grew as he walked around the vehicle, kicking all four tires. The truck sat quiet as the country road he was on, but something in Peter was snapping. With his stick in his hand, and after a fifth tire kick, Peter raised his arms and let the stick come down on the corner of his truck. A headlight shattered in response, and Peter found the noise of breaking plastic to be energizing. He raised his arms again and swung, busting up the front of his truck, knocking out the headlight completely. His movements crescendoed as Peter raged.

In the middle of his violent assault, Peter did not see another red pick-up come slowing to a stop behind him on the side of the road. A quiet woman hesitantly stepped down. When she shut her door, the closing slam caught Peter’s attention and he paused midair with his stick in his hands. Persephone kept her distance from the man. “Excuse me, sir. Are you okay? What has this poor vehicle done to make you beat it so many times?”

Peter said nothing in response but processed her presence, recognizing the coal-colored hair. When Persephone took one more step, Peter bellowed, “Stop! You have made a fool of me!”

Persephone wasn’t sure if he was speaking to her or the vehicle, so she stayed where she was and asked, “Does your truck have a habit of doing this? I know mine sure does.”

Then Peter blinked and lowered his arms, his head, his eyes.

Persephone saw his surrender and walked forward. “Mind if I take a look?” With that she leaned into the hood to inspect its insides.

After glancing around, she closed the hood and walked around to the driver’s seat and tried herself to start the engine. It rolled over, and there was a spark. She knew from experience what the problem was. She got out of the truck and closed the door and walked over near the man.

The air was thick with humiliation. She kept herself from smiling, to help him feel more at ease. Avoiding his eyes, she glanced at the bed-load of signs, condemning sins. JOHN 8 lay on top. She focused on that sign as she cleared her throat to talk.

“Um, sir, I do believe you are just out of gas. I have a gallon in my truck bed, let me go get it and fill you up so you can be on your way.”

While Persephone walked over to her truck and grabbed a red gasoline can, Peter stood there dumbfounded. His eyes glanced up at the vehicle behind his in which a little child sat in the passenger seat, still buckled in. Glory waved, recognizing him from the market day.

Peter felt something warm inside himself. He dropped his stick, and he touched his cap, and nodded back.

“Well, it looks like someone recognizes you,” Persephone said. Just then a little hand stretched out the window with another flower stem. This flower was in full bloom. No imperfections or flaws. Persephone shook her head and laughed. “Looks like someone has a word to share with you.” She nodded encouragement, suggesting he receive the gift.

Peter reached a hand up and accepted the bloom, while the little girl asked, “Are you mad at someone?”

Peter shook his head a bit and said, “Well, I’m not sure what I am.”

The curls giggled, and Glory said, “What do your signs say?”

“Well,” said Peter, unsure. “They are signs to help people know that they are doing wrong. I only say what the Lord says.” He offered up the last line, as if in defense.

Glory didn’t make sense of it. She tilted her head and tried, then she grabbed yet another bloom from the bucket of flowers at her feet. “Mama says everybody does wrong sometimes. She says that’s why we sell flowers, to show the weeds they can’t win.”

Peter listened to the child and accepted his third flower with hesitation. “I reckon your mama is a pretty smart lady,” he said with something that resembled a smile. It felt new to his lips. Peter stepped away from the truck and smiled at Persephone. “I thank you, miss.”

“Not a problem, sir. Now go easy on her. Lord knows we all have our days,” she said as she stepped toward Glory. She tossed the empty fuel container in the bed and got into her truck. With a wave, Persephone and Glory pulled onto the road and drove away.

Peter watched the dented tailgate until a cloud of dust covered its path and disappeared, like a vision. He knelt down to pick up his rod, but instead of tossing it in the truck, he turned and gazed out over the wheat field. With all his might, he pointed the rod straight in front of him, parallel to the earth. Then he closed his eyes and spun his arm sideways and swept the air, sending his staff flying into the field nearby. As the wind blew and the wheat covered over his staff, he looked but found no trace of where it had landed. Then he got into his truck and started the engine, rolling slowly to the intersection ahead, where he turned around. He didn’t drive to a county square that day. Instead, he drove home.

And that evening, across the county lines and many dusty roads, in a tiny farm house, a young woman tucked her daughter into bed and sat down to sip a glass of red wine. She reflected in her quiet moment of the chores undone and eyed a tired hoop house. She noticed the plastic wrap coming unbuckled in the corner. She would need to fix that before winter, and she made a mental note. She also reminded herself to refill her extra gas tank so she could mow in the morning, since that chore had gotten away from her today.

A memory flashed and somehow she was compelled to rise and search her bookshelves. Finding an old but unworn Bible, she followed her compulsion and finally found John 8. She smoothed her hands over the onion-thin paper, enjoying the crisp sound as she turned through its pages. It’s funny, she thought, how you can need something so very simple and not even know it. She sipped her wine and found communion in the story.

About the Author

Melissa LaDuc

Melissa LaDuc has been a high school English and French teacher for twenty-three years. She is a lover of trees, poetry and all things green. In 2015, she migrated from cul-de-sac, suburban living to small towns and open spaces. She now stewards a small swath of land where her husband has become a professional cowboy. Together they raise twin fifteen-year-old daughters and run Hope and Joy Farms in Woodbury, Tennessee. Her poetry appears in the international magazine, Beyond Words. When she is not reading, writing, or teaching, she is dreaming of travel. She has a penchant for planting seeds with the help of her dog, Rémy.