BITTER ORCHIDS

by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam

When I was young, I lived with my grandmother and mother; next-door lived a woman who grew black orchids in her garden. I used to climb Ms. Ibbotson's wooden privacy fence and gaze down into her flowerbeds. Ours were full of rocks and weeds, as my grandmother spent her money helping my mother through college and had none left for flowers. We three lived in my grandmother's small, two-bedroom house. The walls were cracking from floor to ceiling and no one could do anything about it. I imagined that in the woman's pristine house all cracks were filled, all leaks fixed. After all, a man came around twice a week and stayed all night. Besides his comings and goings I never saw much of him, but liked to think of him traipsing from problem to problem with a brandished wrench  At thirteen, men were an anomaly to me; because I wasn’t used to them, I imbued them with all the superpowers of the unknowable, a knowledge culled from movies and television shows and my grandmother's romance novels, which I sneak-read when no one was home and stashed beneath the bed my mother and I shared. 

 

When the man was over, Ms. Ibbotson didn’t go outside. When he wasn’t there, she spent her time tending her orchids. Through the space between boards in our fence, I watched her in her garden. As a younger girl, I had been braver, hanging over the fence's edge and questioning her about her strange orchid ritual. She’d caress their petals and sing in a low, incomprehensible language for hours before retiring from the sweltering Texas sun. I was obsessed, too, with their strange color; the orchids' shiny blackness reminded me of licorice, that strange root my mother had been surprised to find I loved the taste of. No one else in the family liked it, but I couldn't help, looking at Ms. Ibbotson's orchids, wanting the flavor across my tongue. As a teenager, I wanted from a distance, hidden behind the fence. I’m still not sure if Ms. Ibbotson knew I was there or not, hiding behind our shared fence, though I can’t imagine that I was discreet. 

 

I was certainly not discreet when, at sixteen, I clamored over the fence and tasted the bitter orchids, that looked so much like licorice; I was filled with the bravery of the invincible young. The orchids didn’t taste like licorice but had the distinct bitterness of chives. I chewed until the first orchid disappeared down my throat. Then I grabbed at the rest of the petals, plucked them all, and shoved them into my pockets, leaving behind a graveyard of stiff stems poking out of the dirt like bones. 

 

When I heard the chime of her back door opening, I bolted into her shed. The air smelled like gasoline and cinnamon, which I didn’t at first understand until I saw the rows of unlabeled spices lining the walls. It didn’t matter that they bore no names. In the dark I wouldn’t have been able to read the labels. The taste of orchid burned on my tongue. Ms. Ibbotson's strange cry pierced my ears even through the metal of the shed. I crouched deeper into a corner, wedging between an old piece of battered wooden furniture and the lawnmower with its sickly sweet gas smell. The smell of a man. Had Ms. Ibbotson ever used the beast herself, or was it only her man who did that for her? I had never heard its roar before and wondered, half-heartedly, if Ms. Ibbotson's grass even grew. Of all the times I had peeked over the fence, I couldn’t recall seeing it taller than her ankles. 

 

I prayed that she wouldn’t find me. But soon she pried the shed doors open. She squinted into the dark and I into the light. 

 

"I know you're in there, you brat," she said. "You've really fucked it up, you know that? You come out here, and make it right, and I won't eat you like you ate my poor orchids."

 

I scrambled from the corner. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry." I sniffled. I felt like a child. I reached into my pockets and pulled out her orchid petals. I scattered them at her feet.

 

"He won't come without them, you know. He won't come anymore." She shoved her hand into her hair and tried to run it through, but it caught in the tangles. She pried it out and grabbed at me. I stumbled back quickly enough to miss her grasp. "And how do you think you’ll make this better?"

 

I wanted to run through the fence's wood. I wanted to vomit up her flowers. "What do you mean?” I said. “I don't know, Ms. Ibbotson."

 

"I'll tell you what the solution will be." She grabbed at me again, this time catching me by the collar of my shirt. "You're going to replace him until my bulbs grow back. You're going to be mine until my garden grows again."

 

#

 

I didn’t know what Ms. Ibbotson expected me to do for her. I knew the romance novel version of what a man did for a woman, but not the truth, and I had long ago learned that truth was never the same as fiction. I worried that she’d expect me to kneel as the novel heroes did between her legs and worship, as they said, at her personal flower garden. But there were a couple of lesbians in my class, and Ms. Ibbotson didn’t strike me as a lesbian. 

 

I told my grandmother and mother that Ms. Ibbotson was ill and had asked me to help her around the house. My mother eyed me with suspicion, knowing that I rarely left the house and that it was therefore odd for me to want to spend each day with the woman next door, who we didn’t know particularly well and who stank, my mother often said, of boring. My grandmother, however, defended my honor; she gripped my shoulder fondly. 

 

"Casey is growing up, and I think it's good of her to be helping her neighbors." 

 

The first day of my punishment, Grandma loaded me up with a hot cherry pie. "Tell the woman I wish her well," she said. 

 

I knocked on Ms. Ibbotson’s door. She eyed the pie, then pointed to the island in the center of her kitchen. "Just put it there," she said. "We have too much work to do to be eating pie at this hour."

 

It was noon, which to me seemed the perfect time for pie, but I wasn’t about to argue. Besides, it was the first time I had seen the inside of Ms. Ibbotson’s home and I was fascinated. It was full of fine redwood furniture, silky smooth on top. Our house was cluttered with picture frames and plastic IKEA furniture, secondhand artifacts passed down from cousins who came upon high-paying jobs and upgraded. My grandmother was a firm believer in reusing. Ms. Ibbotson's furniture all looked brand-new, un-scuffed. No photographs stood to tell of her family. The place looked like a home from a catalog or a furniture showroom. 

 

"This is your house?" I said, setting down the pie. 

 

"No, I've just been squatting here for the last twenty years." She half-smiled. "Come on, let's get to it."

 

First she asked me to change the bulb in her oven; she didn't like the feeling of being on her knees, she said, as she hated how the hardwood pressed against her bone. I changed it for her, but I wondered how she came this far being so lazy. Maybe that was how rich people were: helpless, unaware of how to do the things for themselves. I did want to be there, though. I wanted to know her, the mysterious woman from my childhood finally revealed, as childhood things always are, to be either better or worse than I'd imagined. I hoped for better. 

 

Next I made the bed and dusted her shelves, and when her stomach growled I cooked her an omelet. I asked if I could make myself one, but she said no, I could not. When she finished half, she pushed the other half toward me. 

 

"It's best to share," she said. "That way there is no waste, don't you think? Waste is a sad, sad thing. Like what happened to my flowers."

 

"Sorry," I whispered. She ignored me. 

 

"Hurry up and eat," she said. "I have other tasks for you." 

 

I shoveled huge bites of the omelet into my mouth and didn’t chew. 

 

"Good girl," she said. "Now I want you to go outside and trim and then water the hedges. But don’t you go near the orchid garden. If I ever see you near it again, I’ll eat you like an omelet."  

 

I wanted to ask her questions: why were her orchids special? What did the man love about them that made him disappear now that they were gone? But instead I disappeared out the double doors and hacked at the bushes with the dull scissors she gave me. The limbs fell in little piles at my feet, and I hoped that they would bury me if I kept on cutting and cutting, that I would be able to hide beneath them until Ms. Ibbotson forgot who I was, that I could become a part of her landscape, nameless, but hers. 

 

#

 

Ms. Ibbotson sent me home at five PM. As soon as I returned to my own yard, I peered back through the fence; she knelt at the orchid bed, pouring a stream of water from a can over the black earth. She sang half-heartedly. The guilt sunk in my stomach.  

 

"How is Ms. Ibbotson?" my grandmother asked when I came inside. "Did she eat the pie?"

 

"No," I said. 

 

"Well, don't worry." Grandma kissed the top of my head. "Sometimes when people are sick they lose their appetites." 

 

"Yes," I said. "I'm not hungry, Grandma. I think I'll just go to bed tonight."

 

#

 

It started with a fever that took me in the night; I woke feeling as though I had dreamed a new frontier to life, my sheets soaked, my breath hurried and tight. I snaked my fingers down my sweating skin—the Texas heat was fierce—and my own touch was so sharp it was unbearable. I thought, for a moment, of Ms. Ibbotson, on her knees in her garden, her fingers deep in the soft of the dirt, her face glazed with sweat and dirt and sorrow. 

 

I went to her the next day cooled from my dream but not from my vision of her. Being inside of her house was an illicit thrill, and no matter the difficulty of the task she set for me, I would be nowhere else but there, feet bare against her cool wood floor, my shirt stiff with cold. I went every day, regardless of whether she bid me to come again, which she sometimes did as she lounged on her couch with a class of lemon water in her hand and sometimes did not. 

 

Every now and again she allowed me a sip from her water, and the bitterness, though refreshing, didn’t compare to the taste of her orchids in my mouth. I didn’t regret for a second that I ate them. I wished they were back so I could eat them once more. 

 

They didn’t come back, though she tended to them daily after I left, though she sang to them as I dreamt she sang to me. She stroked the ground as though their petals lay there; she stroked the wood around their bed. She did this for hours, and still they didn’t rise. I knew something of flowers, of seasons. I knew that summer didn’t often let things grow. I knew something, too, of magic. Ms. Ibbotson's orchids didn’t live by the rules of the rosebushes I trimmed for her. This I knew as well. But the proof wouldn’t erupt from the ground; my only validation for the feeling in my gut was her strange music and the strange memory of the orchids always being there, never dying as rosebushes died.  

 

Slowly, Ms. Ibbotson's patience with me waned, though I often knew what to do now without her telling me. She snapped, demanded to know why I hadn’t waxed the floor when I had indeed done so, demanded of me items that required me to leave the house to retrieve them. I walked in the stifling heat, as I didn’t yet have a license or a car to take me to the stores. 

 

One day she revealed the source of her dispirit: "He's never coming back," she said, not sadly but angrily, as though it wasn’t so much the missing of him that mattered but the fact that she wanted and wouldn’t be satisfied. "Do you know what a man is for? Men do the things you do for me, but they do them because they are men and you are a woman, and that is the way of things. There are things men do for women, little girl, that women cannot do for themselves. My car needs an oil change. My roof needs a patch. Can you do these things? Of course not. My body hasn’t been touched for months now. Can you do that? I thought not."

 

I said nothing but wanted to say yes, I could do all those things for you. For you, I would do anything. 

 

"You’re like me. You're pretty but not too pretty. You have to try not to be pretty when you're young, because you'll grow out of it. I grew pretty, like growing orchids. That's the secret."

 

I went to her and knelt at her feet. I kissed her bared knees; they tasted like salt and sunlight and dirt. 

 

"You'll always be beautiful," I said. "You've always been beautiful." 

 

I kissed her legs up to where her skirt stopped. I looked up at her. She shook her head and pushed me gently away. 

"It's best if you don't come anymore," she said. 

I rose, my body aching. I kissed her on the mouth. She kissed me back. I had thought she might taste sweet, but her lips were bitter, like licorice, like orchids. 

"It's best if you don't come anymore," she said. 

When she stood, I stumbled back but caught myself. She pointed to the door. 

"I'm sorry to see the end of our little arrangement. But you are not a man. A woman needs a man, even if she might desire something else. You'll understand when you're older." 

I didn't want her to see me wounded. I didn't want to cry. I counted the ways I wouldn’t miss her as I walked out her door: wouldn’t miss her omelet leftovers, wouldn’t miss the expensive trinkets on her bookshelves, wouldn’t miss her animal electric smell. I wouldn’t miss that she had turned out, like all childhood things, to be less than I had imagined her to be. Wouldn’t miss that her magic was meanness and money, and nothing that could make orchids grow in seasons they weren’t supposed to grow in.

#

I saw Ms. Ibbotson again three weeks later; she came to my door with a burlap cloth. She reached for my hand, pried open my fingers, and set the cloth in my palm.

"These are for you," she said. "Grow them, and he will come. You’ll see what you need."

Inside the burlap were three crisp orchid bulbs. 

"You'll thank me later," she said. 

Two weeks after that, the moving trucks came. A newlywed couple moved in. They tore her flowerbed apart and put a swing in its place. I left the orchids on my bedside table. Every night I touched them once, twice, three times before bed. My mother finished school and got a job and went to work in a black suit she pressed each morning. My grandmother woke to wave at her as she climbed into her car and drove away. I walked to school on my own and tried not to think again of Ms. Ibbotson, of her hot skin on my lips. I no longer ate the licorice my grandmother bought for me. 

On my seventeenth birthday, I threw the orchids away. 

 

###

 

 

 

 

Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam's fiction and poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in magazines both literary and speculative such as Masters Review, Clarkesworld, Hobart, and Lightspeed. Her fiction-jazz collaborative album Strange Monsters was released in spring of 2016. She curates the annual Art & Words Show in Fort Worth, Texas, and lives in DFW with her partner and two literarily-named cats: Gimli and Don Quixote. You can visit her on Twitter @BonnieJoStuffle or through her website: www.bonniejostufflebeam.com.

 

 

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