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FICTION


Chrysanthemum

By Erin Keating in Issue Three, March 2022

Mama didn’t weep when the world Dried Up. When the smoke choked the sun. When the sky turned orange. When the birds died mid-flight. Mama didn’t weep when the world Dried Up.

But she’s weeping now.

Her parched eyes can’t spare the tears as she howls curses to the sky, her bloody fingers clawing at the roots around my legs.

“Don’t cry,” I whisper.

Mama does not stop weeping, but she gives me her leathery cheek. I kiss it. I taste salt but remember honey and juice and ice.

“Not you,” Mama cries. Her fingers are in my hair. “Not you, baby girl. The whole world, but not you.”

#

The day of the Dry, we were in Mama’s greenhouse. I was sitting on the potting table, swinging my legs while Mama watered the chrysanthemums. I liked listening to her talk to the flowers and how she’d get all quiet waiting for them to talk back. She liked talking to the flowers more than people, I think, but when she did have to speak to people, she let the flowers be her words. Red roses for love. Sweet peas for thanks. White chrysanthemums for sympathy.

Mama was whispering to a chrysanthemum in a small plastic pot how pretty it looked when the sky flashed, and nighttime crashed down on us. One moment there had been sunshine, and the next was the darkness of a moonlight night with no time in between.

My heart flew up into my throat, the same as it did whenever I jumped from the old rope swing into the river, like it was hesitating, falling slower than the rest of me because it wasn’t sure what would come next.

Above the glass roof of the greenhouse, the sky was burning, the air filling with yellow smoke and clouds the color of rust. The potted chrysanthemums shriveled instantly, pale and papery as though they’d been hanging from the rafters for weeks, and Mama made a scared noise I hadn’t heard in a long time.

Through the steamy glass, we watched the water rise. It pooled in the grass outside and sprayed out of cracks in the sidewalk in front of the flower shop. I clutched the edge of the potting table, Mama still watching that withered chrysanthemum as water rose and rose to beat against the greenhouse walls.

Cracks fissured like spiderwebs across the glass, and Mama scooped me up from the potting table with a pained groan. I wrapped my legs around her like I used to when I was really little and burrowed my face in the sweaty crook of her neck, hiding from the flooding world.

“It’s all right, baby girl. It’s all right.” Mama stroked my hair. She held me too tight, squeezing me to her chest like I could float away, and I whimpered and clutched at her shirt. Water was spraying through the cracked glass, the whole greenhouse wobbling.

“Baby girl.” Mama’s hurried voice was hot against my ear. “We’re going to hold our breaths, okay? As long as you can—you can hold your breath a long time, can’t you?” She spoke in a steady rush like running water, each word tumbling over the other until she was gasping.

But when it seemed like the whole world would drown, the water stilled. For just a moment, the waves outside the greenhouse settled into a smooth mirror, reflecting the yellow sky. Then, the water that had surged through the fractured glass was sucked backward through the cracks. As we watched, millions of perfect droplets broke away and began to float, hanging in the air like they were caught on spider silk until, all at once, every drop rushed skyward in one great gulp.

And as it Dried, the ground withered from mud to silt, then to red dust.

I didn’t know it then, but I wish the world had drowned. That would have been better, I think, than the Dry.

“Mama?” I asked. My skin was raw and itchy in the hot air. I untangled myself from her, standing on my own wobbly legs.

But Mama didn’t say anything. She was gazing at her chrysanthemums. They had crumbled to dust.

I ran then, kicking up dirt as I fled from the greenhouse. Mama didn’t call for me. Or maybe she did, and I didn’t hear her because my ears were ringing. Outside, the air stank like burnt rubber, and the sidewalk and road were crumbling and shifting beneath my feet, reminding me of mountain ranges we had studied in school, a jumble of land with pieces sticking straight up.

Dr. Abel hunched on his stoop, dentistry tools still in hand, Mr. Greenridge beside him, paper bib over his shirt. Ms. Owens, ashen faced, leaned against the door of the bookstore with a paperback clutched to her chest. A crowd had gathered in the cratered parking lot of the diner, everyone shielding their eyes as they gazed up at the sky. Those familiar faces looked so old now, all dried and wrinkled.

I ducked through the alley beside the pawn shop to my secret path down to the river. The day before it had been green with river plants, the spongy ends of cattails, the purple cones of pickerel weed, the draping branches of the willow. Now, it was a desert.

I followed the old riverbed down to where the river met the marsh and then the bay, wishing for frogs and slugs and all of the things that lived when the ground was wet.

It was all gone.

A hot wind was blowing hard, tossing up dust like glass shards and making a red rash bloom on my skin. If I could only see the ocean, I knew I would be okay. Surely the ocean couldn’t be gone. Not when the people of my town studied the tide charts every day, could read storms in the waves.

Fear was rising in my throat, and I tried to swallow it down, but my tongue needled my mouth like the spikes of a prickly pear.

At the shore, I could see the horizon. But everything in between was changed. There was no water now. Only piles of salt and fish already rotting on shriveled beds of seaweed. The stench made me sick, the wind sweeping salt into my face.

That’s when I cried, my eyes too dry for tears. I cried like the Walker family when their house got washed away in last summer’s hurricane. Like Sandy when someone threw a brick through his store window and scrawled nasty words on the door. Like Old Mrs. Jones when they pulled her son’s body from the bay.

And I knew that we were all going to die.

But then a hand softly squeezed my shoulder. It was Mama, an empty jug on her hip and another set at my feet. She wasn’t crying. I picked up my jug, and we started walking.

#

Now, Mama is weeping. She tears at my ankles where a root has crawled from the powdery dirt to grab me. And where it touches me, my skin scabs over with a creeping, pale gray bark. In the days that follow the Dry, we name this the Reclaiming.

It’s a metamorphosis but not like anything I’d known before. It’s not like the butterflies we learned about in school, which come out of their chrysalis as a new creature. The Reclaiming is more like a gobbling up, the earth swallowing whole the things it once fed.

I listen to Mama curse the roots and the bark. She used to say the most loving things to her plants. I hardly recognize her as she tries to tear the tangled roots from my legs. Each pull only tightens them, bark sinking into my skin like bared teeth. Despite the pain, I try to kick, willing my legs to squirm out of the snare, but they are a stranger’s now and do not listen to me. A snarl of frustration escapes me, like that of a cornered, feral creature. I rake my fingers through the dirt, clawing as though I could tunnel away from this betrayed body. But Mama grabs my hand, her face tilted up at the cloudless, rust-colored sky. I cling to her like she could save me.

#

The first time we saw a Reclaimed person was the day after the Dry. We had walked a hundred miles at least, and I was so hot. My blood felt thick as river sludge.

We were in a neighborhood that must have been nice once. Houses sat neatly in yards that had been green but were now patches of dirt, broken glass littering the cracked street. It was like that everywhere we had been. No place had escaped the Dry.

We saw fewer and fewer people the farther we walked, Mama nudging me all through the night as I dozed on my feet. The sky at night was glowing red, and I wondered if maybe the stars had also Dried Up all those lightyears away. I missed our old sky. Our old world. But I held tightly to the empty jug and followed Mama’s steps.

My ears strained for sound in this abandoned neighborhood. Not even the wind broke the searing heat and silence. No one stood in the street with their neighbors. No one searched the rusted sky. No one huddled behind windows. We were alone.

“Look, Mama. There.” I pointed to the end of a cul-de-sac lined with giant, cookie-cutter houses and empty pools. A lady was leaning beside a car, one hand on the handle, as though she were about to go somewhere. But where was there to go?

Mama shouted a tentative hello, her voice cutting through the too-quiet street. Her fingers pressed into my shoulder as we waited for the woman to answer. But she never did, and it wasn’t until we got closer that we realized why.

Her skin had turned to smooth, gray bark, her legs two thick trunks that rooted her to the cracked asphalt. The arm that was reaching for the car was no longer an arm, but a spindly branch. Her hair had transformed into a tangle of vines, so shockingly green against the Dry world that it hurt to look at. Even her teeth had become a bed of thorns.

But it wasn’t those teeth that made me clutch Mama’s shirt.

It was her eyes and the blood-red flowers that bloomed there.

I knew coneflowers and dahlias, marigolds and peonies, roses, sweet peas, and chrysanthemums, but I had never seen flowers like those. White veins ran through the crimson petals, their starburst shape almost pretty—if they had bloomed from a garden instead of a woman’s body.

We stared and stared until Mama snapped her jaw closed and pressed her mouth into a thin, hard line. “Come on.”

She pulled me away, but I looked back over my shoulder at the Reclaimed woman, whose flower eyes twitched and followed us as we went.

#

Now, the gray bark creeps up my stomach. I wrap my arms around my middle—no longer squishing like it used to, but all hard and solid—and whispered, “please, please,” under my breath as though the ground would give me back. My body isn’t mine anymore, and my heart pounds like its desperate for escape, like a songbird crashing against the bars of its cage. I want to run, my feet slick with morning dew, until I have left this body and the whole Dried Up world behind. But I can’t move. My upper body trembles, but my lower body is impossibly still.

The night sky glows a copper-colored haze. I remember when nights were cool and damp. The air would smell of salt and sweet night flowers, like gardenia, evening primrose, and wisteria. There’s no relief from the heat during these Dry nights. A rusty metallic scent clings to everything—my knotted hair, my sweated-through shirt. Maybe the sky is bleeding, I think.

At least Mama has stopped weeping. My head is in her lap, and she’s braiding my hair, her cracked and bloodied fingertips working through the knots. Back home, she would have woven in flowers, but here there is only dirt and dust. She hasn’t said anything in a long time. Her amber eyes dart away whenever I try to meet them.

“Mama,” I whisper, just so she’ll have to look at me. It hurts to breathe. My lungs will be wood soon, and that scares me so much that I begin to sob, tearless and gasping. “Can you tell me a story about the flowers?”

I try to ignore the burn of the Reclaiming, like kindling slowly catching in my marrow. I broke my leg once, and it feels like that but all the time, that sharp moment of breaking, constant. The pain of the Reclaiming is nothing to the thirst, however. My mouth is so dry that my tongue can hardly move. I squeeze my eyes shut when the sky begins to ripple.

Mama doesn’t say anything for a long time. I clench my fists because her quiet leaves me alone with the white-hot fear, and that hurts worse than the Reclaiming or the thirst.

“Mama,” I beg. Her breath hitches.

Then her palm is cupping my cheek. My eyes flutter open, and Mama is the whole night sky—moon and stars before they were hidden behind the haze. She looks at me like I’m broken or like I’m breaking her, or maybe both. She bends down, pressing her forehead to mine.

Her voice trembles as she begins my favorite story, breathing it into my skin, about a woman who lost her love and planted mourning white chrysanthemums in her garden. And how, from those chrysanthemums, her daughter grew.

#

A crimson dawn broke on the third morning of the Dry. By then, Mama and I had seen thousands of Reclaimed people. We stumbled across a whole town of them. Red flower eyes watched us as we hurried past abandoned shops. The heat had rippled across the pavement in waves. I clutched Mama’s hand when I got dizzy. We didn’t say anything until that town was well behind us.

Then we started to see the bodies. People had fallen over and died mid-step along the faded yellow lines of the road or curled beneath spindly trees, desperate for shade. They weren’t Reclaimed. Their bodies were still human, covered in flies. They had died of thirst. Those bodies scared Mama more than the Reclaimed, I think.

My head ached for two days and now things looked funny. Shapes blurred and stretched to streaks of red and orange. My elbow grew stiff from holding the jug at my side. When I tried to stretch, it squealed like a rusted hinge. My steps slowed. I imagined I was moving through mud. I missed mud. But Mama hurried me along. If she felt the thirst, she didn’t show it.

I followed her through Dried woods. Petrified trees had toppled, crumbling to dust when they hit the ground. I peered into their hollowed-out innards as we climbed up and over their trunks or pushed our way through their fragile branches. It would be nice, I think, to curl up in that close, dark space and sleep. But I didn’t say this to Mama.

The world was all heat and dust, so I tried to remember cold, wet things. Frost on the windowpanes. Untouched snow. Sidewalk puddles. Strawberry ice cream. Chilled watermelon. Running barefoot through wet grass and drinking icy water straight from the garden hose. But all that remembering cut a hole straight through my middle, like one of those hollow trees.

Then I smelled it. The sweet, damp smell of the earth after it rains.

“Mama, this way.” My voice was like the croaking bullfrogs I used to play with down by the river. We were climbing up a hillside pocked with holes where trees had crumbled to ash all the way down to their roots, the ground shifting like sand as we went. Mama could smell the water now too, had tilted her face to the dry wind and smiled, her teeth caked with dust. My thirst was driving me like a rip current as I kept pace with her, my legs burning with the strain. Almost there.

At the top of the hill, the woods unfurled around us, miles and miles of broken trees like fallen bodies, and below us, a little valley. Murky, gray water pooled at its center. I could already taste it, cool as summer rain and the damp earth.

“Come on, baby girl!” Mama said whooping and started down.

I took a step and fell, my jug tumbling from my hand and rolling down the sandy hillside.

A dark root had ensnared my ankle. Mama turned back, and her eyes went wide. We both stared at it, quiet, like a poisonous snake was twisting around my shin and we didn’t want to startle it.

And Mama began to weep.

#

The ground Reclaims us because it is thirsty, I think. Beneath the burning and the breaking, there is a steady withering. Flesh and blood and wet organs, gulped down by the ground. I understand thirst like that, desperate, devouring. There’s so little of me left, the thirst and the Reclaiming hollowing me out to a husk. Each shallow breath is a stab of parched pain until my chest smolders.

Overhead, the sun blazes a brilliant white, and I can’t remember it being this close to us before. Mama shields my eyes with her hands. My own hands have turned to branches, green leaves sprouting from my fingertips. The bark creaks as it creeps forward up my neck and across my cheeks, the sound as violent as gunfire. I flinch each time, squeezing my eyes tight as though that would chase the nightmare away.

I want to tell Mama to go to the water, but I am not brave enough. I want her here with me. She talks herself hoarse as she tells me story after story about the woman and her flower daughter. A girl grown from grief.

“But Mama.” My voice is a wheeze, like I’ve swallowed sawdust. My breath rattles in my wooden lungs. “Who will give you chrysanthemums?”

Mama’s face crumbles, and she looks like her wilted greenhouse flowers turned to dust. I breathe her in while I still can—the smell of sweat and dirt and newly opened blooms that may never grow again.

“Don’t you worry about that now, baby girl. Don’t you worry about anything.”

I blink, lids scratching like sandpaper across my eyes, and a leafy canopy is suddenly stretching over me, dappled with pale green light. I’m cooled in the shade of the trees, in a bed of dewy grass. A cry wheezes from my throat—they’re back, the grass, the trees, all of the lovely wet, green things. The water.

But no, my thirst is still carving through me and when my vision blurs, there is Mama, shadowless, with her leathery cheeks. Around her, there is only the sun, the dust, and the breaking of my bones.

I look at the lines on Mama’s palms as the glaring sun peeks between her fingers. They run like rivers, interrupted by scars and callouses. I try to ask for a story about them, to learn where those hands have been. But my tongue and lips are wooden now. I force a shaking breath. The sound is a memory of wind in the trees, and I know I will not draw another.

This time, when the bark groans, I do not close my eyes or flinch away. I study Mama’s hands, remembering the way they sank into potting soil or curled around my own, dirt beneath her nailbeds. Right now, I am hers and she is mine, and if my mouth could move, I would tell her that I love her and that the lines on her hands as she shields me from the sun are the only beautiful things left in this world—those lines that fold over and over each other like the petals of a chrysanthemum.

I have to remember those hands, even when my body is wood and my eyes are flowers and I am nothing but thirst. I have to remember—I have to—

Pain stabs behind my eyes.

The burning stops.

There is a cold breeze, and I gulp down the damp air. My chest aches like I’ve been holding my breath or knotting worry around my ribs, but I can’t remember why. I am running through a grassy field, my hair whipping in the wind of a brewing storm. A sound rumbles from the horizon, louder and deeper than thunder, like mountains colliding or the ground cracking, asking me who I am. I holler my name back to it. We trade voices—me and the horizon—in a song that makes the golden grass grow taller and taller, sprouting from dirt so wet it slurps at my steps. The steely sky sags with clouds, and I dance beneath it with widespread arms that have never been anything but flesh and blood and bone. I smell the rain before it patters down, drop by drop, in a deluge that wipes the world clean. I part my lips to drink it.

© Erin Keating


Erin Keating

Erin Keating is a grant writer at an arts education nonprofit. She earned her B.A. in creative writing and literature at Roanoke College. While earning her history M.A. at Drew University, she spent most of her time in the archives reading as many Shakespeare-related texts she could find. She has a library card from the Bodleian Library, Library of Congress, Folger Shakespeare Library, and, of course, her local public library. When she's not writing, she dabbles in bass guitar, rock climbing, language learning, and video games. Her fiction can also be found in Metaphorosis and Luna Station Quarterly.

Fiction by Erin Keating
  • Chrysanthemum