Competing fiercely to become Spring’s queen,
the garden flowers blossomed to their full beauty.
Who will win the golden crown of glory?
Among them all, only the peony stands out.
The peonies shrugged in the face of the domineering wind. The buds were still bundled up in the green wrapping of early spring which would soon be peeled away by the sun’s rays. Vibrant pink veins bled through the surface and gave an advanced preview of the flower within. They were already attracting a great deal of attention, but the peonies swayed neither to nor from their admirers.
A sea of ants flocked to the peonies every year. After a few wandering explorers discovered the dripping nectar, a siren’s call of pheromones led the rest of the colony to collect the season’s sweet promises. They moved with order and purpose, but to an outsider it was chaos: A scattering of insects crawling over unripened buds.
Jane walked through the field with a careful step; she did not want to disturb the life that surrounded her. Her unnamed child hung from a swaddling of cloth wrapped around her neck which bounced as she walked. It smiled up at its mother, happy to be out in nature.
She found an open patch of dirt and sat down. The sky winds had blown the sun towards the horizon in the Home Direction and everything glowed with the same soft pink that belonged to the peonies. The line between the sky and the land began to blur.
Jane pulled on a peony. Their roots were a thick and winding sort, whose anchors kept them firmly in the ground. She twisted the stems until they ripped away from the plant and gave each one a good shake. The ants knew something was amiss as they fell to the ground. They didn’t know what to do or where to go. If they were lucky, then they would find the a path left by one of their comrades to lead them back home. At least this way they stood a chance.
The babe bunched up its face and made a discontented coo. Jane pulled back her robes and let it suckled on her breast to quiet it. She knew that her mother had done the same for her and that if her child survived, it would one day do the same as well.
The child continued to stir but she didn’t have time to figure out what it wanted. The sun was getting low and she needed to hurry home before the sky blew into darkness.
The family shack stood alone among the clover and leopard leaf. It was a hodgepodge of corrugated aluminum, abandoned beams, red bricks, mud spackle, and clay sealant. The leaning pile of brick-a-brack had stood strong for three generations and required only minor repairs each winter. Every rainfall made the structure rumble with thunderous shakes, and strong winds made the aluminum tilt up like a cellar door, but never collapsed or leaked more than a few drops and it never, ever felt cold. Not even when frost crept in through the cracks and you could see your breath.
The plywood entrance scraped open. Tiny suns shined from the oil lamps inside and the objects inside were defined more by their shadow than by their shapes. Even in such low lighting, it was clear that the place was a mess. The dirt floor was covered in mud and the wall behind the pot was speckled with the splashes of soup.
“Cassandra! You think because Mom can’t see that she has no pride?”
Cassandra was sitting cross-legged in the corner, braiding her hair. She glance up from behind her half-lidded eyes and went back to her hair.
A shaking wheeze came from their mother’s bed and reverberated off the walls. Her body was moving in unnatural ways and she had to use all of her energy to fight it. Her fingers curled inwardly in the air and her legs swung around in halting half kicks. She used the strength that had borne three children to keep from rolling out of bed and writhing on the floor. Even on her deathbed she was a strong woman.
“I brought you peonies for you, mother. They will hold back the devil’s hand.”
Jane placed the babe in Cassandra’s lap. Her knees lifted up and formed crib to keep the child in place. She had just finished her braid and was brushing it out so that she could start over again.
Jane took the peonies and wove them around one another to form a laurel wreath. The evenly spaced buds wouldn’t have had time to blossom even if they had been left out for the ants. Their role was merely palliate.
She placed the wreath on her mother’s head but her body kicked back and knocked it off. She put it back on, but her mother’s chin jolted sideways and threw it right off the bed and onto the muddied floor.
An ant, probably drunk on nectar and definitely lost, crawled out of one of the buds and onto the floor. It spiraled towards Cassandra with a hesitancy that Jane hadn’t seen in the other ants. Every step was full of second guesses.
Jane pushed it onto her palm and then held it between her cupped hands.
“Cassandra, I need you to take this ant back to the fields for me.”
“You need me to do what?”
“Please. For Mom.”
Cassandra stood up, and left the baby alone in the middle of the floor. She took the ant with a glare and went outside. The ant could be felt moving around her hand in circles, trying to get out.
She tightened her fist and dropped the dead ant on the ground. When she returned, the babe was crying and their mother had stopped kicking
The poem that inspired this piece was provided by an episode of Writing Excuses. It’s a great podcast if you need some help getting started writing.