White iris


            Flora was eighty-three years old, stooped from years of work in the garden, bent to the care of her beloved plants.  Proudest, she was, of the iris, which she always called by their common name, flags, those multi-colored, multi-designed burst-from-the-bud flowers, so richly scented that she might pull up a lawn chair and sit among them, breathing their sweetness, their honeyed smell that stayed in her nose and practically dripped on her tongue, even when she left their side and returned to the inside of her home.
            On such a day, as she sat next to her house among the flags, one of the little urchins—they were always poor and thinly dressed, these neighborhood children whose parents rented the nearly destroyed bungalows that surrounded her—came up the drive hauling a rusting wagon on chewed-up, wobbly wheels.
            Flora held up her hand, but the little girl did not stop until she was a few steps away.  By then Flora saw the cats, a mother and several mewling newborn kittens writhing at her thin tits.
            “You might want a kitten,” said the girl, her hair so matted it could not lift in the sharp spring breeze.
            “What’s your name?” asked Flora.
            “Mary Jane,” said the girl.  “And my cat, she’s named Mary Jane, too.”
            “You don’t give kittens away when they’re so young, Mary Jane.”  The mother cat was so thin her ribs might have pricked through her skin.  The girl wore slippers.  No socks.
            “My momma said get rid of them,” said Mary Jane.  “You might want them.”
            “I don’t,” said Flora.  She stood up.  She exaggerated the checking of the time.  “I believe I’m late for an appointment.”  Two years before, on just such a spring day, she had entered her house after a morning with her flags to find her husband on the floor of the living room, his thin body looking frozen, blood dripping from his forehead.  The doctors later told her he’d died of a heart attack, not from the blow to his head from the table, struck as he fell.
            “Maybe you could change your mind, about the kittens,” Mary Jane pleaded.  One little foot stomped the asphalt.
            “Maybe not,” said Flora.
            Mary Jane turned the wagon.  Her thin wrist looked like it might snap with the weight of what it pulled, though the wagon was small, the cat so emaciated, the kittens nearly nothing.  The little girl stopped short.  “Mary Jane would like to have a flower.  Something pretty to ride with her,” said the girl.
            Flora took her garden scissors from her apron and snipped an iris the same blue as a cloudless sky.  She breathed in its scent, then bent to hand it to Mary Jane.
            “I thank you,” said the girl, and she gently laid the flower next to her cat, who tried to open matted eyes.  Mary Jane thumped down the drive. 
            Flora bent to her well-kept flags for one final nose of perfume, then went inside, where no one awaited her.  She had no appointment until the next morning, which she’d spend with her flags. 

"Flags" first appeared in North American Review









Jasmine intertwined

Garden trowels

Wine bottle

Iris flowers

Empty hammock


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