The third year of drought left Birdie motherless and mute. For months she’d listened as her parents argued over water, whether small reserves should go to mama’s flower business or the horses. In the end, as hard as it would be to lose the greenhouse, daddy’s horses won.
But the nursery was mama’s other child, aside from Birdie and her older brother Lucas. The note under the sugar bowl explained; she couldn’t bear the withered leaves and stems. She couldn’t watch that death.
She only took one suitcase when she left. That day, Birdie crawled into her parents’ closet, still half full of mama’s scarves and dresses. They clung to her like ghosts. When she stumbled out, Birdie left her voice behind.
Dad and Lucas tried to bribe her back to speaking with gifts of arrowheads and nests. When that failed, Lucas found a spiral notebook and a rainbow pencil so she could write her needs. Birdie wouldn’t use them. Instead she “talked” with pictures from her mother’s horticulture books.
She used a knife to cut the pages from the binding. If Birdie broke a glass, she held up raspberry for remorse. With tornados in the forecast, she handed Lucas oleander for beware. Peony meant anger. Snowdrop, consolation. Beneath her bed she buried marigold for grief.
Every morning Birdie snuck out to the greenhouse. First, she gathered the dead plants and piled them in a corner. Then she sorted what was left by hardiness and charm. In the end she chose the orchids. They didn’t need much watering. Their fluted petals looked like trumpets, fairy faces or wild birds. In the language of flowers, orchids spoke of beauty, love and strength.
All that summer Birdie tended to the orchids as dust rose up in clouds and blew through cracks, coating everything in grit. Dad and Lucas tried to seal the windows but dust came through regardless. They found it in their cupboards, in their underwear and teeth. Dust swept through the pastures, descended on the barn and settled in the ears and nostrils of the horses, who grew thin and languid.
The only foal that year was stillborn.
Birdie’s mother sent a postcard from New York: Found a job, it said. Breeding hybrid roses. That was it.
As autumn came and school began, Birdie got up early to smuggle water to the orchids, fifteen plants in all, including rare specimens of yellow lady slippers and Coleman’s coralroot. Dad and Lucas never went into the greenhouse. Mostly they pretended not to see it, just as Birdie faked deafness when they spoke of dwindling hay and weakened horses. She drew coin-shaped eucalyptus for protection and stuck the leaves on every stall.
Christmas passed and New Year’s and then the orchids started dying. The greenhouse was too cold, even with a filched space heater, a rigged-up plastic tent. During one particularly bad storm, a tree limb fell and broke the roof. By morning, half the plants were frozen. Birdie snuck the few survivors, seven scraggly stems, into the house. Pushing her desk against a narrow window, she squeezed the orchids in the band of light, pots pressed one against another.
After dinner, underneath a bare light bulb, Dad and Lucas talked in whispers, coded language. Birdie snatched small phrases—cracked hooves, flank sores, brittle manes. She closed her ears. She hid the shotgun. Lucas found it. When the first late-night shot rang out, she felt the air concuss. She pasted redbuds for betrayal on the mirrors, added purple hyacinth for sorrow.
Two more orchids shriveled overnight.
Maybe, Birdie thought, the flowers missed her mother too. Maybe hearts of plants could break.
She repotted the survivors, trimming damaged roots, and added her own fertilizer made from eggshells and molasses. She cut out pictures of white yarrow for protection and hung them from the orchids with colored yarn, like ornaments.
Another postcard came that spring, a single line about carnations. The air had gone so dry it pinched. Two mares died of colic and four more orchids crumbled, all at once.
That night, Birdie gathered up her pictures — hazel, cherry, holly, rosemary and snowdrop. Her eyes stung and her fingers ached as Birdie tore the pages. She heaped their shredded language on the last surviving orchid, a pot of leaves and stems without a single bud.
The next morning, when she woke, Birdie squinted at the floor. Beneath its confetti of torn paper, the last orchid blossomed with white flowers shaped like birds. Waxy petals glistened, edges feathered into wings. Gently, Birdie brushed away debris and lifted the small pot.
In the kitchen, Dad and Lucas argued in low voices and Birdie had to stomp her feet to make them look. Even then they didn’t see. Habenaria radiata, Birdie thought loudly, should only bloom in August. They didn’t understand.
Her father put a cool hand on her forehead and spoke in gentling tones, as if she were a skittish horse. Birdie closed her eyes. She imagined flowers turned to egrets spreading out their wings and taking flight. They would soar across the pastures, through the barn and down the dry creek beds and then they’d travel north to find her mother, bring her home.
She crushed the orchid to her chest. Words lay crumpled up inside her, hollow, useless things like empty feed sacks. Birdie whimpered.
A flower brushed her chin. A flower that should not have grown, but did. Birdie’s own heart fluttered like a windblown iris — hope.
She heard a soft ping at the window, a half-remembered patter-pelt. Her father froze, Lucas whooped and Birdie smelled the rain before she saw it. Rain that streaked through dust. Rain that blew in gusts, sweeping through the house, lifting Birdie’s hair and tugging her outside. Inside her arms, the petals of white egrets swooped. She turned her face up to the sky and shouted with the tongues of flowers, words no one could miss.
Lisa Ahn’s short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Bards and Sages Quarterly, Nanoism, Five on the Fifth, Quiddity, PANK, Prick of the Spindle, Toasted Cheese, Limestone, and Spectra Magazine.