by Michele E. Reisinger
I wish I’d listened to the daffodils.
They bloomed too early. Mid-January, not even spring, and their sickly green penetrations stood in stark contrast to the soil still tainted by gray ice and dead fallen leaves. I noticed the dirt first. Its surface seemed to roil, growing lumpy and swollen as if hiding a secret. The next day the stalks appeared, then the buds. They blossomed within a week.
As I draw the drapes, another bursts open like popcorn. Unease skitters in the back of my throat. Still, maybe the daffodils can do for Callie what I cannot.
“Sweetie,” I call down the hallway. “Come here. You have to see this.”
I hope the display will cheer her. This winter, she’s been sick almost constantly with a lingering fever and a cough that whispers as if hiding. The doctors, first one then another, have insisted I needn’t worry. “Some kids absorb illness like sponges,” the newest one told me yesterday. “She’ll outgrow the tendency.”
Jake agreed. “He’s the expert,” he said earlier this morning, kissing Callie on the nose as he left us for work. “Be good for Mama, okay? Take your medicine?”
My worry seems foolish when held up to their certainty. Jake has a way of doing that, of downplaying my questions, my fears, of making me believe I am somehow in the wrong. And I? I have a tendency to allow him.
I asked Jake and the doctors about the plant across town, closed now since the accident year before last. The reporter from back East had pointed to its blackened perimeter and the see-through streams that tasted of metal and rot. For awhile, the townspeople talked about it, and then the children sickened, and some wondered at the reporter’s sudden vanishing. Soon, the town allowed itself the distraction of other, superseding news and reconstructed a conciliatory normalcy. The plant still festers on the horizon.
It’s true, of course, what they say about hindsight.
“Come see,” I say again, tucking my worry in a dark corner.
When she doesn’t answer, I head to the family room where she lays buried in blankets, her skin so pale the television puppets cast lifelike shadows on her cheeks. She links her arms around my neck to be carried, and I start at her weight. Six years old and she weighs no more than she did at four.
Is she shrinking?
Or is worry mutating the memory of her once imprinted in my blood?
Yesterday, her doctor hadn’t seemed concerned when I’d asked, though his eyes had blinked as if considering not Callie in her thin paper gown but something outside his examination room.
“She’s just small for her age,” he had said, consulting her chart.
Except she wasn’t, not always.
My locked arms form a seat, and her legs dangle at my side as I carry her to the living room. Her blonde head rests in the hollow of my neck, her breath rising upward to tickle my cheek. Nearly two years ago, she had helped me plant the daffodil bulbs. She squatted in the dirt on fat toddler legs, her bare hands like shovels black as pitch. I’d shuddered when she dug a grubby worm from the soil, thick and pulsing like a vein. “Put it back,” I said. It had writhed in slow loops above her wide, bright eyes before falling.
When spring came, we had watched for the daffodils, but nothing bloomed anywhere. Even the birds that usually nested in the woods passed us by. I saw them flying overhead on their way somewhere else. Only the crows remained and one owl, perched mid-days on the library spire. I thought Callie would forget her disappointment, but every so often I’d see her out front, poking her fingers into the ground as if asking it a question.
Jake assured me I’d bought a bad set of bulbs from the nursery.
He was wrong, I know now, and I will forever wonder: Whom should I hate more? “You,” I will scream at him, months after the daffodils bloom. My damnations explode our once-ago life, its remains settling like corpses at our feet.
“I’m sorry,” he will say, his voice raspy, raw from shouting as he gathers his possessions, then leaves me alone forever. Like mine, his eyes will blink back tears he will not let fall, but in them I will read our truth—We are both guilty. We are both damned.
I sit cross-legged in front of the window and settle Callie in my lap. “Aren’t they pretty? If you sit really still and don’t blink, you may see one open.” Her hair hangs limp and damp beneath my consoling hand.
She nods, smiling as one blooms in front of us. “They look like me, Mama. Can you see?”
They do. Yellow heads too big for their bodies, and arms dragging in the dirt. The sun shines thinly overhead.
Reach for it, I pray.
In two days they’re dead, and so is my Callie.
About the Author
Michele E. Reisinger graduated with honors from Pennsylvania State University and received an MA in English Literature from the University of Delaware. She lives near Philadelphia with her family and teaches senior and AP English at a New Jersey high school. Her story “Ask and Ye Shall Receive" appears in TulipTree Publishing's 2019 anthology, Stories That Need to Be Told.