She lay huddled and naked in bed, her skin a grayish black. Her brittle hair broke off at the slightest touch. I rested my head on her rigid body, hearing nothing. I inhaled—a dull, mossy smell. I called Dad.
He came over right away. He tapped Mom a few times, then knocked on her like he was knocking on a door. He placed his ear against her open lips.
“Get me a flashlight.”
I brought him one. He shined light into her mouth.
“What do you see?”
He grabbed a cigarette from the pack in his back pocket. He lit it and took a drag.
She stopped eating last month. Wouldn’t leave the bedroom. Dark, bark-like patches grew over her skin. I rubbed lotion on her arms and hands and it was like running my fingers across cement. I called the doctor.
“Give it some time. Things have a way of working themselves out.”
“We will have to bury her,” Dad said.
“We’re going to bury Mom in the backyard?”
Thick amber tears oozed down Dad’s cheeks and landed in my hair. He lifted Mom from the bed and we went to the backyard. We found two shovels in the shed and plunged them into the earth and the sun was hot on our shoulders. I could feel the syrupy tears melting on my scalp. We worked in silence until the hole grew seven feet deep.
Dad placed Mom in the hole. I stood there watching with dirt in my shoes. A flower had sprouted from the blackness of her mouth, a little thing with dewy white petals surrounding a soft, yellow head.
“Ain’t that something,” Dad said.
Two nights ago, Mom had asked me to lay next to her. I stood in the doorway. I said, “You’re stronger than this,” which I really wanted to be true. ”I’ll bring you some tea, then I’m going out.”
Mom blinked like a lazy cat. I went out and walked around until I got tired.
I stared at the flower and thought about how I never brought Mom that tea. I expected to sink into the earth. I tried to think of someone to call. No one came to mind.
“Did Mom have any friends?” I asked.
Dad said, “I think so, a while ago.”
He seemed taller somehow. He lit another cigarette and rested on his shovel. His swollen knuckles looked like brown lichen. A thin golden film shimmered on his cheeks. He started to speak but a voice came from above.
It was the next door neighbor leaning out her window.
“Mom died sometime during the night,” I said.
The neighbor looked at the sky and squinted. “What a sin.”
She closed the window.
Years ago, Dad gave me a Venus flytrap. A green so bright I thought it glowed. He told me to leave it near my window.
“Doesn’t it eat bugs?” Mom asked.
“Flies,” Dad said.
“What if there aren’t any flies?”
“They can live without flies.”
After two months, the plant shriveled up. I’d never seen its mouth close while it lived, and it hung open still in death. I touched its withered lobe with my pinky and the lobe cracked off.
Mom asked if I’d been watering it.
“Once a week,” I said.
She stuck her finger in the dusty soil and turned back to me, eyebrows raised.
I began to cry.
“Come here,” she said, arms open wide for a hug.
Dad found the plant in the garbage that night. “Guess it needed flies after all,” he said.
I climbed out of the hole while Dad knelt down to admire the flower, his massive frame like a smoking meteorite resting in an impact crater. I went inside and filled a kettle with water from the sink. I ran my fingers over the old apron Mom hung in the kitchen, but never wore. It belonged to her mother and the cotton felt soft and smelled like a home should smell. I grabbed a tea bag from the tin and tossed it in a mug. I watched Dad through the widow. He swatted at some gnats. I wanted to call out to him, but what would I say? “Hello Dad! I see you standing there in the backyard, swatting at gnats. Hello!”
The teapot whistled.
I grabbed a second tea bag and mug.
I returned to the backyard with the steaming mugs and found a tree where our hole had been. A thick green vine spiraled around its mammoth trunk. Those same white flowers grew from the vine. I did not see Dad. I walked to the front yard. His car was still in the driveway. I circled round it, expecting him to magically appear inside. I looked at Mom’s house with its stained eggshell siding and asphalt shingles. “Hello house,” I said. “I see you standing there.”
I went back and stood under the tree. A white flower fell into one of the mugs. I placed that mug down and sat in the shade and sipped tea.
After my last mouthful, I poured Dad’s tea in the dry dirt and watched the ground drink it up. It felt good to nourish something. The neighbor appeared at the window again. She regarded the tree from behind the glass, mouthed something, and was gone.
I looked back at the tree. It had doubled in size. Some white flowers were lying in a rapidly-rotting pile a few feet away. There was a faint smell of cigarettes and sulfur.
I sat there for a few hours as the festering pile of flowers grew. It felt like there was a heap of sopping towels inside my chest.
When it was dark I walked to the moonlit mound of organic rot and dug a tunnel into the middle where it was warm. The mustiness and dull smell of bad eggs comforted me. I think I slept for a long time. When I awoke, I opened my mouth. I tasted the decaying matter surrounding me and it was good. I feasted and went back to sleep.
My eyes opened. I climbed through what remained of the moldering heap until I felt the sun on my face. I stretched the translucent wings which had sprouted from my back. I groomed myself, licking the coarse hairs covering my arms and rubbing them over my bulbous body. I flapped my wings, a new and beautiful feeling. I rose up past the house. I rose until the house was the size of a heart below me. I passed through the clouds, higher and higher.
I reached the top of the tree, where the twisting green vine merged with the trunk to create vast open lobes surrounded with long green cilia. I circled above the glistening, red mouth. It looked vaguely like some strange and hungry organ. My bloated body, full with partially digested plant matter, made me feel like a giant, bristly grape. Scattered around the distant landscape were more of these strange growths. Some open, some closed.
I descended, landing on a sticky lobe. There was a throbbing power beneath my feet that could crush a house into dust. Trigger-hairs gently swayed in the wind. I knew how they worked—you touch one of these and the whole thing snaps shut faster than you could think. The hairs were scattered all around. A nursery of saplings. “Hello,” I said. “I see you.”
I reached out.