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Canaries

Alexandra Weiss

Decorative pink circle with white tendrils

     It started with the philodendron after the accident. If you can call a car crash caused by an asthma attack an accident. A gift from the office, something to get her out of bed that would probably withstand neglect. She had too much dead matter already. Dirt choked her dreams. Tendrils snaking from the black soil like so many worms. 

     There had been others before. Cut flowers in the hospital. Their color bled out, lost among the wristbands and compression stockings. But she didn't notice them, fresh, wilting, rotten. Time went by faster under fluorescents. She'd pull out her phone, almost forgetting, open the chat, and stare emptily into the last few texts.

"babe guess what"

"it's cool if ur busy, i'll tell u at dinner"

"jsyk i'm in the back by the fireplace"

 "where are u?"

 "baby?"

 

     All from her. All unread.

     She didn't want to send any more. Typing to the image of him on the other end of this disconnected number sometimes almost helped, but sending anything new would erase this last piece of who she was before she knew. So she typed everything out, stared at the words for a while, and then deleted them. And read, over and over, those last few messages, pretending she was still eating free bread, looking at the menu, figuring he was held up at work. 

     At the funeral things were different. White roses and lilies everywhere. Red pollen standing out against her dress, sticking to the wet mascara on her knuckles. In the mountains of flowers, she thought she saw his ghost, rising from the dark leaves. Shuddering, red-eyed, she let Aunt Megan lead her to the buffet and pour her a coffee with too much sugar. She didn't refuse; she could use the sweetness. Through the haze of forks on wine glasses and tearful toast speeches, she stared back at the flowers, searching, fruitless.

     When the philodendron showed up she barely registered the card attached. Saw only green, dark, and variegated. Smelled the roses again, his peppery cologne, saw almost-forgotten-already eyes rising to meet her. 

     Unsure what to do, she draped it across the bookshelf, sat, staring. Waiting. But like any mirage, he didn't stick around. Only the green growing thing, alive in its glazed pot, continued, roots pressing down into cold earth. She hated it for living. But she kept returning to the spot on the bookshelf where its leaves came to rest, gravitating from the empty pixels of another timeless sitcom to search, hopelessly for a ghost among verdant stems and graveyard dirt. The palm-sized hearts, flat faces, stared back like wedding photographs in the portfolios still saved to her desktop alongside other things they'd been trying on, things she couldn't bear throwing away just yet. The world was a weighted blanket. The cursor hovered. The fan stirred the leaves again, not-quite-cooling the room. She drifted back over, still seeing flashes of the funeral. Cascading rivulets of wax, memorial candles. Brief bursts of too-sweet coffee and cloying, ghostly flowers. Always just out of view. 

     "Beep. Beep. Beep."The microwave sang into the darkness. Her eyes refocused at the sound. Yesterday's coffee was re-ready.

     The morning she noticed a new leaf had split from the wing-brown cicada casing of its old bud, it was a bone out of the corset. The crushing sensation that had been bearing down since that night receded. In the latest heat wave it had been suffocating. It still loomed from the shadows in the corner of the room, followed her to take a piss, to get a bottle of wine from the fridge, but a half step farther behind. And that half step of space was all the breathing room she'd had since the call came. 

     Her ribs almost ached from the freedom. The new leaf fluttered slightly in the artificial breeze. She needed more. Needed to liven up the place, to stretch the rubber band farther. Needed something to care for, something to carry on. She ordered cuttings off the internet. Succulents and cacti first; she'd never had much luck with plants and wanted to start with hardy stock. Boxes appeared on her doorstep day after day as she started plugging the holes with aloe, agave, kalanchoe. 

     Weeks stretched into months, as the summer expanded around her, dragging on past previous cold snaps. She started introducing a broader array of herbs and houseplants, growing in complexity of care and volume until even the sunlight falling through the windows of the downtown apartment they used to share took on a green tint. Basil blotting out a once-sunny windowsill, spider plants hanging heavy above the sofa, succulent rosettes choking the table where she chewed mechanically on frozen pizzas, alone in her private garden.

 

     Faint ring of the buzzer. Amy from work with casseroles and other gestures.

     "Hi!" A cautious, friendly wave, a restrained hug.

     "Just wanted to check in, see how you're hanging in there..."Here the polite smile faded briefly. 

     "Wow, look what you've done with the place!"

     "Ha ha, yeah, it feels good to have something to care for."

     "Good for you, being so healthy..." 

     "Thanks, Amy." 

     She found silence worse than conversation. Amy wanted to help, but didn't know what to say. Nobody knew what to say, how could they? She took a sip of wine and tried to restart the small talk.

     "How are things for you and Eddie? How's the office?"

     "We're good, things are good. Finally finished re-doing the storm blinds, so that’s nice... Everyone's looking forward to when you come back! But, of course, only when you're ready..." Perched awkwardly between indoor trees, their shadows looming, she smiled encouragingly, but things got quiet again. A humid wind off the balcony rustled darkened leaves and hair, breaking the film of silence and stillness. Amy left before the second glass of wine.

     Sweat pooling on the seat, she sat there with two wine glasses, washed- out colors flashing over her numb face and immobile body. Sleeping alone in their bed still felt impossible, so she'd wait for the TV to drain enough away for her eyes to force closed of their own accord and pass out on the couch. 

     Snapping off a segment of pencil cactus in surprise at a phone ring cutting through silence and sleep, she cried on the floor like a little kid over a dead pet. the accident playing out again and again in unintelligible pieces of memory, sudden bronchospasms, a seat belt unbuckled just for a second, just to reach the inhaler…

But, watching white latex seep from the wound, she felt something she'd almost forgotten existed. Desire. Gnawing at her insides like worms. 

     From outside, tendrils of summer haze wormed their way through the apartment. The leaves whispered, churning in warm air to a lullaby of distant traffic. The shadow watched her from the kitchen as she opened the door, picked up the box, legs shaking. It loomed over her, swelling as she slit the cardboard, constricting her fingers as they pulled the urn free.


     Crushed, she stared into the powder that was him. At the waxy leaves of the philodendron. Into the warm brown dirt. Knees buckling from the opposite of falling in love, she returned his dust to dust. When the plant, breathing in conversation with her, traded exhalation for exhalation, she could almost taste him. Almost. But it wasn’t enough.

     The machines beep again. She can see them from the corner of the ceiling, huddling around the bed. The colored bracelets snapped in place, leads stemming from the body, not quite here, not quite dead, just continuing. Until the root breaks, plug sliding from socket. 

     Ashes to ashes, smoke to smoke. Plants left in the alley. Seedpods, cactus paddles, accidental cuttings spread in the wind, take root, invade. Spreading grief over the neighborhood like mustard after fires, poisoning native ecologies. Filling the lacunae of death. The haze over the city, close as atoms can be, continues accreting, undoing. Through an open window, a fire alarm chirps. 

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