I was in the woods all weekend, so this one is a bit late.
Mary of the Flowers
When I was a girl, my mother told me God was in the flowers. She kept a garden like a zoo. She said that everything was God, and God was everything, and here we were, alive in the world. Our task was to look at it, to feel the love of God all around, and know that we were loved. The flowers were here to remind us.
I wondered if God hadn’t put us here so the flowers could feel the love of God, too.
In my early years, I became a gardener. I’d water my roses every morning and sing to them at night. I sang them hymns and Christmas songs. In the winter, I put them inside, and in the spring, I reintroduced them to the sun. God was in all the pretty things, and God was in me, too.
The day they went for Vietnam, God was in the draft call. The day they shot Kennedy, God was in the blood. God was indiscriminate and everywhere, and no one seemed to wonder at his choices. Our task was just to know that we were loved. We thumped our holy books and prayed, and when we felt heard, we stopped listening to the rest of it.
I am an old woman now. My mother is gone. I listened for God in her breathing tubes. God was in the cigarettes, you know. That’s why she never gave them up until they gave her up. The tattoos of my youth sag on the bushes of my arms, and the portrait of my mother now is warped and stretched with age upon my leg.
I make my own fate now.
The day the wave came, I was sitting in my garden. My house wasn’t far from the beach and the land around was flat. It came without warning, like the phone call you hope never to receive. God roared up from the ocean and spread over the sky, his great hands crashing down around us. I was far enough that the water only rose up to my knees. It blew out the windows. I ducked and ran to hide on higher ground.
They showed it on the news. The high rise apartments with their crumbling foundations and the doors ripped off. A woman sailed by on one, calling out to heaven, asking to be saved. God was in the door, they’d say. That’s all the salvation anyone gets.
I call myself an angel. I have the wisdom of the heavens in me, but no one’s asked for my opinion. A crew came by to clean up my windows and I mopped the halls clean. My house is old as I am. There wasn’t much to save.
My house isn’t the story here. The story is the water, how it came in like a warning. The story is the boy, riding on a table, who floated up through the streets that day. He had tattoos like mine. We both had portraits of our mothers. He is the story, and his name is Ben.
The hotel by the beach was the first to be lost. The water came for it, and there was no time and no hope. Nearly everyone there is now dead. Everyone but Ben. He was out back, smoking at the wooden table, when the water blasted through the walls sideways. He grabbed hold of the only thing he could reach, he said. He doesn’t remember much. His head flew forward and hit the table and he breathed in water and salt. The wave rolled through, indiscriminate of where the beach stopped, and carried him up the street. There he lay, ripped and panting in my roses, and every last one had lost its petals. His shirt was torn away and I could see the face of his mother on his chest. She looked like mine used to look. She looked a bit like me.
I took Ben inside that day and laid him upstairs. I waded through the water, pulling the table like a canoe behind me and pushed it stair by stair up to the dry half of the house. I am not strong, but I can be when called upon. Ben was half drowned, his face green and blue where it should be pink and bright. I thumped on him like a holy book and out came water and salt.
“Jesus,” he said. His voice was more cough than words. His eyes were wide and blue as he looked around the room.
The power was out and the sun was dying in the sky. It breathed its last red breath through the window and onto Ben’s face.
I lit a candle.
“Where am I?” he said. “What is this place?”
My bedroom is a hall of books and a mattress on the floor. I’d left the waterlogged table at the door, and Ben was sideways on the mattress next to the puddle of all he’d inhaled.
“You are with me,” I said. “I took you from the flood.”
The wave came back to him. I saw it in his eyes. He looked around the room as the sun left the sky behind for another one.
“What’s happening?” he said.
“The flood came,” I said back.
God was in that, too. I put the candle near his face so he might feel the heat. He looked at me, the color coming back into his face. He breathed, and he was alive.
The television wouldn’t turn on. The cables were wet and soggy downstairs. They hadn’t come to clean the house out yet, and by the time they did, Ben would be gone. I fed him with the food inside the fridge. I swam to it across the kitchen floor. The water was cold and salty and I could only save the things on the top shelf. Some fruit, some vegetables, and half a chicken.
“What happened to the hotel?” Ben said.
“Gone, I reckon,” I said. “All of it.”
I wrung the water out of my skirt and sat on the foot of the bed while he ate. In the candlelight, he looked younger. Just a boy.
Ben had been to prison. He’d just come back into the world, and he wasn’t sure how to be here. All of this, he told me, but he didn’t have to speak. I could read it in the way he ate.
“So this is how it ends,” he said.
He knew God was in him. That was why he felt abandoned. God must have been in the heroin. There were marks on his arm. God liked to laugh at him, too.
He fell asleep in my bed that night and I slept on the chair. He offered, he offered, the guilt was on his face. But I told him to sleep. I wanted to care for someone. I haven’t had much around to tend to, and the roses don’t say Thank You.
I sat up all night, watching the window. Someone rowed by on a raft, crying that her baby has been lost. I listened to Ben breathe. I waited. There wasn’t much I could do.
Maybe I was the only one who wasn’t shocked. I knew this day would come. I’d been looking out for it since I was a girl, watching the storm clouds circle, waiting to make their move.
The day after the flood, the sun broke clear through the sky. Ben woke up to the light from the window and breathed his first holy breath of the day.
“Where am I?” he said again.
“You’re safe,” I said. “You don’t remember the flood?”
“Are you my mother?” he asked me.
The portrait on his arm winked at me, and I said, “Yes.”
“What day is it?” he asked.
“Thursday,” I said. “Go back to sleep, son.”
“Thank you, mother.”
I couldn’t return with coffee since the water had been cut. Instead I rearranged the leftovers from his meal the night before.
“Good morning,” I said as he opened his eyes for the second time.
“Hello,” he said. “Where am I?”
“You’re in your mother’s house,” I said. “You do this, don’t you?”
“Forget things,” I said.
He said, “I don’t know.”
I raised him like my own boy. I told him of the flood, that he’d forgotten who he was in it. I told him his name was Ben. I gave him the name. It was always my favorite. I gave him a history, of how he’d lost me to the drugs. He’d found our God again in prison, and now he was a good strong man.
“Oh,” he said. He looked at the portrait on his arm and red the name beneath.
“So your name is Mary?” he asked.
It isn’t, but I said Yes.
“And your name is Benjamin,” I said. “You like when I call you Ben.”
We mopped the floor like mother and son as the water went down through the cracks. They hadn’t come to clear the flood out yet. It would warp the wood. The floor would roll like the curve of a body, but we made a game of it. We rolled marbles down the hall and watched them rise, up and down, and collide into one another.
When the streets were dry, the sirens came down. We turned out the lights and hid in the living room where they couldn’t see us from the street.
“What is that?” Ben asked.
“Bad people,” I said. “Don’t pay them any mind.”
They assumed the house was dead and they drove on by.
“Tell me about my childhood, mother,” Ben said.
I told him all I knew. I told him God was in the flowers. He said he remembered that, and I wondered if that was true.
We spent the days repainting the cracks in the walls. When the power was back on, we took a hair dryer to the floor. Ben asked where the water had come from. I said it came from God. I taught him about roses. We replanted the ones we could. I told him to tend to the flowers while I went into town for food, but the streets were all still empty, and there was nothing around to eat.
Each morning, he asked where he was. Each time, I reminded him who his mother was. He believed me, and I didn’t lie. He was my child now.
The power never came back on to the neighborhood. The sirens went on by. They announced that we should leave, become refugees in a nearby village, but I told my son the truth: a man never leaves his mother, and he never leaves his home. He believed me, and we went to bed hungry.
“Where am I?” he said in the morning.
My belly was bloated with air.
“You’re in your mother’s house,” I croaked. “You’re safe, my Benjamin.”
“Your name is Mary,” he said.
I said, “Yes.”
We spent the days replanting the roses. We hid when the sirens came. Ben was forgetting faster, but with a little reminding, he always knew me. The problem was, you can’t eat roses. Our bellies were emptying fast.
We waited for the sirens to die away and one day, I took him out. We went just up the road to another house the wave had hit. It was warped and bloated, all the wood was wrong. We went in because the lights were off. Whoever lived there had gone days earlier.
We scavenged around for food, but half of it was missing. We found waterlogged bread and a few cans. We ate them on the floor of their kitchen, voracious. We took what we could home.
“Tell me about my childhood, mother,” Ben said as we fell asleep.
I told him he wanted to be a preacher, and then became a soldier. It was in the war he fell on his head. That’s why he couldn’t remember me each morning.
“That’s sad, mother,” he said. “I wish I could remember you.”
“I don’t mind telling you the story,” I said.
I woke up to a knock the next day. Ben opened his eyes into the light of the window.
“Stay, my son,” I said.
I went to the door and the knock came again from downstairs.
“Where am I?” Ben asked.
I told him to be quiet.
“Who are you?” he cried.
“Quiet,” I said. I opened the door. The knock from downstairs came again.
I went to the window and looked outside. There were two men at the door. They knocked and knocked and I pulled the curtains shut.
“Where is this?” Ben said. I saw the men look up. I quickly ducked behind the curtain.
“Quiet,” I said again. “They’ll hear you.”
“Who are they?” he asked.
“Bad men,” I said. “They’ve come to take you away.”
“Away from where?”
“From me, my son.”
“Is your name Mary?”
“Yes,” I said. “Now, quiet.”
The men at the door walked around the side of the house. They tried the backdoor. I heard them come inside.
“Hello?” one of them called.
I looked out to the garden. The roses must have given us away. The house was not deserted, not so long as there was God in the flowers.
I went to Ben and put my hand over his mouth. He spat and bit at me and I clamped it harder.
“Hello?” the voice downstairs said again.
Ben made a sound and I pushed harder. I am not strong, but I can be when called upon.
“Is anyone here?”
Ben stopped making sounds. His head rolled back. His face went blue where it should have been pink and bright.
I looked down, into the face of my son. His eyes glazed over. God was not in them anymore.
I sat in the shaft of light from the window. The house smelled like mildew and rot.
“Hello?” I called back, my voice sounding frail.
“Who’s up there?” they said.
“My name is Mary. Help me,” I said. “My son might be dead.”
The men downstairs were dressed like firefighters. They ran the wooden stairs, the squelch of water from the carpet coming out in each footfall. They ran until they reached the door of my room. I sat with my head in my hands, huddled at Ben’s feet.
“Ma’am,” the first one said. “How long have you been in here?”
“Since the flood,” I said. “I couldn’t leave my garden.”
“Your son,” they said. “Is he alive?”
“I don’t believe so,” I said.
They came to his body and thumped him like a holy book and out came nothing this time. They looked to me, their faces pained, and asked what had happened.
“He was a good boy,” I said. I kept my head in my hands.
They took his body down the stairs, carefully, one by one. I followed along behind them. My head was bent in prayer.
I asked to lay him in the garden. They said he had to go to the hospital first. They took me with them in the back of the car. One of them looked at the portrait on Ben’s arm.
“Is that you?” he said.
I said, “Yes.”
The thing you don’t know is the flood came for me. It came for me alone. I was its maker and I called it down, because I knew the truth about God. God was in the flowers and God was in the blood, and God was in the car crashes and God was in the deaths. God was in everything, and he was indiscriminate, and it was time someone taught him a lesson.
I slipped out quietly before they got Ben back to life. He came back, in the end. He told all about me. He remembered now, that my name was never Mary, and his was never Ben, and he was never my son.
Me, I slipped quietly back to my roses. I slogged around in the mud. I pruned the ones that needed it and lay down in the thorns. I lay there, waiting, for the next flood to come. It would not be the wave this time. But soon, it would come.
I lay until my stomach was an empty pit. I lay until they came for me. When they tried to drag me out, I lay there still.
“Leave me,” I said. “Leave me here to rot among my roses.”
“Why?” they asked. “What good will it do?”
I closed my eyes and said, “I want to return to my God.”
Food is the holiest thing we can be. Food is our great mother. My body sank into the earth. They bulldozed the house. They threw the roses into the back of a truck and dumped them in a landfill. All was lost until, one day, the rain came. Then the sun came next. Rain and sun and rain and sun, and then, one morning, life.
There, sprouting up from every gap in the garbage, winding its way toward the light, was another rose bud. In time, they bloomed, and I bloomed with them.
I looked upon the ruins of the world, the world we threw away, and I said: Look, now, here is God. Here is what we’ve done with all that love.