In ‘Perennial’, flowers are used to give a sense of season and place but also illustrate sorrow and the passage of time. A man is grieving the mysterious disappearance of his wife. After planting tulips –some “salmon, others are a hard yellow, several a purple so deep they’re nearly black” – in her memory, he notices they are being stolen: “Three more flowers are missing. They have been snapped off at their base, their leaves two shrugging shoulders… He leaves their remnants and walks over to the planner he has left open on the lawn table, noting the missing flowers with pencil marks. There is rainwater in her ashtray, a dead bee at its centre.” Grief has dislocated the natural passage of time; the dead bee in ‘her’ ashtray symbolises that nature continues its cycle of life and death. Before the revelation of the missing tulips, the man recalls how during his history lesson.
Last year, he had a student who brought a rose encased in cellophane into his classroom, and she spent the next thirty-five minutes slowly plucking away each layer. She was seated near the back, and he found himself barely able to discuss whatever battle or presidency he was meant to be teaching, so absorbed was he in the flower’s slow disassembling.
In this passage, a flower has a power – a disruptive quality which is capable of interrupting the history of entire nations. Later, he discovers that “two more tulips are gone, broken off at the half-stalk, as if the person were in a hurry”. The author crafts in the symbolism, sentence by sentence until from being ‘real’ tulips, by the end of the story, they have bloomed into having a sacramental, religious significance as “even when they are dying, they are beautiful and unknown”.
First published in Ploughshares 134, Winter 2017-18 and available to read online here