Hey everyone! Today is the second Monday of March, which means today is the deadline for the Flash Fiction Draw challenge that Jeffrey Ricker drew a week ago. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, you can catch up here, but the short version is he used a deck of cards to randomly select three variables (in this case, a ghost story, a tulip field, and a key) and anyone who wants to take part has a week to come up with a thousand-word flash fiction piece. This one is mine, and once again it’s over a thousand words, but this time only by a tiny bit. Ghost stories are another genre I’m not generally drawn to, or at least, not in the scary way, and while I was trying to think of something scary something not scary occurred to me, and then I had an idea for the key, and… well. I went with bittersweet instead.
Tulips, in the Key of Philip
Three autumns ago, Rani sings while planting, as always.
“If you keep singing, I’m never going to get anything done,” a man’s voice says.
Rani turns, shielding his eyes against the sun. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to distract you.”
“You’re not distracting,” the man says, laughing and putting up his hands. Rani can’t actually see him, only the outline of him against the sun. “But I have this thing where I close my eyes when I’m listing to beautiful music—I can’t look at things when there’s something so wonderful to listen to, y’know? It’s hard to plant these bulbs when my eyes keep closing.”
“Oh. I… Uh. Oh.” Rani knows he’s blushing. “Thank you.”
“I’m Philip,” the man says, holding out a gloved hand covered in dirt.
“Rani,” Rani says, shaking it in kind.
“I’m going to get back to work now. Or at least try. I just wanted to thank you for making it impossible.”
Rani laughs, and when Philip walks back to his own spot in the gardens, he finally sees the man’s face.
It’s a beautiful face.
Three autumns later, Rani plants tulip bulbs alongside long paths throughout Commissioners Park. Meditative volunteer work, he is part of a large team of people, and while he doesn’t plant a bulb in each of the twenty-two plots devoted to the Tulip Festival, he does slowly work his way around the arc the park follows beside Dow’s Lake.
Now and then, throughout the planting, people have approached Rani. They speak softly to him, or put a hand on his shoulder—the shoulder pat being a realm especially for men, so many of whom knew no other way to communicate other than in this manner.
By the end of the day, the end result of this inability to use words shared by so many of his gender is a handprint of soil stained into his shirt.
Rani replies. Thanks them. Offers smiles of every shade, lets them share their own tales of loss, and once they’ve parted, he picks up the next bulb and gets back to work.
If Rani seems unshattered, the wholeness of his state is put all the more to grief. No one claims Rani unaffected.
For proof they have only to listen.
For this autumn, Rani works silently.
Rani’s new apartment didn’t have much, though the space involved wouldn’t have allowed for more than the basics in the first place. Deciding against a bedroom had, it turned out, been the right choice not only financially, but also visually. His bed helped fill most of the so-called “sleeping/living” area, and two chairs placed at the foot of the bed nearly gave the illusion of dividing the space.
The footprint of the room, an upper-case L, ended with the kitchen at one end and the bedroom at the other, the tiny bathroom tucked into the empty space left over to complete the square as a whole. Only one wall held windows—Rani’s apartment wasn’t a corner unit—but the full length was half glass, and so he could grow plants along the ledge and on the narrow balcony outside.
Rani didn’t have a television. Or a microwave. Or a computer—though his iPad had been engraved with his name. Where those might have lived he filled the space with small bookshelves, and on the bookshelves were those books with his name written inside, or battered covers obviously purchased second-hand.
In other words, things clearly Rani’s made it into the apartment.
Things not his?
Those vanished overnight.
While he plants, he thinks of a photograph of the two of them by this very field, lying together side-by-side, up on their elbows at the edge of garden thirteen. Behind them, of the 130 breeds on display, there should have been only buttery yellow Akebono tulips from Japan, but framed in the photo to appear just above their kiss are two princess-pink tulips streaked with orange, dark pink, and purple flame-like patterns along their petals.
It happens every year. Squirrels, perhaps.
Or simple mistakes.
Or first kisses in a crowd.
Planting tulips is faith. Most of the work is done months before the payoff, which perhaps isn’t unusual of volunteering jobs, but Ottawa winter stands between doing and seeing, and Ottawa winters are cruel and cold and bury everything in snow, ice, and darkness.
Rani doesn’t walk through Commissioners Park in winter, preferring the pathways alongside Dow’s Lake. He allows himself to be cajoled into a few outings on skates with friends who all now seem to exist behind an intangible wall of air.
He can still hear them. Still see them. Reaching out to touch them is unimpeded, even.
But they are still over there, in their pairings (and, in two exceptions, their throuples), while he is over here.
They ask him to join, usually for Karaoke.
He demurs, so they ask less often.
But still they ask.
May brings a perfect spring, never something to be counted upon in Ottawa, except this time Rani has felt a certainty for weeks. Rani takes time, starting at the Princess Irene tulips first, watching their pink-orange petals wave in the wind. From there moving to the next, and the next.
The Akebono are planted in the thirteenth bed. The little plaque tells him their name means “dawn” or “daybreak” and their beautiful yellow petals deliver on the promise of their name.
But there, in the middle of the sea of daybreak…
Two Pretty Princess tulips.
No accident. No squirrels.
Rani turns the photo of himself and Philip over, reads Philip’s writing. A haiku.
Tulips, soft to touch.
Yellow; Pink, orange, purple.
Two lips, soft to touch.
Snuck out in the pages of a book, during a funeral he was not invited to, held by a family that refused to mention Rani’s name in the obituary.
It’s slow, like the time between planting a bulb and the start of a cruel winter, and for most of his song it remains so, as though his voice might not break through some barrier left by the snow or ice or dark.
Rani sings on.
The man in the grass is barely there, muted around the edges. He could be nothing more than a trick of light if Rani doesn’t choose to believe.
Rani sings, though. He sings in a key he believes in down to his bones.
The man in the grass smiles, and closes his eyes.