≡ Menu

Fertilizer for Pretty Things

Flowers like having dead things plunged down with their roots. Most people don’t know, but we do. They like little bits of rotting parts, like weasel toes and bird feet and the inner soft pieces of insects that fill their bulbs with the necessary flavors. Then the stalk flits up, sometimes over a matter of hours, and the petals unfurl like numb limbs. Remember how it felt to breathe? Everywhere we went we could inhale the float, exhale something that was somehow less than the nothing we started with. Before, when we could run as far as we wanted, until the last time when we could not run fast enough.

The festival banners that line the dusty roads are caught in breezes we cannot feel. Stretching words out into the trees, returning them full of branch-ends until they become so weighed down they hang there like dead fish. It’s hot. We can’t feel it, but we know from the way the horizon quivers. They hire pickers to gather the fields, arms full of rigid stalks, labial sprouts at the end promising—something. You can’t know until they bloom, but of course you already know what’s inside. Still, you can’t wait to see.

We were little girls with skinny legs and round bellies. We had lungs like parachutes crammed into backpacks. We could yell louder and longer than they told us we could. We would scrape our knees ten times over in the same spot until the skin stopped trying to heal, but stayed oozing for months. Our somebodies reapplied gauze each night to the yellow ick. Gauze that would get pulled away in our sheets as we slept. We hope our somebodies pass that care on to others, that it doesn’t just dissipate in the air as we have done.

Did we say how large these fields are? Acres of tulips. Acres on acres. When the yellows sprout, or the purples, or the whites with the red tips that pucker so delicately—when a field sprouts—it is the one color everywhere. You can’t see far enough not to see it. People don’t know what to make of that, of all that color, and they never think about the dead things that make it happen. They just see those big, bright teacups swaying in open air. But what we see is a bell being rung by something small down below.

Once we walked a mile out into the sea of the not-yet-blooming sprouts that looked like carrot toppers. We wanted to see what was in that tree grove. The trees were oaks the size of bedrooms. We found a cow skull in the dirt by the roots. It was clean and white as pearls. The eye sockets didn’t look empty to us. Yes, there was nothing there. But also, yes, there certainly was. We were not afraid of the skull, but we were afraid when we saw the trail of red that ended in a furry dead thing. We were afraid when it quivered and we had to decide if it was only the wind, or if we had a job to do.

You liked when we wore little pink dresses with skirts as wide as bedside tables. You liked our little bodies and our tangled curls and when we were allowed to wear lipstick on Halloween. You left little dead things in the fields to make the flowers bloom brighter and prettier than the last season.

Did you know tulips bend toward the light? No matter how they are placed, they find what they need. We were your pretty girls. With your help, we dove down deep into the earth, swallowing dirt, filling ourselves with what we needed to become. The roots of the bulbs found us, used us. We could hear the tourists walking above, admiring what we had done. We could hear the sound of the stalks being cut, the flowers being taken away to enter a vase or to join a seven-dollar bouquet. At the end of the season when we came up for air, the world was beautiful and you were more than pleased.

Bailey Cunningham is the managing editor of the Bellingham Review and is currently pursuing an MFA at Western Washington University. She lives in coastal Washington, where she works as a promotional writer and editor.