Maria has kept a photo of herself, aged one year, from the spring of 1960. She will keep it, creased, bent, and discoloured, for the rest of her life.
In the photo, she is sitting on a blanket in her mother's garden in the bright spring sun, holding a blood red tulip. Just after the photo was taken, she ate this tulip, petal by petal, then pistil, each anther, all filaments.
Her mother will tell her this story, how she ate this tulip with great deliberation, a thousand times before she dies. You, my first-born, her mother will say, consumed love before you knew what you were doing, and that has given you the strength to endure many things.
In the spring of 1970, Maria met with courage the madness of an old nun, who cut her hair and called her names. Her mother, when told, rushed to her side, witnessed the old nun hurling insults and epithets, saw her daughter, eyes red with weeping, but defiant, within a circle of her own cut hair. Later, her mother spoke to the parish priest, and the unrepentant old woman was shipped off to retirement in a convent far, far away.
When the nun left, Maria and her mother cut flowers from the garden, red tulips, yellow daffodils, and placed them throughout their small home. When her mother wasn't looking, Maria showed her younger sisters how to eat the red tulips, petal by petal, then pistil, each anther, all filaments.
Maria lost her best friend to a wasting disease in 1981. It was a terrible disease, a plague, and though she loved him deeply, the disease was stronger, defiant, relentless. The disease, which took her best friend from her, as it would take so many others, left her instead with a red mole on her skin. This visible mark, shaped like a teardrop, or petal, appeared suddenly days after his death, on the breast near her heart. Grief ground into her, month after month. The red mole grew, until she knew it needed to be excised, set free. She secretly buried the red removed shape near his grave.
She presented friends with red tulips on the first anniversary of his death, as death now raged all about them, a sickness full of hollows, and insatiable moles. She showed them how to eat the blooms, petal by petal, then pistil, each anther, all filaments.
Maria moved north, near an inland sea, in 1993. There she began a decade of accumulation, bought a small house near her ailing mother, worked long hours into promotions, grew a garden, got married to a quiet man who shared her love of plants. Children never came, but cats did, and once, in 1999, a wounded sparrow that remained, eating from her hand, and singing, until it died.
She would occasionally take out the photo of herself upon the blanket, a baby, from all those years ago.
She pruned her garden for spaces of sun and shade, made grassy spots, edged in beds of bright flowers. On uncommonly warm spring days, she'd lay a blanket with lunch, spring water and wine, and dine with her husband, ending the meal with the red blooms of tulips, which she fed to her husband, petal by petal, then pistil, each anther, all filaments.
In 2008, late on a spring day, her mother died peacefully in her sleep. Although Maria didn't weep, she would keep a curl of her mother's silver hair in a locket round her neck until the end of her days. The funeral was brief and full of music, the casket covered in flowers. At the crematorium, Maria and her sisters each laid a tulip upon the disappearing box, afterward placed her ashes in a deep red urn. They then returned to their busy lives, united by a sadness that crept into and through the hours, days, and years.
Each year after her death, in spring, the sisters met in Maria's garden. Her youngest sister, guardian of the urn, would return with it, and red tulips. The blossoms were plucked and eaten, petal by petal, then pistil, each anther, all filaments.
As Maria crossed into middle age, time began to run, then slow, repeatedly, in patterns she did not recognize. She found herself weary of more, and happier with less, tested new waters by taking classes in history and languages, slowed her work pace, gave more time to her sisters, their families, her husband, cats, the garden. One by one her sisters and their families moved away, to stay in other less wintry places. Her mother's memorial grew impractical, and all agreed to seed a new ceremonial, online, broadcast not from Maria's garden, but from that of her youngest sister, now living in another, more southerly country, full of flowers and sunshine.
The cats grew older, sleepier, then sickened, and died. She kept their ashes inside a flowery box in her kitchen, on a sill overlooking the garden.
Her husband, a little older than she, grew thinner and pale. What she feared might be was, and now years filled quickly with the dreaded speed of terminal sickness and the rallies we make against it.
Maria remembered, as her husband's illness overtook him, how often her her mother had said that she had consumed love before she knew what she was doing. This now gave her the strength to endure many things, and then a single thing, the death of her husband.
After his death, his ashes joined the cats in a much bigger but simpler wooden box. This Maria placed on a small table she drew near the kitchen window. She often sat and spoke with those inside the box, small conversations full of memory and smiles.
It was after one of these chats that she saw how the years yawned before her. It became difficult to regain a routine, and to spend time alone in the house. She decided to retire early, live on her husband's pension. She found she left the garden grow wilder, though she always seemed to add tulips here and there for spring.
In 2034, Maria left her house for more than a year, traveling to visit her sisters, favorite nieces and nephews, an old friend. When she arrived home, the unkempt garden blazed brightly, tulips everywhere, among the tousled ivy and spent fruit blossoms, peering from dark green corners and under broken branches. She bent down, and plucked a red bloom, and absent-mindedly ate it, petal by petal, then pistil, each anther, all filaments.
So began her retreat from the neatly constructed life she'd made and loved. Maria gave more of her time and many of her cherished things to relatives and friends.
She met with a realtor in late 2036, and put her house up for sale. It sold within hours.
On an early spring evening in 2037, Maria walked for the last time through her house, patting its bare walls, listening to her footsteps echo through the empty rooms. In her arms, she carried the large wooden box containing those she loved. She took the box into the garden, lifted its lid, and took out a clear bag of greyish dust and bits of bone. She dusted the garden with it all, grey into green.
That night it rained. In the morning, when she returned to give the new owner her key, she didn't see grey or bone, only young green, new wet buds and opening red flowers, her tulips beginning to bloom like a stream of fire winding through the garden.
Maria isn't sure why she chose to buy this small apartment. It is in a quiet neighborhood across a river from a city, near a train station. Perhaps she was tired of renting, as she had been doing for years. She thought she would settle in Molise, in Italy, near her great-grandmother's old home. Family still lived there, and they had been welcoming. But while visiting a friend she saw this apartment advertised, felt drawn to see it in person.
It is on the top floor of a three story building, with a small terrace. The terrace faces west and south, so there is good light. She has furnished it simply, and finds that suits her. Some Sundays she walks down the hill to the small Catholic church, with its mismatched statues and fresh flowers, to hear the Mass in Portuguese. It is a language she is learning, a language full of words and sounds as well traveled as she has become. Her sisters are amazed that she continues to learn languages at her age. But she's so pleased to find her mind still focused, to hear from her mouth new sounds, to greet and speak a few words to her neighbors in their tongue.
How many times has she begun again, in another city or town, these past few years? It's clear to Maria she was seeking something, and found it here.
This morning Maria brought a large bunch of tulips home from the market. She placed them in a glass vase on a low table in her sala, where they catch the afternoon light, and glow. She's pleased with the effect. Sitting down, she simply looks at them for a long, long time. On the white walls there isn't anything at all, so the color shimmers, the glass reflects and refracts, a magical shadowed tapestry that changes with the hour of the day.
She retrieves a small well-worn leather photo album from her bedroom, and opens it. The first photo within, creased, bent, and discoloured, is of Maria as a baby, sitting on a blanket in her mother's garden in the bright spring sun, holding a blood red tulip.
She closes the album and lays it aside.
This moment suddenly seems to her like every moment she has ever wished for, a moment in which she is incapable of moving forward or back. The sun warms the room, makes her body, already slim and small, seem to not to exist at all. A wave of drowsiness pleasantly, completely, envelopes her. Soon she is asleep, dreaming herself transparent, until there she is nearly invisible, in the middle of a love as soft, as wide as a blanket, or a garden, or something else altogether, that has until now, and will forever, consume her.
Photograph by Michael Howarth (2022)