There are a hundred and sixty-six dying orchids in her mother’s garden, but she cannot bring herself to remove a single one.
Orchids are delicate things, always quivering on the edge of some tremulous discovery or the peak of a vibrant color, yet the soil they prefer is hardly hospitable. In fact it is hardly soil at all: orchids will do best if you give them husk, charcoal, bitter salts to twine their roots around. They require little water, even—nothing kills an orchid faster than letting their woody appendages stew in waterlogged earth. Certainly.
The circumstances of their growth is not an event that you would expect such delicate and optimistic flowers to spring from.
She sits in the overgrown garden, stripped down to nothing but her sports bra and a pair of shorts, sweating profusely in the muggy, tropical climate that seems to inhabit the very crevices of her skin. The ash from her drooping cigarette falls onto the ground, and she blows out smoke in an intermittent stream, reluctant to release the heat from her lungs.
She hates the house, still doesn’t understand why her mother never sold it after her father’s death. It is ridiculously large for a single person to live in, and she can’t quite imagine how her mother managed it, especially after her husband’s death. Sprawling grounds and so many stairs to climb just to get to your bedroom.
Absently, she tugs at a stray weed reaching up to her from the corner of the stone bench and tosses it into the thick of the garden. Perhaps her mother kept the house because it’s so close to the ocean, and her father loved the ocean so much that he wanted to have his ashes scattered there instead of placed in the traditional family shrine.
The cigarette drops from her fingers, and she leaves the garden to simmer in its newfound ownership.
The next day, the orchids are still there, having neither multiplied or disappeared during the course of the night. They bow their heads mournfully in the light, brilliant colors all stripped down to dull brown shades and stems with blackened spots.
She’s jet-lagged still and covered in the stink of stale smoke, but a sudden feeling of guilt stirs in her stomach, and reluctantly, she gets out the watering can, as if it will remedy things.
Her mother was the one with precise fingers while she inherited her father’s thick-fingered clumsiness, but she cannot forget her mother’s instructions on how to take care of orchids, drilled into her brain by her mother when she was still young enough to take an interest in such things.
A small measure of water, careful not to give too much or too little, just exactly so.
Sometimes the water slops over the sides of the can and she pours too much, but she reasons that since they are almost dead already, it can’t make that much difference.
When she stands back and admires her handiwork, they do look slightly happier.
The doorbell rings and she wipes her hands on her sweaty jeans, wondering who it could be at this time of day.
She stands back rather awkwardly, trying to put a name to the face in front of her and wanting nothing more than to slam the door back and pretend that she hadn’t heard the bell.
“It’s Cindy, actually,” she corrects him, then laughs slightly. “No one calls me that anymore.”
“Sorry.” The stranger lets the word linger in the air between them, just a single word dangling on a hook, waiting for her to fill the gap with some inane social nicety. She doesn’t take the bait.
The stranger shifts uncomfortably before remembering the bag in his hand, holding it out to her and allowing his apology to dissipate.
“For you. It’s just some fertilizer for the orchids, your mum wanted me to get some for her before, you know. Before she passed. I used to help take care of the flowers, since she found it so hard to move.”
She takes the bag, more out of courtesy than anything else. Their hands brush, and she feels how warm it is compared to her own brumal skin.
“I know,” she says in response to the last part of his statement. “But I think you might want to save these for your own orchids. Our orchids are very close to death.”
He frowns, folds cutting deep slashes across his unwrinkled forehead.
“They can’t be dead, I just took care of them two weeks before...”
He trails off, peering into the garden behind her.
“Look,” she says, trying to intercept his stare. “Do you want to just come in and take some of them? From what I’m hearing, you helped my mother take care of them, and that must have meant a lot to her.”
He follows her into the garden and looks around at the dying flowers, examining them with so much care that the likeness of her mother pushes itself to the forefront of her brain.
Finally he stands up, squinting in the sunlight, and she looks at him.
“They’re fine,” he tells her. “They just need some care.”
It goes on for the next few weeks.
She occupies herself during the early mornings with taking care of the orchids, carefully pouring over her mother’s extensive journals and newspaper clippings on the proper care of orchids on a stone table in the garden, marvelling at how intricate her mother’s notes and drawings are, to an almost scientific point, each page starting with the drawing of the orchid in the center and notes diagrammed from inside to out. There are dead pressed orchids inside some of the pages, a graveyard of perfumed anecdotes and failed experiments.
Just as the sun comes out and it’s too hot to be outside any longer, she retreats from its glare and continues the arduous task of going through her parents’ house and throwing out the things that she won’t take with her when she sells the house—stacks of records that no longer play, moth-eaten and exotic gowns from faraway places that are hazy memories now, water-washed books with faded ink and silverfish holes in them, and impossible numbers of knick-knacks that she cannot possibly keep.
At first, her evenings are exclusively reserved for composing.
She sits at the piano with her sleeves rolled up, sweating profusely as she smokes away, occasionally almost setting her manuscript paper on fire. Everything she composes seems contrived, in a way. As if all her years of learning and studying the works of others has turned everything she writes into a pale imitation of a perfect chord progression that she did not compose in the first place. She gives up after her latest composition is essentially an inverse of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with the polyphonic bass line of a Bach exercise.
She ends up in the garden again, smoking and watching the bare green stems of the orchids, wondering what her mother saw in them.
On Sundays, he comes to help her with the flowers.
So far what she knows about him is this: he lives alone in the house across the road and works as an investment banker in the city. He has an impressive orchid collection himself, which she has yet to see, and is extremely polite. They might have met once or twice as children, but she has no recollection of it occurring.
“Why did you stay here?” she asks him when they next see each other, looking down at him as she stands to pick up a trowel. “You could have gone anywhere you wanted. You could have left.”
He swivels to look at her, and the question seems to completely take him aback.
There is a smudge of dirt on his cheek that annoys her. She wonders if his skin feels as warm as it did the first day they met.
“There was no one else who wanted to,” he says at length, turning back to the flowers so she cannot see his face. “I guess I felt like someone had to stay behind as an anchor—I know it sounds stupid, I—”
“It doesn’t.” She turns around so her back is toward him. “I know what you mean.”
The end of an era is no less explosive than its beginning.
In her absence, the neighborhood has become wilder as its ageing population has grown. During one of her meditative walks down the sallow and aging streets, she thinks about what he said, and she realizes that hardly anyone her age has stayed to take care of their parents as they age, everyone having fled at the moment they realized their chains were loosed.
Things seem more colorful and less rigid than she remembers, plain cream paint streaked with dark spots peeling down cracked walls to reveal grey concrete and ivy worming its way through the slow motions of the day, splitting apart stones and wrapping itself around houses.
She thinks of her parents.
Her father, pouring over his beloved manuscripts and calligraphy with a neutral expression, ignoring everything else but the constant stroke of his brush, fingers caked in ink. Him on his deathbed—what was he thinking? Did he ever regret allowing the rift between them to swallow their family?
Her mother, all alone in that house after her husband’s passing, making constant phone calls to her absent daughter that were more often than not ignored, quietly tending to her orchids and relying on the neighbors to keep her alive. Was she content with the way her life turned out, living with a pair of stubborn creatures like her husband and her daughter?
“Was it difficult for her? My—well, my mother,” she stammers as she helps him re-pot a plant, cheeks filling with color as crimson as the species of orchid they’re moving.
He looks at her with his head cocked to one side, expression suddenly inscrutable.
His eyes dart down her face, and he runs a hand through his matted hair, green-blue veins rippling through tanned skin, and answers carefully.
“She spoke a lot about you. She was very proud that you were chasing your dreams,” he tells her. “It wasn’t too difficult for her.”
The following week, he helps her chop up a bulky wooden table so they can move it piece by piece out of the house instead of damaging the doorways in an attempt to remove it. Pausing to wipe his brow with the inside of his arm, he asks her if she will sell the house.
She leans on the doorframe, contemplating the question. It’s a time bomb, essentially. The longer she takes to go about it, the more she’s never going to move. She doesn’t quite know how that will affect her.
“I haven’t decided yet.” She hesitates. “But I’m thinking about it. It’s too big for me, anyway.”
He continues chopping up the table with precision, careful not to let it splinter and fly into either of their faces.
She isn’t sure if he’s heard her response or not.
He separates the last leg from table, and sets down the hatchet, straightening up quite suddenly and looking at her with an intensity that causes her to stumble against the wall she’s been leaning on before quickly standing upright again.
“I heard you play the piano when you first came back. Why don’t you play anymore?” he asks.
She is wordless, and shakes her head as more of a defense mechanism than anything else, hands clenching and unclenching in silent anxiety at her sides, the nerves feeling as if they’ve been sparked into action.
“Play something for me,” he tells her. It’s more of a command than she’d like to imagine, but she complies anyway, leading him into the music room.
The grand piano stands in the center of the room like a weapon poised to strike.
She sits and before she knows it, her fingers tap out one of the first things her mother ever hummed to her, an old lullaby of exhaustion, a tired sort of melancholy. When she reaches the second movement, the melody diversifies, strands of individual harmonies interweaving in a complex sort of tapestry that she loves. It tells a story.
She looks up as she quietly plays out the end, and she sees he’s shut his eyes and is leaning against the piano with a tired expression on his face. The melody reaches its final repetition, and she closes it with a tentative chord.
“You should stay,” he whispers.
His eyes are still closed, and before he can open them, she lets the fall board of the piano drop with a crash, and all but runs out of the room.
On the third month of her stay in the neighborhood, the orchids begin to bud.
They have hardly spoken since that day in the music room; words have become rare currency in their exchanges, used sparingly and with great care. The silence is growing on them, and neither wants to speak before the other does.
The monsoon season arrives in a matter-of-fact way, thunderstorms lasting precisely twenty-two minutes, and lightning striking every other storm. The buds turn their faces upwards to the heavens like heeding an invisible call.
The house is nearly empty, the remaining furnishings glaring uncomfortably at her like a roomful of strangers forced to make small talk.
One Sunday, he doesn’t turn up. She waits in the rain, staring at the orchids as if her gaze can make them bloom.
The orchids finally burst into flower on a full moon.
The rain has not stopped, falling in heavy drops onto the flower petals and against her skin. The orchids emanate an unusual fragrance that threatens to swallow her whole, and she watches her fingers play on an invisible piano, imagining that the raindrops are the music.
“They’re blooming,” he says from behind her. “Look.”
She looks. Each orchid bud is like a spool of yarn, slowly unraveling into a dozen individual life forms—a million infinite possibilities culminating into a single moment of iridescent colors against a bleak, colorless landscape.
She turns to face him. His eyes are unfocused, looking at the orchids, a forgotten balloon regarding the ground. There is a smudge of dirt on his cheek, and she brushes it away, marble thumb against yielding golden flesh, then kisses him.
Somewhere in the house the piano strings snap one by one, then fall silent.
KWAN ANN TAN is from Malaysia, and is also a seventeen-year-old, ocean-soaked writer and poet madly in love with being in love. When she isn’t writing, you can find her reading a book, playing Saint-Säens on the violin, or setting her mathematics textbook on fire.