My mother named me Felicia, after her favorite flower, the blue daisy.
When I was young, I would always tell people she named me after the word in that ancient language that meant “lucky” and “happy.” What good was a flower after all? Why would she name me after something that wasn’t good for much other than looking lovely? Why didn’t she name me after something strong like the wind or an animal? I’m older now. I know why.
Mother needs me. And the only thing that stands between her and the sorrows and sufferings of a painful death is a flower.
It is the duty of the young to thwart expectations. So, growing up, I was irritated by flowers. The typical rebellion against what my mother loved and expected me to love. Then there was how my mother called me her “little flower.” I didn’t want to be little. I wanted to be big and important. And I was bothered by a flower’s easy beauty. People have to groom themselves to look and smell good. Flowers only had to be. Many an animal looked pretty without much effort, but then many did not. So I was never bothered by pretty birds and butterflies. Only flowers. Of course, I did not yet know of the great variety of flowers in the world and that some of them were quite hideous and reeking.
My mother always loved flowers. I must admit, her garden was glorious to behold. She grew blushing cream roses and vivid fuchsias, and the trees that bore those delicate powder purple flowers that only grew in our province. She nurtured them with almost as much love and care as she gave to me and my brothers.
My brothers were another reason I was so suspicious of flowers at first. Flowers weren’t serious, they would say. They weren’t strong and powerful. Trees, now trees were all right. Stone and wood was good. Once, I mentioned to my brothers that Mother loved flowers and she was neither weak nor silly. They had no response to that, and so as they often did when I brought up a point that their logic could not contend with, they ignored me, we were silent for a while, and then we went on playing or talking about some other topic. And I knew never to touch on that particular subject again, for fear of being cast out of our inner circle.
In all, I was indeed a happy child and a lucky one. As I grew older, and made friends and allies beyond my brothers, friends and allies who knew of and admired my mother’s renowned talent for growing the loveliest blossoms, my hard stance against flowers began to soften. My curiosity began to bloom.
I found that much like myself, as Mother would say, flowers were more than they appeared. I started by learning the things that we all learn, about the inner workings of a flower, their parts, their development, their functions…and their magic. Magic not just in brightening a room or spreading a soothing fragrance, but true magic. It was a thing that the grown folk knew about but oddly shrugged off as unimportant.
Magic. Now magic was strong and powerful. Magic was serious. I had only ever dreamed of being a mage in my most improbable dreams. A commoner like me had only ever seen magic from afar, like conjurings on a great stage. Great mages owned great objects of power that were passed down from generation to generation within their families. And finding new objects took so much time, effort, and wealth, that even the very rich could not do it alone. They would band together and make societies or bestow part of their wealth to some prestigious academy, so that trained scholars could search. Magic objects were precious. Magical learning was a rare privilege. Out of the reach of most all people. But flower magic, at least some of it, seemed within my reach.
I went beyond my schooling, searching in our town’s archives and traveling to the province’s archives, and I learned more and more about flower magic. I found all this lost knowledge, not lost really, just ignored, though not really ignored, just fallow.
I learned about the burnflower that burns a person from the inside out, making their skin form horrible boils and pustules. It was used as a weapon in wars long past. And it still grew in rarely traversed paths in the outer provinces. There was the chromanthos, which bloomed in colors beyond counting, and whose petals dripped rich pigment from pores on the underside of its petals. Painters once used the flower’s secretions until easier, cheaper, and more abundant sources of pigment were made by clever chemists. I learned of flowers that gave off heat enough to rival a fire and flowers that could instantly calm a rage. Flowers that lost their color when the weather was soon to turn foul. Flowers whose fragrance served to stimulate one’s senses so they were sharper for a short while. Flowers whose leaves could heal broken limbs in mere days. Flowers whose petals could suck the venom out of a wound. Flowers whose petals were strong enough to be woven into a cloth. One flower whose petals when brought together would form a seal so tight that not even air could pass through.
Such magnificent and wondrous things could these flowers do, and yet, no one used them in my day. And I soon came to discover why.
Flowers die. And they die quickly. Even when they remain on branch or bush. Moreso if they are picked and plucked. Flower magic was weak but took much time, effort, and skill. So though it was once practiced more commonly, it was deemed not worth learning once other and better means of doing things like healing or building were discovered.
A flower that could heal a burn was not as valuable as a salve that one could purchase with far less coin and time than it took to grow that flower. For enchanted flowers required more than just earth, water, and the care of a skilled gardener. Magical flowers had to be fed special tinctures and nurtured with the channeled intentions of the gardener. Even before the planting of the seed, there was much preparation that required time and effort and patience. But what did I have in my youth but an abundance of time and energy? I began to learn. And I came to adore my studies.
Despite my mother’s love of flowers, she had hoped I would become an orator of some kind or a scholar of old languages. She envisioned me walking through marbled halls, or sitting on gilded chairs, or giving lessons and lectures to young tender minds and envious rivals. She wanted my hands on old scrolls and tomes, not digging in the dirt. When first I showed interest in helping her in her garden, she’d been delighted. But when she saw that I grew serious in my scholarship of flower magic, she became worried. I knew that part of her hoped that I would be as unskilled at growing enchanted flowers as I was at growing natural ones. And I was both hurt and challenged by that knowledge. I would show my mother my worth as a flower mage.
Whatever her own wishes were, my mother did help me grow the first of my enchanted flowers. They weren’t flowers but a simple and easy plant to grow that even healers still used in their healing, the eloa plant (a treatment for burnflower injuries). We grew chromanthos in a dozen colors and gave the colors to my eldest brother for his paintings. He preferred the pigments he made, but was impressed enough to ask us to keep growing them. We tried to grow some of the edible flowers, the ones that tasted of cakes, but we never could, or so we thought, until we found that children were sneaking into Mother’s garden to steal them.
At first, I relied on Mother to grow the plants, for I was still no good at it. I was in the third decade of life and still impatient. But soon, I began to grow eloa and then chroma and then others. And soon, I could use the enchanted flowers to cast magic, minor healing of scratches and bruises, healing that took only moments and left no scars. Healing that went beyond the use of eloa as a salve. I learned to read the colors of the weatherflower, so I could tell when rain was coming many weeks ahead.
I learned how to grow and use enchanted flowers. And I learned as well how to bring out and channel the magical energies of natural flowers. I discovered that rare flowers had rare and more powerful magic. Some varieties of orchid could be used in meditation to enter and control one’s own dreams and to learn skills that could be remembered in waking. But orchids could not be grown in the humble patch of earth that was my mother’s garden. If I wanted such a flower, I would have to travel far and purchase it. I did carry such ambitions. I began to make a living from my flower magic, a small profit at first, and one that somewhat embarrassed my mother, who had always given her flowers away and never sold a one.
My father understood, for he was a merchant. He wanted only that his children strive for some good work in the world and did not have any preference for what that work might be. He needed no convincing of my work’s worth. I thought my mother did.
But Father told me otherwise. Mother saw how hard I worked in the garden and how seriously I studied my tomes and scrolls, he told me. She saw that I loved my studies and my craft. She was proud. Proud with a cautious pride.
By the fourth decade of my life, I had developed a name for myself and my flowers. It was not the same as the fame of my mother’s flowers. Hers had a different magic. I shared not just my flowers, as she did, but my knowledge too. I had developed seeds that could grow some of the simpler enchanted flowers without the many steps and care and skill that was typically needed. The seeds did not always germinate, but when they did, the folks in my town could ease the pain of childbirth, make some predictions of weather, remove stubborn stains and odors from their homes and clothes, and do other simple but useful tasks. I discovered far more valuable varieties, like the flower whose petals remained connected even after they were plucked. The petals were so sturdy that one could write on them with ink. So a message written on one petal would appear on all the others. And if grown with the correct enchantments, the petals wouldn’t shrivel until a moon had waxed and waned and waxed again.
We were doing well for ourselves, my family and I. My eldest brother had married and settled down and given me a niece and nephew to spoil with candyflower treats. My carefree youngest brother had surprised us all by becoming the cloistered scholar that Mother had wanted me to be. And for that, I sent him a basket full of enchanted flowers to amuse and assist. I too had done my part to fulfill my mother’s wishes, for I began to teach the craft of flower magic, not just to friends and neighbors, but at a small academy. I don’t believe I had any envious rivals to worry about. I was not so accomplished. But there were indeed young and curious minds before me when I stood on a stage and performed my version of a conjuring by growing a radiant rose in a pot right before everyone’s eyes. The rose was the color of a setting sun and gave off enough light to illuminate a small room on a dark night.
I was indeed lucky and happy. And so I was indeed well-named.
But all times, whether joyous or sorrowful are fleeting. And one day, my mother fell ill.
It was only a fever at first. She ate and drank little and stayed bedridden for what we thought would be a few days. She recovered and was in her garden the next time I saw her. But the time after that, she was back in bed with another fever. And so it went. She fell ill and seemed to recover and fell ill again. She suffered from fevers and aches, but the healers could see no other ailment. We heeded the guidance of the healers and moved Mother to an infirmary close to our home. And the healers used their potions to try and find out what ailed Mother and how they might heal her.
For months, the healers tried. And their remedies sometimes made Mother sicker than she had been. Father stayed by her side. My brothers and I came in turn to visit Mother, to bring Father food and clothes and words of comfort. When I was not with Mother, I was at the archives, searching night and day, searching for some magic in the flowers that might help Mother. Searching in vain. The healers in our town were skilled, but they could not heal everything. And even better than a healer was a healer mage, and we found one to examine Mother, but even a healer mage could not heal everything. We were ready to surrender a portion of our fortune, such as it was, all of our fortune if need be, but the healer mage refused our offer, for he found he could do nothing to change my mother’s fate.
So how could flower magic, the weakest of magics, do what healing magic could not do? The healer mage had a stone with him, a stone passed to him from his mother, who had it from her father, and so on. There were other healer mages with other objects. Perhaps one could help Mother. We struggled between trying to find someone or something to help her and just being with her.
Soon, my mother began to ask my father if she could come home. And Father brought her home. He moved her bed to the window, so she could look out onto her garden. My brothers and I had tended to it, but it was a bit overgrown. And after months of watching her in the perpetual drowse that the healers placed her in to save her from feeling pain, it was a relief to see her open her eyes wider to look upon her garden, and to see the twinkle of life in her eyes as she scolded my brothers and I for neglecting her garden.
I was no healer. I had helped to heal so many with my flowers. But none who were so ill as mother. My father nudged me to use my craft. He saw that I was frightened. All my skill had withered away in fear, the fear that I might hurt her, that I might do more harm than good. What could my small remedies do to stave off an unknowable and unstoppable foe?
I used eloa to soothe her flushed and burning skin. Tinctures made of magical mint to cool her fevers. Petals of pain-drinkers to drain away the aches and agony in her muscles and bones.
I studied and studied. I found mention of a rare flower that was said to exist in the beginning of the world. The stormflower, it was called, but it was a myth. I could find no reference about how to grow it or where it grew. I wrote to scholars throughout the realm and asked if they knew of this stormflower. Those who wrote back were kind but certain. If the stormflower ever did exist, this flower that could cure all disease, it no longer did. And I did not doubt it, for if it did still exist, there would be no such thing as illness. There would be no more disease. My mother would have spent the past several months working in her garden, nagging and being nagged by her husband, reading the news scrolls, chasing after her grandchildren, and traveling to the southern coasts as she did each year.
After my failure at finding a cure, I visited my mother and told her of the stormflower and how sorry I was that I had not found it and how I would keep searching for some way to remove the foul disease from her body. She smiled brightly at me, wincing just a little. She told me how much better she liked the treatments I gave her, though all they did was ease her pain, than the treatments that the healers gave her, the ones that had prolonged her life if just by a little. I held back a sudden urge to weep then, for I knew that if I had been a great mage, a healer mage even more skilled than the one we found for her, I could indeed have saved my mother. But it was too late. I hadn’t the time. I hadn’t the means. The healers had told my mother that she might live for another turn of the seasons, perhaps two turns, but likely no more than that. Mother and Father had accepted this judgment. But my brothers and I had not. We pushed ourselves to find a way. A way to save her. And a way to pay whatever the cost may be.
It was fitting that the night I learned of the solution was a stormy night, a night when the world was pelted by icy rains and haunted by howling winds. My eyes burned from a longing for sleep, for rest. But my gaze slipped over a line in a tome I was reading about the flowers of other worlds, realms beyond our realm, the realms of dreams and death.
There grew in the underworld a flower that the author of the text called the afterflower, and it had the power to trade souls. If the flower was brought into the world of the living, a living person could trade places with someone who was dead. It was another myth, a myth about a man who loved his wife and when she died, who sought and found an afterflower growing in the natural world, and used it to trade his enemy’s soul for hers. The enemy, who had killed her, was sent into the underworld. The man’s wife was restored to life in her own body. But the flower did not just trade souls between the living and the dead. If a person was on the brink of death but not yet dead, the flower could save him by sending another to the afterlife in his place.
I knew it was futile to search for this afterflower. As much as it had been futile for me to search for the last mythical flower I found in my studies. And even if I had the flower in my hands right then and there, I knew I could not use it. I knew already that I wouldn’t even try to search for it. Mother would not want another to die in her place, not another person, not an animal, not even a plant. Even if I tried to convince her that the burden of the decision lay upon me, my mother would never forgive herself for living a stolen life.
I told my brothers about my discovery the next time we met. We had taken to meeting at least once every week to speak of the progress of our research. My youngest brother had become an accomplished scholar indeed, and being far more charming and sociable than his siblings, he had many a friend across the realm who were also accomplished scholars or accomplished bards or accomplished healers and so on. He was the one who had found the healer mage for Mother. He asked me questions about the afterflower after my rejection of the idea of searching for it much less using it. My youngest brother pointed out that it may not be such a terrible crime if we were to find and use it to save mother and send some corrupt and criminal soul to the underworld. We argued that night, weary, grieved, always anxious, in despair and desperation. We argued because we had not yet given up and accepted that Mother would die not graying and peacefully, but in pain and sooner than she should.
That very night, my youngest brother left. We did not know it until we received his message. My mother’s third grandchild and my second niece was born a fortnight later. My mother held and rocked the little baby who would never remember her. She spoke to her granddaughter, apologizing for how serious everyone else was, talking about her garden and how she was sorry for its unkempt state. My mother had changed, had grown more easygoing, less serious, more forgiving. When my brother wanted to name his baby girl after Mother, Mother laughed and called my brother morbid. But after my brother and his family left, when it was just my father and just me, my Mother heaved a great sigh and her face sagged and she fell into such a quiet sleep that I worried and watched for her breathing and placed a petal on her arm to check for the warmth of living flesh. She had been happy that day. But it was such an effort for her to show it. Such an effort to laugh and smile and sit up.
So when my youngest brother returned months later and opened up a box inscribed with enchantments I did not recognize and pulled out of the box a flower with dark gray petals that folded upon themselves like a rose and dark gray leaves and a dark gray stem, I felt the spark of hope and temptation. He had found it. The afterflower. The soul-trader. We could not be certain, of course, unless we actually tried to use it, unless I tried to use it. My brother was the scholar and now the explorer. I was the flower mage.
I had read what to do. It was a simple enchantment. I went to her bedside. I watched as she slept, as Father slept. My brothers encouraged me, the youngest certain, the eldest determined. They had chosen the one who would take our mother’s place in the underworld. The woman was a vile villain, her crimes unspeakable, unthinkable in the presence of those who were good and virtuous. I would lose no sleep in condemning the woman, in committing my own crime.
I looked at my mother to give me strength and certainty, to remind me why it was right to do as we planned. There were so many who adored and loved Mother, so many who would miss her, so many who had been saved and blessed and comforted by her. And so many more, like my new niece, who would need my mother, who would need her flowers, her inconsistent but entertaining advice, her love.
It was right to do as I was doing. It had to be right.
Mother’s sleeping face was innocent, serene. Doubt gripped my mind. Using the flower would taint my mother’s life and legacy. I dare not do that to her. Even to save her. In only a moment, a heartbeat, doubt faded and became certainty again. A new certainty. A true certainty.
My brothers waited on me. They would probably hate me. I took the dark gray flower from its case. I dare not. I would not. I held the flower in my palm and looked at it with my intention. The flower withered away into dust.
I turned to my brothers, ready to explain, but my eldest brother was reaching his hand toward me as if to grasp my arm. And the youngest gazed at Mother, shaking his head, his mouth agape. They had both been ready to stop me. This I knew. This I could see. I turned back toward my mother and smiled.
I was not friend to kings or high mages. I did not have great power within my reach. I was only a flower mage. But I had learned how much power a deceptively delicate petal could hold. I could not save my mother. Not without dooming another. I could not save her from death. But I could save her from suffering.
So I used eloa to soothe her flushed and burning skin. Tinctures of magical mint to cool her fevers. Petals of pain-drinkers to drain away the aches and agony in her muscles and bones. This I did and more.
I tended to Mother’s garden, and with the help of all those who loved her, planted a whole field of blue daisies in the valley just beyond our house. When they bloomed, we carried Mother outside to see them. She beamed, and I was never prouder of anything I had done before. I think that might have been the day that blue daisies became my favorite flower as well. Every day I brought my mother freshly picked felicias from the field to her growing delight.
On the day before she died, my mother asked us if we could take her to her garden and to the field. She was so weak and frail, we refused, but she insisted. And we relented. She found and picked one particularly beautiful blue daisy and gave it to me.
“For my little flower,” she said.
My mother died the next day and it seemed as if all the world lamented. I kept that daisy, my mother’s last gift, close to me. I kept it in water and watched it every day, remembering my mother and weeping and raging, knowing the flower would wither and die as she had.
But it didn’t. Weeks went by, weeks of mourning, of sharing happy memories, of telling my baby niece about her grandmother, of passing looks of relief with my brothers for honoring our mother. And the blue daisy, the felicia, it lived, still vibrant. Tiny tendrils grew out from the bottom of the stem. I took the flower out of water and placed it in a pot of soil. It did not grow more flowers. It did not wither and die. It lived. It made me smile. It made me weep. It wounded me. And it healed me. It kept me warm. And it cooled me off. It reminded me of my mother. It reminded me of myself. Perhaps one day it would fade and die. Perhaps it would abide beyond even my life. I did not know. I only knew I was glad to have it with me.
And I finally realized the true magic of flowers.
Copyright © 2015 by Nila L. Patel