The Flowers That Never Wilt
Oranib sits cross-legged on stiff, dead grass that would be itching her legs if she still had skin. Her skeletal hands are on her lap, cupping a single, almond-shaped seed that clacks softly against fingers of bone. Slender vines curl around these fingers and spiral up her arms like green veins, and larger ones scale her legs and feet. The inside of her ribcage is far more lively, filled with a complex network of vine tendrils. Flat leaves spring forth from the thickest of these, and from the largest vine blooms a flower with many lavender petals.
In great contrast to the life that Oranib houses, the world around her appears to be dying. In the distance is the husk of a former city. Many of the buildings and much of the road there have been reduced to rubble, and skyscrapers appear to have had their top halves torn off by massive hands. The lucky ones have most of their windows shattered and cracks spiderwebbing through their stone. Perhaps this world has already died once.
Beneath the negligible shade of a leafless tree, Oranib stares at three tall sticks protruding from the yellowed grass. All three of these are adorned with items to distinguish them: The left has a golden necklace with a ruby pendant dangling from where its stick forks in two. The middle has an assortment of dried flowers, surprisingly colorful, arranged at its base. The right stick has an olive green jacket draped over it, and for its size it would most comfortably fit a young man.
Another skeletal person, this one male, stands beside the rightmost stick. He seems tempted to lean against it, but refrains from doing so. His appearance is similar to Oranib’s, except a blue-petaled flower is partially obscured by the vines snaking through his own ribcage. His eye sockets are empty and his fleshless face leaves no room for expression, but Oranib knows that he would be sneering at her if he could.
“General Nibby,” he says in an almost patronizing tone, “One would think that an expert leader would have made the obvious choice by now.”
Oranib keeps her gaze trained on the sticks. “Can’t you do something useful for once, Pynsik?”
Pynsik throws his hands up. “How is this not important? I have to be here when he comes back to us.”
Oranib lowers her eyes to the seed in her hands. “I haven’t made that decision yet.”
It’s not a remarkable seed visually, but the most important things usually aren’t. The flowers in Oranib, Pynsik and everyone else all grew from unremarkable seeds after being planted in a corpse or a shallow grave, such as the ones laid out before Oranib now. If it weren’t for the uncanny ability of these seeds to resurrect the dead, humanity would have been wiped clean from the world a very long time ago.
The seeds are also extremely rare. Oranib didn’t find this one, but someone thought she was worth giving it to. For some reason. Well, if her being their leader was a reason, that would be the one. But she wishes they had kept it, because she doesn’t want to make this decision. It’s not that she doesn’t want her closest loved ones to be provided a second chance, but she wants all of them to have that chance--and she only has one seed.
Hours go by, uneventfully. Pynsik eventually sits down beside the jacket stick. Once in a while he and Oranib will trade words, but all conversation between them is aimless. The overcast sky is nearly black when Pynsik stands again. He crosses his arms.
“You can’t sit here forever, you know. A lot of us would use that seed in a heartbeat, so if you’re just going to look at it, you might as well give it to someone else.”
Oranib snickers. “Like you?”
He shrugs. “Your words, not mine.”
“He wasn’t your brother, Pynsik,” Oranib snaps, finally meeting his gaze again.
“He is my best friend! And he’s your younger brother--” He gestures at the graves with the necklace and the flowers. “ --Compared to your mother and sister, he’s barely had a chance at life!”
Oranib doesn’t respond.
“It’s not that hard a choice to make! Why can’t you just make it?!”
“Go back to camp.”
For a moment, he doesn’t budge.
“That’s an order.”
He waits several seconds more before he turns around and starts walking toward the city, his yellowed bones quickly merging with the oncoming night.
Before the end of the world, it would be more difficult to find the quiet that hangs around Oranib now. It is easier to deal with than the nagging judgement of Pynsik, but the silence gnaws at her anyway. Maybe it’s because she now has to deal with this deliberation alone. She tries to imagine what her loved ones would suggest if their voices weren’t currently stifled six feet beneath the earth.
“Don’t consider me,” says her mother, “My time was up long before the end. The next generation should decide our future.” Of course, she would be fiddling with her ruby pendant as she made these profound statements, rubbing it almost sheepishly between her fingers. She isn’t wearing the pendant because it’s anything special, but because it’s the only piece in her humble collection of jewelry that Oranib was able to salvage. They were all cheap jewels, anyway; the pendant is probably plastic. But she wanted to pretend that they were more valuable than that, just like her mother pretended everything else was. She pretended that their claustrophobic apartment was that way, that her job was that way, that the crime-ridden streets they lived upon were that way. She pretended that her husband, Oranib’s father, was that way. In the end, she admitted that the only valuable things in her life were her children. But Oranib thinks that everything she touched still has value, even that plastic ruby pendant, and that’s why a part of her wants her mother back.
Oranib’s older sister speaks next. “I’m where I was always meant to be, Nibby: with the flowers! I can watch you just fine from here.” Her sister was bound to a wheelchair for as long as Oranib can remember. She never walked a step in her life. No one is an expert on the seeds, but Oranib believes that if anything could make the impossible possible, it would be the vines taking control of her useless limbs. At the same time, her older sister never once complained about her disability; she was always more focused on preserving beauty by enclosing flowers in her notebook. Even in the bleakest moments, when the world was beginning to deteriorate, her sister would find beauty in their family’s togetherness.
Her younger brother saves his piece for last, as he always would: “I chose to make this sacrifice for all of you. I would do it a hundred times over to see that at least one of you is happy.” Oranib feels her stomach drop; his voice isn’t as clear in her mind as the rest. It’s been longer since she’s seen him. Before the end truly struck, he was a soldier; he was out there, struggling to fend it off. He was brought home in a coffin, an omen for what was to come. And that brings Oranib’s blood to a boil, because he is so much more than just that, so much more than a martyr or sacrifice. She understands Pynsik’s frustration much deeper than he realizes, but her brother also has a point; he died in the hope that some of them could live. How cruel would it be to bring him back over the people he sacrificed himself for?
“It’s a difficult choice, isn’t it?” croaks a fourth voice, but this one isn’t fabricated by Oranib’s mind. This one sounds real. In fact, it seems to originate from directly behind her…
Oranib whirls around from where she sits, and several feet behind the tree stands another skeletal figure, this one more squat than both Oranib and Pynsik. Vines are woven throughout her bones as well, and by the lantern she carries in her hand, Oranib can distinguish mint-colored petals in her ribcage. Her form is hunched; even the vines cannot undo how time arched her spine in her previous life.
“Aneltsal?!” Oranib gasps.
The elder woman raises a shaky hand. “Oh dear, Oranib, did I startle you? I assumed you could hear my footfalls on the grass.”
So that’s how deeply Oranib was lost in her thoughts. She is thankful now that she has no blood with which to warm her cheeks. “...No, it’s alright.”
When she twists back to face the graves of her loved ones, Aneltsal shuffles forward to stand beside her. “My old-person senses are tingling, General.” There couldn’t be a smile on her face, but there’s a cadence in her voice that suggests it. “Pynsik was here, I can tell.”
“Because he’s frustrated with something. He won’t tell me what, but he doesn’t do enough work to be frustrated with that. You two had a discussion, yes?”
Oranib pauses. She wouldn’t call it a discussion. “You could say that.”
After that, Aneltsal doesn’t speak for a few minutes. She joins Oranib in staring at the graves. Absorbing them, in a sense. Eventually, though, she breaks the silence again.
“It’s your decision, you know. It’s difficult, terrible even, but it’s yours.”
“Mm,” Oranib replies. She doesn’t believe her.
“You don’t believe me. You can’t stop thinking about how other people will perceive your decisions, because you’re a leader. And that’s good, that’s a very good thing. But in the end, the versions of your loved ones as you knew them are inside of only your heart. Sure, there are people who knew them, people who loved them as much as you do, but no one has the perceptions of them that you have. You may make a wrong choice, but your own perceptions are all you have right now. After all, that’s the aspect of a person that never dies. They are the...erm…” She thoughtfully taps her chin with her index finger. “Ah! Those are the flowers that never wilt. Clever, ey?”
Oranib turns to face Aneltsal for the first time since the elder woman snapped her out of her daze. “If it’s all about perceptions, Aneltsal, why did you revive Pynsik? You didn’t know him.”
Aneltsal hesitates, as if deciding how to react. Then she chuckles, hoarsely. “If you wanted me to revive someone I knew, you’d have to drag our people on a serious expedition. I wasn’t here for a long time.”
“You didn’t know one person? Not a single one?”
The older woman thinks for a moment, and her aura seems to darken as she does. “I suppose there was one.” She speaks in such a way that deters further questioning, but she elaborates anyway. “I had...a grandson.”
“A grandson?” Oranib echoes, almost breathless.
“...He was nearly a newborn.”
Oranib is suddenly overtaken by a wave of heated frustration. “You say that like it’s a reason to not bring him--”
“Oranib,” Aneltsal delays, “You know better than anyone else that our existence is held in a precarious balance. There aren’t many of us. We each offer something: you offer leadership, I offer wisdom, and people like Pynsik offer an extra set of hands anywhere they can...mostly. So tell me: what would an infant do for us, right now?”
She isn’t yelling. She doesn’t even sound particularly angry. But her words are tense; as solid as indisputable truth. There’s a moment where she and Oranib do not break eye contact, until Oranib’s gaze returns to the graves.
“You told me once,” she says, “that all pieces of advice are born from mistakes.”
Aneltsal seems to ponder this for a moment. “Maybe it was a mistake, maybe it wasn’t. What I do know is that I’m not the one with the seed anymore.” Oranib can’t determine what emotion the elder is trying to convey through those words, but she chooses to perceive it as resignation.
The two skeletal people stand beside each other for a while longer. Their silence is hollow, but hollowness is a feeling with which they are both intimately familiar. There is a time when Oranib notes that Aneltsal has vanished; she assumes that by then the older woman has been gone for a while.
The early morning sun bathes the tops of the skyscrapers in orange light. But on the city floor, where the residents of the settlement dart and shuffle about like a colony of insects, the world is still cast in shadow. Aneltsal watches them move to and fro, inside and outside of decrepit, one-story buildings and makeshift tents, conversing with one another, carrying crates of canteens and supplies, preparing for a patrol. Some of her people are crafting weapons out of scrap metal and shards of glass or wood. They don’t need to hunt; after all, plants are driven by the cycle of photosynthesis. But they still don’t know what’s out there. If they discovered the seeds, it’s only logical to assume that someone or something else also did. There is a certain levity brought with the absence of one necessity, but even still, the people here carry themselves with a hasty unease.
And when someone doesn’t, that person is impossible not to spot. As she passively surveys her people through their goings on from her seat on the ground between two larger tents, Aneltsal has to intentionally avoid staring at Pynsik. He leans against a dilapidated brick wall, twirling a splinter of wood between his teeth. He could at least be pretending to do something. There is an ache that spreads through Aneltsal’s abdomen at the sight of him, unevenly dispersed by how the vines are distributed along her bones. She doesn’t like how Oranib referred to her choice as a mistake, because she has to live with it either way. But now that it’s been stated aloud, the reality of her regret may now be unavoidable. As unavoidable as Pynsik now is as he begins to approach her at a sauntering pace.
“Elder Aneltsal, you went to see Nibby yesterday, yeah?” he asks.
“Of course.” She’s almost glad that he’s initiated conversation, because it’s easier to push her emotions back when she’s talking with someone. “Why do you ask?”
“She didn’t choose yet, did she?”
“I don’t see her around here with a confused relative in tow, do you?” she replies with a playful bite of sarcasm.
The young man tilts his head away, and for a second Aneltsal thinks that he might be mimicking the gesture of rolling his eyes, but instead he keeps his head there, averting his gaze. “Okay...that’s good.”
Aneltsal cocks her head. “What makes you say that?”
“Well, you see, I kinda...pressured her into reviving someone specific. I couldn’t understand why she wouldn’t revive that person, and...well…” He rubs the back of his neck. “I guess I feel bad?”
“What sparked the change of heart?”
“Just...thinking about it. I mean, I know that if I had the seed, I’d only have one choice, you know? But she doesn’t have just one. She never has just one.”
Aneltsal is tempted to retort with something akin to I guess all that standing around and thinking is good for something, but a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach stops her. It’s something about the way Pynsik says that final sentence. It has always comforted Aneltsal to pretend that she only had one decision: the logical one. But there is never just one route, just one line of thinking. She didn’t have to revive Pynsik. She’s never told Pynsik that she is the one who revived him, but in that instant she has an impression that somehow, he knows. She didn’t have to revive him, but it’s pointless to long for a time where someone else exists in his stead.
Aneltsal slowly pulls herself to her feet. “Well, let’s go check on her, then.”
Pynsik steps back. “W-what?! How am I...I can’t talk to her after yesterday!”
“You can’t lie to me, boy,” she replies, “Why else would you talk to me if not to ask for my assistance in talking to her? Now let’s go!”
The desire to make amends is an agreeable one, but not if the wronged person in question fails to be where you left them. Both Aneltsal and Pynsik scan the area surrounding the leafless tree and the graves. Oranib is nowhere in sight.
“Nibby!!” Pynsik calls, cupping his hands around his mouth. “Oranib!!”
Aneltsal crouches down, a hand holding her chin as she observes the graves. “This is odd.”
Pynsik turns to face her. “What do you mean? Can you figure where she is?”
“No, but the soil here is undisturbed,” she says, “She didn’t revive anyone before she left.”
Pynsik’s body goes rigid. “You don’t think she was...attacked by something, do you?”
Aneltsal is about to respond, but instead she abruptly freezes in place, her gaze fixated on some point in the distance. Pynsik follows her line of sight and notices a silhouette there, a humanoid figure walking toward them. A moment passes before Pynsik can make out pastel purple petals caged in the figure’s chest, the color of the dawn itself.
“Oranib!” he cries, rushing toward her. Then he spots a small shape shifting in her arms, and his pace begins to slow. When they stop a couple feet away from each other, Pynsik can see that she is cradling something.
“What is that…?” he asks. Without words, she gingerly lowers her arms so that he can see.
It is a baby. A skeletal baby, with tiny vines twisting around tiny bones. It moves its arms about in an experimental fashion, occasionally revealing what appears to be the unopened bud of a flower in its ribcage. Oddly, Pynsik is only more perplexed.
“Where did you…” His voice trails off.
“I made my choice.” Oranib states, very simply.
By the time she says this, Pynsik realizes that Aneltsal is standing beside him now. Her mouth is partially ajar, in a vague expression of shock.
“This can’t be...there’s no way you…” This is more flustered than Pynsik has ever seen the woman, and for some reason it unsettles him.
“There’s no way I could find him?” Oranib finishes. “There’s no way I could know for sure, but I decided that the apartment building we found you in would be my best guess. You buried him in the backyard, right?”
“No, I mean...over any one of your relatives, you chose him? Someone you--”
“Someone I don’t know?” There’s a smile in Oranib’s voice, but for some reason, her statement silences Aneltsal.
“I am...so confused,” Pynsik says, more to himself than anyone else. He is most puzzled by how anger isn’t stirring within him. Perhaps it’s because he has yet to process the insanity of the situation, but he likes to think that he’s already accepted Oranib’s decision, for whatever reason she made it.
“Aneltsal.” Oranib addresses the elder, but she appears to be too stunned to react to her name. “This is the choice that I believe my relatives would have wanted me to make. I’ll never know for sure, but all I have are my perceptions; the voices in my heart...or, my flower, I guess. And maybe he’ll stay like this forever; at least then, we’ll know if the vines will grow up with him. Maybe that is his purpose here. But that bud inside him gives me hope for something more.”
Aneltsal says nothing, not until she lifts her quivering arms toward the baby. “Can I hold him?” she asks, her voice trembling just as severely.
Oranib nods, and soon the baby is transferred from one set of hands to the other. Aneltsal presses the child lightly against her chest.
“Tsalsev,” she whispers to the child, “Welcome home.”
I wrote this for an assignment, so I didn't get to develop the world as thoroughly as I'd like. Who knows, maybe I'll return to it eventually.
Constructive criticism is always welcome.
Congratulations on having your work featured. Constructive criticism?? : ) I’ve just been transported to another dimension -I am stunned by your talent & look forward to unearthing more of your work. Thanks for sharing this!
This is an excellent story, smoothly told, rich with details, full of things both strange and familiar, and a fine choice for a DD. Congratulations! I'm very glad it's featured so I had the opportunity to read it. I hope to read more sometime.
I've come back to read this a few times since I first commented. I really feel like this world could be developed into a full novel. Or maybe even a graphic novel if you teamed up with the right artist. I love the vivid descriptions. Even though it was an alien concept to me at first, you eased the reader into the visuals so well and it felt so natural by the end. I would LOVE to see more of this explored in whatever context you felt appropriate. I am enchanted by this world and the few characters you've introduced us to. It's like the antithesis to the zombie apocalypse. Instead of the walking dead, we're seeing the walking living — just not how we expected.
Wow, I'm ecstatic that you see such potential in this idea! Honestly, I do as well, and there were a few concepts I wasn't able to include because this was written for an assignment. I don't think I'll ever take it as far as novelization, because there are other ideas that I'm more concerned about realizing someday. If we're lucky, though, this may not be the last you see of it.
It's interesting that you mention the zombie apocalypse idea. This is very much a personal stance, but I've always found zombies...painfully boring. That's not to say that it can't be twisted in creative ways, but it's one of those tropes with very set foundations. Like space-based science fiction, you know? Anyway, this is all to say that I'm glad to see this story referred to as an antithesis of such ideas, because I never thought of it that way before. I would have never consciously considered creating a zombie story, haha.
I feel the same way about zombies, actually. And they're done to death (haha) in modern media. I know they're an easy way to explore a lot of valid themes, but c'moooon guys. Enough is enough!
"your own perceptions are all you have right now" - this is something I've been musing on some time ago' and I think it ties into the 'fragmentation of a person' we discussed earlier; I actually meant to write about it there' but other matters took prominence.
On one hand' it makes one afraid of death' for it takes from us any agency and our last chance to speak for ourselves. After we die' there are only pieces left to be reassembled in our image' which may end up irrecognizable. Our legacy may well end up being the opposite of our aims.
On the other hand' it may well explain the 'dead artists are better' cliche. Once they are not here' with everything that made them uncomfortable to society gone as well' it becomes much easier romanticize them as misunderstood geniuses' and fault past generations for not recognizing their brilliance' be it real or imagined.
It is fascinating to ponder on how our will might be perceived by others when we depart from this life. When someone close to us dies, somehow it is easier to question our perception of them; did we really know them as they lived, and by extension, could we truly represent their legacy? There is this simplicity in the air of funerals and wakes, where the message conveyed by most deaths honored is similar, and their legacy is presented as universal. Every individual lives such a unique life, yet most funerals have largely the same atmosphere. There's always a sense of grief, of course, but also one of uncertainty; no matter how clearly someone carries their heart on their sleeve, it's still occasionally difficult to know what would properly represent a soul that is no longer with us.
What a strange and interesting world you've spun here! It is just begging to be developed further!
Is this our world? What are the seeds? Do resurrected people die eventually? Who survived to resurrect the first person? Do the plants that allow life grow into something more?
You don't have to answer any of those questions, they are just reverberating in my head after having read the story!
Is this our world? - I suppose you could call it an alternate version.
What are the seeds? - Because it wasn't relevant to the story I was telling, I never crafted an explanation for their origin. My general idea is that they were created by the apocalypse itself.
Do resurrected people die eventually? - The characters don't know for sure, because they haven't been around in this state long enough for anyone to have died of natural causes. But the lifespan of the flowers is separate from that of the humans that the skeletons were originally part of. Aneltsal was fairly old when she initially died, but the flower is a separate organism; she may have been old when she died, but this would not shorten the flower's lifespan.
Who survived to resurrect the first person? - Perhaps it's a mystery among the survivors? That would be interesting. However, I feel like the most logical explanation is that a seed found its way to the first host naturally. The seeds don't have to be planted by human hands, because they're capable of reproducing like any other plant. All the characters are doing is directing who and what gets resurrected.
Do the plants that allow life grow into something more? - I'm assuming that you're asking me whether or not the plants continue to grow over time, instead of just being contained within the rib cage. That's something that I never really thought about...imagine, instead of haircuts, you have to trim your ribcage plant! How interesting.
Thank you so much for your time and your questions.
Thank you for taking the time to humour my queries! I find that even if a writer didn't include details in a story or consider them at the time of writing they still have the ability to step back into their creation and answer such questions simply by applying the logic of the world they created!