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“Flowers Bloom in Bardo” by Jack Moody

There was another new one today.

The man rose from bed, feeling the bandages covering his body. The white carnation had bloomed out of his forearm. It squeezed between the layers of wrappings, and the petals stretched towards the rays of gray light peaking through the wooden planks nailed across the window. No matter how many layers of bandages he used, the flowers always poked through. He held the carnation gently between his fingers, stroking the petals, before plucking the stem from his skin. It floated down and joined the others blanketing the floor like a wilting meadow. Some were blue and some were purple, and some were white. But after falling to the floor they all were black.

In the bathroom, the man picked out another roll of gauze and wrapped it around the open patch of flesh until it was hidden again. A small dot of blood soaked through from where the flower had pierced the skin. It didn’t hurt because it must have bloomed while he was resting his eyes. But it never hurt much anyway. He didn’t mind.

The house talked sometimes as he walked between rooms. It sighed and moaned, and the floors creaked. But the house wasn’t looking for conversation. The man never responded and this didn’t seem to bother the house. It had its own life. It just liked to hum to itself.

Over time nails started protruding from the floorboards, and the man used to pay them mind to avoid the pain, but after a while he’d plucked enough flowers from his body that they cushioned the sharp ends. It hurt less plucking the flowers than it did when he’d stepped on the nails. So he didn’t mind. He didn’t wrap the gauze around his eyes though so he could see. Just in case.

Down the stairs was the living room. He must have forgotten to buy furniture. His memory wasn’t so good anymore. But the piano was still there. It was dusty but that didn’t make it sound any worse. The G chord was still a G chord. There were old photographs that littered the floor, and if it weren’t for the piano he would have avoided going into the living room. The photographs lay atop the flowers, but the people didn’t have faces he recognized. The film must have been faulty. There were blotches like sunspots and the edges were gnarled like someone had tried to burn them. He hadn’t though. Tried to burn them. Sometimes he would let a few flowers bloom before plucking them all at once, so he could cover the photographs with lilies and marigolds. There must have been a crack somewhere though that was letting in wind, because the photographs always came to the surface of the dead garden. The photographs made him uncomfortable. He didn’t know why. He didn’t know who was in them. He didn’t know anyone.

Sometimes a rose would bloom. Not often. But sometimes. They were always different colors. The thorns made it more painful when they pierced the skin, but he didn’t mind because they were his favorite flower. Once, a rose had bloomed from the back of his throat, and there was nothing he could do but wait for it to mature so he could reach the stem without pricking his fingers. If it hadn’t been gagging him and cutting his insides, he may have left the rose where it was. It was a purple rose, and there were drops of blood dripping from its petals like red dewdrops. That was his favorite flower he’d grown. That flower, he put in a vase with water and placed it on top of his bedside table. It felt like a labor of love, picking that flower. The others felt like parasites. Like he was removing a tick from his skin. Sometimes. But the purple rose felt like giving birth. He was proud of that rose.

He spits up blood for a few days after plucking that rose. There was no gauze that could wrap the wound. But he didn’t mind. When the rose wilted and died, he walked outside and placed it on the earth.

The man sat down at the piano, wiping away the lining of dust on the keys, and played a few notes. It was better that the room didn’t have furniture. The sounds shimmered and stretched out across the walls. He never learned to play the piano but he knew what music sounded like. You press enough keys enough times and you begin to hear which notes go along with other notes. It was cold inside the house, and playing the piano made him feel warm. He liked to imagine his fingers dancing across the ivory to the music they created.

Another flower started to bloom from his neck. It always felt at first like a worm burrowing through to the surface of the skin. The petals exhaled and stroked his ear. He didn’t recognize this type of flower. It was exciting when a new flower bloomed that he hadn’t seen before. There used to be a mirror in the bathroom where he could admire the flowers but it wasn’t there anymore. He thought there used to be a mirror. Maybe there never was. It didn’t matter.

He decided to leave the flower alone for now. He had an audience. It liked the music. As he continued to play, the man wondered if the flower saw what covered the floorboards and recognized what it was looking at. He hoped not. It was best not to think about. Just keep tapping the keys. It’s getting colder. Stay warm.

Sometimes the man liked to go outside, but not often. It was a lot of work removing the wooden boards from the door, and it wasn’t always nice out. More often than not it was not nice out. It didn’t use to be like that. But it was still outside. It’s good to leave the house sometimes.

If the flower hadn’t bloomed he would have stayed inside today. He hadn’t decided that but after thinking about it he realized that’s what he would have done. The flower had never seen the outside before. It might be good for it to see.

The house always protested when he pried the wood from the doorway as if he were tearing a ligament from the bone. But it liked when the gray sunlight shined through. Its walls glowed and quieted when the light reached inside. This was the house’s answer to the flowers that bloomed from the man’s skin. It hurt when it was happening, but the result was worth it for a time. And like the flowers, it couldn’t stay for long. The man liked to think of it that way. The house didn’t tell him.

Each new day the man stepped outside it was different. He was sure there used to be grass, and the grass was alive and green. Sometimes it would rain and the rain was warm when it soaked through his bandages. He always had to change all his bandages after going outside when it rained but he never minded. Now there was just dirt. It looked like it was going to rain, but it never rained anymore so he didn’t think about it. There used to be a bright yellow sun. He figured it was still there somewhere, but gray clouds covered the sky like they always did now. The flower on his neck breathed and tasted the air. It wasn’t much. Not like it used to be. But he hoped the flower still liked what it saw.

On the edge of the property were dense woods. He used to take walks in the woods when it was nicer outside, but after a few walks he realized there was no life in the woods but the trees themselves. He didn’t like going into the woods much after he realized that. The trees were dying. Not like how trees turn orange and red before shedding their leaves in the fall. They were wilting like the picked flowers lining the floors of the house. Death wasn’t always pretty. It was never pretty anymore.

Just inside the woods was a small clearing. At the center of the clearing was a gravestone. It had been there as long as he could remember. It could have been there for days or weeks or forever. But that part didn’t matter. What mattered was that it was there.

The man decided to introduce the flower to the gravestone. It was the only thing worth showing the flower. He sat down upon the lumps of earth and looked at the gravestone. There were no words written on it. . There had never been. But every so often he’d return to the gravestone to see if any words had appeared. It made no sense that this would happen. There was nobody else. It was hope, though, he decided. There was hope in places where the unknown existed. That was a nice sentiment, he thought.

He liked to think there was someone buried beneath the earth he sat upon. He liked to think that there used to be someone else. Even if they were dead, it was less lonely that way. He wondered what the house looked like when the dead person was alive. Or if there was more grass. More sunshine. Rain. He liked to imagine that the dead person lived in the same house, and when they were alive so too was the world. He liked to imagine there were animals that ran throughout the woods. Sometimes he thought it would make him sad to dwell on that possibility. But it didn’t. It made him happy. It made him happy to think that the world used to be a nicer place. That it wasn’t always like this. That meant one day it could come back. The nice place that it used to be.

The flower on his neck stretched out its stem towards the forest canopy. He stroked its petals and plucked it from his skin. Between his fingers its petals were like velvet or fur. They were shaped like bells and they were bright red. The man didn’t notice the blood that had been drawn. The blood looked like it had always been a part of the flower. He placed the flower at the foot of the gravestone, next to the wilted remains of the rose. It wasn’t his favorite flower, but it was new. Its newness felt exciting. Not all change was atrophy. That was a nice thing to know. He decided that was reason enough to leave it outside the house. And besides, everything needs to know it’s not alone. Nothing wants to die in isolation.

The man stood to walk back inside the house and bandage his wound. It had not been a bad day.

* * *

The man was in a great deal of pain when he awoke the next morning.

The longer time went on, the longer he would allow himself to sleep. It didn’t matter how long he slept. Unconsciousness was a blink. It was a brief gap in existence. It had never been anything else. Sometimes he would awake and force himself back to sleep, knowing by the sighs of the house and the gray light shining through the wooden boards that the world had continued to atrophy. Though it had never happened, and somewhere inside he knew it wouldn’t, the man still held on to the hope that one day he would awake and the world would have returned to a state long before his memory. Without that hope there was nothing worth waking up to.

There were at least a dozen of them. Like a bouquet grown from his flesh. A pink orchid bloomed from his abdomen, purple nightshade protruding from his calves and shoulders, black roses erupting from his chest and biceps, their thorns latched to his skin like scared children grasping their parent in a crowd. Red poppies hung from his forehead, obscuring his sight with a film of deep scarlet. He ripped out the poppies, throwing them to the floor as the blood streamed down his face. Black, crusted spots dotted the bandages beneath each new flower like potted soil. One by one he tore the flowers from his skin. The blood came, more and more blood like death howls, and he pulled out their petals and ground them between his fingers. Roses’ thorns dislodged, taking with them pieces of bandage, unfurling the wrappings. Pockets of pale, weeping flesh revealed themselves, and the man felt naked and cold. Once each flower had been removed, he lay drowning in a bed of crumpled petals like Millais’ Ophelia.

The man walked to the bathroom and closed the door. He began removing the bandages starting with the feet, and undressed himself. When his face was bare he reached for a new roll of gauze, and began again. He was glad there was no mirror.

Walls and floorboards moaned as the man walked down the stairs to the living room. The house seemed upset but it wouldn’t talk to him. It hummed to itself about its grievances. The blanket of flower petals had begun turning to black paste beneath the weight of his constant footsteps. He sat down at the piano to play and to let his fingers dance to its sounds. The notes felt hollow and out of tune. He hated what he heard. He hated what he’d done. But he continued to tap the keys because the cold was setting in. The cold was so much worse than it was before. And it was all he knew, and it was all he understood. The G chord was still a G chord. The house and the flowers and the cold wouldn’t take that away. But as he played the notes a terrible pain erupted from his fingertips.

Thorns pierced through the bandages, sticking out of the sides of his fingers like pieces of broken bone, and something was forcing its way up to the tips as if his veins had come alive and were determined to exit the body through his nails. It was like he had placed his hands into an open fire, and he could do nothing but watch as black roses sprouted and bloomed from the ends of each finger. The man, horrified, fell off the piano bench and collapsed atop the floor of wilted flowers. The roses continued to grow until they were as long as the fingers from which they were born. Ten black roses stood sighing and aching for the gray light outside.

The man stared at the growths and at the streams of blood that ran down the thorns as if a razor blade had been taken to each appendage. Sometimes things hurt and they are beautiful. Sometimes things can be both. Through the cracks in the boarded windows he saw the gray light expanding into a blinding white that reached the farthest walls of the living room. He pushed his face against the cold wood and looked out into the world. Something was watching. He saw only the white light, but he felt it watching. Magnetized, focused eyes staring through the leaking walls. The man pried the nails from the blocked door, and he felt such anger. There was so much anger, boiling his insides, anger in anticipation for the house to protest and moan. But no sound came. The white light burst through the door the moment it came loose, and the house was bathed. The house was cleansed. It became quiet.

He opened the door, already recoiling from the cold he was to let in, but it wasn’t cold. It wasn’t cold at all. The white light shone from just beyond the forest’s edge. Growing pains struck different parts of his body like the piano’s notes as he approached, and he looked down upon himself to see flowers sprouting. New flowers and familiar flowers: hydrangeas and dianthuses and morning glories and tulips and roses. They inhaled and exhaled in the fresh warmth, and the man’s body was the soil for a vivid, phantasmagoric garden. They grew and grew, and they peeled off the layers of bandages adorning his being. And shedding his mummified skin, basking in the fertile heat, the man crossed the tree line into the clearing.

There, standing at the foot of the empty gravestone, was a deer. Behind the glowing light it produced, the deer was white and the deer was small. Its antlers had maybe once been antlers, but were now two long stalks of foxglove. It wasn’t afraid of the man. It stood watching. But the man was afraid. The man was so afraid. There was a reason, but he didn’t know how to articulate it. The deer wasn’t looking for an answer, anyway. It was just a deer.

A white posy clawed its way to the surface of the man’s cheek, and he winced. It was becoming harder to breathe. The deer watched, and the man watched a flower bloom from the deer’s snout. And together the two living things stood with the empty gravestone between them, cultivating gardens.

A creeping melancholia settled across the man’s weeping flesh, and he felt what he had wanted to feel for a long time. He didn’t know this is what he had wanted to feel until this moment. But without another heartbeat the concept would never have been visible. Without a mirror the gray light was black and void.

The man stepped across the lumps of earth, over the wilted twin flowers, and reached out his hand to the deer. He watched the droplets of scarlet blood staining its white fur from the flowers that had bloomed. And he wanted nothing more than to know the deer wasn’t in pain. If it was, if the flowers cut and burned and stung the animal like they did him, then he wanted the deer to know that. He wanted the deer to know that they hurt him too.

The man stroked the deer’s fur, weaving his fingers around the flowers, only touching the fur that bled and burned, and the deer stared. More and more flowers bloomed, piercing every inch of the man’s flesh. But the man was tired. He was tired of plucking the flowers. So the man sat down upon the earth at the foot of the empty gravestone. His breaths grew shallow and congested as something beautiful grew inside him. He didn’t know why he thought it would be beautiful. He just knew. There was no other way to see it.

The deer came around the gravestone and lay down beside the man, and together their gardens continued to grow. As the deer rested its head on the man’s lap, and its body became the planted flowers blanketing the earth, the man felt the weight of fear release through his open mouth. A bouquet erupted from between his teeth. His naked skin became the roots that intertwined beneath the gravestone, and the man dissolved into the flowers that bloomed and bloomed and bloomed. Until the two lives became the only life that remained.

It only hurts for a second.

Jack Moody is the author of the novel Crooked Smile, the short story collection Dancing to Broken Records, and the novella The Monotony of Everlasting. He is a contributor to the literary newspaper The Bel Esprit Project and Return magazine. His stories have appeared in publications such as The Saturday Evening Post, Expat Press, Misery Tourism, Maudlin House, Scatter of Ashes, Punk Noir Magazine, Bear Creek Gazette, A Thin Slice of Anxiety, and many others.


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