East Amherst, New York, USA
Williamsville East High School
When skin splits, red petals fall out. Qiūhuā has learned this well.
I am made of flowers. She cannot identify the species, cannot remember the shape of their petals; she is not permitted to see them again, the big storks covered in chrysanthemums tell her, their blossoms just a shade off-white to bother her. Not that she has asked, nor have the words left their tongues, but she has thought the notion loud as she can every time they come around. Surely, they would’ve heard; they seem to know everything else she thinks. Her name, her dislikes, her favorite things.
The root loose in her skull, the one causing all these problems—they’ve been trying to trim it, haven’t they? Maybe they truly want to help her.
The sparrow comes by today, takes her out of bed and gets her to bathe, the water like an old rash blooming across her body. She doesn’t like showers much, not the seeded light and the hose like a roar, loud enough to cover the little deaths all down her spine, squashing the wildflowers underfoot.
And she’s taken down the hall by the sparrow in her little white dress, something akin to oriental funeral wear. There is a sea of people in the cafeteria; some are eating and some are waiting, but all of their heads are overgrown chrysanthemums. I don’t want to eat today. Take me to the ship instead. The sparrow seems not to understand as she guides her to the line.
But Qiūhuā is a good girl. She will bloom when she is watered even as her roots drown and rot; she will dance when her body is dug out and fertilized; she will pick up the tray and carry out the motions and accept the warm porridge and little pink pills she is given. She will take it to the table by the window that is covered in dark ivy and sit down across from Jade, human in face but blooming yellow roses up her protruding ribs.
“Qiūhuā!” Sweet girl gets the inflection right. Chinatown is a rainy place. Have you been home before? “You look good today. Oh, you showered! Good for you.” Qiūhuā does not have to speak or feel ashamed of her silence, not when she’s with her. It makes her happy, watching the little buttercups sprout upon the ivy, withering and falling before they can bloom. Jade has eyeshadow on, mauve lips and earring studs like stars. You look good today too. “They’re letting me go shopping later, with Brandy and that one really tall nurse, the one nobody knows the name of—today’s a good day for both of us, I think! Pretty cool, huh?”
She keeps talking, picking at her porridge with a shuddering grimace while Qiūhuā slips spoonfuls of it past her teeth, quickly, little by little. She likes Jade’s voice. It sounds like rain on the moon, and she’s the only one who can make her smile just a little bit, tightly close-lipped so as to not let the flowers out.
Qiūhuā watches the garden blooming on her ceiling.
What awful colors today. I want to eat. Playgrounds were not fun for me. The Black-eyed Susans are wilting and hot pink, the Sweet Williams a moldy orange. Unnatural. Reversed. Reuniting lovers, the old tale of a woman with eyes blackened by tears finding her missing darling. Qiūhuā has someone she wants to see again, too. Why won’t they let her go looking?
The Susans remind her of something, a tickle at the top of her spine that won’t go away. She reaches back and scratches at it with bitten nails, the sharp edges catching in her black hair. There’s a mat there like a sundew coiling around an insect, so she scratches harder.
And she indulges in that tickle. She can see it now, a little girl sliding down the hot plastic tube at the playground. She is smiling and happy, her mouth distorted. She sees a tender humanoid made of pink porcelain take her and put her in the car to drive home, only it is not home she sees next but black-seeded plaster walls and the shush of the showerhead and red blooms fanning wide on the plastic tiles, their metallic pheromones like a waxing sin. She hears a man’s voice and the little girl starting to cry when the memory abruptly ends, only Qiūhuā wants to indulge in it a bit more, stare at those flowers disintegrating in the water, as intangible to her grasping little hands as the slippery fingers of her pretty magnolia.
Maybe they hold the key to red. She removes her hand from her head and discovers that she is right. It seems she scratched too hard. Her nails have pieces of petals under them. Roses. They are roses.
She has not admired them for long when the storks come to take them away.
“How are we feeling today, Chohwa, dear?” The old bird with her half-moon eyes sits and regards her as if she is ill. After all, she has stolen all the blooms from her, growing those pollen-swollen lilies so nicely. A body made of dusty white. They—she—ought to die out soon.
Well I woke up to the flowers on my bed. They hurt. It’s Qiū, not Cho. What do you do in your free time? She is being conversational, see, a sociable girl. But her mouth does not move, and she blankly stares back.
“Not speaking, still?” The bird frowns. “So the meds aren’t working well? It’s okay, dear. I’ll prescribe you some stronger ones, the antipsychotics. You’ll be up and chatting again real soon.” She rises, those long, scaly legs plagued with little buds cracking open the skin. It’s upsetting, the lack of red, but Qiūhuā does not show it as she follows her back to her room.
They think she’s sick because she has no flowers; she’s far too drab, her hands pale and clothing plain. At least the sparrow brushed her hair today. But can they really blame her? It’s the bandages they put on her arms; they stifle her blooming seasons, day by day.
Qiūhuā is told she has a visitor one day.
“Come,” they say in gargled tones, “someone wants to see you.” Qiūhuā follows their metal beaks through the door, dressed in the white cloth that is never enough. It’s then that she sees the only man she’d wished to never see again, his eyes made of rotting, citron petals that have long gone sour and are infected with flies, and she runs from the room, taking for the bathroom where the seeds bloom forth from her throat, mauve and brown blossoms as rotten as his flesh slipping over her tongue.
Later, she hears of the storks that turned him away, saying she was too ill to talk now. Now? It should be always. Qiūhuā cannot speak, the voices in her bones talking loud enough for them all.
“So, you can write your name, like, in Chinese, right?” Jade asks her one day, sitting in the recreational room at the art table. She’s waiting for her watercolors to dry–green of a princess’s sleeve bleeds into a white rabbit, a memory. Qiūhuā nods over paper origami sheep; the folds are imperfect, some done and redone, their wrinkles and creases tearing scars through the creatures’ bodies. “Ooh, show me!”
Qiūhuā sets down the sheep, takes a pencil, and writes the two characters upon its body: 秋 for Qiū, the symbol for grain on the left and fire on the right; and 花 for Huā, the symbol for grass on the top, for chemistry on the bottom, and yet the latter’s left and right components consist of a man and a dagger. Autumn Flower. She drops the pencil. Her own name is a curse. I am the grain being burnt, I am the grass blanketing the silence. I am the body the dagger is inserted in. Fill me with hot chǎo fàn until you are happy, until I am bleeding and my organs are torn.
“It’s so pretty!” Jade doesn’t know of the darker meaning. She just thinks it looks nice, and that feels like a spring breeze to Qiūhuā’s brain. She really does look lovely, her eyes the shade of baby vines that have yet to see the atrocities and smoke, who climb higher, higher, up the trunks of the trees.
You are like the spring ivy. I wanna go to college, one day. You are in season.
You are my favorite person. But if I were a tiger, I might abuse you, too. Promise me I’ll always be sheep.
She has the same dream every other night.
The orange tiger is standing over her in a bathroom, and she is a baby lamb, soft and newly birthed.
“Keep your mouth shut, you little brat.” He snarls the same words, every time, before he devours her and she is hollowed out, her skin torn away and her stomach a well of bloody orchids, but she does not cry and she does not scream, because Qiūhuā is a good girl who listens well and obliges to the orange man who wears a tiger’s pelt and sits by the noblewoman in pink rose who taught her how to write, how to laugh, how to use chopsticks, who forces a smile when he is prowling the kitchen.
She never had a choice.
There is a visitor for her, again.
Qiūhuā sees her first, the woman without flowers sitting in the chair under sickly-sterile lights. She stands when she sees her, too; her hair is black, her eyes lined with shadows, but they are alight as they meet hers. “Qiūqiū! Oh, you’re so thin now, my poor girl—I’m so sorry for sending you here, but you know I had to…”
Who… are you? She stands there, still and glassy-eyed, and the woman’s expression falters, her hand on her arm. Warm. “Qiūqiū, bǎobèi?” The tongue is familiar, untouched by the overgrowth. “It’s me, your mother. Don’t you remember me?”
And the recognition slips into place, even the flowers pausing their bloom, and Qiūhuā remembers that memory at the playground again; the lady with the hands too smooth to protect her had been sweet and clear, pure as pink peonies.
Qiūhuā stares at her, now, an ache of receding roses in her hollow stomach. She fears opening her mouth lest they spill out, but there’s something about her that helps her swallow down the bile, no matter how bitter her tongue tastes between her teeth, and for a moment, she can forget about the hospital and the birds and the fact that she is psychotic and ill.
And the lamb speaks her first words.
This piece was previously published in the Just Buffalo Writing Center 2022 Youth Fellowship Project.
Oscillating between the peacefulness of autumn and the withering of nature, “Autumn Flowers” traverses through the waves of Qiūhuā’s disconnect from reality in a series of vignettes. Wading through memories, daughterhood, and the fragmented nature of psychosis with Qiūhuā, we regain sight of our vulnerable but beautiful humanity.
Angelina Tang secretly desires to exist as a mossy oak tree in the woods. She wishes to slip away from the cacophony of modern life and enjoys using writing as an outlet for this. She is a 2022 Just Buffalo Writing Center Youth Fellow and an avid enthusiast of themes of her culture and love languages. In addition, Angelina edits her school newspaper and literary digest, and she will be graduating in May of 2024. She likes to bake sweets for her favorite people.
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