Petals Seared Into Skin
Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, Brazil
Instituto Federal de Minas Gerais
Adapted from family history
My grandma always wanted to be a gardener.
To feel the moist grass dissipating into her fingers, to lick the water dripping from her wrists, to heal all future wounds through seeds.
Like a doctor in search of the heart, my grandma placed her ears into the earth, a familiar gesture as if the soil was building a nest underground and she was the only one listening to the birds chirping.
When I was a baby, yellow and shrunken as a passionfruit, fingertips still ghosting the feel of the womb, my grandma held me up to the sun so I could taste the dawning of the universe. My arms high and gum shiny while roots grew in my lungs.
She felt like a parched flower in the desert, always thirsty and struggling. She loved the sticky sweat in the base of her neck, how if she closed her eyes, she could count her heartbeats. Swimming in her own coagulated blood, she immersed herself in scalding tongues, head bending while foreign fingers unbraided her hair.
Sitting on top of hills, she watched the night hold the sun like honey in its throat, fleeting shadows under trees. The heat was pouring from her body, a thick sweat that washed down her face, collecting in the seams of her underwear.
And one day, he appeared. He carried frigid winds and in his eyes shone memories and beaded constellations. She stared at his calloused hands. They were hands thickened by work, by an not easy life. Her heart was pounding, insides feeling as scalding as the midday breeze.
Covering his arms with dandelions, she wondered how he was feeling cold.
And they talked, her body drummed fragile in his ears. Under them, the world was drowsy and slow, the countryside dark and half-formed compared to far-away electric beams. He tells her how weeding mud is parting the thighs of earth and she tells him how planting seeds is preserving a holy creation.
For the first time, she understood why. They felt impossibly close. She moved nearer, his lips grazing her neck.
Time passed, but seasons don’t change here. When sweat pooled in the notches of her spine, he dragged cold hands through her flesh to dissolve shrinking atoms.
* * *
For once, she taught herself patience, restraint, practice.
At nights, she looked for some lost star that presented itself as an old acquaintance, to tell her that she was not alone in that room. She hasn’t seen a living breathing flower for years now.
Afraid of what she might discover if she listened and saw, she closed her ears with her hands, smothering her head into pillows until she is breathless and blind.
During all these years, only when she was alone, and even then rarely, did she dare to say anything. It was a kind of torture that she consciously imposed on herself. Punishment for leaving her home, for leaving him.
She missed being alone in the cornfields, bone marrow peeling itself from tar and dirt. Baptizing her face with floral scents and turning her palms to the sky when it rained.
In the evening, she lies on the bathroom floor and wraps her arms around her chest. She holds her breath, imagining she is in an ancient river, her body floating into the soft current, hands stretched into wings, goosebumps in her arms.
Under the showerhead, she is waiting to hear him call her name.
By a very young age, she realized that all rural women were somewhat battered by the sun and the drought. By the hardships they went through, by the children they had too soon, one after the other, who shriveled their breasts and widened their hips.
She lived with a fear of her own mother’s destiny mirroring itself in her.
So she jumped into the cart of the first merchant who appeared in the village. She tightened her fingers until the wood pierced her skin and the green grass turned into gray roads.
She observed the merchant. His crooked grin, his hunger, his promise of sculpting any landscape she wanted to touch.
She pretended that she was in love.
In the city, she learned how to survive. She had to be pure, clean, empty of everything that resembled that she didn't belong, everything but strength and work.
She feared walking, causing displeasure, existing under foreign eyes. Growing up, her feet were roots and held her to the ground. Her arms were fins and moved her in the water. When it rained, she could feel the soil sink deep. But here, the rain ricochets into the hard roads. With no earth and water to take hold of, she wanders through a knotted city.
She became accustomed to her husband’s raged red eyes, his drunken voice, his silly smile.
He was smiling now, shoving her into the curtain. He was smiling, as he plowed wetness against her legs, sticky juices in her joints.
In the end, he cried, asking for forgiveness, saying that alcohol was a disgrace in his life.
Even when he cried, the corners of his mouth smiled.
* * *
My grandma taught me inheritance is a seed reborn into another flower.
She could not be a gardener, so she cultivated children. She pressed pollen and sunflowers into the roofs of their mouths and let them dissolve. Tucked dewy petals behind their ears, threaded stems through their soft head. The gesture small but certain.
Four daughters. They grew up between unpainted walls and dusted windows, and she felt like someone sewed their shoulders together, rosy cheeks pressed against each other.
Looking at them, she realized she couldn’t escape her fate, no matter where she was. She wished she could turn to the wild, to that forgotten place she once called home.
While washing plastic cups, soap rivering the sink, she lets a freeway run between her eyes. She thinks about the boy she abandoned, their bodies rolling into the mud, his lips swallowing ice and gently melting in her tongue. Numb.
* * *
“Mom, why do you never drive?” Her older daughter asked.
Turning her head to the side of the old car, she answered.
“I never had the courage to do it.”
Her daughter pressed the buttons of the radio, amplifying the volume. A deep voice filled the car, announcing the daily news.
José Frederico was murdered at age 47. He was stabbed 12 times…
A sudden pain shatters bones, sorrow gnaws arteries, corroding ribs.
She can’t stop screaming, her throat aching. The grief closes around her like a womb. She pretends she is him, belly slit, rotting, pulse gone long before death. Her daughter watched, hands trembling.
She thought about the earth they dedicated their lives to. The soil that received their sweat, their love, their tumbling breaths.
The earth from which almost everything they ate sprang. Where flowers blossomed, where they buried the navels of the unborn. Where they buried the remains of bodies. Where everyone would one day descend.
Where he is now sinking. Alone, alone, alone. There was no escape.
She had the sudden desire to plant a tulip at the threshold of his ears, dig a well for the grief of goodbyes. To pluck her own eyes.
She considered all this, her daughter on the opposite side of the vehicle, their elbows twisted in the middle, absorbed in thoughts that precipitated in their innermost being.
She imagined opening the car door and flying.
* * *
Grandma took me to her village.
She still does not know how to drive. My mom led us to the countryside as grandma narrated stories of her childhood and the balmy sun stretched its legs on her face.
In the backseat, I asked:
“Grandma, if you could have any job in the world, what would it be?”
Her smile carried memories, spilling over in all the same places and times. She answered, voice like nectar rising.
“A gardener, of course. To be surrounded by flowers.”
We walked steep hills, and grandma stopped in the bend of a river for a mere whisper.
My elder dips her finger in the swirling river, pinches it so it runs down her forearm, and spills onto crumpled blades of grass. Let the lake regain her scattered limbs.
Under grand trees that withered every summer, I think about how grandma gave me everything she didn’t have: freedom and happiness, so carefree it revolves life between every vein and muscle.
How I must pull myself together, swathed in her devotion, trying to preserve her creation. How she sacrificed the flowers sprouted from the blackness of her mouth for another future, for the chance to say “I survived”.
I want to beg for her forgiveness. Sorry that I reel in knives, step in all my family’s quiet wounds. Sorry you had to memorize another man's name and carry him like a crucifix.
We spent hours together, feet swollen, each of our fingers interlaced, each of us lonely.
The fruits are all gone, long lost, but the trees remain. And its roots are too deep to try to cut out.
“Petals Seared Into Skin” is a poignant story of love, migration, and sacrifice, spreading its tendrils across space and time. Blooming with vibrant language and grounded by floral motifs, the piece thrums with intergenerational legacies that urge readers back to their roots.
Luiza Louback is a Brazilian writer. Her work appears in Bridge Ink, Kalopsia Journal, and Parallax Review, and has been recognized by The School of New York Times, Barnard University, and more.
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