The flowers were tiny and delicate and they reminded the little girl of her mother. Their little faces pushed up through the green leaves and clover next to taller, showier spring blooms, looking for all the world like children playing at the feet of adults. The daffodils swayed in the morning breeze, and the little girl thought they seemed amused as they nodded down at the determined upstarts clustered around their stems.
It was the kind of spring day the little girl longed for all winter: clouds bobbed like cotton-candy pillows across a vast ocean of sky, and brash zephyrs bore the familiar scent of things sprouting and blooming. Even though she loved breaking puddle ice with her purple boots and making angels in the snow and drinking hot chocolate with marshmallows, she was happiest when the snow melted and things began to grow, bathing the newborn world in a mist of green.
The little girl picked the tiny flowers, just a few. Surely no one would mind. They were so small, surely they wouldn’t even be missed.
An overnight rain had rinsed the lawns and hedgerows and made all the flowers sparkle in the sun as if they were wearing diamonds, and the little girl’s hand was wet as she crossed the driveway, climbed the steps, and opened the screen door, her shoes beating a small tattoo across the kitchen and down the hall. “Mommy!”
Mommy turned from where she stood in the bathroom examining the bruise that circled her left eye like a brushful of misplaced shadow. When she saw the little girl, Mommy’s face lit with the first smile of the morning, but the smile was small and weary and a little stiff.
“These are for you, Mommy.” The stems stuck to the little girl’s palm as she opened her fingers.
“Ooh, how pretty!” Carefully — as if they were woven cobwebs or spun glass — the woman took the flowers from her hand.
“They’re like you, Mommy, all fresh and smiling.”
Mommy thawed, warmed. “Let’s put them in water, shall we?”
The little girl followed Mommy to the kitchen. Mommy opened a cupboard and looked at her daughter.
“What do you think? The small blue vase?”
The little girl nodded, her eyes alight, and her mother ran some water in the vase and set the flowers in it. The flowers were all purples and yellows and mauves, and they looked pretty in the vase, their yellow throats recalling the sun.
“What kind of flowers are they, Mommy?”
Her mother smiled, her bruised eye crinkling just like the other eye. If the little girl squinted, she could almost not see the bruise. She wondered if it hurt when Mommy smiled, but Mommy was talking. “They’re called pansies, sweetie. Aren’t they pretty?”
Pansy is what Daddy called Thomas, even though Thomas was big enough to be in school all day. Maybe Daddy thought Thomas was pretty, too, but his voice wasn’t pretty when he said the word, and the little girl frowned.
Mommy set the vase on the windowsill over the sink so the pansies could have some light. The little girl thought they looked happy to be in the vase, their colors glowing like brilliant finger paints in the sun.
“Sweetie.” Mother’s face went still, but not unkind. “Where did you find the flowers?”
The little girl looked down at her shoes, but she didn’t know why. They were the black velvet shoes with red cardinals on the sides, and she liked them, even though the left one rubbed her big toe until it was sore and pink.
“Sweetie.” Mommy’s hand came down, tucked under her chin, tipped her head up. The hand smelled like arnica cream, like dish soap, like the wild green world outside the kitchen door. “It’s okay. You can tell me. Where did you get them?”
The little girl motioned toward the house across the driveway. “Mrs. Neely.”
Mrs. Neely was the little girl’s friend. She had no children, but her house was full of doilies and pretty rocks and pressed flowers displayed in small wooden frames. Mrs. Neely let her drink warm milk out of a china cup and called it tea, and let her hold the little rag doll the old woman had played with as a child. The doll’s name was Nettie. Nettie was made of faded scraps of fabric and yarn and she was missing one eye. Mrs. Neely said it was because the doll had been so well loved. The little girl looked at Mommy and wondered if that was why her eye was black, and if someday she would be so well loved she would have just one eye, too.
Mommy’s face wrinkled. “Did you ask her permission to pick the flowers?”
The little girl suddenly understood why Mommy’s face was wrinkled. An uncomfortable squiggle ran up her back, making her shiver, and she looked at Mommy’s shoes this time, adult and brown and sensible. “No, Mommy.”
“Do you think you should go apologize to Mrs. Neely for picking her flowers?”
The little girl nodded because she knew that’s what Mommy wanted, even though she didn’t understand how someone could own flowers. Didn’t they grow everywhere — in ditches, in schoolyards, by the side of the road? Bravely, she looked at her mother. “Will you go with me?”
Mommy’s face was frowny and she didn’t look at the little girl, and the little girl bit her lip. She was in trouble. She knew it. She was trouble — Daddy said so all the time. Tears clouded her eyes.
But when Mommy saw the tears, she smiled and squared her shoulders like she did when Daddy got angry. “Of course, I will. I haven’t said hello to her in too long. Let’s go see if Mrs. Neely is done with breakfast, shall we?”
The little girl nodded, and Mommy took the little girl’s cold hand in her warm one and they went out the kitchen door. Mommy held her securely as the little girl jumped down the steps, one at a time, landing hard because it splashed the tiny puddles resting there and that made her happy, even though her shoe pinched her toe again.
The little girl started to go to the side door just across the driveway because that was the door she always went through to visit Mrs. Neely, but Mommy tugged her down the driveway and up the cracked sidewalk to the front door and its big oval window with the blue lace curtain behind. The little girl’s stomach felt all feathery; this was an official visit.
They stood in front of the door for a long minute, long enough that the little girl looked up at Mommy in puzzlement. Then Mommy took a deep breath and pressed the doorbell. The little girl could hear the electronic ding-dong from inside the house, right through the door. She wondered if the doorbell in her house was that loud, or if Mrs. Neely had trouble hearing it, like Grandpa had trouble hearing her when she cried and Grandma would get mad and scold him, even though he didn’t hear her, either.
It seemed to the little girl that they waited for an uncomfortable eternity while a robin sang her morning songs in the maple tree next to the porch, and the little girl had just decided Mrs. Neely wasn’t at home when she saw movement behind the curtain and the door swung open, and she could breathe again.
“Well, good morning!” Mrs. Neely smiled at the little girl, and the little girl’s stomach relaxed. Mrs. Neely would understand. She always understood.
Mrs. Neely looked at Mommy, and her smile faltered for a moment. The little girl looked at Mommy, then Mrs. Neely, then Mommy again. She knew something was being said that wasn’t being said, like when Daddy looked at Mommy sometimes and he had only one long eyebrow across his whole forehead. She wondered if Mommy and Mrs. Neely didn’t want to say whatever it was in front of her, like when she was bad. Her lower lip crept out.
“Mrs. Green, it’s been too long!” Whatever was missing from Mrs. Neely’s smile wasn’t missing from her voice. “I should have stopped by to visit weeks ago. I hope you and the children had — ” She broke off. For a moment, all the little girl could hear was the robin singing and the morning breeze playing tag with itself among the tree leaves.
“The fault is mine,” Mommy said, and the little girl remembered that her mommy had never been inside Mrs. Neely’s house, had never seen the pretty rocks, or the lace doilies. “We came to see you because my daughter needs to tell you something.” Mommy put her hand on the little girl’s shoulder.
The little girl’s eyes dropped to the woman’s house slippers. They were fuzzy and blue with bunny faces on the toes and the little girl loved them, and sometimes Mrs. Neely let the little girl walk around her kitchen in them, just for fun. But right now, the bunny faces didn’t make her feel better. What if Mrs. Neely got mad, and the little girl never again drank tea in her sun-lit kitchen, or made her slippers hop across the linoleum like bunnies? She would never be able to play in the driveway, never look at Mrs. Neely’s beautiful flowers, never even go out the kitchen door without —
“It’s okay, sweetie,” Mommy whispered.
“Mrs. Neely.” The little girl’s throat clogged with tears and she had to push, hard, to get the rest of the words out. “I . . . I picked your flowers. I’m sorry. I picked them for Mommy. I — ” And then even though her mouth was moving and she was still pushing, no more words came out.
Mrs. Neely crouched in front of the little girl, her patterned house dress straining over one knee. “It’s always best to ask before you pick someone’s flowers,” she said, and her voice was as gentle as Mommy’s. “But this time — ” She glanced up at Mommy, and her smile had the same kind of understanding Mommy’s smile had sometimes. “It’s okay. I forgive you.”
A warmth flooded through the little girl, and she rubbed her eyes and tried to smile. Her fist came away wet, like when she’d gathered the flowers. She wondered if flowers cried, too, if they had cried when she picked them, and suddenly she felt bad and she wiped her wet hand on the back of her dress.
“Your mommy is a very special person, and she deserves pretty flowers.” Gripping the door handle, Mrs. Neely got to her feet. She looked at Mommy, and the little girl saw that whatever was being said that wasn’t being said was very nice, indeed. “I just put on a kettle for tea, and there are fresh biscuits in the cupboard, and my raspberry jam. Why don’t you both come inside, and we’ll have a tea party?”
The little girl took a hopeful breath and looked at Mommy, but even though Mommy’s eyes were on Mrs. Neely, her face was all wrinkled again.
“I — ” Mommy broke off, her eyes falling on the little girl, who was thinking of the one-eyed doll and bruised pansies crying in the sun.
Then Mommy blinked hard, squared her shoulders with a jerk, and smiled. “I think we would like that, Mrs. Neely. I think we would like that very much.”
Featured image: Alya_myart / Shutterstock
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