Spring 2008, Volume 4

Fiction by Jeffrey Ihlenfeldt


I have been a wife forever—or for surely as long as the garden flowers have bloomed.  My apparent likeness—visually and texturally—to the garden has been evident to my husband for years, and he has never been shy about comparing me to the blossoms that spring from his floral beds each season, and fill the sides of the house by the walkway.  So it is never a simple thing for me, without raising visions of dahlias or daisies, to ask him to comment on my silk jacket or my embroidered skirt or this shade of lipstick or the last.

“Your sweater reminds me so much of the chrysopsis mariana,” he will say.  Or, if he is in a more playful mood, he may just refer to me as “mariana,” even though my name is Lillian and always has been.  Or he may call me maritima.  “Oh, my dear, deep pink maritima,” he will say.  “How the beauty of your blossoms reveal themselves.”

“I’m not a flower,” I will say to him.  “I’m not a fili ulmaria or a rubra or a virginiana.”

“But you are all these flowers, at one time or another” he will tell me.

“But you don’t call me by a flower’s name,” I tell him.  “You call me by a genus or a species or a classification out of your book of Latin terms.  What do you gain from gardening in Latin?” I will ask.

“You are a classic, my dear,” he tells me.  “A perennial.  The mulva alcea.  The viola cornuta.  The name is eternal and unchanging, just as the flower is eternal and unchanging.”

“So my eyes are destined to forever be the viola cornuta?” I ask.  “I have no idea what that means.  I have no idea what that looks like.  I could have mud and crimson from one cheek to the other.  That could be your viola cornuta for all I know.”

“I’m not quite sure how to visualize that in my garden, my love,” he says, but I am not humored.

When I complain too much, his tone changes, and he begins referring to me as his rose.  “Yes, my rose,” he will say, or, “never, my fragrant rose.”  Simple.  Vulgar. 

“Even if I did like roses, which I don’t,” I tell him, “I hate the name even more than the flower—and certainly more than the other flowers you’ve named me before.  Please,” I implore him.  “What is the Latin name for rose.  Call me that name.  Call me rosasia or rosamina or rosaria—anything but rose.”

“But sweetheart,” he will say to me.  “It’s not as though I stoop to calling you zinnia.”

“I’d prefer it,” I say to him.  “At least it’s something I can see—the blue, the violet, the yellow.  I know their shape.  I know their fragrance.  Diphyllum succorum conjures nothing for me—not a color, not a perfume, not a silhouette at dusk.”

“Call you zinnia?” he would say.  “I’d rather die.  I’d rather you buried me where I stand—or in the garden.”

My sister tells me I am a fool to complain.  She wishes her husband would look upon her as a beautiful flower.  “For me, even a rose would do,” she says.  “At least your husband notices you—your dress, your lips, your eyes.  I might just as well be a blade of grass or a clove of garlic,” she says. 

  But I am not so sure I am a garden as much as a hobby.  He does not truly study me as he studies the hosta undulata.  He does not gaze longingly at my calyx, my veins, my roots.  Rather, I am a passing observation—the must on the leaf—the insect on the petal. 

When I explain this to my sister, she tells me that I am more obsessed with the garden than my husband is, but she does not see me crouching by the rail of the walkway, as he does every day, or kneeling on his planting board.  She does not notice the way he cradles the stems of his latest acquisitions—his dianthus or his valeriana, laying them gently onto the bed as he prepares the openings in the earth, then covers their bases with finely sifted soil. 

His response to my concerns is simple.

“They are perennials,” he will tell me.  “And they bloom beautifully, year after year, and they satisfy me.  I care for them because I can never replace them, my sweet rubra plena.”  He brushes back my hair when he speaks these words, and caresses my neck with earth callused hands.  He kisses my forehead with his wind-dried lips, and I suddenly cannot help but be soothed by the words “autumn joy” as he breathes them warmly into my ear.  I reflect on the words of my sister and on my obsession with Latin gardens, and I am amused by my preoccupation with my husband’s study of flowers and his study of me. 

This morning, as my husband weeded, thinned, and pruned the front garden, I strolled past the flower arrangement on the east side of the house.  At the border, tucked between two plantings that I immediately recognized as yellow iris (but whose Latin name I do not know) I took notice of a new planting, at least more recent than the others in this plot.  It was a small flower, with slender stems that swept the earth.  Intrigued by its vibrant red, I went to my husband’s shelf of gardening books and began searching through the photographs.  I could find nothing.  Three of the books, I brought down to the garden, examining the flower and comparing it to the photos.  Still, I could find nothing that resembled this flower.  Finally, in a small dusty book hidden at the back of his shelf, I discovered the flower, and I was amazed.

At mid-afternoon, when my husband came in through the mudroom, swiping away the telltale signs of dark dust from his knees and his shoes, I stood waiting for him beside the kitchen sink.  He stopped at the entryway, in mid swipe, and stared up at me.  His eyes widened like the moonflowers at dusk; his face turned the hue of Gibson’s Scarlet.  Draped across my hand was the flower, its still moist roots falling between my fingers, its limp blossoms drooping over my thumb.

“Impatiens,” I whispered, my voice quivering.  “An annual.  It blooms only one season and dies,” I said.

It may have been the depth of my knowledge about impatiens that stunned my husband, but I thought otherwise.  He stared at the flower, then at my face, the way he does when he is in search of some comparison—a certain shade of pink, a sweetness of perfume.  His lips trembled.

“You must understand.  I needed the color,” he said quickly, then adding as an afterthought, “and it is only the one.”

“But you’ll replace it with another next season?” I asked.  “A marigold or a petunia?  Isn’t that the nature of annuals?”

“Only as an accent,” he said.  “My garden belongs to the perennials.”

“That’s noble of you,” I said.  I moved the hand holding the dying flower closer to him.  “Which one sacrifices more for your nobility?” I asked.  “The flower that dies or the flower that remains unchanged?” 

He stepped toward me and lifted the flower from my hand.  Traces of soil and peat lined the ridges of my palm.

“It’s a temporary life for the impatiens wallerana,” he said.  “That’s always sad.”

“Which am I?” I asked.  “Which sadness?”

“My garden belongs to the perennials,” he repeated. 

I stared at the wilting petals of the impatiens with a mixture of sympathy and envy.  Even in its desperation, as its colors turned pale in my husband’s hand, I admired its living and its dying. 

“I suppose you think I should take pity on it,” I said. 

“It has a short life,” he replied.

“But a vibrant one next to mine,” I said.

“They are only flowers,” he said.

“So much time devoted to something so trivial,” I said.   

“These appear to be easy choices,” he said.  “But they’re not.  There isn’t just one garden.  And not just one place for each planting.”

At that moment, I did not doubt my husband’s sincerity, anymore than I doubted his confusion.  It seemed that the garden was more complex than either of us had imagined.  But so was I, and neither of us could be reduced to a single blossom or a simple hue.

“And if I replant this one?”  I asked.

“It may survive to seed,” he said.  “It may be as strong and as colorful—or it may not.  I can’t say which.”

“Then I’ll take that chance and I’ll replant it and I’ll care for it,” I said.  “And when you see it in the garden, perhaps you will see the consequences of my care as well as the complexity of my colors—my scarlet hands, my blackened knees—the clots of brown beneath my nails.  What will you think of me then?” I asked.  “Your changing perennial.  What will you call me then—this hybrid?”

He stared into his hands and shook his head.

“I’m not sure I’ll know you at all,” he said.  “I’m not sure I will know the word.”

I reached over and took the flower from his hands.  In the garden, I prepared an opening in the warm earth, and lined it with a handful of airy soil.  I spread out its roots and covered them while supporting the slender stems.  The blossoms bowed to the ground.  I watered the ground around them. 

In the morning, I think to myself, it may be alive.  And after it is watered and tended, I will return to my room.  I will sit before the mirror above my dressing table, as I did today.  My lips will be smudged with dirt and my neck red from the sun.  I will pull the clip from my hair—shades of red and brown and gray—and it will fall and twist about my dusty shoulders.  When I have carefully studied my parts—my calyx, my veins, my roots—and the knowledge of my body is complete, I will go to my husband, and softly, I will whisper my name.

BIO:  "My fiction has appeared in a number of publications including Southern Humanities Review, Columbia Review, Louisville Review, and Full Circle Journal. I have an M.F.A from Goddard College, and I teach writing and literature at the Lancaster Campus of Harrisburg Area Community College in Lancaster, PA."