My neighbour, Mr. Bertieri, told me that in ninety-three days he would lose his sight. I asked how he knew this to the day and he said that his wife had told him in a dream. There is a flower, he said, that takes ninety days to open. I would like it to be the last thing I ever see. Would you help me fetch it?
High windows lowered soft light into the nursery. The stem was brittle as nestling bone and it stooped into a bud. The gardener’s hands were like cotton. Later I heard that he slept on soil and woke through the night to talk to his flowers.
We nursed the bud into Mr. Bertieri’s courtyard. He lay it into the pot as though it were a sleeping infant and arranged scraps of torn photo paper around the stem. His breathing was heavy so I moved to help but he waved me away. When he’d finished, he wiped his brow with a handkerchief and his cheeks were like white peaches.
At this kitchen table, we ate jam drops and drank coffee. On the bench were three empty photo frames. I offered to take him to the optometrist. He said that his eyes were fine and he only needed glasses for the paper. The flower would be the second most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, he said. We listened to his radio gargle the football and he walked me to the door and shook my hand like a priest, his left palm over my knuckles.
The stem thickened and the bud hunched into the wind.
I tried to revive my own small and neglected backyard, planting things I knew to be hardy. Over weeks, it began to look better, though a little resentful, as though dressed for a party it didn’t want to attend.
On the ninetieth morning, Mr. Bertieri invited me over to watch a tiny a galaxy undress in his garden. He said that it would just be he and I, that the flower was shy.
We had a small tumbler of whiskey each. Though it was warm, Mr. Bertieri wore a green woollen knit and brown flannel trousers. Since I had last seen him, he seemed to have shrunk into his features. His hair, offhandedly combed, was a plot of burst dandelions. I asked him a question, but he paid no attention.
The bud stirred and yawned and shook dreams from its body. The petals arched their backs to give a cluster of antennae their first sip of light. They surged to attention and flared their ends and blazed like sparklers. Then an eruption of colour; each urged the next onto the petals to swirl and curtsy in an inkblot test of infinite interpretations, all affirming one’s best nature. There was nothing else in the world to look at.
The petals wilted and the head of the bud dropped into the pot with a soft pop. The garden came back into focus and I said, that was the most brilliant thing I’ve ever seen. Mr. Bertieri smiled and tears rolled from his eyes now entirely the colour of cream. Tell me about it, he said.
Jake‘s writing has appeared in Meanjin, Going Down Swinging and others. He lives and works in Melbourne.