She glanced down into the toilet as she reached for the flush handle, then blinked, her hand falling back to her side. There were petals floating in the water. Five petals. Bright, fuchsia petals.
“What the hell,” Meredith asked the air in the tiny toilet cubicle. Her job let her see enough mental disturbance to be credited a free hallucination of her own, but this wasn’t one she’d ever treated before. She didn’t think anyone had.
“Must be some prank,” she decided, and reached for the handle. There was a new interior design company on the second floor. Maybe they’d clipped their shop flowers up here? Wrecking the fifth floor bathroom seemed like an insane requirement, but who knew what it took to sell a wealthy socialite on your design skills.
Or maybe, and more likely, one of her patients had brought up a pink flower and dissected it on the toilet. People had strange rituals. Why not flowers? She put the petals out of her mind and headed back into the carpeted womb of the behavioral health clinic, where aquariums hummed low, soothing drones and bright tropical fish thrived in contrast to the monotone misery of winter, beyond the window glass.
“Hey, baby,” a young man called from the angular office sofa he was sprawled on, his lips curled in a sensual smile that made Mere’s skin crawl under her sensible navy dress.
“My name’s not baby,” Meredith said, through clenched teeth.
The man whistled, and Meredith turned away. She had clients to see and paperwork to file. By the time she had a moment to think about that confrontation, she’d relegated it to humor. Nobody had called Meredith baby in over a decade, and even then, she’d been well past forty.
When it was time to leave Meredith called down to the building office and arranged for a security guard to walk her to the bus stop on the corner of the snow-choked Almond and Poplar streets. She’d tell her roommate about the strange man, she decided, but it didn’t mean anything. Pretty men (and potentially pretty crazy men) were every day in her line of work.
She got all the way to the Stop & Shop on Macadam Avenue and back to her postage-stamp apartment in the heights before she found herself face to face with another toilet.
“Don’t be stupid,” she growled at herself, slamming the bathroom door behind her. The sound reverberated in her empty space. Mere unzipped her sensible navy dress and began to roll down her control-top panty hose. Getting a second day out of every pair was imperative on her budget, a third was even better. She had the hose down to her knees before she saw it.: a Shasta daisy, pressed to the inseam of her pantyhose, a perfect golden sun rimmed with crushed white petals.
She plucked it free and laid it on the counter. “Maybe it was stuck to the seat?” Mere glanced at the flower. There wasn’t another explanation for it. She had to have found it there. Making herself step out of the hose, she mechanically began washing it in the sink before she gave up, leaving the nylon there in a taupe wad. It was stupid, impossible even, but she had to look. Wiggling her panties off one hip, then the other, she felt a solid brush of something unexpected as she reached for the center panel.
Her panties were full of leaves. A thick sprinkling of ferns, and a single winter violet.
“What the fuck,” Meredith asked herself, spraying leaves and flower alike with a slap of her hand. She discarded the panties. “What is that?” She parted her legs and glanced down. There were more leaves on the floor. Were they fresh? She had no way of knowing.
Mere fled the bathroom. But where did you go when your body was the enemy?
You went in search of clothes. Mere felt better in thick winter woolens. No way would a wayward bouquet find its way into these pants! She crossed from her bed to the kitchenette, opened up the cupboard, and took out a glass. The vodka was in the freezer. As she took a sideways step to the side by side, she felt an unfamiliar prickle against her thigh. Forcing herself not to look down, Mere poured frosty vodka into a drinking glass. The bottle clattered against the rim of the glass before she set it down, uncapped. She had the feeling she’d be coming back to it later.
This was just too Kafka-esque to be faced sober. It was too strange. It could not, she decided, actually be happening. She must be in a daydream. Or someone had spiked her morning latte with LSD. This situation had an easy, logical explanation. Occam’s Razor said so. She spent her days handling the mentally unstable—maybe she’d missed a rung on the ladder of sanity and this was the psychological equivalent of bopping yourself on the chin?
“Meredith,” her roommate, Liza, called, “what happened in the bathroom?”
“Nothing,,” Mere stammered, her fingers clenching on the tumbler of vodka, “one of my patients brought me flowers.”
“So you left them on the bathroom floor?” Liza asked. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” Meredith lied. “When did you get home?” And why the hell couldn’t she have come home ten minutes later? Mere would have remembered to pick up the mess once the vodka made it make sense.
“Couple minutes ago. Where are you going?” Liza asked, gesturing at the thick woolen coat dress and patterned tights.
“Nowhere,” Meredith said. “I’ve got some files to update.”
“Dressed like that?” Liza wondered aloud.
“It’s cold in here,” Meredith lied. “Easier to put on a few layers than cough up a few more cents to Central Power and Light, right?”
“I’m warm enough,” Liza said. “Anyway. next time your clients give you flowers, use a vase, okay?”
“I’ll try and remember,” Meredith said, and took a swallow of liquid fire.
Armed with her drink, she sat down, forcing herself to ignore the sudden bristling sensation. It was probably nerves. Had to be nerves. She grabbed her laptop. “Flowers in vagina,” she entered. Google obligingly spat up a warning about censored content, some Grand Master of the Renaissance painting, and a few medical papers about a philia or phobia associated with inserting odd objects into one’s genitalia.
“At least it’s not a medical condition,” she soothed herself, but the alcohol was doing a better job than words ever would. She went in search of a second tumbler of vodka, ignoring the sensations between her thighs as she did. Bush was bush, and nobody ever got the green kind growing down there! She was….what? She felt fine. Was she going crazy? No way was she heading to the hospital, though. What could they even do, call a topiary service? She chuckled at the idea of men with leaf blowers in the emergency department, and shook her head.
They’d probably call it spring fever. It was late April and it was the snowiest April on record. Little kids were still bundled in snowsuits when they ought to be wearing Easter finery. The weather was peculiar, but global warming definitely didn’t make you grow flowers out of your vagina. Or ferns. She poured vodka into her cup, her hand trembling, and stalked into the bathroom. This wasn’t real, she knew it, and she was going to put an end to it. Right now.
But her clean underwear were jammed full of tulips. Red ones, yellow ones, pink ones, some so violet they were almost black. Mere lifted each stem individually, then pulled out a handful and dropped them onto the bathroom’s worn linoleum.
“No,” she said, firmly, “no fucking way.”
But the flowers kept coming, tulips becoming crocus, crocus becoming lilies. Her bathroom floor looked like an exotic greenhouse. It smelled heavenly, like spring. But how was it happening? It didn’t hurt. She didn’t feel flowers inside of her. They just suddenly manifested in her underwear.
She shook her head and stood up, leaving her woolen bottoms and panties in a twist on the floor, covered in flowers. The flowers were falling freely now, leaving a winding path from the bathroom back to the living room, where she picked up her laptop and stared, sightlessly, at the portrait that Google had found for her.
Persephone, the caption read. Goddess of spring.
“Not a real thing,” Mere croaked, but she was standing in roses now, and big, showy, dinner-plate dahlias. She ran a hand down the inside of one thigh and a few more blooms tumbled out, a rose’s stem scratching the back of her hand—a real scratch. The real scent of roses. Not modern roses, either, but the old-fashioned kind her grandma had grown in the suburbs like fifty years ago. Not that she could remember the scent of roses from fifty years ago. You didn’t remember things from before you were born.
She couldn’t let Liza see this. Panicked, Meredith bent down and seized an armful of flowers. As she sped up the hall, leaving a trail of flowers in her wake, she caught sight of the bathroom floor and its freight of tulips and crocus.
“Meredith?” Liza said, peering out of her bedroom door. “I smell flowers.”
“Yeah,” Meredith said, thrusting the armful of roses at her roommate. “These just came. I think they’re for you.”
“Who’d send me flowers?” Liza asked, over the armload bouquet. “Meredith, what’s going on?”
“Guess you ought to tell me,” Meredith said.
“No, really,” Liza said, pointing at the floor.
Meredith didn’t need to look down to know what was happening. What could she say? She glanced down at her leg—a scratch leaked a thick stream of blood. The roses were vicious.
“I miss spring,” Meredith said, suddenly. “That’s all.” She rushed back to her bedroom. Liza came after her, pounding on the door, twisting at the knob.
Persephone. What did Meredith know about Persephone? Dreadfully little, she mused, emptying her tiny wastebasket for the plastic liner. Somehow, she cobbled together a kind of catchall system using a shopping bag and an old skirt. She looked homeless, but that was surprisingly fashionable these days.
Liza pounded on the door again. “Meredith, I’m worried about you,” the younger woman called through the thin wood. “It’s like you’re dripping flowers.”
It sounded just as crazy when someone else said it.
“I’m going to call an ambulance,” Liza said. Meredith stared at the door in consternation. What Meredith probably needed was an exorcism, or a master gardener. She barked a sharp laugh.
The boy from her office recurred to her mind. Why? They’d barely spoken. She’d seen more handsome men. She did, after all, own a television. From the apartment’s living room, she heard the rise and fall of Liza’s voice. She’d been hoping that if she just hunkered down, maybe it would all be over when she woke up. Now, thanks to Liza, that wouldn’t be possible.
Meredith moved on instinct, twisting the doorknob. No way was she going to be here when the ambulance came. There was no acceptable solution to this scenario. Maybe it was a curse. She didn’t believe in God, or Greek or Roman Gods, or whatever society had birthed Persephone. But what if she went to a church, and what would she do there? Pray?
It wouldn’t, she decided, kill her to pray. Barefoot in the snowy street outside her condo building, Meredith hesitated.
There was a Roman Catholic chapel a few blocks away, and a Greek Orthodox one a mile the other way, Google Maps told her. Which one had Persephone been? Greek, Google informed her. Okay. She could do a mile. The only other Grecian place she could think of was the Falafel Hut, and you didn’t pray there.
The bag between her legs would be full soon. The flowers were gushing out of her. She couldn’t identify the new blossoms. Some were on woody stalks. She waddled from the doorway, calculating the path that would garner her the least resistance and the least gawkers. The snow fell thick, in great clots better suited for January than April, and her feet froze, rapidly going numb.
A low whistle drew her up short. Meredith glanced into the shadows of an alley and saw him, the barely-a-man who’d catcalled her at work.
“I could smell you from a mile away,” the boy said, his dark eyes glinting in the gloom between streetlights. “Baby. You need to come home.”
Home? Home was exactly the place Meredith was escaping!
“Who are you?” she asked the young man, shifting her weight from foot to foot.
“That’s a nice thing to ask your husband,” the young man said.
“I’m not married,” Meredith shouted, confused, and fled into the night. It was debatable which of them was more risk to the other right now, although she supposed the worst she’d do to the lad was give him an inappropriate phobia about springtime.
Her feet stung as she shambled up the sidewalk, trying to think of a way to talk to this wayward Grecian goddess. She could hear the crunch of snow under shoes behind her. The young man with the burning eyes was following in her wake. She worried about rape for a fraction of a second before discarding the fear. How would you get anything into a space that was already full?
She laughed, a strange whoop in the preternatural stillness. She leaked flowers directly onto the snow as she approached the Greek Orthodox church, a rain of blossoms trailing her as she tried the doors.
It was locked, of course.
She looked at the fanlights on either side of the tall door and then seized a shovel left beside the steps by whoever had cleared the snow and salted them down. The glass resisted her first, tentative jab, but the second time, it shattered. She picked shards from the frame and reached through the small hole. It was barely there, but she flicked the deadbolt catch, then stood on her toes to twist the nubbin on the doorknob. She entered the church nave in a wave of flowers and icy wind, then stood shivering in the darkness.
The man followed her. She could smell the musk on his skin and a scent that vaguely reminded her of summer barbecues a long time ago in a childhood far away.
“Breaking and entering,” the young man said, interestedly. “That’s new.”
The whole thing was new to Meredith. And the Greek Orthodox church, she discovered, didn’t actually worship Zeus or Hades or even Persephone. She whispered, undecided about approaching the ornate altar at the end of the aisle. “Persephone? I come, um, to beg a boon of thee.”
Well, wait. Why speak Old English when the goddess had been Greek? She didn’t know any Greek, unless Persephone was interested in a gyro with a side order of falafel. Shit.
The young man, leaning against an ornately carved wooden pew, let out a soft laugh in the stillness. Meredith glanced back his way. “You should go,” she said.
“I don’t think so,” he said, but he did wander off toward the nave. Meredith returned her attention to the altar, with its ornate paintings in gold-leaf frames. She could use a saint right now. She’d broken into a church, on a Tuesday night. Didn’t you basically go to hell for things like that? Except Meredith didn’t believe in Hell, of course, unless you referred to the kind that you did to yourself. She definitely believed in that.
Prayer, though…if there was a God, or multiple gods, then wouldn’t they basically understand any language? She pondered that a moment. The flowers were still coming, forming a heap on the floor between her feet. She snapped the handle on the bag and let them tumble out. That felt better, somehow. More natural.
Maybe if she got closer to the sky. Lightning, she reasoned, was what Zeus did. Spring was a sky thing, right? Sky and ground. She had the ground part down. Mere struggled up a rickety set of steps she found in the rectory kitchen. It was hard to walk without crushing blossoms under her numb feet. The scent of hothouse flowers rose as she ascended the steps—it had to be a good sign. Could it mean that someone was listening? She’d take anyone. Anyone with the power to make this flower flood stop.
There wasn’t a belfry, since the church was mostly a squat, concrete warehouse, but there was a big window at the end of the hall. Mere half-crouched, half knelt, crushing flowers as she did, and cleared her throat. “It’s been a long time since I prayed,” she started. “I don’t know who I’m praying to, but I want the flowers to stop,” she tried. “They’re beautiful and winter has been forever but I can’t live with flowers down there.”
She gulped a breath. “Tell me what I have to do,” she pleaded. “I’m listening.”
But she didn’t hear anything. Had the flowers slowed down? She couldn’t tell, but she thought maybe. A little heartened, she looked around, spotted the attic ladder trapdoor. She’d come this far, right?
The wind, howling past the window. Or was that a siren? Did the church have a silent alarm, like the one at the clinic?
“Christ,” Meredith hissed, but that was the wrong god for her, tonight, wasn’t it? Jesus hadn’t ever made his followers into living vases, had He?
She pulled the trapdoor down with the ring on a rope and ascended the ladder. The attic smelled like furniture polish and dust. She sneezed, and a thick cascade of blossoms slid out of her, raising a little dust cloud. She couldn’t stay in here. Opening one of the big dormer windows, she looked around for handholds, and edged out onto the roof. She only needed to be out here a minute, right? Sliding across the slate roof, she found toeholds between icy chunks and snow clumps, then worked her way to the peak of the roof. “Don’t look down,” she mumbled to herself, as she straddled the roofline.
“Hear me, ancient gods of Greece,” Meredith intoned, feeling ridiculous. Did she hear sirens? “I come to bring back your flowers. For spring,” she said. There was a definite red light below her. She gasped in a breath against the knifing wind and shouted, “I call on Persephone!”
“Seriously,” Meredith shrieked into the wind, “you can’t make people bleed flowers! It’s not allowed!”
“That’s a good trick,” the young man said, lounging indolently while standing up and not touching anything. When had he even gotten out here? “You can’t call on yourself for a boon, darling.”
“What the hell,” Meredith said.
The young man lifted an eyebrow. “Let me take you home,” he said.
A bullhorn, from below. “You are surrounded. Please come down off the roof. No one has to get hurt.”
“Make this stop!” Meredith demanded, scooting her hips a few inches forward, too afraid to stand upright. “Or I will.”
“We can’t hear you. We’re sending someone up. Drop all your weapons,” the bullhorn declared. An ambulance had arrived, Meredith noted, trying to force a detached feeling between herself and the fact that the ground was so far down there. The policemen looked miniature. The ambulance, however, did not resemble a toy. She shivered. The man held a hand out to her, urging her up to her feet.
A long, thick clump: Mere glanced down to see a round fruit ripening in the snow. It was a pomegranate. That was the worst of all—she had progressed from flowers to fruit. She bent down and picked up the pomegranate and weighed it in her hands. The man reached over and took the fruit, opening it by jamming his thumb into the umbilicus that extended from the fruit’s round, red womb.
“Here,” he said, separating six of the jewel-like arils from the waxy whiteness of the rind. “Eat. And you are not going back to your mother’s any time soon.”
She opened her mouth. He placed the seeds gently on her tongue. The weight of thousands of years of experience crashed into her mind.
“It’s only ever Hell when you aren’t in it, you know,” Hades told his wife. “Now can we go home?”
As they vanished, a slow rain of flower petals filled the night, a flurry of fragrance that left the cops and paramedics gathered in the courtyard gaping and wide-eyed, standing in a blizzard that wasn’t cold and wouldn’t melt away.
Mim Lindblom lives in Spanaway, Washington, and chews up scenery at Pacific Lutheran University as a “non-traditional” (read: old) student. She has three children and more cats than common sense. Her goal is to change the world through social action for the disabled, but in her spare time, she likes perpetrating words at people. Perse-phony is her first published fictional work. She will graduate in 2021 with dual degrees in English and social work.