A Score of Roses
by Troy Wiggins
Sunshine flowed through the crowd, sliding between hooters and hungry-eyed applauders. A whiskey runner with a long, toothy scar down his neck poured up servings of burning moonshine at a row of nearby tables. The harsh, fruity scent of the liquor filled Sunshine’s nose, luring her with its sweet poison.
She swayed up to the tables, lowered herself into a seat, and stretched out like a yawning cat. The runner regarded her with flat eyes. She nodded. Her hand landed softly on the thigh of the stony-faced man sitting next to her, and her lips quivered. The scent of rosewater wisped from her skin, cutting softly through the dense reek of smoke from hand-rolled cigarettes, black bodies, and day-old sweat.
“So tell me baby, why’s yo ears so pointed like that?”
Baby took a sip from his tin cup. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told ya, so I ain’t gonna tell ya.”
His skin was black, like the dead time between new days. She reached out and traced along the curve of his ear with her finger. “They like knives. Like knives made’a skin and bone. You kin to the devil?”
“Devil don’t exist, honey.”
Sunshine pulled a pout. “C’mon, baby. Tell me somethin’. You sayin’ things like that just make me more curious.”
Baby turned to Sunshine and met her curious gaze. His face was angled, his chin tapered, and his eyes were thundercloud gray, full of lightning and storms. Sunshine scooted closer to him, and he smiled.
“So, you not gon’ answer my question?”
“I might answer another one of your questions, though, if you promise to smile again.”
Sunshine fulfilled his request. “I ain’t seen you round here before. Where you come from?”
Baby tapped his chin, considering. “You sho’ do know how to ask the wrong questions. What am I supposed to say to that, huh?”
“Tell the truth. Shame the devil.” Sunshine took a sip, stopped, slapped her thigh. “Oh shit, he ain’t real. Forgot. ‘Scuse me.”
“Yo mouth gon’ get you in a lot of trouble. Fine, you want truth, here it go: I come from the dirt.”
“And I come from yo’ neck bone. Gimme me some mo liquor, Jerry. And you, gimme some mo’ answers.”
“I tole you, I come from the dirt and live wit’ the dirt, laugh wit’ the dirt, love the dirt and everything that come to be because of it.”
“You soundin’ like one’a them big foot country boys that just learned the world was bigger than a fool’s middle finger, baby.”
He laughed, a boom boom from deep in his chest that sounded like a drumbeat delivered from the top of a mountain. “Maybe so.”
Sunshine swished a swig of moonshine around in her mouth, swallowed it, and growled away the burn. “Yeah, you talkin’ like a man who’s fulla some good drink.”
“I’m sober as a stone, honey.”
Sunshine hooded her eyes and ran her tongue over her lips. The air seemed to clear. “Well, that just ain’t no good. What’s the point of sitting’ up in a place like this and not drinkin’ yo troubles down the river? Why’ont you just come on home wit’ me and tell me some mo’ stories about yo dirt, then? I might even sing you one of my special songs.”
Baby laughed again and drained his cup. “Now that don’t sound like a bad idea a’tall.”
“Ah…” Baby gasped. “Sunshine…”
“Yeah, baby,” Sunshine growled, jerking her slick hips. Rosewater and musk hung heavy on the air. Her eyes glowed in the darkness.
“Ah-,” Another jerk. A flash of dusky nipple. An umber thigh against onyx. A cresting moonbeam. “Ah-a’lina suatha tautroga…”
“Shit, Baby. What that mean?”
Baby’s white smile split the night. “You owe me a song, honey,” he gasped.
She claimed that night was safer, so they met after sunset. She said that the riots had brought out the evil in everyone, especially those people that already had hatred in their hearts toward folks like them. Baby had rolled his eyes. Nobody knew who he was. Still, she’d said, better to stay on the side of skin. Baby looked out over the hard faces and noticed how many hands twitched inside of pockets, how many backs bent before pieced-together shanties. He snorted at the “safety.”
A familiar itch tingled on the tips of his ears. It was time to leave, past time. He stayed anyway, standing in the lopsided shadow of an old wooden fort that still bore the stink of dying and despairing men, still wore smudged gunpowder on the gates, still muddied the dirt road before it with blood and sweat. He could hear the hoots of the men inside as they glimpsed brown thighs and were swayed by low-down song that reminded them of times before horrors.
Someone yanked on his ear, and he whipped around, growling murder. Only Sunshine was there, wearing an old housedress with faded pink flowers. Her skin and hair glowed. There was no dirt on her shoes. He removed his hat, held it to his chest. She smiled, and he forgot the stink of the outdoors, forgot the darkness.
“I ain’t think you was gonna come,” she murmured, sliding her arm into his. He looked down at his boots. They were dirty. He didn’t care.
“Why wouldn’t I come? I don’t cut and run.”
“Let’s go downtown, baby.”
“Thought it wasn’t safe there. Besides, I like the trees over here. Ain’t no trees or nothin’ really alive downtown that’s no different than what we can see here.”
“You call this livin’?”
“Bein’ in these walls y’all done made ain’t livin’ at all, but at least here there’s more dirt, more trees and such.”
“You and yo dirt. Fine then.”
They walked. Different lives unfolded a million times in the span of a few minutes. Three boys played baseball on the next street over. One boy couldn’t hit the ball and called for a change of rules. The other two yelled and screamed. Several men sat around a fire built in a low pit. The biggest of them stood backlit by flames, swinging his arms and building a tale out of yells and memories. The other men laughed as they passed a jug between them, looking around before they sipped. Ahead of them, two rickety houses made of discarded slats of wood nearly leaned on each other. Moans and creaking spilt into the street from them. Glass clattered and crashed. Someone defiled the name of God. Baby smelled blood, pulled Sunshine closer to him.
“They the same damn thing,” she whispered. He pretended not to hear.
Violence faded from the air, along with the scent of blood and donkeys. Children ran flat-footed through the dirt. A red rosebush stood in a muted bloom along the edge of the street, its flowers drooping. Baby led Sunshine to the bush. He knelt before it, reached inside of the leaves.
“Watch the thorns,” she breathed.
“They won’t hurt me.” Baby grasped the stem of a flower the color of congealed blood, put it to his nose, and whispered. Beside him, Sunshine shuddered and wrapped her arms around herself.
When Baby stood, he held a bloom aflame with red and pink and orange. Gone was the rot.
“Something to be said about dirt.” He handed her the flower. “Watch the thorns.”
“You’d let ‘em hurt me?”
“Naw. But you still oughta be careful.”
Sunshine breathed in the flower’s scent. A lavender light flashed in her eyes and disappeared.
“My first husband died thinking that I had the devil in me, and couldn’t make chil’ren. Now I know that it was his fault, not mine.”
Baby poked his lip out and stuck his hands deep in his pockets. He knew many words, but none of them would come. His ears burned. “What happened to yo first husband? How he die?”
“I got fire in me, just like he said. He couldn’t deal wit it. My fire ate him from the inside out.” Her eyes snapped back into focus and the curl returned to her lips. Baby thought for a moment that he could see the fire licking beneath her skin. He wanted to sear the tip of his tongue.
“But you ain’t like him, is you? You ain’t gon’ die from my fire.”
“Ain’t no fire been able to kill me yet, and I been around a while.”
She put the flower back to her nose. “What’s yo real name, Baby?”
He smiled when she slipped his arm back into hers. Before they could take a step, she made a small noise. He looked at her. She looked back, confused. “You know what I just thought of? We gon’ need somewhere to live.”
Sunshine’s city was big in the center, with all the trappings of steel and mortar and slow rot. But the wild places lingered. They called to Baby, and he knew. He knew about the paths and straightaways because of the wild places. They were easy enough to find, dank and green and slick with pot-bellied copperheads full of field mice and baby catfish. He picked through them, mud streaking his boots and face and hands, and he didn’t care because this was good mud, the kind of mud that you were supposed to wear.
The sun was high when he realized that he had gone too far, so he doubled back. Mud squelched beneath his boots and his ears still itched. A copse of trees stood at angles over a large dirt clearing. Beyond the trees, Baby could see a plot of muddy, loose land where someone was trying to force beans and hard turnips. He whispered to the vegetables struggling in the mud, to the lopsided trees, to the slumbering dirt. A breeze flipped through the grasses.
Baby nodded, sat cross-legged on the ground, and began to whisper. The winds picked up and the soil stirred beneath him. His whisper became a slow chant. He closed his eyes. For once, his ears didn’t itch.
The ground rolled like boiling water. Trees popped and rent and cracked and moaned. His chant rose into song. Soil tumbled onto his head and shoulders. Something blocked the sun. Another something brushed gently against his cheek.
The house was a flat sort of yellow, with a low wooden porch that seemed to dive straight into the ground. The steps leading up to the porch rose from the earth, and the windows had no glass in them. The roof was long overlapping wooden slats covered by leaves and bark. All around the house was deep brown soil, ready for tilling and planting, and the sun shone strong, unblocked by leaves or branches. To either side of the steps, twin rosebushes bloomed.
Baby didn’t brush the dirt off of his shoulders when he left the clearing.
They named her Rana. Sunshine told Baby that it meant “rose,” but she never told him the language that the word came from.
They had called in an old midwife from the city who wore a dress the color of burlap and square-toed boots as heavy as a stonemason’s. Before she came into the house, she tossed salt on the doorstep. Baby bit his lip so hard that it nearly bled.
“No mens. Bad luck,” the midwife said, waving her hand. “You need ta go on outside.”
Rana came healthy and brown, with pink lips and shiny black hair that possessed an otherworldly sort of curl. Her ears swooped slightly upward, and when she opened her eyes, they were a little too lavender. The midwife threw more salt, and Baby threatened to throw her out.
“Y’all quit all this foolishness,” Sunshine snapped at them. She sat up tall in the bed, framed by a halo of black hair. She studied the baby, wearing an unreadable look. The air was hot and heavy. Tiny motes of dust danced in the shafts of midday sun. The midwife gathered her things quietly.
“I never wanted a child,” Sunshine said. When she looked up, she had no smile. “My husband always did, but never me. She look like you, Baby. She got your skin. Your ears too.”
“Yeah, maybe so. Look like she got yo fire, though. And yo eyes.”
The midwife covertly threw a bit of salt in the corner, prayed a quick prayer, and smudged oil that had been prayed over seven times on the doorframe. Then she left.
“Y’all know what this mean, don’t you, Baby? I can’t go sing at the joint no mo’,” Sunshine said. Rana smiled and gurgled.
Rana heard her mother’s feet scuffling on the earthen steps and she scrambled to open the door. Sunshine walked in and sat down heavily on a plush chair, the only bit of furniture in the large family room. She kicked off her tight work shoes. Sunshine’s brown skin looked flat and gray, her lips and hair thin to breaking.
“I made a new friend today, Mama,” Rana said. She slid a steel washbasin full of hot water across the floor. A few suds sloshed over the lip of the basin and onto the floor, where they were immediately soaked up.
Sunshine lifted her feet and slid them into the water. She sighed, smiled a tiny bit, and closed her eyes. A small breeze blew through the windows.
“I made a new friend today, Mama.”
Sunshine opened one eye. “Really, flower? Tell me ‘bout it.”
“Well,” Rana began, kneeling to rub Sunshine’s aching feet, “I went down to the creek after school today, and I was playing in the water when this big ol’ snake came up out the water and started talkin’ to me. Her mouth wasn’t movin’, but I could hear her in my head. She said that normally she’d eat a l’il thang like me, but because I could hear what she was sayin’ we could be friends. We had us a good time catching frogs, and she even followed me back to the schoolhouse. But I had to make her go ‘way when we got to school cuz I didn’t wanna scare Missus Teacher.”
“What I tell you about going down to that doggone creek? You supposed to stay at the schoolhouse and play wit’ the rest of the chil’ren.”
Rana studied the blue veins in her mother’s legs. They looked like streets on the maps Rana had seen at school. She wondered where they led. “I know, Mama, but them chil’ren don’t be wanting to talk to me.”
“Not ‘be wanting.’ You know the right way.”
“The children at the school don’t wanna play wit’ me. They say evil stuff bout me and talk ‘bout my ears and say that my daddy must be the devil. Even the grown folk talk about me. They think I don’t be hearing em.”
Sunshine sighed. “Shoot, people ‘round here talk about everybody. It’s a wonder we all still got ears.”
For a while, the only sound in the room was the soft splashing of water. Occasionally Sunshine would grunt when Rana rubbed a particularly tough knot of muscle.
“Mama, how come you don’t sing no more?”
Sunshine jolted. “Huh? What?”
“How come you don’t sing no more?”
“What you talkin’ about, girl?”
Rana focused on her mother’s legs. “When I was real little you used to sing and go out into the woods and stuff. Your voice was so nice. You remember? You used to sing me all kinds of songs.”
“I ain’t sang in a while, huh? Got nothin’ to sing about, I guess.” Sunshine sat up, flicked the end of her housedress. “I used to wear nice dresses, you know? Folks used to love to see me comin’ and hate to see me comin’ at the same damn time. And I used to sing for people, instead of cleanin’ up after they asses. Well, I sang mostly for colored folks at the joint, but it was still good singin’. Every once in a while, a white man would come through. There was one white man, he loved my singin’ so much he bought me a shiny blue dress wit’ the earrings to match. I ain’t seen that dress in years. Wasn’t a man alive that could resist fallin’ in love wit’ me when I sang to him.”
“I ain’t no man, Mama, but I’d like to hear you sing a song. Like you used to.”
Sunshine waved a hand. It was wrinkled and veiny. “Naw, girl. I doubt I even could sing now. My voice ain’t what it was.”
“I don’t care, Mama. I just want you to sing. You used to look so happy when you was walkin’ ‘round and singin’.”
“Humph,” Sunshine said. “That’s cuz I was happy, not dog-tired. I can’t sing you nothin’ like I used to. But I can teach you a song. That way you can start to singin’ for yo’self. You probably got my voice.”
Rana clapped her hands and threw droplets of water across the room. “Really, Mama? I’d love to learn one of yo songs!”
Sunshine sat up and leaned forward. The heavy lines in the creases of her mouth and eyes lightened a bit. “Imma teach you a song that my mama taught me, long before we got to where we is now. This the kinda song that build a fire in you, and let you get that same kinda fire from whoever else you wanna get it from.”
Rana scooted closer. “I’m listenin’.”
Sunshine pulled her daughter into a hug. She whispered the words into Rana’s ear, supported by a melody that seemed to be the heartbeat of the earth itself. The sky reddened a bit, and the wind stirred.
Rana clasped Sunshine’s arm so hard that the flesh bruised. Her mother’s skin was hot, so hot that it nearly burned her fingertips. The words were ancient and unfathomable, a story told in a language that had long since been forced beneath the earth.
But Rana understood it all.
As the last words slipped past Sunshine’s lips, she sat back on the chair. Her skin was pink and her hair a bit more fluffy.
“You sing that one. You ain’t even gotta sing it loud, just put it out in the world. Sing that one, and you’ll get the exact person you need, l’il flower. You’ll get em right when you need ‘em.” Sunshine swung her feet out of the tub, stood, and walked around, as if testing her new legs. “Only thing is, you gotta decide how long you gonna need em. Don’t let the song tell you. Don’t let them tell you. You decide.”
Rana ran her fingers down her skinny brown arms. She could feel small flames blooming beneath her skin, following the trails of her fingertips.
“This world will try to put yo’ fire out, flower,” Sunshine said. She walked over to one of the windows and stared out into the woods. “This world will try an’ beat you and tell you you ain’t shit and treat you like the shit that you ain’t. Don’t let ‘em take yo fire. Don’t let ‘em take it wit’ nice words or wit’ a knife to yo throat. Don’t even let em get you by laying pretty tricks on you, unless you want them tricks. Even then, do everything in yo power to keep yo fire going. Fight for it. Steal it. Kill for it. You understand me?”
“Yes ma’am,” Rana whispered. Her eyes flickered violet.
Sunshine ran a hand over Rana’s curly black hair. “Lookin’ like it’s gonna be a good day, l’il flower. Yo daddy’s around here somewhere. Go find him, and stay with him. I’ll see y’all later.”
“Yes ma’am,” Rana whispered again, trying to bury herself in Sunshine’s touch.
Baby was standing near the doorframe when Rana came home from school, muttering in a language that she only minimally understood. He took off his hat and scratched his head, then his pointed ears. Rana absently touched her own.
“What’s wrong, daddy?”
“Hi, flower. Heard you comin’ a while back. I can’t seem to figure out what done happened to this doorframe. The wood is turnin’ to dust and fallin’ off in one spot, and no matter what I do to it, it won’t stop.”
“Might be time to replace it,” she said, scooting past him and into the house. She dropped her schoolbooks and they thunked heavily against the dirt floor. Her father continued to poke at the doorframe.
“Might be, at that.”
“At least the rosebushes still going,” she said as she came back on the porch. She handed her father a cup of water and watched him pour a little bit of it onto the earth before he took a swallow.
“Yeah, that’s a good thing. I thought they’d be dead by now. I ain’t took care of the things in years.”
“Ever since Mama left.”
Baby grunted and sat down on the porch. Rana studied her father’s jaw, his quick brown eyes, his curly black hair. He’d looked the same all of her life. He absently scratched his pointed ear again.
“Any luck finding work?”
“Nope. They don’t want you to do what you can, they want you to do what they want you to do. They pickin’ boys that they know, boys who beg and lick they ass. I ain’t never been a man to—shit, ‘scuse me, flower. Don’t pay me no mind.”
They sat in silence for another few minutes.
Rana was the first to speak. “You miss her?”
“I miss pieces of her. No, ain’t no truth in that. Really, I miss how she used to be. I think… I think I played a big part in her leavin’. Yo mama was special. She used to get something special from me. I think I stopped giving it to her. And I think that I kept her from getting it from anywhere else.”
“I think she chose that, Daddy. ‘Let’ wasn’t a word mama ever took to.”
“She didn’t. You right bout that.”
Baby stood up, and Rana noticed for the first time how delicate her father was. His torso was lean and his arms were long and thin. He walked over to the rosebushes and picked the flower that sagged the most.
“She used to say yo name was rose, that Rana meant rose. She never told me in what language, and I never figured it out. I believed her, though.” He put the rose to his lips and whispered to it. All of the shadows dissolved into gray, all of the colors of the world seeped into that one flower, and for a few seconds, it shone brighter than the brightest star.
“You got a lot of yo mama in you. But you got a lot of me too. We didn’t call you flower for nothin’.”
When she took the flower from him, she could feel the tiny pulse of life inside it.
“Like that flower, like me, you gon’ endure. It’s gon’ hurt, but it’s also gon’ be your strength. Keep it close to you. Under ya heart if you can.”
“You know, you look just like her. It hurt sometimes to see you walkin’ round here. For a second, I see you doin’ something and I think that you her, that she done come back.” He stared off into the distance. “Sometimes… Sometimes I think I feel her out there. I’ll be out looking for some work and I’ll feel a flash of heat nearby that remind me of her, almost like she standin’ next to me. Then she—it’s gone.”
Rana reached out, paused, touched her father’s shoulder. “It’s okay, daddy. It is.”
He smiled. Wrinkles creased the corners of his eyes. “You done forgave me already?”
“Oh, daddy,” Rana said, pulling her father close. He smelled like the forest, like ancient soil and freshly fallen leaves. “Daddy, I forgave you as soon as Mama taught me my first song. I forgave her too. I got my own song now. I’m as good as Mama was. Better, even.”
Their eyes met for a moment. Then Baby kissed Rana’s cheek, stood, and walked into the house.
All the birds ceased singing for a moment. A strong wind blew, carrying the scent of fresh tree roots and ancient soil. The rosebushes shimmered, red and pink and purple. And Rana began to whisper her song.
About the Author
Troy Wiggins is a writer and editor from Memphis, Tennessee. His short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Griots: Sisters of the Spear, Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction From the Margins of History, Expanded Horizons, Fireside Magazine and Memphis Noir. He blogs about the intersection of speculative fiction, race, and nerd culture at afrofantasy.net. Troy lives in Memphis with his wife and their two dogs.
About the Narrator
Kimberly Taylor is from Memphis, TN. She enjoys reading, coloring, and cackling over tea with friends. She is obsessed with Black Southern Womanhood (her own and that of others), nail art, and Bioware games.