In these last few weeks, I’ve shared the origins of my novel The Forgetting Flower. It’s a story about memories, about a botanically unique plant, about sisterly relationships, and about Paris and Poland. It’s even about an immigrant’s dream of having a better life, which I haven’t touched on that much in these posts but is a driving theme throughout the novel.
The novel is also about scents. Today as I offer the first chapter for your enjoyment, I thought it would be fun to point out that there’s a scent in this first chapter that triggers a memory for Renia, my protagonist. In fact, I’ve woven a scent into each chapter. Every time she smells a scent, she remembers a memory. Can you figure out what that scent is in this chapter? If so, let me know in the comments below! Cheers.
The Forgetting Flower Excerpt
It was silly to hope her sister would answer but every week Renia called anyway. That Friday as the clerk packed up the plants, she stood at the wholesale counter waiting through the rings: one, two, three. By four, she knew chances were slim and by the fifth when the voicemail clicked on, she knew nothing had changed in eight months. At the tone, she made her voice sound warm and stable when she invited Estera to visit and talk it out. Then she ended the call and headed to the Metro, carrying her heavy crate of mums.
She went down the stairs into the dim subway, smelling stale air, telling herself Estera hadn’t meant what she’d said. “Never” was a long time. And next week was another opportunity. Still, Renia couldn’t escape the ache in her chest so as she sat on the train, she focused on the little plants she’d purchased: ten ‘Misty Secrets,’ four ‘Javelins,’ six ‘Ruby Gems.’ They were lovely specimens in fresh bloom without dry leaves or disease. They had been arranged in neat rows with newspaper in between to prevent tipping and keep the soil secure. Their tidy cheeriness made Renia forget the untidy aspects of her own life.
She came out of the Saint-Germain-des-Prés station and into the Rue Saint-Placide, trying to shake off her longing. As she walked, she took in the last day of August: the ornate buildings, the cobbled sidewalks, the shade of a tree. At the café, a young couple read a shared newspaper as they ate lunch. Three business men squeezed into a taxi, laughing about a missed flight. A grocer helped an elderly woman untangle her dog from a post. At least she had life in Paris.
She was about to cross the street and go in her plant shop when she noticed the sight of a dark spill on a building wall. Paint had rolled down the limestone in streaks, tarnishing the façade. Such a strange color. Not bright like the Polish flag or carmine like military coats but scarlet like the Kordia cherries she ate as a girl in Kraków. She paused, shifted her crate, and touched the liquid, rolling it between her fingers. It was thin with a weak metallic scent, and had come from a premier étage apartment. The balcony door was open and a Rachmaninoff concerto stormed out. Through an iron railing, orange petunias jittered in the wind.
That was Alain’s apartment.
Odd. He never opened his balcony door.
She called his name, set a hand on her forehead to block the sun. She waited for him to come outside and apologize for knocking over a can of paint. Laugh off some clumsy thing he’d done. But he didn’t. Instead, the trumpets blared, the piano banged. The violins swooned over rolling tympani. It was as if the music answered in a language she couldn’t understand.
“Alain! It’s Renia!”
A rising panic swelled inside. Last month he’d had that relapse. And he’d switched medications. He’d wanted a natural cure. He’d tried St. John’s Wort and saffron and who-knew-what but Renia knew there was no cure but to change his attitude. He’d wanted what she had in the atrium and she’d helped him with it but she wasn’t a doctor and his condition was too serious for amateurs and oh lord, was it still there?
Please be there. Please.
The blue sky sat like a giant shroud. He couldn’t have done it, he couldn’t … but he might have. She maneuvered around to see through the balcony grate. There seemed to be a hand with fingers, an arm stretched out on the floor. Was that an arm? Yes, it was an arm.
Oh Hell. She turned and darted to the street, paused for a scooter to whiz by, and hurried to the door of Le Sanctuaire.
She fumbled in her bag for the keys and after a moment dropped the crate of plants to better search. She stuck the antique trinket in the hole, clicking two times to the right while pulling the door in a stiff hold. The shop door gave and she raced around the counter to her phone by the cash register. Dialed 112 and waited. The fountain at the room’s center, a cement bowl with a goddess and her pitcher, trickled water like a pep talk. When the dispatcher answered, she explained that her neighbor, who lived at 35 Rue Saint-Placide, was bleeding and needed emergency care.
The dispatcher asked questions about location and her name, but when the dispatcher asked how Renia knew the man was injured, she went mute, staring at the phone unable to speak. Had the dispatcher said, “How had he been injured?” Renia knew how, at least she thought she did, but how to explain it? And did she want to? The fountain goddess stared with graceful ease as she poured her steady water. Better not. Better not be sure, because after all, she didn’t know how or what had happened exactly, whether he’d gone mad or fallen asleep or done the one thing he’d agreed not to do. No, she didn’t know how he’d injured himself but the reality was she had a clear idea.
“Please come,” she said. “There’s blood.”
Minutes later, a siren blared, its brassy cry growing louder. Swirling red lights saturated the shop like a ghoulish theatre. A medic truck and police car arrived, blocking one side of two-way traffic. She was about to go outside, intending to cross the street and show them where Alain’s apartment was but stopped. The paramedics marched straight in as if they knew. Maybe someone else had called too. Maybe Alain had called, just before he’d used … it.
She knew the proper thing to do, the innocent thing, would be to appear at his apartment. Check on him. Talk to the police. But that was a risk. Instead, she went to the atrium at the shop’s rear. There the answer to a more pressing question waited.
The atrium was a long narrow lean-to built of wood and windows. A potting counter lined the windows with a sink, tools, clay pots, twine, soil. On the upper shelf attached to the store’s outer wall, Renia felt blindly along until she found the crow bar. Thank God, it’s there. Then under the counter she moved some hose and a handful of signs she used for pricing, shuffled through newspapers, knick knacks, boots, bags of soil. Finally, behind a stack of metal buckets, she found the gas mask.
She put it on and it pressed against her skin, smelled rubbery in the heat. She adjusted the perimeter on her cheeks, made sure the mouthpiece covered her jaw. Then, feeling like a hosed creature from an old horror movie, she pulled the stool to the false wall she’d built. In January, she’d cut a piece of paneling to fit from the shop’s outer wall all the way across to the windows, and all the way from floor to ceiling. Anyone who walked in the atrium thought the room was six feet smaller than it was — and had no clue what was behind the panel. If she could help it, no one ever would.
She got on the stool, remembered the bar, and came down to grab it from the counter. When she was up again, she set the short curve of it into the thin seam between the shop wall and false-wall and pried back the board. It creaked and heaved. More gentle yanking and the panel shifted.
The entry bell jingled.
She froze. Listened. Relax, it could be a customer.
The door clicked shut. The glass hummingbirds tinkled against the windows.
“Allô?” a man said.
Not a customer. They didn’t call out. She scrambled down and whipped off the mask.
In a fury, she searched for a box or tub, then spotted a wicker basket filled with dried flowers and stems. She dropped the mask in and with a foot slid the basket beneath the counter.
“Police…” the voice said.
She hid the bar behind her back, straightened up, and smoothed her hair as an officer came in view.
“Oui?” she said.
In French, he said, “Ah. Excuse me, Mademoiselle, my name is Officer Kateb. I was wondering if I could ask you a few questions.”
He seemed an Algerian-Frenchman, wavy black hair, black eyes. He was in his late 20s, skinny with a sparse goatee as if he’d been a teenager a few years ago. His blue short-sleeve shirt made him look like a traffic controller but his patch denoted Brigadier. So did his stern expression.
She slid the crowbar into the back of her slacks, inhaled a calming breath.
“Yes?” she said.
“Are you the owner of this shop?”
“No, I just … I’m the manager.”
“Did you make an emergency call?”
He opened a notepad. “And your name.”
Slowly, casually, she spelled the words “Renia” and “Baranczka.”
He scribbled it with a misspelling. “So, were you here about an hour ago?”
“No, I was out running errands.”
He looked up at that. She held his surprised stare, worried he’d see her heart pounding. “I went to lunch. And I went to the plant market.” Then, so as to squash any suspicion, she added, “Le Chasseur and Petit Rungis.”
“I see,” he said and wrote on his pad.
The iron bar felt heavy and cold against her back. She imagined it sliding through her pants leg and clanging on the floor. She pictured his alarmed expression, her muddled explanation.
“OK, so…” he flipped a page to check his notes, “do you know any of the people who live across the street?”
“Do you mind giving me a list?”
“Eh … no, I know João, the owner of the bistro.”
“There’s only one. Across the street.”
He wrote that on his pad.
“And there’s a couple, young, who live in the building beside the bistro. They live on the first floor. I don’t know their names. Alain Tolbert lives across the hall from them. He’s my neighbor.”
She blinked, swallowed her fear. “Well, I mean, no, their neighbor. But yes, my neighbor as well. He’s a friend, a client. His door’s open.”
Kateb wrote “friend and client.”
She yearned for him to say “thank you” and leave, but he didn’t.
“So I hear a slight accent,” he said. “Were you born in France?”
She held her breath. “No. Does it matter?”
He didn’t answer, only wrote on his notepad.
She didn’t want to be a suspect. She told herself she couldn’t be.
“Is he dead?” Renia said.
Kateb looked up. “Who?”
She lowered her head, cringed. That meant “yes.”
He watched her.
“When’s the last time you spoke to him?” he said.
Alain, dead. Oh, lord, she expected it and yet didn’t.
She gave a slight shrug. “I don’t know. Last Tuesday, I think.”
“How did he seem?”
She closed her eyes to remember. He’d sat on the very stool Kateb stood beside. He’d just come from a luncheon he’d organized. His suit coat was off, tie loose. Alain had a narrow, clever face. He wore his hair gelled back, showing a widow’s peak, though the hair was soft and fresh. His long nose pointed to a wily grin and his deep-set eyes were both melancholy and bright at the same time. He twirled the stem of a fading aster. “He was happy,” she said.
“What was the purpose of his visit here?”
“He put in an order for flower arrangements.” Who would deliver them now? And Madame Palomer was still working on them. Who would tell her? She felt agony at thinking she might have to. “I, we, sell him flowers. He’s a, a … he coordinates events.” Her face warmed. Her hands shook. Alain, lost. Not him. Why him? This happened too quickly. We texted yesterday.
The bar slipped down and she straightened up. The hook caught on her waist band.
“Are you okay?” he said.
“Yes,” she put a hand to her back and held it. “I’m … upset.”
He nodded, took a card from his pocket. “If you remember anything unusual, anything suspicious, or that he did anything out of the ordinary, talked to someone he normally doesn’t talk to, please call me and let me know.”
She took the card. “Yes, okay.”
He held out his hand. “Thank you very much.”
She moved her left hand to her back so her right could shake his. She didn’t want to ask Kateb and yet she wanted to know. She needed to know. “Was his death a suicide?”
He studied her eyes.
Her heart raced. She forced her face to remain concerned.
“We don’t know the details of the situation,” he said. “That’s what we’re hoping to find out.”
After Kateb returned to Alain’s building, Renia locked the shop door. She considered pulling the shade but decided that looked suspicious so she backed away from the window far into the shadow of the room and unhooked the bar from her waist. This time, once she was in the atrium, she closed the door. She wanted to collapse on the floor and cry. She wanted to scream at Alain. She told herself to get it together and dug out the mask from the trimmings basket. With it on, she pried out the panel just far enough to slip past it and yanked on the metal handle to scoot it behind. There, in a six-by-six-foot space was a potting table made of old whitewashed wood. Atop the table was a small antique greenhouse without a floor, about as big as a large cardboard box. It had a steel framework with little glass windows, dotted at the roof with sweat. She lifted the house to reveal the plant at the heart of her and Alain’s dispute.
It was a small shrub in a large pot that could be mistaken for a bonsai, two feet tall with twisting branches and round dark leaves whose surface sported a light fuzz. One trunk gave way to three woody branches that grew into thinner papery branches. Amidst the leaves were clusters of transparent stems with blooms. They resembled African violet flowers but larger with a color between purple and magenta. Estera had nicknamed the plant ‘Violet Smoke.’
A gangly awkward sight, Renia thought. Stupid plant. She leaned over the foliage, careful not to brush the blossoms and release more scent, and counted. Three days ago, eight blooms. Now … five. Five. Alain did do it. She put a hand to her head but hit the mask. What had he thought? If one did the trick, not two but three must be better? Last Tuesday, he’d stopped by to chat. She had to make a deposit at the bank. But the store had customers. She hadn’t had three customers at once in months. He offered to watch the shop. He said it was no trouble. With a long line at the bank, an excursion that usually took five minutes took 20. But Alain hadn’t known about the secret nook. He knew about the atrium but not the nook. Apparently, the damn fool figured it out.
She plopped down on a stool, her face turning hot. Her only friend in Paris, dead. Her friend who could make her smile. No one could make her smile, no one could control her, she’d learned not to lose control long ago. She’d learned that with schoolyard bullies, with a boyfriend who’d conned her out of money, even with her father during arguments, but with Alain she could forget caution. Now as she sat like a chunk of clay, she fought the tears that clouded her mask and the view of what might be her future.
Later on the street, Kateb’s police car was still double-parked. Another squad car and an unmarked van had arrived. The balcony door was open and bursts of light flashed inside the apartment. Renia watched from the shop window. Those missing flowers were in Alain’s kitchen or on the dining table, she knew it. Of course, shriveled and useless by now, the scent dissipated by time and air. The question was whether the police would see the flowers as any kind of evidence. Probably not. But an autopsy … that could reveal a clue. She had to get inside. Exactly when was the question. How long would the investigation go on? Relax, she thought, wait for the right time. She imagined a customs official escorting her onto a flight bound for Poland. You’re not going anywhere. You’re an EU citizen. The dream won’t die. It was an accident. You’ve done nothing wrong.
But she had done something wrong. She’d made the wrong decision. She could have left the plant with Estera. No, you couldn’t. She went to the counter and stood behind it as if ready to tally an order for a customer, as if business was as usual. She was surrounded by plants, beefy leaves and delicate branches, spades, hearts, fans of dark green or light, bluish tones, yellow echoes. There were soaps and books and linens but the plants, the plants came at her with their alive silence. They smelled of moist soil. They crowded around for attention, for watering, for clipping, for dusting but all she thought of was the one plant she wished had never come into her life.
It was late August, last year in Kraków at Biały Manor. That day Estera worked the kitchen garden and Renia, the perennial border. She was exhausted. When Estera came and took her hand, Renia felt annoyed. “Where are we going?” she said. “I have to work.”
“He’s waiting for us,” Estera said.
Estera tilted her head as if the answer were obvious.
Renia stiffened. They were about to be fired. “What does he want?”
“He said he needs to speak with us.”
Inside the greenhouse the air was warm. The soil in the pots, moist. The oval leaves of the Bird of Paradise dampened the weak light. Renia had never met her employer though he signed her paycheck every week. For a plant aficionado, he rarely went outside. As she pondered whether that was unusual, she passed a table of orchids, their wiry wands rising up to explode in red sculptures. She wondered what Pan Górski looked like, knowing he was one of the wealthiest men in Kraków. A tangle of exposed roots bumped her face, an orchid hanging from the ceiling. Its bent rubbery strings felt like fleshy fingers about to grab and choke. She hurried on, passing a table of moth orchids. Some were sprinkled with specs, some solidly pink. One was white with scarlet veins. The veins’ delicate interweaving pattern was visible, reminding her of a human brain.
“Girls, come closer.”
A man stood at the back wall. He was on the shorter side, slim, in a corduroy coat and trousers, a tweed cap. Renia realized she had seen him before, walking in the field by the pond. With his weathered face and bony hands, she’d assumed he was the farm caretaker, not the descendant of a noble family.
“Now which is which?” he said.
Renia and Estera were twins, born two minutes apart. They shared the same large green eyes and roundish face, straight gold hair, long nose, puckered mouth. But their personalities differed. Estera’s name meant “star” and she was the star. Outgoing, easy to know, emotional. She expressed herself authentically. While Renia struggled to be open and friendly, she found it easier to be closed. Uncertainty was her specialty and uncertainty had not only saved her more than once, it had saved Estera a few times too. But Estera always saved Renia by being her voice, her advocate, her best friend.
“I’m Estera,” Estera said. She put her arm around Renia, a reassuring side hug Estera knew to give her when Renia felt shy. “This is Renia.”
Górski nodded. His wide nose and full mouth announced a confident presence but his tiny eyes said mischief. “Girls, you’ve worked hard over the years so I want to give you something. My favorite plant, a plant I…” His expression darkened, his body slumped. “See here, I’m going to die someday.”
Renia was about to ask if he was ill when Estera went to him and reached for his hand. “Are you well?” she said.
He took Estera’s hand, smiled at her as a grandfather smiles at his granddaughter. “Yes, yes. For now, yes.”
Renia knew Estera had met Pan Górski but didn’t know they were close. She speculated they’d grown close because their own father was so gruff.
Górski patted Estera’s hand, then turned to a small plastic closet in the corner. It had a zipper and a flexible tube attached to vent moisture out the wall. Inside, on a metal shelf sat a squat twisted shrub.
It was the ugliest plant Renia had ever seen. It had no grace like a rose or symmetry like a hydrangea. Not even alluring flowers like hibiscus. The branches zig-zagged back and forth while shedding bark as if struggling against disease.
“Estera, you’re the one who’s taken care of it,” he said, “and I know you love my dear miniature, so I want you to have it.”
Estera clapped her hands. “Oh, wonderful! Are you sure?” Her face tightened. “But your wife. You made it for her, it’s hers.”
“Yes, but,” he said quietly, “she can no longer walk out here to enjoy it.”
Estera’s eyebrows wrinkled, her face contorted in sympathy. Renia marveled at how comfortable Estera was with sharing her emotions. “Poor dear,” Estera said.
“Yes, well, she gets on as she can.” He pointed to Renia, “Now, I want you to share it with, with…”
“Renia?” she said. Estera smiled as if to let him know she understood his difficulty in remembering.
“Yes, yes,” he said. He looked at each twin. “She wears the hair up, you wear it down, I must remember.” Renia’s hair was often in a ponytail, Estera’s loose. “You know what my little dear needs, but remember to remove the blooms at the first sign of buds. Very important. Then, in autumn and spring, allow it to bloom but cover your face and secure it in the closet when it does.”
Estera gazed at the plant, her eyes shimmering. “It’s beautiful,” she said. “Thank you, Pan. I’m very very excited. How did you make it? Tell me. Tell me exactly how so I can make another for Renia.”
Renia thought creating another weed like that was a ridiculous idea.
Górski’s lips wrinkled. “I … I’m unable to remember. Saintpaulia and…” he gave a slight shrug, “so many hybrids, so many experiments and many, many failures, but this one, this was my favorite success.” He repeated a soft grunting, which Renia realized was a laugh.
“Yes, of course,” Estera said. “I understand.” She looked at Renia. “We’re honored to have it, aren’t we?”
Renia straightened her shoulders. She opened her mouth to say, “No, not really. We don’t need an exotic plant that only grows in warm humid conditions. Where will we keep it? At Mama and Tata’s? We don’t have the money to take care of it. And we certainly don’t have the time to baby it. Besides, it looks like a bonsai that went wild,” but she didn’t say that. Being honest would have meant hurting both Górski and Estera’s feelings.
“Well,” Renia said. “I don’t know where we’ll keep it.”
Estera’s smiling face dulled.
“You may leave it here, as long as you care to,” Górski said. “It likes its chamber.”
“It’s an amazing specimen, one of a kind,” Estera said, “I assure you, I’ll take good care of it.” She squeezed his hand.
He nodded in a shaky bob. “Yes, good,” he said. “My body tells me I no longer have much time, but you two are young and have many years to enjoy plants and their ways. Now do remember, be careful with it or things will happen that you can’t undo. Here,” he took a folded handkerchief from his pocket and handed it to Estera, “follow me and I will show you why it’s so special.”
In the atrium, Renia mourned how that special quality was also its curse. After a year and a half, so much had changed. Pan Górski had passed away. Renia was in Paris, Estera in Poland. When Renia remembered how she and Estera had parted, she warmed with anger, then remembered how Estera had paid such a terrible price and softened. Had Alain gone the way of Estera? She wouldn’t forgive herself if he had. She imagined his last moments alone as Renia approached his apartment. Maybe if she’d come back sooner, she could have saved him. She might have texted him, called him, waved to him, jolted him from his depression. But she hadn’t. The regret ate at her. She shook her head. You’ve got work to do. She wiped away her tears and went outside. There on the cobbled sidewalk, she picked up the overturned crate of chrysanthemums, scraping the soil together and trying to set each little pot of green life upright again.
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