In these last few weeks, I’ve shared the origins of my novelThe 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. I hope you enjoy.
The Forgetting Flower Excerpt
Renia doubted her sister would answer, but every week she 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. When the voicemail clicked on, she knew nothing had changed in eight months. At the tone, she said warmly in Polish, “Steri, the fall perennials are in. New cultivars you’d find interesting. And the city, it’s still hot, but beautiful. The flowers in the squares have such bold colors, there’s even a palm tree. So . . . if you’d like to visit, please visit. Come. Let’s talk things out, okay?” She ended the call and headed to the métro, carrying her heavy crate of mums.
She went down the stairs into the dim subway, smelling the stale air, ripe with dried urine and rotting food, telling herself Estera hadn’t meant what she’d said. “Never” was a long time. Still, Renia couldn’t escape the ache in her chest, so as she sat on the train, she focused on the little perennials she’d purchased: ten ‘Misty Secrets,’ four ‘Javelins,’ six ‘Ruby Gems.’ They were lovely chrysanthemums 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 gave her relief from the untidy aspects of her own life.
As she came out of the Saint-Germain-des-Prés station, she vowed to leave her longing behind and enjoy the summer day: the ornate buildings, cobbled sidewalks, welcoming shade of a tree. At the café, a young couple read a shared book as they ate lunch. Three businessmen climbed into a taxi, laughing about a missed flight. A grocer helped an elderly woman untangle her dog from a post. The scenes lightened her spirit though she couldn’t fully relax, couldn’t fully exhale, not yet. But at least she lived in Paris.
She was about to cross the street and go in her plant shop when she noticed 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 cher‐ ries 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. Looking up, she saw it had spilled from a deuxième étage apartment. The balcony door was open and a Rachmaninoff concerto stormed in the air. 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, waiting 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 magic cure. Some‐ times one simply had to change their attitude. She had, more or less. He’d wanted what was hidden in the atrium and she’d helped him with it before. But she wasn’t a doctor, and his condition was too serious for amateurs and—oh lord, was it still there?
Come to the door. Please.
The blue sky sat like a giant shroud. The concerto roared, the No. 2, his favorite. The liquid streaks, so scarlet red. He couldn’t have done it, he couldn’t . . . but he might have. With her hand, she shielded the sun from her eyes and strained to see through the balcony railing. There seemed to be a hand with fingers, an arm stretched out on the cement floor. Diffi‐ cult to . . . 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 to better search. With dirt at her feet, she found it and stuck the antique trinket in the hole, jiggling while pulling the door in a stiff hold. Finally, the lock opened and she raced around the counter to her phone by the computer. Dialed 112 and waited. The fountain at the room’s center, a cement bowl with a goddess and her urn, trickled water like a pep talk. When the dispatcher answered, she explained that her neighbor, who lived at 35 Rue Sereine, was bleeding and needed emergency care.
The dispatcher asked questions about location and her name, but when the dispatcher asked how the man had been injured, Renia went mute, staring at the phone unable to speak. 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 goddess of the fountain 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 she had an idea.
“Please come,” she said. “There’s blood.”
Last week, in my post about the origins of my novel about a flower (The Forgetting Flower), I talked about the idea of plant scents, memory, and why I thought working in a plant shop would be a fun experience. Of course, I put forth the question of what life would be like if you had a plant whose flower was dangerous to inhale. And who would care for that plant? How would the person have obtained it in the first place?
The Flower in Question
I’m really into African Violets (or Saintpaulia). They are a favorite of mine. I’ve always loved how their bluish green leaves contrast with their magenta, pink, or violet blooms. They have delicate flower and leaf stems but are tough and hardy. Native to Africa, they deal well with drought, hence, why they’re so successful as houseplants. But they are a basal foliage plant, meaning they don’t really branch. They kind of grow a trunk but those are twisty and low to the soil. So I wondered what it would be like if the African Violet did branch? What would the plant look like? They’d probably be zig-zaggy things, almost like a yucca looks once it’s mature. I liked the idea of a strange, maybe even ugly plant, being at the center of desirability among people. Not for its strange look but for what it could do. And in my scenario, that was make a person forget a memory rather than vividly remember it.
The Plant Caretaker
So who would take care of this dangerous plant? It could be anyone but because of its rare qualities, it would more likely be someone who had plant knowledge like a botanist or grower. But for plot reasons, I didn’t want a character with too much knowledge because then there would be no mystery behind it, so I created a woman who worked in a plant shop. The protagonist would be someone who had a basic knowledge of horticulture but wasn’t a full-on scientist. The next question I had was how would she have obtained it?
Where Did it Come From?
The choices were 1) she created it herself, 2) she “discovered” it, or 3) someone gave it to her. I thought the third was the most interesting since it might offer situations for conflict. Maybe the giver would want it back. And maybe the giver wasn’t the creator. That intrigued me even more. I decided she had to take care of it out of obligation and had to choose whether to use it or allow others to. I created a protagonist who didn’t want the plant but felt obligated to take care of it.
How would that work? Why would one do that? Maybe you’d do it for it for someone you loved or deeply cared about. So I gave her a sister.
A Twins Relationship
Twins have always interested me. I have a friend who’s a twin and she says there’s a special connection she has with her sister, moreso than other sisterly relationships. So I imagined two sisters, one in Paris, one in Poland. And though my twin sister friends in real life get along well, I decided it would be more interesting if my fictional twins didn’t. I wondered what things would be like if a beloved twin hated you.
Renia, the sister in Paris, is estranged from Estera, the sister in Poland. But why? And why are they in separate countries? The answer is the entire story of The Forgetting Flower.
Next week, I’ll post the first chapter of The Forgetting Flower for your enjoyment.
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Most people love fragrant flowers. Who doesn’t want to take in the sweet smell of a lily or antique perfume of a rose? Scents are one of the gifts plants give us. They add to our sensory world. They, more than taste or sight or sound or touch, take us to a time in our lives of memory. Vivid memory. So what if there were a flower whose scent was dangerous? What if there were a scent whose inhalation caused one to lose a memory? Two summer ago, I kept thinking about these questions. I couldn’t get them from my mind. I was obsessed with the idea of a flower whose scent you can’t inhale. Thus, I started forming my novel The Forgetting Flower in my mind.
Where Did It Come From?
While I detailed the qualities of this forbidden flower in my head (more on that in a future post), I also wondered where that flower might show up: in a garden, in a commercial grower’s nursery? A garden might be unlikely as anyone who grew the flower outdoors would be subject to its scent. Would they experience memory loss randomly and constantly? That was a messy idea. If the flower showed up in a nursery that meant a grower would have had to breed it and that was also a complex issue. Perhaps, even a scientific one I wasn’t ready to explain in a novel. Also, I wasn’t sure why a breeder would breed such a flower unless its dangerous scent was an accidental outcome.
The Dream of a Plant Shop
Meanwhile, plant shops were on my mind. I’ve always admired entrepreneurs who own their own gardening shops. They are the kings and queens of their little fiefdoms. They surround themselves with these green growing sculptures, they choose what to spotlight, they take care of their alive pets, they make customers happy, and most of all, unlike me, they don’t do that much physical gardening work. I had this idea that plant shops were a heavenly place to work. As an owner, you’re in control, you’re not a slave to the hard labor of gardening, and you get to have fun in creating a lush sanctuary for customers.
So I decided to place my amnesiac flower plant in a plant shop. But who would sell that plant and how would the person have obtained it in the first place? And what if the shop wasn’t a heavenly place to work but a dark burden? These were the questions I needed answers to. I’ll cover what I decided next week in Part 2 on the origins of The Forgetting Flower.
If you’re interested in my other novels, please check out my posts on Why I Wrote a Novel About a Weird Apple.