By: Christian Ward
The afternoon where I discovered the word dying began with something simple as sunflowers.
We had been touring the French countryside in the morning, visiting old vineyards and cellars and decided to eat lunch opposite a field of sunflowers. But these were dying and I watched their petals wilt under the heat. Some of the sunflowers had been cut down and mounds of flowers lay by the side of the road like shallow graves, visited only by flies and other insects.
Father parked the car between a pair of cherry trees in a gravel covered lay-by. It was early summer and the cherries hung like leathery marbles from the branches. A couple fell and Rufus, our German Shepherd, chased them with his paws as if they were footballs.
I sat on the bonnet watching sunflowers as my parents unloaded the picnic equipment. I had never liked sunflowers when I was little; there was something terrifying about the way they looked. Those large brown centres reminded me of the Cyclops and their floppy petals hung like a folded out paper crown, sitting on top of an evil jester. Then there was their size. Standing tall, the sunflowers dwarfed everything in the landscape. I was much smaller then and they stood over me like giants.
But now I was in charge. I smirked at them as I ripped petals off one of their fallen comrades. This is for you, o sunflowers. I was going to be the general this afternoon and the sun was my soldier, burning them with its flame lit guns.
Opening up the large wicker basket, mother reached inside and pulled out the roast chicken, wrapped in its tin foil shroud. Rufus moved closer to the table and eyed it carefully as she laid it down.
“You’ll get some later”, she whispered in his ear.
Rufus sighed and rolled over. A long baguette was taken out, followed by a bunch of local grapes and peaches. Father took out the plates and cutlery, whilst Mother pulled out a bottle of sparkling white wine, its bubbles hissing gently as it was placed in the middle of the table.
“Come on Tom, lunch is ready” Father cried
I leapt off the car and sat down at the table next to mother. After carefully putting on my napkin, I put my hands together. But I couldn’t close my eyes. I watched my parents. Eyes closed. Hands together. It wasn’t so much that I couldn’t close them, it was a feeling that I didn’t want to close them.
“Let us pray” my father began
Pray. That was something I had never really done. I had always gotten through mealtimes by mumbling, slowly chewing my words to convince everyone that I was a believer. In my eyes, God was as phoney as the sunflowers.
“Lord, we thank you for the…”
“Tom, why aren’t your eyes closed?”
I looked up to see my father glaring at me, his face slowly turning red like the fallen cherries.
“My eyes hurt”, I lied. “Do I have to?”
“Yes. No arguments”
I tried closing my eyelids but no matter how hard I tried, they just wouldn’t close.
“And what is your game, exactly?” he hissed, coming closer to me
“Robert, calm down” my mother said, trying to avoid another fight.
“Marianne, stay out of it”
“This is how you close your eyes”
He reached over and pressed his thumbs on my eyelids. Everything went dark for a moment. Light slowly followed and I could see the outlines of everything around me.
“You’re hurting him” the first voice said
“It’s for his own good” the second one replied
“Let him go”
There was silence followed by the repeated sound of something slashing the air. I shook my head repeatedly to remove the weight that was holding me down and woke up on the floor, my body spread out like a starfish.
“Have you learnt your lesson?” father said as he pulled me up
“Yes” I lied and looked at mother, whose pale skin seemed pinker than before.
The rest of the meal passed without incident. Nobody said anything and we all chewed silently, ripping off the flesh of the old bird until it was nothing but bones. But Rufus wasn’t hungry and he stared at the chicken, growling.
We decided to go to a nearby lake to cool off. I watched a group of old women carrying sunflowers as we drove through an empty village. One had tied a sunflower around her neck like a charm to ward off evil spirits. Or children, I thought. She flashed a toothy smile and her teeth jangled like a pot of rusty keys.
The landscape slowly started to shift from sunflowers and old villages to rocky gorges and rust coloured sand. We had not merely travelled to another place; we had travelled to another world. Rufus barked to announce our presence as the car ground to a halt. He leaped out and wagged his tail happily as the three of us headed towards the rocky beach.
Unusually, there were few families at the lake. A German family had camped near a group of pines at the furthest end and I could see the smoke from their barbecue rising on the horizon. A French couple lay sunbathing at the beginning of the beach, listening to the radio. We made our way to the western end, near the largest cluster of pines. I could smell them as I approached our spot.
“Race you!” I cried and started to chase after Rufus, my feet kicking up clouds of red dust as I ran.
My parents laid down under the biggest pine and started to sunbathe. As mother started to lie down, I noticed her stomach was bruised. It seemed slightly more inflated than last month. I turned away quickly before she could notice that I was looking at her.
That would be my secret.
After searching for shells, I returned to find Rufus chasing a wasp. He whined as it buzzed, diving deep into his fur.
“Get away!” I cried. “Get away from him!”
Father looked up. “What…what now?”
I glanced at mother.
“Just a wasp…never mind…”
I started to think of the dying sunflowers as I saw her. She would be gone soon. And then my world would burn, crumpling up in the palm of my hand. A flower lost to the wind.