By Richard Leise
Sister Robert Rita holds the flower between her thumb and index finger. We, she believes, are just as lovely. We—the twenty of us—are soft evening skies, our hopes and dreams rising low to form full, sun-kissed clouds, dark silver outlines aging against an azure forever rising to erase its own base simplicity. Ordinary tragedies, we’ll burst, our showers falling to the earth warm as tears, pounding the concrete. Us. Sister’s young ladies. None of whom in this, our only century, care to put off living, any more than Sister can hold off breathing. Yet she tends to us here within her dreary, dusty classroom, which she brightens with small personal effects, understanding understatement in ways that we notice and appreciate and value in a world where the sweetness of the rose relies upon the name she wears.
“You are this flower,” Sister says, smiling. “During this exercise, you, while holding the rose, with the others looking on, are this rose. You, while looking on, your peers holding the flower, remain this rose. This is all you need to understand. No questions.”
We wear uniforms: maroon skirts, white shirts, sensible shoes. Most of us braid our hair, and we accent a handful of these with gold string. Wire’s poor substitute but, desperate for embellishment, pretty enough. Our shirts aren’t very white, and the maroon has faded to assume some other, nameless color. We grow like weeds, and we’re provided shoes as needed, which makes our poverty more pronounced, but only outside this building, only when we walk the few blocks to our apartments. We’re in sixth grade and so lipstick isn’t okay. There is no such thing as a touch of mascara. We wear white knee socks. Our phones and our backpacks identify us, but these they secure in our lockers.
Sister hands the rose to Tanya Alvarez. The rose is erect, its leaves alternate and feathery, its sharply-toothed leaflets firm and oval. Cultivated, its red is the blood of our cousins’ nail polishes, the scratches upon our mothers’ upper arms, and the rose has rows and rows of petals, a floral chalice firm as if compressed by gentle hands. This isn’t the point, but none of us have held a rose, and it’s difficult to remember who we are, and what Sister wants us to be, in the presence of this strange and sudden beauty.
We aren’t so old as to no longer vie for turns, or to resent alphabetical order, but we respect Sister, and even if we didn’t we know that class goes on not so much without us, but with her. After a minute, she directs Tanya to pass the flower to someone, to anyone, in class. Surprise. This is how Sister operates. We should know better. Here, in our desks, we don’t like freedom, we don’t want choice, and Tanya turns, she hands the rose to the girl behind her.
“Ah,” Sister says, “I should have mentioned. The only stipulation is that you leave your seats. The lesson is interactive, ladies. And of course no talking. But that,” she smiles, “goes without saying.”
Tanya pushes up from her desk. In doing so, she bends the flower’s stem. The light down the street greens and the room fills with sound, horns and traffic’s crushed hush. Water beads from the tear in the stem as Tanya, smiling, sashaying, makes to pass the flower to her best friend before pivoting and handing the flower to Sherane.
Sherane isn’t ready. Pricked, the flower falls to the floor. Fuck. Sister fights only so many battles. She nods. Pick it up. Sucking a finger, Sherane twirls the flower. We already understand that a minute is a long time, but we never get used to this feeling. When directed, Sherane stands, takes two steps, and passes the flower to Tamra. Wary, Tamra pinches the rose by a few petals, her fingers slick with oil, and the rose loosens, and the room fills with perfume.
Things are not only what they are. They are, in very important respects, what they seem to be. What elixir, what camphor does the world have to offer Lysandre? Or Tori, when it’s her turn to hold the flower? There is hope for a painter when she doesn’t have a canvas, Sister tells us, at least once a week. The magic is not in the painting, it’s in creating, and then devising, the hope.
That time can move both fast and slow? This is amazing. In seven minutes the bell will ring, and it’s only now that Gyllian returns the rose.
“Ladies,” Sister says. She holds the flower like a microphone. “Sustained silent writing. To the best of your ability, please describe this rose. I’d prefer that you discuss its condition, but we’re short on time. No questions.”
We pick up our pencils. We wonder what to write. To begin with, a mist covers our mind as when the rising sun has yet to crest the horizon and shadows just begin to submit to their sources. But the sun never rises. The shadows remain suspended, half-cast, the world around us dark, shrouded and grey. Sounds grow shrill amidst the glacial silence, and we are outside ourselves. Toes curled, hands clenched, we consider the flower, and we write what we see.
What we don’t write is that, desiccated, the rose droops, as if ashamed. Its leaves have lost their agency, a few, like shed shirts, fallen on the floor. When Sister alters her grip, no longer securing the stem where the tear, in time, extended, and now looks flattened, shredded, pale green strands bending as the flower flops. A few of us gasp.
We write about thorns. We write how the rose smells pretty. We use the word red. We use the word green. We don’t mention soft. We can’t, in one word, describe vulnerability. But five minutes later? With Sister and the rose at the head of the room? We’re still writing when that bell rings.