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Words Without Borders is one of the inaugural Whiting Literary Magazine Prize winners!
from the June 2015 issue

Pansies

Blue irises and garlic blossoms. The temptation is enormous, but I continue to resist. No more flowers, and no more excuses for either one of us. This ends here and now.

The first time I saw you, it was early morning and I was out with the dog on the riverwalk alongside the Po. You were running—more a triumphal march than a jog, really. How could anyone have failed to notice you as you took possession of the world in your running shorts? There you were: focused, sweat on your forehead, your eyes pointed toward the sun, which sat low in the sky at the far end of the river. You passed me without so much as a glance, but you did grin at the dog before disappearing up the climb just before the bridge. I saw you again the next day—same scene, same sense that you were trying to put distance between you and the competition in an imaginary marathon or that you were on your way to some far-off place where someone was waiting to be saved. This time, I watched you more closely, recognizing your striking correspondence to my fantasies. I’m drawn to people whose faces look like what it is they do, whatever that may be. What I mean is, faces that communicate a sense that the specific place on this earth their owners occupy is the one they have chosen for themselves.

He’s not gay, I thought to myself. Imagine my surprise when I happened to catch sight of you through the window of your flower shop. You were engulfed in a riot of maidenhair ferns and white roses, your strong, sure hands folding in on themselves as you gently wound wire around the stems. Imagine the effort involved in talking myself into going inside—me, who has a hard time telling a sunflower from a ladle. From the other side of the counter, hidden behind a funeral wreath of chrysanthemums, you looked at me and shyly stuttered a greeting. At that moment, as far as I was concerned, the die was cast. Give me someone who stutters or is cross-eyed or who wears eyeglasses thick as bottle bottoms; give me crooked teeth, braces, a lisp; give me the illusion of being the only one sensitive enough to appreciate the beauty concealed within a minor physical defect, and I’m lost.

“What are these?” I asked, feigning extravagant interest.

“Sweet briar.”

“That sounds fine. Would you give me a bunch?”

You wrapped them without a word, though you raised your eyes occasionally to look at me. When I was almost through the door, you called me back, holding out a small vase filled with bluish-purple flowers.

“A little something for new clients,” you said, smiling. You didn’t stumble over a single syllable. In the elevator at home, my neighbor told me they were called forget-me-nots.

I let three days go by before returning to your store to buy snowdrops, and I spent those three days on the internet, learning the names of flowers and houseplants. When you saw me, the color drained from your face, and then you blushed. In fact, I had the impression you were deeply moved. Was I the cause of all that nervous excitement? The thought crossed my mind, of course, but I couldn’t allow myself to believe it. What an impossible idea! Maybe you were just glad to sell some flowers, I thought. Anyone could see business in your shop wasn’t all that brisk.

For your second gift, you offered me a white hyacinth.

“But I’m not a new client anymore.”

“This is how we reward return customers.”

I came back after that, time and again, and each time I would find my arms filled with new gifts, each one more elaborate than the last. Before we ever managed a date outside the shop, you had given me (though I can’t recall in what order) wild mignonette (I never knew such a thing existed); a white asphodel in full bloom, tinged with pink; cotton flowers; cockleburs; lilacs; and then the gladioluses, rafts of gladioluses. I was so thrilled by your gifts and so impressed by the beauty of the gesture that I failed to realize, at first, that you were speaking to me despite the nearly total silence in which our exchanges took place.

I would have figured things out eventually, but matters became simpler one Sunday during a trip to the flea market. It made me sad to think of your shop all closed up on Sundays, the shutters lowered to the sidewalk. In my apartment, the sweet aromas that mingled and wound through the rooms made me light-headed. I stood looking around me, and I missed you. Who knew what far-off, inaccessible life had claimed you, and who knew how many steps you had taken in your race away from the future I was busily building for the two of us in the meanwhile.

And so I decided to go out for a bike ride, the dog trotting along behind me. In fact, if not for the fact that I noticed he was about to lift his leg against the side of a used bookseller’s kiosk, that small, worn volume, its jacket lost, would never have caught my eye. “Unsure how to express your feelings?” the cover read. “Say it with flowers. The marvelous secret language of plants.”

Once I’d gotten over the embarrassment of buying such a book, I began reading eagerly, before I’d even gotten home, my bike on one side and the dog, his leash looped around the handlebars, on the other. That was when I grasped the true meaning of one of your first gifts: a braided bundle of flowering cherry and apple branches. Unless I’d gone completely crazy, the message was: I blush when you appear; thus is revealed my unspoken affection for you (the cherry) and In time, will the flame of love color your delicate cheeks as well? (the apple).

There was only one way to know whether I’d made the whole thing up in my head: Present myself in your store with a gift of yarrow flowers (Are you as unsure of your actions as you appear?). Afterward, of course, I’d had to return home immediately to consult the manual in order to understand why your response had been to hand me a bouquet of rosebuds, the stems still covered with spines (Doubt and uncertainty hold this hopeful love in check).

It was such a wonderful game at the beginning: your laughter, when I heard it for the very first time, stifled behind a horrendous spray of pepperwort; the hint of mischief in your eyes, all but hidden by a bunch of red carnations; the reappearance of your sweet uncertainty, each time you handed me a gladiolus and caused my heart to melt.

Solving the puzzles you left for me was the loveliest thing that had ever happened to me. I had been alone for some time, and I never imagined a man might signal his interest by filling my bicycle basket with a fagot of apricot branches. I have nothing against white roses and Alpine violets (Eternal love free of worldly passion is a great fortune; in your honor, I offer my most chaste respect), but I did feel we had taken an important step forward when you stopped giving them to me.

Nothing was more lovely than waking in the morning, knowing you would have imagined some new way to make me smile, or crawling into bed at night with the same smile on my face as I remembered what you had actually done for me that day. But when we began to see each other regularly and to spend the night together, always at my place, the spell of having you near began slowly to transform itself into something else. I had hoped I would hear you speak eventually, that we would have a genuine conversation that went beyond such prosaic sentiments as “See you later” or “What do you feel like doing tonight?”

The apricot wilted, withered, and rotted in its vase in one corner of the room. I had yet to hear you say so much as a single word that concerned us, that told me how you felt or what you desired. Not one syllable.

I could overlook the fact that you had given me artichoke thistles for my birthday. I knew they were intended to say Life, in its passing, has left no mark on you, which was such a lovely sentiment. Still, thistles are ugly, and no one could possibly consider them romantic. While we’re at it, I won’t dwell on what happened when I was looking for work. Rather than offer me your encouragement, you planted marigolds and a hazelnut tree. And then, when I lost that job, you wrapped chives in tissue paper and left them on my doormat.

I turned my house inside out. I bought dozens of vases in every size and shape, packets of peat moss and fertilizer, watering cans, frost protectors and shade netting, hoes, rakes, and shears of every dimension. I cleaned out the garden department at Ikea, reorganized my balcony and the spaces on all the windowsills; I tilled those two square meters of earth in front of our building that are all I own. I even commandeered the landing in front of my neighbor’s door. And yet, as your floral riddle-making grew ever more complex and exacting, your silence remained.

I did my best to express all this to you, and your answer was to leave a nosegay of peppermint on the kitchen table: Why so much fuss over something of such little consequence? The next day, I tried once again to make you understand how deeply I desired to hear your voice. All I asked was some small word, perhaps only my name as you called to me from one edge of the jungle that was fast overtaking my apartment; some silly joke to clear the carbon dioxide emissions from the air; a moment of dirty talk as we tried to go about our business in bed over the drone of the automatic sprinklers. Anything to break the silence. You left again, naturally without speaking.

So there it is, I thought. I’ve scared him off—the most sensitive man in the whole of creation, a lily beyond price in the place of his heart, a sweet, shrinking violet. And as I contemplated having lost you, deep in desperation, the doorbell rang. I ran to answer, hoping I would find you there, hoping I would hear you say something, even if it was only, “Hi. I’m back.”

But no. It was your delivery boy instead. He held out to me, according to your precise instructions, an ornamental cabbage, an elderberry flower, and an ear of wheat. In that order.

Good lord. An entire sentence! We’d arrived at the heights of vegetable syntax! Rather than be angry, I smiled, and rushed once again to leaf anxiously through the pages of our dictionary. Speak more clearly if you wish me to understand, I read. You’ve grown cold, but have the wisdom to be patient. In time, your desires will ripen and bear fruit.

I might have responded by threatening to turn your cabbage into coleslaw; I might simply have told you to go to hell. But I didn’t. Instead, I went looking for a different florist, and I had them deliver a garland of forest moss, a poppy, and a mimosa branch to your door. Your stubbornness is exasperating. Your somnolent and phlegmatic nature prevents the blooming of my heart’s most powerful impulses. Does not the locking away of your beautiful heart reveal nothing more than stubborn pride?

You never answered, but perhaps you failed to notice the question mark at the end of the mimosa branch. And yet what could I have done? I’d never found the plant or flower that could serve as punctuation. A week of botanical silence ensued. I filled it with misery, the dogged resolution not to come looking for you, the hope I might hear the peal of the telephone (which you had never once used), the effort of smothering my desire to awaken you with lavender flowers and white carnations (My memory of you is the sum total of my happiness; longing for you burns within me).

It was a difficult week, sad and empty. I imagined every possible scenario, allowed my hope to disseminate in all directions, but never would I have guessed you would break the silence with a red dahlia. I compared sources, scouring the internet and poring over a nineteenth-century text I’d found at the community library, but your message was unambiguous: My heart is with you always; not so, my body.

I had no desire to make a scene in your shop, so I waited until closing time. As I stood outside, I watched you through the window. I saw you smile as you handed over an unspeakable potted agave. In that moment, I hated myself. It’s not like me to do what I did—burst in like one of the Furies and force you to speak. The first complete sentences I ever heard you utter, then, were those in which you confessed the truth: Yes, I was special to you, but you had never promised to be faithful.

I can accept nothing of the kind. I want an exclusive, and I have no idea what I am expected to do with a heart that travels apart from its own body, not even a heart made of lilies and sweet violets. I haven’t the strength to root out the weeds and crabgrass that grow around such a heart, and I thought that was clear from the very beginning. In fact, I had said as much. I felt certain we shared the same desires.

Perhaps now you will understand my suffering as I threw out the garlic blossoms and the irises (Your hypocritical love has vanished without a trace; for you I feel only supreme indifference), the oleander, the peonies, the spurge, the dandelions, and the yellow narcissus I continued to tend for you after our last meeting.

My house is empty once again. Every drop of sap, every trace of chlorophyll or whatever else flows through the green veins of plants—all of it has been purged from my apartment. I sowed the earth outside with salt. I left the orchids on the window sill during the coldest night of the year. I went on a rampage with the garden shears, doing away with anything that bore the slightest resemblance to a stem or a petal. The dumpster on my corner looked like the alley behind a cemetery after Day of the Dead celebrations, and the same stink of rotting flowers rose up and drifted through the windows of my house. I think the dog was nauseated as well.

I have picked my life up where I left it, though I avoid taking walks along the Po. As for you, tell your delivery boy to stop coming here. I have no intention of letting him in. And don’t you dare send me weeping willow, pepperwort, poinsettia, or clover—and that includes the four-leafed variety. Leave my keys with someone and make no attempt to enter my home. If you do, I promise you will encounter only nettles, a carnivorous plant in the entryway perhaps; without question, you will find a cactus between the sheets. Because, in the end, you are no different from all the rest. You’re a pansy, a pansy through and through.

“Finocchi.” From the collection Io non so chi sei (Turin: Instar Libri, 2009). © Giancarlo Pastore. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2015 by Wendell Ricketts. All rights reserved.

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