MILLAT’S ORCHIDS were blooming again. After ten years of neglect in his basement, he’d moved them up to the kitchen, repotted them, watered as directed, and now they bloomed twice a year—big vibrant purple blooms in groups of four. Their sleek petals bared to the sun like open palms, they devoured sunlight and yawned in reverie. They grew luxurious and colorful.
A decade earlier, after the divorce, he’d relegated them to a basement storage room. He’d been overwhelmed then with the breaking apart, the ravaging, with little time to think about anything but consolidating, reevaluating, starting again. Many things were thrown away, some given away, others stored in the attic or basement. A four-inch clay pot with two bright green leaves was placed on a shelf by a grimy window and abandoned. Now and then as the years passed and he had some business in the basement, searching out one thing or another and excavating it from its burial place to reinstate it in his life, he’d notice the clay pot with a recurring surprise at a plant that remained green and alive though he never watered it or cared for it in any way. It must have been, he assumed, absorbing enough moisture out of the dank basement air to survive.
Piece by piece, year by year, he rearranged his life. His children grew and moved away. He partnered with and loved a smart, generous, open-hearted woman. He worked hard at all of it. He was not a good person, not at the core, not at heart. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say he had ugly corners in his heart, places where vile things flourished. He had to work toward decency. The phrase “building a life” seemed right. He labored at building a life, brick by brick. When things went wrong—and they did, some things went terrifyingly wrong—he turned to prayer. He opened his hands to an unknowable God and prayed as best he could, if not in the ways of his parents, still, honestly, in his own way.
It went on like that, the building and praying year by year. On a visit to one of his daughters, she’d shown him the orchids she adored and diligently cared for, misting them with distilled water, adding nutrients to their soil. When he returned home, he thought of the clay pot with the green leaves in his basement and remembered—or thought he remembered—that it might be an orchid. He brought it up and put it in his kitchen window. He attended to it carefully, and within months it bloomed—a single purple flower, petals open to the sun.
Now, to Millat, his orchids were as sentient beings, distinct lives that had sucked up what little sustenance they could find for as long as necessary, wringing it out of the air. Over the years, in his mind, they had grown together, the plants and the man and his prayers. Somehow he knew they were one thing: the prayers and the orchids, the desiccation and the flowering. When no one was looking, he’d touch his tongue to the base of the plant and kiss the dirt out of which such gorgeous things bloomed.
Ed Falco’s most recent book is the poetry collection Wolf Moon Blood Moon (LSU). His short stories have been published widely in journals and anthologies, including Best American Short Stories, Pushcart Prize, and Atlantic Monthly.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.