Sunflowers by Kris Hawkins
There was a field of sunflowers at this park I used to frequent. I say a field because that’s what it felt like, but really it was more of a patch. A yellow fifty-yard dash through the green Bermuda grass which was itself perforated with dainty three-prong shoots. Chunky dragonflies with translucent wings hovered through it all around sunset. In late spring, I developed a habit of visiting the park after work. After spending the better part of the sun’s rays in a boxy concrete-beige office building, seated in a similarly boxy fabric-beige cubicle, staring at a flat bright box with tiny boxes checkered across it, blocky numbers populating them in rhythm with the weighted click of boxed number keys beneath my fingers—well, I’d investigate the patch for anything that breathed. I mostly saw stalks and leaves, but sometimes behind a scamper I’d glimpse a tuft of brown fur, a glossy eye, a loopy ear. Wings slapped through the patch as well, gray or white, and they made the broad, droopy sunflower heads bob and sway like they had begun boxing.
Then one day, the sunflowers were gone.
But, before I talk about how the sunflowers disappeared, and what I did when they did, it’s important to understand how they ended up there at all.
See, I first started going to Celestial Park because it was mostly empty. Apart from a well-kept spaceship-themed playground satellited off at the far end, where families took their kids to pretend they were rocket ships, or astronauts, or rogue meteors, there was just a long concrete meander of a trail bisecting fields and forest. The fields were wide, three-inch tall swaths of green; the forest a dense, stately tangle of darker green. The trail looped up and around the fields for about a half a mile I’d say. On days I was struggling, I looped along with it, seven times, precisely. I’d read somewhere seven was a holy number, so I thought if I looped it seven times it’d help things.
By the time I’d finished the last loop, I was easing apart like the clouds overhead, breathing in the scent of soil-rich grass as it flitted along breezes pregnant with the laughter of children. Somewhere in these early visits, I discovered a kind of holiness in emptiness. I’m not religious, and I always thought the sacred was something imagined; yet if the sacred is real, and I think it is now, a part of it must be tucked inside the sound of sneakers scuffing on pavement.
The seventh time I visited the park was also the first time I saw the sunflowers, was also the last time I had a coherent conversation with my mom. Years of flooding her liver with alcohol finally broke the dam.
Cause and effect.
It’s what she told me as she lay there in her hospital bed, puffy-faced and distended with plastic tubes for veins. Each tube was, to me, a metaphor for a separate year of her life. The one puncturing her forearm, that was her sixteenth year, the same year I was born, pumping with life. I could tell because my birth year was tattooed on her wrist. Her nose tubes, which hung like a cheap bull ring from her nostrils and skirted around her rubbery jowls, up past her thinning, close-cropped red hair, those represented the year she decided she needed room to breathe and be alone, and that having a husband and son at twenty-two wasn’t conducive to that. The large tube poked into her thigh was the year she learned to drink her demons away. I pitied her, and I loved her. I also blamed her. Greatest to least, in that order, but she could always see the least in me.
“It ain’t nobody’s fault. It’s just cause and effect, Michael. I knew what I was doing baby.”
“If you knew, then why’d you keep doing it?” I asked.
Mom stared at the azaleas drifting outside her hospital window like that was some sort of answer. Or maybe she was hoping they’d give her one. I’ll never know — ten seconds into azalea pondering she was seizing and shuddering, and as the nurses ushered me out I watched everything from above like it was my spirit that hatched from the corporeal, was now free to roam the open air.
So eight hours later I was sore-eyed at the park, wondering if azaleas could grow in Bermuda. I noticed these wide green leaves pushing up from the field like glossy platters in a fifty-foot line. I thought they were weeds, and they angered me. I wanted to yank them, roots and all, but the thought of seeing them lying there afterward, pale roots exposed and covered in dirt, left to rot, made something in me feel like it was starting to rot, so I kept walking and imagined that maybe they were azaleas after all.
My mom passed a week later.
Cause and effect.
A week after that I had finished funeral arrangements, and I wanted some fresh air to clear my head. The sky was violet and swirly, and the sun was a dim enough orange to stare at for a beat without it hurting. The playground was vacant, and mosquito-hawks scudded over the low fields, avoiding a swooping flock of sparrows. I watched the bugs zig-zag into refuge beneath the waxy leaves that I thought could maybe be azaleas. By now, they had grown into stalks about a foot tall. I was glad I hadn’t yanked them, proud of my accidental wisdom. Like I’d known somewhere deep down they’d save lives one day. Also, I was pretty sure they weren’t azaleas.
A few weeks after that, my mother was buried and obsequied, and I was certain the weeds were neither weeds nor azaleas, but sunflowers. They’d grown into three to four foot stalks now, their glossy leaves staggered along the stems, and a few had crowned into spiky-soft brown and yellow heads. I stopped and stared at one of the sunflowers and wondered how they ended up with that name; to me, they looked nothing like the sun. But they were bright. And maybe that was the connection. Behind them the sun swayed, auburn and white. Their petals glowed with golden veins. Yeah, that was the connection.
In the month that followed, I retreated from any semblance of a social life. Being with people made me cramped and short of breath, and besides, it was hard to hold a conversation when I just kept wondering whether they would look the same way my mom did in their caskets. Sunflowers, though, they didn’t speak, at least not in words. When they died, it was from natural causes, and they retained a dignity even in their wilting. I visited the sunflower trail at Celestial Park every day.
One time I saw a baby rabbit munching on one of those three-pronged stalks of grass. We held each other’s gaze as I crept past. The baby stopped chewing for the brief second we were parallel, twitched his haunches like he was prepping to bolt, but when I kept walking he kept chewing and I smiled. I’m pretty sure that was the first time I’d smiled since my mom passed. When I looked back, the baby was next to a bigger rabbit, and I watched them both saunter into the sunflower shade.
I came back the next evening with some rabbit feed I’d picked up from the local pet store on the way home from work. The woman who directed me to the feed aisle had purple-dyed hair with an undercut, and a left ear railroaded with shiny piercings. It made her look younger than she was, which if I had to guess she was pushing twenty-eight, same as me. When she handed me my receipt at checkout, small font at the top read ‘Cashier: Frank G.’ I knew that was incorrect, so I followed the flora inked along her extended forearm up to a nametag that read ‘Elaine’.
“Thanks Elaine,” I said, my pulse kicking up a notch.
“You’re welcome, sir. How many bunnies do you have?”
“Two, at least,” I said, and hurried out when she cocked her head with her manicured eyebrow, because I was nervous and embarrassed and intimidated all at the same time.
Back at the park, I went to where I’d seen the rabbits entering the patch and clicked my tongue. Nothing. Of course; they’re not dogs. So I sat cross-legged and let the grass prickle and settle beneath me before I reached into the bag and tossed a handful of feed into the patch. I waited a few minutes to no avail. My fingers crunched around more feed, flung it a little deeper into the patch. A fuzzy brown shape sidled into my peripherals. Without moving, I glanced over to see the baby rabbit stepping tenderly past me, within arm’s reach, toward the feed. It clenched tight when it was far enough in front of me for there to be a miniature me in the sheen of its eyes. His pink, wet nose twitched as I swallowed to stay still. Then the baby rabbit unclenched and caterpillar-walked over to the bed of feed I’d laid. While he ate, I thought of what I could name him, and how long it would take him to eat all the feed. How long until I could head back to the pet store and tell Elaine what my rabbit’s name was. He ate while I thought of Elaine and what a rabbit’s name might mean to her, until a pair of long-shadowed bikers passed by and scared him into the patch. I stood and decided to name him Shadow.
Another time I watched a few pigeons bounce in and out of the base of the patch, angling and pecking at things I couldn’t see. About twenty feet past them, a heavy-set woman in pink sportswear was staring at the sunflowers. When I passed she turned. Her brow was a high shelf, balanced sturdily atop two dark, bouldered eyes, and was capped off with a tied-back mess of red hair. She reminded me of my mom. We nodded together, then turned our attention to the sunflowers. They were nodding too. I carried on, and as she fell further and further behind me, I looked back. I could tell by the way her posture mimicked the sunflowers that she loved them the same way I did. It made me love her the way I loved them, as something sacred because it was simply what it was.
Then, a silky hand reached up into my chest cavity and crushed something. It was like an egg was jammed deep up inside my chest cavity. The egg must’ve been there for a long, long time, laid by some distant hurt. It must’ve been old because I’d never noticed it—even in that moment, I only recognized it had ever hurt because it stopped. The crushed egg suffused a warm, liquid-yellow peace through my entire body. It made its way to my eyes, balming them so they released some of the water they’d been holding onto, just in case.
That night, I swung by the pet store and asked Elaine if she wanted to meet Shadow. She said yes.
Little by little, the sunflowers had brought me back into the world.
I thanked them in my own way. I’d never drawn before, but I bought a recycled-paper sketchbook the next evening. I sat on the grass and practiced drawing the sunflowers until the air was darker than graphite. Before that, though, I tried my best to capture their sway, their dignity. I even circled out little critters in between them, tucked them together like happy little families. Shadow’s family was in there somewhere. As I drew, I heard a mother rounding up her kids at the park. In one of my last sketches, I drew my mom lilting through the center of the sunflowers. Her head lolled upwards with a single curved line for a smile. She watched a bigger smile-line pushing a rocket to the moon.
A couple weeks later, I showed my sketches to Elaine while we swapped stories over wine at my place. She said she had an idea. She tore the sketches out, folded them into origami shapes—rabbits, sparrows, pigeons, sunflowers—and took me to Celestial Park to bury them in the moonlit sunflower patch. When we were finished, she tried to wipe the dirt off her hands but couldn’t, so she wiped it on my cheeks instead, then ran. I chased her all the way to the playground, to the top of the biggest rocket ship of them all. When I caught her, she was reclined against a metal guard rail and looking over her shoulder at the sunflower patch, her hair riding the breeze. Her ear-piercings drank in the pale moonlight and made it brighter. I put dirt on both her cheeks as I pulled her lips into mine.
The day the sunflowers died, I was going for a run instead of walking. I’d decided I wanted to be healthier, to grow myself into someone that could protect and feed and nurture things the same way the sunflowers did. I figured I’d start with my body since it was closest to home. I was so focused on the heat and rhythm of my thighs that I didn’t notice they were gone at first. But as I padded along the sidewalk, I got that feeling like I’d left a door or window ajar back home. My stomach fluttered for a moment just before it was swatted down beneath my feet, to be trampled over.
I noticed then, the sunflowers were gone.
Broken stalks occasionally jutted out of the ground, at best six inches tall, set at awkward, unnatural angles, like bones splitting through flesh. Some stalks weren’t entirely broken; they hung on by waxy sinews, swaying in the stillness. I kept running, like I could keep going until I got to my sunflower patch, the one with Shadow, the pigeons that sent the pugilist blossoms nodding, nodding — surely they would’ve fought back, right? They would’ve protected their patch, sticking and moving, weaving away from the rotary blades churning and chopping so loud and low to the ground, jabbing and hooking into the face of whoever pushed the blades, until their sunglasses flew from their face along with a spray of spittle dotted with blood and salty with sweat.
Instead, I ran across the riding motor where the trail hooked. It hunched into itself next to the sidewalk like a giant, sleeping crab. It glinted there, motionless, lifeless, dingy red with darker rust splotches all along its framing. A slight haze shimmered off it, the fresh heat of its work. If I had any mechanical touch, I would’ve dismantled the thing then and there. Stripped its plugs, yanked all the veiny blue and yellow wires so strands of copper poked out the ends. I imagined breaking open its crab shell frame just to yell and point and prove to it that it wasn’t alive because it had no meat, so it had no right to mow over the pith and fur and feathers that breathed.
A thicket rose up behind the mower, with a small shady clearing hole-punched in the center. A man stood there, dripping with sweat. He must’ve picked his shades up because they were back on his face, black and reflective, and he must’ve had a good corner man back somewhere in that thicket because his bruises and cuts were so doctored up I couldn’t tell they were ever even there. Still, they’d given him hell, the sunflowers. I could see it in the way he heaved, his tanned skin lean and dirty beneath a drenched long-sleeved shirt, a Mickey Mouse sweat pattern imprinted across the front.
Now, since you understand how the sunflowers grew out of absolutely nothing, became resplendent, only to be brutally returned to absolutely nothing—now, I can talk about what I did when I saw that man.
I imagined running in there to shake him at the shoulders and scream and point at the faux-crab’s husk, broken open with its innards strewn along the sidewalk. I’d tell him he’d been jipped, duped, that he’d used the dead to kill the living to make more dead. He’d shudder and repent, and we’d vow to never forget what had happened, this tragic mistake. The shredded sunflowers would spread their seeds, triumphant in death with the promise of continued life.
But I knew that wasn’t how it would go.
For one, the faux-crab still sat pompously intact.
For two, I knew the man would just shrug, wipe his brow as he looked past me.
I’d see the sun burning like a small white pupil in his reflective shades, and I wouldn’t know if he was looking at me or even anything at all when he said, “I’m just doing my job, man.”
Cause and effect.
A clicking keyboard, an undulating throat beneath an upturned bottle, a casket lowering into the ground, a random spruce of sunflowers, a parks and recreation employee mowing down the sunflowers for probably less than minimum wage. None were immune.
So I ran back to the patch. I preened through the debris until my fingers brushed something small, dark, and oblong. A sunflower seed. I ran back to the man, still heaving in the shade. When I approached, he stepped back, startled. I can’t blame him; if a shirtless, sweaty, mildly overweight man who also happened to be crying approached me with a clenched fist, I’d be concerned too. He relaxed when I turned over my fist and opened it, revealing the seed.
“Can you grow it?” I asked.
He plucked it from my hand, rolled it between his fingers. “I can try.”
“My daughter loves these things,” he said as I turned to leave.
I paused. “The park over there is a lot of fun. You should take her,” I said, nodding toward the spaceships.
When I got home, I showered and sat at my dining table with my pencil and empty sketchbook. I thought of my mother, rotting in the ground, her poisoned liver feeding the earth. I thought of azaleas and sunflowers, of sparrows, rabbits, pigeons, mosquito-hawks, of people moving in sweaty sheens beneath the sunset. I drew each of those things, and after I drew them I interconnected them with lines. I tried to see how it all fit together, like if I could just get the configuration right then I’d unearth a causal chain that explained why we lived in ways that led to death, and why death plumed back into seeds of life to do it all over again. If I could grab that chain, trace it link by link back to the root, I could yank the whole thing out once and for all. In the pattern’s center, I drew my mother in bold, heavy strokes. I realized then, the shape of it all, it looked vaguely like a sunflower.
Cause and effect.
Elaine and I visited that park for our one year anniversary. The dark tree line behind the spaceships was dotted yellow with sunflowers, brighter than the stars above.
Kris Hawkins teaches Special Education English & Reading in Plano, Texas. If he’s not teaching, reading, or writing, he’s probably either spending time with family and friends, playing bass guitar, digging into a sweet video or board game, shoving overly buttery popcorn into his mouth during a movie, or exploring the natural and human-made worlds greeting him at every turn.