Over steaming cups of tea, my mother recalls my birth, my shock of black hair, my skin yellowed with jaundice. In the baby pictures she shows me, my father cradles a golden infant in a field of sunflowers. He is smiling, tilting my face into the sunlight. I imagine him returning home, brushing my name on rice paper in dark strokes: Little Lily.
Outside, my father puts on his straw hat and work gloves and lugs a large plastic trash can to the front yard. Over the years, the lilies he planted have grown wild, their stems reaching over four feet in height. The garden blazes with tongues of orange, red, yellow, and white.
“There are too many,” my mother says. “I would like him to plant something more practical, like tulips.” She stands at the window, her arms crossed, watching my father trim the evergreen hedges, carefully leaning over the swaying lilies.
“I can’t wait to have kids,” I tell my mother. She frowns. “What about your mental health?” she asks. “There is always adoption.” The sunlight streams over my hunched body.
I wonder what it was like for my mother—to bear four children within six years. She raised three of us in a tiny apartment. We dropped toys out of the balcony window. We once locked her out of the apartment when we pulled out the front door’s knob.
When I was three, my mother sat with me as we looked at a special book. I traced the black and white sketches, the female and male forms. On one page, a woman reclined, undressed. Her pale body was relaxed—she wore a slight smile on her lips. Her legs were parted, revealing a secret flower.
“You have one too,” my mother said, helping me to practice the words: womb and vagina. She turned to a page with a woman and man wrapped in each other’s arms. “This,” my mother said, “is how babies are made.”
Alone in a room by myself, I took a small mirror and placed it between my legs. “Hello, little flower,” I said, admiring my flared petals. I imagined my grown body, a blooming garden, my dark hair falling over my breasts and hips. “You,” I said, “are going to be beautiful.”
But darkness fell over me as I entered elementary school. I would spend hours poring over my school yearbooks. I ticked off each picture in a row, placing my finger over each classmate’s face. “Pretty, ugly, pretty, ugly…” I chanted, repeating the pattern.
I pleaded for the universe to reveal my true appearance. My finger landed on my picture: “ugly.” I glared into the face of the dark-haired girl. She looked back at me, eyes framed with thick plastic glasses, her bangs slanted by a kitchen-shear-haircut, her front teeth bulged from her smiling mouth. “You are not a flower,” I told her. “You are ugly, ugly, ugly.”
At night, images flashed through my mind: my legs squirming under the hands of a classmate, his leering face. I swallowed sobs and did sit ups, leg lifts, punching my arms and chest. I wish you were dead, I told myself. I rehearsed my death: handfuls of pills, a dangling belt, a sprint into traffic.
Even as I grew, I imagined myself shrinking into a sliver. I compared the width of my thighs with Bibles and phone books. If you disappear, I thought, you would be perfect. But no one wants you anyways. In my mind, the lilies shriveled under the severe sun, their petals dropping like black tears.
I’ll try one more time, I promise myself as I agree to go out with another man. While waiting for my blind date, I admire the dark-haired man who has just entered the coffee shop. He wears a black Frank Zappa tee shirt, jeans, and cowboy boots. Walking over to me, he smiles. “Hi,” he says, “you must be Little Lily.”
We meet for coffee and brunch for three months. One morning, he reaches for my hand. Stroking the ridge of my fingers, his lips lift in a tender smile. “I love you,” he says. I nod, my body blooming.
Six months later, we marry under a shower of orchid blooms and lilies. My husband’s kiss is sweet, heavy in my mouth. He leads me into the hotel room, his hands brushing over my shoulders, my waist. The tendrils of our bodies reach out to one another and intertwine.
On a frigid February morning, I tell my mom that I’m pregnant. “That’s wonderful,” she says, her face freezing into a strained smile. I imagine the images pulsing in her mind: my suicide attempt at twenty-three. How she traveled eight hours in the dark to reach me. The stark hospital room. How the doctors pumped me full of charcoal and sedatives. My slack body.
Tears gather at the edges of my mother’s eyes. “I’ll be fine,” I tell her, “just fine.” My mother looks away. I imagine the lilies stirring under the frozen ground.
During my three-month visit to the maternity floor of the hospital, the technician glides the probe over my rounding belly. My son pulses in and out of view, his profile gleaming in the darkness. He sways, lifted gently by my body’s current.
In the dim lights of the ultrasound room, I admire my husband, his stocky build and broad shoulders. He smiles at me, placing his hand in mine. “He looks like you,” I tell him, as the tech zooms in on the prominent slope of my son’s nose. Strong roots, I assure myself. Good, strong roots.
I want to name my child Akira, after my father’s brother. Akira, a light from a star, blazing through the darkness. Akira, running, laughing through the fields of sunflowers. My mother wrinkles her brow. “Isn’t that the name of a car?” she asks. “Acura?”
I brainstorm again, choosing Joshua, a name like a brook merging into a mighty river, like a tree stark against the moonlight. “Joshua,” my mom says smiling, “Joshua.”
Carrying my son means halting my medication, my shield against depression and mania. Slowly, I begin to wilt, losing the glossiness of my hair, my smile. “I’ve been praying for you,” my mother says, “that you’ll be able to endure.” She’s washing dishes in the sink, the afternoon light streaming through the window. I think of bright-red beetles gnawing the golden petals of a lily’s throat. What can I do if I’m being devoured?
It’s the second trimester, I tell myself. You can make it. But the shadows are slithering darker and closer. I lug my pregnant body into bed. Pulling the covers over myself, I begin to sob. “Oh, help me,” I cry over and over. My husband slips into the sheets. He places his arms over my shaking body, pulling me close to his warm broad chest. His kisses, like tender rain.
My son is born, bluer than violets. He opens his mouth with a shriek, blooming into a rosy hue. I gaze into his eyes, and he stares back with stark intensity. “Hello, little light,” I tell him. “I will never leave you.”
As my son grows, I look for signs of shadows. I measure the length of his cries, worry when he pulls at his hair. “Come here,” I say, as he bawls when his toy falls apart. “Come to Mamma.” I hold his small shaking body and we breathe together.
One morning, my son bursts into my room, tumbling into the bed. Embracing my husband and me, he laughs. “See, Mamma! There’s room for one more.” I place my hands around his small face, taking in the gleam of his dark hair and eyes. He’s too much like me, I think, the dark shard of worry burrowing its way through my mind.
I long for more children, a swarm of sons. I imagine them tumbling in our backyard, rolling down green spring hills. I take my son to the park. Sitting on a bench, I watch him crouch in the sandbox. As he builds castles and moats alongside a sandy-haired toddler I imagine holding another child in my arms, his dark hair ruffled by the breeze.
In months when I’m overdue for my cycle, I lie in the darkness, my hand on my round belly. I imagine someone taking root in me and count the days since my last lovemaking. When the blood comes, I grieve, thinking of the child slipping back into a haze of petals.
“How many can I have?” I ask my father. We are standing in his garden again, surrounded by the blazing lilies. Slowly, he selects a vibrant cluster of daylilies. With a shovel, he cleaves them from the ground. My father places the flowers in my arms and I gaze into their golden petals, smiling.
The plants thrive in my garden, splitting into bloom after bloom. My son plays among the garden beds. He flaps his hands, laughing and shrieking as he unearths worms and grubs. When I call to him he runs to me, gripping me tightly. He nuzzles against me. “I love you, Mamma,” he says. Together we laugh and sway, gleaming among the lilies.
Sayuri Ayers is a native of Columbus, Ohio. Her prose and poetry appear in The Columbia Journal, The Account, Entropy, SWWIM, Hobart, The Pinch, and other literary journals. She is the author of two chapbooks, Radish Legs, Duck Feet (Green Bottle Press, 2016) and Mother/Wound (Full/Crescent Press, forthcoming in 2020.) Sayuri is a Kundiman Fellow and VCCA Resident. In 2020, she received the Ohio Arts Council’s Individual Excellence Award for creative nonfiction. Please visit her at sayuriayers.com.