Short Story Semi-Finalist, LISP 2nd Quarter 2020
Sunflowers Are Her Mother’s Favourite by Sherry Morris
Stella sits panting on the porch swing in the middle of another sweltering Missouri day. Breathing in this humidity-heavy air feels like suffocating under woollen blankets. Her face is damp with sweat and tears. She’s exhausted, doesn’t feel the summer sun blistering her skin. Secateurs rest on her bare thigh. When her eyes fall on bright blades, she shivers.
Aunt Myrtle had handed them to Stella. Said, ‘Deadhead those roses before we get back.’ Stella knew which ones her aunt meant. She also knew she and Uncle Vic wouldn’t wave as they drove away. Once they were out of view, Stella hacked down the sunflowers. They’d been sniggering at her.
Standing like smug sentinels in single pots all around the porch, they watched all who came and went through the banging screen door. It only took a light breeze to stir them into a crazed jig, bring their bright yellow petal-fringed heads knocking together.
Stella read somewhere that sunflowers follow the sun. She spits. Knows the truth. Their cyclops eyes follow her. She’s glad she chopped down the stalks as well. There’ll be no more
rustling leaves each time she crosses the threshold, whispering tales of nasty things that happen to adolescent girls who try to escape in the night.
She’ll never prune the rose bush, never cut a single one of the many petal-perfect white blooms edged in an indigo blue that match her eyes. And her father’s. This Floribunda flower also carries his name: Stuart. The task is probably her mother’s idea. Part of Stella’s retraining. Stabs of heat embed her heart.
For once, Stella is idle: she’s not washing stacks of dishes or folding mountains of laundry, not shucking bushels of corn or shelling bags of peas. She’s not even dodging the hungry stares of the itinerant farm hands. All that’s behind her now.
Her mother said that hard work, clean living and country air were what she needed. Stella saw through this wide-eyed lie. She’d been discovered with Claire, giggling like girls on the cusp of change do, whispering secrets and holding hands for reassurance under blankets in the dark. Hadn’t been able to explain why they were sharing a single bed. Couldn’t convince there was nothing untoward going on. Didn’t believe she’d really be packed off to the farm once schools ended — until she was. There, Aunt Myrtle and Uncle Vic stood nodding and swaying alongside her mother, who ranted that she wouldn’t be humiliated by her child as well. She saw their clenched hands. Their bright fake smiles that didn’t reach sharp seed-like eyes — eyes that vowed to remain on the clock, non-stop, watching for signs ‘the tendency’ had fully consumed Stella too. What saved her from conversion camp was the cost.
“The devil makes work for idle hands,” her mother said, then left.
Stella’s fingers glide along her fringe, then trace the sharp edges of the secateurs. They won’t stay idle for long.
Sunflowers are her mother’s favourite. She fills the house with them, tells little Stella they’re like God and see all her wicked deeds. They’ll help keep an eye on her now it’s just the two of them. Her mother rages when she discovers Stella sweaty and dirty from an afternoon of digging in the garden. Burns incandescent when she finds her in the garage with her father’s tools poking around under the hood of his beat-up hobby. Won’t accept Stella knows how to use a wrench, change a tire. Won’t take her to junk yards to look for spare parts. Instead, her mother calls her unnatural, takes away all the tools. Tows away the wreck. Says it’s more suitable for Stella to sew and cook, buys her barbies and pink frilly clothes that sparkle. Stella thinks her mother is the unnatural one with her coloured stay-in-place hair, her layers of foundation and paint, her wire and elastic undergarments that push, pinch and hold her body in unrealistic shapes.
She watches her mother place an ear to a sunflower, nod, frown, make big eyes, then come for her. Later, she stares at the same big black eye — its colour matches her mother’s. She wonders what it saw. What unnatural thing she’s done. She learns to stay small, quiet. Plans to run as soon as she can.
She watches spellbound as her mother eats handful after handful of sunflower seeds. Cracking each individually, lifting the seed, then spitting out the shell using just her teeth and tongue. Stella refuses to eat them. Too much like baby eyes plucked from dead heads. She doesn’t want that mindset growing in her, taking root.
Stella feels the sun on her newly-exposed forehead, looks out from the porch swing and chuckles though it’s not funny. Stuck on a sunflower farm. Fields and fields of them rocking, whispering, watching, laughing. Dancing their psychotic sway.
Even in the bathroom they spy on her. Wallpaper decorated with fields of Queen Anne’s Lace, clover and dandelions evoke an idyllic scene. But sunflowers are the centrepiece. Multiple monsters stare back at her as she sits on the toilet. Their distorted reflections stretch and writhe in the chrome sink taps, the tub ones too. She’s sure real eyes rove behind the wall — the cold green of Uncle Vic’s, the brown of Aunt Myrtle’s. The black of her mother’s. She’s heard their whispered threats. If farm work can’t straighten her out, farmhands will.
She does her bathroom business in the dead of night now. Without a light. Spot-bathes at the sink. Worries that soon the sunflowers will pull up from their pots and their plots, plod up the steps with their muddy roots into her bedroom. They’ll leave prints the same shape as work boots. Knows everyone will turn a blind eye.
A farmhand said she had pretty hair. That it shone like the sun. That her face was a flower. All their eyes follow her around the farm. But she’s no sun. Or flower. Not now. Her fringe lie in clumps, along with other chunks of her hair, curling like furry dead caterpillars at her feet.
She cut right up to her forehead. Then kept clipping around the sides and back, not bothering with a mirror. She smiles. She prefers it this way, deflowering herself. The sun blisters her forehead. She doesn’t care, touches it for reassurance in spite of the sun-sting.
She smirks at the sentinel sunflowers lying face down in the dirt. Dirtier than her now. At their peak in August, they towered over her, but confined to their pots in daylight hours, they were easily felled. There’s still all those sunflowers in the fields though, to come for her in the night, trapping her, planting their seed, keeping her rooted here.
She won’t think about how the farmhands whisper she has a glow about her, a special light in her eyes. Closing her eyes won’t be enough. She grips the secateurs. They’ll never let her see her father.
A car turns into the drive. They’re back. Their eyes will see what she’s done. Tell her mother. Maybe the sunflowers already have. Stella sits up, tightens her grip.