A buttercup girl

by Molly Kines

          Mother went into a Lipton tin can.
          She sits on the mantelpiece beside Grandma Min, 
          keeping watch.
          Father cries in his chair, a picture
          of a girl he once
          loved, cradled
          in his
          rough
          cardboard hands.
 
          Her funeral is nothing special. It’s held in a church with gloomy tapestries and a cross standing tall and true at the front. The Saints stare out at me from the stained glass windows, whispering at me. I ignore them, because I am counting to ten in my head, and I will not cry, I will not cry, I will not cry.
           There are eleven rows of hard wooden pews on either side of the church. There is a space between the slats on the ceiling, and you can see up, up, up, to where birds are making their nests and spiderwebs cling to everything. A pigeon roosts on the slat above my head. I wave at it, but one look from Father is enough to know that I am not behaving appropriately. I drop my hand to my side. 1,2,3,4,5,6 …
          My hand shakes when I nudge her favorite pearl bracelet onto her gray wrist, and I let a tiny tear fall on her forehead, so there’s something warm for her to hold onto, something to keep her here. I won’t say goodbye. I won’t. Because if I say goodbye, then she’s really gone. And I won’t have that.
          The old man wearing the silk dress puts the lid on the coffin, and I hear a hiccup from the second row of benches. I turn. There. Ella.
          “Ella?” My voice is rough. Tired. Grim. I’m standing by my mother’s coffin, after all. But my sister, my fragile, sweet-as-honey sister, is sitting between Aunt Mattie and Aunt Eloise, her face full of everything I’m feeling. Fuller, even.
          I rush down and cup her cheeks with my hands, push her damp hair away from her face. Her tears are rushing, her pain everywhere. The sweet face that everyone loved so much is gone, replaced, transformed. It is no longer rosy pink, but pale and crinkled, even distorted by her grief  different. Changed. Her butterfly face, like my mother used to say. Not anymore. It’s a ghost face now.
          “I miss her already,” whispers El, hiccuping as she cries. My heart breaks for her, it breaks right in two. Because maybe I lost my mother. Maybe I’m not sure how to live without her. Maybe it’s hard to imagine a day where she is notthere to wipe my tears away and tuck me in at night.
But at least I have lived fourteen years, and I know what grief is. I know what love is. I know what hope is. But El. El has only lived nine, and all of those have been lived with her mother holding her hand. With her mother singing her to sleep every night. With her mother always by her side, always there with a kiss or a hug or a warning. Guiding her. Loving her.
          I let a few tears escape. I remind myself what my mother always told me when something was hard. Be strong, and if being strong for yourself isn’tenough, be strong for someone else.
          So I would be strong for El, for she is maybe the person who most
deserves it in this awful, sad room.
          “I miss her too. I miss her too, Ella, I miss her so much. But we’re going to be okay. You’re going to be okay. I promise.”   
          I don’t know if I believe it. But my mother always told me how strong I was. How stubborn and tall and good I was. And I am strong. And I can be better and stronger than my sister, so she won’t have to be those things for herself.
          When the priest begins to speak, I fix my eyes onto his face. A bead of sweat travels down the  left side of his face, past his temple and gathering in the corner of his pencil-mark mouth. He calls Hanna, my mother’s best friend, to the spot by the coffin. I watch her mouth move, stretching, pressing together, closing, opening. Then she bows her head, two tears making tracks down her goosebumped face. 
          “People say you never truly appreciate a person until they’re dead,” she finishes. I focus in on her face. “But I … “ She brings a hand to her face, swiping almost angrily at the tears that are falling.
          “Damn it, I loved her. She was so beautiful. Oh, I loved her. I miss her.”She bends in two, like it physically hurts her to say these words. A wet sob comes from somewhere near her midriff. A damp curl falls from her salt-and-pepper bun.  Slowly, she unravels for all to see. 
          “Come now,” says the priest, ushering her down the steps. “It’ll be all right.” He clasps his hands, and launches into his closing sermon. I lower my head. My hair is everywhere. Everything hurts.
          “Are you crying, Harly?” Aunt Mattie. I don’t look up. 
          “Yes,” I say simply back, because it’s true. I’m crying because I loved my mother. I’m crying because the only person I really want to comfort me is the one person who can’t, and because a girl should never ever have to lose her mother. I’m crying because my dress is itchy and polyester, and my mother always got me cotton dresses to wear. I’m crying because I miss her, oh, I miss her. And it hurts, it hurts so much. I want to say just one last thing to her, just one last thing, but I can’t. I can’t. Because. Because … 
          “Oh, honey,” says Aunt Mattie, putting a wooden arm around my
shoulders. The weight is too much. Her elbows are bony, and creamy white like an Easter white-chocolate bunny. And suddenly, I’m falling, and the sky is opening up and everything is falling. Rain is hitting my skin hard, so hard it hurts. My mother is beside me, but there are tears running down her cheeks, so many tears I think they are flooding the streets. I am drowning. I am so full of everything, I can’t breathe, and I think my heart stops. I let it. 
         
          Mama?
          Hour three of being still.
          In bed, after
          I unraveled like
          a sad ball of
          yarn at
          that awful church.
          Refrigerator humming in the grey kitchen.
          Soft tears running down the walls,
          staining everything.
          I can smell her
          everywhere.
          She’s not
          gone,
          only hovering
          around here
          somewhere, waiting
          waiting
          waiting for
          all the tears
          to stop.
           
          I wake up in her arms, to her smell, to her softness. A cold cloth on my forehead, cool fingers tracing patterns on my hot skin. I blink once, twice. The fingers pause.
          “Harly?”
          It’s not her. It will never be her.
          I wish I wasn’t awake.
          She loved buttercups, my mother. More than any other flower. Father would always bring them to her, when she had her bad days. She loved to tickle Ella’s chin with them, to see if she liked butter. I hated butter. But my chin always glowed yellow for her.
          “Harly, I know you’re awake.” Aunt Eloise. She is leaning over me, worried and pale and tired. There is half of a mini-muffin in her hair. Pink lipstick on her crooked teeth. My mother’s liptick was always perfect.
          I look back at her, listless.
          “Is Ella …” I start.
          “She’s sleeping,” she says. She looks so tired. So very, very tired. 
           
          My mother was always so tired. 
           It was late, and
          the faucet was 
          leaking. 
          The drip-drip  
          drip was 
          eerie to me, 
          so I crept downstairs, 
          light on 
          my feet, to stop that darn dripping.
          was on, shining 
          on my mother, 
          in a chair, 
          slumped. 
          She was so very, 
          very pale. 
          It wasn’t 
          the faucet 
          that was 
          leaking. 
          It was 
          my mother.
         
          When Ella wakes, I am there, beside her, a buttercup, delicate and bright cupped in my hands. I tickle her chin with it, trying to coax a smile out of her. 
          We’ll be okay. 

          Her buttercup girls.

 

Author Biography: Molly Kines is in her first year of high school, and enjoys running, playing soccer and musical theater. She discovered her love of books and words after she read the Harry Potter series, and has read any book she can get her hands on since.