By Lisa Olson
The cool forest canopy welcomed Callie as it always did, with forgiveness. She took slow steps, savoring the feel of springtime and homecoming. Wind rustled through the pines, dropping needles into her gray hair. Leftover drops from the morning's rain splattered down from the heights onto the flat fronds of ferns, coating her plastic jacket. Robins whistled in loud voices, drowning out the drone of cars on the nearby interstate.
More than thirty years ago, the city had turned the woodland into a park, riddling it with jogging paths and picnic tables. She was grateful they had preserved this slice of wilderness, and the childhood memories it contained. Others thought of it as a park, but Callie still thought of as her backyard.
She paused to lean against a familiar Sitka spruce, giving her memories time to catch up with her. She remembered exploring every bush and tree, and there had been a hundred games of hide-and-seek with her best friend, Ellen. She knew the exact spot where she'd received her first kiss, and remembered her terror at seeing a full-grown bear.
But the strongest memory was of a clearing filled with trilliums. She had been six years old, but she remembered every detail of that summer afternoon.
"Look at them all, Callie!" Ellen exclaimed as they entered the clearing. "I told you I found the biggest patch of flowers!"
"Nifty!" Kneeling, Callie examined the closest. A green stem thrust up from the ground, ending in a trio of veined leaves. A shorter stem supported three white petals that met in a yellow center. They looked like fat angels sitting on green clouds. "They sure are pretty. Do you think my mama will like them?"
Ellen dropped down beside her, her short blonde hair bouncing as she nodded. "Well, my mommy gives daddy a hug when he brings home just ONE flower. And this is a whole field! Why, she'll give you cake for dinner!"
Callie snapped the blossom off, leaving the leaves behind. Lifting it to her dirt-smeared face, she breathed in the sugary smell. "Oh, she will not, dumbbell."
"She might!" Ellen argued. "Your mom loves flowers! She has a whole garden full of them."
"That's true. There are vases all over the house."
"Ab-so-lute-ly," Ellen said. "C'mon!" Bending down, she began picking the bright flowers.
"But she never gets them from the forest," Callie sighed.
"Bet I can get more than you can," Ellen taunted.
Kneeling, Callie lifted the edge of her dress and began filling it. Not a single flower survived the harvest. They walked back to the house, arguing over who got more flowers.
Shoving through the screen door, they entered the kitchen. "Mama! Look what I got for you!"
Her mother turned away from the stew pot on the gas stove, wiping her hands on the edge of her flowered apron. "What is it, honey?"
Callie offered up the bouquet in her skirt, smiling. "We picked them just for you, Mama!"
Her eyes widened and she breathed a single word. "Trilliums!"
"Don't you like them, Mama?" she asked.
"I picked some for you, too, Mrs. Harris," Ellen boasted. Callie's mother stood frozen, eyes glued to the abundance of white.
"Mama?" Callie whispered. Her mother turned away and hid her face against the icebox, her bobbed hair shaking.
Callie stared at Ellen, then at her mother. What did we do?
"Take them away," her mother hiccuped.
The pair retraced their steps to the clearing. Callie let the edges of her dress drop, spilling the trilliums into a pile at her bare feet. Her friend added hers to the pile.
"Think I'll go home now," she said.
Callie nodded her agreement. "I'll see you tomorrow." She watched Ellen weave out of the clearing and into the shadows of the trees. Sighing, she returned to the kitchen.
Her mother sat waiting at the round table, clutching an embroidered handkerchief against her red nose. Pulling out one of the chairs, Callie joined her. Silence surrounded them.
"Why did you cry, Mama?" she asked at last.
Her mother sighed, twisting the handkerchief into a cloth snake. "Honey, I know you meant well, but those are some very special flowers. Those leaves love their petals so much, that they die without them. And even if one does survive, it can take many years for it to produce seeds that will make more flowers."
Callie slumped in the cushion.
"Is that why you don't get flowers from the forest?"
Her mother nodded.
"How long will it take for all the flowers to grow back?"
"You won't see any at all for at least three years. And you'll never see them fill that clearing again. You can't pick them ever again, promise?" Brown eyes pleaded.
"I promise," she choked out, a tear spilling down her cheek. "I'm sorry, Mama."
Her mother opened her arms, and Callie slid across the table to her, nestling down against the cotton apron. She remained there until her sobs stopped.
Callie shoved away from the tree trunk, and continued on her annual walk to the clearing, wiping a stray raindrop from her cheek. Seventy-three years had passed, and she still mourned those flowers.
She followed the path as it wound around carefully around the three dozen trilliums growing in the clearing, starkly white against a carpet of green. Smiling, she forced old knees down into a reverent kneel, and inhaled the sugary sweet smell.
There are more this year, she thought.
But it would never be as she had once seen it, a field of angels resting on green clouds.
Lisa can be reached at boots[at]toasted-cheese.com.