Islamic burials aren’t like Western ones.
This is a fact Amira learns at the age of ten.
But before that, life was sunny and saccharine sweet, served with a side of hard caramel and candy floss on Saturdays, at the place Baba used to take her to before they’d visit Mama’s shop, to breathe the air of oxtails and tulips, see the rows of flowers sprouting different colors in variations Mama called arrangements. Floriographic language, she called it, leaning above Amira with her hijab that smelled like rosewater and an apron with little dogs on it. Flowers mean different things for different occasions, but most customers these days prefer looks over substance. Snip the thorns off roses, clean the leaves of gladiolus, wrap marigold and daphne flowers in plastic and tuck them in between vases.
Ambrosia— reciprocated love, bittersweet— truth, ivy sprigs— affection, poppies for consolation and snapdragons for deception.
Amira loved the pretty pink roses Mama would always sneak her in school, at home, and in the shop.
I’m happy you’re the joy in my life, I love you.
Afterwards there were relatives and friends speaking in hushed whispers; both in Indonesian and Urdu, hugs and kisses, somber speeches and cries, prayers and du’a, white – too much white. Her neighbor sends them a bouquet of thornless white roses.
Innocence and love at first sight. Disgusting.
Islamic burials are not like Western ones; at least they take care to not shower her with thoughtless, empty flowers like Western ones would.
She falls for him too quickly.
He’s all dark hair and shy eyes, clad in denim and always in a corner with a book, but has the most amazing smile, and when he looks at her, she doesn’t feel so alone: maybe I’m truly not. And then he grins again, and she tugs her mother’s headscarf further around her head.
On Valentine’s Day, Amira’s fourteen when she receives her first red rose from him.
He’s willing to wait until they can properly date – a fact that makes Amira fall for him harder, and they go slow until they can truly show their affection to each other, under Baba’s watch – throwing popcorn at each other during movie dates, studying together in the library, walks under low light when the sky is brushed dark blue and wine purple. He cheats after two months.
He cheats on her with Amira’s closest friend, who doesn’t bat an eyelash at the whole ordeal.
That night, Amira burns his rose, the one she’d petrified in artificial water, and watches the fireplace lick charcoal black out of the petals and chemicals. Baba is concerned.
Red roses are liars.
She is alone.
She grows out her hair, lets it be messy and unruly beneath the scarf she douses with rosewater every day. When she’s home, she lets the hijab fall to the floor and reveal a cascade like a lion’s mane: you cannot contain me.
Her cousins decorate theirs with flowers, especially the younger ones. Amira lets the little girls wear pink carnations in their pigtails: youth, vibrancy, energy.
She never lets any ornament or flower touch her hair.
It’s almost time for her brother to graduate, and it’s almost time for her to enter freshman year. Streamers are bought, the food is cooked, and countless throes of people stream into the Tjoe household on the eve of his graduation, after the ceremony is done and goodbyes are said to anything-but-life-long friends, and they receive him well, and congratulate Amira for taking on her mother’s old shop at such a young age.
“My mother’s shop?” she asks. “I wasn’t aware that I was.”
“Well, it’s being shut down unless a new manager steps forward, and your brother is leaving, and your father’s taking care of the business parts of it all, so I assumed-”
Without apology, Amira storms towards her father in the kitchen. He has a spoon of sambal in his hand.
“I don’t want to work in the shop,” she states plainly and clearly.
Baba sighs. “You have an eye for flowers, Amira. If you would just-”
“I don’t want to.”
Her father sighs. “Your mother would’ve wanted this.”
The next morning, Amira tucks a hydrangea into the pocket of her shirt and runs off to the shop.
“We’re opening early,” she says to a woman waiting outside, tying an apron around her waist. “Birthday?”
She turns seventeen, and on one sunny day in March, a girl from her school walks in and asks for a small bouquet to give to her sister for a ballet competition.
Amira comes out with a plastic cone containing fresh, peach-colored roses, sweet peas, and from the sides, flaring orange blossoms.
Integrity, a lovely time, innocence.
“It’s beautiful,” the girl says, and she smiles. “Orchids are my favorite.”
Did she expect anything different?
“What do they mean?”
Amira frowns, but tells her. She stares down in fascination at the flowers, watching the way their petals catch the light, the stems, the leaves. The girl reminds Amira of a fern; closed up, sensitive, shy.
At least she’s anything but a flower.
“I’ve been looking for a job for a while now,” she says, and coughs into her palm. “Is this place hiring?”
“I’m the head florist,” Amira says, and her tone is cold. She feels a twinge of regret at the way the girl flinches.
“…Are you hiring?”
She should take pity on this newcomer, the girl who is a fern, who tucks herself away like Amira used to, who reminds Amira too much of herself.
“We already have enough staff. There’s a coffee shop next door if you’re interested.”
Two months pass before the same girl comes in the flower shop.
White poppies for consolation, scarlet zinnias for consistency, to heal a broken heart. Amira gives them to her free of charge along with a packet of tissues to wipe her tears away.
“We’re hiring again,” she says gruffly, then repeats herself in an attempt to be gentler. “What’s your name?”
“Lily,” says the girl, whose sadness has subsided to only a sniffle of her red nose.
How ironic that orchids are her favorite.
Amira goes home that night, sets the rosewater scarf to the side, and sits on her bed and stares at nothing.
She has made a mistake.
If she teaches this girl the language of flowers, she, too, will be left with more empty promises and an broken heart for all of eternity.
Lily is fifteen and three years younger than her. Lily wears purple glasses that hide her long lashes and smiles nervously whenever she feels like she’s made a mistake. Lily has sea glass bracelets around her wrists – gifts from her parents since she was seven – and owns three dogs at home. She feels like no one really gets her at school.
Amira will not tell her that she is an outcast herself, and now the universe has pulled together some strings in irony, because that’s a can of worms she doesn’t want to open.
Instead, they spend their days working together. No matter how many times Lily begs, Amira refuses to teach her apprentice about the language of flowers, and instead shows her how to make aesthetically pleasing bouquets, flower crowns, baskets, the like.
Baba feels pleased Amira’s taken on an apprentice to take on the shop after she leaves high school for college – while, funnily enough for her, it is the opposite.
Amira cannot be the sister figure that Lily desires.
Amira is not the tutor Lily needs.
“Why do you keep asking me?” she finally says one day, after Lily’s tenth attempt to get her to teach the floriographic language. “I won’t teach you it because it’s useless.”
“Then who taught you, even though she’d know it was useless?!”
Amira drops the vase; it shatters into a million broken pieces.
“How did you know it was a she?”
Lily doesn’t respond, and closes in on herself again. Amira is senseless with rage. She wants to pry open the fern, shout louder than a lion’s ever roared-
“How did you know it was a she, Lily.”
“Your father told me,” she confesses. “I want to arrange with meaning. Like you do.”
Amira laughs, harsh and raspy; salt against wood.
“There’s no point in doing so. I do it to honor my mother. What are you doing it for? No one understands,” Amira says, ignoring Lily’s protests as she closes the door behind her.
No one understands.
The first thing Amira sees after a week when she opens the door is Lily holding out a bouquet of white chrysanthemums, forget-me-nots, and pale pink roses.
My love is true, my love is pure.
“Did-” Amira’s voice is close to cracking. “Did you-”
“I learned from your father. I don’t remember much, but I’m trying,” Lily admits, and meets Amira’s eyes head-on for what seems to be the first time; fierce, unyielding. “You’re my best friend, Amira. You’re more than just my mentor and I’m not going to let you hide away all the beauty you have to give to the world because it was cruel to you once.”
“You understand,” she breathes, and it’s only after a bittersweet smile crosses Lily’s face is when Amira realizes she’s crying. “Someone understands.”
“They can, too, if you’ll let them,” she says, and holds out her arms, letting Amira fall into them and wet Lily’s right shoulder. “They can try like me.”
And so Amira tries.
She posts signs on the walls of her mother’s beloved building; for what they signify, their meaning. Lets customers pick and choose – and beside her is Lily, helping her every step of the way. Drawing people to the right colors of roses, of carnations, talking to them about the aesthetics of floriography and its vast, vast significance.
Yes, they cannot help everyone, but they can try.
And for the first time in what feels like years, Amira does not feel alone.
Aliyah Fong is an Indonesian-Chinese high school writer and author originally hailing from Chicago, Illinois, but now residing in Washington state. Her work aims to, above all, evoke emotions in her readers, and has been recognized by the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, and The New York Times Academy. She is also a First Reader for the Polyphony HS Literary Magazine. When not writing or fruitlessly staring at a blank Google Docs document for two hours, she can be found learning another language, watching science documentaries, or occasionally playing her violin.