All flowers sing but his.
When he came back to live among us he was already an old man, old even for a magician. My mother sent me to wash his feet with cardamom and tangerine water, to spread seed-butter and dogrose jam on his bread—the tasks of women. “He pays well and we need the money. I don’t have the time, so River must go,” she said when Father questioned her decision. Lips flat and a fire on her cheeks, she kept stirring the leek and tomato soup, her grip on the ladle tight.
On my tiptoes I walked into his birth-house: a mausoleum of other, better times. I was greeted by a cabinet full of fangs and rows of dogteeth hanging from the ceiling. A refined collection of cicada lacey wings, and on its side a pair of priceless embalmed lilies the color of misty mornings. Fragments of living pottery—glazed epigraphs and poems of the old Empire—carefully arranged on the wall, each piece whispering a tale more wondrous than the previous one. Everything was artfully stacked on top of everything, hundreds of trinkets pouring out of resin-smelling fir coffers. On most of them I recognized the royal seal: an eagle pierced by the thorns of a white rose, three drops of blood falling on the petals.
And outside, in his garden, his flowers did not sing.
Tulips, anemones, chrysanthemums, orchids, marigolds and forget-me-nots: he knew every secret name, every ancient way. This is the first thing magicians learn, I was told. They train their ears to listen to the songs and teach their hearts to sing them. When the flowers tell a song of worry and disease, magicians are the first to know.
For weeks, I watched him. How he listened and how he healed. How people’s faces beamed when he helped them and how they thanked him afterwards. He was old and not in need of money, yet he was on his feet all day, answering calls for help and mending what was broken.
My father noticed. “Don’t get any ideas,” he said, scratching the long, faded scar on his cheek. “You must go to war first. To prove you’re a man worthy of your bread. That’s what all men do.” He passed me the light iron sword he had forged for my practice and waited. Every morning I had to display my knowledge. Every morning I had to practice until he was satisfied. “I want my son to serve like a man. Then return,” he used to say. “I’m not losing you over there. Be the best you can be, like your father. Kill so that you won’t be killed.”
The way he immediately noticed that day as I was watching the Magician’s healing work with all-devouring eyes: it warned me that I was not to perish like my brothers had; his eyes, his words were all a swarm of wasps latching onto my neck, forcing me to return every tiny leaf of my attention to his world of steel roses and chainmail ivies. My shoulders dropped, bones suddenly too heavy to carry my weight. I took the practice sword and began to swing it perfunctorily. It was not long before his dissatisfied rap came down my arm—I had just earned myself a fresh, rosy, glistening scar. I swung the blade more intentionally this time and watched my father’s eyes shine with reserved pride.
Something hardened in my world, the way it did every time my father told me I had to become a man and that being a man meant being brave. As something acquired another layer of earth crust, fossilizing more completely inside me, something else emerged from its cocoon like a late summer moth, soft and fragile, dancing around flames.
Despite the kindness of his eyes, the Magician rarely smiled. Mechanical birds fluttered between his clawed rheumatic fingers, the details on the ironwork so fine that I wondered what beautiful things he must have made for royals when his hands were still young. I think the joy on my face brought a smile on his lips—a timid, fleeting one.
“Have you ever been to war, sir?” I asked him. I was pitting hawthorns to make a pie for him, my hands dyed blood red. My mother would appreciate my careful work, but my father would certainly cringe at the softness of the task.
“Many times,” the Magician said. “It is not nice.”
I squeezed the hawthorns tighter and, like all children, kept testing the waters of our conversation by dipping another toe. “My father thinks this is how men are made. At war. He says that I’m not brave unless I fight.”
The Magician munched on a dried fig, eyes off into the distance. Without meeting my gaze, he said, “This is a rather limited view on what bravery consists of. Pray, tell me, is he also fine with you dying over there as well? With your body returning in a wooden coffin? With your flowers withering before they even bloom?”
“No,” I rushed to say. “That’s why he tells me I must be the best fighter there is. So I can return a veteran, like himself.”
His closely knit lips reminded me of my mother’s silent anger. “Maybe putting an end to wars could help with that,” he muttered.
“He’s too afraid to lose me.” I worried I was doing my father injustice. All he wanted was to protect me, after all. “He lost every last of his brothers in the war. My two elder brothers—his sons—too.”
The Magician didn’t say anything, and I understood this was no excuse to him.
“I’d rather help people’s flowers, like you do,” I finally said, timidly. It was the first time I uttered it, even to myself.
“I’d rather you do that too.” Perhaps he even offered me a smile just then, hidden inside his beard. “This is a brave thing to do, you know. Not many people choose it.”
“Why don’t your flowers sing?” I asked. For a moment, it seemed like my question caught him by surprise. Then the kindness returned to his eyes, sitting on every wrinkle around them. I think he used to smile a lot in the past.
“I left this house—my birth-house—when I was very young. A little older than you, I think. So maybe they forgot how to sing.”
This was no real answer, but I didn’t ask for more. He, the King’s former magician, made all these wonders for us, yet his flowers stood silent in his garden, muted against the harmonies of our own.
The day we are born we are given a plot of land. This land is not our property—it is our life. Without seeds and flowers we wither and die. Many have tried to invade this country of singing flowers, but we have always pushed them back, adding fresh blood to this soil, more blood on top of that shed by our ancestors. “These flowers grow on blood,” my father used to say, smiling his small, cynical smile.
Right before my little brother Tin fell ill, I heard a sharp note coming from his single sunflower—an arresting, suffocating sound. A day later he couldn’t leave his bed; a child no older than six winters, roasting in fever. The healer—rows of beads around her neck, clacking against each other—shook her head. There was nothing she could do.
“I walked past your cottage this morning,” the Magician told me when I visited a couple of days later. “Your brother’s flower is singing a song of illness. Can you hear it?”
I almost dropped the jug of infused water. Breathing deeply, I calmed myself and tried to be brave. “I can hear it, sir. The healer said there was nothing she could do.”
“Oh.” He scratched his elbow absentmindedly, eyes looking over the window and into his garden full of silent flowers. With long hair and a chalk-white beard, the Magician was a relic claimed by time. Sitting in the silence of his home, mute flowers staring at me, I was nervous. “I could help,” he said after a long pause. “Ask your parents and let me know.”
I shivered, tears building inside me. What I couldn’t bear to ask, he had suggested himself. I had seen him at work before and knew he could save my brother. My feet caught fire as I ran back home to tell my parents that there was hope for Tin.
My father sighed and turned to look at my mother. She was shaking, in her plain homespun dress, her lush dark hair that both her surviving children still bore held in a tight bun.
“Copper,” my mother pleaded, “you know he can heal him. Let’s bring him over.” She was crying.
“We’ll be indebted to him. I know you don’t want that.” He met my eyes abruptly, as if he only noticed me there. He had the look grown-ups have when they know children should not be listening.
“We might be, yes. But we will have Tin. You know he will die without his flowers, don’t you? I can’t bear to lose another child, I can’t.”
He didn’t move closer, did not comfort her; my father was not this kind of warm person. But he knew her heart better than any of us did. “I see,” he said simply. He looked at me once more, then went to fetch more firewood.
A long silence installed itself between my mother and myself. There was much I didn’t understand, not because I didn’t want to but because I didn’t yet have the words to voice things that were beyond me. “Mother, you don’t like the Magician?” I asked. The question was a reasonable one, even from a mere boy like myself.
Through her tears she gave me a single look. “His flowers give me the chills,” she said and went to her room, where Tin was sleeping feverishly. She didn’t return to the kitchen that night.
The Magician visited one quiet winter evening. He shuffled the soil in which my brother’s sunflower grew and whispered words between its leaves with eyes closed. My father thanked him as the Magician inspected the plots of the rest of us. His eyes passed over my brothers’ dead plots—now their graves. He didn’t speak, although his face darkened. He paused, however, to listen to the songs in mine and gave me an amused look. “Many new songs your flowers have learned, eh?” he said, and his approval spread warmth inside me. Then his eyes shifted behind me, where my mother stood at the doorway holding a lantern full of fireflies.
The Magician bowed politely. They stood, my mother and he, looking each other in the eye. She did not say a single word; her presence was a cold ice shard between us. “Well,” the Magician said at last, “I’d better go now,” and he helped himself out of our garden and into the deepening night.
Since that evening my mother swallowed her dislike of the Magician and encouraged me to visit him more often. I began to talk to her about my visits there more openly—but only to her. I watched her raising her eyebrows at the Magician’s words that perhaps wars should end, that staying here to help people’s flowers was a kind of bravery. I believed she had misunderstood him, and now that I shared with her the views and deeds of the man who had saved Tin so kindly, she was warming up to him.
I think she changed a little because of this. A new song was added to her flowers and, sometimes, hers and mine sang in unison. She gave me more and more tasks, both for the Magician and for our household, until I noticed that she did all she could to keep me away from my father’s odd, obsessive preparation for war. This was how I gathered all my strength one day and asked her, “Mother, do I really have to go to war?”
I’m not sure what I expected. She had just returned from church, where she took my dead brothers’ seeds every month to cleanse them with blue smoke and keep them alive, as we do with the seeds of the dead. Tears rolled on her face, but she did not embrace me. In a moment’s weakness I had asked her to protect me, but she didn’t even know how to protect herself.
“I wish you didn’t,” was all she said.
“Don’t go back there,” my father ordered me. That day I had brought back a tiny, speckled fawn made of strawberry-colored glass—the Magician’s gift—and was hoping to show my brother how it could move around and chase birds and dogs. “The debt is repaid,” he continued, unyielding, “and we can live without his money. It’s time for you to grow up too. Find a profession and get apprenticed somewhere so you can have a job when you return from service.”
My mouth hung loose, lip trembling, words dissipating from my tongue. All of my father’s subtle disapproval of the womanly tasks I had to offer the Magician had warned me that this day would come. My mother used to dislike him too, but I knew she secretly respected him by then.
When I turned to her for help, her eyes were fixed on the floor. “Mother,” I pleaded.
“There’s not much time left, River.” Her words hurt me more than anything. “We must find a master to teach you his art. You’re almost fourteen—your conscription notice will arrive soon.”
“I want to be a magician,” I said, surprising even myself, “I want to be apprenticed to the Magician.”
Who could argue with this? The Magician would teach me the principles of his art while I waited for conscription, then I would go to war, and when I returned—if I returned—I could finish my apprenticeship and become a magician myself. Was it too much to ask? It certainly was not.
The look in their eyes told me that I should have kept silent. It was Mother who spoke, not my father. “You don’t understand some things about him, not yet. You don’t want to become like him.”
Coming from her lips, her words were betrayal. She knew what he was like! She was the only one who knew! And yet she wouldn’t let me become his apprentice. Yes, she couldn’t prevent me from going to war, but why deny me such a thing? I was all alone.
“I know what I want!” I shouted as loudly as I could, struggling to be heard. “Look what he made for us!” I stretched my arms to show her the fawn, as if that trinket meant anything. “And he saved Tin and our lives are so much better now! I... I want to be that person who helps others. I don’t want to fight Father’s stupid war.”
I was holding back my tears, desperately trying to show that I was a grown up.
“Forget magics,” Father’s resolute order came. “They’re not for us.”
That day I was younger than I wanted to be. In childish temper, I smashed the fawn on the floor and ran out the door.
It shattered into thousands of pink stars.
The faltering light in the Magician’s eyes flickered once, then stood still. Nothing else betrayed what he thought about my wish to become like him.
After what happened, I had gone straight to him. He had hinted before that he would like to share some of his knowledge with me and had even started showing me thin threads of his craft. I dropped on my knees, begging him to take me as an apprentice.
“How much do you know about magicians?” he asked in a low voice.
“They’re very learned. They serve the King. All this I knew before you arrived. But what you do to flowers—this is what I want to do. With all my heart.”
“Seedling,” he coughed, “this is my gift to you and it might be the last. Want to know why my flowers don’t sing?”
I nodded, hungry for knowledge kept from me.
He took his time before telling me his story. First he emptied his pipe, then loaded it with fresh leaf. Blue rings of smoke swirled like mist between us.
“They sang when I was born,” he whispered, “when my mother planted the first narcissus for me. They sang as I grew and learned the mysteries of the world, how to shape matter and manifest rain and mist. They sang when I was given the highest praise in this land, when I stood by the King’s shoulder. When he took me to that first war, where I conjured beastly contraptions for him, arms that dealt death by the hundreds, poisons that took the lives of so many—all that time, my flowers sang. When my King entertained murderers who wore gold on their wrists, when they spoke of how the people of this or the other land were cattle to be slaughtered, and I never said a word, and I always nodded and did my duty which I was honored to have, all that time, my flowers still sang. They sang, because I believed, so they, too, believed.”
Slowly, I saw the tapestry he was weaving for me—but my heart couldn’t quite grasp the landscape that unfolded with it. Something in me refused to match the kind old man with his wild stories of horror. Not knowing what else to do, very politely, I asked, “So when did your flowers stop singing?”
“Ah, seedling.” There was pity in his voice and even a drop of secret joy. “They never stopped singing. They sing a song you can’t hear yet.”
I didn’t understand. I stayed silent, looking into his eyes, waiting for the latter part of the story that never came.
“Leave now,” he said firmly, though not unkindly. “Think of what I told you. Think carefully. If you want to come back, I’ll take you as an apprentice.”
I left his house that day, thinking I would return later.
I never did. The Magician was not who I thought he was. The Magician couldn’t do for me what I had hoped he would. What I learned that day was more, much more than I had asked for.
For a long time after I left his house that day, when he bade me to leave and think, I walked by the river, not wanting to go home. I slashed reeds with a long stick, hopped over rocks, terrorized frogs and small birds nesting in the woody grass. All the while I was thinking about my parents and about the Magician and his words, and still nothing would come to me. I couldn’t make a decision. My head was cloudy, my insides tied uncomfortably into knots. Something too big, too quick, had burrowed inside me, and I didn’t know what to do with this strange animal suddenly gnawing at me from the inside out.
And then, among the cat tails, I dropped to my knees. It didn’t come to me lightly but thrashed against my face like a violent gust of wind. It shook my heart loose from my ribcage, that feeling that made me bite my fist, that blinded my eyes with tears I couldn’t stop. And then, I knew, because I could finally hear it. The song was blaring everywhere, ringing off the rocks, pounding inside the bones of my chest at my heart itself.
And then, I knew.
The Magician’s flowers were mourning. This was the only song left for them to sing. A song for my brothers, for my father’s brothers. A song for my mother’s dead children. A song for all we’d had, that now was lost.