Mustard Flowers


By Milli Zunich

My dad was a marigold.

When I was little, he would sit me on his lap under the heavy strum of summer sun. He’d gently bounce me up and down, singing the words of flowers and faded photographs. Ice cream stuck to my fingers as my overalls pressed into my sunburned shoulders. Small bits of dirt clung to my feet and I laughed at the shadows they made on the unfinished concrete. He’d fill my head with stories and butterflies, he’d tell me dreams and I would send them high into the clouds with my childish joy.

And then he told me the secrets of the flowers, how they had names and colors and things I could never imagine on my own. He’d call them beautiful in a way that seemed to linger as far as the sunset. If it wasn’t for his rare worried wrinkles reminding me of his mortality, I would have thought him to be one of them in all of his messied-marigold mane. He’d call me things that were wild and happy and free because I was. I asked him to weave his words for me to see at dusk and we’d sit, not too far away from the edge of eternal joy.

And then he had too much sun, so much that he ended in a greenhouse of bodies waiting to be told if they needed to be clipped. He still kept his smile and his stories, but he let me tell him of the world outside the box room. I reminded him of how yellow sunlight can be against the right sunflower seed. I told him stories of new gardens with flowers that reached the sky. Some days he looked smaller than a sprout in the pool of white sheets. But his voice always came back with the boom of a mountain, so I thought everything would be the same when we returned.

There were days when he was himself and days when he was flimsy in the wind, unfamiliar with the snappy feeling of the cold. He still spoke to the flowers, maybe more than before. But when I tried to sing again with the words he taught, he looked at me like a stranger. It seems that he must have forgotten. Or maybe it was me. I tried sitting with him, but his gaze was for the flowers and living things. I wasn’t alive enough for him to see.

He told me that marigolds can heal people and I used to think that he always would. He told me that they were soft and gentle with blooms as full as a beating heart. He became less interested in healing and more intent on destroying.

I didn’t recognize it. How could I? He always had a drink every once in a while, as most adults did. Or so I thought. But then he would retreat more and more in the evenings until the dusk was only mine to hold. “Brandy” he called it. It was stronger than a pesticide with all the colors of melted rust. I would have given a thousand dusks if I had the guts to chuck them far into the depths of the sun. Anything to keep him from it.

He changed so much that it makes me wonder what the garden told him when I left for school. Maybe he thought their words were malicious, maybe they whispered secrets I told them to keep. Maybe they were really the ones that poisoned his soft marigold mind. He laughed when I cried. He yelled when we asked. He drifted when I clung. He rippled through the floorboards with such a frenzy until he was something I knew he wasn’t. My dad had stripped his marigold mane, tired of piercing questions and stupid little kid games. And I was still a kid who just wanted to hear just one last sunlight song when all I had was the dark.

He’s not a marigold anymore. He hasn’t been one for a long time.

We don’t speak, we don’t chat, we don’t laugh, we don’t share. It’s enough to strangle a chrysanthemum. We don’t sit, we don’t look, we don’t stay, we don’t breathe. He is little more than a thorned dandelion in the breeze. But sometimes, when I miss him the most, I can still see glimpses of who he was and who he still has time to be. Sometimes I find it in a small hello.

Other days, it’s a plate of pancakes for dinner. It can be the tear at the edge of a lash after heated words, or the ringing in my head after re-reading one last crispened letter. But most of all, it’s the lush whisper of old songs against the wind, reminding me of sticky hands and soft laughter.

I remember the way it was, and I always will.

My dad was a marigold, and I miss him still.