There was a time in Suri’s life when she was happy. As Gardener of the Poppy flower, her bed was the soft yellow bud that bloomed at the centre; her walls the thin red petals that filtered the sky scarlet.
Mother taught Suri and her sister that the sun was good for flower Gardeners. It kept them warm and helped them grow. It was simple, really–their skin told them how much was needed–to pull a tiny fistful of petal over themselves like a shed when the heat was scorching or push the flower open with a bang when the sunlight played hide-and-seek. And precociously, Suri would record every moment and every sophisticated action of Mother and Pulo in her memory.
Suri was also a petulant little thing. Whenever Pulo swayed in the air, looking gorgeous because the cloth wrapped around her body like second skin had grown Poppy red with age, Suri would look at her own to find a measly pubescent pink. “Mother!” she would complain. “Why have you given the Poppy colour only to Pulo? Mine looks weak and faded. Am I not your daughter too?”
Mother would sigh, hearing the same question for the third time in the week and tease her with a naughty smile. “You would’ve hated yourself as an infant, covered in plain white. No colour, no red.”
“Mother, please!” Pulo would chastise and take Suri into her lap to wipe her tears away. “Don’t cry, Suri. In some years, you will grow as tall as me and not be able to stop your breasts from swelling and hips from rounding. You will be a woman like me and be painted red forever.”
Thrice would Suri demand her sister repeat this to Mother and then wiggle her brows smugly at her.
For Suri, any reason that let her rest on her Pulo’s lap was worth a hundred barbs from Mother.
But it was all true. As Pulo became woman from girl, so did her pastel pink Garment become blood red; so did colour, which had birthed in spots, spill out to fill the white fabric of inno-cence. And on that fine dusk when Suri was fast asleep, Pulo woke up fertile and let Mother bid her a tearful goodbye as she spread her wings to fly to her new Poppy home.
* * *
Quite surprisingly, Suri first learnt about the Soldiers at a friend’s flower house.
“Why are they doing that?” she asked Angi, another little Gardener of the Anemone flower, whose lavender fabric had only recently begun to spot deep purple. Together, the pair watched their elder sisters work on purple petals in meticulous synchronisation, pushing and pulling them over themselves in regular intervals. Commendable efforts but annoying–she was enjoying how the flower home was swaying with the breeze and wanted the rain of sunshine on that chilly winter morning to be unending.
Her friend spun towards her and blinked owlishly. “How do you not know?” she asked. “Didn’t your mother tell you?”
No–thought Suri. No, she hadn’t–and so kept quiet with a simple shrug.
A frown formed on Angi’s face as she saw Suri’s re-sponse, as her eyes flittered between the working pair and her. At length, she scooted closer and tugged Suri’s ear to her lips. “They’re doing it because of Bee Soldiers. They’re terrible men, and you must always stay away from them. You will know them from their Garment, not nearly as beautiful as ours, only stripes of black and yellow. But that is why they want us. Because we’re pretty and precious to them. Do you understand?”
Suri didn’t, but the sudden dip in Angi’s voice was so nerve-wracking she pressed the latter’s hand for comfort and motioned her to continue.
“My mother told me that when the Garment completely darkens in the shade of her flower home, a Gardener has come of age. That is when she must fly to a new flower to nurture it, protect it and come unto herself. This is what Nature has made us for, what Nature has given us, but we’re forced to live under the fear of those damned Soldiers. A Gardener all alone in her flower home is fertile and vulnerable, and if a Soldier sees her and likes her–he’ll take her away for his bride. He will not stop whether she wants it or not, he will fly after her till she falls out of fatigue or gives up, but he will not stop till he has her!”
This Suri had never heard, had never known there were such fiends. At the thought of being wrenched away from her family, her very soul shuddered, and little fingers twisted into a fist. “Then I will fight them all!” she cried. “This is wrong, wrong, wrong!”
“No, Suri, it is not so easy!” said Angi, stopping tiny fists from banging on the bud. “They are very strong. Like your Garment changing colours, you cannot stop it; this day will come for every Gardener. What we’ve inherited, what we’ll leave behind. We can only hope we get to return like our mothers did.”
And though Angi fiddled with her own ageing Garment and refused to meet Suri’s face, flying away wobbly-lipped before she could hear any questions, Suri’s heart was not satisfied.
I won’t give up. When they come for me, I will fight them all–she promised herself, hiding this resolve somewhere in a tender corner of her heart like a fiercely guarded treasure.
* * *
Suri remembers the day the Soldiers actually arrived. In scores and scores, and sending the valley booming with the Gardener’s screams. Fear is a formidable emotion, you see, and stings like a viper, lethal in a moment or two. What is deathly remains deathly, no matter your acceptance of the way of this world.
Hidden amongst the algae somewhere by the stream, she had been waiting for Angi to catch her and her turn to seek next. Northwards of the flower bed, the stream rinsed the soil with its cool waters, and Suri loved the rare moments of unchaperoned peace it allowed her. But she’d already spent an unusually long time waiting for Angi, who was nowhere to be seen, and the environment seemed eerily quieter than before.
A strange buzz tickled her ear.
Unknown as the sound was, it forced Suri’s eyes open. Flashes of golden light attacked her, making her blink till she recovered to see that it was the flower bed community reflecting them.
Something was wrong.
With unease, she rose from the stream and shook the water off her body with twists of her waist when the strangest of sights immobilised her.
A few feet away from her stood a creature in the air, his eyes singularly focused on her. He was only a little taller than her, and his face, round and smooth. Just her age, then. His Garment was a complete yellow ochre save a few black tinges, and whatever he was, he was the same size as her. A firefly, perhaps?
“You blush prettily,” he said. When she kept quiet, he flew closer
. “When I grow up, I will take you as my bride.” Suri jerked back on hearing the words; her wings fluttered in panic. Images of the afternoon with Angi hailed on her brain. “I know who you are,” she cried, pointing a sharp finger at him. “I’m not going anywhere with you. Go away. Go away now!”
The boy Soldier clicked his tongue and shook his head in disappointment. “Why do you worry? I said I’d take you away only when I’m older. Today, my brother and his friends will get their brides. They told me to tag along to see if I’d find one to my liking. I think I have.”
In the moment she saw his smile, sinister and so entirely devoid of shame, and the way his eyes roved over her body, Suri felt her heart beat like it wanted to tear out of her chest. But thinking of Angi, who was counting for her, and beautiful Pulo, who a hundred rogues like him were already chasing, also made her rage–the slow fodder she’d collected since that afternoon. She couldn’t give up now.
Gathering all energy in her small-boned body, Suri charged towards the Soldier in front, headbutting him. “You. Will. Never. Ever. Have. Me,” she said, enunciating each word with punches she could land anywhere on his body.
The Soldier toppled over with a cry and gasped with every painful hit that caught his face. Even the cover of his hands could not protect him from Suri, and he howled in sheer agony as a nasty bite his arm, tooth print and all.
Unfortunately, he recovered soon. He wrestled with Suri’s light body, cruelly pressing his weight on her with which he seemed to regain balance, but she was off toward the flower bed after landing another timely kick.
“Stop!” he demanded, taking after her.
Suri didn’t listen. She flew and flew southwards till she landed on the first empty flower she could find and saw chaos incarnate.
The Bee Soldiers marched in precise square formations in the air, meshy wings fluttering loudly. When the sunbeam fell on their Garments–the velvet black-and-yellow shined with such intensity as if they had dipped themselves clean in water before meeting their brides-to-be. Perhaps they had, to seem more pleasing to the protesting crowd, but it wasn’t as if it was required.
None would leave before getting his bride.
They burned the Marigold row in their wake. Situated closest to the forest where the Soldiers dwelled in their hives, batches upon batches fell on quivering flower homes. The little ones, yet un-bloomed, were shielded by their mothers in their old Marigold homes–they clenched the withering petals closed with frail, bony fingers. A few daring mothers peeked out with an expression so fierce that even the broadest Soldiers looked away. But the black Garment of these elderly Gardeners was clearly meant to be visible–they were telling the Soldiers they were barren. And yet there were some so wide open you could draw the exact likeness of the pistil—flowers of stolen Gardeners with droplets of water visible on one or two.
Untimely dew, perhaps tears of mourning, but for Suri, the everlasting haunt of her imagination.
“Pulo! Pulo!” Suri called into a band of unheard wails. “Pulo! Pulo!”
She dashed towards her own bed of Poppies, not stopping even when a broad-chested Soldier approached from the opposite direction. He threw one distasteful look at her and hugged his purple-garbed bride tight to let Suri pass undisturbed. “Pulo, please!” she begged once more, this time only to drown out the sobs of the captured Anemone bride.
And then, right there, in the midst of wounded Poppy petals was beautiful, gorgeous Pulo. Held by the hair by a brawny Soldier, cheeks marred by lines of scratches, but still a brave Pulo who fought the scoundrel with all limbs.
No life without Pulo–thought Suri and crashed headlong on the Soldier’s side.
Foolish, painful mistake. What material the Soldier was made of that her head felt split on stone. What power resided in his arms that a shove sent her crashing on a steam. She’d done Nature no crime but still felt her back break three ways. “Don’t you hurt her!” her sister screamed for Suri’s pitiful, miserable self.
Two warm hands snaked around Suri and lifted her standing on the leaf. Honeyed breath crept over her ear as her eyes threatened to shut. “I want her,” the voice demanded. It was familiar; she’d made it sing in pain only moments before.
“No, no, no. Get him away from Suri. I’ll go anywhere with you; get him away from her!”
Humiliation. Body-flinching, brain-shutting humilia-tion. Suri would have preferred herself in pieces, dead inside some insect, than hear Pulo’s frantic pleas on her behalf. She saw it all, heard it all–how the bastard leered at her sister’s heaving chest, how he panted while dragging his fingers over her skin, how he tightened his hold as if his decision was made–
“Modumo. Come back when you’re a man. Free her now, or I will thrash you and carry you back.”
Something warm and slimy swiped across Suri’s nape. She shuddered as she felt the slime drip down her back, slowly, luxuriatingly. Dropping her off on the lead, her captor climbed the air to join his brother, who was already soaring away with Pulo.
Modumo. She re-peated his name inside her head, a roar starting in her ears. Modumo. Modumo. Even as he flew away he couldn’t seem to let go of her, turning his head away, glancing lingeringly–it made her gag.
She’d seen hawks take away chicks like this, the way these Soldiers looted Gardeners. Clawing through beaks, deaf to their victim’s titters who they’d sear sinew to sinew. Pulo didn’t do this, though. She stared at the sky with lifeless eyes. She didn’t even look back at Suri, not once, and didn’t even say anything.
Littler fingers sifted through her hair again, the touch a cascade of care. A flurry of purple Garments coaxed her to rest by hiding the sun. Who could it be but Angi, come from some whatever petals dutifully hid her, who’d told her this day came for every Gardener.
So Suri let go. Let go with a promise to herself that Pulo was acting for her sake, that she hadn’t given up, would fight till the end and win her freedom.
Pulo would return home.
* * *
“Help me! They took my sister away! They took Pulo away!”
These were Suri’s first words when she woke up hours later with a stinging pain in her back. The first seconds of awakening were spent entirely in the dark; only a different pungent scent told her she was not in her Poppy flower home. The thought alone was enough to scare as much as before, but a single beacon of light moved through the opening and shone on Angi and her sister, shivering at some corner.
They jumped when they heard her voice but soon crushed her into shared hugs and wails without uttering a word.
When the Anemone sisters left Suri with her mother, she fell at her feet and told her everything that had happened or had been said. Mother remained agonisingly silent, only calling Suri a foolish child once (after all, no one could be blamed for what was always going to happen).
For Suri? The world seemed to lose its colour, and for the first time in her life, she learnt what it meant to yearn for everything and nothing.
* * *
A few months later, a hopeful Suri asked Mother when Pulo would return.
Again, Mother kept silent but spoke up when she saw some large red spots on Suri’s garments. “Your sister will return once she has borne boy Soldiers. She will return with your niece, who will be the most angelic little Poppy Gardener, just like you were when I brought you.”
Suri didn’t speak to her for weeks.
* * *
A year became two. New flowers bloomed in the place of rotted remains and, inside them, new life.
But Pulo did not return.
Randomly, Suri came across the Gardener she had crossed that fateful day–the one who’d wailed while being carried off. The infant in her hand was giggling as her mother’s new neighbours cooed upon her.
The urge to abuse them was pressing, but Suri bit her tongue to bleeding and wiggled away before she could be spotted. On returning home, again, she asked why Pulo hadn’t returned.
This time, Mother said, “Sometimes, a Gardener’s Garment takes years to blacken. Till then, they bear young ones. And sometimes, their Soldier loves them too much to ever part with them.”
Suri focused on Mother’s Garment, pitch black and withering away in tatters, with a new sense of loss.
* * *
After some time, there was no one left to ask.
* * *
They came for Angi and her sister.
Suri knew, for their screams were so maddeningly loud, she could hear them even as she hid in Mother’s home. All those two left behind was their withering Anemone home that looked more and more dead each time she passed by. After the fifth time, Suri learnt to turn her face away and put it at the back of her mind for her own sanity.
Daylight tortured her like this, and nights made it worse. Dreams of Pulo returning home, of smiling kindly and flying towards her first, lulled her into something sweet before a demon in white appeared in her sister’s arms. “For you, he took her away,” she would scream at the giggling creature, clawing at it. “For you, who shouldn’t ever exist.”
And then, just like Pulo had predicted, Suri’s Garment bloomed into a red so rich she was unable to imagine it was ever pink.
So began her coming unto–training with the petals each day in her own new flower home. Open, close, open, close. So rigorously, there were times she tore entire petals and drenched the entire Poppy row with her tears while rubbing her aching arms.
* * *
The predators arrived again like they were always go-ing to. But something was different this time.
They were about a hundred times larger for once.
The Gentians were the first to fall. The humans deci-mated the entire flower bed, wrenching away every flower from Nature’s lap to put into their liquors, medicines, or machinations. The moment this happened, the Gardeners broke into minuscule pieces of blue dust, leaving only a slight shimmer behind them as the wind dissipated their remains.
The other Gardeners that were spared for the time be-ing were stubbed mute. They did not even scream. This was not the facet of death they had ever known, which was that of a peaceful, welcome end surrounded by friends, sisters, and daughters. No, this was an erasure of existence so absolute, as if there had never even existed in their valley a community of Gentian Gardeners with Gar-ments as blue as the sky.
Suri had never considered there could be something that would take her mind off the loss of Pulo and the boy Soldier’s promise to loot her. But even she was shell-shocked by scenes like these. Jumping flower to flower, group to group, she surveyed the extent of destruction and eavesdropped on familial dialogue.
“This is the end of all of us,” said the newly-spotting Gardeners, kindling their wet, swollen eyes.
“The end of the world,” said some older faces–widowed Gardeners–escaping from the forest with babes, to everyone’s surprise. “If the mighty Bee Soldiers fell to poisonous air blowing from the heat that the humans lit under their hives, what hope is there for us?”
‘Mighty’ praise for creatures so weak–thought Suri, who alone noted that the Soldiers were not so omnipotent as they claimed and rejoiced in it. Only one scene would replay in her mind when she closed her eyes–wave after wave of Bee Soldiers falling to these humans, wingless, powerless, defeated, and broken.
For the brave, there was hope yet.
* * *
The Soldiers took their sweet time but sure came back with their blasted faces.
Suri watched, with the clear view her high Poppy home afforded her, the ragtag band of shining Soldiers march towards the Gardeners from the forest. A mere bud-ful they were–not more than nine or ten or enough to match a single flower row–who made this perilous journey. Their naïvete was impressive, but resilience pitiful–they really thought any number of them could barge in and do whatever they wanted?
The single Soldier in front showed a hand to stop his minions just before the Marigold bed and threw his voice across the flower bed. “Do not run. We come in peace with an offer.”
Suri bit her lip, straightened up, and cautiously leaned forward. Like true villain, Modumo had fashioned himself the leader and not lost his slimy ways either.
“We will sting the humans away from you,” he said. “We only ask that you shield us inside your petals when they attack. You know well they come with enough poison and force to kill us all.”
The Gardeners erupted into murmurs around Suri. Whispers in waves, heads pulling closer in dialogue–Suri rubbed her hands excitedly for the approaching riot–
–Which never happened.
No one did anything. Nobody even ran away; they just remained rooted as they were, whispering in waves. How, why, Suri couldn’t guess. Only her skin tingled as this terrible thought appeared–were they considering his offer?
On Modumo, the effect was vastly different. Suri traced the change in him, how the silence emboldened him, how his chest puffed bit by bit, how he echoed his question again with a smirk. “Do I take this to mean you have agreed?”
Ant shit. He was smirking at them like an absolute bastard. Did he think he was talking to insentient pebbles?
Grinding her teeth, Suri charged towards Modumo and bellowed, “No, we don’t! Take your damned Soldiers with you and go away!” She burned to thrash his head, to claw his wings into petal tatters. That’s what they would all do together. She would not let him fool her sisterhood. She would not.
His voice flowed like honey; his eyes took on a reverent glaze as it crept upon her body. She could’ve accepted a worm moving on her body to feast on her flesh, but not this. Never this. Yet, he fixed his gaze on her and continued his charming speech. “Are we so bad that death is preferable? Could you create this life, your babes you cherish so much, without us? We know we can’t. We’d die for you.”
“Liars!” she snarled. “Damned liars, the lot of you! Pulo didn’t want to leave, but your brother took her away. You’re all here only to steal us.”
Perhaps it was mentioning his brother, who was surely dead, or invoking the time he failed to take her away that made Modumo’s mask slip in front of her. She would not forget how his cheeks flushed red, how his eyes flashed with unspeakable rage, and how it sent a sliver of fear cracking in in her for the first time.
Heaving an exaggerated sigh, Modumo passed a palm over his face and spoke again, “You have my word, dear Gardeners. We will not take any brides today. A common enemy far worse is behind us. You control the petals, and so have all the power. Today, we need you; your children need you. Will you let them perish just like that?
Pointing at the legion of Soldiers behind him, he continued. “This lot will not harm you. It is my command that any who disobeys me or you will–be–left–for–dead.”
He pounded his fist on his palm in rhythm with the last words, so loud the sound of skin slapping skin that the Gardeners enlivened with chatter.
Despairing, Suri saw a number of them give acquiescing nods.
“And let me tell you, dear Gardeners. For all this, for all our lives at your feet, for us to perish to save you, your sisters, and your daughters, I ask for very little. Nothing, and nothing else, except Suri,” added Modumo, pointing at her.
The blood flowing in Suri’s veins froze like ice. Her wings stopped flapping, and she felt faint. She clung to a nearby petal for support as her scared eyes flittered from the Soldier to the Gardener. Their keen stares were upon her, and they damned her with their silence.
I spoke for you–inside her head, she screamed. So why aren’t you speaking for me?
Modumo moved closer. Only a leaf’s length, nothing more, but he arrested her figure with an unwavering gaze–an unspoken challenge for her to escape.
Suri shivered like the petals of her Poppy home in the gale.
She was cornered.
Modumo made a mad dash for her.
With a panicked cry, she pushed the Marigold flower behind her for leverage and darted towards the Gardeners. The throng parted with gasps, and she experienced a moment’s happiness, thinking the Gardeners had come to her aid, but not a single Gardener moved to help her. No, instead, they watched mutely. Their expressions varied–some shielded the eyes of their young daughters and hugged them close to their bodies, tears in their own eyes, while some stoic elder Gardeners hardly blinked at the pitiful scene.
“Suri, you get back here!” Modumo roared, seething.
She winced, inadvertently pausing for a moment, and this is where she lost her pace. Modumo caught up to her, immediately caging her within his arms around her torso from be-hind. ~“Stop!” she cried, wiggling and kicking his shins, though to no avail. Tears formed when she felt him fly the other way, away from the Gardeners. “No, let me go! Help me! Help me!” she pleaded, stretching both her arms towards them, hoping for anyone, anyone, to take her hands and pull her away from her captor, to no avail.
Amid this struggle, Suri caught a stray petal in her palms. Her hold was sturdy, stopping Modumo from flying back-wards with her. A well-aimed kick wrenched a grunt from him but made him dig his fingers more painfully.
“Will your Soldiers really save my child?”
The pair stilled, bewildered. The sound was sudden and had come from the crowd’s direction.
Before they could take heed of the change, an Anemone Gardener flew straight before Suri. Her Garment was dark violet, brows drawn close and lips quivering as if she was ready to break down at any moment, but Suri was greatly relieved. This one had come to save her. With renewed effort, she shoved herself towards the Gardener, calling out to her and thanking her.
“Tell me, Soldier!” she yelled, entirely ignoring Suri.
Modumo tightened his fist around Suri’s fingers. “My words don't falsify if I repeat them. The Soldiers are ready to fight to death. All I want in return is Suri. Just her!”
The Gardener moved skin close to Suri. Modumo hissed in warning, but Suri smiled with gratitude, only for one breathless moment before the Gardener put her warm hands upon hers and yanked her palm away from the petal. Suri squealed as she lost her support, but Modumo was there to catch her in time, his hands wrapped around her again.
“Take her. But save us. Save my child. Please!” the Gardener pleaded, looking straight at Modumo. The only inkling of guilt? The way she fidgeted and averted her eyes from Suri. At length, as the Bee Soldier nodded, she raced towards the flower home she’d hidden her little daughter in.
So forsaken. So alone. Maybe if she had any family living, they would’ve fought for her. Like she had for Pulo. Like she had for everyone. At the very least, they would’ve shown her the agony of a draining heart and the futility of having filled it with courage or hope.
Between hot tears, salty lips, and raining kicks and punches on her captor, Suri swore this to him and the ends of the earth. “I will never stop fighting you.”
“We’ll see.” His hold was iron-clad, his tone calm as he swiftly traced the accursed path to the forest. With a wave of his hands, he signalled his Soldiers onwards to prepare for the battle against human predators, and gradually, the Gardeners’ faces merged with the Soldiers’ to become indistinguishable. “I came for you as promised,” he said.
Suri wept openly. Too many thoughts jumbled inside her brain–her Poppy home deserted; no one loved her; no one fought for her; home lost, lost, lost. She coughed as the pressure on her chest became too much. “I want to go back. Let me go!”
The humiliation of being made to beg was torturous–she clenched her fists so tight that even her short nails began to prick her skin.
“I have protected your sister from death. I am taking you to her,” he said.
Darkness bled into the edges of her vision. Her head pounded, her wings ached, but her mind clung to the images of Pulo. Pulo would love her again, Pulo would hug her, Pulo would scold everyone who did this to her, Pulo was home, but what about her Poppy flower home, she hated Modumo, he was lying, she hated him, he had stolen her–
The densifying foliage blocked sunlight from reaching Suri, and she let her tired eyes droop closed.