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Issue II, Winter 2023


Sue Steging

She had been born in a country that had rarely been good to women. By and large, they had become inured to being held in what could only be contempt and, except for those few years in her twenties, confined to the home. Home. Perhaps that was why so many had been drawn to a career in architecture when independent lives were at last possible. Dead soldiers left gaps and downed buildings made their contributions necessary. But it was not to last. It seemed that their success only catalysed the resentment of those who thought themselves supplanted, turned it into a desire for revenge.  Returning to their offices after the war, once émigré architects saw provocation in the preference for curves over straight lines and right angles and younger men simply competed for place.

   She and the women who had stayed to rebuild their home cities had never courted controversy, never reaped rewards and recognition. Nevertheless, and almost without warning, professional structures reverted and few of the women who had invested their creativity in the country of their birth ever got the chance to live in the buildings they designed, or even to see them built. 

  And as it was in architecture, so too in the other professions. There were new reasons for stones to fly in the streets. The hopeful songs of the women’s spring were silenced. Independence was again a thing of myth.

   Her father and mother had used that short-lived springboard moment to achieve a presence in the wider world of architecture and she had continued as their spokesperson after their sudden departure on a journey whose destination was unknown but from which they could not return.  She had refused to accept that the plane crash that ended them was an accident but even when public interest lapsed, connected as she had been, it was decided that her own death would be a greater inconvenience than her continued life. She was spirited away.  Words of renunciation were published in her name, describing her relief at recovering her proper place. At the time, she was too stunned, too injured, to resist. Later, abroad as well as at home, her retrieval was thought likely to unbalance cynically maintained international relations. It was thought that re-location would be enough to satisfy the still interested. She knew herself alone. Forgotten. She was resigned.


   Her only male relatives were in the hills in her father’s home village and a laconic cousin had come to escort her. She was surprised when she arrived to be shown into a small house at the edge of the property.  It seemed that she was too far beyond the customary to live with the family and their house too distant from the village for anyone to observe the arrangements, to understand that fear that their women would not withstand the moral contagion she carried outweighed their love of convention. It was probably only the fact that her father, the initial outcast, had left her an inheritance that persuaded them to have her there at all. The patriarch’s ignorance and parsimony meant that they would take her income while waiting for her to die rather than seek outside the family for sophisticated legal advice. Happily, it seemed impossible for them to imagine the ease they offered through willful neglect. 

  With a landscaper’s eye she noted the large overgrown patch behind the house and through the thatch mapped the relics of a structured vegetable garden. Searching the dark corners of the old house for something to read, she found a wooden box. In it were two sets of notebooks and some old encyclopaedias written in a language she hadn’t heard spoken since her academic mother died. Her father’s journals, written as a young, aspiring architect, chronicled his increasing isolation from his family and the parallel growth of his love for the old garden. Little did he know that in nurturing it he would sow the seeds of his own unpopularity.  Gentle green spaces between buildings, cultivable by the poor, were not the stuff of the regime. But the notebooks had not withered. With their help, she could plan a full planting year, from preparing the land to harvesting seeds. There were enough old plants to get her started. And so she went on. The family’s mockery continued, deliberately offensive conversations conducted within her hearing although the fruits of her labours, left at the kitchen door, were never rejected. An uneasy truce was developing.

   But the winters were hard. While the others were gathered around the stoves, she went foraging in the nearby woods for fallen branches. That was where she discovered the hellebores. They were not native - probably brought here to comfort some other stranger - but they grew well. She found them described in one of the old books: Christmas Roses, Lenten Roses. The festivals meant little to her but she well understood the joy of a bright flower in the cold months. It was the hellebores that allowed her to feel that she had found a secret home in planted spaces between the cold stones of abandoned buildings.

   Searching deeper in her mother’s scattered library she found older allusions. Etymology suggested an association with the goat god Pan and Pliny’s researches described a number of cautious rituals for moving a plant that carried its toxins underground, rather than in its flowers.  She learned that their emetic character was associated with cure as well as poison. It was even said that they had been used to cure Heracles of madness. She was most intrigued by the idea that a young girl, stepping on a hellebore would be granted the gift of invisibility. The thought of invisibility as a choice, of liberation through absence, gave her rare cause to smile. And perhaps it was fitting then that she sited her plants where they would not be noticed, so close together that they began to hybridise. It became her pleasure to create new flowers, pollinating the old myths with new daydreams as she did so. 

   Her relatives had become relaxed to the point of forgetting her presence and began to share confidences in her hearing. Responding to her uncle’s high handed ways, their own in-fighting and manipulations made more vicious by the envy and resentment that must otherwise be suppressed. She began to name her new flowers after characters in the big house and the virtues they seemed to lack, wondering how they would respond if they knew they had been memorialised in this way. The small white flower, humbly bent to the earth she named after the most vain; the one with the largest stamens, offering pollen all around, after the least generous. 

   But she was no saint and when she was cold or hungry her ruminations would turn to the possible side effects of eating a root, or carrying the seeds too long. This one, so proud of her complexion, might learn from a judicious application of facial lesions. The one who leered at the young women might be found out if seen pawing at his frothing mouth; the greedy one, taking portions of her meagre rations for himself, might do better if he were more prone to vomiting. And of course, for the patriarch, the second in her time, a lethal dose might be required to make her final point.

  As the years passed and she became less able and the hellebores more self-sustaining, they spread themselves rather than waiting for her to split and cross-pollinate.  In quiet moments she recalled her mother’s re-telling of the myth of the dragon’s teeth, dreamed of transforming her strong, beloved plants into a small army. In her imagination, their roots became tentacles, each filled with writhing, crepuscular intent, advancing on those who had imprisoned and abused her for so many years. 

   Eventually it was over. She was glad as she fell to the earth that her last breath was to be taken in the bed where the first of the hellebores still grew; that the last image her eye would see was the deep purple flower with the long yellow stamens, angled down toward her. She smiled her last smile as a root completed its ascent from the soil and laid itself over her heart, ready to surprise the one who would find her

Born in Liverpool, Sue Steging now lives near the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. After a career spanning education and psychotherapy she enjoys having time to write about the human and non-human world around her. Her work has been published in various journals and anthologies and she received The Seamus Heaney Award for New Writing in 2023.