Petal Lips

A Fairytale by La Mouche

They were a woman and a man, husband and wife for over ten years. They lived in a farm, where they planted carrots and potatoes in the spring and cabbage and garlic in the autumn. The farm was by a lake, so they never lacked water for the crops and household; harvests were always abundant and their garden was filled with colour. All in all, the couple was content with what they had except for the fact that they had long wished for a child of their own.

One Sunday morning the husband readied horse and cart and the couple went into town for there was a fair on with a carousel, acrobats, fire-eaters and all sorts of eccentric people selling food and entertaining the crowd. As they paced along the fair grounds, the couple spotted a rundown caravan at the end of a row of stalls. Sitting at a table under its ragged gazebo was a woman with black curly locks. She wore a scarlet dress and her bony shoulders were wrapped in a black, velvet shawl.
“Good day to you,” the couple greeted her, “What is it that you trade?”
“I sell answers: possible solutions to problems,” said the woman, who after taking a good look at them added, “Is there anything you’ve always wished for but never had?”
“Nothing really,” said the husband eyeing his wife.
“Well there is one thing, husband,” the wife interjected, “we’ve always wanted a child,” she whispered rather miserably before turning to the strange woman. “If you knew of a way we could conceive a child, we would pay you rather well.”
“I may have just the thing for that,” the woman said and disappeared into the caravan. Not a minute later she was back, holding the palm of her hand up under the couple’s noses. “Plant this seed in your garden next spring. Water it three times a day; at dawn, midday and sunset and do not miss a single occasion, even if it rains. A large plant will sprout, producing one single flower bud of long, red petals. If you do as I say, the day the flower opens up you may have yourselves a very pleasant surprise.” The couple listened intently. “At dawn, midday and sunset,” the wife repeated.
“Yes,” accentuated the caravan woman, “and you cannot forget to do it, not even once, regardless of the rain.” And so the couple thanked her, paid her with five pounds of salt and turned to go home – the wife thrilled, the husband rather sceptical- when the woman called out to them, “one other thing, rather important: if you forget to water the seed before sprouting and the plant still bears a fruit, make sure you don’t stop watering it every day after that; three times a day, at dawn, midday and sunset, without missing a single occasion, even if it rains, or you’ll find yourselves regretting it.”
“Understood,” chorused the couple as the wife jumped in their cart and the husband spurred the horse into a brisk strut.

“A magic seed,” the wife remarked as they rode, “that will bear a magic fruit, that will make us be with child!”
“I am not sure this is a good idea,” the husband frowned. But his wife was so excited that he didn’t have the heart to refuse. So when spring arrived, they planted the seed at the end of the garden and set to watering it three times a day: at dawn, midday and sunset, without missing a single occasion, even if it rained. They were very constant, but one day, husband and wife woke up with a high fever and aching joints. Reluctantly, the husband got up to water the plant at dawn. The wife struggled to step out of bed yet managed to do it at midday as well. But as the sun sank in the horizon, there was rain and thunder outside. The husband said, “Could you water the seed for me? I don’t think I can manage.”
“Oh I couldn’t move again, husband!” They were both truly ill, so they decided to give it a miss this once. Still the wife noted, “The woman did say we shouldn’t miss a single time, even if it rained.”
“I know,” the husband interrupted, “but it’s pouring down! Too much water is not good for plants either!”
“True, true, husband!” consented the wife. Thus the seed was not watered that dusk and the couple stayed in bed to rest and recover.

Temperatures continued to rise as summer settled in. Most trees and plants were now blossomed, but the space where the seed had been planted was still vacant. At last on a full moon night, as they slept, a tiny, green shoot sprang up. “Come quickly, wife!” the husband called out the next morning, “the seed sprouted overnight!” The wife reached the bottom of the garden to gasp at the sight of a plant of long dark green leaves, just like what the caravan woman had described. Wedged at its centre, was a large flower bud of a striking red, still closed. “It’s the colour of blood,” said the wife separating the leaves. “How peculiar!” the husband uttered. Although a little apprehensive, fascination had by now got the best of them, so from here on the watering routine was kept even more strictly.

A fortnight passed uneventful and midsummer’s day arrived. The day seemed set for sunshine and clear skies. Like every morning since the bud was out, husband and wife walked hand in hand to the end of the flower garden with their watering can. On this day, they found that the leaves were spread and bent back down onto the ground, and right there and then the bud was bulging as if about to burst open. The wife squeezed her husband’s hand. “It’s all right, darling,” he said, as he tilted the watering can. When the first drops of water touched the bud head, it shivered as if alive. Slowly, each of its long petals began to flex and stretch back, one after the other, to show a large open flower. Lying at its very heart was a baby girl, wrapped in a fine petal film. Three years she may have been, surely not older, with dark hair and the reddest of lips. “Oh my!” cried the wife; her eyes filled with tears, as the husband took the girl in his arms. “Oh my!” cried the husband as he handed the baby over to her. Both their throats were dry and their hearts pounding. So the couple sobbed with joy at the sight of the baby girl, and hugged her in disbelief. But her smile was so innocent, her hands and feet so tiny and warm, and her dark eyes so vivacious that reality finally sunk in and they came to realise that a miracle had happened and that they could finally be the happiest couple in the world for they now had a child of their own.

They named her Petal, or Pet for short, but the townspeople called her Petal Lips, because her red lips contrasted so strongly with the paleness of her skin and the blackness of her hair and eyes. Ah but things had not gone as wonderfully as the couple would have wished, for they soon found that Petal had a dark green, velvety spot over her left shoulder, where flesh should had been, and that its texture was that of a leaf. “This is our fault!” cried the wife. “For not watering her that day we were ill!”
“You think so?” the husband said, his voice trembling. “Well, the caravan woman was clear!" His wife replied. "Oh, I wish I hadn’t been so selfish! If only I had watered the plant that evening, Petal would have been born a perfect baby!”
“No, this is my fault!” the husband said with tears in his eyes, “you insisted we watered the plant, but I wouldn’t listen! And now our Pet will be part flower forever because of my laziness!” Husband and wife hugged each other, holding the baby girl. “We have to water her for life from now on,” resumed the wife with a sunken heart. “And we will,” said the husband, “everyday, three times a day, at dawn, midday and sunset, without missing a single time, even if it rains.” So they took the baby into the house to look after her and swore to protect her with their lives. And it happened that the farm finally became the family home husband and wife had always dreamt it to be, and Petal Lips grew to be a strong and healthy child in spite of the vulnerable, leaf-skin spot in her back.

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Ten years on, Petal Lips had turned into a fine, happy girl. Adored by her parents, but also well-behaved and kind of heart, young Petal had got into the habit of bathing three times a day; at dawn, midday and sunset. The girl became very much accustomed to being in the water, as it was to be expected, and took to bathing at the lake in the summer months. Every summer afternoon she swam there, the herons fished peacefully around her, and the swans took off to indulge in their sky dance before stepping down to surround her once again in their deep white plumage. But that particular summer the sun was stronger than ever. With no rain falling in weeks, a stern drought settled in, the harshest seen in years. As locals struggled to find water, the lake began to shrink. All the birds migrated and the fish that did not make it to deeper water when the current was strong, died.

Eventually the lake dried up completely. By then, Petal’s father was having to go into town up to five times a day to bring a tank full of water for the crops, the household and, most importantly, for Petal to bathe, as there was no lake for her to swim in anymore. The horse was a fine animal but the long rides in the extreme heat eventually got to him and one afternoon, his heart and legs gave in and he lay on the ground dead. Petal’s father was ten miles away from the farm, the sun was on his way down and back in the house Petal did not have a drop of water to pour over her head at dusk. “My Pet’s life is in danger! I must get to the house right away! She must have her water!” he kept muttering to himself, and, abandoning the cart, he set off running in the direction of his farm with a large bucket of water on each hand. The father walked and walked and sweated and thirsted under the burning sun, but wouldn’t stop to rest or drink. A large branch came handy to hang the buckets and transfer the weight from arms to shoulders for a bit of a respite. And on he walked and tired as the sun touched the jagged rim of the shadowy, far-off mountain.

Meanwhile at the farm, “Oh, my!” Petal’s mother worried. “Your father is not in sight and the sun is heading down fast! We can’t sit and wait anymore, Pet! If something’s happened to the cart or the horse, your father would have set on foot because he knows you need the water, so we should try and meet him half way before the sun’s completely gone! Off we go, Pet! Let’s go find your father!” Off mother and daughter went, in the direction of town, to try and meet up with the father before it was too late for Petal to have her evening bath. Three miles they walked, as fast as their feet could take them, with no stops to catch their breath. The sun was already sinking behind the towering horizon, and still there was no sign of the father. “I’m tired, mama. Let’s stop for a minute.”
“Sorry Pet, we can’t. You must have your bath before the sun leaves the sky.”
“But I’ve never missed a bath, mama. And my leafy spot feels very smooth, so maybe it’s not that big a deal to miss just the one bath.”
“Don’t you say that, Pet! You can’t miss it, not even once. Is that understood?” The mother looked deep into Petal’s black eyes and, grabbing her by the hand, set on speedily again.
“But why, mother?” Petal plodded along. “Surely you don’t know that!
The mother didn’t reply. She just bit her lip and walked faster, pulling Petal by the hand.

A mile and a half later, the sun was barely a red line to the far west, when, in the distance, the weary mother and daughter saw a man coming towards them with a rod across his shoulders and a stout wooden bucket on each side. As the distance shortened, they noticed that the man was panting heavily and that his clothes were soaked in sweat. “My poor husband!” exclaimed the wife. “Father!” Petal shouted, sprinting to reach him and throwing her arms at him. “No time!” He uttered as clearly as he could manage, for he was gasping for air. There and then he stopped, held up one of the heavy buckets with both hands and threw its contents over Petal’s head without warning. “Ah!” Petal gasped, for the splash felt surprisingly cold. The mother followed suit and also poured the water in the other bucket over Petal’s head. For a moment, there was silence: Petal stood between her mother and father; her head down and her eyes close, water dripping down her face, locks and dress, as her parents turned to look at the far off line ahead and saw in horror that there was no sun. “Were we on time?” asked the distraught wife. “Were we?”
“I don’t know!” the father cried out and turned to face Petal. “Pet, are you all right?” he asked her, softly lifting her chin and clearing the wet, black hair off her face. But Petal’s face was changed. Her lips, once red like the petals of the flower that nursed her, were now cracked and brown. The mother lifted the sleeve of her dress to check the spot. “What is it?” asked her husband.
“It’s not good, not good!” she yelled, tears flooding her eyes.“Pour the rest of the water on it!” suggested the father. The mother poured without delay. For a moment, the spot seemed to shrink and recover its green shade, but soon it darkened again and grew wet. Blacker than soot it turned and thickened, like a sponge soaked in a viscous fluid that smelled rotten. The spidery fungus wobbled, raised its gooey ends and quickly crept onto Petal’s chest, nesting over her heart. Petal moaned softly. Unfaltering, the father jumped onto her, trying to pull the fungus off. “Don’t touch it!” shouted his wife, but as soon as his hand had enclosed around the runny dark shape, this settled on his fingertips and ran up over them up to his wrist. The husband looked in shock as the fungus enveloped the rest of his arm, but did not try to shake it off. “Get it off you!” implored the wife.
“Maybe, it takes me instead of Petal,” said he with glimmering eyes. But the fungus had leaked through Petal’s breast and into her heart, and it was now biting hard at her insides. It was all too sudden: Petal’s leafy self collapsed to the ground with a gentle rustle. “She’s gone,” cried the husband, whose own arms were now a greyish mass of putrid leaves. “I couldn’t save our daughter, God forgive me!”
“It’s all right, darling,” the wife tried to calm him down.
“How can you say that? We’ve lost her! Our Petal is dead!” He went on angrily. The wife sobbed, but said nothing. She just put her arms around him and kissed him. And as the fungus covered their bodies, a soft wind blew over the arid meadows and the voice of the caravan woman was heard throughout the valley:
“Come thou, holy rain
Moisten this parched earth
Make it evergreen
Not a hint of thirst
Let the flowers grow
Where bare they lay,
For those who have seen
Their child in a grave…”

The End