On the morning of July 21st in New York City a flower appears, seemingly overnight, sprouting from a crack in the sidewalk.  A businesswoman on her way to work walks past it, furiously texting urgent memos to her subordinates as she hurries by.  In her haste she fails to notice a man walking towards her, just as preoccupied with his cellphone as she is with hers, and they collide.  Profuse apologies that smoothly transition into hollow reassurances are exchanged, like the well-rehearsed scene of a play they were raised to take part in, while both sides silently and masterfully conceal bitter blames and ill-will towards one another.  They collect their respective scattered belongings from the sidewalk, and with one last nod from both parties, accompanied by a weak smile acknowledging the bond they supposedly now share as a result of their collision, the two go their separate ways still harboring anger, devoid of any recognized responsibility for their own actions.

A man leaves his lover’s apartment building, still buttoning his shirt.  He hails an approaching taxi, noticing as he lowers his hand that he has forgotten to replace his wedding ring.  His lover has recently gotten into the habit of making him remove it before they meet, claiming it makes her feel uneasy.  He had scoffed at her request, stopping short of asking her when she had developed a moral conscience, but even so he had obliged, because while he didn’t see what the fuss was about the insignificance of the issue came back around to bite him in the ass: if it didn’t matter, then why did it matter?  So he had put on an uncaring visage and given in, a small what-can-you-do shrug emphasizing his indifference.  The only problem was that if he were ever to return home sans the ring replaced on his finger it would immediately arouse his wife’s suspicions.  That was assuming she wasn’t already suspicious, something the man found hard to believe.

He draws the ring out from deep inside his pants pocket and slips it over his finger, noting with mild interest that it feels looser somehow, and lets himself into the taxi, nearly stepping on the flower as he does so.  As he gives the cab driver instructions on how to return him to his broken marriage, a child on a leash runs past his window, screaming profanities with delight.  His mother reflexively tightens her grip, giving the man in the taxi a once-over as she walks past.  The child screams again, running on the spot as he tries to pull loose from the leash.  When the cab speeds away, whisking the man from sight, she turns her attention back to her child, barking half-hearted commands more for the sake of disapproving onlookers than for the possibility that she might actually get him to obey her.

That day hundreds of people walk past that spot, and not a single one notices the flower.

҉

Four days later the morning sun manages to pierce a hole through the dense, dark cloud of smog that hangs above the city, navigating around the massive bulks of several buildings to briefly illuminate an alleyway.  There it settles on a small vine, in the early stages of working its way up from the ground.  Across from the vine is a homeless man named Shem, who’d spent the night against the wall opposite the vine and the overflowing dumpster next to him when exhaustion and inebriation had decided his resting place for the night.  He beheld it in wonder, a fragile thing completely out of place, making its home on a brick wall darkened with the modern era’s Jackson Pollock of graffiti, urine stains, and other unidentifiable substances.  He had never seen anything like it, and only recognized it later on by what he had heard of them in tales spun by his father in another lifetime.

Too shaky on his feet alone, Shem crawls on all fours towards the plant, pressing his face up close until his nose brushes against one of the leaves.  He can almost see them coming to life in the sunlight, raising upwards like a multitude of tiny arms praising the heavens.  Eyes wide in wonder and amazement, Shem makes a decision.

Elsewhere in the city, many citizens manage to incorporate the rare appearance of the sun into their meaningless yet socially obligatory small talk.

҉

On the dawn of July 27th a bird flies into the city; a bird with feathers of the purest white that soars between buildings and past skyscraper windows, much to the amazement of its witnesses.  It is the color of a forgotten life, of a time when the smog and the soot didn’t stain every surface, when the world was more than just a blot of grey and black and variety could be found around every street corner.

The story is even featured on one news channel, in which a local expert suggests the rare sight is likely nothing more than an albino pigeon.

҉

Hannah Hunt sits up in bed at 5:25 a.m. on July 31st, awoken by a chill and unable to fall back asleep.  On the other side of the bed her client shifts beneath the covers, rolling over in his sleep.  She stares out of the bedroom window on the bottom floor of his apartment, her view outside still obscured by a rolling morning fog.  Suddenly she gasps, putting her hands over her mouth.  Before her disbelieving eyes a deer wanders out of the mist, two young fawns trailing behind it.  The majestic creature runs its nose along the ground as though searching for food, and then without warning it turns and looks directly into Hannah’s eyes.  They stare at one another for what feels like an eternity, and then with a flick of her short white tail she leaves just as suddenly as she’d appeared, her fawns following obligingly.  The neon red digits on the alarm clock read 5:32.

Two hours later, when Hannah wakes again with no recollection of having fallen back asleep, she remembers what happened and looks back to the window, half expecting the deer to still be there.  They are not, and as she recalls the surreal feeling of euphoria she’d felt, not to mention the impossibility of the event, part of her dismisses the sighting as a dream and nothing more.

҉

August 1st brings a new month, and with it the sun.  The smog has thinned considerably, and the sunlight is brighter and stronger than anyone can remember.  Several news stations warn of UV radiation and remind citizens to wear sunblock lest they contract skin cancer.

҉

Criminal lawyer Theo Ananus stands in his corner office on the morning of August 3rd, looking out onto the city streets several stories below.  He is in the middle of mentally reviewing an upcoming case when he sees the vagrant.  Dirty and disheveled, he sticks out like a sore thumb among nearby consumers as he pushes a shopping cart through the lot, glancing about nervously.  Something moves in Theo’s peripheral vision, and he turns to see a grocery clerk running after the vagrant, hands waving in alarm.  The clerk shouts something at the vagrant, and turning in alarm he breaks into a run, still pushing the cart.  Theo watches the silent pursuit with mild amusement; it reminds him of those old silent black-and-white movies he would watch with his mother as a child, the ones in which the main character would suffer comical misfortunes for the audience’s amusement.

Suddenly the cart hits a speed bump and overturns, sending its contents flying all across the ground.  Crawling to the nearest item and cradling it to his chest, the homeless man shakes his head with such vivid despair that Theo finds the smile dying on his face.  The shopping clerk reaches the crash and tries to apprehend the vagrant, grabbing his arm roughly and pulling him to his feet.  Shaken from his despair, the man wrenches his arm free and runs, the bag he’d picked up still in his arms.  The clerk tries to chase him again, but the vagrant dashes across the street just before a large bus, effectively cutting off his pursuer.  The clerk stops, shakes his fist to the sky, and starts back towards the overturned shopping cart.

Later that day, walking home past the grocery, Theo notices the dropped bags still on the ground where the cart fell, abandoned and apparently forgotten.  Most are ripped, and it takes Theo a minute to identify the dark substance that spills from the tears.  It’s soil; dark and rich with an inexplicably healthy appearance.  Theo stops, looking at the mess.  He thinks about how much trouble the clerk went through trying to catch the thief and yet he couldn’t even be bothered to salvage what hadn’t been stolen.

A strange sensation comes over Theo, and he looks up to see a man across the street watching him.  They’d been over a mile apart, but even so Theo immediately recognizes him as the same vagrant who’d been stealing the bags of soil.  They stare at one another for a moment, neither moving, before the vagrant abruptly turns and leaves.  It dawns on Theo that the man had probably been watching from a safe distance, waiting for the opportune moment to come back and retrieve the fallen bags.  He looks back to the bags, sitting on the ground, seemingly forgotten by all but one person, and a insane idea begins to form in his mind.  Shaking his head at the crazy thought and the even crazier decision to follow through with it, he starts towards the bags.

He follows the vagrant through alleyways and backstreets, keeping a safe distance just in case.  His wits hadn’t abandoned him entirely, he decides.  The vagrant does not notice him, or if he does pays him no attention.  Eventually he rounds a corner, temporarily disappearing from view, and fearing he will lose him Theo brakes into a jog.  He turns into the alleyway, still moving quickly, and almost collides with the vagrant.

Stopping in his tracks, they eye one another with careful suspicion.  At a loss for what else to do, Theo holds out the two bags of mulch he’d brought with him.  A look of genuine surprise crosses the homeless man’s face, and then he grins.  The man takes one of the bags from Theo, and with a wave of his hand indicating for him to follow, he turns and begins to walk.  Unable to keep a smile off his own face, Theo follows.

Shem leads him to the alleyway.  When they round the corner he gestures to the wall, and Theo’s eyes follow his pointing arm upwards.  As he registers what he’s looking at the bag of soil falls from his arms in synchronicity with his jaw falling open.  The vine has grown considerably, and now takes up the entire height of the wall and almost as much of the width.  Its tendrils curl and twist into intricate patterns, covering a background of dull grey brick.  Together the two men stand in silence for what feels like an eternity, basking in its graceful elegance, its foreign magnificence, until long after the sun goes down.

҉

August 15th.  The vine has grown to encompass the entire southern side of the building, and word has spread.  Shem wakes up in the middle of the night to the sound of footsteps slapping against the concrete.  It is dark, and he is disoriented as he fumbles to stand up, eyes adjusting to the night.  Before he can assess what has happened he feels the first kick to his stomach, and he is sent sprawling, the wind knocked out of his chest leaving him gasping for air.  The second one connects with the side of his head, and after that the blows are indistinguishable from one another in the wave of pain that floods his senses, drowning out everything else.  He can just make out disjointed voices, harsh whispers in the night, but they are a world away.

When he comes to it is morning, the dull grey blanket of smog more smothering than usual as he struggles to lift himself off of the cold, damp tarmac.  He raises a hand to his head and it comes away sticky with blood, matting his hair.  His entire body aches and he can hardly bear to move, but he forces himself to sit up, collapsing against the wall opposite the vine.  The effort takes his breath away, and each sharp inhale is agony as it rattles about his bruised and beaten chest.  He takes a moment to recover, eyes still closed, fearing what he will see when he opens them.  But eventually he does, and the sight takes his breath away all over again.

The vine is gone.  All that remains is its charred skeleton, still smoking in some places and falling to the ground in others.  The wall is black with soot from the fire, the ground beneath covered in a thick layer of ash.  Shem stares in disbelief for what feels like an eternity, and then he begins to cry.  The tears trickle down his coarse, grizzled face, and he cries for hours.  He cries for the vine and everything it represented, for a childhood that ended too soon and a bedroom that would haunt him for the rest of his life.  He cries for the day he missed his father’s funeral, too drunk to attend, and he cries for the things he’s done and the things he should have done.  He cries for the day his wife kicked him out of their home, and for the first time he tasted that bittersweet chemical, and for the last time he saw his daughter.  He cries so many tears that it is some time before he recognizes the raindrops, and for a moment they are one and the same, and he is one with the universe and the universe is one with him and together they weep.  The water pours down, washing his face of soot and dirt and cleaning the blood from his hair.  Then the first boom of thunder sounds, and the heavens open up and the clouds burst, pouring torrents of water upon the earth below.

҉҉

Hannah is inside when it happens, and she watches from her window as the water floods the streets, sending people running for cover beneath newspapers and briefcases.  The sheer volume of water is so impressive that for a moment she does not even recognize the most important part, but when it comes to her she gasps, dropping her mug onto the ground and sending pieces of ceramic flying across the tiles.

The rain is not acid rain.

It is clear and clean, showing no trace whatsoever of the yellowish-brown tinge the citizens had grown so accustomed to over the years.  She steps outside, timid at first and then laughing as the warm, pleasant downpour drenches her to the bone, her bare feet splashing in the puddles forming on the street.  She dances in the rain as others run indoors, dodging bits of litter and garbage being washed away in the torrent.  At one point her client comes to the door, stopping before the threshold lest he get wet.  He calls out to her, asking if she has lost her mind, but she is a world away.  Eventually he goes back inside, closing the door behind him, and still she does not notice.  The rainfall washes over her, and it is as if she can feel it cleaning her very soul, washing away her mistakes and her flaws, drowning out all her darkest memories and heaviest secrets.  They are swept away in the torrents, lost among the rest of the trash and filth as it is carried far away, down the street and out of sight.

҉

The date is August 19th, and the rain has yet to stop.  It runs down the sides of buildings, washing away the soot and exposing surfaces which haven’t seen the light of day in years.  The garbage that once lined every street corner and back alley is swept away, and no one is sure of where it all ends up.  The result is one of awe-inspiring serenity, and the citizens wake up to an entirely new world outside their doors.  The effect is in fact so profound that many of the citizens no longer recognize their surroundings, and there are countless cases of individuals getting lost on their way to work, the store, and even on their way back home again.

Some of the citizens are still unwilling to go outside at all, distrusting the excessive duration (not to mention “unnatural” coloration) of the rainfall, but most shrug their shoulders and decide life goes on, dashing to and from their cars beneath heavy umbrellas as they go about their everyday business as best they can.

Theo is part of this majority, and it is on his way home from work, four days since the rain began, that he decides he can wait no longer and tells the cab driver who’d been taking him home to pull over.  Handing him the cash owed plus compensation for the change in plans, Theo unfolds his umbrella and steps out into the downpour.  At first he is not sure where he is, disoriented by the dramatic change in scenery and blinding rain, but he makes his way over to a nearby street sign and is able to reorient himself.

By the time he finds his way to the alley his shoes are soaked through, but in his excitement he hardly notices the cold discomfort.  Since that fateful day he’s been unable to stop thinking about the vine, or its strange gardener.  The former would fill his mind every time he closed his eyes, eclipsing his dreams at night and spreading through his thoughts during the day.  There’d been days when he’d been tempted to skip work entirely just to help care for the vine, just to be in its presence, but rational thought had stopped him.  He’d been hired by some very high-up people to get one of their men off of a murder charge, and knew for a fact that they were keeping tabs on him.  To give the impression that he wasn’t fully invested in the case would be suicide.  He worked with people like them all the time, and knew his way around the track.

And yet something had changed that day.  Something inside him had stirred, looking at that vine.  Something that had been dormant for a long time.  Suddenly the thought of meeting with those men again made him sick.  The idea that he was going to help a guilty man cheat justice was physically nauseating, and no amount of staring at the paycheck they’d given him, or rationalizing that he’d done it dozens of times before, made a difference.  He needed to see the vine again.  He needed to feel what he’d felt, to be sure of his path.

At first the rainfall had deterred him from visiting, but four days in with no sign of it relenting had convinced him that he could wait no longer.

As he turns the corner the smile on his face falters, and then disappears completely.  For a moment he simply stands in place, the grey backdrop of flickering precipitation like pixels on a television channel that has lost its signal, the raindrops pattering against his umbrella like static.  Like the television Theo is unable to process what scattered and fragmentary information he does receive, and the result is a standstill.

At first he tries to reason that he must have come down the wrong alley, and for a moment this makes sense.  He even goes as far as to retrace his steps, telling himself that between the rain and the drastically different setting somewhere along the way he got lost.  But after ending up in the same alley again, Theo is forced to acknowledge the fact that he is in the right place.

He shakes his head, and suddenly the weight of everything comes bearing down on him all at once.  His grip on the umbrella loosens and then fails entirely, the veil between his body and the downpour falling aside.  Within seconds his entire upper body is soaked, the water running down his collar and over his chest, his thousand dollars suit collapsing against his skin.  He falls to his knees like Atlas himself as the sky presses him into the earth.  The water rushes over him and through him, and all the anxieties, fears and insecurities he’d long since buried beneath mounds of ego and power come rushing up as well.  He kneels before the wall that once held a miracle, and atones.

҉҉

On the morning of August 21st in New York City millions of flowers appear, seemingly overnight, sprouting from cracks in the sidewalk all across the city.  People emerge from their homes in a stupor, blinking in the bright -but not altogether unpleasant- sunlight, and staring up at the sky in awe.  The rain is gone, along with the smog clouds that once hung over their city like an omnipresent grey blanket, smothering and suffocating.  The trash is gone from the streets and the soot is gone from the buildings; in their respective places grass has sprung up on every street corner and vines wrap themselves around every structure.  All that remains of the biblical deluge are puddles, scattered here and there in potholes and indents in the ground.

Citizens turn to one another in wonder, and find themselves grinning and even laughing in an almost inexplicable feeling of bliss.  Neighbors that hadn’t spoken to one another in years find themselves hugging, tears rushing down their faces and staining each other’s shoulders.  Complete strangers take to the streets in waves, dancing and laughing ecstatically.

In all this euphoric and boisterous commotion, not a single person overlooks the flowers.

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4 thoughts on “Tabula Rasa

  1. I really enjoyed this, thank you for sharing it. It’s well written, I could picture everything perfectly, and there’s some lovely observations about the way people go through life. I particularly love the line ‘gives the cab driver instructions on how to return him to his broken marriage’! I actually read the first couple of paragraphs as though they were from the perspective of the flower which possibly wasn’t the intention but was a good effect.

    As a whole, the story made me think about the thick, poisonous fog that is social convention and self-imposed routine, that blinds us to the simple, natural beauty this world has to offer. Nobody notices the tiny things, one or two notice the rare, and it takes something huge and obvious to wake up the masses.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! That was EXACTLY what I was going for, and you’ve summed it up far more eloquently than I could have. It’s definitely a social commentary about how norms and roles confine us to this predetermined life, and how much the past presses down on the present (much like the smog presses down on the city). To be given a clean slate, to have all the soot and the grit washed away, opens our eyes to all the different roads branching out in front of us.

      I wanted to mirror this struggle with that of the natural world and the industrial: we’ve damaged our planet almost beyond repair, and most days it seems like there’s no way back. But most of that is only echoes of our past, our old ways and habits putting up a fight on the way out. It’s a tragic truth that most of the time it takes something big to shake the branches, to wake us up and make a change.

      Liked by 1 person

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