In the crucible of the peony, ants doing their secret work. In childhood, I understood the peony as blowsy, puckish, almost sexual, though now, in vases on mantles in Georgetown or printed on china, I see that it is genteel, reserved, delicate, despite its top-heaviness. It has a center that you can only reveal by picking and digging, like most women I know. One of these, a white woman native to Washington who has spent most of her adult life retranslating the entirety of Sappho’s fragments, tells me that the peony stands for bashfulness and a good marriage. I tell her I used to eat the petals when I was very young, just learning how to be discerning about what to consume. The peonies in our backyard were so generous that they dipped down to the earth, so the petals were a bit dusty, but lush. She is hesitating over what to say, stirring her tea. She apologizes and says she’s not being judgmental, she’s just not a great conversationalist. She says she imagines that they taste sweet, like honey. No, I say, they’re very bitter, though the truth is, I don’t remember what a peony tastes like. I am surprised when she smiles at that. I like bitter, she says. Later, I find out how much she likes bitter, but there in the little public garden where we are meeting for the first time, a feeling like forgiveness is nodding back and forth between us like a rich summer wind.
Susannah Maltz has work in Barrow Street, the South Dakota Review, Wigleaf, and elsewhere. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize for her flash fiction piece “Mythologies”. In her other life, she’s an attorney for workers’ rights.
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