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Do Not Count the Withered Ones

Caroline M. Yoachim is the author of over two dozen short stories, including her Nebula nominated novelette "Stone Wall Truth." This is her tenth story at Daily Science Fiction, and her fiction has also appeared in Lightspeed, Apex, and Clarkesworld, among other places. For more about Caroline, check out her website at carolineyoachim.com.

Callie kept her heart in the front yard, as people often do. Here, her father's oak, solid and stoic and unchanging. There, her sister's rhododendron, which bloomed with pale pink flowers. One root from each plant grew into her heart, which nourished everything in the yard.
She stepped over the delicate vines of her college roommate's ivy to get to her mother's willow tree. The leaves were dry and brown, and the once supple branches were brittle and fragile. Callie turned on the soaker hose that wound around the base of the tree, knowing it wouldn't help, but wanting to do something, anything, to save her relationship with her mother. As water dripped from the hose, Callie went to the one bough that still bore green leaves on its branches, but even here she spotted leaves with a slight tinge of yellow at the edges.
Callie drove across town to the nursing home. Mom kept her heart in the communal garden, which was a depressing place even under the best of circumstances. The hearts of the elderly were rife with dying plants--friends who passed away, relatives who never came to visit. Her mother's patch was the worst. Her plants were mostly dead, except for Callie's lace leaf maple. The tiny tree had twisted branches and delicate leaves, but it was hardier than it looked. It had outlasted all the other plants, staying green all through her mother's autumn years.
The leaves were not green today. They were yellow, like a caution light, a warning of red leaves to come. Mom, who usually spent all day in the gardens, was in her room.
"You want to go outside, Mom?" Callie opened the blinds to let some sunlight in. The table by the window was cluttered with dead plants--not heartplants but ordinary houseplants.
Mom came over, wary, and peered at Callie's face. "You look familiar."
Yesterday she'd recognized Callie, but that was increasingly rare. "I'm Callie, Mom. Your daughter."
Mom nodded and put on her jacket. "You look a little like my daughter. I have two girls, but they never come to visit. No one ever comes to visit."
Callie steadied Mom's arm as they walked to the communal gardens. Another old woman sat on one of the benches, surrounded by family. She gave Callie a friendly wave. Her patch was greener than most of the others.
The leaves of the lace leaf maple were goldenrod. Had they been more of a lemon yellow earlier? Mom was physically very healthy for her age, but Callie dreaded the thought of visiting, maybe for years, when Mom had no idea who she was. She would come out of love, even when she no longer came out of hope.
Mom stared at the dead and dying plants, and Callie regretted bringing her outside. There was a leafless rhododendron for her sister and a brittle brown primrose bush for Mrs. Denman, who had once been Mom's closest friend. There was dried grass for the nurses and a clump of dead clover, but Callie didn't know who that belonged to. So much lost, and that didn't even count the plants they'd abandoned when Mom moved to the nursing home.
Mom caught Callie looking, and shook her head. "Don't count the withered ones," she said. "They were bright once, and happy. My daughter tends a beautiful garden, and someday she will come and visit me, and fix these broken plants."
She looked at Callie, a silent plea in her eyes. Callie held her hand and together they looked at the lace leaf maple--the one bright plant in her patch. The leaves were vibrant orange, a final burst of flame against the darkness of forgetting.
"Excuse me," Mom said, "Can you find a nurse? I can't remember where my house is."
"I can take you to your room, Mom." Callie waited for her to say, as she always did, that she has two daughters that never come to visit.
"Are you my nurse?" Mom asked instead. She didn't say that Callie looked familiar. As they walked to her room, Callie looked back at the garden.
The leaves on her maple had faded from orange to brown.
When Callie got home she was relieved to see the one green bough of Mom's tree, unchanged. All around that bough were dried up branches, brown leaves that crumbled to dust with the lightest touch. "Don't count the withered ones," she heard Mom's voice remind her. Callie remembered when the whole tree had been healthy and vibrant. She remembered sitting with Mom in the waiting room of the birth center, waiting for her nephew to be born. She remembered Christmas dinner, her first year of college, appreciating home in a way she never had before. She remembered goodnight kisses long after she thought she was too old for such things.
So many things her mother used to be, but wasn't any more. Their relationship had narrowed from a whole tree to a single bough. Callie was the caretaker now, always. Their bond no longer filled the tree of what they'd shared in the past, but it was solid. She touched a delicate green leaf. The tree eased the worry in her heart. She was still a loving daughter, even if Mom didn't remember who she was.
The next time Callie went to the nursing home, Mom didn't recognize her. Callie took her to a garden patch that had green plants. Rhonda, the woman who the patch belonged to, was friendly, and Callie brought her cookies sometimes. After a few visits, the sapling of a lace leaf maple started growing in amongst the other plants.
Mom looked at the maple, and back at Callie, her mind trying to make a connection that wasn't quite there. Rhonda, with a knowing smile, put her hand on Callie's shoulder. "She may not remember why, but she's happiest when you're here."
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, August 12th, 2014

Author Comments

I wrote this story for a writing challenge I do every year called Weekend Warrior. The challenge is run through Codex, an online writing group I'm in, and participants write a flash fiction story every weekend for five straight weeks. Vylar Kaftan writes prompts for Weekend Warrior, and the prompt that sparked this story was the title: "Do Not Count the Withered Ones." Figuring out the title of a story is often one of the last things I do, so it was interesting to start from a title and spin the idea out from there.

- Caroline M. Yoachim
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