There’s a picture book I loved as a child called The Empty Pot. An emperor in a flower-obsessed kingdom chooses his successor via a plant-growing contest; I wouldn’t call it a Chinese folk tale since it was written by a white woman, but the emperor gives every child in the land a seed and a year to produce the most beautiful flower.
A boy pots and waters and transplants his seed, but it doesn’t grow. The seasons change: It snows. It stops snowing. Nothing works. On the day the children present their efforts to the emperor, the boy has nothing but naked dirt to show for his labor. The other children bring mutant gargantuan roses the size of pro wrestler John Cena, and dahlia-marigold hybrids in florid oranges and yellows. But there’s a twist: the emperor announces that the seeds were cooked—none could have germinated. The boy with the empty pot is the only honest one among them. He will be the next emperor.
My partners and I tried overwintering an amaryllis last year. We carried it downstairs and found it a cool, dark spot in our basement. I think it was October; long after it had given up its petals; sometime between two hundred and seven thousand US deaths and two hundred and thirty-two thousand; I wasn’t really keeping track anymore. My hair was down to my chin. We listened to a plant podcast that said just leave it alone, so we did.
We told ourselves we were good plant mothers, and we got smug. We texted our friends you should try watching Gardener’s World, it really helps. How commendable, that we did not doubt ourselves, that we did not abuse the amaryllis, that we did not get drunk on bottles of Yellow Tail and send midnight texts to our beloved, darling plant oh so it’s our fault you grew up to be an angry lesbian?
Amaryllis is one of the first things of the year to bloom; a promise that what is coming is better than what is behind. Perennials overwinter because if they attempted to live through winter as they do spring and summer, their structures would swell and crack—the damage would be catastrophic—with the first frost.
In December, my partners and I scroll past Instagram posts of acquaintances treating themselves to ‘socially-distanced’ pedicures and ‘very short’ flights to visit family. We promise one partners’ parents: next year. At night we sit down to dinner and repeat the same, tense talk: are we the only ones still doing this?
Amaryllis is a symbol of strength, determination; love. The internet says it comes from a Greek name meaning ‘to sparkle.’ The dormant bulb is about the size of an onion. It looks like a tumor, or how I think a tumor should look.
We watch a lot of action movies. Nicolas Cage. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Linda Hamilton, punching a cop, stabbing a nurse with a syringe and beating another with the broken handle of a mop while escaping Pescadero State Hospital for the Criminally Insane.
We bring the pot back upstairs one morning in January, like the podcast said, the thick bulb sleeping in our arms. We set the amaryllis down on a sunny plank in a window and give it water and light. We wait and wait. It does not grow.
Was anything supposed to grow this year? I didn’t realize. This is what I did this year: telehealth appointments with my psychiatrist. This is what I did this year: change my medications nine times.
A habit forms: texting one of my partners from our living room during my Zoom MFA classes and workshops: Can’t get through this without drinking. Can you make me a cocktail? A whisky something? My new medication doesn’t work or stops working. I am insane. I cannot get off the couch.
Six weeks before the CDC’s Phase 2 opens the vaccine to all adults in my state, a poet visits the MFA program I’m about to drop out of. She offers a prompt, via Zoom. “Take fifteen minutes,” she tells us. “Turn your cameras off if you like. Where do you grow from?”
Our classroom—a grid of floating heads—nods. I write my name on a yellow legal pad. I kick half-moons back and forth in my office chair. I sit, quietly. When time is up, everyone signs back in. “I grow in the forest,” says one. “I grow on beaches in the Pacific Northwest,” starts another. “I grow on the dew of wet grass,” announces a third, launching a prose poem as if it’s a thimble-sized boat. I am not growing. How is anyone growing? I think are you fucking kidding me?
Perennial questions: am I doing as badly as everyone else? Or: is everyone else doing as badly as me?
I had an amaryllis once before—a gift from a roommate, about a decade ago, just after I moved to Germany, when I was 24. I lived there for nine years; I returned to the US in 2019. In Berlin, the church bells near Moabit ring hourly on weekends, atoning for the city’s godlessness, and I get sick almost immediately with the flu. My new German roommate sticks an amaryllis bulb on my desk, so I have something to look at while convalescing. Now you are not alonely, she announces.
I look at the pot from my bed while sweating through my pajamas. The world outside is grey and damp like my skin. I blast NPR over the church bells. I vomit in a bucket. I watch the plant’s viridescent strip emerge—almost two feet tall—then burst: red and febrile, alive like a fire alarm, while I sleep and take medicines I’ve never heard of: Sinupret and Mucosolvan and Dobendan and Emsertabletten and Hustensaft and Nasentropfen and ‘Liquid Moss Extract’, and a clear liquid my roommate foists on me that translates to ‘medicinal vodka’.
What if I’d died? What if my parents had to pick me up at the airport in a body bag? I get better but am always dizzy. I worry about choking and stop eating. I fixate on the idea that I’m dying from brain cancer. I refuse to leave my room. I cry so much on the phone that every member of my family calls and says they hope I come home and don’t kill myself. I go to a doctor, who says something is wrong with my brain. I see a psychiatrist for the first time, who says I should have come in sooner.
Perennial questions: Is it normal to count down the hours until it’s socially acceptable to get back in bed? Is this the right kind of honesty? How normal?
When one of my partners brings home the amaryllis, I am trying Prozac. It causes night sweats and fixes nothing. I am not sparkling. My pot is empty. There is something rotten in my pot. My nightmares are a kaleidoscope of sonic clashes: screaming at a different person every time I close my eyes. In the middle of the night, I wriggle out of bed and peel off my sweat-soaked tee-shirt and underpants. Stand naked in the bathroom. A human puddle. Find the pulse oximeter on my finger, check my heart rate two times, three times. A decade of anxiety. Wasting life worrying about death. I am certain I am dying. I cannot tell anyone. My partner asks what I think of our new plant. She asks if I want to help take care of it. I would like to be a mother. But also, I hope it dies.
My regular pandemic stomachache turns into an anvil turns into a trip to urgent care turns into a high-speed ride to the hospital.
I spend 90 minutes attached to a morphine drip in the ER—the best 90 minutes of my year, my pandemic. The IV drips morphine like sand through hourglass ampoules. The drug renders me indifferent to every kind of pain I am carrying. I talk to the staff floating by my bed: the orderly who pushes me towards a CT scan; a technician during a transvaginal ultrasound. What’s your favorite kind of ultrasound? I prod, legs askew. I try remembering the last time I was indoors someplace besides the house where I live. I wonder if the TV above my gurney has a remote.
What did I expect would happen when I told my university I couldn’t handle teaching during a pandemic? When I said I was ‘having mental health issues’ and could not keep pretending everything was fine, what did I think I deserved? A reward of some kind? A coronation? A kingdom? Did I think my professors weren’t having their own crises?
The COVID cluster in my university’s county blooms; it’s one of the largest in the nation.
The overwintered amaryllis in our windowsill continues to not grow, which means it hasn’t overwintered so much as silently decomposed. My partners and I leave it, because we are preoccupied with the catastrophic damage outside. Where are we at now: five hundred thousand dead? Six hundred thousand? Six hundred thousand point two? Whatever the amaryllis is doing under the soil, better there than here.
We stop talking to our friends because we don’t want to burden them. There is nowhere to go. Are we supposed to be honest with each other right now? With ourselves?
Perennial questions: How are you putting together lesson plans? How are you reading? How are you grading papers? How are you able to write? How are you not so angry all the time? How are you doing any of this?
Sometimes in the morning my partners and I drink our coffees alone. We sit in three separate rooms, dig three separate holes in our heads and climb inside. We stare at our inboxes and sing to ourselves that old, weird song we learned as kids: the worms crawl in, the worms call out, the worms play pinochle on your snout, your chest caves in and your eyes pop out, and your brain turns to sauerkraut.
I do not want to be strong. I do not want to be determined. I am still so angry. My friends who did not drop out of the MFA get ready to teach again.
Perennial questions: What if we had become parents before the pandemic? Or during? What if there is no after? What if we’re not better mothers than ours were?
I am afraid that if or when we have children of our own, that they will scatter like seeds and ask the wind to take them anywhere, literally anywhere.
In German, there is no distinction between the words for ‘if’ and ‘when.’
In summer, friends wander into our backyard again, six feet apart, asking us how we’ve weathered. Will we grow again? What are these wildflowers here? What would we name a baby, if we had one? How have we survived? Can we host movie night?
You know how this ends. Or at least, part of it. The amaryllis wakes up. It woke up. I am telling you this now, because it already happened. Not a surprise, I guess—would there have been anything to say if it hadn’t?
I see it at breakfast, when I go to feed the dog; its fat, green tongue, lipping out of the dirt. I stare at it for a moment, until my brain can translate. Then I walk into the living room, open my computer and email my psychiatrist. Can we schedule another appointment, I write? Please give me a call. There are books to read and flowers to bloom. Arms to vaccinate and dollars to earn. Things to bury. Children to bear. Everything is growing, or trying to. The world is full of emperors. The only thing waiting to come back to life is me.
Marne Litfin (they/them) is a writer, comic, and MFA student in fiction at the University of Michigan. Their essays and short stories are published and forthcoming in SmokeLong Quarterly, Phoebe, Foglifter, and elsewhere. Marne reads flash for Fractured Lit and tweets @JetpackMarne.