Did Dandelions Grow Taller after Chernobyl? by Jakub Švanda

Maggie had been quarantined just like the rest of us when she received a message that her mother was hospitalized.

Brno is home to a woman. She’s not the only one, mind you, but she is worth talking about. Like so many of us, your humble narrator included, she was isolated in her flat for about four weeks, meeting no one but a grocery delivery boy every week or so. Before her breakfast, but after she had already brushed her teeth, she had received a message. And it so happened that this message, some four words in total, became her day’s quest.

This sounds dramatic, I know, but remember that this was the only thing she had to do in all the four long weeks. Sure, she did the usual upkeep: eat, sleep, toilet, shower, repeat but there was scarcely anything that she was keeping herself for. Her job had put her aside, not firing her just yet but definitely not paying her either. Her relations scattered to their respective towns and cities or they had been busy helping one another, but they all assumed, not incorrectly, that she could take care of herself.

So there had really been nothing for her to do. Nothing, that is, until today.

The message washed over her as a cold shower, as a sudden awakening, even a little bit as surprise diarrhoea and struck her with panic. She gathered her formal clothes, fitting her very ill, she felt, after such a long time of disuse, and grabbed her keys snatching only a minute before the mirror, assessing whether she was presentable.

She had no time for make-up, not even a dab of concealer, and her hair had suffered from quarantined hairdressers, but the moment she put on her face mask she realised none of this mattered. All the imperfections went away with only two eyeballs staring from their sockets, ready to see and be seen but betray no expression.

She quickly ran down the three flights of stairs to the ground level and opened the door, breathless a little as the mask made breathing difficult, but instead of being treated to a gust of fresh air, she was served with a shock.

Shock, really, for a number of reasons chief among which was her irritated observation that there seemed to be nothing wrong with the world. Pent up in her flat as she had been, living only on the diet of online news, she expected to walk out and see the pandemic, to see the horror she had read so much about. But there was only a lazy thudding of a tram along Veveří, cars waiting at a crossing, people walking to and fro, some waiting at a tram stop, some carrying their shopping. To her, it was shockingly normal.

Ah! but is it? she thought to herself as she began walking up the street. Everything definitely seems normal but everybody has those face masks. That’s how you know, she concluded, there’s a pandemic. That must be, she felt, where the horror is. She finished her musing, satisfied with her answer, and set course towards the nearby Albert.

What she was after, the MacGuffin of her quest so to speak, were flowers. And what ate at her mind as she approached the supermarket was that she didn’t know, that is as she put it to herself, it wasn’t yet clear who the flowers were for.

This, again, sounded very dramatic to her and because she had named it so in her mind, she felt obligated to justify that sort of language: the flowers were for her mother. That was perfectly clear. But it was the state of her mother which she was altogether uncertain of. The text message she received earlier said she had been taken to a hospital but nothing more. The problem was then that she didn’t know what state of her mother she was buying the flowers for. Happy and healthy? Bed-ridden? Worse than…

But here she stopped. She stopped herself before the last thought like she had stopped herself from thinking about not being hired back. There was nothing, she knew, nothing beyond that painful speculation that would bring anything of any value.

With this doublethink, she reached the supermarket. She would have had gone to a local flower shop, but they were all closed. Odd, she thought, how flowers can be stopped by government order. There were many things, she realized in the past month, that could be completely stopped by government order. Every time she thought of that she was reminded of the same feeling she had when she had to tune to a Czech radio station whenever someone knocked on her childhood room.

She walked in and again, to her surprise as well as to her irritation, the supermarket looked just fine. The shelves were well-stocked, the floors were clean, and the people were orderly, pushing their carts from sushi isles to vegan sections. Even the flowers were there, though their choice was severely limited to red tulips, daffodils, basil plants, and thyme.

With options such as these, one had to be creative and she took a minute to think things through: if her mother is well she can buy anything – even the basil plant though only in jest – because the main thing would be that she is happy and healthy. If her mother is bed-ridden, she continued, but conscious, the tulips would be the best option, or several of them, so that she can rest her eyes on them in the otherwise sterile hospital ward. If…

But no, she knew there was nothing beyond that “if” that would bring any good. She took five tulips and went to the cash register.

“Whadda-you want?” said the man at the till, his voice muffled by the mask, his hands in surgical gloves.

She froze for a split second. Because she had almost no contact with others for a month, being spoken to was akin to discovering a ghost in one’s apartment. “Just the tulips,” she replied, smiling, only to realise her smile was invisible.

“Is that it?” said the man.

She paid and went, but the last sentence still rang in her head. She had no idea how to take it. His intonation was flat, like all Czech speech is, and his covered face showed neither smile nor frown. For all she could guess, he could have been flirting with her or he could have been telling her to fuck off.

Soon, she got onto a number four, empty but for three or four people, and seated herself by one of the windows. The tulips rested on her knees, bouncing about with the tram’s rattle. She inspected the petals and the bottoms of the stalks for imperfections or signs of withering, something she knew she should have done back in the store, but found none.

Again, that now strange feeling of something being amiss despite the fact that everything was perfect washed over her. If only the petals were a little bit blemished; if only the supermarket was more empty, the streets less lively and with fewer people strolling in the spring sun, it would have been much easier for her to let herself feel the gravity of the situation. She would take it in if the world was kind enough to dump it on her.

As she was stepping out of the tram on Malinovského square a man coughed beside her. She started, breathing heavily through the mask which now seemed hell-bent on choking her and hurriedly took out her hand sanitizer. She dumped a hand-full of it anywhere where she felt a breeze on her skin, even on her neck and eyebrows. But increasingly, she felt that if the man was infected, she now must be as well.

She pushed the thought away from her mind to the same place where that “if” regarding her mother went and where, it seemed to her at that moment, most of the day’s events had gone the second they happened. But the thought wouldn’t fit this time. It was as if this particular closet was stuffed to the brim with skeletons and nothing, not even a toe fragment, would go in. She looked at her hands, feeling the gel form a crust and then slowly seep in before she looked up. She realised she wasn’t back home where she couldn’t be seen so flushed and hurried, so un-ladylike. She Straightened her shirt when she realised…

Tulips!

She darted her eyes at the fast disappearing tram that carried her tulips, her mother’s tulips, away. There was an almost audible thud inside her mind. It was the thud of the closet of the day spilling out, its contents all tangled and jagged, forming a single bone-white beast, the sight of which terrified her to tears.

She hadn’t, not to her recent memory at least, cried like this since she was little. The tears took her back to a day, well before the Revolution, when her father waved at her from a hospital window. Her own mother held her back then; held her sobbing with a firm cry of her own. She didn’t understand then, she was too small to be told plainly, but her father’s insides were ravaged by invisible electromagnetic waves that bit into him day after day in a mine that he was forced to work in. But all she could think of was that hug from her mother, the absence of which made her hug herself with her own arms.

She went to the nearby park behind The Brno House of Arts and sat down on a bench. Removing her mask, she let the tears flow freely before she gave herself the chance to calm down. The worst of it was over after a while. Only the dull pang at her heart remained, lingered, prowled for seconds which, she thanked the heavens, did not come.

The park was full to the brim with people, some of whom bought beer and coffee, lounging in the spring sun rays of the noon. Their discussion was lively and their laughter, mixed in with happy yapping of dogs and excited shouting of children, sounded all around her. Her nose caught, for the first time in a month, a smell of a freshly budding tree mixed in with faint cigarette smoke from a passer-by.

She took some time to take it all in, to let it seep like tea into hot water, feeling life around herself. Her eyes caught a patch of dandelions which shone so bright that she believed for a second they could continue to give off light even after the sun has set. She knelt down in the grass and picked about a dozen of them, binding them, as her mother taught her during their long summers together, with a grass blade. 

She began walking towards the Trauma Hospital of Brno that was just around the corner with the dandelions looking like a wedding bouquet in her hands. She walked up to the automatic door. Unsurprisingly to us, it wouldn’t open. Annoyed more than angry, she read a sign taped to the plexiglass informing potential patients that this hospital had been closed to unannounced emergencies.

As she stood there not knowing what to do but feeling too emotionally drained to care all that much, her phone suddenly rang.

“Maggie?”

“Mum! Are you alright?” she shouted into the phone.

“Yes darling, I’m perfectly fine. You don’t need to worry.” said her mother, patiently.

“What happened?” said Maggie.

“Oh, just one of those small scares. You know how the body gets in my age. The doctor looked me and said that I’m alright.” her mother explained, sounding as if Maggie wasn’t the first person she recounted this to that day.

“I’m so glad to hear that, mum.” said Maggie “You honestly gave me a bit of a scare.”

On this, her mother laughed “Why? Is it because I haven’t written a will yet?” but they both knew it was in jest.

“When will they let you out?”

“Oh, I’m about to leave now, actually. But they recommend that I quarantine for two weeks and after that, they’ll send someone to look at me.” she said, audibly annoyed “Just as the weather picking up as well. I had plans to work in my garden.”

“Well, come outside and I’ll give you a bit of a park.” said the daughter and she hung up, smiling at the locked hospital door.

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