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Every Friday since the flowers arrived, we have traveled to the sea to bathe before prayers.

One morning when she was young, a poppy sprouted from my grandmother’s shoulder, and it stayed as it was for years. One red flower that wouldn’t wilt in the winter or burn in the summer. When she grew older, the flowers soon spread down her arms, and finally her spine held dozens of flowers on each vertebra. Now, she has a garden.

Last week, I visited her in her garden. Earlier that day, I had helped my friend plant trees at his home. This past winter, wild rabbits fed on the bark of his trees and left them to die. We spent the morning undoing what they had done. I had just left him and made my way into a clearing off the road, a patch of grass and dirt peppered with those same flowers. I laid down in the field and closed my eyes.

My uncle’s flowers sprouted from his legs and ended at his spine. For five years, they grew until he could rest in a bed of flowers of his own.

I don’t know when my ancestors started to become trees. We turned our aches into seeds and every Friday, we bathed our bodies to tend to our flowers. The children have a new species of flower, those plants that produce the sweet fragrance of the old world. We didn’t carry flowers with us, then. If we did, they were removed of their roots and would dry within days. The stubborn among us would hold them upside down to keep them from death, but this was before our flowers arrived. Can you imagine?

Was it something in our blood? Was it something we said in our prayers? My cousin tells me they’ve seen people sprouting anastatica from their limbs on their travels. I wonder if they had prayed for salvation as well.

I coughed pollen one day on Mt. Nabi Younis. I did not know if I had swallowed a flower, but this was how they came to me. I sat with my grandmother in her garden as we watched the sea from the highest hill in all the land. She told me about the summer her flower bloomed; it had been one of indescribable pain. Her own body had been taken from her for a few moments, and for months, she didn’t know if it would be hers again. You see, sometimes men didn’t know what wasn’t for them, and men will always harm what isn’t for them. That’s why you don’t see many men with flowers, she tells me. Boys like you, they have flowers. Boys like you are kind. I’ll show you boys like you next Friday, when we bathe in the sea. But I didn’t have flowers yet, I told her.

I coughed pollen on the way there, too, and I told her I was tired. I laid my head on her shoulder as we traveled with the rest of the family, careful not to disturb the oldest red flower that refused to stay under clothing. She had all her clothing tailored to allow that flower to bloom through, an aged poppy that seemed to lean in to listen when we weren’t looking. I wiped the yellow dust from the corners of my mouth before they could see.

Once, my mother told me a story, before the flowers, of a woman whose five children wilted before her. She cried and cried to the sky until it turned her into a hornet, destined to travel a century between flower and human, offering sweetness followed by a keen sting to remind us all that she had once felt pain, too. My mother tells me this happened years before my cousin turned into a date palm. He was with his flock of sheep when he disappeared into a field of wheat for days and came back a date palm, offering us fruits with his branches and giving us shade with his leaves. Since then, the flowers haven’t left us.

But I feel nothing. My grandmother has spotted the yellow pollen, and she tells me not to worry, we are heading to the sea. We are going to bathe in the sea. Every Friday, we bathe in the sea.

The sea is so large, we don’t have to crowd one another. Since the flowers came, at least. My grandmother tells me there was once a time when our people could only reach a small stretch of beach and very few of us could bathe in it. I wonder how they tended the flowers before they could reach the sea. Our water had been taken once to drown strawberries and tomatoes, and they turned into water fruits without taste and smell. We could no longer tell whether we were eating strawberries or tomatoes. Can you imagine?

Now, every Friday, there is enough room for us at the sea. Everyone and their flowers, even those without flowers of their own who were either too young or had turned into date palms or olive trees. I asked my grandmother why she has flowers, why my uncle has flowers, and others have branches? My dear boy, she tells me, remember when your cousin disappeared? We couldn’t find him to take him to the sea, so he took his water from the earth. The olive trees, too. When we could not reach the sea, we took water from the earth. And when that water ran out, we traveled to the sea. Now every Friday, we bathe in the sea, and instead of cemeteries, we have gardens.

What about those people? The ones without flowers who hadn’t turned to trees? They took solace in their wealth, my boy, and they have no place at the sea. They sold the sea years ago, my boy. They said there are things on this earth that are more beautiful than the sea. Their towers and their walls. Can you imagine? She tells me, once the water has reached her waist, soaking the black cloth that drapes her body that day. Can you imagine anything more beautiful than this? I want to tell her that her garden is more beautiful than the endless water, but I come from people who lost the water in their earth and hadn’t seen the sea for years, so I know better.

I know better because my mother once told me what it was like for my grandmother and her grandmother. Their world had been dry, run by these tower and wall men, and they could only find justice in their prayers. Whispers in the dark that wished for protection, whispers in the dark that wished for health. When all we had was prayers, that’s when the flowers came.

But how did we get the sea back? We took it back; my grandmother tells me. We took it back when the flowers came. We took it back because the flowers came. We took it back because we had date palms and olive trees, but the flowers began to wilt without the sea. She tells me of her uncle who could not feel his legs, but his mother had asked in the dark for him so much that his legs began to sprout flowers and he found one day that they only wanted to walk to the sea. My grandmother tells me she didn’t know how to swim before the flowers, she only knew how to walk just past her knees. After she birthed her children, a flower sprouted in her womb.

My boy, she calls to me once the water has reached the flower on her shoulder. I stay standing in the water, I have bathed in this water before but the pollen coming out of my mouth frightens me. A child beside me floats on their back, a full bouquet of wildflowers shooting out of their ribs. I don’t feel well, I tell my grandmother as I try to wipe away the pollen coating my lips. I have reached the part of the sea where my feet can no longer touch the ground, and I am frightened. I have been leaking pollen everywhere. My grandmother shows me the yellow trail I’ve left behind. My boy, she calls me over and pushes my head under the water. My grandmother is not a gentle woman. She is loving, yes, but hardened. Her flowers are the softest part about her, but I don’t tell her that because she believes she is all soft on the highest mountain.

I’m told my grandmother used to be soft, before her flowers. She would let anyone in her door, and she would cry out for anyone in agony, but when the men of towers and walls practiced their worst, she had no more use for softness, except in her prayers.

I think about her prayers while I am underwater. I wonder what she prayed for me. If she prayed the water would reach my lungs and bathe them, if she prayed for my spine and stomach. If she had prayed for me to have flowers of my own. What if I turn into a date palm? Will we be able to speak to one another? Will she understand me? Her petals would be different than my branches, and I would need the water of the earth. Would I wilt without her? What if I couldn’t visit her garden? What if I am made for valleys and not hilltops? Can you imagine?

She pulls me up from the water, and I am gasping for breath.

I’m not the best swimmer. I had been practicing in the bathtub, learning how to float so I didn’t embarrass my grandmother next Friday at the sea.

You see, my boy, the men with their towers and walls kept us from our sea. We could not imagine whispers would change anything, so we wailed for days. Soon, everyone joined us, even the date palms and olive trees. We drowned the entire land in our tears and fishermen had to rescue us with their boats. The boats found us, and we kept wailing until the towers fell and the walls were no more. We cried and cried until we had destroyed everything but our homes, built to outlast the men and their towers and walls. The fishermen kept us from destroying ourselves, they kept us safe, so we did not drown. Especially those of us that did not know how to swim. Can you imagine, my boy? Our tears flooded the world, and we couldn’t swim.

My flowers began to bloom weeks after my grandmother held me underwater. I had not prayed for them. I suspect she did.

Ryah Aqel is a filmmaker, cultural producer, multimedia artist, and writer interested in the relationship between indigenous communities, identity, and land, in Palestine and beyond.
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