He liked to think that he helped them, that they needed him. But the flowers had been growing before he had found them and would, he was certain, continue to grow after he was gone. The flowers bloomed in three colors: red, white, and purple. He had never been interested in flowers before, had never learned to differentiate between all the different kinds or how to identify them. He still remembered sunflowers, but all the rest of their names had been forgotten.
All three colors of the flowers grew in the same place on the side of the cliff, in a cleft he had found one day when he was looking at the ocean. They rarely happened anymore, but on clear days, he could see down the hundreds of feet to the water and for miles in every other direction. Even when he could not see the waves, he could hear them crashing against the rocks far below him. That sound would last longer than the flowers, unless sound really did not exist when no one was there to hear it.
He thought the flowers were the most beautiful things in the world. Their colors were so bright. Some flowers had thorns in them, he knew, so he never touched them. That was not the only reason, however. He was also afraid he might hurt the flowers if he touched them. And if he hurt
them, they would not be beautiful to him anymore.
He did not have a wife, but he imagined that if he did, she would wear a dress the same color as the red flowers. She would also have a red shawl to wrap around her shoulders when it got colder in the evening. Her skin would be the color of sand: broken-down rocks that have been touched and darkened by the water. When he imagined her, he could see her taking off her shoes and walking barefoot through the grass, or sitting down and stretching her toes in it when they had a picnic. If he had a wife, there would have to be grass.
Although he had thought about it for a long time, he had never been able to decide what his wife’s name should be. Whenever he remembered a name he really liked, he would practice saying it to her, sometimes out loud, and try to picture her coming to him when he called her. But before he could think of what she would answer him, he would always think of another name, one that he thought might suit her better, and he would practice with that one.
Occasionally, he would try to think of names for the flowers, so that he could call them something other than red, white, and purple. That felt too impersonal. He knew, however, that the flowers had been given names before he had ever met them, and that it would be rude of him to try and rename them, to train them to respond to a name that was not really theirs.
The white flowers made him think of his daughter. He did not have one of those either, but if he did, she would wear a white dress and have white ribbons in her hair. Her hair would be black, like her mother’s. She would have tea parties at a little white table with a little white tea set, and both of her parents would be invited. They would drink tea that was white because it was imaginary, and afterwards, she would change clothes and go to play outside. White dresses are no good for running and diving in the grass, but other clothes are made with the expectations that they get dirty. He could almost hear her laughter flying on the wind. When she was too tired to run around any more, he would give her a bath while her mother made dinner. She would blow so many soap bubbles on him that he would have to take a bath too. She would giggle when she poured water over his head and he shook it out of his hair like a dog, and then he would help her put on her white dress again. She would know what dogs were.
As much as he enjoyed looking at the flowers and thinking about the beauty he saw in them, he could not stay with them all the time. Every few days, or sometimes more often than that, he had to go into the city to forage and scrounge. He had started on the end of the city farthest from the flowers, so that as he became older and weaker, he would not have to go as far to search for food, clothes and blankets, and whatever other small things he found. There was a grocery store at the farthest corner of the city that had supplied him for several months, but he had emptied it a long time ago. He estimated that there was less than a fourth of the city left for him to explore.
He always went as fast as he could when he was in the city. The ash that still sometimes fell from the sky had covered all of the gory and grotesque things on the ground, so that from a distance, the city looked like the cliff, except that no flowers ever grew in the city. Seeing the gray everywhere made him think of the flowers, and of how he needed to get back to them and look at them again.
Sometimes while he was searching, he would get lost and come upon store windows that had been smashed. He could never remember if he had smashed them or not, and so he would go inside to search. Sometimes it was a building he had broken into and emptied, and all of the shelves and store rooms would be barren. Walking through those buildings felt like being in something that had been alive once, but that had died because too many of its parts had been taken away. The other buildings, the ones he had not broken into, were much worse, because the ash did not cover what was in them.
The flowers always seemed brighter and more beautiful when he returned from the city. It seemed incredible that they were there, that they had survived as long as he had. They were leftover miracles from the end of the world. Sometimes he thought about what the world would be like if the flowers were not there.
He still remembered that purple was a royal color. He decided it was his color, too. Kings had authority over their people and their land. They could change the names of cities if they wanted, and, he had decided, of flowers as well. It felt good to know he could do that, even though he did not want to. Some kings added words to their own names, words like Great and Conqueror, so everyone would remember what kind of a king they had been after they died.
He had forgotten his name a long time ago. He could have given himself another one, but he had never been able to think of what it should be. Eventually he would become ash too, not enough to bury the flowers, but that did not matter. The beauty of the flowers would disappear because no one would be there to appreciate it, as would the crashing of the waves and every other nameless thing. But as long as he lived, he would look at the flowers and think about how beautiful they were, and he would tell himself that they needed him to be there.