The Tale Of Black-Eyed Susan
Alisha Bose | Art by Alisha Bose
“He loves me. He loves me not. He loves me. He loves me not.”
Yellow petals litter the grass. Susannah is hunched over one of the many flowers in the field, slowly picking away at the poor thing.
“I’ll save you some time, bozo, he doesn’t like you!”
Susannah jumps, dropping the yellow flower she was holding. The field is completely empty, but the voice definitely came from somewhere around her. “Who’s there? Is someone listening to me? I have, uh, pepper spray, you know!”
“Oh sure, pepper spray me on top of ripping my petals out! That would just be grand, wouldn’t it?”
The voice is definitely female, but it’s grating, reminding Susannah of those ladies in supermarkets who would stack coupons and get mad at the cashier for not saying have a nice day when they left. The anger in her voice makes it scratchy, and it almost sounds like it’s right in front of her.
But that would be impossible, because the only thing right in front of Susannah was…
“Are you stupid and blind? Over here, moron!”
The yellow flower that she had just been picking petals off is standing upright, looking miffed. If flowers had hands, this one would be impatiently crossing her arms at Susannah. In the little black center of the flower, two beady eyes had emerged. And—oh god—were those eyelashes? With mascara clumped onto them?
“I’m dreaming,” Susannah says out loud. “I’m hallucinating. I’ve gone crazy. Completely and utterly out of my mind.”
“Save the self-reflection for later! Did you have fun completely mutilating me? Have you fulfilled your disgusting fantasy of torturing a Black-Eyed Susan?”
Susannah takes a second to process. “Your name is Susan?”
Black-Eyed Susan lets out a long-suffering sigh. “Haven’t you been listening? I’m a Black-Eyed Susan. We’re a species. Rudbeckia hirta, if you want to get scientific.”
“What do I call you then? Rude Becky Hirta?”
“No! What is it with you humans and your obsession with naming things? I will not allow you to degrade me like this. I’ll have you know that I am one of the top-runners in our 2022 presidential election!” Black-Eyed Susan puffs up her chest with pride. Susannah doesn’t think it’s possible for her brain to short-circuit anymore.
“That’s right, put some respect on my name!”
“But you just said you don’t have a name.”
“It was a figure of speech, Susannah. My first act as president will be to outlaw all humans from stepping foot onto our lands. And that’s a threat!”
In terms of dreams, this is the most interesting one Susannah’s ever had. Honestly, she hadn’t expected her mind to be able to come up with something this creative. The best she had been able to come up with for her English class prompt “feeling blue” was about a girl who lost her dog. A talking flower running for president was up there with, like, Shakespeare.
Black-Eyed Susan is still talking. “Between you and me, I’m a shoo-in for president. My competition is a joke! My kind has been president for years.” She frowns. “Well, there was that one instance where Viola Molly Sanderson became president, but honestly? I don’t even think she was born here. And she can’t even fly!”
Black-Eyed Susan puffs herself up importantly. “Yes, fly. I am proud to say we are the only species that can fly. Which is why only we should run for president!”
Even if this is a dream, Susannah isn’t going to let herself get sassed by a flower the size of her palm. “Alright, then prove it.”
Black-Eyed Susan scoffs. “I can’t fly because you just plucked off all my petals. You mutilated me, so now you fix it!”
“Fix it?” Susaannah repeats. “How? I’m not… a plant doctor or anything. I mean, the most I could do would be to, like, stitch it up.”
Black-Eyed Susan hops into her hand. “Then what are you waiting for?”
Black-Eyed Susan has no shortage of insults to deliver as they walk through Susannah’s front garden.
“Ooh, you’ve really made some enemies here, huh? What’d you do? Murdered some new saplings? Uprooted someone because you thought they were dead? No, wait! Don’t tell me you planted an invasive species here, have you? Chinese wisteria!? Wow. They’re really letting anyone in nowadays.”
Plants are racist? Susannah files that away for later thought, taking care to only step on the path. Normally, she would cut across the grass to get to the door faster, but she can only imagine how many little grass babies she would be killing with every step.
“So… ” she steps carefully around the weeds growing between the pavers. Were weed lives worth saving? Did the plants have protests against weed-killers? “So you’re listening to the plants? What are they saying?”
Black-Eyed Susan listens for a few seconds, then makes a face. “Best if I don’t tell you. That family tends to be a little vulgar.”
She thinks about that for a second while unlocking the front door. She isn’t sure how much she likes the idea that her plants like to cuss her out. She drops her phone and Black-Eyed Susan on the kitchen countertop. “I’m just going to set you here and grab the sewing kit, okay? Don’t… don’t touch anything while I’m gone.”
When she returns, she finds Black-Eyed Susan holding up different petals to each side of her face, staring into the reflection of the microwave.
“I’ve always felt like this petal shouldn’t be on the top of my head. Doesn’t it look better on this side? It’s much more symmetrical.”
“Uh, well, just think of this as plastic surgery then. Can you please just work a little faster?” Susannah pleads. Her mom would be back home anytime in the next hour, and she really didn’t want to explain why she was sewing up a flower’s petals. She looks uncertainly at the sharp needle, then back at Black-Eyed Susan’s delicate petals. “Will you be fine? I mean, will it hurt? Should I grind some Advil?”
“I’ll take you up on the Advil later,” Black-Eyed Susan grins. “But no, us flowers have extremely high pain tolerance. It’s an evolutionary defense mechanism to shield us from humans picking us all the time.”
Susannah grimaces as she threads a yellow thread through the needle. “Yeah. Uh, sorry about that. Just… hold still.”
She gingerly pokes the needle in through the petal, then into Black-Eyed Susan. As she works, Black-Eyed Susan is surprisingly quiet. Maybe she’d been lying about the evolutionary defense mechanism and was actually in pain, but Susannah tries not to think too much about it. This whole plant multiverse is already messing with her mind enough.
“Done!” Susannah sets Black-Eyed Susan in front of the microwave so she can survey the stitching. “Isn’t it nice? You can’t even see the stitches. I knew I didn’t take three years of sewing classes for nothing!”
Black-Eyed Susan preens at herself in the microwave reflection, spinning back and forth to watch her petals twirl with her.
“It’s passable,” Black-Eyed Susan rolls her eyes. “Now get me back before I charge you for kidnapping and attempted murder! I’ve wasted enough time here.”
“And just when I thought we were starting to get along,” Susannah sighs. She picks up Black-Eyed Susan. “Back to the field we go.”
They are almost back at the field where she had found the flower when Black-Eyed Susan lets out a shrill scream.
“Hey!” Susannah exclaims, nearly tripping over her own feet in shock. “What was that for?”
“Listen,” Black-Eyed Susan whispers urgently. “You see that nasty red flower sticking straight up in the air right over there? To your left. Left, idiot. Yeah, her.”
Susannah follows her gaze to a gorgeous red flower swaying slightly in the breeze. She’s situated right next to another taller red flower, with two little flowers in front of them. If she had to guess, she would say they were a family. But with the way Black-Eyed Susan was glaring at them, she decides it’s better not to ask.
“I see it. Uh, her. What is… she?”
Black-Eyed Susan spits to the side. “An Indian Paintbrush. She’s been bothering me ever since she moved here. Oh Susan, do you want to drink some chai tomorrow? Come over, you should meet my husband! Why would I drink chai tea when I can get it at Starbucks? Seriously, that species! Like I would ever be friends with such foreign folk!”
“Susan,” Susannah says uncertainly. “I’m not really sure how flower politics work but, uh, are you… racist? Species-ist?”
Black-Eyed Susan scoffs. “Not liking a select few species does not make me species-ist! The Black-Eyed Susans are simply… well, better! And that is not an opinion, it’s a fact.”
Great. Of course she had to be stuck with the most bigoted talking flower in the entire field.
“Anyways, back to my original point. This particular flower is also running for President. You’re big. You’re strong. And you owe me one for pulling off my petals. Go step on her.”
Susannah’s mouth drops open. She didn’t think she could be any more surprised by anything Black-Eyed Susan said, but she was evidently wrong.
“You’re asking me to commit murder!” she protests. “No way. No. I’m putting my foot down! And not on her! She has a family!”
“Oh so after killing hundreds of my friends and family, an Indian Paintbrush is where you draw the line? Seriously? Don’t start being all high and mighty now, Susannah!” Black-Eyed Susan curled a petal to wipe a big tear that was slowly forming.
“You can’t guilt-trip me! You literally suggested murder, Susan!” She drops her rather unceremoniously on the ground. “There. I stitched your wings. If you can fly, you won’t even have to worry about the paintbrush beating you in the presidential run. I’m leaving. This is the longest and most unnecessary dream I’ve ever had!”
“Yeah, convince yourself it was all a dream, Susannah. Maybe then you’ll feel a little better about being a serial killer! You don’t have to be a bad person just because of your species, you know!”
Before Susannah can protest against how hypocritical that is, Black-Eyed Susan stretches out her petals as far as they can go. She grins as she wiggles each one in quick succession. “Watch and learn, bozo.”
Slowly but surely, her petals begin to spin around. Black-Eyed Susan closes her eyes and presses her lips together, seemingly going into a trance. Her petals spin around faster and faster, and she arches her stem excitedly, ready to take off, and she—
—she falls flat on the grass.
It didn’t work.
Susannah and Black-Eyed Susan both stare at each other silently. Susannah kicks some grass, then immediately stops herself.
Black-Eyed Susan can’t fly.
“Maybe… ” Susannah starts uncertainly. “Maybe you need time for it to heal.”
“That’s not it,” Black-Eyed Susan says quietly. “That’s not it. It doesn’t work. They’re broken. I can’t fly anymore.”
Susannah doesn’t want to feel guilty about hurting Black-Eyed Susan, but the way Black-Eyed Susan is staring blankly at the grass pulls at her heartstrings. “Oh. I mean, but you don’t need to fly. You said that everyone else doesn’t! And— ”
Black-Eyed Susan spins angrily around to face her, hot tears coursing down her little face. “And what, Susannah! My run for presidency is ruined. No one’s going to vote for me now. And you don’t—you don’t know what they do to Black-Eyed Susans who can’t fly! My family—” she abruptly goes silent. “Whatever. I don’t care. Just go.”
“Get out of my life! Haven’t you ruined it enough?”
Susannah falls silent. Black-Eyed Susan is stubbornly looking at anything but her. The whole field is silent, like everyone is listening to them with bated breath.
So she leaves.
Susannah’s scared of flowers.
Her classmates notice her aversion whenever they go outside. She’ll refuse to go near them and winces every time someone rips a petal out or drops it on the ground. She freaked out when the teachers passed out roses on Valentine’s Day and apologized to the rose before rushing out of class.
Her mother now prefers to garden in the night, when Susannah’s in her room, so she can’t tell her off for hurting the plants. She thinks fake flowers look cheap, so she spends a week of rent money on handmade crocheted lavenders instead of their usual cheap grocery store flowers..
But the worst ones are the ones with yellow petals drooping to the ground, the Black-Eyed Susans. She’ll go the long way around the ones in the school’s garden every time. If anyone asks her about it, she’ll mumble something cryptic about being allergic. If a friend points out that she used to go every day to the field near her house, she’ll snappily remind them that allergies can be developed easily, and that she has a very sensitive nose.
There’s no shortage of reasons, real or fake, to avoid the field, so she can’t understand why she’s suddenly drawn to Black-Eyed Susan’s field on the second Tuesday of November, at the exact same spot she had been all those months ago.
But somehow, she’s not surprised to see Black-Eyed Susan waiting for her. Her mascara’s gotten better in the last ten months. She’s added some funky eyeliner colors too. Her petals stand tall and proud.
“I knew you’d get my message,” Black-Eyed Susan says.
“It’s a flower secret, but basically, we all pass along a message and emit strong scents to get inside your mind and place it. That’s why you wanted to come here.” At Susannah’s shocked expression, she laughs. “We have a lot more power than you think we do, Susannah.”
“Why did you want me here though?” Susannah hesitates. “I mean… after everything?”
“The election was today,” Black-Eyed Susan says. “And… I ran alongside the Indian Paintbrush. As her Vice President.”
Susannah stares at her in shock. The last time she had seen the flower, Black-Eyed Susan would have rather died than be seen with the Indian Paintbrush. At her incredulous stare, Black-Eyed Susan shifts around uncomfortably. When Susannah crouches down next to her, though, she looks up with shining eyes.
“We won, Susannah. I was sworn in at the Green House two hours ago. You’re looking at Madame Vice President Black-Eyed Susan.”
Susannah’s mouth drops open. “Are you kidding? Even… even without your wings? That’s amazing!”
She nods. “It’s a whole new world out here. It’s… progressive. My family was too traditional to accept that, and I needed a wake-up call to understand my world was changing. I mean, an Indian Paintbrush in the Green House? My ancestors are rolling in their graves right about now. I guess I have to thank you for that, actually,” Black-Eyed Susan smiles. “And as a gesture of my goodwill, my first act will be a presidential pardon for all your crimes against plant-kind in the Supreme Court! Perks of being best friends with the President.”
Susannah frowns. “My crimes?”
“War crimes, murders, genocide… the whole lot! Don’t you worry your pretty little head about it,” Black-Eyed Susan says breezily. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, Madam President Indian Paintbrush has invited me for chai. And a spray tan! These winter months make me look like a ghost.” She pauses. “Oh! I talked to our secretary of state, Daisy, and she happens to know of some wildflowers willing to be given in a bouquet. Just, you know, in case you were still pining after that kid. They promise not to droop for a whole week.”
Susannah is so surprised that she can’t help but laugh. “Wow. That’s so helpful. Thank you.” She pauses as the Indian Paintbrush waves her over. “Well… I’ll see you around, Susan?”
Black-Eyed Susan smiles. “I guess you will, Susannah.”