The Orchid

Martin Boyd

OrchidThe orchid had been a gift from Mrs. Zarowsky, to welcome them to their new home. They didn’t know much about plants, but they were grateful for the gift, which they placed beside the front door of the little two-bedroom apartment that the kindly old Ukrainian woman had rented to them. They’d found the apartment in their first few days in Toronto, and the moment they met Mrs. Zarowsky, who had welcomed them so warmly, and the moment they saw the bright, cozy apartment, they knew it was just the place for them, and they signed the lease at once.

Mrs. Zarowsky gave them the orchid on the day they moved in. It had two stems, and at the end of one a pale yellow flower was blooming. “It will have more flowers very soon,” she told them. “Just take care of it, and it will have many more flowers.”

In those first days, their hearts overflowed with hope and excitement about their new life in Canada. It was amazing how fast it had all happened: two years earlier, they had no plans to leave Mexico. They didn’t know a thing about Canada, which they thought of as a large, frozen country near the North Pole. Then came the day when Maria received an anonymous phone call. When the calls multiplied, they realized that their family was in danger. For their three year-old son, for his future, for the future of their family, they would have to leave Mexico, and start a new life in a country where they could live in peace.

A friend suggested Canada: the Canadians were looking for young Mexican professionals, the friend told them. He was an engineer, she was a journalist – with their experience and credentials, the Canadian government would surely grant them residence. And their friend was right – within a year their application for residence was approved, and they sold and packed up everything they had to move to an unknown country.

They arrived at the end of August, and the blue skies and sultry breezes made it all seem like a wonderful dream. It was true that Toronto was a plain city, not blessed with the grandiose architecture or historical tradition of Mexico, but it was filled with parks and trees, so many places where their son could play, and the traffic was orderly and the streets were clean and quiet. Canadians were also quiet, perhaps a little too reserved, but they were very polite and relaxed people who always treated them with respect. In those first few weeks, it seemed they had immigrated to paradise.

In September, the flower wilted off the orchid. In the following weeks, Maria watched it with growing anxiety, waiting for another flower to bud. But for many weeks it was no more than a couple of green stems, dull and lifeless. She worried that perhaps she had watered it too much.

Then in October, José received the evaluation of his Mexican qualifications. He was told that to be able to practice as an engineer in Canada, he would have to take additional courses that amounted to several years of study. “That’s ridiculous!” she’d said. “You’re a fully qualified engineer, and they want you to do your degree all over again?”

José tried to find work in the meantime, but nobody would hire him because he had no Canadian experience. His fifteen years of work as a civil engineer in Mexico meant nothing here, they told him.

In November, the orchid was still without a flower. Mrs. Zarowsky had gone away to Florida for the winter – she wouldn’t be back until March, which was just as well, because if she’d seen the plant she might have thought they’d neglected it. She was worried it was going to die, and she asked José to take it to a florist to ask how to save it. But he was too busy looking for work. In December he found a job working night shift as an assistant in a furniture store. It wasn’t a great job, but it paid just enough to cover his studies and their rent. Meanwhile, Maria was looking after their son, attending advanced English classes, and writing unconvincing articles about the joys of life in Canada for a magazine back home in Mexico.

The blue fall skies turned grey, and the gentle warmth into a bitter cold. They felt helplessly alone. They tried to make new friends, but everyone they met seemed so aloof. As Christmas drew near and the weather grew even colder, Maria began to dream of being at home in Mexico, surrounded by her family and friends. One dawn she woke from one of these dreams suddenly and looked out the window to find it was snowing. On seeing the white flakes drifting lifelessly from the dark grey sky, she repressed an urge to cry.

But her son was captivated by the Canadian winter. On the morning of Christmas Eve, he ran outside to play in the snow. Maria rushed after him and slipped on the ice, falling with a thud on her back. At that moment, she could not repress the tears any longer, and she began weeping inconsolably. Her little boy came to her and looked at her with a frightened expression. He had never seen his mother cry before. Then her husband came out of the house. He took her by the hand and helped her back inside, where she lay her down on the couch in the living room. “I can’t take it anymore, José,” she said. “What are we doing here? I’m so sick of this place and its cold weather and its cold people…” She began to cry again.

José sighed heavily. “Maybe we should just go back to Mexico.”

“But how? We sold everything we had in Mexico. We used up all our savings to move here. What are we going to do?”

José gave no answer. Maria turned her face from him and looked over to where the orchid sat wilting near the doorway. “Please,” she said, “take that plant out of here. Just take it away! I can’t stand to look at it anymore.”

José stood up and went over to the plant. He touched one of its bare green stems. Then he looked to where their son stood peeking furtively from the doorway. “Come on, Chucho,” he said, “let’s go for a walk.”

He gathered the plant up in one arm, and took his son by the hand. They walked quickly down the icy street to the florist on the corner.

The florist was a diminutive Chinese man with a contagious smile. He was pruning a little bush beside the cash register when José and his son came in. “Good morning,” José greeted him. He put the orchid down very carefully on the table where the cash register was. “We need your help. This orchid hasn’t had a single flower in three months. What are we doing wrong?”

The florist turned his attention to the orchid. He examined it closely, and for a moment his expression became serious. He stuck a finger into the soil. “Have you given it much water?” he asked José.

“Not much,” José answered. “We were told it only needs very little.”

The florist studied the plant a little longer and then looked up to José. “It is fine,” he said. “Nothing wrong with this orchid.”

“Then… why doesn’t it have any flowers?”

“Orchids are sensitive plants. Water it only once a week. Keep it close to light, but far from direct sunlight. That’s all.”

“But we’ve been doing all that. Isn’t there anything else we can do for it?”

The florist smiled for a while without saying a word. Then he said: “Have patience.”

José looked around the shop. It was a large, bright place, filled with the fragrant smell of the plants. “Have you lived in Toronto a long time?” he asked.

The florist nodded. “Twenty-four years.”

“Wow! That’s a long time,” said José, looking back to the old man. “So you like it here.”

The florist turned his attention back to the bush he had been pruning before. “It was hard at first,” he said. “So cold here in winter. I used to wonder, how do plants survive in winter here? But they do survive. And spring always comes. Spring is very beautiful here.”

“I wouldn’t know,” said Jose. “We’ve only been here four months.”

The florist raised his eyebrows. “You wait till spring,” he said. He looked down at Chucho and offered him his smile. The little boy smiled back. To him, the flower shop was a magical kingdom of flowers, and the florist was its wise old king.

They returned home. When they entered, José placed the plant back in its place beside the front door. Maria was standing in the middle of the living room with an absent expression. She had calmed down now, but her face was streaked with her tears. “What happened?” she asked him.

“We went to the florist,” answered José.

She wiped her face with the back of her hand. “And?”

José turned to her. “He said it’s fine. He said to have patience.”

Chucho, who had been standing uncertainly in the doorway, ran forward to his mother suddenly and hugged her legs. “Mama,” he said.

Maria patted her son’s head. “What is it, dear?”

“When I grow up, I want to be a florist.”

“Well, then you can look after the orchid,” she said with a smile.

Early in the new year, in a prelude to a glorious Canadian spring, on the orchid bloomed three bright yellow flowers.

3 thoughts on “The Orchid

  1. It is a nice story, but plenty of stereotypes. Not everybody leaves Mexico because of its insecurity, but also for a better job or due to a job. Not everyone in Mexico is named Maria,José or Chucho. Maybe you would like to visit Mexico to see the reality, each one has their motives and ways to find happiness.
    Best regards,

    Iliana

  2. Hi Iliana, I’m sorry you felt the story depicts stereotypes, as it really wasn’t my intention at all. The characters are named Maria, José and Chucho in an allusion to Mary, Joseph and Jesus, not because I thought they were typical Mexican names. And I certainly didn’t think of their particular reason for leaving Mexico as being at all stereotypical, any more than I think all Mexicans are either engineers or journalists. I lived for years in Mexico before immigrating to Toronto myself and this story expresses a little of my own ambivalence about that experience; an ambivalence that many Mexicans living in Toronto also share. Maybe you would like to visit Toronto some time to get an idea of that curious mixture of frustration and hope that the story is trying to convey.
    All the best,
    Martin

  3. It’s a lovely story, Martin, and very timely given the deep freeze we’re facing right now in T.O. Personally, I’m hanging out for the “glorious Canadian spring” that you mention. I think it would have been interesting to go into some more detail about the reason that Maria and Jose left Mexico, as it’s clearly not just a case of wanting to get away from “insecurity” in a general sense, but a very specific case of Maria being the target of threats. Anyway, the picture you give of the newly arrived immigrant experience in Toronto is very familiar, particular with regard to the barrier represented by the dreaded “Canadian experience”, which I’ve written about previously in your Forum. Thanks for sharing this.
    Brian.

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