The Language of Flowers
Wherein unrequited love makes one fatally ill.
by Shehrazade Zafar-Arif
When Layla finished vomiting, the toilet bowl was swimming with flowers.
Her throat ached from choking out fat red petals and fine sharp thorns. Pebbles sank into the water, glittering in the harsh bathroom light like some macabre art installation.
She imagined vines ensnaring her organs, thorns stabbing her lungs – like the diagrams in biology textbooks, the silhouette of a garden growing in the body.
It had been inevitable. She belonged to the most at-risk demographic for unrequited love: twenties, single, living alone. She was destined to be another number in the death toll.
The NHS website advised: if you are suffering from Agape Distress Syndrome, see your GP. Symptoms include stomach pains, breathing difficulties, and vomiting plants, dirt and stones.
If you cough up blood, call 999 immediately.
She left home feeling like Ophelia in her final scene, spitting out flowers and distributing them: there’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance…
A poster on the train showed a woman throwing up violets. ONE IN SEVEN PEOPLE SUFFER FROM ADS, it read, with a helpline number.
Funny, Layla thought, how it was always a woman in the awareness campaigns, when the disease itself didn’t discriminate. Everyone loved the scene in Pride and Prejudice where Mr Darcy coughed up thorns while confessing he loved Elizabeth, though back then they’d believed only weak men caught ADS. Flower Sickness, they’d called it. A pretty name.
Her stomach turned. Suddenly she was on her knees, coughing and spluttering, a shower of dirt and pebbles. Passengers gave her a wide berth, as if love was contagious.
Lying in her hospital bed, Layla thought about Renaissance paintings of Christ, petals dripping from his lips out of love for humanity. Reality was uglier. She was hooked to an IV drip, unable to eat on her own, on a cocktail of painkillers.
Her organs were failing, strangled by leaves and stems. Soon her lungs would stop functioning, and then her heart.
Layla glanced at her phone.
In the next bed, Ellie was reading a magazine; the cover model held a rose scandalously between her teeth. Social media was probably lambasting the appropriation.
“Aren’t you?” Layla retorted.
Ellie had woken up spitting leaves and realised that her husband had fallen out of love with her. He visited daily, would sit staring helplessly at Ellie as if willing himself: I love her. I love her. It was the only cure.
Prevention was the best precaution. People took antidepressants to dull the neurotransmitters in their brains that triggered love. There were villages in East Africa where adolescents were blindfolded until they married. Love was humanity’s biggest enemy.
She’d asked about the other possible cure. Unlikely, the doctors said.
Adrian hadn’t texted to ask after her. And here Layla was, dying over him. She willed herself with every fibre: I hate him. I hate him.
For a moment, she dared to hope. Then she doubled over, gagging, and it landed in her hands: a perfectly formed, blood-stained orchid.
Shehrazade Zafar-Arif is an aspiring writer who grew up in Pakistan and moved to London to study English Literature.
Our Reader said:
This story was really in the spirit of the theme and the vivid, absurd imagery hammered home the aching and consuming pain of unrequited love.