You Know this is Madness

by Harmony Neal

Surrender, then start your engines.
You’ll know quite soon what my mistake was.

—Tori Amos from “Liquid Diamonds”

I would plant a garden. I imagined rows and rows of brightly colored flowers, from yellow to pink to purple and blue, a yard of beauty and vibrant life. I might even grow my own tomatoes and peppers, strawberries and cantaloupe.

I’d never rented a house before, always living in apartments, even in towns with houses for rent at the same price. It’d always seemed too hard to locate an available, cheap house, then contend with the extra heating and cooling costs. I insisted on a fenced-in yard for Milkshake in this new town where he won’t have his friends or access to a dog park. But more importantly, I’d won a fellowship and wanted a house to go with it.

Two years wouldn’t be long enough to fully invest in a garden, but I had someone else’s efforts to work with. When I signed a lease in July, Liriope lined the front of the house and the backyard around the shed. The little purple stalks were just beginning to flower in their bushy green bases. A rose bush bloomed, and though I’ve never been in love with roses, the masses of red petals bobbing in the slight breeze—indifferent to whether someone might cut them or not—hinted at the rewards of surrounding yourself with beauty.

A Winter King Hawthorn tree adorned the front yard alongside an evergreen, both with white cement borders circling their beds. The tan brick mailbox boasted planters of cracked clay with dried brown moss. A flower bed by the front porch sported a few scraggly weeds. The yard was landscaped, but the planters were bare, leaving me to do as I pleased. A row of three giant maples shaded the back yard. My new home was outlined with potential.

Sometimes, getting what you want brings into focus what you’ve lost. This is particularly true for people who pushed through loss by focusing on the good things that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. It’s sleight of mind, the human preoccupation with cause and effect. After fourteen years, “If I’d moved to Memphis with Bethany like I’d promised, I never would have gone to college then graduate school” turns into, “I have a beautiful house and prestigious fellowship. Bethany’s not here. She’s nowhere.”

I hear she still grants forgiveness.

Picture me, thirteen years old, watching my best friend apply red lipstick in the yellow bathroom across from the band room. I’m explaining to her again that gay people are going to hell.

Bethany shakes her head, puckers up and blots bright circles onto scratchy toilet paper. “Gay people don’t choose to be gay. They’re born that way. Why would God send them to hell?”

“It’s in the Bible,” I say, watching her ritual in the mirror, “so they can’t be born that way. They must be choosing to be gay.”

“No,” Bethany says, “No. They’re born gay, and you’re a jerk. Do you think black people choose to be born black?” I insist those aren’t the same things, but she doesn’t want to talk about it anymore. She stops looking at me in the mirror. I stand silently and watch her push up the front of her nose, checking for boogers.

Although I willingly forgot her.

My mom liked to terrify me with her version of hell. There are no literal flames, no physical suffering. To her, hell is an eternal time-out where the people who rejected God are no longer given the option of being in His loving presence. Or maybe they could still be with Him if they wanted, but they wouldn’t choose Him still. They sit in solitary confinement for eternity, petulant children with their noses in a corner.

I imagined myself trapped in a cramped cell with bare cement walls, alone, with nothing to read or do forever.

The offering is molasses.

When I return in August to take up residence, drought grips the carefully landscaped yard. The rose bush shows no sign of flowers. The Liriope alone thrive, with lush purple stalks delicately fragrant at dawn and dusk. The trees wilt.

One of the maple trees is obviously dead: only a few dry leaves cling to ends of branches. My landlord cuts it down as a safety precaution. The new empty space in the backyard tugs at an empty place in my chest, the stump surrounded by scattered gravel and sawdust. Georgia has been in an ongoing level four drought for years. Part of me doesn’t want to waste water, but the rest of me can’t bear to watch my yard die.

Upon closer inspection, the rose bush appears half dead as well. Somehow, the green branches stem from a dried brown base. I can’t fathom how something living could spring from something dead: brown trunk, hollow with holes, with a living green branch jutting forth. It doesn’t seem possible, but there it is.

I’ve heard rose bushes thrive after aggressive pruning, so I cut it all back. This is how I’ve learned to deal with things, in broad strokes, refusing to be invested in potential outcomes. I expect it might finish dying. Then it will be done, and I can shut the door in myself that thinks that if I can cultivate a beautiful garden, if I can make something beautiful, the act will transform me. That somehow, green limbs will shoot from places of decay.

And you say.

Bethany was beautiful. She had long wavy hair, the palest ivory skin, and brown eyes with gold flecks that danced around her pupils when she laughed. We both began seventh grade friendless. I entered seventh grade following two years of homeschooling. She had just moved to the area, something about divorce and the giant house she used to live in where she rarely saw her parents. Her new house was a maze of boxes and bags stacked floor to ceiling. Their most valuable furniture and other treasures were locked in a storage unit in some other town. Bethany wore Z Cavaricci jeans at a time when the popular girls wore Guess! She had designer clothes and Estee Lauder makeup and no phone in her home.

She read Stephen Hawking and contemplated black holes. She read Robert Heinlein and contemplated human relationships. She read runes. She danced Irish jigs. She sang in a clear soprano, but insisted on using vibrato that irritated my ears.

She played the flute. I played the clarinet. She dated boys. I was her best friend.

I guess I’m an underwater thing

Mid-August is probably too late to plant, but I try anyway. I buy packs of zinnia seeds and water the dead planters in the mailbox and the quarter-circle bed by the front door, imagining full zinnias with no bulb center, just circles and circles of petals on their shaggy orange and pink heads. I buy four varieties of seeds, not knowing which might produce the flowers I want and which the sad zinnias with only a circle or two of petals ringing a fuzzy marble center.

I fret over which to plant where. They all claim to like direct sunlight, but I don’t trust the seed packets to know flowers’ true desires. I plant two varieties in front of the house and a different variety around the mailbox. I don’t note which I plant where. I’m not qualified for any of this, and I’m only half trying, scared of all the variables I could never know to take into account before I begin. I empty the last pack around the base of the hawthorn tree.

so I guess I can’t take it personally.

“Gay people are born that way, gay people are born that way, gay people are born that way.” Bethany hadn’t gotten me to budge from my hardline “Abortion is Murder” position, but the idea that gay people might be born that way irked me. I knew some people believed that black people had brought misery on themselves, that they were marked by God. My family didn’t believe that, but some people said it was in the Bible, plain and simple. I lay awake at night, asking myself about God. My mind would circle around the problems until I got a headache, until I was desperate for sleep. Finally, I decided: gay people were born that way, God didn’t hate them, and they weren’t going to hell—someone was misreading the Bible.

I guess I’m an underwater woman

Bethany loved runes, read books on Wicca, wanted to believe in vampires, maybe, I don’t know how seriously she took any of it. For her, the world was a mysterious place, and she was as likely to hypothesize about Stone Henge as to wonder about Stephen Hawking’s black holes. I learned a runic alphabet, because she wanted me to, because she made me. She’d pass me notes between classes written in runes, with a key up top, until I knew the shapes, could reproduce them by heart.

liquid running.

In the morning, I light incense. The drawer by the recliner in the living room brims with Shoyeido. Lately, I’ve been lighting Hope by the mini bundle. Four sticks: hold together, apply flame, blow out. Sometimes I remember Bethany reprimanding me, so I shake the flame out instead. You’re not supposed to blow out incense, you’re supposed to gently shake it.

Why? I don’t know.

There’s a sea secret in me.

Each morning at dawn I water my zinnia seeds, the Liriope, the trees, the rosebush, and the other, nameless bushes lining the house. The ground is so dry. Orange clay splatters against the brick house as I move the hose back and forth. By mid-afternoon, the clay will be parched and aching, cracked open in little veins of longing. I’ll wait until dusk to rewet the soil, knowing that additional water midday will quickly evaporate, will only deepen the wounds.

My mom says roses love water. When she had roses, she turned the hose on them and left it running.

I won’t do that, not for any plant, and especially not for a half-dead rosebush. But when I get the hose ready at dawn and dusk, I turn it on over the rosebush and turn it off there too.

It’s plain to see it is rising.

Bethany had boyfriends. I used to be so jealous of them. They’d be cute and sensitive or hot and daring, artistic or wild. They doted on her, bought her things, drove her around, drove us around. They always struck me as tools for Bethany to use, because to my immature and inexperienced eyes, her lack of bewildered infatuation was a serious flaw. My clawing need would have be a better testament to them, if they’d been with me.

But I must be flowing

By high school, I had joined the club of people who’d rather be in hell with the sinners than in heaven with the Christians, but my mother’s view of eternity all alone still scared the breath out of me, more than a devil with horns and spiked trident, more than flames. Eternity alone would be an unfathomable boredom. When I tried to imagine eternity at all, it seemed a curse. Who wants to live forever? I’d read enough Anne Rice to know that while living for centuries may be cool, eventually you get bored, eventually you get tired, eventually, you want to die.

liquid diamonds.

I keep vigil with the zinnias, watch the seeds sprout green shoots, then grow from August through September with no sign of producing flowers. The zinnias in front of the house grow four to six inches, then stop. One has a tiny white flower on the end that looks nothing like a zinnia. One single bell-shaped flower. I watch and wait. I think maybe it will add petals. It never does. Others develop the same tiny white flowers, and that’s it. The minuscule petals fall off later in the frost. I realize they weren’t zinnias at all.

On the left side of the mailbox, the plants grow and grow, six inches then eight then ten. The flowers planted on the right side, with direct sunlight all day, languish, runty and thin. The ones on top of the mailbox never grow taller than four inches. But the ones on the left side, which stay shaded half the day, become a jungle: close and thick, taller and taller.

The seed packets lied. Direct Atlanta sunlight is not something zinnias enjoy. They need rest and respite.

One plant on the left shoots up an inch taller than the rest, and in mid-October produces a black bulb. I scrutinize its progress, walking out to the mailbox a few times a day while having a smoke. First, the little yellow petals show, then they open up and out until finally, one zinnia blooms above others that struggle.

Calling for my soul, at the corners of the world.

While the zinnias push themselves, the rose bush grows in spurts. Individual green arms shoot up and out, bend at odd angles then back. I think maybe I should prune it again, chop off the unruly mess. Even if the plant doesn’t die, there is no chance of roses in October, especially off those ungainly limbs.

I stand in the crisp clean air that smells like winter coming, contemplating the rose bush, considering cutting it all back. Then I notice, at the tip of the topmost branch, a tiny red bud, like a marble. I figure it will stay like that until it dies, a hard sphere, potential never realized.

I know she’s playing poker with the rest of the stragglers.

I’m not sure the exact moment I stopped being jealous of Bethany and started being jealous of her boyfriends. I don’t think it took long for me to go from deciding gay people aren’t going to hell to admitting my own secret desires. I loved her. She loved me. She was beautiful, and even though I was not, she thought I was. We loved each other and were happiest together. We belonged together.

Calling for my soul, at the corners of the world.
I know she’s playing poker, with the rest, the rest—

Over the next few days, the marble bud elongates into a recognizable closed red rose. I resist my urge to cut it. I don’t know if it will fully open. I don’t know if the thin stalk can bear the weight of a fully bloomed flower. I want to cut it and keep it and not risk it dying young and half formed or pulling everything down under its own weight.

I name the bud Bethany. I think about cutting it. I leave it there. Bethany, Bethany, Bethany, a misfit rose just beginning in the world.

It will die. The petals will wilt and fall. Shrivel. Disappear.

And if your friends don’t come back to you

During my first trimester in college, Bethany was murdered by an ex-boyfriend.

The moment I found out, I knew she was dead.

She wasn’t having fun in heaven, she wasn’t suffering in hell, she wasn’t exploring the cosmos or a happy phantom dancing in the yard: she was just dead. She didn’t exist anymore. She would never exist again.

And you know this is madness.

I go smoke in the backyard and hear a woodpecker beating away on the healthier of the two remaining trees. It’s fall, so it’s hard to say with leaves dropping everywhere, but I suspect the middle tree is also half dead. Three trees in a row, all dying.

And you say.

During graduate school, my friend Kyle returned from a trip to New Orleans with a gift for me. Unwrapped tissue paper revealed a painted statue of a woman with a jar in her hand and a human skull between her feet. “It’s Marie Laveau,” he told me, “She’s a Voodoo queen.”

It was a gift from Kyle, likely the only gift I would ever receive from him, so I set it on my bookshelf where I could remember that it made him think of me, and maybe figure out why.

When I moved here, I put it on my desk by my computer monitor. Laveau watches me, right hand over her heart.

I guess I’m an underwater thing,

My mother’s grandmother collected owls. Owl figurines in all shapes and sizes, ceramic, stone, stainless steel, gold, silver. Owl clocks. Owl mugs. Owl potholders. Owl ashtrays. Any time I see an owl anything for sale, my impulse is to buy it for a dead woman.

so I guess I can’t take it personally.

Other zinnias try to bloom—sad little green petals with yellow or pink/red on the ends. They struggle, endeavor to color themselves. I give them flower fertilizer mixed in a blue bucket.

I give the rose bush more water: a few extra seconds here and there. I am willing to give more for what it gives in return.

I guess I’m an underwater woman, liquid running.

After a week of my yellow zinnia alone in the world, other zinnias have bloomed. I give them food and food and food. One opens dark red with a yellow fringe. It’s stunted, but lovely. It shows the potential of planting seeds in spring instead of late summer. Orange, pink, still half-green, the flowers bloom under that first deep yellow flower—my flower—that bulks up, contracts its red core, becomes a lovely little sun.

I water the rosebush, pulling on a prickly leaf to bring the flower down to my nose. It smells faintly of something sweet and musky, I don’t know what, so I decide it smells like Bethany since I can’t remember her smell anymore.

I inspect the wildly growing plant for other bulbs, an indication other roses are on the way. I find none. The solitary red rose opens, awkwardly, like it was smooshed flat and is trying to regain a spherical shape, but still, it opens, day by day.

I watch and wait for it to die.

There’s a sea secret in me.

Mine and Bethany’s hands were our own. My nails hard, hers soft, both long. My pinky fingers bend in at the last knuckle, making a small v when placed side by side. I always joked those bent pinkies were what made me first chair clarinet.

It’s plain to see, it is rising.

Throughout college, my mom told me I was depressed because I no longer had a relationship with God. If I’d only turn back to him, embrace him, I’d be healed.

I’m not sure the exact moment she stopped trying. I do know that by college I no longer wanted to think about God, but was afraid of going to hell. During college I suspected more and more that there was no God, even when I wanted there to be a God, a heaven, Bethany waiting. By the end of college, I was fairly certain there was no God, though I was still afraid of going to hell for admitting as much. I tried not to think about it. I tried to comfort myself with the idea that if there was a God, he’d have to be cool with me, otherwise, fuck him anyway.

It wasn’t all that comforting.

But I must be flowing

I don’t own one thing that belonged to Bethany. I used to have a natural color linen jacket that was nothing I’d ever wear, but something she’d gotten two copies of, one for me, one for her. I wore it on and off for a year after she died, then crammed it in the back of my closet. Eventually, it went to Goodwill, or maybe some friend at the time liked it, and I said, here.

Now I have nothing of hers. I never saw her apartment again. Never had a chance to go through her things and select one of those painted porcelain Asian masks I always hated, but would hang on my wall now.


There are some things of mine I keep. I wear a silver cat ring. It’s an artifact. I don’t otherwise wear jewelry. I bought this ring during one of those gaudy “buy shit to define yourself to your peers” fairs all college campuses have a few weeks into the fall semester, after students have had the chance to choose a persona. While other people snatched up Escher prints and posters of The Doors, I impulse bought a silver ring with a cat’s head that fit perfectly on my left thumb.

The one I wear now is actually the third. I lost the first one in my early twenties and it took months to find another for sale on a poorly designed animal jewelry website. Then the second one got caught on a heavy door in Detroit. It pulled sideways, into an oblong, tearing the skin on my thumb. I went to that tacky animal site again, relieved they still carried my ring. I should have bought a backup, but I didn’t.

I sleep with a stuffed dog. His name is Lestat. He’s a light shade of golden brown. He’s old for a dog: 16. He’s the first purchase I made with my first paycheck from my first job working at Jack-in-the-Box. He’s two feet tall and sits on his rear in a way that’s unnatural to most dogs, but mirrors the way my living dog Milkshake sits. Lestat came with an ugly pastel blue and pink paisley bowtie. There was nothing I could do about it. His taste is his own.

These are my totems: a silver cat ring and a stuffed dog. I think Marie Laveau might join them someday, if I can make sense of her, if she keeps watching me, hand over heart.


I expect the rose to die on the 4th or 5th of November. I am convinced it will be a sign.

But it doesn’t fall. It slowly opens. The zinnias fill out, expand. They range from the palest pinks and yellows to the brightest reds and oranges. Everything blooms against the odds. I check for another rosebud, find nothing. I take coffee grounds and mound them over invisible roots, an offering of acidic soil.

I call

November 10th is cold, too cold. The air burns my nose. On the morning of the 11th, I check my zinnias. Half of them are mush. They froze, they must have, their stalks resemble canned green beans, their heads are gray. My zinnia, the first one, the deep yellow zinnia, wilts, petals curling at the tips, head bowed, but it is not mush. The tiny pale pink one is okay, hiding out between taller, frozen plants. The rest suffer.

I go inside a shell.

Bootleg lectures on tape about mythology help me drive from Georgia to Florida for Thanksgiving. The gods, the goddesses, the stories, I love them, always have. In college, I got up at 7 a.m. three days a week in the cold dead snow of a Midwestern winter to attend a course on classical mythology. Elizabeth Vandiver, the professor on the tape, says that to ask if the Greeks really believed in the gods is akin to asking if they believed in charity or love or war. It’s a question that makes no sense: the gods are these things. Gaia is the earth and an embodied goddess.

I’m possessed by a desire to ask my mom for statues for Christmas. I want Athena and Aphrodite, Ares and Artemis. I’ll take Apollo and Demeter. I don’t really want Zeus, but I’ll happily make space for Hera. Give me Apollo, I need his strength, his healing touch. I want tiny deer and tree nymphs.

I keep these desires to myself.

I see it’s so.

When I return from Florida at the beginning of December, everything is dead. All the zinnias jerk in the breeze like zombies. The rose bud is dead. Gone. A shriveled lump on the ground, surrounded by a few black petals. I should have known. I should have expected that to happen.

And you’re doing oh so well, these days.

If I wanted to fill the gaping hole in my animal existence, I would refind religion. I would make my own.

You do it again

I light incense and wave out the flame. I decide it smells better waved out than blown. Of course that’s ridiculous. I’ve been lighting Hope more than anything else lately, more than Creativity or Kyoto Cherry Blossoms or Love. The perfume of Hope hangs thick in the air. I can’t quite place the scent, though its name is on my lips. The purple box tells me sandalwood, frankincense, vanilla, ginger lily, and spices. None of those are right. I want to say it smells like tarnished ivory. Hope is my middle name and something I’ve decidedly lived without most years.

and I say, it’s coming back again.

I go outside to smoke, but the still air hanging over my frozen yard reminds me that I have no flowers to watch. I blow smoke across the dead mush. It connects with decaying stalks, then disintegrates. There are no smells of deterioration. Everything is trapped in an icy freeze frame. I move my cigarette to my left hand, reach down and grab a stalk, yank it from the ground, toss it on the sidewalk. I keep pulling and pulling. Grey-green goo slicks my palm. Some stems pull apart into a sloppy mess. I attack the stubs clinging to the soil, rip them free. At the mailbox, I pull each flower out by the roots, throw them in the gutter, walk away.

Something like the—

I’ve turned writing into a religion, but it’s not a very good one. I seem to believe that if I read enough, watch enough, think enough, then write it all out, I can uncover the mysteries of the universe and come up with a satisfactory answer to the question: what does it mean to live a good life?

the Saturdays, such was it

I carry Bethany with me in my pocket. I carry her in my stomach. In my mortal soul. I keep her in my moles, in between my toes that are shaped like hers were. We had almost identical feet, such a weird thing. I’d like to think of her with long graceful toes, but the truth is, her toes were stumpy and crooked like mine.

When she had Ricky drive her from Jonesboro to my family’s apartment on the SIUE campus, Ricky got confused with all three of us piled on one couch. He touched my feet, thinking they were hers. She and I giggled. Later, alone in my room, she asked for more of me than she’d asked before.

Can he bring me those jeans?
Keep it back, Daddy’s done, preaching back into himself.

I imagine goddesses blessing my house, on the bookshelf, on my night stand, on end tables. Google tells me there is essentially one Artemis statue for sale. She’s got deer antlers, a giant bow, and a trusty wolf. It’s too much, gaudy. I want something small and reverent. I don’t know what I want. I want something.

I want polished stone, marble, figurines that warm in your palm.

Keep it just between us.

NOTE: All italicized line sections are from Tori Amos’ “Liquid Diamonds.”

HARMONY NEAL is the 2011-2013 fiction fellow at Emory University. She’s been recently published or is forthcoming in Grist, YemasseeWisconsin ReviewPaper Darts, and Revolution House. She spends her spare time playing with her dog, Milkshake, and growing poets in her home. “You Know this is Madness” is the title piece of her recently completed nonfiction collection.