Descending the stairs, he looked up. “… Are you an idolater now?”
Where the wall of the stairwell plunged to meet the lower ceiling was a shelf. On it stood a gilt-framed abstract image of probably the Catholic Saint Thomas, surrounded by small images of flowers. There were candles, and an aloe plant, and what looked like an incense dish.
“Not spiritually,” she called from the kitchen.
He stared at a small, immaculate statue of the Itran saint Seven Brilliant Truths Shine Like Suns. “What’s this shelf, then?”
“It’s a reflection upon a high school paper.”
He sat down on the stair, level with the shelf, and tried to pick its meaning apart. Thinking aloud, partly for his benefit and partly for her ears, he asked, “So the flowers have a meaning? These are … not what I usually see in the florist’s.” He went there every week, for conference-table decorations for work.
“Yeah, they’re not sentiments usually expressed in flowers. A friend dug up some old floriography texts; she put them online. I was browsing that and had the idea to put the flowers there. Of course, no one makes artificial flax flowers. I wasn’t going to do dried ones, so it’s photos.”
“But there’s a live aloe plant.” He didn’t really recognize the rest of the flowers.
“More-sincere feelings, or something like that.”
“What do the rest of the flowers mean?”
Off in the kitchen, above the sink, he heard her laugh, wine-dark with something bitter and sad and secret. “Look it up yourself.”
“Okay, but the candles?” Candles weren’t her usual aesthetic.
“Hashtag aesthetic for icons and churches.”
He pulled out his phone and dinked about on the Internet, finding the meaning of aloe. “Grief and religious superstition?” he called out. She didn’t answer. “There’s a lot of symbolism here that I can’t see. Will you explain it to me?”
“No. It’s a private art, even though it’s hanging on my wall. There aren’t any photos of it, as far as I know, and I’d like it to remain that way. It’s a reminder, not a statement.”
“You said it was about a paper?”
“The art’s about the aloe.”
“And the flax,” which she had mentioned.
“If it was about the flax, there wouldn’t be a shrine.”
He looked at the aloe again, which was fleshy and vividly green, in this shadowed nook, barely lit by the flickering electronic candles. It wouldn’t survive here; the proper place for such was on a windowsill. Which meant that she had turned the candles on and moved the aloe there, just for him to see this private piece of art.
He got up and walked the rest of the way down to the kitchen, picked up a towel, and started emptying the dishwasher.
“Thank you for setting it up for me,” he ventured.
“You noticed,” she said, her voice dripping with contentment. She cleared the griddle of pancakes and started to pour another batch.
He stole one of the fresh ones from the pile, tossed it for a bit to cool, and loaded it with jam before rolling it into a tube and offering her an end. She bit off half; he caught a stray drop of jelly before it hit the floor.
He licked his finger clean. “I don’t know what-all it means, but it does look nice.”