Selena's Flower

(Copyright 1990)

Selena first noticed the flower on Tuesday, outside the jeweler's shop. Every Tuesday, during her lunch hour, she would stand in front of the huge display window and look at the rows of expensive clocks and watches arranged on little velvet pedestals, their price tags tucked discreetly beneath. One by one, she would compare the time showing on the jeweler's clocks with that of her own wristwatch. After each comparison, Selena would smile to herself at the discovery that no timepiece ever told the same time as hers.

The watch strapped to her wrist had been a present from her grandmother on Selena's nineteenth birthday and had quietly ticked away for the past decade without needing anything more than a daily winding. Over the years, Selena had come to believe that her watch was the only one in the world that told the correct time. Whenever she looked at its white dial with the tiny Roman numerals picked out in gold, Selena would think of all the people rushing by, completely unaware of the real time.

But, more than just showing the correct time, Selena knew that her watch indicated something else. A something that was, well.. something else. She couldn't explain it, but she knew something incredible would happen if the watch ever stopped.

So, every day, with almost religious devotion, Selena carefully wound the tiny silver knob on the side of her watch until the invisible spring inside had stored another twenty-four hours of movement. And, every Tuesday, no matter what the weather, Selena would stand outside the jewelry shop and compare her watch with those on display. She had long ago stopped wondering why she had felt compelled to stand there and perform that little ritual, but she felt that it was more than just proving to herself the uniqueness of her watch.

Perhaps it was a reflection on the window glass, or even the sound of someone dropping a coin on the footpath, but on this Tuesday Selena's attention was momentarily diverted to the base of the Jeweler's window. There, growing out of the narrow crack between the window frame and the glass, was a small bright-red flower. Despite its unlikely location, it seemed to be a fairly ordinary sort of flower, with a cluster of crimson petals radiating from a central crown. Then Selena noticed that it was far from ordinary - it had red leaves and a red stem.

She stood there a while looking down at the flower, her forehead resting against the cool glass of the window. She felt no desire to look more closely at the blossom or any wish to pick it, or indeed any feeling at all towards it. It never entered Selena's mind to question the unlikeness of the flower's location or the strangeness of its colouring; she simply accepted it.

The City Hall clock chimed one o'clock - thirty seconds too early - and Selena started walking back to her bookstore. The flower was not forgotten, but simply stored away in the part of her mind that dealt with all things strange.

Selena's bookstore, The Journey's End, was squeezed between a cafe and a shoe store, at the base of one of the city's turn-of-the-century office buildings. The bookstore was tiny, barely large enough for a counter and three sets of floor-to-ceiling shelves, but as Selena only stocked rare and unusual volumes, it had proved more than adequate. Although sales from the shop were infrequent, she still managed to make a good living. Last year, an 1885 first edition of Zola's Germinal had paid all the bills and two years before that a collector from New York had taken care of Selena's mortgage with his offer on a copy of Voltaire's Candide with handwritten author's notes.

Selena unlocked the front door of the bookshop and pushed it open. It swung inwards most of the way then banged against something that had been dropped through the mail slot. She went inside, closed the door behind her and picked up a brown-paper wrapped parcel lying on the floor. She turned it over, looking for any indication of who sent it, before putting it on the counter and unwrapping the paper. Inside was a thin leather-bound book, the cover embossed with odd markings. Selena opened it and leafed carefully through the pages, but could make no sense of the strange characters and symbols snaking across the parchment. Looking once more at the wrapping paper to see if see could find any information about a sender, she finally set the volume aside, on top of a pile of books she had yet to shelve. It was, she decided, a day where odd things were destined to happen.

That evening, when she got home, she thought about the red flower. Selena lived in an apartment block overlooking the river, a short ferry ride from the city. Her balcony had a magnificent view of the city reach of the river and the lights of the skyscrapers provided a sparkling backdrop at night. Selena changed from her work clothes into an old pair of jeans and her favourite sweater, poured herself a glass of wine and opened the large sliding door to the balcony. The warm summer air was filled with the sickly-sweet smell of jasmine and the faint hum of traffic on the expressway. She dropped into one of the easy-chairs and took a sip of her wine.

Of course, the flower might not be real. Most people would think that a flower with red leaves and a red stem was artificial. Selena, however, wasn't like most people. Not only did she know it was real, she knew it was her flower. Perhaps she should pick it. Or perhaps she should just leave it alone - something told her that it wasn't yet time to pluck the flower from the jeweler's window.

In the distance, very faintly, she heard the City Hall clock strike eight o'clock, and she automatically glanced at her wristwatch. The second hand swept up to the number twelve - exactly thirty seconds after the last chime of the City Hall clock had died away, as usual.

The next day Selena left the bookstore at noon, carefully locking the door behind her. She walked through the lunchtime crowds to the jeweler's shop, but instead of checking her watch against those in the window, she leaned against one of the big old jacaranda trees lining the street and looked at the flower. It was still there, seemingly unchanged, its bright red colour contrasting with the white-painted timber window frame of the shop. A jacaranda blossom drifted down from the branches above and caught in her hair. Selena reached up and gently took the purple flower in her fingers. She brushed it against her lips, feeling its sensual softness and breathing in the delicate fragrance.

No one else, it seemed, noticed the red flower growing out of the jeweler's window. Occasionally, a person walking past brushed against the window, but somehow, they never seemed to touch the flower. Even when the jeweler's assistant came outside to clean the window of its morning accumulation of fingerprints and smudges, his polishing cloth always seemed to glide around the flower.

"So, why don't you pick it?" a voice asked.

Selena looked around to find an old lady, perched on the edge of a nearby bus-stop seat, squinting at her through a set of thick spectacles.

"You can see it?" asked Selena.

The old lady frowned at the obvious question, ignoring it. She struggled to her feet, leaning heavily on her walking stick, and shuffled over. Selena noticed that the woman's clothes were old and threadbare, but clean. Her wispy hair, peeking out from beneath a faded brown felt hat, was almost pure white except for random flecks of dark grey. She raised he walking stick suddenly, and for a moment Selena thought she was going strike her, but the woman jerked the stick in the direction of the jeweler's window.

"I said, why don't you pick it?"

Selena shrugged, more intrigued than intimidated by the strange little woman. "I don' think it's time yet," she said.

"When will it be time, then?," demanded the woman.

"I don't know," replied Selena.

The old lady stared intently at Selena, her eyes looking enormous behind the thick lenses of her spectacles. Selena held her gaze, unruffled by the inquisition. She found nothing particularly frightening or unsettling about the woman - quite the opposite; there was a comfortable familiarity about her.

"Do you know what the flower means?" Selena asked.

"Of course," replied the old lady.

"But you're not going to tell me," Selena finished.

"My, you're a quick one!"

Selena didn't know if the old woman was being sarcastic or offering a compliment. She suspected the former.

"You haven't read the book yet, have you?" It was more of an accusation than a question.

"You'll have to be more specific," said Selena. "I own a bookshop, you know."

The old woman rolled her eyes upwards, as if appealing for divine assistance. "There must be some mistake," she said to no-one in particular. "It can't be this one - she's a thick as a brick." The old woman raised her walking stick again and this time she did strike Selena, tapping her lightly on the forehead. Selena didn't flinch.

"The book, girl. The book I sent you yesterday."

Selena suddenly remembered the brown-paper parcel she had found yesterday. "Oh, so you sent it. But, I can't read it," Selena said. "It seems to be written in some strange language."

"In some strange language?" repeated the woman, quietly, but with passion. "In some strange language!" She rolled her eyes again. "Of course it's written in some strange language; did you expect it to be in plain English?"

"I didn't expect anything," replied Selena evenly. "Look, I'm trying to understand you. Anyone else would have written you off as a loony by now."

This seemed to quieten the old woman. "All right, all right," she muttered. "Maybe you just need more help than I did." She stared at Selena again. "I'll give you a hint; the first phrase is 'For the true nature...' - if you can't work it out from there, I give up."

"That's all very well and good," said Selena, doubtfully, "But you still haven't explained much."

"It's all in the book. I have to go now," said the old woman, as a bus pulled up at the bus-stop with as squeal of brakes and a loud hiss. "Here's the twelve-fifteen - late as usual, I'll bet."

She reached into her coat and pulled out an old pocket watch on a chain. It had an ornately carved silver case and when the woman flipped it open, Selena saw that the white dial had the Roman numerals picked out in gold like her own wristwatch. Selena automatically glanced at her own watch and was startled to see that it seemed to show the same time as the old woman's watch. There was one major difference, however, the second hand of the old woman's watch seemed to be stuck at twelve.

The old woman snapped shut the case of her watch and shuffled back to the bus stop without so much as a glance at Selena. With some difficulty, she climbed the steps of the bus and Selena heard her voice berating the driver for his tardiness. The door hissed shut and, belching black diesel soot, the bus pulled away from the curb.

When she returned to the bookstore, Selena retrieved the strange book from the stack on which she had placed it yesterday. Laying it on the counter, she perched herself on a stool, took a deep breath, and opened the cover of the slim volume. She focused on the first paragraph - or at least what looked like a paragraph; the groupings of symbols and characters seemed to wander aimlessly about the page. She tried to mentally organise the beginning few words into a pattern that would fit what the old woman had said, but despite staring intently and willing something meaningful to appear, nothing happened.

After ten minutes, Selena admitted defeat and put the book aside again. She spent the rest of the afternoon sorting books and shelving. Selena found that it was often best to let strange things work themselves out. She'd take the book home tonight and have another try.

By the time she had settled into a chair on her balcony that evening, the full moon had risen from behind the cityscape into a clear night sky. Selena looked down on the river, sipping her wine and watching the ferries putter back and forth across the river. The book lay in her lap. On a whim, she turned it over, noticing for the first time that the back cover looked identical to the front cover. She flipped it back and forth a few times, but could discern no difference. She opened the book again and looked at the first page - nothing; still a meaningless scattering of symbols.

She shut the book and made a mark in one corner of the leather with her thumbnail. Turning the book over she reopened it and words suddenly leapt clearly off the paper. Sentences fell into place, neatly arranging themselves into orderly paragraphs. Selena read the first sentence: 'For the true nature of reality to be understood, it is first necessary to discard any belief in it.'

Selena closed the book an looked at what she now knew was the front cover. As she watched, the meaningless embossed markings seemed to squirm and move on the leather, slowly forming into words: 'A Treatise on the Nature of Reality.'

"How very Steppenwolf," she murmured.

It wasn't a very long book. It took her less than half an hour to read it completely. When she had finished, she stood up, stretched, and walked inside to pour herself another glass of wine.

She re-read the book twice more before she went to bed. In the morning, she read it again, lingering over breakfast much longer than was usual for her. It made her late for opening the bookshop, but that didn't seem to matter any more. At noon, instead of locking up the shop, Selena sat behind the counter and waited.

At half-past twelve, the front door opened and the old lady shuffled in.

"Did you read it?" she said, without preamble.

Selena picked up the book and let it dangle between her thumb and forefinger. "Yes, I did," she replied. "Can't say I think it's going to be a classic, 'though I thought the trick with the moving letters was pretty neat. As for the storyline... well, I've never been much into science fantasy myself."

The old woman took the book from Selena. "It's not that difficult a concept to grasp, is it child? Reality is arbitrary, the only absolute reality is that in which I, The Watcher, believe. All other versions are false and quickly fragment into chaos. My reality is the only constant."

"Why yours?"

"Because that's my job - that's what I do. I'm The Watcher. I maintain reality."

"That's a pretty big job."

"Look, it's not that hard; even you should be able to do it. You just go about you normal life and try not to let your imagination run away with you."

"Why not?"

"Because then that becomes reality. It's all explained quite clearly in the book, you know."

"What about if I imagined world peace," asked Selena. "Wouldn't that be a worthwhile reality to imagine?"

"Listen, girlie, you just concentrate on things like making sure time behaves itself and the laws of physics remain reasonably predicable. Leave the big issues to God."

"To God? Which God - The God?"

The old lady raised her walking stick and jabbed it at the ceiling. "Yeah, you know, The Almighty, Allah, Buddha, Numero Uno, The Big Cheese - whatever name you choose."

"You don't sound very awed."

"Oh well, the omnipotence thing gets a bit stale after a couple of centuries. Knowing everything still doesn't seem to help God where people are concerned. Anyway, I keep out of politics and just do my job."

"Which is to go around creating Reality?"

The old woman rapped the head of her walking stick on the counter. "I do wish you'd pay attention. The job is to maintain reality, God creates Reality - that's why they call him The Creator. You got your eye on the top job already?"

"Now look," said Selena, "I'm not saying for a moment that I believe any of this, but just what has it got to do with me?"

"Because you're the next Watcher. You're taking over from me."

'What if I don't want to?" said Selena.

The old woman rolled her eyes towards the ceiling. "Everyone told you the 'free will' thing was a bad idea, but would you listen? Omnipotent, huh?" She lowered her eyes to look at Selena again. "Listen, honey," the old woman said, here voice suddenly gentle, "You haven't got a choice. It's why you were born."

She handed the book back to Selena. "You know what you have to do. There's nothing more to be said. It is time I was going."

"But, what will happen to you? Do you... are you dying?" asked Selena.

"Not so much dying, as retiring," said the old woman, walking towards the door. "One of the perks of the job is that you become immortal, but that doesn't mean you don't get old and tired - I told you that omnipotence thing wasn't all it's made out to be."

"You haven't even told me your name?"

The old lady chuckled. "My name? I thought that would be obvious - it's Selena," she said, then closed the door behind her.

Shortly after, Selena left the bookshop and made her way through the crowds to the Jewelry shop. She stood outside the window, looking down at the flower. Behind her, people jostled past while the traffic rumbled and roared, but Selena took no notice. She was concentrating on her wristwatch. She watched the second hand sweep up to the number twelve - and stop. With a shrug, Selena reached down and plucked the flower.