Waiting to View the Corpse Flower

Joshua McKinney

Outside Sequoia Hall, the line is long, and long the wait to get inside, long

as the interval between blooms, or so it seems to seem to the troops

of children, jostling with the twitchy joy of having

ridden the bus away from school.

Scores of others

have joined the throng, attracted by the putrid spectacle, this thing we may not live to see

again. In groups of ten we’re ushered in to cluster at the perforated glass,

while the attendant graduate student explains,

for the fiftieth time today, the way the frilly spathe

yawns wide, revealing

its crimson interior, and how the spike-like fetid spadix, erect as an obelisk, stands for a day,

then withers and dies back, the dormant corm waiting to begin

a new cycle. A team from KCRA is here, vying for the scoop—

“this rare event that people are ‘dying’ to witness.”

An elderly couple

has driven up from Fresno to cross it off their bucket list. They have waited for years,

they say, to see one, and would have flown to Chicago if they hadn’t missed

that brief bloom. “I wanted to see,” says a fourth-grade boy,

mic thrust in his face, “if it actually smells

like a dead body.”

He assures his grinning buddies that it does, while near him, a girl in a hijab stands still,

her gaze chained to something far beyond these walls, something far

beyond description. As she turns to hurry out, I see her back-

pack is embroidered with the name Hayat.

When my turn comes,

I focus, try to retain the alien, rare, and beautiful bloom of a plant driven to near extinction

by coal mining in Harapan, by illegal logging in Gunung Terang.

And the smell? Amorphophallus titanum is, as far as my nose

knows, close enough to carrion, like roadkill on

a sweltering day,

a day like today, like yesterday, like tomorrow . . . the forecast is filled with them.

If this corpse flower lives to bloom again, it’s likely I’ll be gone.

Walking back to class, I pass the waiting line stretched out

across the concrete quad, quaking in the heat, and

I cannot help

but think of the line for the next spectacle, a decade hence, how the savor of death

will draw a new throng, and I cannot help but think of those de-composed from

that crowd when they are finally allowed inside the climate-

controlled room to gather at the glass.

What children, riven

from what land? What Chitumebi, what Boon-Nam, what Daryna, what Daw? What Jacinta?

What Jesús? To whence will they return, reluctant, hurled by the taste of their past,

a homing scent that quickens the pulse and sends dread

crawling through the heart like a beetle

across a blind eye?

No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. —Marcel Proust

Joshua McKinney lives in the fire-ravaged region known as California, where he spends his time wrangling two pet guinea pigs and trying, feebly, to play the banjo. An amateur lichenologist, he is a long-standing member of the California Lichen Society. For the past twelve years he has served as co-editor of the online ecopoetics zine, Clade Song.