May Flowers 

By Sofia Omidvar

 

“Hup, two, three, four!”

The cheerful noise from three nine-year-old girls quickly filled the Sölvesborg town center as they marched past the boutiques and cafés. In the lead was Heba. Apart from the light green messenger bag bouncing on her thigh, she was wearing the same petroleum blue shirt and light blue neckerchief as her two friends trying to keep up behind her. Their hair matched as well as their clothes, and with their bobbing black pigtails they made the blonde heads around them turn to take a break from shopping sprees and coffee sipping to smile at the sight. 

“Let's go! Hup, two, always prepared!”

The cobblestone underneath Heba’s canvas shoes crunched as she stomped her feet. The gravel used to tame the slippery snow that had melted away a few weeks earlier had still not been removed, and it only made the girls’ arrival louder.

Heba stopped abruptly in the middle of the town square, and her friends nearly bumped into her. She turned to them.

“Let’s do the drill,” she said with a wink.

The three of them lined up and put their right fists in the air and their left hands on their hips, like superheroes about to take off into space.

“I'm Heba, protector of the forest!” She made a swooping motion with her arm before hurrying over to a tree and stroking its trunk to prove her point. 

“I'm Sarah, protector of the sea,” said the next girl. She squirmed, trying to show off the little sailboat badge stitched on her left sleeve. Then she ran over to join Heba by the tree.

“And I'm Feven,” the third girl proclaimed, “protector of the . . . the . . . aww, you guys already took the best ones!” Her arm dropped and crossed the other one over her chest.

But her friends quickly came to her rescue. “Nah, Feven, there's lots of good ones left,” said Heba.

“Yeah, you can be protector of the sky, so that all the animals can breathe okay and live,” Sarah jumped in, and pointed up towards a flight of swallows flying high above them. They looked like drops of black paint somebody had accidentally splashed on a light blue canvas.

“I don’t wanna protect silly birds.” Feven frowned, glaring at the swallows. “They’re just in the way of the pretty white clouds. They should go home to their nests and sit there.” She pouted. 

“But the sky is their home too,” Sarah protested.

“Eh. Then you protect them,” Feven huffed.

Heba took a deep breath, like she’d seen adults do when they were about to meddle. As the self-proclaimed leader of the group she felt it was her duty to make sure everyone was happy. “I think they look good up there. It looks more fun that way, not just white and blue.” She bumped Feven playfully. “Besides, if you protect the sky, you get to protect outer space too. Maybe even aliens.”

Feven smiled and put her hands together. “That’d be awesome,” she whispered, and her shining face told Heba that harmony within the tiny troop had been restored.

The girls made their way through the winding path of houses that lead out to the harbor, and found themselves on the shore street of Hamngatan, where the Ice-cream-and-herring-boat lay at anchor. It was an old fishing trawler that had said goodbye to its dragging days in the mid nineties and had been rebuilt into a café. Like a food truck, but on water. And for almost twenty years now it had been offering the locals fish, hamburgers, and hotdogs, as well as an impressively broad selection of ice cream flavors. But only for the summer. It sailed into port in April every year, signaling to the people on land that warmer times were approaching. As soon as the first leaf turned yellow in September, it set out to sea again, leaving them to their dark and ice-cream-less winter days. 

The boat had set down its gangplank for the first time this year just a few days earlier. The bow was now crowded with people trying to hold a spot in line to buy food to bring back to the dock, where patio tables and benches were set out for customers. The girls, however, were not interested in buying so much as a teaspoon of sprinkles. They were here to make money, not spend it. And definitely not on themselves.

“Are you ready?” Heba asked, and patted the green bag. 

They approached the first patio chair. A bit further away from the rest of the tables, where the man at it was allowed some privacy from the other visitors. A big red parasol was set up above the tiny table. It provided some extra protection from the rest of the guests, as well as from the bright seaside sun that was yearning to burn the spots on his head no longer covered with fuzzy blonde hair. Having just gobbled down a pickled herring sandwich, he was now chasing down the last of it with a soft-serve ice cream cone. 

"Hello there, would you like to buy a May Flower?" Heba asked, holding up the open bag revealing a row of small pinned flowers made from pink and green plastic. 

"What's a May Flower?" the man asked, shoving the last bit of the crispy ice cream cone into his mouth. He pronounced the words a bit sloppily, making Heba unsure whether he was speaking in a different dialect or if it was just because he had his mouth full of waffle crumbs. 

"Well, umm--" Heba stopped to think. Kids had been selling May Flowers in Sweden for as long as she could remember. People always recognized them. No one had ever asked what they were before. They knew it was for a good cause, and that was enough for them. Heba knew exactly what they represented, but before assigning the girls the valuable bag, the Sectional Leader had gone over the history in such detail that her mind was spinning with years and names and sales numbers. Luckily, Sarah came to her rescue. 

“It's a very pretty flower pin that you can buy for only 20 kronor, and the money goes to the kids around Sweden who need extra help and support,” she said, and fluttered her dark eyelashes. 

“Yup, that’s it.” Heba clicked her tongue and lifted her chin up a bit. Hearing Sarah’s summation of it had reminded her of how proud she was to have been chosen to sell the charity pins. 

The man tilted his head and looked at the girls like they were three one-legged puppies abandoned in a box on the dock. He smiled sympathetically. “Of course I'll support you,” he said, and pulled out a 20-kronor bill from his wallet, trading it for a pin from Heba's hand. “I'm happy to give you the extra help," he continued, pushing the pin under the transparent photo compartment of his wallet. 

“But you know, when you wear it on your shirt you also help the kids, because you show them that you're thinking of them, and you show other people to support them and you--" Feven added, but stopped when Heba nudged her in the side with her elbow.   

“Why of course, how silly of me.” He took out the flower from his wallet and attached it to his t-shirt instead. “I want to show everyone that I support you. You should have the same privileges as the other children in this country.” He shook his head and sighed in vain, before noticing a streak of melted ice cream on the back of his hand. He lit up and licked it off.

“No, it's not for us," Heba laughed, raising an eyebrow. 

The man looked like the ice cream on his hand had turned out to be herring juice instead, giving his tongue a sour surprise. 

“Oh.” He looked at all three girls, as if his mind was trying to calculate fractions. Then the tension of his forehead let go as if he’d suddenly solved the equation and he blurted out, “Well, I think it's great that you're trying to set an example for other kids like you. Help your own kind, it's quite admirable. If you don't mind me asking, where are you girls from?” 

“The scouts,” Sarah said proudly, and pointed to the embroidered logo on her chest.

“Yes, I figured from the uniforms,” he laughed. “I mean, where are you from?” 

“Oh, pfft, Sölvesborg,” Sarah giggled. 

”Well yes, I know you're from Sölvesborg, but, ah, where were you born?” 

Heba spoke in Sarah’s place before she had the chance to open her mouth again. “Sölvesborg,” she said, hoping he’d accept the answer and move on. She'd heard that question before, and though she knew very well what the man was referring to, she wasn’t up for talking about it, and hoped to get away by playing dumb.

“No, I mean, like, where are you from originally?” Evidently, he wasn’t going to give up. 

“Sölvesborg! I’ve lived here since I was a baby,” Sarah said again, genuinely confused. 

The man sighed, about to ask the same question again when Feven spoke up.

“Oh, I know what you mean. Actually, they're from here, but I'm not. At least not, um, oregenally,” she tried repeating his choice of words. 

The man smiled and nodded with great interest. “Of course, and where are you from then? Somewhere in Africa? They have such a fascinating culture. You know I’ve been to Kenya once, it was after my graduation--” He paused and waited for Feven to answer. 

“No, I'm from Bromölla. It's not far away from Sölvesborg, only ten minutes by bus, but it still doesn’t count as Blekinge county, nope, nope. I’m from Skåne county. Isn’t that super weird?” Feven explained and held her hands out in excitement. 

The man was starting to get impatient and seemed to hold back a grunt before he gave it a final shot. “I mean, what country are you from? Are you from Afghanistan, or Sudan, or maybe Turkey? Maybe you were born in Sölvesborg or another Swedish town, but you don’t look . . . I mean, like, where are your parents from?” 

Feven’s hands dropped and she bit her lip as she joined Sarah in confusion. 

Heba scraped her shoe anxiously against the ground like a horse eager to get out of the stall. She tried to meet her friends’ puzzled faces, but they were too deep in thought to notice her signals to leave. 

“Well, I’m from Sweden, but my parents are from Eritrea,” Feven finally said and tugged on one of her dark braids. 

“Oh, how cool.” The man grabbed his chin and nodded, pleased, as if thinking now we’re getting somewhere. “I bet it’s such a culture change. It must be so much warmer there than cold rugged Scandinavia.” He smiled and pretended to shiver. 

Feven shrugged her shoulders as she hummed a light I dunno. “I’ve never traveled further than to the border of Skåne.” She smiled sheepishly. 

But he wasn’t listening anymore. He’d turned his eyes to the other two girls instead, as if indicating and what about you? And when he finally found out that Sarah’s parents were Kurdish, and Heba’s parents Iraqi, he let out an even more fascinated “oh” while shaking his head.

“Iraq -- such a rich but sad history,” he said, and there was that same sympathetic smile. “And what they’ve done to the Kurds,” he turned to Sarah. “It’s so stupid that Iraqis and Kurds always have to fight. Why? Why must we humans always fight?” He looked upwards into the parasol, resigned, as if his last question were directed to a higher force.

Both Sarah and Heba looked shamefully at each other. This time Heba didn’t know what the man was referring to, but she could only assume that he somehow knew that she and Sarah had argued earlier that morning about who was going to carry the green bag, and she felt embarrassed about how immature she’d acted. 

The man carried on, rambling about the importance of helping immigrants in need. Heba made another attempt to get away. She took a step back and shook the bag lightly. That was her way of telling the other girls that they should go talk to some other potential customers, but the tiny pins inside didn’t clink loud enough for even a bug to hear, much less her friends. Sarah was listening politely to the man talking. And Feven nodded along, equally confused. There was no quiet way to get their attention, and so she decided to simply interrupt the man. 

“So, where are you from?" Heba crossed her arms and squinted as she sent a cheeky smile his way.

He was so baffled by the question that it looked like he was going to fall off the patio chair. Then he pulled himself together and said, as if offended, “I'm from here.” 

He followed with a sarcastic chuckle, scratched what was left of his blonde curls, and continued mumbling. “Well, I mean, not here, I'm really from Denmark, but I moved here a few--“ 

He didn't get to finish before Feven and Sarah started jumping up and down shouting with joy.

“You're from Denmark? Wow! What do you think of our country? Do you like it? What's your favorite Swedish food? What's Danish food like? What do you like best about our town? Is it the same in Denmark? Have you been to Legoland?" 

“Uh, it’s pretty much the same as . . . like, we’re all . . . I’m not really a . . . It’s not like with you, who . . . ." He tried to explain himself, but the questions came faster than the answers, and the frantic, squeaky girl voices quickly drowned him out. 

Heba smiled as she watched the man cling to the patio chair, overwhelmed by a trio of eagerly curious scout girls. She tossed the bag of May Flower pins over her shoulder and looked around. Not far away, a bird was picking at the crumbs of a dropped hotdog bun. She wondered if it was a swallow, and if it would fly home to the clouds soon.