The Spine Flower

A Guardians of Time short story by Phyllis Wheeler

Learn about Phyllis’s Guardian of Time series here >>


Sometimes the hand of God plops you down somewhere that you don’t expect.

We learned how true that was one warm summer day. My twin Ava and I stood on the patio behind our house, in the whispering shade of the oak tree. We pulled our time-travel keys out of our pockets, held them up, and turned them to the left.

I thought we’d land at the headquarters of the Guardians of Time, full of ticking clocks. I thought that one of our friends there would suggest a remedy to help cure our little cousin.

DeeDee lay around the house, coughing endlessly no matter what medicine Mom gave her. But what I overlooked in the moment is that when you hold up that time-travel key and turn it, well, you have no control over where you go. Maybe you’ll land at the clock shop. Maybe not.

We two eleven-year-olds from St. Louis in the 21st century found ourselves knee-deep in a fresh-smelling sea of grass. We peered through fading morning mist downhill at a sluggish brown river. We could be anywhere in the world, and anywhen.

I felt unsettled, but unafraid. We’d done enough time-traveling to gain a bit of confidence.

Uphill behind us lay a little village of small, whitewashed log houses, each with its own roomy fenced yard. A dog barked. Down the hill, a boy our age sat fishing on a large log next to the river. A straw hat perched on his head.

A brown-skinned woman in the nearest house called out to him in some other language. French? It took a second for the key’s translator chip to kick in, but then I could understand her. “Emile (a-MEEL)!” she called. “Come for breakfast!”

As he carried his simple fishing pole and stumbled up the hill looking down, he nearly bumped into us. His wide eyes took in our tee shirts, jeans, and sneakers, so different from his loose white shirt and brown knickers. “Who are you?” he asked.

I pointed to myself. “Jake,” I said. Then Ava pointed to herself. “Ava.”

“Emile,” he said. Then, “Pardon me.” He headed on up the hill and glanced back at us, his eyebrows drawn down into a puzzled expression. Then he left his fishing pole, called to the woman, “Wait a bit,” and returned to us. “You are new here,” he said. “There is no one my age in the village.”

“We’re visiting,” I said. “Just hoping to find some cough medicine for our little cousin.” He blinked. But he didn’t ask the obvious question.

“Let me show you around,” he said. Maybe asking questions was considered rude in this time and place.

There had to be cough medicine here somewhere. At least, I hoped there was. We climbed the hill and wandered around the town as the fog gradually warmed into shreds and blew away. The little houses featured wrap-around porches and log walls. The logs went up and down, not sideways.

In the center of town, a group of men with white, brown, and black faces shaped logs for a new house. They took direction from a skinny white guy in his mid teens who wore a spiffy

black jacket and three-cornered hat. Meanwhile, two women in long brown dresses pounded stakes into the ground to mark off a garden while a third woman watched two babies on a blanket.

The babysitting woman and a white man of middle height waved at Emile. “My parents,” said Emile. “We are all here to set up a trading post.”

We strolled around and counted twenty-four completed houses and a tiny church. People dug in the gardens or whacked at wood fences with axes. One man called to others. The aroma of wood smoke hung over it all.

If these village builders thought we looked odd, they didn’t show it. Nobody but a couple of curious dogs seemed interested. Maybe the people ignored us because we were with Emile.

We followed him into his two-room house, where screenless windows let cool air sweep through. The slim teenage girl with brown skin and long straight black hair stood next to the fireplace. She stirred the small fire that warmed a pot of something, glanced up at us, and then looked down again.

“This is Nomi,” said Emile. “She is our servant.”

She nodded, and we introduced ourselves. She handed a bowl of oatmeal to each of us, and we sat on stools at a small table to eat it.

“We hope to have more neighbors from Canada soon,” said Emile. “Maybe someone will come with kids my age.” His was an unspoken question: what were we, kids his age, doing here?

“Canada?” I asked.

“Oh, we aren’t all from Canada,” said Emile. “Many are from Louisiana.” It was our turn to say who we were and why we were here.

“We have a six-year-old cousin who is coughing,” said Ava. She coughed helpfully to illustrate. “She will not stop coughing no matter what we do. We came to ask for help.”

Emile bobbed his head. “You are from someplace else, then. And need to go back.”

“Yes,” said Ava. “It’s a long story.”

Nomi pulled herself to her full height. “I am the daughter of the herb expert of my tribe. I know what plant we must look for to cure the cough.” She glanced at Emile. “That is, if I may work on the washing tomorrow instead of today.”

Emile frowned. “Where do we have to go?”

“We must find a sunny creek bank,” she said. “Then we may find the purple spine flower. From that, one can make tea for the child.”

“You know, there is a creek that pours out into the river just over there.” Emile pointed beyond the edge of the village. “Mill Creek. They call it that because someone is building a flour mill upstream.”

“Let us go, then,” said Nomi.

We left the house and headed for the edge of the village. “What is the trading post for?” I asked Emile. “Trading cards?”

“No, no,” laughed Emile. “Furs. They are worth much money to the fancy ladies in the cities. So we trade with the native trappers for the furs.”

I puzzled over this new information until I remembered the young supervisor’s three- cornered hat. It certainly looked familiar, like what American colonists wore in the Revolution. If this was young America, why was everyone speaking French? Shouldn’t it be English? Clearly it wasn’t Canada, since Emile said he had come from there.

Why didn’t I pay more attention in school?

Still, I was too proud to ask. It was strange enough that we’d popped up out of nowhere wearing odd clothes. It would be even stranger if I confessed we didn’t know where we were.

We scrambled down the bank to the creek that ran beside the village and walked along it as it whispered over the rocks in its bed. A little breeze smelled damp and green. As we trudged, Nomi cast her glance all around. She scanned the grasses and fragrant flowers that lined the banks.

The day grew warmer. We kept going until we couldn’t hear sounds of the village anymore.

Grasses parted at the top of the bank. Three brown-skinned men appeared. Straps crossed their muscular chests. Feathers dangled from top-knots. They had eyes not for us, but for Nomi.

She stopped and stood very still, eyes wide. She held one hand over her heart. We drew in close to her.

“Come away with me,” said the tallest one. “I have seen you in the village.” I could tell he was speaking French. Perhaps his native language was very different from hers.

She shook her head vigorously. “No,” she said. “Leave us alone.”

“You are not happy,” said the man. “I have seen this. You are far from home. You did not choose to come here.”

She hung her head, and her face turned sad. That meant what he said must all be true!

Then she lifted her head. “I will not come with you.” she said. “This is how I was kidnapped when I was eleven winters old. Please go away.”

She turned away from them. She murmured to herself, “I just want to go home.” The men frowned, retreated, then vanished. Tears streamed down Nomi’s face.

It seemed like a lead weight settled into my stomach. I felt her grief—far from her home and family, living a life she didn’t want to live. She’d been kidnapped at my age by another tribe, sent a long way, and eventually brought here to work as a servant, not free to leave and go home.

How would I feel if that happened to me?

The high creek banks seemed to close in on us like a prison. The men were gone. Or were they? Nomi kept looking up at the bank, her face crumpled with worry.

Ava led us up the bank to check. Giant oak and hickory trees towered over us. There was some underbrush, but little in the way of flowers, at least grassland flowers like the one we hunted. And, no one was there.

I pulled Ava aside and asked. “Do you think we could help Nomi get home?”

“I was just wondering that,” she said. “But we have only two keys, one for you, one for me. None for Nomi.”

“Maybe we can figure it out,” I said. “Nomi, where is your family home?”

She gestured to her left. “Far, far up the great river, back to where the river starts its journey. It is so many days’ ride in a canoe.”

Ava nodded. “She’s from Minnesota,” she said to me. “That’s where the Mississippi River starts, in a little lake.”

I took a step back. “You mean, that big river is the Mississippi?”

“’Course it is,” she said.

I must have looked stunned.

“This is early St. Louis, you know,” she said.

Ava’s hero is Sherlock Holmes. She reads Wikipedia for fun. Sometimes she seems to know everything. More often, she’s irritating.

“Nobody is speaking English,” I said.

“St. Louis was founded in 1764 by some French-speaking people sent up from New Orleans to build a trading post.”


“So,” she continued, “we’re not in the American colonies. We’re standing in the Louisiana Territory.”

I tried to wrap my head around all this as we walked back along the creek. Why didn’t I know about the founding of my own city? I thought it was an American city, and that it always had been. I turned back to Emile, who was walking behind us. “What year is it?” I asked.

“Of course, it’s 1766,” he said, giving me one of those “are you stupid?” looks. “Sorry,” I said. “I, uh, forgot for a minute.”

He rolled his eyes at me. He was getting less thrilled with his new playmates, I could see that. But at any rate, I’d just learned that we were in two-year-old St. Louis, which looked nothing like the city of my day.

Nomi called out. She knelt by a plant near the creek that looked sort of like a daisy with a big spiny knob at the center. It was purple, all right. “Here it is, the spine flower,” she said.

I gave Ava a high-five. “Awesome!” But…would it work?

“I am sorry that I missed it before.” Nomi plucked the flower, with the roots, and handed it to Ava. “You must take it to the sick one, make tea with leaves and root, and give it to her three times a day.”

“Thank you so much, Nomi,” I said.

A burden lifted. It was time to go. We’d leave, take it back, DeeDee would surely get better. All in a day’s work for helpers of the Guardians of Time. I fingered my key in my pocket. We’d be outta here in no time if we held up our keys. But something stopped me.

I looked hard at Nomi, who led Emile back down the creek toward the village. Returning to her not-so-homey home, facing threat of future kidnapping.

She needed us. And she’d helped us.

Ava seemed to be thinking the same thing. “Nomi, we are wondering how we might get you home to your parents,” Ava said.

Nomi stopped walking and squinted at Ava.

“You know we are not from here. We are travelers,” Ava told her.

Emile shook his head. “My father would not like this. She does so many of our chores.”

“But she doesn’t want to be here, can’t you see?” asked Ava.

Emile slowly nodded. “I do see that.” He fell silent.

“Do you pay her?” I asked.

“N-no,” he said. “But we give her food and clothes.”

Poor Nomi got nothing for her work. She was a slave. She hung her head, and then started walking again.

“You can trust us,” said Ava, slipping her hand into Nomi’s. “Maybe we can help you get home.”

Nomi tilted her head and eyed Ava. “I would like that.”

After we walked a few more minutes in silence, Nomi spoke. “We are nearly back to the village,” she said. “You all must forget what we have said here today. I do not want to get into trouble.”

Here was someone who clearly needed outside help. Our help. And I suddenly realized how I could provide it.

Bushes rustled at the top of the bank. There stood the three native men. Their faces revealed no feelings as they quickly strode toward us. Nomi grabbed Ava’s hand and shrank behind Emile and me.

“We will take you now, Singing Bird,” called the tallest man. “Do not fight, and you will not be hurt.”

I turned around and slipped my key into Nomi’s hand. “Go with Ava, do what she does,” I murmured.

Ava stared at me open-mouthed for a second and then held up her key. “Like this,” she said to Nomi.

The three men thrust Emile and me aside and reached for Nomi. But, with Ava, she vanished.

I’d made the decision knowing it would be rough for me. Sure enough, they turned on me and gave me a shove. A torrent of words fell from the lips of the tallest one. Emile also demanded something. Of course, I didn’t have the key anymore. I couldn’t understand them.

I shrugged and shook my head. “Sorry,” I said. “I don’t know what you are saying.” My knees trembled. What else would they do? How long would I be stuck here?

The men gave me another shove. I stumbled and nearly fell. One of them said something, and they all backed off. Then they turned and loped up the bank. They were gone in an instant.

Emile stared at me, round-eyed. A long minute passed. Or maybe it was only a few very long seconds.

Ava popped up at my elbow. I let out the breath I’d been holding. Whew! She slipped my key back into my hand. “Let’s go,” she said.

We held up our keys, turned them to the left, and landed in our own St. Louis back yard, the wilting flower still in Ava’s hand. My hands shook. “Ah,” I said. “That was close.”

“You okay?” she demanded.

I covered a bruise on my arm with my hand. “Uh, yeah,” I said.

“Nomi’s father and mother were so glad to see her,” said Ava. “You did a wonderful thing, giving up your key.” She saluted me with the flower.

“Not really,” I said and took a deep breath.

We walked through the house into the sick room, where Mom sat next to DeeDee. The child, lying down, watched us with tired eyes and coughed.

“Look, Mom, a friend gave us an herb that should help with coughing,” said Ava. She reached out her hand holding the flower. “Just make some tea with it!”

Mom picked it up and turned it over. “I don’t know,” she said. “This is an unknown. Who did you get it from?” She looked closer at the plant and didn’t wait for an answer. “Goodness! I’ve seen this flower before. I’ll be right back.”

She came back from the kitchen with a small bottle of capsules. On the label was a picture of the purple spine flower! “Yes!” she said. “I’ll try giving her this Echinacea that I already have. I’m so glad you thought of it.”

Sure enough, DeeDee stopped coughing a few hours later.


Later, I spent some time on Wikipedia myself and learned that the village of St. Louis was founded by a teenage boy, no doubt the supervisor we saw, and his stepfather. The boy, Auguste Chouteau, was only fourteen when he headed the first group of builders, leaving his stepfather Pierre Laclede in the fort across the river.

The town soon grew and thrived. Colonial, French-speaking St. Louis finally joined the United States thirty-eight years after we visited, in 1804 with the Louisiana Purchase.