Bittersweet: Ema's Story

Solanum Dulcamara
Folk names: bittersweet nightshade, fellenwort, woody nightshade, poisonberry, violet bloom

"In high school, she worked hard to make a new image for herself, teaching herself how to do the laundry when her mother was napping in the locked master bedroom, making her own lunches, using her short-lived allowance to pay friends to buy her curling irons, hair dryers, blush and lip gloss while she was cooped up at home. The boys in school had been surprised by how beautiful she turned out, the girls shocked by her pleasant manner, her intelligence. But all that was forgotten after she began taking the pills, after her drive to be like everyone else, to be happy and pretty and admired, dwindled like the last vines of summer in an autumn freeze."

Photo by Jordan Whitt on Unsplash

Photo by Jordan Whitt on Unsplash

Though there is no one in the Raedwolfe story that I love more than Mary, Ema is very close to my heart - and the character in The Poison Box who is most like me. As with all the characters, her greatest weakness is that she thinks she has no power.

For Ema, I chose my favorite plant to represent her: bittersweet nightshade. This plant is prolific and usually considered an invasive, destructive weed. It's so common, no one would think of it as being a plant of any kind of significance. And perhaps the most interesting aspect of it is that it's not that poisonous, unlike its sister, deadly nightshade.

I think Ema - and bittersweet nightshade - share these qualities with women going through their "average" years. This is the time in our lives when we strive to meet the cultural standard of feminine beauty. When we trim and press ourselves into what we think we should be. When we learn to speak the language that would be attractive to authority figures, friends, and potential lovers.

We become a common weed. It doesn't seem like it at the time - it seems like an exciting journey toward becoming the woman we were meant to be. But in reality, we are, like Cinderella's stepsisters in the original version of the story, dismembering ourselves in order to be the prettiest, the most admired, the chosen. We are cutting away everything about ourselves that is beautiful, unique, and magical.

Ema attracted the handsome football player in the midst of her average years. She made herself into an assembly line woman, letting the world around her define who she was supposed to be. She literally became catatonic for a time, falling into the trap of being common - and part of the trick of that trap is that even when you think you've thrown off the silence, thrown off the oppression…you're really just getting in all the deeper.

Like so many women, Ema's distorted sense of who she was supposed to be got her the man she was supposed to want, the one that made her an object of envy, but in the end, she found that she was still at the mercy of this particular type of poison. Scratchy throat, dizziness, headaches, trouble speaking, slowed circulation, retching… This is the price we pay when we convince ourselves that to be loved, to be accepted, to be powerful, we must become common.

As common as bittersweet nightshade might be - and as much of a nuisance as it is considered to be - I happen to find it one of the most beautiful, sensuous, mysterious plants I have ever seen. The woody vines reach in longing for contact with nearby trees, fences, and bushes with elegant, delicate fingers. The early flowers are a dark lavender color with pointed petals and thick, protruding, bright yellow stamens. The summer berries begin green and display a riot of color as they mature to ripeness - yellow, orange, then red. And as the plant succumbs to autumn, its leaves go from green to dark green to inky purple, to black, before its winter nap.

Photo by Vadim L on Unsplash

Photo by Vadim L on Unsplash

We can call this plant common all we want, but in reality, it's a stunning organism when we appreciate it for what it truly is - just like women are.

Like bittersweet nightshade, Ema Killian longs to entangle herself with those near her. She is constantly reaching out to touch others, hoping to find a connection. In the dark, isolated world she grew up in, this desire to find union with others, in friendship or love, is what gets her out of bed in the mornings.

Though ordinary in some ways, she has a certain type of exotic beauty that only one who truly appreciates her can see. There are two men in the story who find themselves wanting to get entangled in those woody brambles of hers, but both find themselves infected by her mild toxicity.

In our struggles to find our own power, to right ourselves and find our way out of "averaging," out of commonality, we can become ever so slightly toxic, just like bittersweet nightshade. It's not quite lethal, but our low self-confidence, unenforced boundaries, and lack of self-respect can make ourselves and others mildly ill.

Despite all of its flaws, despite its reputation as an unwanted member of the garden, this beautiful plant is tenacious and strong. It keeps coming back year after year, even when ravaged by winter, even when torn from the ground by frustrated gardeners, even when left to its own devices when the places it rested - nearby trees, fenceposts, or bushes - are removed.

Bittersweet nightshade has the strength and fortitude of a woman. It doesn't matter if our carefully cultivated strengths cause others to label us as unwanted nuisances. It doesn't matter if we lose what we were holding on to. It doesn't matter if people don't see our value.

We will carry on, reaching out with our brambly fingers, just like Ema. We will learn to appreciate the beauty and perfection of what we are, instead of turning ourselves into the "common woman." We will learn to manage our own toxins, infecting ourselves and others less and less often.

This is one of the lifelong journeys we must take, as women. Ema never gets there, and likewise, we will never make it all the way, either. But it doesn't matter. It only matters that we remain tenacious and keep growing.

Our leaves may turn a brilliant deep purple and even black, but we will never lose our woody vines, our curiosity, our desire, our power. No one can take that away from us.


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You can buy The Poison Box here. (And stay tuned for the release of the audiobook!) 


If you've read the book, a review (on Amazon or social media - don't forget to hashtag it!) would be greatly appreciated. <3