A story for the Rebirth Anthology

Lilies

Eric Martell

#J.A.MesPress Book Yes

I buried them in the garden. First Laurie, then Tim-Tim, then Papa Joel. Then Momma, who we thought would outlive us all. I’d cried when Laurie died, her sweet face yellow and twisted, her throat torn raw from night after night – then day after night – of screaming. Words I didn’t know and then things that weren’t words.

We held a service, after a fashion, before Papa Joel footed the spade into the east end of the garden, nearest the roses that were Laurie’s favorite. The four of us who remained intoned the words we’d been taught kneeling on a hard wood floor, in penance for crimes both imaginary and terrible. I stopped going to church when Laurie took sick, and by the time Papa Joel stepped into the hole and asked for her body, I knew none of us would ever be back.

Tim-Tim watched us cover her up, but didn’t move to help. He was coughing by then, and I knew he was wondering where we’d put him. Near the oak, as it turned out, working hard to avoid roots as thick as Papa Joel’s leg, and just a week after Laurie. He didn’t suffer like she had, although when Momma heard that shotgun blast, she cursed not just for the son she’d lost, but for the shell that we’d no longer have when the time came. We had a reasonable supply in the closet, but reasonable wasn’t forever, and no one had come down the road from the north with a wagon and supplies for more than a year.

I thought Papa Joel and Momma would go together. They took sick at the same time, and howled something fierce in the night, their faces wet with sweat and spit and pus. But Momma rallied just a bit, and Papa Joel didn’t, and she was able to sit in a chair next to the garden while I dug the hole and pulled Papa Joel in. That’s when the terror took me, the realization that when she left, I’d be alone. A twelve year old girl with a shotgun, a reasonable number of shells, and something in the air that killed but that I couldn’t shoot.

“It’s alright, child. You’ll cry a lot in the night, but crying ain’t dead, and ain’t dead means maybe it gets better.” I didn’t see Momma get up and come over to me, and I don’t know how she climbed down into that hole with me and Papa Joel’s body, but I felt her arms around me, and she kissed the top of my head like she always had when I woke up in the night after a bad dream. Her voice had no anger, no recrimination, and no fear.

“Put me over there, where the lilies used to grow. You remember how we’d pull the weeds in the spring and watch the first shoots poking through the dirt?” I nodded, the tears drying up a bit, but still not trusting myself to speak. “When the wind was right, we’d hear the spring melt rushing through the stream. I want to hear that again. I won’t make it through this winter, we both know that, but you’ll put me there, won’t you?”

“I will, Momma.” And even though Papa Joel had died, that was a good day. Momma was strong enough to make her soup for dinner, and, used to cooking for five as she was, there was enough left over that I didn’t have to cook for a while. Not until after she relapsed. Not until after she died, gritting her teeth against the pain as I held her against me. Not until I buried her in the not-quite-frozen ground, where the lilies used to grow, out where you could hear the spring melt rushing through the stream when the wind was right.

I don’t know why I never came down with it, but by the time winter was over and more nights than not passed without a hard freeze, I was inches taller and a child no longer. I hadn’t had to draw from the shotgun shell supply often, and there was enough coyote meat in the ice chest that I’d make it until summer. Maybe longer if the wagons started rolling again. And maybe, if the right man looked at me the right way, I’d leave the whole place behind, especially that garden.

The clip-clop of hooves was audible before I could see the horses, echoing throughout the valley while I was hanging the washing. I cautiously peered out the front window, my heart racing, though whether from fear or from excitement I could not say. It was a proper wagon, the kind I hadn’t seen in ages, all red and yellow, with the words “P. Donaldson & Family, Merchants & Smiths” written on the side in foot-high letters. They slowed down as they approached the house, but I sped up, rushing out to meet them. Driving the wagon was a youngish woman, maybe twice my age, with her hair in a marriage knot and her husband beside.

She smiled at me, and I burst into tears.

The first human contact I’d had in months was her thin body wrapped tightly around me as I sobbed. I heard chattering voices, and saw three children scamper out of the wagon. Much too young to be anything but cute, they looked at the house with awe.

When the tears slowed to a trickle, the woman spoke. “They’re all gone.” It wasn’t a question, but I nodded. She pulled me close again. “Show us. Share them with us.”

I took her by the hand and led the family out behind the house, around towards the garden. The wind was high that day, and I could hear the stream, swollen with spring melt, rushing in the distance.

“Are they over here?” I wiped the tears from my eyes with my sleeve to see where she was pointing. “Over where the lilies are beginning to sprout?”

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