Word Count: 2,000-ish
Summary: Lillia’s father has always been a half-seen shadow- never present, but always close.
Author’s Note: This story is being written in snippets using the prompts in the table at the end. Lillia’s Tale Will make more sense if you read Ari’s Tale, since Lillia is Ari’s daughter and what happened to Ari is much in my mind as I write of Lillia. The year is 1968.
Lillia is careful not to let the screen door slam as she steps out into the back. The sparse clumps of grass that dot the dirt of the yard unsteady her feet as she makes her way from the house in the waning dark. She turns an ankle well enough to make her stop and sit a moment, rubbing the offended joint until the sting of it passes. The empty tree limbs in the orchard sway in the warm early breeze that does nothing to offer relief from the summer heat. She goes to her feet again, gingerly testing her ankle. By lucky chance, it has suffered only mildly and she is able to hobble the rest of her way to the mill and the stream that runs by it. She steps into the cool of the running water to ease her injury. Then she looks East through the gap in the trees that is cut by the stream and waits….
It is the middle of the day before Lillia makes her way back up to the house and the sun shines hotly on the back of her neck as she emerges from the shadows of the trees. The pain of her twisted ankle is far from her mind- too much has happened in the hours since her injury for her to care about it even a little bit. She has met her father again, a man both daunting in his height and welcoming in his demeanor. She invited him to come up to the house- Mother would have been thrilled to see him, Lillia was sure, but he refused. He said that being welcome there didn’t mean that he should enter there. But he, like Mother, wouldn’t say anything to explain what that meant. Great-Granny Birdie always tells her not to get in the middle of it and Mother never signs anything in response to Lillia’s questions about why they weren’t together anymore. Lillia goes into the house, snubs her mother’s questioning look (it means something akin to, “where have you been all morning, young lady?”), and goes to her room to sulk. Her parents make no sense.
The day the orchard burned was also the day Lillia’s father left. It was only by the hard work of her family- her father included that the line of the fire stopped before the house. The lone untouched tree is the strange old apple near to the house. It wasn’t a part of the orchard proper and both of her parents, as well as her two old grannies (Birdie and Lil) seem to regard that tree as something somehow sacred. But Lillia doesn’t quite understand what all the fuss is about. It is just an old tree that never drops the strange apples that they never ever (don’t you dare to ever, young lady) pick.
The old cider mill is tumble-down and smells dusky sweet with apples that are long decayed and then dried- the odor worn into the wood by the long years of use. The mill wasn’t used for several years before the fire and there certainly was no reason to keep it up now that the trees are gone. Lillia steps into the mottled darkness below the crumbling roof. The mill is mostly in the shade of the tall trees that line the stream, so the light that comes through the holes is thin and wanting. She sits down on a bench that wobbles a little with her weight and pulls her satchel onto her lap. Reaching inside, she brings out the necklace she found in a hidey-hole beneath the floorboard of her bedroom. The clasp is broken and the silver of the chain is tarnished, but its value isn’t in its beauty- its value never was.
“She thought I was a damned fool for spending my money on a bauble for her, you know?” a deep voice tells her from the doorway. Lillia looks up and sees a very tall man framed by the daylight standing there. “She didn’t acknowledge me for a week the first time I gave it to her. Then she only gave it back to me and went off to ignore me a few more days. I had to keep giving it to her again and again.” He shakes his head and comes closer to sit beside Lillia.
“She does have a stubborn streak, that’s for certain,” Lillia agrees. This man is her father- a slightly older version of the man in the photographs Granny Lil won’t let Lillia’s mother keep hidden away.
“She had her reasons. There were lots of them. She just didn’t share them with me for a long time.” He takes the necklace from her hand and holds it up and tries to catch a glint of light on the grimy stone. Between the wan light and the dirt, there is no sparkle.
“Do you mean you wish you hadn’t given it to her?” Lillia asks because there are a million questions she wants to ask, but none of them fit the moment.
“No- I could never regret that- not any of it.…” Then he gently places the necklace into the palm of her hand and folds her fingers closed over it.
As she watches the sunrise over the millstream, her feet in the coolness of the fast running water- Lillia flexes her sore ankle, digging her bare toes into the silt. She is watching for the arrival of more than just the sun. It has taken a while, since Granny Lil is a bit hard to fathom- she knows at least a dozen languages and tends to combine them at random as she speaks- but Lillia has put together what Granny Lil was trying to tell her for the last few weeks. Lillia’s father is still here. He stands just outside- always outside. She looks across to the stream’s far shore and there he is- just standing on the wrong side of the stream, not coming over to the side that belongs to the family, not coming in. They stop there and watch each other for a long moment as the sky brightens.
Lillia stands one-footed like a pelican to ease her sore ankle and looks out her bedroom window. The view is of the dry and twisted orchard- black and decaying but, beyond the orchard lays the cider mill’s crumbling rooftop. She follows that erratic line and remembers the morning hours…
They had spent the morning sitting in the falling-down mill, splinters from the old wooden bench poking them through their clothes. They had spent those hours talking- Lillia telling her father all she could remember about her nine years alive- most especially about her mother, her beautiful and lonely mother. Lillia’s father responded by not telling Lillia about why he didn’t live with them anymore, but giving her many stories about the time before she was born and how beautiful and lonely her mother had been back then.
It isn’t until days later that Lillia comes to understand that meeting her father and spending all morning with him- trying to convince him to come home and work out what all it is that he and her mother have been quarreling over since Lillia was a baby- that spending all morning with him changes nothing. He isn’t coming home. He may never come home- he certainly doesn’t intend to- and there is little Lillia will ever be able to do about it. The thing that makes her to understand all that- that she can’t fix what is wrong with her parents- is the fact that there isn’t anything wrong between her parents. They love each other. They always have. Mother signed so.
Lillia doesn’t speak to her father again for weeks. She takes every opportunity to hike down to the cider mill before and after school- she spends all the daylight hours of the weekend days there, as well. She sees him there sometimes, watching her- maybe watching for her, but he doesn’t come near enough for them to speak. He even retreats when she makes to walk towards him, disappearing into the woods on the far side of the millstream before she can reach where she saw him standing. She wonders why he is avoiding her…. Maybe if she can convince her mother to come down to the stream…
About two months later, as the summer is truly waning, Lillia hikes to the cider mill in the cool of the morning and finds he father waiting for her. He is standing at the foot of the path, the bank of the millstream a few feet behind him. He is in the orchard for once, properly inside instead of on the fringe.
“You shouldn’t come down here anymore,” he says without even a greeting first. “The winter is coming in harsh- the stream gets dangerous when it ices up.
“I’ll stay out of the stream, them,” she answers, the frustration that has been building in her since they last spoke making her snap, “Or you could come up to the house.”
He smiles at her soft and sad. “No I can’t.” Then he repeats his warning- “The stream is dangerous- ask your Mama- she’ll tell you.” Then he turns and walks down the bank to a place where the lowness of the stream allows for easy crossing and disappears into the woods on the far side.
In the time between her talks with her father, Lillia worked at her mother- trying to get her to walk down to the cider mill in the mornings with her. Lillia knows in some small but sure piece of herself that if she can get her parents together- physically next to each other so that they could see each other, could communicate face to face- that the years of separation and denial of who they are- who they are meant to be to each other- it might all slide away and they could- could… could something- she wasn’t really sure. In the midst of one of these moments, when Lillia was trying to sell her father’s charms to her mother, they slid sideways into the tale of how the orchard burned all those years before:
And when the fire started, the smoke coming up and into the house on the winds before we could see the flames, all the family came out to fight it. The house was full back then- my Mamma and Pappa and my brother and sisters still were here, not in China. Oh- and my uncles were here- San and Liam and Joe with his daughter Speria- her daughter’s a little older than you. We all came out to see to the Shade and protect the Tree. And your father- he was so brave- I know he saved us all that day with what he did, even if it did mean he had to leave…
Lillia’s mother signed all this to her in a dreamy sort of way that bordered on dancing- she got that way whenever she spoke of the Tree that remained behind the house.
The Harvest hung rich and ripe and red on the trees- apples red and yellow and green on the cusp of perfection. Uncles Liam and San had come home just a few days earlier to help Nat judge when to begin the work of plucking the fruit from the trees. Liam had run the orchard until the year before and he missed it. The travelling workers- the migrants had not shown up just yet and so it was just the family at the Shade having a reunion of a sort when the smell of smoke and the glow of the flames and the tickle of danger came to us.
It was bright as daylight right up near to the flames, and the glow of the fire shone on Nat’s retreating back as he ran straight into the heart of the blaze. I was certain that I would never see his return. I knew why he had gone- we all knew why, even as we knew that he was the last of those who should have gone. I followed him in, the heat intolerable on all sides, but I could see the figure of a man running up ahead of me, so I didn’t turn back. I made better progress down the path then he did since I did not have to worry about stumbling over the uneven ground or dodging the flames. I quickly overtook him and took a moment to glance back at him, hoping to reassure my brave and foolish husband that we would both be all right- that the Shade would be all right. It was then that I saw that, while this man was nearly the same height as Nat, he was far paler and his face was an angry map of scars.
“Oh Mama! What did you do?” I ask her, knowing that the man with the scars had not been someone to trifle with, even as I knew that he could not have done harm to her that day.
After a moment, I came to understand that speaking to her as she told me this tale was a mistake. For she seems to suddenly remember who I am and that what she is signing is not for me to know because she sits back down at the kitchen table and starts peeling potatoes again.
“Mama?” I ask, hopeful she might be persuaded to tell me more.
Next year, Sweetest, she signs, the same way she always does when I get curious about the Tree or my father or why we never take the offers that are made on the land, which has been fallow since the fire and would be good for growing things again. Next year.
There are clumps of new sod that come up every spring between the remains of the apple trees. Every year, the trees are smaller, more rotted away and bleached like old bones. And, every year the grass comes in stronger, darker Kelly green carpeting below. The earth is ready for new growth, the old breaking down to nourish the new, the old scars from the fire healing over. Granny Lil made a vegetable patch behind the house last spring- as if to prove that the land could sustain more than just the one, old, infinite Tree and its changeless apples.
“Sh-” Granny Lil says, her long, crooked finger held up to her mouth. She gestures me into her room and says something I can’t understand while pointing me towards her bed to sit. She pulls a dark wooden box down from one of the shelves in her closet. It seems like she should not be able to hold its weight with how frail she looks, but I know that she doesn’t need my help. If it really were too heavy for her to hold, she would have just floated it to where she wanted it to be.
When she opens the box, I already know what is inside- Granny Lil likes to take it out and show it to me every couple of months. Usually she recites something to me about it. I don’t really ever catch the exact words anytime she tells me, but over the course of the last few years I have come to understand what the story is about. It is a myth about sailors who travel far across the sea and ended up stranded, never returning home again.
The thing inside the box is not old- it is shiny and metallic and set with a large blue stone that has to be cut glass or perhaps even plastic. It looks like something a masquerade costume pirate might plunder. So, of course, Granny Lil values it highly.
Granny Lil has never let me hold her bauble, but this time she brings it out and strings it round my neck. The chain is cold on the skin of my neck and the stone is doubly so falling against my breastbone with a small thump. Granny shuffles to her high dresser and brings back a hand mirror, the back ornate with swirls of metal and glass beading.
“Perse,” she says to me, which sometimes, but not always means, “look at this.”
I admire the mirror’s back as I have many times before. After a moment I turn it around to see how I look with the ridiculous necklace laying over my play clothes, soiled as they were with the day’s adventures.
There is a strange tint cast over my face, a deep lavender glow coming out from the stone of Granny’s treasure. I drop the mirror and pull the chain from around my neck, braking the clasp.
“Granny!” I gasp, holding the still lit trinket out to her as if it is might bite me.
She chuckles a moment before taking it back from me and letting me escape from her room.
I am brown- my skin, my hair, my eyes- not as dark as my father, but dark enough that some of the kids at school call me things unrepeatable- mostly behind my back. Dr, King, may he rest in peace, did what he could, but small minds change slowly. I find myself wondering how much the difference in skin color stands in my parent’s way? When I was younger, I was certain that it was the whole problem and that if I waited long enough, the world would change and they could be together. The older I get, the more I know that that barrier is probably the least of those between them.
Where the grass has not grown in again, the dirt is a deep brown, almost black with the ash from the fire of a decade before. The trees, short, bone white branches reaching to the sky are still pitch colored at the bottoms of their trunks. Granny Lil goes out and scrapes the ash off whenever she makes soap, so we bathe ourselves in the loss of the orchard every day. I wish that the scar that the fire and the losses it brought etched into my family could be washed away with the bathwater the same way the ashy soap so easily is.
Snow falls for the first time and I still go to the old cider mill- remembering my father’s advice about staying clear of the stream. The current is sluggish with ice and snow clogging it up. Papa is there, standing on the far bank, scowling at me for showing up yet again. I wave and call out beckoning him to join me at the mill. I doubt he will follow.
The meager shelter of the mill is still welcome since the wind bites even through my winter coat. There is a thin layer of snow on the floor- thicker is some places where there is less roof that sky above. I brush off the bench and sit a while, tapping my boots- toe, heel against the floor.
“What did I tell you about coming down here?” Father asks. He is standing in the door that never closes because it hangs from only its top hinge and he is clapping his hands over his shoulders and arms to get the snow off.
His words are gruff, but his smile is bright and white and beautiful.
It is Saturday, so we can spend the morning talking again, our breath showing cold and colorless as we tell winter tales. I tell him of learning the ancient ways of igloo building from Lil and newer ways of snowball fighting from my new friend at school- a boy named Vincent whose family just came from New York City over the summer. Father tells me of winters at the Shade when the house was full of family and the Winter Solstice was a day of great feasting- not like the Sol Days we have now- simple and quiet and more than a little sad. He tells me of the first time he stood in snow- a grown man, born in the South and feeling that particular chilly tickle for the first time. Mama had been by his side- I knew, even though he neglected to say.
Again, we end our time with me inviting him into the house and him refusing the invitation and admonishing me for coming to the mill every day.
“If you want to stop me, come up to the house just once,” I taunt.
“Kiss your mother and heed her, now you hear,” he orders as his answer and he walks to the fording, not looking back.
To be continued…
|033.||Too Much.||034.||Not Enough.||035.||Sixth Sense.||036.||Smell.|