by Elise Stephens
It was the last day of summer in 1982 when Grandma Mary disappeared into the lilies.
Three months before, Lila’s mother dropped the phone into its cradle and slumped beside it.
“Your grandmother has apparently grown too…whimsical for her own safety. The neighbors caught her in her backyard last night dancing with a lit candle in tall grass. She could have burned the neighborhood down.”
“Dancing in the moonlight?” Lila shrugged. “Maybe she’s lonely.”
“When I told her she’d been acting recklessly, she said, ‘Honey, I had my hair pulled back!’” Lila’s mother pushed at her eyes with the heel of her palm. “We’re going to have to send someone to live with her at Willow Pond.”
The opportunity was perfect. Keeping one eye on an old woman offered the remedy to Lila’s post-university quagmire, the inability to choose her next step. She recalled her grandmother’s gold-edged china tea sets and opinionated corrections for her not-feminine-enough clothes, but perhaps the memories of her Grandma Mary had softened over time.
Lila packed her bags for Buffalo the same day she made her decision and boarded the train with more confidence than she’d felt in the entire past year.
When Lila arrived, Grandma Mary answered the door in her nightgown, though it was late afternoon. A tiny sunflower blossom peeped over one wrinkled ear of her sun-browned face. Her bare feet hovered on the door sill as if it were a flying carpet and she the heroine ready to soar into an Arabian Nights tale. Her toenails were painted a fresh shade of wild rose.
“Lila!” She embraced Lila with frenzied strength and pulled her inside, insisting on helping to carry something. When Lila refused, she grabbed the violin case, and Lila blurted, “Just be careful.”
Grandma Mary cradled it like a newborn, shushing and rocking it and stroking its neck. Lila tried not to stare. Her grandmother showed Lila a room on the upper floor, across the hall from the master bedroom which Grandma Mary had shared with Grandpa Clint three years ago and where she now slept alone. Something about the stillness of the house’s threadbare upper floor gave Lila a pang deep inside her chest, guilt for the long gap since her last visit.
Grandma Mary placed the violin case squarely on the pillow of Lila’s single bed. “You’ll sleep where I can call you. I sometimes require lemon sherbet in the middle of the night.”
Before Lila could reply, her grandmother hurried into the master bedroom and rang a crystal bell. “Can you hear that? That’s how I’ll call you if I’m in bed.”
Lila answered that she could. The bed quilt was white with a pattern of baby’s breath. Magnolia blossoms crowded the view beyond the lace curtains in the window. A small desk sat in the corner with a pen beside a sheet of paper covered in handwriting.
Lila approached the desk as her grandmother reentered. “What’s—”
“Oh goodness!” Grandma Mary blocked her path. “I was writing my letter to Claude when you knocked. It was hot outside, so I took it indoors. I usually write at my desk or by the lily pond but,” Grandma Mary winked, “I can’t let myself get overheated.”
Lila had heard about these letters. Grandma Mary kept a secret correspondence with someone named Claude. It was fairly certain that someone wrote her back, though no one knew who this Claude really was. Lila had thought the letters were a thing of the past, and hadn’t expected them to surface in conversation, especially not so soon. She heaved her suitcase onto the bed as her grandmother scooped up the letter.
“I’ll let you freshen up,” Grandma Mary announced, folding the paper and vanishing it down the front of her nightgown, heaven knew where. “And then you’ll come downstairs for jam and scones and to familiarize yourself with my schedule.”
Lila barely stopped her laugh from escaping. Old ladies who, by the doctor’s account, were losing their minds weren’t supposed to have schedules. Or were they? She shook her head. It would give her something else to do than obsess about her less-than-gracious exit from the university music department.
Lila peeked through the hall to her grandmother’s room where Grandma Mary sat at the roller-top desk facing over the flower bed and the lily pond. Behind the pond stretched Grandpa Clint’s plum and peach orchard, bright with deepening afternoon colors.
Grandma Mary pulled the letter out of her nightgown. She removed the pen cap with her teeth and stared for several minutes at something up and to her right. At first Lila thought she was just daydreaming, but when she slipped down the hall to use the bathroom, she saw the painting through her grandmother’s open door.
It was a bridge over a lily pond, a Monet original. No one knew how Grandma Mary had acquired it, except that she vowed it had been through honest means. Lila didn’t remember the painting from previous visits, but she remembered her mother’s embarrassment whenever Grandma Mary’s letters surfaced in conversation. She tilted her head. Whoever wrote those letter replies, her grandmother thought that he was Claude Monet.
“And you still write to him,” Lila whispered to herself in the doorway.
To her shock, Grandma Mary replied, “Every week, darling! And he writes back so punctually. Such a sweet man.”
“I hope my schedule won’t overwhelm you,” Grandma Mary announced over a dinner of French onion soup and cheese sandwiches. Lila had found meal-size portions of a week’s worth of food in the fridge. Her grandmother occupied herself with tearing basil leaves and drowning them in her broth. The evening light tinged her wispy hair the color of tangerines.
Lila mentally rehearsed the routine:
5:30am Sunrise Exercises
6:00am Tea on Deck
7:00am Bubble Bath, Dress
8:00am Artistic Pursuits
1:00pm Afternoon Activities, Weekly Letter Writing
7pm Literature Absorption
“I think I’ll manage,” Lila replied, watching the leaves sink in her grandmother’s soup. She wasn’t hungry. This hollowness in her stomach had become the new normal since graduation. “I’ve been sleeping in too much, so I think it’ll be good for me to get up early with you,” she added.
As soon as she’d finished, Grandma Mary clapped her hands and rose to clear the dishes. As she placed her china plate in the sink, the metal sides of which showed one clean and one grimy tub, she exclaimed, “Oh, not again.”
“I’ve lost the soap again. I bought a giant pack of bars to replace what I keep losing. I have no idea where they’re slipping off to.”
A bar of partially-used soap was nowhere to be found in the kitchen or dining room, so Lila procured a new lemon rose bar from the pantry and Grandma Mary washed her hands.
“It’s time for my bedtime reading,” her grandmother said after she’d lifted her fingers to her nose and sniffed them. “But you have such a good memory, you probably know that, with the whole schedule in your head. Am I right, love?” She kissed Lila on the cheek and sprang upstairs with more spirit than Lila ever remembered possessing.
Lila wondered, if her grandmother wore street clothes when she slept. It would have made a fittingly reversal. But when she checked on her a few minutes later, she saw that, no, it was just another nightgown.
She made sure Grandma Mary had brushed her teeth and put her dentures in their solution, then helped prop her in bed with pillows. “The princess treatment,” her grandmother commented. She pointed to an unlit candle beside her bed. “Electricity goes terribly with stars. I read by the candlelight.”
Lila shook her head, trying to hide the smile creeping across her face. She cracked the window over the desk to let in the smell of the ripening orchard. There was a small ring of mold around the sill.
“If you’re worried about another Dance of Salome and scaring the skittish neighbors, I promise to leave the candle on the table,” Grandma Mary said. She picked up the crystal bell and rang it, her eyes sparkling with something quite a lot like mischief. Lila imagined crawling out of bed at 3am to fumble through the freezer for a sherbet tub. She stifled a groan and decided to pick her battles. She lit the candle.
“You may go,” Grandma Mary said, eyes already fixed on her book.
Feeling anything but sleepy, Lila pulled her flip flops from her suitcase and slipped into the garden through the dining room’s French doors. The air was heavy with the perfume of peonies, and the tall grass in the field stirred only the slightest fraction in the gentle twilight. She could see the lights from the neighbor’s house beyond the field, burning bright, probably guarding warily against Grandma Mary’s antics while the grass maintained kindling form.
As Lila walked, the pond sank in a pocket of deep shadow. She remembered folding paper boats with Grandpa Clint as Grandma Mary brought sandwiches cut into moons and stars.
The first thing Grandma Mary had done when she moved to this house was install the lily pond under the willow where it could be viewed from the deck, from the dining room through the French doors, and from the master bedroom window. She’d imported pink and white lilies from Paris and introduced two dozen goldfish. For many years the water was clear and the lilies bloomed thick and vibrant until, no one remembered exactly when, the fish chewed through the lily stems and ducks claimed the water hole and clouded it with droppings, resulting in a malignant form of algae that bloomed until all the remaining flowers died, though a few staunch lily pads survived.
After Grandpa Clint’s death, Lila’s mother and father went to a craft store to buy white and pink silk lilies with paper maché pollen rods. They shellacked the flowers against the water and arranged them on the surface. Three years after planting the fake flowers, Grandma Mary had yet to notice a difference.
“This place is falling apart,” Lila whispered. She drew away from the pond’s stench of rot and made a mental note to drain it. When she returned to her room, she took her violin out of its case, but she couldn’t summon the desire to play. Not one song, not even a note.
She put the violin back and grabbed her toothbrush. Grandma Mary still had her door open. Candlelight flickered orange and yellow on the walls. Lila peered in and saw her, still awake, the shadows from the dim light casting her like a saint on a church fresco. Her novel lay face down in her lap and her glowing eyes were fixed on the Monet painting. In the darkness, the pond and lilies on the canvas had faded into a gray and brown blur. The bridge rose in stark contrast as the one discernible shape, an ornate arch. Her grandmother was murmuring.
At least she doesn’t talk to Claude, Lila thought.
“Goodnight, Claude!” Grandma Mary chimed, on perfect cue.
Dawn came too early. Grandma Mary appeared in a fresh nightgown, the third one that Lila had seen her in, with pale blue ribbons on the collar and sleeves. She shook Lila awake. She’d roused her granddaughter once already that morning. She’d rung the bell, called for lemon sherbet, just as she’d threatened, and Lila had brought it. She’d taken one bite and dismissed Lila.
This job was already more than she’d bargained for.
“Come on, sleepy head!” her grandmother chortled.
The quilt disappeared from Lila’s bed with a gentle snap of fabric. Grandma Mary stood with her arms crossed. Lila saw her basketball shorts and t-shirt through her grandmother’s disapproving eyes, but at this hour she didn’t care. She snatched her jeans, pulled them on, then followed Grandma Mary down the stairs and through the French doors. Outside, the sun smeared gold on the dark morning. Grandma Mary crept to the edge of the deck, the peonies and roses forming a small hedge below her knees, and raised her arms with her fingers spread wide, rocking slowly from foot to foot.
“Can you feel it, Lila? Can you smell the world waking?” She caught Lila stifling a yawn.
“Imitate me,” Grandma Mary commanded.
5:30am. Sunrise Exercises.
Lila stood with her arms stretched over her head, the sun warming first her hands, then her arms, then her face. By the time it touched her toes, she could almost forget she was standing in the yard of a house riddled with rot and disuse.
Sunrise exercises were followed by tea on the deck, then by Grandma Mary’s morning raspberry bubble bath. Afterward, Grandma Mary slipped into a fourth nightgown with a crocheted hem.
The midmorning’s artistic pursuits for that day meant that Grandma Mary took a little cloth journal and wrote poetry that she read aloud to herself but hid anytime Lila came near. She informed Lila that sometimes she played on the cherry wood piano in the living room, and at other times she’d draw still life renditions of leaves and flowers, but, she explained firmly, she never painted.
Lunch was an elaborate affair with a full tea set, chopped salad, pink lemonade, and lots of pastries and sandwiches which Grandma Mary said were delivered twice-weekly. Lila found her hunger returning enough to nibble a scone. The real surprise was the pleasure she took in the taste.
Six days passed, and Lila was just sinking into the calm, albeit strange, routine, when Grandma Mary mentioned the letters again.
“I must write to Claude tomorrow. For that, I shall be left entirely alone. I’m private when composing.” She misinterpreted Lila’s discomfort as disappointment, and added, “But I’ll let you read all the old letters! I’ve saved every single one.”
Lila turned her attention to hand-washing the china and chewed on her cheek.
Banished from the house, just as Grandma Mary had promised, Lila took the chance to drain the pond. The Claude letters sat nearby, folded in a crisp bundle tied with a clean white ribbon. Lila avoided looking at them, and stared instead at the murky water gurgling away. By the time a fresh stream slowly filled the pond, Lila sat at its edge with the letters in her lap, her feet tucked under her.
“Who writes the replies?” Lila muttered, noticing no return address. “Some wacky liaison who cons her into paying for the service?”
She yanked the ribbon. A faint breeze sifted through the willow branches and pushed against a silk lily. It bobbed stiff and arthritic. Lila unfolded the first letter.
My dear Mary, I am deeply grieved to hear of Clint’s passing. It must be unbearable…
She blinked. The handwriting was familiar. She opened the next letter, dated a few days after the first. It began, Darling Claude, your friendship is more important now than it has ever been… in the same handwriting.
Lila blinked again. Grandma Mary had written these letters herself. All of them. Lila stared long and hard at the stacked letters. The pond had filled with clear water before she returned to her senses.
That night, Grandma Mary asked Lila to play the violin. “You’ve been practicing for years, and I’ve never heard you,” she said, wrapping herself in a pale yellow shawl. She held a cup of hibiscus tea balanced in a saucer in her lap. Her nightdress looked like a summer frock.
“Are you nervous in front of a crazy old woman like me? I promise to enjoy it more than your uppity music friends.”
Lila shook her head.
“What if I bribe you? Chocolate? Jewelry? Marijuana, if I can find some?”
Lila shook her head again, trying not to appear mortified.
“What if I sit in the garden and you stay in the house where it’s dark? I won’t listen to you, and you can play all by yourself.”
Lila paused. Then she nodded.
When she returned with her instrument, Grandma Mary had already slipped out, leaving behind her cotton house slippers.
Lila lifted her bow, closed her eyes, and began “Annie’s Song” by John Denver. She’d been listening to popular songs and avoiding all things classical for several months now. Her silent revenge on all of her music profs.
You fill up my senses like a night in the forest
Like the mountains in springtime, like a walk in the rain.
On “walk in the rain” Lila opened her eyes and saw a figure rise from the grass outside. The tips of the stalks were drenched wild pink and high in the sky the first stars twinkled. Her grandmother danced in a slow circle, gliding through the grass. Lila realized that the window to the living room had been cracked open, letting her music into the night air.
She played. Grandma Mary danced. When Lila finished, her grandmother had grown very still, standing with her back to the house, her arms hanging. She seemed ready for something to approach, waiting with complete patience.
Come fill me again.
Lila tucked away her violin and slipped upstairs before Grandma Mary turned.
Lila had stayed an entire month before Grandma Mary brought up the pond. Late one morning, she led Lila by the hand to its shores. “I do believe I have the sturdiest water lilies in all existence. Even Claude’s lilies withered and went dormant in the winter, but not mine.”
Lila hurried to change the subject. “Are you hungry? Should we have an early lunch?”
But Grandma Mary went on, “I thought maybe these were Claude’s gift to me, right after Clint passed. Year-round blooms, since he knows if I had to wait for just one season to come around, there wouldn’t be many more lilies for me.”
“I’ll see what we have left over from dinner,” Lila said. She moved toward the house.
“We’ll eat by the pond,” Grandma Mary decided.
Lila dragged the table and chairs into the shade of the willow. Just as she brought the last dish out, her grandmother said, “I think my death will look a lot like one of Claude’s paintings.”
Lila poured the lemonade.
Grandma Mary smiled. “But better. Sometimes I really think I’ll fall asleep and find myself walking on a bridge over his lily pond, and when I get to the other side, I’ll be there. Are you listening, Lila?”
“Yes, I just…I don’t know what to say.”
“You could say I’m losing my mind.”
A bird sang nearby and a car rumbled on a distant road.
“I like the bit of it you still have left.”
Her grandmother wrinkled her nose as if she were about to laugh. She reached down her nightgown and pulled out the little cloth book of poetry. “The bit of it you still have left,” she repeated, writing down the phrase. “I like it.”
The weeks progressed so fluidly, the only things that reminded Lila of the outer world were her trips to the grocery store and occasional phone calls from her mother, checking in.
The housekeeper, whom Grandma Mary had used for years, had retired a month before Lila’s arrival and given the job to her less-industrious niece who left wide patches of unmopped floors. While Lila was vacuuming under Grandma Mary’s bed, she found all the missing soap bars in a small butter-colored heap. Grandma Mary was surprised when Lila raised the dust ruffle to show her. “I must have been trying to hatch them,” she giggled. “I always wanted another daughter. I would have named her Moira.”
Afterward, Lila poured herself a cup of strong tea. Maybe it was the abundance of pollen sifting through the air or an overexposure to night draughts, but the more Lila lived at Willowpond, the more her inner numbness faded, the less she worried about incidents like missing soap, and the less crazy her grandmother seemed.
As Lila hung a wash load of nightgowns to line dry, she caught herself imagining the comfort of something light and feminine like this. That week she bought herself four new skirts.
“I think we should incorporate a musical aperitif,” Grandma Mary announced. “You will play your violin every night before dinner.” She stared at Lila, then added, “Please.”
“Tonight, when I read in bed, I’d like you to sit with me,” Grandma Mary said, one evening in late September.
Lila found E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View on a shelf in the living room, lit a second candle beside her grandmother’s bed, sat in the wicker armchair, and tried to begin. It was another windless night, cool with the approach of autumn.
A few ducks squawked contentedly below in the pond. The peonies had finished and the scent of her grandmother’s peace roses wafted up from the garden. The newest letter to Claude and its response lay neatly folded in the center of the desk. The bridge in the painting looked more pronounced than ever.
Lila glanced over at Grandma Mary. She was contemplating the canvas.
“Darling,” Grandma Mary’s voice was a faint whisper. “Sit here.” She pulled the bedclothes up and ushered Lila to sit beside her on the mattress. It was a king size with plenty of room, but Lila had never been asked to keep her grandmother company like this before.
The look in her grandmother’s eyes stifled her resistance.
Grandma Mary shrugged under the covers and lay still, a faint smile on her lips.
Just when Lila thought she was asleep, Grandma Mary snapped open her eyes, sparkling like sapphires. “Lila?”
“You’re beautiful.” She closed her eyes again and this time her smile was full.
Lila looked down at her own faded t-shirt. Something seemed to quiver in the blankets, like a heartbeat. The flutter slowed, and when Lila heard a soft snore, she blew out the candle. The warm yellows and oranges vanished from the walls, replaced by silvers and blues.
The lilies in the painting were luminous in the moonlight now, fragile and otherworldly. They mesmerized her for a moment, then Lila laid back on the pillows and pulled the blankets to her chin. She dreamed of swimming through a clear lake, trailing ropes of lily pads behind her while the clouds above formed shapes of enormous white lily blossoms. She never saw a single bridge, just open sky.
She woke with a brick’s heaviness in her chest. It was 8am and Grandma Mary, the earliest riser Lila had ever met, was still in bed.
She touched her shoulder and it felt cold, cold enough to make the other checks unnecessary. Dread certainty crept over her. Her further investigations were half-paralyzed. Throat no longer laughing. Mouth no longer forming secret poetry. Heart no longer beating to the rhythm of her dreams. Grandma Mary was gone.
Lila lowered her head over her grandmother’s face, letting their foreheads touch. She rose and turned to window. The rising sun blazed on the pond outside and a bronze reed of light kindled the edge of the painting. Something had changed.
Lila drew closer. Dust motes spun in the thick light. A figure stood on the painted bridge where Lila was sure none had stood before. The shadow-wreathed silhouette seemed to be pause for breath halfway through crossing the pond, suspended in peaceful contemplation of the lily carpet below.
Elise Stephens uses adventure and mystery in her fiction to set stages for provocative questions. She has written three novels, one of which was an INDIEFAB 2015 Book of the Year finalist. She counts authors Neil Gaiman, C.S. Lewis, and Margaret Atwood among her literary mentors, and has studied under Orson Scott Card. Her work explores themes of beauty within imperfection and finding purpose after a great loss.