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She Died Young
She died young, I know. Emily ripened too quickly, like a piece of fruit: her red berry dripped with juice when all the others were still hard and green. She lived her entire life and reached her peak by her sixteenth birthday, moving in a blur of ruddy cheeks and flaxen hair.
Then, something changed, and she slowly withdrew, into a veiled existence. No longer did she flirt and dance. She became the forlorn apple at the bottom of the basket, the one nobody seemed to want to eat: bruised skin, dried flesh. She still walked, breathed, but she wasn’t of this world anymore. When she finally gave in, hung herself from the roof of her home, they barely noticed. She had already been dead ten years.
In the beginning, though, it was different.
She lived her entire life in the beginning - those first sixteen years - filled with the golden energy that moved her and drove her all at once to the far edges of the sky and the bottoms of the oceans and the body of a man. The energy controlled her, taught her to move and never stop. She feared stagnancy like some people fear death.
We can take a lesson from the rain, if only we stop long enough to listen. It falls, exuding sheer liquid power, then retreats into the ground, a diminished puddle: nothing. And after puddles sit too long, the result is inevitable; they dry up.
Cool hands brush my face; settle over broken skin and soothe my senses. I see blue and gold spots on the back of my eyelids. The colors roll and separate, like oil and water in a dancing battle for dominance. My eyelids part to allow a sliver of light, filled with the soft orange of flesh. I see my brother for an instant, but my eyelids close him out, and the sliver of light disappears.
“Come on, open your eyes.” His voice rips through my conscious; tattered folds flutter behind. “You can’t sleep through your own party. Get up now, and greet the guests.” He puts his hand on my arm and nudges me gently.
“I’m sixteen today. I can do whatever I want on my birthday. Leave me alone,” I groan, shrugging away from his touch.
“Emily.” He won’t give up.
I sigh, shake corn silk hair from my face, and flash him a bright smile. “Alright, go ask Momma to bring me some tea, and I’ll be down in a couple minutes.” Even as I promise him this, I know I can’t do it. How can a girl celebrate her birthday without her baby? It will be my daughter’s birthday too. I feel her in my body, pressing, longing to get out. I have to give her the marigolds - her favorite.
My brother goes, but leaves behind a residue of acute unease. It trails through my nerve endings, rips at the tissue, and fizzles through my skull, but I push it back and it slowly drifts away. My mind is bare except for one thought; get the flowers.
My mother. The woman who was once Emily’s daughter, now my mother, remains shut in her own world. She is like a daylily in the cool emptiness of night. She doesn’t talk to anyone, not even me, about Emily. As far back as I can remember, she only spoke of her mother once. I was young, and possessed that childish ignorance which blinded me to the dangers of an answered question. I sat in my mother’s lap, wrapped my wrists around her white neck, and asked her where my Grandmamma was. My mother had deep set eyes which seemed to burrow deep under her skin. The corners of her mouth melted downward when she replied, “She died of sadness, a long time ago.” Then she showed me the photo.
I slice through mounds of people, like a knife through cold butter. They drag at me and try to detain me, but I push harder, until the pressure makes me labor like a frightened cat, and my body floods toward the exit. Chapped elbows slam against glass doors. I collapse through the doors, and realize too late there is nothing to break my momentum. I careen toward wet callous cement, where certain ruin awaits my new silk dress. Limbs crumple in all different directions as my eyes gaze bleakly out into the indigo sky. I narrow my eyes to slits again, then nothing; Gold bursts. Blue veins grow like thorns and penetrate the gold.
The photo. A photographer took the photo at a Sweet Sixteen presentation Ball; her birthday party. It is a full-body shot of her, decked out in a white silk dress, with intricate layers and crystal beads designed to draw attention away from her lightly curving belly. Indeed, it does not betray her pregnancy, though I know she must be hours away from giving birth. She bears a kind of broken radiance, like an autumn leaf fallen from the tree.
Another set of hands touches my brittle face. They are warm and familiar: the hands of an old lover. I sigh, then suddenly register what is happening. Eyes flick open to take in the countenance of the person who fondles my face in such an inappropriate manner. “Who are you?”
“Ernest Mackenzie Jullion, at your service, ma’am,” he says, taking his hat off his head, and raising a large, old-fashioned camera in salutation. “I am the photographer at this fine party.” He snaps a picture of me, as if to verify his professional claims, then leans down to shake my hand. He frowns. “Why are you on the ground? You’re ruining your lovely party dress.”
I soften a little at his friendly tone. “I felt a little lightheaded, but I’ll get up soon.” I hesitate, and he smiles benignly down at me. “I…I’m out here to get some flowers for my daughter. It’s going to be her birthday today too.” I am slightly surprised at myself. Usually I don’t mention the bastard of my womb to strangers, preferring to avoid the scandalized looks I am sure to get. I can only imagine Momma’s bridge partners gossiping to each other. ‘Why, I just thought she was getting a bit fat, not pregnant.’
He smiles. “That’s wonderful. Mother and daughter both celebrate their birthday on the same day. Now, what type of flower do you plan to get?”
I find myself speaking, responding to his engaging smile. “She’ll love yellow flowers. I’m going to go pick some marigolds somewhere.”
“Sounds like you’ll be needing a cab. There’s not too many flowers around these city parts, eh?” He chuckles dryly, ambles to the side of the street, and whistles sharply, flagging a car down with a wave of his hand.
Though the photographer took the picture to represent her body as a whole, when I look at it, I am always drawn to her eyes. They look straight into the camera with such bare intensity, such rawness, her eyes seem meant only for me. The photographer developed the photo to give the illusion that the irises are black; they smolder and crackle with tension. The whites, slowly eroded by time, have become as dark as the pupils; they meld with the blacks of the irises.
As the cab pulls up to the curb, I lean over my papery legs and grasp hold of my ankles. The blue is heavier now. It moves from the backs of my eyelids to my cheeks and tongue. It gets so that when I swallow, it feels like there’s thick tender metal in my throat. Every time I close my eyes, it requires more and more effort to open them again. So much easier to just lie here, eyes shut against the confusion around me, and sink into the navy darkness.
I know not to, though. Instead, I let the yellow lights of the street reflect the yellow flecks of my eyes; open them wide. Good thing too, because the photographer stands before me. If I hadn’t opened my eyes, he may have touched my face again.
“I got the cab,” he says, jabbing a thumb at the car behind him. “But a pretty little miss like you shouldn’t be out alone in the city at night. I think I better accompany you.”
“That really won’t be necessary, but thank you,” I say, slightly wary of this strange man. I uncoil my legs like fine silver thread. The crystal beads on my dress clink as I drift up from the ground.
“It isn’t any problem. I’ll just take you where you need to go and have you back to finish up your little celebration,” he says. “Besides,” he whispers, leaning in close so I shiver involuntarily, “I know a hill with the most beautiful type of flower, of the deepest blue you’ve ever seen. Gorgeous shape too, furry and thick, just like a cat’s tail. That’s actually what it’s called, you know: the Cat’s Tail flower-”.
“Thank you,” I interrupt, stepping away from him into the taxi, “but my daughter will have yellow flowers, not blue.”
“I see,” said the photographer. He slides in next to me. “Well, maybe you’ll change your mind once you see them. They really are beautiful.” I make a noncommittal noise. “Anyway, there’s lots of lovely buttercups on the hill I want you to go to.” I nod, too polite to oust him from the car, but nervous at the prospect of traveling with this unfamiliar person.
In that picture, the photographer captured Emily’s eyes in a way only attainable by one who knows every aspect of the subject’s mind and body. I wonder often who this photographer was, and why my grandmother looked at him and his camera this way. Such a look is the very essence of agony and intimacy. The essence can only be stolen at that one moment: a newborn child held in her mother’s sweat-drenched arms for the very first time; a girl and a boy, breath melded; a housewife with cold lips and clean fingernails, breathing, as her husband tells her he’s leaving.
When the cabdriver asks where we wish to go, the photographer assures me again that his hill has many beautiful flowers, besides the Cat’s Tail. “…though you really should pick the blue flowers; they’re absolutely stunning,” he says. I ignore him and tell the driver to follow his instructions to get to the hill. We ride slowly towards our destination. The photographer is quiet, speaking only to give directions to the driver.
I turn toward the photographer. Awkward silences make me anxious. “So what’s this hill called again that we’re going to?”
“It’s called Monkshood Hill. The name of the blue flowers.”
“But aren’t the flowers called Cat’s Tails?”
His eyes gleam, and he suddenly looks familiar, as if I knew him once - some time in the hazy past, maybe only in a dream. “Well, that’s the thing about these flowers.. They have a lot of names, because they fit a lot of different purposes.”
“What do you mean?”
“See, Cat’s Tail flowers have medicinal qualities. In Chinese and Arabic folk medicine, its roots were used to treat disease. It’s ironic, really.”
His eyes seem to glaze over. “The Cat’s Tail flower, when ingested, is lethally poisonous.”
As the car slows down to drop us off, I look out the window and see a mountain of blue rising from the ground to rival the hue in the darkening sky. With a jolt I realize there is a tombstone at the base of the blue hill. I turn my head quickly and shut my eyes. I have an unreasonable aversion to graves. They chill me, make me feel dead myself.
When the car stops, the photographer leaps from the car like Persephone from Hades’ lair. He rushes forward into the flowers, leaving me to pay the driver. As I do so, I ask him quietly to wait a half hour for our return. He agrees, and reassured I will at least not be alone with the photographer, I exit the car. I refuse to look around me, keeping my eyes riveted on the heels of the photographer’s feet. With each step toward the hill, and the area where I know the tombstone to be, the air gathers thicker around me. I struggle past it and look up at the enormous matrix of blue before me.
“There are no yellow flowers here,” I say. My face feels hot.
“Yes there are.” Even before he shows me, I know where they are. His hand rises in a graceful arc to point behind me. Toward the tombstone. I turn slowly, and sure enough, marigolds engulf the stone, so I can barely see the inscription. “But you really should pick the blue flowers. It’s not nice to pick flowers off the grave of a friend.”
I take a few steps toward the stone, then falter and look at the photographer. “Whose grave is this?” I ask, voice hushed. I kneel in front of it, eyes fixed on the stone. I can make out a few letters. E... M…
“We’re friends, right?” he whispers from somewhere behind me. I barely hear him. Eyes still fixed on the stone, I reach to pluck away a few flowers blocking the grave face.
“You really shouldn’t.” His breath tickles my shoulder. “Why don’t you go pick some nice blue flowers instead? I’m sure she’ll like them much better”.
“I just want to find out whose grave this is,” I say. My voice sounds strange, as if the heat in the air twists and distorts it once the sound leaves my mouth. I pull away more flowers. A name: E.M. Jullion. “The photographer,” I whisper. I spin around finally. He’s gone.
After we moved, my mother framed the photo and set it on the nightstand, where my father’s side of the bed would have been. I knew why she did it. It was her statement to the world; despite inheriting her blood and her looks, she was different from her mother. She would not give up like Emily.
The marigolds weigh heavy in my fist as I run through the flowers of the hill, searching for the photographer. I clench the flowers tighter. Cat’s Tails drag at my dress; leave pollen prints on the silk. I can’t find him. I look toward the cab, and it’s gone. I’m looking and looking all over the hill, and the flowers are pulling me back, and I can’t find him.
I return to the grave. There she is. Our child, silvery white skin and hair, lying among the marigolds. I cradle her feathery head in my lap; lean my head down and let my fair hair brush against her baby face. I inhale, and the scent of talcum powder, earth, and crushed marigolds enfolds me in its warm embrace. “I picked you some flowers,” I say. Hold bruised yellow petals out to her.
She takes them in her tiny hands and puts them in her mouth. Lulled to sleepiness by the anesthesia of success, I lean my head against the stone and close my eyes, but the colors under my eyelids have turned into monsters; two great beasts, one fiery gold, the other a dark, empty blue, ripping strips from each others’ hides, and my eyes, and tossing them about under my eyelids. I try to open my eyes, and the atmosphere instantly becomes thicker, warmer. The air begins to move in hot ropes, tying me, trapping me. I feel it forcing my eyelids together, so I can’t open my eyes. I am blinded, but I know the photographer is here, watching me. I can taste his breathe on the air, and it feels the same as it did all those months ago. He speaks, and his voice sounds the same. “Nine months isn’t such a long time.” He touches my face. “You’ve dreamed of me, haven’t you? I’ve always been here. Why haven’t you visited me?” I try to speak, but the air gags me, and I can’t open my mouth. I can only listen. “The child is mine too. I want her with me.” He pauses. “Pick the blue flowers.” The air unbinds me, and I gasp, tears squeezing their way through my closed eyes, and down the cheeks of my bowed head.
The child squirms in my lap. Fat baby fingers tickle my eyelids, and I open them slowly. She bares her little teeth, which have yellow flower fibers in between them, and I hear her voice inside my head, echoing.
“Pick the blue flowers.”
The echoes hit me, one by one, and my mouth bursts with the blue poison of monkshood, and the poison drips down my face. I claw at my skin, and draw blue blood, and I lean over and heave, and blue bile comes from my mouth and my eyes, and I look down, and my water has burst, and it is the color and texture of blue ink.
Every morning my mother woke up and looked at the photo, and saw herself in it, as if the glass covering it formed a mirror. When I looked at the picture my stomach came up into my throat and left a sweet taste going back down. I saw my reflection too.
We were the same, Emily, my mother, and I. The three of us were fighting a constant battle against ourselves. We were united by our hell. My mother and I made a promise to each other the day she showed me that photo. Blood wages the battle here. My grandmother lost, my mother’s still fighting. My time will come. When it does, I’ll remember our promise. I’ll remember Monkshood Hill.
Emily loved the rain. She stood out in thunderstorms and soaked needles of it into her skin. Beads flickered on her lashes, ribbons flowed down her arms. She listened to it. I think maybe that’s why she was so afraid. Yes, she was afraid. Beneath her façade she shivered, like the sixteen-year old child she should have been.
The day of my mother’s birth, she took a cab to her birthday ball, then immediately took another, to some unknown place. The gossips say the man was with her there. They say she went to that place to have my mother: to squeeze her out like toothpaste, and sigh, roll over, and keep moving. When she came back, though, the sky and the oceans and the man, that once had poured love and vigor into her, like wine, were dead to her. And likewise, she was dead to them.