I had walked through the Vermont Retirement Village at various times of day, and I knew that the women lived alone and appeared to have no regular visitors. After many months of patient waiting, one morning I woke to the sounds of falling maple leaves brushing against my bedroom window.
Opening my eyes, I watched the russet flurry fly in fits and starts. My mind lazily wandered back to a biology class, where Miss Keneally had eagerly imparted to us (for she really loved her high school students) everything we could wish to know about the phenomenon of changing seasons.
I smiled when I recalled her perched on a lab bench, resplendent in her vintage tweeds and white lab coat, her hands waving animatedly in the air. It was the only class that caught my attention for any length of time, her delicate Irish cadence entrancing me further.
“So, girls, we all know that Americans call autumn, ‘fall’. But did you know that ‘fall’ comes from the Old English word ‘feallan’ which means ‘to fall’ or ‘to die’? Deciduous trees conserve their precious energy by sensing the darkening of the days, and stop producing chlorophyll, and so the other pigments become more prominent. That’s what gives autumn leaves very different colours.
But how do they know to fall?
It’s not just about saving energy. Those leaves have been damaged by age, the weather, disease, or insects, and they are ready to commit hara-kiri!”
A few of us giggle at this notion.
“During autumn, a layer of cells called the abscission zone forms, right where the leaf stalk meets the twig. This layer of tissue then strangles the food and water supply to the leaf, causing the stalk to break, and the leaf sheds.”
I remember looking around, but I think I was the only one who had her jaw open. Miss Keneally was so cool.
After Mummy’s third admission with psychotic depression (apparently the result of being landed with a surprise baby at age forty-five), I was farmed out by my disinterested father to my grandmother and I believe she did her best to raise me. She didn’t know much about modern parenting techniques, let alone how to cope with a toddler, but what she did know was good old fashioned tough love. Eve (I was not allowed to call her Grandma) never let me forget that I had ruined her retirement and that it was only out of pity and Christian charity that I was in her care. My mother eventually succeeded in suiciding, and soon after that my father moved to the States where he married and had two girls with his new wife. He would send us Christmas cards which sometimes included a happy-snap of his new family, but never came to visit me.
For as long as I remember, Eve had a strict mandate of two hours of Bible stories and discussion before bed, followed by the five a.m. church service before school, a timetable that was never broken, except for when I was sick with chickenpox, and another time when I had to go be rushed to hospital with appendicitis. During my recuperation after those illnesses, my grandmother left me alone in my room, where I was able to blissfully lose myself in library books, or simply gaze out through the skylight at the carolling magpies in the ancient oak tree. As soon as I was well enough, Eve had me performing my usual chores, including the Sisyphean task of sweeping the dead leaf litter.
If I failed to learn my passages fast enough, she would bark, “Proverbs 13:24! Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him!” whilst striking one palm then the other with a wooden ruler. Once I dared retort, “Proverbs 17:6 Grandchildren are the crown of the aged -” to which she gasped in fury and I was made to kneel on pencils for an hour and was sent to bed without supper. It made me wonder what century she thought we lived in.
As soon as I finished high school, the world beckoned. I took on part-time jobs, sometimes working three shifts in twenty-four hours, so I could afford a tiny bedsit of my own. I was too tired to go to church, let alone read the bible, but I prayed every night that I could find some shred of happiness, away from under the great shadow of my grandmother.
Once I had my independence, I would visit Eve for Sunday lunch. It was a mutually beneficial agreement; I got my one decent hot meal a week, and she got to play at being a matriarch in whatever fucked up universe she lived in. I think it gave her some purpose, something else in her life that wasn’t stifled loneliness, disconnect, maybe she thought she was actually doing some good, who knows.
Same M.O. worked for all of them. Here’s how it goes.
I knock on the woman’s door, late evening but still light. I am smiling, holding a big parcel wrapped with thick twine in my white gloved hands. I am wearing a brown polo shirt, black slacks, a fluoro vest onto which is pinned my fake name badge (Eileen Warnes, an homage to Aileen Wuornos; Wheely Good Couriers; firstname.lastname@example.org). I also wear a beanie which covers my shaved head.
Me: Hi, Mrs Josephine Edwards? I have a parcel for you. [Prior surveillance included checking her mailbox.]
Mrs Edwards: Oh, hello. I’m not expecting a parcel.
Me: Well, it says “Mrs Josephine Edwards, 11a Springfield Court.” Am I at the wrong place? I’m new to the company, sorry for inconveniencing you.” I make a big show of squinting closely at writing on the package.
Mrs Edwards: Let me see, dear.
I show the woman the printed address label on the brown paper. Easily visible are the little details of what looks like a prepaid sticker, and even a couple of red inked stamps (which are actually of circles enclosing a garland of flowers, but I have smudged it well so it looks like an approximation of a depot timestamp).
Mrs Edwards: That looks right, dear.
Me: Shall I carry this in for you? It’s awfully heavy!
Mrs Edwards: That’s most kind. Come this way.
I edge in and close the front door quickly. I follow her to the kitchen or lounge. The hallway is usually carpeted, last furnished fifty years ago, with an old-person odour that permeates everything and makes me want to puke.
I am not lying when I say the parcel is heavy.
Once I start swinging it across the back of the old girl’s head, the momentum keeps it going hard and heavy. She may cry out with pain or surprise, but only once. Her doddery legs and poor sense of balance allow her to fall easily, gracefully. Once she languishes on the floor, I say, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest,” as I deftly remove the string from around the parcel. The makeshift noose is then tightened around her scrawny neck until she stops struggling and her eyes go quiet, some four or five minutes. Some die with their eyes open, some closed, I wonder why. One lost control of her bladder, which required a rather intimate clean-up before I could continue onto the next step.
I lift her with reverence up onto the sofa. I prop her up so her head is supported by cushions. If needed, I dress any bleeding wound. I spray Lily In The Mist onto her neck and wrists; that sickly sweet scent of my childhood, a heady remembrance of talc and unaired wardrobes. I gently tie a navy blue silk scarf around her neck. There. There now.
Then I lie down, curling my legs up onto the sofa if there is room, and place my head in her lap. She doesn't mind. I bring her arm around me into an in embrace, her lovely old hand in my gloved one. I wish I could remove my gloves, and let our skin touch, but I cannot risk sharing my DNA. I can feel her smiling down at me, her immense love almost crushing me in a suffocating avalanche of lily-talc-mustiness.
We remain like this for a long time. I am at peace, and want this to last for eternity. “I love you, Grandma,” I whisper.
“I know,” she soothes. Her fingers squeeze mine back.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t a good girl.” I have always needed her absolution.
“You try your best, my love,” she says. “Remember, to him who lacks might He increases power.”
“Do you love me, Grandma?”
She doesn’t need to answer. I can feel her love, through the heat from her thighs, her belly, her hand in mine. I may even sleep briefly.
A long while later, I force myself to rise. The loss of her warmth stuns my mind and body.
My hands trembling, I remove the scarf, inhale it one more time, and pack it away into my backpack. I take care not to look directly at her face.
The parcel unwrapped, I remove a hand-held Hoover and cleaning products. After I have vacuumed and scrubbed every surface with the oxy-cleaner bleach, I let myself out the back door into the dark. I leave nothing behind but the aura of perfume lingering enticingly around the body.
One Sunday in springtime, it was my thirtieth birthday but of course Eve didn’t believe in celebrating that pagan nonsense, so it was just a regular visit. She was blathering on about the latest sermon she had enjoyed. I was mostly ignoring her as usual, but interjecting just enough mm-hmms for her to feel listened to. Suddenly, mid-forkful of grey runner beans, my ears pricked up.
“My bed hard hat. Fall thing help!”
I looked straight at her. Drool was dribbling out of the corner of her miserly mouth. In her plate was a new addition, her gnarled, wrinkly, liver-spotted right hand, slumped on the mashed potatoes. She started to resemble a wilting willow branch, and I leapt up to catch her from capsizing from her carver chair.
“What’s going on?” But I knew right away; all those Stroke Foundation infomercials had paid off in this household.
So, cut to a week later, dear Eve now sits propped up in a grey PVC winged recliner in a high care nursing home. She wears a brown dress and beige knee-high stockings with ugly tan sandals with thick velcro straps. Around her delicate neck is draped a navy blue silk scarf, which I had bought for her on a whim from charity shop across the road. Her contracted right arm rests upon a pillow, a soft sponge ball in her vestigial hand. Once harsh, her face is now soft and placid, flaccid. The asymmetric droop would have delighted Salvador Dali. Her speech has become just one word. Would you like me spray on your perfume, Grandma? Yes. Are you happy? Yes. Do you like it here? Yes. Do you love me? Yes.
Six weeks later, my soft, beautiful grandmother succumbed to a cough that defied multiple courses of antibiotics from the visiting doctors. I held her withered, warm hand in mine. Do you want to go to God, Grandma? Yes. I kissed her cheek and inhaled the fading Lily In The Mist scent on her scarf, deep into my lungs, deep, deep into my memory.
I thank God for bringing her back to me over, and over again.
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