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Lily's Ghost


November 1978

Lily. That's my name. It has a certain implication: purity. I'm not sure I was ever pure. In fact, I railed against the tenets of purity: I lived with Ben for five years before I married him, only then because I was three months pregnant.

Marriage hasn't affected the fear. I hid even after Jaime was born. Slid under the bed with him held tightly to my chest. He snuffled, rooted for a breast. And I acquiesced, rolling a nipple between forefinger and thumb, remembering the tightly furled red buds of my mother's flowering quince. He grew frantic, sucking hard. He seemed to feel the rush of my fear, but he would sleep, finally. And I? Well, I felt safe. The wide floorboards against my back. Two-hundred-year-old pumpkin pine. Once the color of jack-o'-lanterns cracked open on wet October earth.

Jaime has just turned four and sometimes I still find solace under that bed. A spool bed. I lie on my side, head resting on my arm, looking out into the hall at the mahogany handrail and finely turned balusters that gleam like polished chestnuts. Through them I see the well of the hall papered in a floral print: thistles and mums, and coneflowers that look dramatically phallic.

It isn't the master bed. That is in the master bedroom on the second floor. Left front corner. Four windows. The old glass distorts the view, a wide lawn bordered on the east by a break of thirty-foot lilac trees and a lone spruce, and on the south and west by meadow.

I am in the third-floor guest bedroom. It is the Friday after Thanksgiving and Ben has left to take my mother back to Durham before heading on to visit his mother in Kittery. Jaime is along for the ride. It is early evening and I cannot tell you the relief I feel as I stand in darkness. I am at a window, one of the two in this most northern room. I slide back the gathers of lace and watch the stars above the trees, the sky as navy as the shadows, moonlight making the back orchard look unearthly. I could live comfortably like this forever, the only light cool and planetary. When Ben's out, I don't bother with the lights. Jaime, like me, has become adept at living in the dark, reaching for a slice of apple, knowing it's there by the sound of the paring knife cleaving the crisp flesh, the burst of apple essence in the air above the sideboard. And I feel him reaching up for a slice even before he asks, the shallow cup of his small palm radiating warmth.

I julienne carrots in the dark. It is all a matter of feel. I can see, through the tips of my fingers, the notch ends of avocado; the grain of sirloin; the width of a mushroom and the fragility of its pleated underside. I make pie dough by touch: pastry smooth and cool, overlaying mounds of apples fragrant with cinnamon; fluting the edges, pinching and turning, pinching and turning, piercing the top, creating miniature leafy branches.

When Ben is home I live with the light, the stark light of noon; the harlequin light of dusk; and at night the ubiquitous fluorescence: the anemic light bleeding from the overhead ring in the kitchen, and the horizontal tubes that pulse beside the bathroom mirror, spreading a funereal pall over the downstairs toilet and tub.

Ben insists on making love with the light on. He is driven by what he sees and I try to imagine what that is, shadow deepening the wedge at my waist; the soft after-baby of my belly; the queer truancy I know invades my eyes. And after, while he sleeps, I close my eyes and see the mist that rises up from the valley, how the flares make it glow pink like clouds of cotton candy, as if it were spun high in the sky over Pleiku, and always with this image comes the smell of blood. It's under my fingernails, and I feel it, dark and arterial, bloodying the skin under the saturated cloth of my fatigues; aware of it only now, after the kid is gone. I watch as he fast turns to stone, blue-white granite, polished and cool.

It is Saturday morning. Ben calls from the New Hampshire toll. "Should I pick anything up?" he asks. "Milk or bread?"

"We have plenty of bread," I say, "but you could pick up milk."

I talk to Jaime. He's chewing jujubes. "I'll save the green ones for you, Mum," he says. "I promise."

I have a couple of hours or more before they pull into the driveway, gravel spinning out from beneath the tires of the twenty-year-old Mercedes that Ben drives, left to him by an elderly aunt who on hot afternoons parked it in the shade of trees so her collie could comfortably nap in the backseat. Though Ben is meticulous about the car, we still find long hairs that work their way up through the seams of the upholstery. I open the drapes. Shafts of sun warm the honeyed tones of the woodwork and floor. When Jaime's home he delights in this event, blinking at late-afternoon light, spinning in motes, the glitter of a billion particles of dust.

I will bundle him up after dinner and we'll walk in the moonlight, over the fields to the cemetery where the family who built this house lies: Jacob Woodman; Sarah Eliza, his wife; and their daughters, Martha, Florence, and Millicent, babies all, hardly out of the womb. Their graves look out over Browns Head. We play tag around the white headstones. I mean no disrespect. I think the dead want the living to cavort while they can.

I do as a good mother should do, but I do it with trepidation. I try to channel the fear underground. But it inevitably oozes back up, seeping into the breach between muscle and skin, invading, finally, my whole body, narrowing my throat, leaving my tongue lying like a stone on the floor of my mouth. I had Jaime at thirty-five because I wanted to change the defining experience of my life: I wanted blood to signify life, not death. Becoming a mother has given me untold joy, but it has not stopped the flashes of memory: the Marine who talked about the blue summer mornings of his native West Virginia and then quietly died. I'd laid my hand on his chest; it was smooth and hairless. I tried to convince myself I was wrong, that he was still alive, so I listened for a heartbeat, and when I could find none, I said, Fuck You, God. Fuck You.

By the time I hear Ben's car, I have been tempered by the light. I no longer feel like a wood louse whose log has been rolled over.

"It tastes great the second day," Ben says, "doesn't it, Jaime?"

Jaime nods enthusiastically.

I don't bother to tell Ben it's the third day after. His dish is laden with leftovers: turkey, gravy, creamed onions, squash, mashed potatoes, and green beans.

Jaime scoops out a quivering slab of cranberry jelly from the small cut-glass bowl and slides it onto his plate next to the pieces of turkey breast Ben has carved for him. He begins to build then, carefully pressing a spoonful of buttered potato into a small mound, and when it is shaped to his satisfaction, he pushes a bit of turkey into it with his thumb. I sip my wine and watch him. With intense deliberation and remarkable dexterity, he crowns it all perfectly with a slippery crescent of cranberry.

"Quite a feat, there, Jaim'," I say.

He smiles at me before spooning the exotically layered mound into his mouth. With cheeks slightly bulging, he chews with particular rumination, like his father. Not something he does, usually.

"You need to build your next culinary creation just a bit smaller," I say. And before I can get up from the table for more milk to facilitate his feasting, Jaime gags as if he's choking.

Ben stands and ineffectually pats him on the back.

Jaime's cheeks are now full to bursting, and his eyes are watering, but his color's fine.

With deliberate calm, and in order not to panic him, I say, "Just spit it out, sweetie."

He obeys me, bending over his plate. A masticated mess of food mixed with saliva splatters onto the chipped stoneware. I get up and kneel next to him. He begins to cry. I dab his tears with a napkin and wipe his nose.

Ben ruffles his hair.

"It's okay," I say, encircling his small shoulders with my arm. "You put too much food in your mouth, that's all."

He nods, still crying, more out of embarrassment now than fear. To make him understand the gravity of the situation, I say, "But you could have really choked, and I was ready to squeeze it right out of you, like squeezing toothpaste out of a tube."

He looks at me gravely. I hug him. "Like this," I say, "only a bit more energetically."

Through brimming tears he smiles at me. "I made it too big, Mum."

I dab his eyes again. "If it's not raining, maybe we can take a walk after we do the dishes. How 'bout you stick your nose out the door and check the weather?"

He nods, sniffs, and wipes his eyes with the backs of his hands, then slides out of his chair and, with a new sense of purpose, heads for the kitchen door. After he has opened it and carefully closed it behind him, Ben says, "You didn't need to get quite so graphic, did you? It sounded a little scary to me, '. . . like squeezing toothpaste from a tube'?"

"Choking is more than a little scary."

Ben shrugs and begins to clear the table, leaving Jaime's plate for last.

I feel like asking him if he really wants to know what happens when someone chokes, but I resist the urge. Decide not to tell him about the particularly speedy trach I'd had to do on a grunt as he lay on the floor of a chopper with a dead buddy wrapped in his poncho beside him for company.

Jesus, Lily, I tell myself, just leave it alone. Just damn well leave it alone.

Jaime comes in. He closes the door behind him. Emulating his father once more, he loosely splays his fingers out low on his hips. "It's raining, Mum," he says, "but not too much."

"Maybe not a good idea, then, a walk tonight," I say. "Maybe your dad'll give you a bath. And then I'll read you a story. How about that?"

An hour later, he comes downstairs dressed in mismatched pajamas, a yellow top with white piping and black-watch bottoms. Tucked under his arm is one of his favorite books: Through the Looking Glass, a delightful 1930's version my mother gave him on his third birthday. Flushed from his bath, he nestles next to me in the chair, smelling of lemony shampoo and Ivory soap.

" 'The Walrus and the Carpenter,' " he says. And he proceeds to give me the book, which I open to Tweedledum and Tweedledee. There is something about the oysters Jaime loves; maybe it's the shoes.

I read the first two lines:

"The sun was shining on the sea,
Shining with all his might:"

I continue, enjoying the rhyme and the bizarre characters, but Jaime is impatient through the next six stanzas, anxious for the appearance of the oysters. When they come, he chimes in, and slowly we say it together, enunciating each word:

"But four young oysters hurried up,
All eager for the treat:
Their coats were brushed, their faces washed,
Their shoes were clean and neat--
And this was odd, because, you know,
They hadn't any feet . . ."

By the time we finish reading, Jaime is sleepy, his thumb in his mouth. I put the book on the table and ease myself out of the chair. "Come on, sleepyhead, let's tuck you in."

His thumb stays in his mouth all the way up the stairs. But when I get him into bed, he pops it out. "They do have feet, Mum," he says. "I saw them in the pictures."

"You're absolutely right, Jaim', I saw them too, all in shoes." He nods, pleased with the affirmation. I kiss his hair. "I'll check on you later, make sure you're covered, okay?"

He hugs his plush blue octopus and nods, and with a sumptuous sound, he plugs in again, his mouth a cherubic seal at the base of his thumb.

We're going to have to work on that thumb, I think, but not for a while yet.

By the time I pick the turkey carcass clean and simmer the bones for broth, it is nearly ten o'clock. With doubled dish towels, I take the covered stockpot out into the shed and set it on top of the wood box where it can cool. For a moment, I watch clouds of aromatic steam float up into the cold air. Then I go in, lock the door, and head upstairs.

The dark of Jaime's room is palpable now; it seems to envelop me. His snore is a fine-tooth rasp filing rhythmically. I cover him and leave the door ajar so that I can hear if he wakes in the night.

I think how good a warm bath will feel.

Our bedroom door is open, and the lights are on. Ben is sleeping. I go in, lift my nightgown from the frayed boudoir chair near the window, and sit down.

The blankets lie in soft furrows at the foot of the bed. I gaze at his pale nakedness and think that I took the path of least resistance when I married him. He was dependable and stable, the kind of man who carried jumper cables in the trunk of his car and kept a miniature Swiss Army knife on his key chain.

We'd been in the same homeroom in high school. He'd dated my best friend, and I'd dated Christian Dunn, who, ironically, now lives next door to Ben's parents. We'd even double-dated, the last time after Christian had gone off to Bowdoin. The three of us drove to Brunswick to visit him and catch The Electric Flag in concert. We'd gotten drunk on sea breeze, a punch of vodka and cranberry juice, and sitting together in the stands of the gymnasium, as the bass of electric guitar thrummed and the strobe lights pulsed, Ben surreptitiously stroked my hip with his thumb.

When I saw him next, some years later, I'd just finished my residency and had volunteered for a commission as a Navy doctor. And by that time, Ben had broken up with my former best friend and had fallen into a long-term relationship with a woman who'd now decided it was time to find herself. He ended up back home after his father's death and was pressured by his brother into helping run the family business, a dry-cleaning establishment. Probably the last thing he had wanted to do. My love life had remained pretty constant all those years, until Christian Dunn decided to go to culinary school in New York City, where he took up with some sous-chef and promptly dumped me.

Lily's Ghost
by by Cheryl Drake Harris

  • paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Delta
  • ISBN-10: 038533933X
  • ISBN-13: 9780385339339