On the cracked marble mantle, carefully placed, an unlikely menagerie; Batman and Robin action figures, side by side, facing off against the Joker, in a neon-green smiling car, next to a silver Japanese jewelry box, heart-shaped, lid open to reveal red satin lining and seashells; mason jar, blue glass, stuffed with pencils and crayons; a small army of Pez dispensers lined up in a precise row: Mickey Mouse, Superman, Betty Boop, Yoda, Scooby-Doo, Cinderella, Buzz Lightyear. Yo-yo without a string. Green baseball with white stitching inside a pink leather mitt. An ultrasound photo in a cheap, clear plastic frame. Dead flowers, lilacs, in a round, ceramic vase.
Dead lilacs. Dead, clearly, their brilliant purple long brown. Dead, yet somehow miraculously, impossibly, still on the stem. Such an impossibility she stared for quite some time before taking a step closer. As a girl she used to cut them in bunches and place them on her bedside table in a delicate pink Fenton vase, with a white glass interior. Heaven to look at and breathe in, while they lasted, but that was never longer than a couple of days, and always the purple flowers dried up and then fell – either down into the vase, or in a sad pile on the night stand. A few brown petals might cling to the dying branch, but typically they all fell and the water in the vase turned a sweet-sour smell that made her wrinkle her nose as she dumped it down the sink in the bathroom across the hall.
How then, on this cracked marble mantle, did these long-dead lilacs remain, all attached to the branch, none fallen? She hesitated to touch them, and in the end, drew her hand back to her side and did not, imagining them turning to dust at her fingertips. Dead lilacs on the branch. Children’s things, organized and just out of reach. Treasured mementos left behind, left to the dust, the crushing, mind-bending silence, void of even squeaking boards, of wind whispering in through cracks, of settling sounds, of ticking clocks, or the hum of a furnace. Heavy quiet, when the action figures spoke of children at play, running fast, wearing masks and capes in pajamas with feet, laughing and yelling and pretending to fly. Heavy quiet, when even the not quite sharp pencils in the blue glass jar would make a pleasing yet rough scratching sound as it was dragged along a once blank page.
So heavy and unbearable, Jane had taken to sleeping with her clock radio tuned to a place between stations, the volume on low, finding the faint static sound soothing, the way some might listen to waves on a beach and be lulled to sleep.
Instead of touching the dead lilacs, she plucked the ultrasound photo off of the dusty shelf and traced her index finger over the tiny, fuzzy profile, the button nose, the shadow of a beating heart.
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